All roads eventually led to Middanhal. Silk, spices, ivory, cotton, and precious gems first reached the city-state of Alcázar before travelling by ship north through perilous seas to arrive at the shores of Adalmearc. For some the journey ended here, selling their goods for others to transport further on and in turn buying wool, linen, timber, and dye to bring back. Others moved from seagoing ships to river transports and continued further inland, forming a convoy of various travellers banding together for comfort and safety. It took weeks sailing on the rivers upstream, and often the ships were pulled by spans of oxen walking on the riverbanks.
Eventually, one reached Coldharbour, the northernmost port on the river near its source in the mountains. Here, all would have to disembark, goods and passengers alike, pay the toll, and continue on foot, horseback, with mules, or on cart. It was fifty miles from their destination as the arrow flew, but to be near fresh water the road followed the curves of the river as it snaked through the landscape. This nearly doubled the final journey. The caravan would also increase in size as pilgrims, priests, peasants, and other people joined it.
Finally, their destination began to appear. A great chain of mountains ran from west to east through Adalmearc, broken only in one place. There, situated on a hill dwarfed by the mountain peaks directly to the east and west of it, lay Middanhal. From afar, one could spy its impregnable walls with towers and buildings rising on the hill behind those fortifications. Coming closer, the gate itself would be in view. When closed, steel doors with intricate carvings blocked the entrance to the city, but during the day, the gate was opened and allowed entry.
The city guards inspected all who entered, and they collected toll as people passed through. The gate was wide enough that twenty men could stand shoulder by shoulder with ease, and the road beyond had the same width. It was the main street in Middanhal, named Arnsweg in honour of the king who built it. First, it passed through what was simply called Lowtown; the neighbourhoods between the outer walls and the river that coursed through Middanhal. Although the smallest part of town, twice as many people lived here than in the rest of the city; it was home to the poor, the servants who served others, and the beggar priests who in turn served them.
While the outer walls marked one end of Lowtown, a natural boundary between the poor part and the rest of the city was provided by the large river Mihtea that flowed through the city. Only the Arnsweg and its stone bridge gave passage further into the city. Moving beyond Lowtown and up along the Arnsweg, travellers would enter the city proper. Here they would find the shops and workshops of ordinary trade, and in the western part lay the warehouses and merchants’ quarter.
Reaching this point, traders from Alcázar would turn left and leave the Arnsweg, bringing their exotic goods to their stores in the small section designated for foreign merchants. There they might give thanks to their heathen gods for a safe journey, unload their cargo, and in turn pick up iron ore as well as silver, jewellery, and the expertly crafted tools for which Middanhal was famous. Merchants of the caravans who were native to Adalmearc would separate as well, each seeking his own storehouses. Any remaining travellers of the original convoy would continue along the Arnsweg until reaching the Temple square and the heart of Middanhal.
Placed directly in the centre of the city lay the holiest of temples, the Temple of the Alfather. None other was allowed dedication to Him, most high of all. The square itself would be full of people, serving as a marketplace with stalls and people offering their goods. A steady stream of pilgrims and supplicants would move forward to the Temple itself, as would ordinary travellers, simply wishing to express their gratitude for reaching a long journey’s end. For some it meant hours of waiting, though a knight and his squire with the dust of Alcázar on their cloaks might push their way through the throng.
Some needed to go further still. At the Temple square, the Arnsweg divided itself. One branch led northeast to the quarter populated by the nobility and their mansions. The other branch moved northwest, leading to the quarter of specialised workshops, forges, and craftsmen that worked iron into arms and armour primarily. The city’s small enclave of Dwarves lived primarily here, staying together for comfort and safety. Beyond these buildings, the Arnsweg moved alongside the other structure that dominated Middanhal. To the northwest lay the great fortress known as the Citadel.
It was an immense construction, larger even than the Temple complex. Its northern part was closely tied to the city walls and gate, adding its defences to those fortifications. Here the city guard resided and more importantly, the Order of Adal. Thousands of knights and tens of thousands of Order troops were controlled from those halls, and every day, knights and soldiers arrived from or departed to their postings.
The southern part of the Citadel was reserved for the king, his family, his court, and the nobility. On the lower levels lived the servants by the kitchens and everything else that made life possible within the stonewalls. Below were the dungeons and above were the residences for the court and nobility. Nobles without their own house in the city might be quartered here as the king’s guests along with the rest of the court. Furthest up were the royal chambers, reserved for the king and his kin as well as his personal servants.
The library tower was placed in close vicinity and had its own entrance so a visitor would not need to enter the royal residence. A lone traveller now walked this way, this final distance of a long journey. He wore a hat as cover against the sun, a cloak to ward off cold and dirt, and a simple walking staff in his hand for support. His paper of passage gave him admittance to go through the gate of the Citadel and up the winding stairs.
The tower was specifically built to allow as much sunlight to enter as possible, but only in angles onto surfaces where no books were kept that might decay in the light. Special alcoves contained torches to illuminate the tower after nightfall, and they were built with glass coverings to avoid any chance of fire spreading and with cleverly constructed chimneys leading the smoke away.
This was the domain of the Quill, the king’s scribe. He maintained the old books, wrote new ones, added to the annals, and was the expert on all matters pertaining to the laws of the realm. The current Quill wore a robe much like the priests at the Temple, dark red in colour, and had hands stained by ink; his skin was bronze, however, and his curly hair and beard were black if lightly touched by grey. He was a native of Alcázar and had taken the journey to Middanhal decades ago as a young boy, ending up as apprentice to the King’s Quill of that time. Now he had succeeded his master and had an apprentice of his own.
His long, slender fingers were gently repairing the binding on a book entitled Herbs of the Realm and Their Uses when a vague gust of wind raised a few of the pages into the air before once again descending. This announced as sure as any bell that the door had been opened, and Quill raised his head slightly. “Is that you, boy?” His voice came as soft as the feathers on the quill for which his position was named.
