203. The Dragon’s Rise
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The Dragon's Rise

Middanhal

On the morrow of the Adalthing, the Citadel was bustling as could be expected. Lords from across the realm had gathered along with their retinues. Many of them grumbled at being summoned to the capital outside the regular gathering at summer solstice, especially once they had learned the reason. As some expressed, the matter of Arnling had already been resolved, and they demurred at being forced to take this trip only to re-tread familiar ground.

Regardless, they had come. All the many margraves of Vale, the southern landgraves, and the jarl of Ingmond along with his vassals; all of which could be assumed to follow the lord protector. From the North, the jarl of Theodstan and his margraves appeared, as expected. But few, if any, had guessed that the remaining northern lords would appear. Rebels against the realm, they marched into the Citadel.

Many seized weapons at the sight of them, but the lord marshal had been forewarned. Order soldiers stood ready to prevent hostilities and guarantee the landfrid, posted in strong numbers. Thanks to their presence, only jeers instead of arrows flew across the hall. In the end, the Adalthing stood nearly at its full count, as only the jarl of Isarn was not present.

In the end, sixty-seven out of sixty-eight members entered the hall of the Adalthing along with their closest attendants or relatives. More than half of the full count, regardless of how many were present, would have to be in favour for any decision to be made; the number to reach stood at thirty-five.

~~~~

The remainder of the court, restricted from entering the hall itself, watched from the balconies. Apart from courtiers, those of high standing had also been allowed to find a place from where they might observe the proceedings. The highfather was among them, being accompanied by an unassuming man in travelworn clothes.

“Godfrey,” Septimus said quietly, his old hands clenched to the railing, “if this fails… what do we do? With Isarn’s army to the north and the realms in disarray, how will we stop fifty thousand outlanders from taking the city?”

Godfrey exhaled. “I fear even the gods may not know.”

~~~~

Arndis and Eleanor had found a perch as well, accompanied by the new lord marshal. “I am so nervous,” Eleanor admitted, biting her lip. She looked at William. “It did not go well last time.”

“I am sure the dragonlord understand the sense in having Brand fight on our side,” William claimed. “He will be restored to knighthood, and we may place all of this behind us.”

“And if not?” Arndis turned her head towards the knight. “Will we have your protection, Sir William? Will my brother?”

He frowned. “Of course, but as I said, it only makes sense to have Brand return to the Order. It will not be needed.”

“We shall see,” Arndis remarked. She looked to her other side, where Gwen and Jana had found room for themselves on the next balcony, observing the people below.

~~~~

On the floor, Brand stood by Theodoric. “I received your message,” the latter said. “Do you believe your schemes have come to fruition?” The jarl glanced at the lord protector, standing by the dragonlord on the opposite side of the hall.

“We will find out momentarily.”

“How reassuring.”

Quiet mutterings could be heard as the young prince of House Hardling crossed the floor to stand in front of Brand, who exchanged a surprised look with Theodoric. “Lord Inghard.”

The youth inclined his head. “Lord Adalbrand. You always return to Middanhal under the most auspicious of circumstances.”

The older atheling regarded the younger. “Is that all you wished to say?”

“I remember we played chess in your cell, so long ago,” Inghard continued. “You beat me every time. Even when I thought your moves were too bold, audacious even, you still seized victory.”

“I remember.”

“You were always ready to sacrifice any piece,” Inghard added. “Even yourself, it seems now. Are you truly willing to not only kill, but even die?”

The son of Arn scrutinised his counterpart once again. “I am.”

The son of Sighard nodded slightly. “I am not willing to do either of those things. I should like to see you restored, in that case. Men like you are needed to win these wars.”

“I could not agree more.”

After bowing his head once more, the young prince walked away.

~~~~

“I have assurances from all the southern landgraves,” Konstans remarked with a satisfied expression. “And given how much Ingmond hates the Arnling brat, his support is certain. I almost admire their impertinence in having all these rebels attend, but it makes no difference. The only question will be how fast they run to escape Middanhal before the landfrid ends.”

By his side, Valerian stood with deep furrows on his brow. “Brother,” he spoke at length, “did you let the Isarn prisoners escape two years ago?”

Konstans looked at him in shock. “What nonsense is this?”

“Did you send the prince Gerhard with them that he might die?”

“Are you mad? Why would I ever do this?”

The jarl stared at his brother. “I could not make sense of it either, until I recalled how their escape meant you travelled north to negotiate peace, along with Prince Hardmar. He did not return either.”

