Till Dragon's Rise
From the mountain of Wyrmpeak, meltwater flowed down and fell as a waterfall into the eastern end of Middanhal. Here, it became the great river of the Mihtea, passing through the city before disappearing underneath the mountain of Valmark in the western end. For several miles, the Mihtea continued underground before appearing again south-west, providing the last source of freshwater before reaching Middanhal itself.
It was commonplace for wanderers and caravans to make camp at this place before making the last stretch of the journey to the capital, sticking together for safety and comfort. One small company stood out among the other groups. Most travellers were craftsmen and their families, looking for work, merchants with their guards transporting goods, or pious people seeking the Temple. Yet this band had no children with them nor anything worth selling. By their rough demeanour, they did not appear to be motivated by faith either. Several of them bore weapons, including one of the women; as they had nothing worth guarding, this suggested them to be mercenaries, selling only their sword arm. As a consequence, the other travellers kept their distance.
With his hood up, Brand walked up and down the banks of the Mihtea. As he avoided the company of other travellers same as they did towards him, he only had a small patch of land to pace about. Several times, his hand moved in absent-minded manner up to run through his hair before he arrested the movement, adjusting his hood.
“Patience was never his strong suit,” Jana remarked watching him. She sat on the ground along with Gwen, while Alaric kept watch with harsh glances to discourage any from approaching.
The other woman looked at her companion rather than Brand. “You know him well, do you.”
“For many years when we were children.”
“People change as they grow older. If not age, then experience will cause that.”
“Very true.” Jana smiled at Gwen. “I barely resemble who I was last year. I have done and seen so much I never could have imagined. The same holds true for you, I am sure, following Brand.”
The highlander crossed her arms. “I follow him because he is my kin.”
“Given what little family he has, Brand is fortunate to count you among them.”
“Why have you followed him into exile?” Gwen asked. “From what you’ve said, the cost was high.”
Jana’s eyes flickered towards the man in question. “He needed help. I could not stand aside.”
A man appeared from the direction of the city. Alaric narrowed his eyes until he relaxed his posture. “Glaukos returns,” he said, leaving the women to reach Brand. The latter returned with him, watching as their companion approached.
“How did it go?” Brand asked swiftly even while the other man was still walking towards them.
“Everyone has their position,” Glaukos declared with his growling voice. “Not that it reassures me. With the northern gate closed, Saltgate is packed. If fighting erupts, it will be chaos with lots of unarmed people caught in the middle.”
“Let us pray it does not come to that,” Jana said quietly.
“At least there are only Order soldiers on the walls,” Glaukos continued. “They have not let the sell-swords take control of that. But captain, you should know I saw plenty of mercenaries on the streets.”
“To be expected. Isarn has driven them all back to the city.”
“A shame they are camped far to the north,” Alaric said.
“Better they are on the streets than in the Citadel,” Brand mused. “If we act swiftly, their presence will not matter.”
His companions did not appear assuaged by his words.
Hours later, when the evening had begun to wane, a trio of travellers appeared. This time, Brand did not remain waiting, but hurried forward to approach them. Almost a year after their last parting, Brand could embrace Arndis once more.
“Brother,” she smiled, blinking tears away. “Were I not so happy to see you, I would chastise your reckless behaviour in coming here.”
“Circumstances could be worse. I recall us meeting in a cell once,” Brand replied; his voice almost sounded normal. “Lady Eleanor,” he added, bowing his head.
“Lord Adalbrand.” She returned the courtesy.
“You know most of my company already,” Brand continued, directed at Arndis.
“Of course! Gwen, so lovely to see you again.” She clasped hands with her kinswoman.
“The only person new in our number would be Lady Jana of Alcázar.” He extended one hand towards the princess, who accepted it and moved forward.
Curiosity overtook Arndis’ face briefly. “Delighted.”
“Likewise.” Jana gave a bow.
“While I am intrigued, the pertinent question seems to be why you have come?”
