The Dragonheart Returns
While Isarn’s army on the doorstep had closed Middanhal’s northern gate, the southern entry into the city remained busy as ever. From morning until evening, crowds gathered to move in either direction. A garrison of Order soldiers kept watch, charging toll of all seeking to enter, unless they belonged to the nobility or the clergy.
A small band pushed their way through the crowd outside the walls; as the other travellers became aware of them and saw they were armed, they quickly got out of the way. As Brand reached the gatehouse, one of the sentinels ran inside. Several men wearing the surcoat of the Star hurried outside in response, including the gate lieutenant.
The latter walked up to Brand, both of them flanked by warriors. “I cannot let you pass,” the lieutenant declared, his gaze flickering between Brand and his men.
“Do you know me?” asked the dragonborn.
“Aye, milord, you are Adalbrand of House Arnling, and you are in exile from this land.” The lieutenant had his fingers wrapped around his sword hilt, and the Order soldiers grasped their spears with both hands.
“What of you, soldier?” Brand asked next, directed at another wearing the star on his chest. “Do you know me?”
“Yes, captain. I fought with you at Polisals,” came the reply.
Stepping deeper into the gate, Brand looked at the next soldier. “And you, soldier?”
“Indeed I do, captain. I was at Cudrican where we held the line against Isarn’s horsemen.”
Brand continued, passing through the gate to approach the Arnsweg inside the city. Glaukos and Alaric spread out, observing the guardsmen who in turn had their eyes locked on Brand. Further back, the rest of Brand’s company watched along with the crowd of travellers, all of them enthralled at the spectacle. And as the dragonborn moved into the city, so did they, along with the Order soldiers.
“What of you?” Brand asked.
“Yes, captain! I fought at Bradon with you!”
“And me, captain, I was there when we defended Middanhal against Isarn!”
“It's the Dragonheart!”
“Have you returned, captain?”
“Is it really you, milord?”
"Have you come back to us?"
More and more Order soldiers appeared, coming down the walls. As Brand entered the square that lay in front of the gatehouse, he looked up at the surrounding houses. From opposite rooftops, Nicholas and Quentin looked back, arrows ready. When both soldiers and travellers stood in a crowd surrounding him, many of the latter being his own followers, he turned to the lieutenant of the gate.
“I am Adalbrand of the House of Adal!” he proclaimed loudly. “I have come to claim what is mine by birth and by deed, to see this city set free! I ask you again, do you know me?”
The lieutenant stood in the silence until at last, he knelt. “I do. I crossed the Weolcans on your command to save the city from rebels.” He looked up. “I would always know you, milord.”
The other Order soldiers followed his example, kneeling. Whether for one reason or another, so did everyone in the small crowd until Brand alone remained standing. He let his gaze sweep over the gathering. “Then follow me!”
With jubilant cheers, they did so. “Sigvard’s blood!” they shouted, “Sigvard’s blood has come to Middanhal!” Brand’s followers – both those by the gate and those already in the city – gathered around him like a shield, opening a path forward. With more cries and fist beating against chest, the people followed the Dragonheart down the Arnsweg.
The crowd became a procession, attracting curious glances and picking up more followers. Once they cleared the Arnsbridge, their numbers quickly swelled. Passing across the Temple square, whiterobes and even those clad in yellow or green joined in. Hearing the cries proclaiming the return of the Dragonheart, every Order soldier in the vicinity did as well. Only the Templars remained on their post, watching the commotion. Any mercenaries in the area were swift to vanish.
The closer the procession came to the Citadel, the more soldiers of the Order joined. The sentinels at the gate looked alarmed as hundreds of warriors marched towards them; hearing the chants, their expressions changed, and they stood aside.
Brand cast a look over his shoulder at his unarmed companions, giving a slight nod; as he stepped forward, they remained outside. Surrounded by the warriors that had once entered the Reach with him, as well as soldiers of the Order, he entered the Citadel.
Anyone already present in the courtyard hurried away. Yet Brand had only crossed half the distance to the inner gate when they opened up from the inside, and Red Hawks issued forth. Hundreds of them swiftly took position, spears lowered in ranks.
In response, the Order soldiers arraigned themselves and did likewise, mixed with Brand’s followers and others from the crowd. All had weapons ready.
Behind the Hawks, Konstans of Vale appeared. “I am the dragonlord of Adalrik,” he proclaimed, “chosen by the lawful ruler of this realm as ordained by the Adalthing. By that authority, I command you to hand over the criminal Adalbrand of House Arnling and disperse!”