“Valerian, have you gone insane? Why would you bring up such slander in this very moment?” Konstans glanced at Inghard, returning towards them after speaking with Brand. “I cannot fathom where such ludicrous accusations would come from, but can you at least wait until after the assembly?”

“Waiting is all I have done,” the jarl mumbled.

“The King’s Quill approaches,” someone announced. “We will begin soon.” Conversation around the hall died down and the noblemen moved to different positions, according to their affiliation. Margraves gathered around their liege; the southern landgraves, usually found supporting each other, formed their own group. As for the northern lords, regardless of title, they stood as one.

~~~~

It took a while for the King’s Quill to actually reach the hall. Once he stepped inside, it became apparent to all. He walked with slow steps, being supported by his apprentice. His eyes lacked focus, drifting in every direction. The hall was silent as he crossed it, finally reaching the empty throne in one end. Taking position before it, he turned around to address the noblemen.

“This gathering must be consecrated,” he spoke with a frail voice. A priestess of Disfara entered the hall, moving to the statue of the goddess. One by one, each member of the Adalthing approached to have his forehead smeared with blood to sanctify his role in upholding the laws of the realm.

When all was done, the law keeper spoke again. “The Adalthing has been summoned by the dragonlord, as is his right in times of need,” Quill wheezed. Whispers could be heard, repeating his words around the hall and on the balconies. “He may speak as to the nature of this need.”

 Konstans stepped forward to address the crowd. “Two weeks ago, Adalbrand of House Arnling returned despite the exile upon him to enter this city. He brought a mob with him to seize the Citadel. While we stood ready to defeat this outrageous assault, I agreed to summon the Adalthing in order to avoid bloodshed. He argues that the judgement upon him is unjust and would ask you to rescind it.” He let his eyes sweep over the southern lords. “Yet given his entry to the city, we have seen what happened when we let mercy temper justice and sent him to exile! My counsel can only be that this time, we affirm his guilt and let execution be his fate.”

His words caused different reactions throughout the crowd; some gasped in surprise, especially on the balconies. Many on the floor seemed satisfied and in agreement; others appeared unfazed. Among them Theodoric, who stepped forward as well.

“Master Quill, it has come to my attention that another matter must be dealt with first, as described by the law.”

“Spare us your trickery,” Konstans sneered. “You will not stop this counting from taking place.”

“Yet I will be heard,” Theodoric demanded, looking at the law keeper.

One hand on his apprentice, lightly swaying, Quill nodded slowly. “We should not silence a jarl of the realm in this chamber. Speak your concern, Jarl Theodstan.”

“It is the foremost duty of this assembly to ensure the realm has a ruler,” Theodoric began to say.

“Which it has in the form of our esteemed lord protector,” Konstans said.

“A ruler born to Sigvard’s blood, whether he be king or heir,” the jarl continued.

“Prince Inghard is an atheling.”

“But he is not chosen by the Adalthing,” Theodoric swiftly countered.

“His brother was. By custom, that would make a younger brother the next heir.”

“Yet Prince Hardmar was never coronated. His house was never elevated to the status as the House of Adal. That means Lord Inghard remains a son to House Hardling. He has no stronger right to the crown than any other man in the eyes of the Adalthing,” Theodoric pointed out. “In fact, he has retained his membership of this assembly precisely because he is considered the atheling of House Hardling. If he were the heir to the realms, he would be seated on that throne rather than standing among us.” The jarl pointed at the empty throne behind Quill.

“Preposterous,” Konstans exclaimed, but doubt could be seen on his face. All eyes became fixed on the law keeper.

“The jarl is right in his learned interpretation of the law,” Quill proclaimed, sending a shock through the listeners. On the balcony, Godfrey smiled before he disappeared. “The realm is without a lawfully chosen king or heir. One must be chosen immediately.”

“So be it!” Konstans all but roared. “If we must go through this farce of choosing Prince Inghard, we shall. I cannot imagine any man here would be fool enough to lend his voice to an honourless outlaw, who already tried to seize the throne!”

Brand quickly advanced to place on one hand on the statue of Disfara. “Yet if you support me, I swear by the goddess, I shall grant clemency to every man in this room for all crimes against the realm. The civil war that has torn our kingdom apart shall be over this very day.”

“One traitor giving pardon to the others!” The dragonlord’s voice flowed with contempt.

“Fifty thousand outlanders stand in Hæthiod,” Brand continued. “They shall march through Ingmond and all of southern Adalrik before reaching this city, burning it to the ground!”

“Convenient!” shouted Konstans. “As if a word from your mouth can be trusted!”

“The lord marshal, a knight of unassailable honour, may verify my words.”

All heads turned towards William, who, looking bemused at the sudden attention, nodded.

“Another of your cronies, usurping power!”

“For three years, Adalrik has been torn by war! Enemies surround us on all sides, from the Reach to Alcázar. It is time to put these grievances aside. Even you, Lord Konstans, will be pardoned,” Brand promised, locking his gaze on the dragonlord.

“How magnanimous,” Konstans spat. “Enough of this! Let the counting begin.”

Quill began to speak, but he only managed to cough. “Water,” he finally wheezed at Egil.

The youth turned to a nearby soldier. “Fetch water for the King’s Quill,” he commanded. “One moment, milords, and we shall begin.”