“Try again.” The other voice sounded younger yet held far more weariness. It came from the inner hall of the tower, where the many books were kept and to which the scriptorium was adjacent. At the sound of this voice, Quill rose so abruptly he almost toppled his chair. He turned to face his guest as the latter entered into the scriptorium.
“You have returned. When I did not hear from you these last many months, I wondered…”
“It would take a lot to silence me permanently,” the visitor said dryly, placing his walking staff against a wall. They both extended their hands and clasped them around the other’s in greeting before separating again.
“Sidi,” Quill greeted him, speaking a word in the tongue of Alcázar and bowing slightly. Although he addressed the stranger in his own tongue, his guest did not resemble the Quill. While the stranger’s hair was also dark, it was completely straight and his skin appeared to be less tanned. No white streaked his hair, nor did wrinkles crease the newcomer’s skin. He seemed completely unmemorable except in one respect. His eyes were of indeterminable hue, and his age would be difficult to guess with certainty.
“We are not in Alcázar,” the stranger said with a vague smile.
“Godfrey, then,” Quill acknowledged. The stranger inclined his head as if greeting Quill from anew.
“You did not receive my latest missive, I take it,” Godfrey said.
Quill shook his head. “What did it say?”
“Alcázar is buying lumber in great quantity.”
“Not much of a message,” Quill said, “but enough to condemn your messenger.”
Godfrey nodded. “They must have kept me under observation. Probably watched all travellers arriving from the north stepping onto the docks.”
“But you are certain? Both about the quantity and its purpose?”
Godfrey nodded again. “The ship I took south carried lumber. The ship on which I stowed away northbound had taken a cargo of lumber to the city. Thankfully it carried wine back north, which made for a more pleasant hideout,” he added with a smile.
“And the purpose?”
“I saw the ships under construction. Deep keels. Even if I had not, there can be no doubt. Why else intercept my message, kill my messenger? Why else seek to apprehend me?”
“So it is to be war, then.” Quill spoke these words with a hint of a quiver betraying emotions that did not show on his face.
“I believe so. Maybe not within the first year or two, but eventually,” Godfrey declared.
“If I had received your letter, I would have advised the king to ban all further sale of timber. Alas, as it stands now…” Quill said, raising his tanned hands in a gesture of defeat.
“Yes, I heard when I landed back in Adalmearc. I have told our man in Thusund. He will get the trade blocked, though the damage is done. Enough of this – tell me what happened to the king. Travelling on the road I have only heard unreliable rumours.”
“Let us sit down,” Quill spoke, beckoning towards a small table with a chessboard upon it and two small chairs.
“Playing a game?”
“Against my apprentice,” Quill said, taking the seat of the black player. “That reminds me… Egil!”
“You are losing,” Godfrey muttered and took the seat opposite. A boy of fourteen years appeared in the doorway of the scriptorium.
“Did you fetch the parchment?”
“Bring water for me and our guest. Then practise your letters,” Quill told him.
“Yes, master.” There was silence while the boy did as commanded, filling two cups with water and bringing them into the scriptorium. He placed them on the small table, careful not to disturb any of the chess pieces, before departing silently.
When they were alone again, Godfrey took a sip of his water and then looked at Quill. “You finally chose an apprentice.”
“He seemed like the brightest of the novices in the Temple,” Quill confirmed.
“A Temple novice? He is an orphan?”
“As they tend to be, yes.”
“And so his only ties are to you,” Godfrey said with a sly smile.
“His conditions are better here,” Quill said while hiding his face with his cup. “In the Temple, he would be one scribe of many. Here, eventually, this tower will be his sole domain.”
“Does he know about me?” asked Godfrey. Behind the cup, Quill’s expression froze.
“Not yet. I will tell him soon, now that he has met you.”
“The king,” Godfrey said in an abrupt change of subject. “Inform me,” he commanded.
“It was some months ago. The norns say it was old age, but he could easily have lived another twenty years,” Quill stated. “He simply wasted away these last few years. Ever since the death of his son.”
“How did the prince die at such a young age?” Godfrey asked Quill. “I have heard rumours, but nothing I would consider reliable.”
“Ambushed and killed in the highlands. It was what sparked the revolt among the clans.”
“I have been away too long,” Godfrey mumbled to himself. “He had a son himself, I seem to recall. How old is the boy? The king’s grandson,” he elaborated.
“Some eleven years, I think. Ten years too young to succeed.”
“But he is the only heir, is he not? If I remember correctly,” Godfrey frowned, “the late king has no other children or grandchildren.”
“No, the blood of Sigvard runs thin. There are two other houses descended from Sigvard,” Quill explained, “but they are cadet branches and have no support to make any claims. As things stand, our eleven-year-old prince is the only heir.”
“And yet he cannot take the throne until he is twenty-one. Tell me, law keeper, what happens in the next ten years until that takes place?”
“At the next Adalthing, the jarls will elect a lord protector to rule until the young prince is of age to be crowned,” Quill told his visitor.
“For ten years,” Godfrey said contemplatively. “The lord protector will have ten years as ruler of the realm…”
“The Adalthing assembles at summer solstice,” Quill told him. “Only a few weeks from now.”
“I need to travel into the East,” Godfrey said. “But I think I can delay for a few weeks. I have to go find lodgings before the city is overrun by pilgrims.”
“You are welcome to stay in the Citadel as my guest,” Quill protested. “I am sure…” He was silenced by Godfrey’s raised hand.
“A modest inn somewhere will suit me fine. I could use a few silver coins, though,” Godfrey said expectantly, and they rose from the table. Quill walked out of the scriptorium, followed by his visitor. He opened a drawer, took out a pouch, and poured some of its content into Godfrey’s open palm, who accepted with a nod. “We will meet again soon,” Quill’s visitor said as he adjusted his cloak around him, took his staff, and left with speed.