Brand advanced to stand at the front. “Your reign is at an end,” he retorted with a voice equally loud. “As for your mercenaries, unless you value gold over your lives, you will lay down your weapons and step aside! I have no quarrel with you.”
If any of the Hawks considered the offer, none seemed inclined to accept it. They remained unmoved, spears ready for combat. “The only thing at an end is my patience,” Konstans replied. “Every man and woman in this yard shall be cut down with impunity, and any that might survive shall be hunted down and hanged as traitors!”
The attention of every person lay on Brand. Silence, pregnant with anticipation, covered the enclosure. His fingers stretched out to grasp the hilt of his sword.
“Enough!” The smaller doors into the courtyard burst open. Several knights and other Order soldiers strode out, among them Sir William, who had spoken; behind him came Godfrey. “Not a soldier here, whether he wears the Star or a hawk, shall draw blood unless on my command!”
“You have no authority to command my men!” Konstans yelled. “Unless you are traitors as well, arrest this exile!” He stretched out his hand to point at Brand.
“As lord marshal of the Order, I have authority over every soldier in Adalmearc during times of war,” William replied as he moved into the middle; his proclamation caused looks of confusion to spread through the throng.
“Preposterous!” claimed the dragonlord. “Only the king or the lord protector may choose a lord marshal, and neither have done so. This is another seditious lie!”
Godfrey stepped forward to stand next to William; in his hands, he held a bundle of parchments. “In times of need, should the Order be without leadership, the remaining marshals may choose a new leader. Here I have signed and sealed documents from every marshal in the realms, all of them approving Sir William of Tothmor as lord marshal.”
“That cannot be,” Konstans mumbled, but his voice had lost its fury. “This is further deception.”
A familiar figure limped forward as well to stand by the lord marshal. “On the contrary,” Theobald declared, “I and other knights in Middanhal has examined the signatures and found them valid. All of us have accepted Sir William to assume leadership.”
“If so, fulfil your duty and seize this criminal!” Konstans demanded, once more gesturing at Brand.
“You do not command the Order,” Brand replied with a cool voice. “The only criminal here is you.”
“Enough,” William reiterated. “This must not end in bloodshed. We have too many enemies that we can afford being at each other’s throats.”
“Perhaps,” Godfrey interjected, “a compromise can be found to resolve this peacefully.”
“Who is this vagrant that dares to address me?” Konstans asked.
“He is my advisor,” William declared, “and you will heed his words.”
“If my lords would relinquish their weapons and approach, we may negotiate a peaceful outcome,” Godfrey suggested.
“You wish for me to surrender myself to a murderous mob?” the dragonlord sneered.
Brand stood with conflicted expressions until at last he released his hold on the hilt of his sword. Untying his belt, he handed it to Alaric and took three steps towards the middle, separating himself from his followers. “For the realm,” he muttered. He gave the dragonlord a challenging look.
“What of you, Lord Konstans?” William asked. “Will you consign us to bloodshed? I assure you, the Order outnumbers your mercenaries.”
Scraping his tongue against his teeth, the nobleman moved through the ranks of the Hawks with a disdainful expression until he reached the lord marshal and the dragonborn. “Speak.”
“You have greater enemies in common than each other,” Godfrey began to explain. “Isarn is camped outside the city, and the outlanders renew their invasion of Hæthiod. Meanwhile, Alcázar has landed in Thusund.”
“Convenient,” Konstans spat. “I should forgive this treachery for that reason? I would not be surprised if this traitor is in league with the others!”
Brand’s face grew red, and he clenched his hands into fists. “Continue your speech and all the sell-swords in this city cannot protect you.”
“Enough!” William declared as before. “I will remind you both that every soldier in the realm is under my lawful command. Forego your pride and let wisdom prevail.”
“If I may suggest,” Godfrey interceded. “I believe I have a compromise. It will please neither, but nor will it cause bloodshed.”
Brand and Konstans regarded each other with contempt. “What is it?” asked the former.
“Summon the Adalthing to restore Lord Adalbrand’s honour and abolish his exile. He will be a knight once more and can lead the armies of the Order to victory against the outlanders,” Godfrey explained. “Afterwards, those armies may be unleashed on Isarn and finish this civil war as well.”
“You consider me a fool?” Konstans asked without seeking an answer. “He has already sought to overthrow my lawful rule by leading this rabble, and you would give him an army to march into this city?”
“The army would ultimately be under my command,” William pointed out. “I would never allow the Order to be used in rebellion.”