~~~~

A chair was brought in to let Quill sit and rest for a few moments, regaining his strength. Meanwhile, murmurs erupted across the hall as the noblemen discussed the development.

“If this fails, the realm will fall to chaos,” Theodoric muttered.

“If this fails, I will be dead,” Brand pointed out dryly.

“We need eight from the South to join us,” the jarl continued. “Eight men will decide if we have peace, or if I have thrown away my alliance with Vale to be eaten by the wolves of Isarn.”

“They will see reason,” Brand claimed, looking at the southern lords.

Across the hall, the dragonlord clenched his fists in anger. “So this was their ploy,” Konstans sneered. “I should have known. But it is a desperate act. This changes nothing.”

“What if it should?” asked Valerian. “All the blood and gold wasted on this war.”

“Have you lost your wits? If that brigand is made king, he will have our heads!” Konstans grabbed his brother’s tunic to pull him close. “Think of your son! You want him to grow up, I take it?”

“In peace,” the jarl mumbled, sweat on his brow. “I want him to know peace.”

“Keep yourself together! The counting is about to begin.”

Still mumbling, Valerian turned his attention towards the King’s Quill, as did all others.

Standing once more, though leaning on Egil, the law keeper began to speak. “The Adalthing must choose who shall lead us. The ancient customs permit for any man to be chosen in times of strife, though such a choice would be temporary until the end of war. Only an atheling of Sigvard may be seated on the Dragon Throne.” Quill paused, breathing heavily before he could continue. “I encourage the Adalthing to choose wisely. Lord Raymond, to whom do you lend your voice?”

The jarl stepped forward. “I lend it to Inghard of House Hardling.” His eyes looked with hatred on Brand before he returned to his margraves.

“Does any margrave from Ingmond speak otherwise?”

Silence lasted for a moment before one nobleman walked up to the statue of Disfara.

“How dare you!” shouted Raymond. “You would support this bastard? The blood of my family is upon his hands!”

The margrave looked at his jarl. “When the outlanders come, the blood of all our families will be upon your hands.” He placed his own on the foot of the statue. “I lend my voice to Adalbrand of House Arnling.” He walked over to stand by the northerners, who welcomed him with cheers.

“Quiet,” the law keeper demanded, though he could barely be heard, and Egil had to repeat it. “Lord Valerian, to whom do you lend your voice?”

The lord protector moved to the statue. He glanced at his brother, but quickly averted his eyes again. As the moments passed, astonished murmurs spread through the hall. “I lend – I give it to Adalbrand,” he finally spoke, causing a clamour to break out.

Konstans marched up to grab his brother’s collar with both hands. “Traitor!” he roared. “Why would you do this?”

“Quiet!” Egil shouted.

“We failed, Brother,” Valerian declared, his expression etched with regret. “We let this war continue, and now the outlanders will destroy us!”

“You have destroyed us!” Konstans shouted into his brother’s face. “Begone!”

“Quiet!”

“Begone, you coward!” As Konstans all but screamed at him, Valerian stumbled backwards, fleeing his brother’s rage until he stood among the northern lords. In the confusion, Godfrey slipped inside the hall.

“Be silent!” Egil’s third attempt finally had sufficient luck to let the law keeper continue.

“Does any margrave from Vale speak otherwise?” Quill asked.

“All of you, support Hardling or I will see you destroyed!” Konstans roared until the margraves bowed their heads and nearly tripped over one another to reach the statue. Fourteen lords mumbled their support for Inghard and returned to the dragonlord, whose face looked red enough to spew fire. Yet two margraves did otherwise; raising their voices, they declared to be in line with their jarl, and they crossed the hall to stand by him.

“Lord Theodoric, how do you speak?”

“I speak in favour of Adalbrand of House Arnling,” the jarl loudly proclaimed. All of his margraves followed suit.

