A wave of blinding light swept over the town below and through the war room. Kaldr staggered where he stood. So did everyone else in the war room, and for a long moment the sounds of fighting in the city below fell silent. What… was that?
Whatever it was, the direction of the battle below would be decided on the ground. One side was bound to recover first, and they would win the day. He walked over to the window and waited. While he waited, he massaged his temples as he looked out on the battle below. Whatever else the burst had done, it had given him a headache. But a mere headache won’t help the rebels.
Evidently it was more than just a headache for some. The shield walls – the very core of his bait and encirclement strategy, which had been whittling away at the rebel invaders – began to buckle. It was not long before the battle lines began to push once more toward the cliff road and Raenshold. Thjofgrir had arrived just minutes before the shockwave had passed over, and he confirmed the worst of what Kaldr had pieced together: not only had the townspeople decided to take up arms, some of the sailors and guards were questioning whether Lord Ulfr was worth defending. Thjofgrir said nothing of Kaldr’s own men, and Kaldr assumed nothing.
Did they have enough healthy men to blockade the cliff road? They might, if they placed themselves on top of one of the switchbacks… But morale was so low as to be almost nonexistent. If the rebels pushed too much farther, it was likely that their defense would crumble. There might even be turncoats on the ground, if there weren’t already.
If only this blasted headache wasn’t clouding his thoughts!
He would be fine, he was sure, if the witch hadn’t been bleeding him down in the dungeons. His confinement – he hadn’t bothered to ask how long it was – had left him weakened.
“Thjofgrir, take command of the switchbacks and hold them.”
His Mate nodded an acknowledgement and dashed off. Thjofgrir would buy them time, and Kaldr would find the men to hold even if he had to join them himself. They must, else they would allow the true-born son of Raen to be cast from his throne in favor of the usurper brother.
The blood beat in his temples like a drum.
Ulfr is not true-born, but bastard.
He shook his head: where had that come from? Whatever its source, he knew the thought for truth. Bastard or not, however, Ulfr had the right of the throne. He was the elder brother, and acknowledged by his father.
Was he? When did that happen, and how? …Why did we acclaim him as our Thane?
Kaldr felt as though someone were stabbing blades of light through his eyes and he staggered again, catching himself on the window ledge before he collapsed to the floor. He scoured his mind, searching for answers and finding only uncertainty and more questions.
One after another, he remembered the thousand insults that Ulfr had given. His own father, half-starved and thrown in the dungeon to rot. His Hall, stripped of warmth and life to pay for – what? His Captains, chosen not for any particular skill but for fawning sycophancy and absolute loyalty, sent hither and yon for – what? His people. The people of Breidelstein, taxed beyond all reason both in coin and in labor, for – what? And there, looming in the background of it all, the hunched, cackling figure of his Lady Mother, the witch. The Weaver-witch.
Kaldr pressed his palm into the cold stone of the window ledge and pushed himself to standing while all these thoughts ran through his head. For a while, he stood, staring blankly at the stones he was pressing under his palms. This has to end. He raised his head, his hawk’s gaze fixed on the horizon, and squared his shoulders. Then he turned and stalked wordlessly toward the door.
“Sir, where are you going?”
“Lord Ulfr’s Hall. I have questions.”
For the third time that day Kaldr crossed the courtyard between the tower gate and the Thane’s Hall. The sky was brilliantly blue, but thunderheads trailed in his wake. No guards tried to stop him as he reached the hall where Ulfr sat: they had all been called down to aid in the defense. If Thjofgrir could not hold the road, Ulfr would fall.
His head pounded again when he realized a new point of discord: he did not care, just now, if Ulfr fell.
He raised his arms and did not hear the clink of chains, nor miss the weight of iron about his wrists. With all his rage-born strength, he flung the doors wide. The heavy wood struck the stone walls dully. Kaldr marched forward, his fists clenched at his sides.
Ulfr now lounged in the Thane’s seat, the very image of an indolent, petulant youth in the body of an aging man. How long does he spend on those braids every day, wondered the rebellious part of Kaldr’s mind. It was the only part that seemed coherent right now.
Ulfr turned dull blue eyes on the Captain he had just this morning released from captivity. “Kaldr. We have won the day, then?”
“Quite the contrary, my lord. When I left the war room, the rebels had nearly reached the cliff road. I’ve ordered our forces to retrench to the switchbacks—”
“Then why are you here?”
“For answers, my Lord.”
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