Brand took a deep breath, looking at his sister. “Tomorrow, I intend to enter Middanhal and remove Jarl Vale from power.”
Eleanor released a nervous chuckle while Arndis returned her brother’s look. “Brand, I have the highest regard for your abilities, but I see you surrounded by five people. Four swords,” she added, glancing at Jana.
“My followers are in the city already,” he explained.
“Brand,” Arndis began with a patient tone of voice, “I am not adverse to risk. But surely you understand the danger of entering the city. It is swarming with the lord protector’s troops.”
“Hence the reason I ensured you are removed from the city,” Brand pointed out. “Should anything go awry, you will be safe.”
“I have spent the last years rebuilding our fortunes, and now you are throwing all that away.”
“You have your life and your wealth.” Brand nodded at the coin purse in her belt. “That is gold, I wager. You can live in comfort anywhere in the realms, Sister, if that is your wish. As for me, I am done delaying the inevitable. My fate lies in Middanhal and only there.” He met her gaze with steeled eyes.
Arndis took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, letting silence fill the space between them. “You are determined to do this, I see, regardless of the danger, regardless of the consequences.”
“I am. As long as I know my family is safe, I do not fear what happens next.”
“What of your followers?” Arndis glanced at the others who had followed Brand into exile.
“I am sworn to die for my lord,” Alaric declared. “If he wishes to enter battle, it is not my place to dissuade him, but to fight by his side.”
“The same goes for me,” Geberic said.
“I am looking forward to it,” Glaukos remarked. He flexed the fingers on his sword hand.
“Do not be fearful on our behalf,” Brand told his sister. “You and Lady Eleanor will stay here, along with Lady Jana and Gwen –”
“To Hel with that,” exclaimed the highlander. “I didn’t come all this way only to sit outside at the crucial moment.”
“Gwen, I need you to remain here to protect the others,” Brand requested.
“You know me poorly if you think I will cower outside the walls while you pursue your ends regardless of risk,” Arndis said coldly. “I am the daughter of kings and will behave as such until my final moment.”
Brand looked at Jana as the last. “You will find no sympathy from me,” the lady spoke. “I have nowhere to go but where you go.”
“Arndis, this is foolish,” Brand spoke with a clenched jaw, addressing his sister. “There is no need for you to endanger yourself, nor lead the others into the dragon’s den.”
“And yet that is my choice. Rather vexing when you make meticulous plans and your wilful sibling appears out of nowhere, frustrating them.” Arndis’ smile evaporated as she turned to Eleanor. “But you should stay here. You do not deserve to be pulled into all of this.”
Eleanor shrugged. “Honestly, I doubt anyone would even notice me in this crowd. The rest of you tend to draw all the attention.”
“Arndis, I will not countenance this,” Brand spoke, raising his voice. “Same goes for you,” he added, looking at Jana. “If you enter the city tomorrow, you achieve nothing but placing yourself in needless danger. It is beyond pointless!”
“You have made your choice,” Arndis pointed out. “This is mine.”
“If not for me, your head would be on a spike atop the gate of Alcázar,” Jana told him. “I have placed myself in danger time and time again for your sake. You have no right to question my decision.”
Brand looked around at every other person present, but none came to his aid. “Fine,” Brand declared sharply, “I will allow this on one condition. The moment that fighting occurs, anyone without a weapon immediately makes for Saltgate and leaves the city. You stay outside. I will send for you when it is safe to return.”
“I can accept those terms,” Arndis said.
“So be it,” Jana added.
“Is there any food? We can’t march on an empty stomach.” Geberic looked around expectantly until bags were opened and provisions distributed. They sat down and shared a meal with Arndis engaging Gwen in cheerful conversation; the rest ate in silence.
As the day waned, the different members of the small band found various ways to keep busy. Jana repaired her clothes with a sewing needle brought from Dvaros. Arndis counted her coin and made calculations with Eleanor’s help concerning the expenses for a journey to Tothmor. The warriors inspected their weapons and armour to the smallest stitch. From the words exchanged between them all, anticipation mixed with anxiety could be felt building up.
