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Corrandion, Corridane
I am JT, Ringer, nutjob, and archer, in that order. I like animated films, epic films, book films, movie music, folk music, and the occasional random other thing. I make friends by accident and like it that way...

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30 December 2011

Chapter XXVI

Chapter XXVIII

When last we saw the worthy Sir Robert, two days ago, he was standing at the top of the castle of Corridane, waiting with his men for the time when the Naiberns would breach the gate. We must now return to him, and the day and hour at which we left him, to see what came of the attack.

Sir Robert and his men waited silently as the ram of the Naiberns continued to pound at the gates. The Naiberns knocked three more times before they finally broke through. At long last, as the shattered gates fell to either side, Naiberns began to charge into the city by the hundreds, fighting among themselves to get through.

They did not get far, though. The moment the vanguard showed themselves in the opening, the hidden Corridane archers loosed their shafts, laying many foes low in the passage. The archers took advantage of the confusion caused by their sudden counterattack to make their way across the planks that had been laid between the houses and hide themselves once more on the next roof behind the one they had just left, reloading their bows as they dropped flat once more, waiting for the next wave of attackers.

They were not kept waiting, as the next wave of attackers came swiftly on the heels of the first. This time, the Naiberns advanced far enough to pass the first houses, but were once more laid low by the shafts of the Corridanes, who were now positioned on the roofs in the second line.

Once again, the archers stood, retreated, and positioned themselves as they had before, moving backwards, and closer to the castle, with each street they crossed.

Sir Robert, who was watching the attacks from the top of the castle, was well satisfied with the progress that had been made, but did not expect it to last, and said as much. “It will not be long before our enemies grow wary of us, and approach with more caution. No man, seeing his comrades slain before him in such a manner more than once, will expect to survive himself unless he moves with more caution than they did. Are the men ready? Some man run to the rear wall and bring back word of how the men guarding that gate are faring.”

As a man ran to do what he had ordered, another appeared in his place saying “The men are ready, sir. They have been ready this hour and more.”

“The gates and ladders?”

“Those also are prepared. Your word only is awaited to release them.”

“Good. Send down to tell the archers that they may fire once more, but then must fall back to rejoin us here. The infantrymen will be warned to hold themselves in readiness.”

“What if the enemy sets fire to the houses? What will we do then?”

“That is a sacrifice we must make. It is enough that the women and children were able to escape the city under cover of darkness last night! We did not have time to provide a defense from fire to every house!”

“If it must be so in return for our lives, I am resigned.” the man answered in a dejected tone.

“Do not lose heart!” Sir Robert cried as the man turned away. “Mayhap they will not burn your house! Though if they do, it is easily rebuilt once we drive these foes away!”

Turning back toward the city, Robert saw that the enemies had widened the opening in the outer wall and were now pouring through the space in numbers far greater than the archers could hope to stem. As he watched, he spotted a runner make his way out to the nearest house. In moments, the man had scaled the ladder leaning against the wall of the building and dropped flat on the roof to approach the archer’s position on the far end. Robert was startled when the archer stood up with an arrow on the string and turned to face the messenger.

His fear was baseless, though, because a moment later, the archer turned and, firing his shaft toward the advancing foes, began retreating, with the messenger, across the building to where the ladder had been placed. In a few moments, he had reached the ground, taken his knife to the ladder to render it useless, and turned to run toward the castle. The other archers, seeing what he did, had soon followed his example.

The messenger, meanwhile, had disappeared within the house he had just climbed upon. Just inside the door, he met the five soldiers who had been stationed in the building. Wasting no time, he inquired whether they were prepared to play their part in the defense.

The soldiers answered that they were, and showed him the device that had been prepared. It can be best described by likening it to a sled, which had been turned on its side and given a third runner, with a thick log supported on the inner side for the purpose of supporting the barrier by wedging it against the walls of the buildings on either side of the street. The soldiers had also altered the door of the building to enable it to swing in both directions and so allow them and their device swift passage to the outside.