“Lord Isenhart, how do you speak?”

“The jarl is not present,” Egil said quietly in Quill’s ear.

“How do the margraves of Isarn speak?” asked the law keeper with ragged breath.

All as one declared for Arnling.

“Twenty-five,” Theodoric muttered.

“We continue.” One after the other, Quill called the landgraves next. All the northern lords lent their voices to Arnling.

“Thirty-one.” The jarl of Theodstan clasped his hands together until his knuckles turned white. “Another four.”

“How does the lord of Marcaster speak?”

As the first southern landgrave, Marcaster strode up to the statue and declared for Hardling. The other nine did so as well.

“Thirty-five,” Theodoric exclaimed, looking crestfallen. “That is thirty-five for Inghard.”

Opposite the hall, Konstans had reached the same conclusion by the satisfied look on his face. Regaining his composure after his furious outbursts earlier, he inhaled and exhaled deeply. The landgraves gathered around him, talking among themselves.

They paid no heed to Inghard, who held the last vote to be given. Few did, given that the counting had been already decided. The prince left Godfrey, who had kept him company for a little while, and stepped up to the statue.

“Lord Inghard,” Quill asked, “to whom do you lend your voice?”

The young man looked at Brand before raising his eyes to look at the goddess. Touching the stonework on which she rested, he took a deep breath. “I, Inghard of House Hardling, renounce my claim upon the Dragon Throne. I bow before the Dragon of Adalrik.” He approached Brand and did as he had claimed.

Half the hall appeared stunned, watching the youth down on his knee with bowed head. Valerian recovered as the first, pushing his way forward to follow Inghard’s gesture, kneeling in front of Brand. The noblemen of Theodstan, Isarn, and all the North swiftly did as well.

The southern lords were last to realise what had happened. “What is this?” Konstans roared with renewed anger. Confusion spread among those gathered around him; several of Vale’s margraves hurried over to kneel next to their lord.

“The crown cannot be forced upon an unwilling head if another atheling stands ready,” Quill declared. “If Lord Inghard refuses this honour, we must make another counting.” His words were swiftly repeated through the hall and upon the balconies.

Konstans looked around bewildered as his brother’s margraves abandoned him. “Stop!” he cried out. “Stay, you cowards!”

It was too late; the tide had broken. The southern landgraves crossed the hall to join the jarl of Vale and his vassals. Seeing this, half of Ingmond’s margraves left him to do the same. With unintelligible words of anger, Raymond stormed off, followed by his remaining supporters. In the end, Konstans stood alone. He glanced around and found no sympathy on any of the balconies; in the hall itself, only Brand could meet his gaze, as the other noblemen knelt before him. With clenched jaw, Konstans left as well.

 Quill squinted his eyes. “Am I to interpret this as the will of the Adalthing?”

Theodoric rose to his feet. “Aye,” he spoke. His vassals did as well, repeating the affirmation. Vale followed next along with the other southern lords, confirming the same.

The law keeper raised one hand to command silence. “As none objects, so be it. Bring your choice and have him kneel by the statue.” He coughed several times as Brand did as instructed. Supported by Egil, Quill walked over to place one hand on his shoulder. “Adalbrand of House Arnling, as keeper of the law, I confirm that the Adalthing speaks with one voice. An atheling of Sigvard, you have been chosen to take his place.” Cheers interrupted Quill briefly before he could continue. “Since you are of age and the realm has no ruler, the authority of the king is yours without delay. Rise as king.”

Brand did so, and the cheers returned. Wiping sweat from his brow, Quill raised his free hand as before to gain silence; Egil held him upright by his other arm. “In time, go to the Temple and be crowned upon the steps in sight of the entire realm that all may see and know you are the Dragon of Adalrik. For when you rise on that day, you rise as High King of Adalmearc, and never again shall you kneel before any man.” His work done, Quill stepped back and allowed Egil to lead him away.

“The Dragon of Adalrik!” shouted all those present in the hall, whether on the floor or upon the balconies.

Brand raised both hands, palms outwards to the sides, and the gathering fell quiet. “I am true to my word,” he declared, reaching out to touch the statue of Disfara. “As my first act, I declare that all in this hall are pardoned for any crimes committed against the throne. No longer shall our kingdom be torn by civil war.” Jubilant outbursts followed his proclamation. “Yet we remain under threat,” the king continued. “As my second act, I bid you all prepare your armies. Our enemies shall know the might of Adalmearc, and we shall know victory!” His words were met by deafening shouts of agreement from northern and southern lords alike.

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