A faint breeze told Quill that Godfrey had opened the door and was gone. “How much did you hear?” asked Quill.
“Most of it,” Egil admitted, entering the scriptorium. He spoke with a slight dialect, a touch of the highlands northeast of Adalrik.
“How much did you understand?”
“Some of it,” Egil replied and took the seat left vacant by Godfrey.
“I understood that Alcázar is importing a lot of timber. From this, you know that there will be war. And with the king and his son dead, his grandson is to rule, but the nobles will have to elect a lord protector to reign until he is twenty-one and can be crowned.” As Egil spoke, his fingers hovered over the chessboard. Finally, he chose a footman and moved him forward one space to threaten Quill’s knight.
“Why would Alcázar need to buy up large quantities of lumber?”
“They are a small city-state in the southern lands. They do not have the forests we do in Adalmearc.”
“But for what do they need it?” asked Quill. Egil was silent for a moment as he pondered this.
“Deep keels! They need it to build ships. And… ships for the open sea need deep keels to be stable in rough weather. They are building a fleet for war,” Egil finally realised.
“Yes. Thankfully, it is slow work, especially if they can get no further timber from Adalmearc. The realms will have some years to prepare,” Quill said. He picked up his knight, began to move the piece, and then stopped. He almost placed it elsewhere, stopped again, and finally settled it back in its old position to contemplate another move.
“But there will be war?” Egil asked.
“At some point there will be, yes. Now go practise your letters in earnest.”
It was still some weeks until summer solstice, and most people were delaying the journey to Middanhal until the last few days before the celebration. Some of the more devout pilgrims were already entering the city, however, slowly filling its streets with people, its inns with guests, and the purses of its merchants with coin. Some of these had their own shops and places of trade dotted around the city, while the smaller vendors had their stalls and goods on the Temple square. As pilgrims and travellers filtered into the city, all of them bound for the Temple, they were forced to run the gauntlet through the traders eagerly hawking their goods.
Two men strode through the crowd and across the square, approached by none. Even other pilgrims, who likewise aimed for the Temple, stood aside to let them pass through. Both wore armour with longswords strapped to their side and held helmets in their hands. Their surcoats proclaimed them soldiers of the Order with the seven-pointed white star on black. The man in front was of average height and had golden spurs on his boots; his cloak was deep red with strong black threads woven into a pattern. Neither young nor old, he walked in the prime of his manhood with a strong stride.
Behind came the knight’s taller attendant. Given the attendant’s young age, one could deduce he was a squire in training to be a knight as well one day. This was confirmed by his spurs, silver in colour; his cloak, too short for him and with faded silver threads set in dark blue, drew some stares. The two men had left their horses at the city gate in the city guard’s stables to enter the city and approach the Temple on foot as was custom. Now finally, after months of travelling from Alcázar, they passed beyond the edge of the marketplace on the Temple square and reached the stairs of the Temple itself.
The stairway was carved from the white stone of the quarries in Heohlond, and it led up the final inclination of the hill around which Middanhal was built. At the top, the stairs were flanked by tall marble pillars on either side. The pillars supported a roof extended forward, covering the small distance from the top of the stairway to the Temple building. The entrance had a great door, but by custom, this was always open to allow admittance or sanctuary to all. On each side of the entrance stood a Templar knight, recognisable by the ash tree on their surcoats; they were the most elite of the knights of the Order, who took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Their mere presence ensured order among the devout entering the Temple, even on days of celebration when multitudes would seek to enter. The knight and his squire nodded slightly in polite greeting as they passed by the Templars, though the sanctified knights did not reciprocate.
Inside, the Temple was illuminated by daylight. This was achieved by the great dome in silver and white stone that crowned the main Temple building; it reflected and refracted the sunlight, which was caught by pale surfaces and sent into the Hall of Holies. From the entrance, another series of pillars flanked the believers’ ascendance towards the altar. It was hewn from a large slab of marble, retaining its square shape with depictions of events before the creation of Adalmearc running along all four sides. The top side, which reached the height of a grown man’s thigh, was flat, however; smooth and unadorned except at the centre. Here, a pair of hands had been sculpted from the marble with the wrists extending upwards with the surface of the altar serving as its pedestal. The hands touched at the base of the palms and then spread out, fingers raised in the air. They gave the image of prayer or supplication, though it might also look as if they had been holding onto a globe that had just been plucked from their grasp.
Numerous people were kneeling by the altar; though as the knight and squire approached, others soon parted to give them ample room. The knight went first, kneeling before the altar and leaning forward until his brow touched the edge of the cool marble slab.
“Thank you, oh Lord of All, that you have safeguarded us for seven years among the heathens,” the knight whispered before leaning back. Standing up, he dug out a pouch and placed it on the altar as his offering before moving to the side. Behind him, his squire moved forward to perform the same kneeling gesture of piety. As his lord had done, the squire also took out a pouch of coins. He emptied half the content and placed it on the shrine before returning the pouch to his belt. Having finished giving his tribute, the squire moved away from the altar.
Behind them, the crowd pressed on to fill the empty room and leave their own offerings of wheat, vegetables, jars of wine, bolts of wool or linen, and whatever else they might have to give. The squire moved over to where the knight was waiting for him beyond the enclosure of the marble pillars. The Hall had alcoves lining the outer walls with shrines for the lesser gods; the guardians of the world who carried out the Alfather’s will. Each shrine had a beautifully carved statue in front of a small altar, where likewise offerings were left for those seeking the favour of a particular deity. Before departing, the knight bowed down to kiss the feet of the statue by whose shrine he was standing, depicting a man in armour.