“Gwen,” Brand said, beckoning for his kinswoman to follow him. She did so until they were out of earshot. “I must ask something of you.”
“What is it?”
“Tomorrow, should fighting occur, I place my trust in you to ensure that Arndis and Jana immediately escape.”
“They already agreed to do that,” Gwen pointed out. “As for me, I don’t plan to run.”
“I am aware of both, but tomorrow, with the crowd and the confusion, I am still worried. I need to know that someone will ensure they are both able to retreat out of harm’s way. You are my blood, Gwen, and I place those I care most about in your hands. Will you do this for me?”
He kept her eyes locked until she sighed. “Fine,” she agreed. “Though it doesn’t sit well with me to make a run for it when the trouble starts.”
“I know, and I am grateful to you.”
Gwen waved her hand about in a dismissive gesture. “It’s fine.”
They returned to the small group, and Gwen sat down among the others. Brand remained standing.
“Geberic,” he called out, summoning the greybeard to join him. As with Gwen, Brand led his sergeant some paces away.
“Did you see Sir William or hear of him at the Citadel?”
“No, milord, nor did I look. Should I have?”
Brand shook his head. “Just curiosity. Glaukos reported he had left the Order camp in Hæthiod, and I wondered where he might be.”
“I’m sorry I can’t help, milord.”
“It was not your task. Did everything go as planned with the captain?”
“Aye, milord. He promised things would be in place.” Geberic hesitated. “I gave him the impression you were only trying to travel north, milord, just as you wanted.”
“Good. I understand it may not sit well with you, but I fear the captain would not have aided us if he knew our true intentions.”
“Indeed, milord.” As silence took over the next moments, Geberic gave an expectant look at his master. “Was that all?”
“No.” Brand lowered his voice. “I have a task for you tomorrow.”
“When the fighting begins, I want you to make your escape. Leave the city and find the women. Tell them you saw me fall and they must flee.”
Confusion was replaced by disbelief on Geberic’s face. “I could never, milord!”
“You must. The others will not run unless they believe me dead.”
“But milord, what if you require aid? How can we leave without you?”
“That sentiment is precisely why you must tell them of my demise,” Brand stressed. “You cannot afford to delay a moment. Make your way to Hæthiod immediately. Queen Theodora will treat you well for my sake, I am sure.”
“But milord, if matters go ill, surely we must wait for you!” Geberic argued. “If we are to flee, we must do so together.”
“On the contrary. If our plans fall apart, every soldier in Middanhal will seek to apprehend me. They will scour the land to find me. Your only chance to escape is absent my company,” Brand retorted. “Geberic, promise me this.”
Agony appeared on the greybeard’s face. “I am a thane, milord, in my heart. Even if I never swore an oath to you. If there’s battle, my place is next to you.”
“Geberic, I need this far more than I need another sword. The risk is already too great for the people I care most about,” Brand explained. “You have followed me from the beginning, ever since we crossed the Weolcans. I trust you absolutely. You must do this for me.”
“If you’re going to twist my arm about it…” Geberic let out a deep breath. “I’ll do it. Of course I will, milord.”
“Good. Thank you. Should we win the fight, I will send for you all to return to Middanhal.”
“There’s something else I should do first.” The old greybeard knelt with a little difficulty and stretched out one hand. Brand extended his own, letting Geberic press it to his brow. “I will to my lord be true and faithful. Your life is my life, your blood is my blood. All my days I shall serve my lord until death may find me,” he proclaimed. “By eagle’s flight from raven’s cry, through falcon’s fall till dragon’s rise, this oath I swear.”
“Geberic from Cragstan, I accept your fealty.”
The thane got on his feet and smiled. “Just in case this was the last opportunity.”
“Good. Let us get some sleep while we can.”