“You have come precariously close today,” Konstans quickly retorted. “Forgive me if I am not convinced by your promises.”
“Would you rather I assume command of your mercenaries and march them all to Hæthiod without guarantees of their return?” came the reply from the lord marshal. “I remind you, such would be within the law.”
Konstans’ face contorted itself as if he had swallowed a lemon. “I may be persuaded on one condition.”
“The armies of Isarn must be destroyed first. Once the threat to Adalrik has been removed, you may turn your attention on the rest,” Konstans demanded.
“That seems reasonable, given this enemy is already here,” William conceded. “I would be willing to commit the Order’s troops to this task and ensure all our strength can be marshalled to Hæthiod afterwards.” He looked at Brand.
“Any promise made by the esteemed Lord Konstans is false and empty,” the dragonborn declared.
“You need not trust him, but only me,” William argued. “Brand, I ask you to see reason. You will not have my aid if you instigate bloodshed.”
Anger flashed across Brand’s face before it vanished again. “If my honour is returned to me and I am cleared of all false charges,” he said slowly, “I am willing to lay grievances aside for the sake of Adalrik.”
“If you both agree to these terms, I shall guarantee them,” the lord marshal proclaimed. “In exchange for Lord Adalbrand being restored as a knight, he shall aid me in destroying the armies of Isarn and the outlanders afterwards.”
Konstans took in a deep breath between pursed lips. “Agreed.”
Brand’s expression mirrored the dragonlord’s. “Agreed.”
William looked at the crowd of Order soldiers, Brand’s followers, and ordinary people. “You may disperse,” he told them in a loud voice. They began to do so at a slow pace. He turned towards the Red Hawks. “Same goes for you. Relax your weapons and leave.”
The mercenaries looked at Konstans. He waited until he saw the Order soldiers begin to leave and gave a small nod, upon which they raised their spears. “I shall send the summons to the Adalthing. Let it be known the landfrid has begun.” He turned around to enter the castle, surrounded by his soldiers.
“Even now, I regret it did not come to blows,” Brand spoke to William and Godfrey. “He deserves to be cut down by my blade. Nor do I believe we can trust this viper.”
“Hardly,” Godfrey admitted. “But a battle inside the Citadel would have been a slaughter and a gift to our foes. I am surprised you would set upon this course, knowing it could only end in disaster.”
“We are beset on all sides by enemies, and for three years, Vale and his brother has only brought us closer to ruin!” Brand’s temper could be seen stirring again. “I did as you wanted. I went to the Reach. I went to Alcázar. I did all I could, and I accomplished little but delaying our enemies. I am done with these games!” As he spat the last words, the rest of the courtyard seemed quiet in comparison. “I will do what must be done that we may finally have victory,” he added in a more subdued voice. He glanced around; the mercenaries and most of the Order soldiers had disappeared. His followers remained, looking confused.
“I understand your anger,” William remarked, “but I have given my word. I will not allow open strife and bloodshed to erupt in the city.”
“Regardless, we have two weeks until the Adalthing. We must make plans. There are many things in motion,” Godfrey told Brand.
“To what end? That Konstans of Vale may once more betray his word and send hired daggers after me while I fight to protect his kingdom?”
“You have trusted me in the past, and with good reason. While I question your method, I am not opposed to your goal,” the wanderer said. “Hear me out, that is all I ask.”
“Listening to you is fraught with peril of its own kind,” Brand muttered, “but very well. Let us retreat to my family’s house.”
“I must stay at the Citadel and ensure my new position is not challenged,” William explained. “You forced my hand, yet despite it all, I am glad to see you, Brand.”
The dragonborn took a deep breath. “Likewise.” They grasped each other’s hands, and the knight left. Brand turned towards his band. “Let us go.”
“They’re leaving,” Egil exclaimed. “How strange!” He sat on a windowsill in the library tower; Kate occupied another.
“It looked like they were going to fight,” she remarked with a frown. “What happened, do you think?”
“Some sort of dispute between the Hawks and the Order soldiers?”
“I couldn’t see who the man among the Hawks was,” Kate admitted. “Nor that knight. I could only recognise Captain Theobald with his limp.”
“I guess the captain resolved matters,” Egil speculated. “But I wish I knew what had caused it.”
“I didn’t realise there was tension between the Hawks and the Order.” She looked at her companion. “Do you think this will happen again? I don’t like the thought they might start fighting inside the walls.” She shivered a little.