Since there were constantly people entering the Hall of Holies through the front doors, people usually left the Hall through one of the small doors in the wall opposite the entrance. It led to a large court serving as a garden for the Temple, where the priests grew herbs and a variety of fruit and vegetables. Thanks to the ingenious trapping of sunlight, it was well lit and had tall, strong growths. In the centre was tall ash tree surrounded by a great basin, allowing both pilgrims something to drink and the priests and priestesses something with which to water their garden. Here, the knight and squire paused, flushing the travel dust from their throats.
“When we have reported our return, will we be required to remain at the Citadel?” asked the squire.
“You have plans already?” asked the knight with a smile.
“My family,” the squire said with a gesture. “I have not heard word since we left Alcázar, and since I am nearly twenty-one…”
“Of course,” the knight replied. “I will handle matters at the Citadel. Stay with your kin, and I will send for you when you are needed. I am sure you will have many affairs to sort through.”
“Thank you, Sir Athelstan,” the squire said.
“Think nothing of it,” the knight answered, raising his hand to indicate it was of little trouble. “You have been a good squire to me, Brand, I am glad to do it. Besides, soon you will not only be head of your house, but a knight as well. You shall have your share of duties soon enough.”
“I shall give your regards to my mother,” Brand said, and the knight and squire clasped each other’s lower arm in farewell. Then they parted ways; Athelstan headed northwest towards the Citadel, Brand northeast towards the mansions of the nobility.
Passing through the Temple complex, Athelstan soon found himself back on the Arnsweg and followed it to the Citadel. The guards at the southern gate did not accost him, knowing him to be a knight by his surcoat and spurs. He crossed the courtyard and entered the castle itself. Coming from the south, he had to take the smaller corridors that ran along the edge of the structure, circumventing the areas for the court and nobility. At length he entered the northern part and made his way to the Hall of Records. A host of scribes worked here under the command of the Master of the Citadel, who functioned as the overall quartermaster of the Order. All income from taxes and the lands of the Order and all expenditures were written down and meticulously kept track of. Furthermore, there were detailed descriptions of every campaign the Order had fought, every bag of grain consumed, every horse, sword, and shield supplied. All such information was kept as ordinary records, long lists in big books to which the scribes tended. However, when it came to organising the knights and regiments of soldiers commanded by the Order, the Citadel’s master had another system.
While a smaller part of the hall was devoted to desks, scribes, shelves and books, the remainder was kept clear of obstructions. The floor itself had been painted with a large map of Adalmearc and the surrounding lands. Every city, every outpost, every fortress manned by the Order had small wooden fortifications glued to the floor, marking their location on the map. These wooden miniature walls also served as enclosures, inside which lay stacks of blocks. One type of blocks represented knights, squires and sergeants, the other type represented regiments of footmen or archers. Each block had the name of the knight or regiment inscribed upon it. In this manner, any who looked upon the floor map could gain some measure of where the Order’s forces were located across Adalmearc.
Middanhal, the largest wooden city, held hundreds of blocks; each stack was ten high to make it easy to quickly count the exact number. Thusund, the most western of the Seven Realms of Adalmearc, had small fortresses spread across its many isles. Each fortified island had two blocks for a knight and either a squire or a sergeant, and one block for a regiment of footmen. Back on the mainland of western Adalmearc and containing numerous blocks lay Herbergja, the principal port of the kingdoms. And far southwest, by the edge of the map, lay Alcázar. Although it was outside the realms of Adalmearc, it still contained two blocks.
“Sir Athelstan of Isarn has returned from Alcázar,” the knight informed one clerk. “Along with my squire,” he added. The clerk rose from his desk, bowed his head slightly, and left the desk area to enter the map. He found Alcázar on the floor, picked up its two blocks with the names of Athelstan and his squire on them, and then placed them on top of others in Middanhal. He went to a shelf, found the appropriate book, and took it with him to his desk. With careful movements, the clerk added the information of Athelstan’s return to the ledger. As the ink dried, the clerk checked the rest of the open pages and frowned.
“That is odd. They must have known you were bound to return, but none have been selected to replace you in Alcázar,” the scribe said.
“Because we are no longer welcome in Alcázar,” Athelstan muttered. The clerk looked up at the knight, but the latter was already departing the hall.
Leaving, Athelstan chose another route than by which he had entered and moved through the northern part of the Citadel. Walking its hallways, he encountered many other knights and was often recognised and respectfully greeted. He returned their courtesies, at times stopping for brief conversations, and so it took him a while to reach the northern courtyard.
During the day, the courtyard often bustled with activity. There was constant movement of people entering or departing on various errands, stable hands taking care of the many horses housed in the adjacent stables, pages and soldiers being trained in weaponry, and squires and knights duelling each other for practice.
Athelstan paused to watch the duellists. There were numerous men sparring, but eventually his gaze fell on two in particular. One was young and tall, the other of more advanced age and short. They wore only leather armour, but both were sweating profusely as they swung their swords and shields. Blows were traded until the older knight brought his sword low, passing under the squire’s shield. The blunt edge of his sword struck against the leather, promising to leave a mark on the skin as the squire fell back a few steps.
“Well done, Sir Richard,” Athelstan said loudly over the noise of weapons clashing from the other fighters. “As for you, Nephew, let that be a lesson to you in swordplay.”
“A lesson that short men should not be trusted,” the squire grumbled, discarding his weapons. He moved over to his uncle and clasped his hands around Athelstan’s. “But I am glad to see you, Uncle. It has been many years.”
“It has,” Athelstan replied. “Hopefully I have returned for good. Sir Richard, well met!” he added, greeting his nephew’s opponent.
“Well met, Sir Athelstan. Have you come to give me the challenge young Eumund cannot?” Sir Richard said with a brusque laugh.
