Lord Ulfr relaxed back in his seat as though the response bored him. “Your place is defending the Hold, Captain Kaldr. Or have you already forgotten how tenuous your position here is?”
“Not at all, my lord.” Kaldr tasted bile as he realized he could feel nothing but loathing for his Thane. He dares call himself a wolf? Kaldr cleared his throat, trying to ensure his voice was steady. “My Lord, I fear the day is lost. Our men are losing their will to fight.”
“Then remind them what my displeasure feels like!”
“My lord, the lash can only take you so far. Sooner or later, the lashed man will take hold of the whip and turn it against his master. Already word has reached me that your warriors are beginning to question whether or not the Hold is worth defending.”
“What are you saying?”
“I am saying that, whether or not you are Lord Raen’s true-born son, whether or not he acknowledged you as heir, you have not been behaving as a Thane should. Tell me, Lord, what your father said when named you heir?”
“My father is an old, senile fool. What does it matter?”
“It matters, Lord, because I suddenly cannot remember the event. Granted I was young and inexperienced at the time, but such an event would have echoed throughout the Clan. Especially since the rebel leader had been well-liked, as I recall. I, who have counted myself among your most loyal servants, cannot think of a single reason we would have acclaimed you as Thane. —Wait, that’s not quite true. I can think of one. The Lady Witch.”
Lord Ulfr actually rolled his eyes. Kaldr had to be mistaken, but for a moment it seemed as though there was amusement glinting over that petulant face. Amusement, where he had expected anger at the aspersion cast against the witch. “Sixteen years is a long time, Kaldr. Are you certain your sudden anger is not twisting your memory?”
“Quite the opposite, I assure you. In the time since you have taken power and driven off the rebels who now assault our shores, you have driven Breidelstein – the prosperous city your father made – into penury. You have rewarded the boot-lickers and the stupid while driving the competent and the honorable to seek their fortunes elsewhere. You have stripped your father’s hall of all its comfort and its warmth – and for the life of me, I cannot fathom why.”
Lord Ulfr had sat up straight while Kaldr was talking, and now sat smirking down at his subject, a wicked light gleaming in his eye. “You call yourself loyal and yet you question me now, of all times? Fine. I will answer your questions, Kaldr. I am the Thane, and all of you, my Captains, exist to obey me.”
“You have always thought of my mother as a chain about my neck, Kaldr, but you’re wrong. Mother is my sword and my shield, and the reason I sit here on this throne before you. It was Mother’s plan that made everyone on Breidelstein acknowledge me, the eldest son, as the true heir of Raen. It was her masterpiece: the tapestry that brought all of these islands under my thumb and bound everyone to my service. You say I should fear my own lash? Hardly. Not one person living here has the wherewithal to challenge me, because we have bound their fates in a tapestry. I am well aware that Mother has let no small amount of your blood. Think of it as medicine, to rid the land of Breidelstein of its imperfections. You should be proud: your own body has been used to perfect this country under my rule.”
Kaldr rocked back on his heels involuntarily. Did Ulfr know what he was confessing to?
“Sixteen years ago, Mother and I sailed to these islands, determined to make my father acknowledge me. We had been poor, before, but through her Weaving Mother had managed to save up enough to buy us passage here. While we sailed, she began work on her masterpiece. By the time we arrived, all that was left to do was one single, finishing touch. We walked openly into this very hall and stood before my father and declared ourselves. The man had the audacity to claim he had no son besides Stigander! So when we returned to our room, Mother finished the piece. Oh, there was some fighting at first, and then some more after the Vidofnir came back with my baby brother, all unawares. But Breidelstein is mine, and it always will be. Fate binds it to me.”
That’s madness. “Ulfr,” — no ‘Lord’ for him now, nor ever again — “…do you understand what you are confessing? This witchcraft, this madness, goes beyond mere treason! Even if you drive off Stigander, you’ll be pulled down by your own Captains and people — myself among them — once I share the truth.” Even weakened, he was more of a warrior than Ulfr – younger, stronger, faster. The Usurper could not stop him.
The madman on the throne laughed as though bored. “Kaldr, Kaldr, Kaldr. My ever-loyal Ice Wolf. We have danced this dance before, you and I, so very many times. When Falkenjorg shook free after a long raid and rebelled — do you not remember your first hunt? Of returning to confront me after your victory with the words pledged by a dying man? Or your doubts after I ordered the waste of Aldvik? Truly, you are so quick to doubt that I would have had you executed long before had Mother not insisted that your talents were of use to me …and were you not so amusing.”
“— Would I tell you? It’s almost tiresome how you always ask the same questions. I tell you because, even knowing, you cannot escape. What will happen is what has always happened.” Ulfr’s eyes blazed with merriment. “You will storm out in your righteous fury, swearing to rally the Captains and the people, to overthrow me for the good of Breidelstein. I surely cannot stop you from doing so, alone. Within ten paces, you will forget why you are angry. Within twenty, our words. Within thirty, all your anger, and you will return to ask and serve my will, as you always have. After all, it is your Fate to be a loyal captain in the service of Breidelstein’s Thane. So go, Ice-Wolf, go and know the hopelessness of your defiance, and that you serve at my pleasure.”
Kaldr stiffened, staring at the indolent figure on the throne. He could not remember, not truly, but he did not doubt the madman’s words. But here, now, at the Fall of Breidelstein, he could feel the bonds that held him unraveling. He clenched his jaw and raised his face to the Usurper, expression clear and proud. “No, Ulfr. I will not go. Let us end it, Thane.”
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