“It’s hard to imagine they would,” Egil considered. “It would be a bloodbath.”
The door to the library swung open; taken aback, the youths practically fell from their perches and hurried to regain their balance. A thane bearing the emblem of Vale strode in. “Where’s the King’s Quill?” he demanded to know in a brusque voice.
“He is resting,” Egil replied, glancing at the door to Quill’s chamber. “I am his apprentice. What is the need?”
“The dragonlord has decreed that the Adalthing must assemble in two weeks. The Quill must send the summons immediately.”
“It shall be handled at once,” Egil promised. The thane gave a curt nod and vanished.
Kate stared at the open door before looking at the young man by her side. “Should we tell master Quill?”
“I doubt it would do any good. We’ll have to get it done between the two of us.” They entered the scriptorium and set to work.
A band of about sixty people left the Citadel, moving north-east through Middanhal. Whether due to their weapons or angry expressions, everyone else was quick to get out of their way. Brand walked in the front with Godfrey to one side.
“This was your grand scheme?” asked Brand. “To have William made lord marshal.”
“You sound dismissive,” Godfrey replied. “I have crossed the realms north and south, east and west to see this done. This will finally allow a concerted effort to stop the Godking’s armies.”
“And afterwards? We are to leave Adalrik in the hands of these scoundrels?”
“No. I had intended to wait until victory against the Godking had been achieved, but my plans must be moved forward.”
“No doubt you have schemes within schemes, but we have been here before. Last time that Konstans of Vale promised to see me restored, he had me exiled and sent a hired murderer against me.”
“I see why you may feel aggrieved, but greater things are afoot.” Godfrey lowered his voice. “An army of twenty thousand outlanders has crossed the Langstan. The Order is fighting skirmishes to delay their advance, but another thirty thousand can be expected to follow.”
Brand blinked. “Fifty thousand in all? The Order army is one tenth of that. They will be overrun.”
“Hæthiod will soon be lost,” Godfrey concluded. “Once that happens, Adalrik is next.”
“And still we fight among ourselves. Yes, I am aware of the irony that I should make this statement.”
Godfrey snorted. “If you can make this realisation, others can as well. I intend for the blackrobes to be busy spreading the word. People must be made aware that we face a far greater threat.”
Arndis appeared by Brand’s side, taking his arm. “Will you not introduce me to your companion, Brother?”
He grimaced briefly. “Arndis, this is Godfrey. He is a – traveller. He ensured Sir William was appointed lord marshal.”
“I recall the two of you shared company last you were in Middanhal,” Arndis said.
“Excellent memory, milady,” Godfrey remarked.
“I would not have expected Sir William to have a reeve such as you, advancing his ambitions,” she continued. “Or perhaps another puts coin in your purse?”
“I bring the tide, milady, to raise many ships.” Godfrey smiled. “Which currently means preparing for the Adalthing.”
Ahead, the small mansion owned by House Arnling came into view. “First, we set up quarters and make ourselves secure,” Brand commanded. “I want the same vigilance as when we camped in the Reach,” he added over his shoulder, glancing at Jana. Around him, his followers affirmed his order, and soon they began preparing the house for defence.
The dragonlord had issued a refusal of all audiences for the foreseeable future, regardless of who the petitioner might be. This meant besides his personal servant, only his brother and his wife stood a chance to see him. The latter entered his study, finding her husband studying lists of names.
“I can scarcely believe it,” she said, approaching him; she walked and spoke without her usual fervour. “The audacity of this upstart dragonborn.”
“I underestimated him,” Konstans admitted. “I knew his propensity for taking risks, yet I never imagined he would dare to march straight into Middanhal. Who knows? Perhaps he would have succeeded, had our new lord marshal not intervened.”
“Another unwelcome surprise,” Matilde remarked. “Another attempt to wrest power from us. Can we even be certain his appointment is legitimate?”
“The knights believe so, which is what matters. For now. Arnling had help with this little insurrection,” Konstans considered. “The Order was far too willing to join him. Once the Adalthing is done, we must purge the Citadel of his loyalists.”
She glanced at his lists. “Do you doubt the loyalty of them?”
The dragonlord’s face twisted in contemplation. “Not as such. After today’s event, we should have their full support when I demand the execution of this traitor. His dragonborn blood will not save him, nor will the landfrid. He will leave the chamber of the Adalthing in chains and be strangled in the dungeons,” Konstans declared darkly.
Matilde caressed his hair. “Another obstacle removed.”
He leaned into her touch. “One less dragonborn in the world.”