“Perhaps soon,” Athelstan replied smiling. “For today, my only plans are to see my kin. I am only returned just now from Alcázar.”
“Is that where you were?” Sir Richard asked absentmindedly. Then he removed his helmet. “It is hotter than a bear in heat today,” he said, wiping his brow with his bracer. “If you will pardon me,” he said and moved over to a barrel of rainwater. He thrust his helmet down, filled it, and drank greedily.
“I see that Hotspur has not changed,” Athelstan remarked.
“Not one whit since I first became his squire,” Eumund replied. “Have you seen father yet? He will be pleased you have finally returned.”
“Not yet. I was on my way home to meet him.”
“Oh, he is here,” Eumund told him. “Both father and Isenwald are in the Citadel right now, meeting the dragonlord.”
“Both of them? What matter has summoned both the jarl and his heir?”
“Marriage,” Eumund replied curtly.
“Ah. I recall your father wrote of this. I did not realise they were making arrangements already, though.”
“Lord Elis seems bent on forcing it to happen. His final service to our late king, I suppose,” Eumund speculated.
“I doubt he can,” Athelstan pondered. “The king might if he had lived, but your father will not let his son marry a daughter of Vale merely because Lord Elis desires it.”
“Now that both Vale and his daughter have met Isenwald, I doubt they will wish to pursue such a union either,” Eumund said.
“Mind your tongue,” Athelstan said sharply. Then, after a brief pause, “I better find your father and brother. We will see each other,” he said in farewell and turned around, walking back into the castle.
Several of the southern wings in the Citadel had luxurious chambers for nobles residing at court; the degree of luxury was dependent on rank of nobility. While beorns, who were noblemen of the lowest rank, were given simple cells like the knights of the Order, margraves and landgraves could expect more. Besides that, while all four jarls of the realm had their own manors in the city, should they wish to live at court, there were entire compartments with rooms for them, their spouses, children, and servants.
There was one area even larger and only surpassed by the royal chambers, which was the domain of the dragonlord. It was an old title, originally meant in the sense of the dragon’s lord. With dragon referring to the king of Adalrik, the dragon’s lord was thus the king’s foremost nobleman; his marshal, as the office was once called in the north, or seneschal as some southerners still styled the title.
Within the realm he held nearly every power the king did; in the absence of the king, only the Adalthing could overturn his decrees or remove him from position. Thus, with the king dead and until the next assembly of the Adalthing, the landgrave of Elis was the ruler of Adalrik. His current ambition was to fulfil one of the last designs made by the late King Sighelm, to arrange the marriage between the son of the jarl of Isarn and the daughter of the jarl of Vale; this would end many generations of strife and reconciling the two most powerful houses in the kingdom.
As befitted his high standing and to enable him to conduct the affairs of the realm properly, the dragonlord of Adalrik had an entire wing at his disposal. Somebody seeking an audience would leave the corridors of the castle and enter a spacious, vaulted room with one wall turned into a balcony that overlooked the castle garden. From here, another corridor led down to the antechamber, where visitors might wait before entering the dragonlord’s study.
Out on the balcony sat two people on the benches provided. Both were in their early twenties and richly dressed. One was a woman, fair of appearance with dark golden locks; the other, a brown-haired man, was ordinary to look at, though his deep red and black colours with silver threads proclaimed his noble birth and wealth. A sword was strapped to his waist with a hilt and scabbard inlaid with gold and rubies. Sitting on the bench, his fingers continued to fiddle with the hilt and push the scabbard to another position as it hung awkwardly by his side.
“How was your – journey to the city, my lady?” the youth asked, speaking with unnatural pauses between his words.
“It was pleasant, thank you,” the young woman replied tonelessly.
“Do you look forward to the solstice feast?”
“Which part – do you prefer?”
“I like the games,” she said. “The display of skill.”
“Perhaps you would keep me company when they take place,” he suggested.
There was a moment of silence before he spoke again. “You – do have my sympathy, my lady,” he said.
“Why is that?”
“If my father was not jarl, you would not have to marry me,” he spoke with a faint smile.
“If I were not a jarl’s daughter, would any look twice at me?” she retorted.
“Certainly!” he exclaimed. “You are more beautiful than –” The youth paused, his eyes darting around. “Than any of the flowers below,” he added while his hand motioned at the garden below the balcony.
“Here I thought rumours claimed you were not an eloquent man,” she remarked.
“Obviously – I prove – these rumours wrong,” he replied, making the lady’s lips curl upwards.
At this moment, Athelstan came down the corridor and both the young man and woman turned their heads and rose from the bench. “Uncle,” the young man said happily. “I - did not know you had returned.”
“Only today,” Athelstan said with a smile as his nephew moved forward to greet him, and he turned to the young woman. “Lady Valerie, I presume,” he said with a bow, and she returned his courteous greeting. “I am not here to intrude,” the knight continued. “But I was seeking your father.”
“He – is in the antechamber, waiting to see Lord Elis – once Jarl Vale and his brother departs. Not too pleased at waiting either.” The last part was added more quietly.
“Thank you, Nephew,” Athelstan said. He inclined his head towards Valerie and moved to the antechamber.
Inside, Athelstan found a bear of a man pacing back and forth. He wore a fur-lined cloak in the same colours as Athelstan’s, red and black, but he had no helmet and wore cured leather above his tunic rather than steel armour. He turned and saw the knight enter. “Brother, you have returned,” he said gruffly, clasping Athelstan’s lower arm.
“As everybody reminds me,” the knight replied, and they both used their free arm to slap the other’s back.
“Sooner than your letter said, but not too soon. I could have used you these past seven years,” the jarl grumbled.
“I met Eumund in the courtyard, and he told me of your presence here. I was not aware that plans for Isenwald’s wedding had reached the stage where the betrothed met,” Athelstan said.
