Nearly twenty years after the adventures of Tjesmond and Elspeth...
The skies of Rejjvik were grey and cold; the streets powdered with dirty snow. Crossbowwomen on the walls watched the clouds warily for signs of hail, or worse; guardsmen walked their beats warily, listening for the cries of a food-thief's victim, or a wider alarm. And on the Aristocrats' Street, where the lords kept their homes for visits to court - visits which had, over the last three years, become somewhat akin to a stay in prison.
This metaphor is relevant. Lord Grenval found it thrust to the forefront of his mind as the King's house-carls broke down his front door and dragged him to his knees upon the snow-stained street outside.
The King, there, looked down on him with an expression as cold as the weather. "You have the rest of your life to tell me what of our secrets you sold to the Crows, and what you know of their own plans."
A sword at Lord Grenval's throat left no doubt as to King Hjessler's meaning.
"I told them all that I knew, Your Highness," Lord Grenval said. He did his best not to tremble, without success. "Their emissary promised me safety, but only if I withheld nothing. There was something in his eyes - "
"So, the placement of the guards, something of our contingency plans..."
"And the hidden sally gate in the south wall," Lord Grenval confessed, nearly babbling.
King Hjessler laughed, a short bitter laugh. "The least of your sins," he said. "Traitors less remarkable than you sold that secret to the Crows years ago. We had it walled off after their first attempt to use it."
Lord Grenval considered laughing along. He decided that it was, under the circumstances, inadvisable.
"What did they let slip to you?" King Hjessler asked. "Were you to expect them at a certain time?"
"Yes," Lord Grenval said. "Tomorrow, a glass before noon."
"Is that all?" King Hjessler asked.
"I think they were going to mount an attack on the grainaries, under cover of a larger assault," Lord Grenval said. "But - " he gulped, the thought galling him even to consider - "it could be they expected me to be taken. That they hinted at the idea only to mislead and sow confusion, now - "
"It could be," King Hjessler said. "But it matters little, now."
"I've given no little thought to the fate of traitors," King Hjessler said. "There seem to be quite a few around - lured by the Crows' gold or, more likely, their promises of mercy. (Though they have shown, so far, very little - hope springs eternal, I suppose, especially in the face of desperation.) The commoners' betrayal I find much more forgivable - they are hungry, maybe starving, maybe freezing. But you - a man of noble birth, meant to protect the people under your class, instead selling them out for an unlikely promise of safety - "
"Karl," this with a gesture to the house-carl currently holding a sword to Lord Grenval's neck, "nearly persuaded me that it would be only just - in the way of the poets - to give you to the people for whatever justice you saw fit. Had you not complied so thoroughly, I would have done so."
"Thank you, Your Highness," Lord Grenval said.
"Instead, we will have this over here and now," King Hjessler said. "Do you have any last words?"
Lord Grenval gulped. "Let it be known I met my death with honor," he said.
King Hjessler nodded once, firmly. A hand from behind pushed Lord Grenval's head down, leaving his nape exposed to the air - and to the quick stroke which ended his life.
"Take it to the square," King Hjessler ordered. "Let it be mounted above the gates, with a placard beneath: 'He died with honor.'"
King Hjessler and his guard left the street, a bloody body dragged behind them. The neighbors were already emerging from their houses, moving to see what had transpired; soon the whole city would know. The city guard walked their patrols; the crossbowwomen kept their eyes fixed to the skies. And on the distant cliffs, across the water, dark shapes moved and circled in the wind.
Rejjvik had been under siege for the last three years; and both besieged and besiegers knew that they could not endure much longer.
The Crows gathered.