“The king made me agree to a betrothal half a year ago,” the jarl explained. “Elis summoned – summoned! – me here today to conclude matters. He will be sorely disappointed. I have no intention of letting my heir marry the daughter of Vale, nor would I marry Eumund to her for that matter.”
“Perhaps it would not be such a terrible turn of event,” Athelstan interceded cautiously. “The girl seems fine enough, well-suited for Isenwald.” Jarl Isarn gave his brother a glare, which silenced him. Before any more could be said, the door to the dragonlord’s study opened. Out came two men, in age and in appearance as stately as the jarl Isarn and his brother, though their colours were red and gold.
The jarl of Isarn made no sound nor motion, while his brother was more courteous. “Jarl Vale,” the knight said and inclined his head. “Lord Konstans,” he said to the brother of Jarl Vale, and both of them returned Athelstan’s greeting before they had to force their way past the jarl Isarn to exit the antechamber. If either of the brothers Vale were surprised to see Athelstan in the Citadel, they did not give it away. As they left, walking down the hallway towards the balcony, Jarl Isarn and Athelstan heard fragments of their conversation.
“Even with such a promise, I am loath to consign my daughter to this marriage,” came a sceptical comment from the jarl of Vale.
“Patience, Brother. There is much yet that can happen. Valerie, your father and I are departing,” Konstans said with the last part directed at his niece.
“Farewell, Lady Valerie,” came Isenwald’s hurried goodbye as the members of the House of Vale departed.
Back in the antechamber, a servant bowed and silently gestured that the jarl Isarn and Sir Athelstan were to enter and to be received by the dragonlord. Although called a study, the room they walked into had plenty of space and furniture for visitors. The servant brought ale for the jarl and his brother as they were seated before Elis. “Thank you for your attendance, Lord Isenhart,” the dragonlord began. “And you as well, Sir Athelstan. I did not realise you had returned to Adalrik.”
“Only just,” Athelstan said affably.
“I have suggested a wedding date about four weeks from now, a week after summer solstice and the Adalthing, and Jarl Vale has agreed to it,” Elis explained.
“I am sure he was eager to bend, but I am not so inclined,” Isenhart said abruptly. “In fact I no longer see any reason why I should chain my son to a woman from Vale.”
Elis took out two pieces of parchment from a drawer, both of them folded. “I anticipated as much and had these papers prepared. One is a promise of what will happen if you allow the marriage to take place. The other is a promise of what will happen if you do not.”
The jarl narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “What do they contain?”
The dragonlord unfolded both papers to show their content. “Should you not let your son marry, I have the guilds’ blessing to increase the tax on all silver minted from one tenth to one fifth.”
A grumble issued from Isenhart, whose jarldom mined the vast majority of all the silver eventually minted in Adalrik. “And if I accept this union?”
Elis pushed the other document forward. “The guilds relinquish control of the Mint to the House of Isarn.” His statement was followed by silence as both the jarl and his brother leaned back in their seats. Controlling the Mint meant no taxes at all when their silver was minted.
“And the guilds have agreed to this?”
“There is the alderman’s signature and seal,” Elis said, tracing it with his finger.
“But not yours,” Athelstan pointed out. “This document is only valid if it is signed and sealed by royal authority.”
“I will sign it on the day the Adalthing convenes, the last day I hold the office of dragonlord,” Elis promised. “But the transfer of authority must be kept secret until the wedding. Jarl Vale would immediately rescind from this agreement if he found out I promised ownership of the Mint to your lordship.”
“What did you promise Vale?” Isenhart said, his eyes once again eyeing the dragonlord with suspicion.
Elis in turn answered with a smile. “I gave the jarl monopoly on selling gold to the Mint in Adalrik.”
The dragonlord’s smile was soon reflected by Isenhart. “Very well. We will withhold all announcements until the wedding has taken place,” the jarl said. Elis nodded with a smile and placed the legal documents in his strongbox, locking it afterwards. The jarl and his brother made their farewells and left the study, going out into the vaulted room where the jarl’s son waited for them.
“Stand tall, my son,” the jarl said as the youth hurried up and followed his father and uncle out of the wing. “In four weeks you will marry.”
“It – is – decided then?” Isenwald asked.
“Yes. You will marry the Vale wench,” his father answered.
“I – do like her,” said the son.
“You can lock her away for all I care,” the jarl said. “What matters is the Crown’s wedding gift. The Mint in this very castle will be steered by our hand.”
“Oh,” Isenwald said. “That – is pleasant enough – I suppose.”
“More than that,” the jarl said with a vicious grin. “For playing their part, the House of Vale will have monopoly on all gold to be minted. I could not have asked for more.”
“Oh,” Isenwald said again. After a brief moment, he added, “How?”
The jarl did not care to answer, so Athelstan did instead. “Through its merchants, the House of Vale brings more gold into Adalrik than any other. If none but they are allowed to have gold minted, they will effectively control all trade with gold. However, if we control the Mint, we set the price in relation to silver. The very silver we mine ourselves.” Seeing no light of understanding in Isenwald’s eyes, Athelstan continued. “How many silver coins does one gold coin buy?”
“Three hundred,” answered Isenwald.
“But if we control the Mint, we may decide to pay only two hundred and fifty. We decide the value of gold compared to our own silver. The monopoly promised by Lord Elis to Jarl Vale will be worthless.”
“Oh!” Isenwald said as it dawned upon him. As they reached the courtyard, the stable hand brought out their horses. Eumund was gone, having finished his sparring. “It – does not seem like an – honourable thing to – do,” the young man said speculatively.
“You think like a boy,” Isenhart said with a certain measure of contempt.
“There are many weapons in war,” Athelstan said, “though I would tend to agree with you, Nephew.” Without further words, the three members of the House of Isarn left the Citadel.
Inside a carriage bearing the arms of Vale sat the jarl with his brother and daughter. Like many other nobles, they had travelled recently to Middanhal for the solstice festivities and to participate in the Adalthing. “He was not as bad as I had thought,” Valerie remarked casually.
“That is brave of you to say, my child,” replied the jarl and patted her hand.
“Do not worry, Niece, or you, Brother. I doubt your marriage to Isenwald of Isarn is Elis’ true intent,” Konstans assured them both.
“But he has pursued it most vehemently,” protested the jarl. “What makes you say such a thing?”
“Two reasons,” answered Konstans. “I cannot believe the guilds would relinquish control of the Mint to us. The alderman may have authorised this, but the seneschal has not signed it. For now, he merely showed us a piece of paper with patterns of ink sprayed across it. It holds no actual power. And certainly neither they nor Isarn would accept us, Valerian, with a vested interest in the exchange of gold for silver, to possess such power.”
Konstans shook his head. “No, Elis may have promised us the Mint and a chance to snub Isarn and all his silver, but I will not believe it until I have that paper signed by royal authority and in my hand. Remember that the seneschal kept the papers rather than allow us to take them with us. If this is truly a genuine offer, Elis has something else in mind than a marriage, which in truth does not affect him nor mean anything to him.”
“But it was King Sighelm’s desire,” argued Valerian, the jarl. “Lord Elis was his seneschal – still is until the Adalthing convenes. It is his duty to carry out the king’s wishes.”
“Which is the other reason,” Konstans added. “Elis may have served the king well, but he has always served his own interests equally. The king is dead, and I do not think Elis cares for the wishes of a dead man. Whatever reasons he has, they have nothing to do with you, Valerie.”
As this conversation unfurled, the carriage sped through the northern city towards the eastern quarter and home of the nobility. Eventually it would reach the grandest mansion in Middanhal, the home of the jarl of Vale in the capital. On its way towards its destination, the carriage overtook a squire of the Order walking on foot. Soon after, it passed a house that was dwarfed by the manors surrounding it and scarcely better than what most successful merchants could easily afford. The squire, however, did not pass this house; instead, he stopped in front of its gate. It had an insignia of a dragon and eagle in flight with their talons locked in combat with each other. The insignia had once been gilded upon the wrought iron gate, but any trace of gold had long since faded.
Brand pushed the gate open and entered the gardens surrounding the house. The grass and flowers were not kept, but the trees were blooming with fruit. He reached the front entrance and knocked hard. Soon after, the door was opened by an elderly man in the attire of a steward. “Yes, milord?” he asked.
“Your master is home,” answered Brand, and the steward’s eyes widened before he opened the door fully and stepped aside to let Brand enter.
“Milady told me you would return, milord. We are blessed to have you home.”
“Thank you. Henry, is it not?”
“Precisely, milord. I am honoured you remember,” the steward said as he removed Brand’s cloak and received a sword belt, helmet, and travel bag in return.
“Why are you at the door and not one of the servants? It hardly seems they are busy today,” Brand asked as he looked around the entrance hall. It was dark, and there was no sound of people moving about anywhere in the house.
“There is only me for the task, milord. There’s me, the cook in the kitchen, and her ladyship’s maid. I shall inform her ladyship of your return,” Henry said, moving with surprising agility for his age.
Brand remained in the hall, looking at the portraits of his ancestors. Some daylight managed to enter and illuminate sufficiently that he could find one particular portrait and study it. A plaque proclaimed that it depicted Arngrim of House Arnling and showed the years of his birth and death.
“Brother!” came a voice from upstairs. The hallway of the upper floor was open towards the entrance hall, giving Brand full view of a young woman moving towards the staircase and descending towards him. She had the same dark hair and pale skin as Brand did, and she appeared tall amidst her surroundings.
“Well met, Arndis,” Brand said as she reached him, inclining his head. She gave a short bow in return and sent him a smile.
“I am glad you are home.”
“As am I,” answered Brand.
“Is he how you remember?” she asked, glancing at the portrait.
“I have only a hazy recollection. Last I saw him, I was seven,” Brand shrugged. “Last time I saw you as well, Sister.”
“Yes, I recall. It was the day after my fifth birthday that you left to be trained.”
Brand glanced around. “In truth I do not remember much of this house,” he said. “The dining hall is through there, correct? And the kitchens are down there, and Father’s library there,” he continued, gesturing towards different doorways.
“Almost,” Arndis said smiling. “You switched the corridor to the kitchens for the library.”
“I see. I do not actually recall how the kitchens look, I never went there. But I remember the library, it seemed so large,” Brand said absentmindedly. “Then of course I saw the royal library at the Citadel and realised Father’s could hardly be called a collection,” he laughed.
“I would be curious to see the royal library.”
“I am on friendly terms with its keeper,” Brand told her. “Or I was before I left. Perhaps I can make introductions at some point.”
“I should like that. I have never been inside the Citadel at all.”
“Mother never took you? I thought she had acquaintances at court. Speaking of which, is Mother not at home?”
Arndis spent a moment formulating her answer as her smile faded. “I wrote you a letter to tell you some weeks ago, but it must not have reached you.”
Brand stood quiet for a moment as he interpreted Arndis’ expression. “No, by then we had already left Alcázar.”
“I had wanted you to know beforehand so it did not mar your return.”
Brand shook his head. “I do not think it would have mattered.”
“I am sorry for your loss, Brother.”
“As with Father, I knew little of her. But I am sorry for yours. You must have felt it more keenly.”
They both fell silent for a short while. Then Brand extended his arm to his sister. “Show me where she rests.”
Placing her arm under Brand’s, slightly awkwardly at first, Arndis led her brother through the house and out the back into the orchard. Between apple trees stood a small sepulchre. Brand opened the door to let his sister enter and followed her afterwards. There was a smell of dust and trapped air, though faint fragrances of incense reached them as well. In one of the alcoves, containing a large stone coffin, were written the names of their father and mother as well as the families to which they had been born. Arndis took hold of Brand’s arm once more. “We laid her to rest about ten days ago. We could not delay any further.”
“You are lord of House Arnling now, Adalbrand.”
“Brand will suffice when it is you. And yes, so I am. With Mother gone…”
“There is only you and I left,” Arndis finished his sentence. “Unless you know of any relatives Mother had in the highlands?”
Brand shook his head. “None close that I have heard of who survived the revolt. There is the clan, but I do not know if we can expect any help from them.”
“I do not think it would have been much different though, had she been alive. She always seemed fragile. Not long after Father died, she simply remained in her chambers. Hardly ever left them.”
“Was it you who dismissed most of the servants then?”
“All those we could spare, yes. When Father lost the king’s graces, it was not well for us. When he died, and Mother lost interest… We just did not have the coin.”
“You have acted wisely, Sister. I did not know this was the state of things,” Brand said. “The letters I received. Did Mother ever write any of them?”
“I spoke of them with her, included things she would have mentioned, and I read all of yours to her. They seemed to bring her some comfort,” Arndis elaborated.
“You were good to do so,” her brother told her.
Arndis hesitated a moment before she spoke. “Brand, what are we to do? Even living this way we cannot last forever.”
Brand scratched the stubble on his cheek in contemplation. “We are to have Henry shave me, and you may tell the cook to prepare a meal befitting the occasion. Once we have a pleasant taste on our tongue and our hunger sated, we will discuss the court and our future fortunes. The king may have disliked our Father, but both those men are now dead. Do you play chess?” he asked as he turned to guide her out of the tomb.
“Oh, no, I never learned. I sold Father’s chess set last year.”
“Not to worry. In Alcázar, my lord Athelstan had a small set for journeys carved as a gift for me, I have it with me. I will teach you how the pieces move while Henry shaves me, and we will play your first match after our meal.”
Egil, the Quill’s apprentice, walked from the library tower down to the lower floor and the servants’ area. Passing through a few corridors, he reached the kitchen. A woman, whose width was equal to her height, eyed him with distrust as soon as he entered; then she threw her head towards a pile of goose feathers before resuming ordering the kitchen servants to their tasks. Egil went over to the pile and examined the quality of each feather. A girl of about fifteen years sat nearby, plucking another goose. When done, she discarded the long wing-feathers into Egil’s pile. Egil went through them as well, setting some aside.
When he was done, he took out a knife and made a small cut at the edge of those he had chosen. Then he took out a small bottle of ink from a pouch by his belt and a few strips of parchment. One by one, he tested the feathers, how well they wrote and retained the ink until he had chosen the best to serve as quills. Gathering his materials as well as his new feather pens, he got up and glanced towards the matron of the kitchen; when she was looking away, he caught the eye of the girl plucking geese. He made a quick gesture with his head towards the door before disappearing through it.
Going another route than before, Egil made his way out onto the southern wall of the inner fortifications. Below him was the southern courtyard and the outer walls; beyond that was the city of Middanhal. Evening was near, but so close to summer solstice the sun was still visible beyond the western mountains. Where its rays passed through peaks and cliffs, it gave a golden colour to the white walls and towers of the city, not to mention the dome of the Temple that shone in splendour. Egil sat down between two crenellations, admiring the view. After waiting briefly, the girl from the kitchen plumped down next to him. She had three apples in her hands, one of which she gave to Egil.
“Busy?” Egil asked as he took a bite.
“All these knights and nobles coming for solstice,” the girl complained. “What’s the point of a feast if it only means more work than usual?”
“Same for me as always,” Egil said. “Don’t think my master cares for solstices except for how warmly it means he should dress.”
“Well, your master is weird,” the girl retorted. “With his weird ways from the deep South, and always cooped up in his tower.”
“He’s brilliant,” Egil said sounding hurt. “You should see the illustrations he has made. He can make people look more beautiful in his books than anybody ever has looked.”
“Well I never will, will I,” the girl replied. “They’re not in the habit of letting kitchen girls into the king’s library.”
“Someday, Kate, when I’m the Quill, I’ll show you,” Egil promised. Behind them, they heard the footsteps of a guardsman making his round. Kate threw the last apple to the guard, who caught it before he continued, allowing the children to remain on the battlement. “Things might be changing real soon,” Egil said.
“How so?” asked Kate.
“Well, don’t tell others,” Egil said and lowered his voice. “But my master thinks there might be war soon.”
“War? Here in Middanhal?”
“No, on the west coast probably, in the realm of Thusund. Against Alcázar.”
“I don’t even know that place,” Kate said unimpressed.
“It’s – never mind, we might have a war. Think how exciting that would be!”
“Well, when is it? I haven’t heard anybody else talk about it.”
“Well, nobody else knows. It probably won’t be for a few more years.”
“A few more years,” Kate repeated, even less impressed. “In some place I haven’t even heard of!”
“You should care,” Egil insisted. “Who knows how things might change. Much more than just extra work for solstice.”
“My guess is they won’t change for me,” Kate said. “When the king died, I was sad when I heard. But nothing really changed. I still had to get up at dawn the next day, fetch bucket after bucket of water, prepare breakfast, and clean plates afterwards. War and all that is for kings and nobles, Egil, not servants like you and me. Nothing ever changes in our world.”
Egil looked out over the city as evening approached and the streets grew calm before he replied. “It will change for me,” he said as much towards the city as towards Kate.
“I have to go back, or Cook will get mad. I can only take so long in catching the next goose,” Kate said, swinging her legs back over the wall and disappearing down into the castle. Egil sat for a while longer before he returned to the tower and his master.