“You have done well. If all goes well, our enemies will pay a heavy price for their capture of the city. Do you remember the signal that was agreed upon? The foe is close upon us. You will be called on any moment.”

The soldiers replied that they did remember the signal, and drew their weapons, sliding their swift-moving barrier into a better position. They did not do so a moment too soon, either. The instant they had arranged themselves in the best manner to exit the building, a horn, the great horn of the castle, gave forth it’s deep note over the surrounding city.

“Your hour has come. Strike swiftly and hard!” cried the messenger.

Without reply, the soldiers charged out into the road, pushing their barrier along. Wedging it into the space they had prepared for it, they turned to face the band of enemies they had now trapped in the stretch of road between two houses.

Having been stationed at the end of the street, closest to the castle, these soldiers had had the task of closing off the bottleneck of their passage. At the moment that the great horn had sounded, bands of men had charged out of the last four buildings of every street leading from the ruined main gate to the castle, pushing their vertical sled barriers, to close off the passage once the foes had passed. They now turned to the work at hand.

Although huge numbers of Naiberns had penetrated the city to the point of the trap, the appearance of the barriers closing the exits instantly caused their numbers to become a danger to themselves rather than the Corridanes. When they heard the horn wind its note, they had rushed on eagerly, thinking that it was blown in distress. Thus, they had hurried on to the end of the road, hardly noticing that their path was growing narrower by the minute until the trap had been sprung. Now many of them stopped short in shock as the Corridanes and their barriers sprang out of the buildings on every side.

The Corridanes, on the other hand, went on the attack the instant they emerged, unfazed by the foes’ numbers. The men positioned at the narrow end of the path made quick work of the few foes who were in a position to reach them. By the time they reached the center, though, the going had become much harder. The core of the Naibern force had regained their senses and were now positioned in a square two ranks deep, prepared to fight like berserkers to save themselves and open the path once more.

The Corridanes, realizing this, advanced warily despite the fact that they had their foes surrounded. Their fear was well-founded, for just as a dangerous animal becomes even more dangerous due to the tension of close confinement, so did the Naiberns become even more dangerous in their current position, striking down several of the Corridanes who approached them. Their resistance could not last, though, as they were confined in a small area and separated from their companions by the barrier, and so it was not long before the Corridanes had overwhelmed their foes and turned away toward the castle.

While this was transpiring on the ground, Sir Robert was watching the progress of the defense of the rear wall. He could see that the twenty volunteers were still standing, surrounded by a mound which could only be their vanquished foes. Three of them had been injured, and were leaning against the wall as several others tended to them in the best way they could manage. The aid they were able to lend one another was not great, however, for, in vowing to fight to the death, they had vowed never to leave their position, not even to gain the momentary respite that leaving their feet would have allowed. A moment later, as Robert and others watched, a sentinel watching the gate gave a cry which caused even the injured men to raise their gear and take their places in the crescent-shaped line which extended out several feet from either side of the gateway.

It was then that Robert spotted the catapults which had finally been maneuvered around to the rear wall and prepared to fire. “They will smash the wall around our men and pour in unchecked! All our hopes now rest on the castle!” Even as he spoke, the machines opened fire, smashing huge sections of the walls, which were as thick as a man is tall, into fragments of various sizes which flew in all directions.

Through all this, the only indication that the guards had noticed any change in the situation was the fact that they straightened their line in order to cover a greater portion of the space which would soon open up before them.

No longer able to bear watching the men without sending them assistance of some kind, Sir Robert turned away from the rear and made his way back toward the front of the castle, turning and hastening down the steps which led to the main part of the building. Without pausing once, he hurried down through the fortress until he reached the storerooms, which were situated underground. When he arrived, he met two wardens, who had remained there throughout the day.

“You wardens! Can you promise that we will not run short of provisions? We will have to withstand a siege now!”

“No, we can not, and we speak the truth, as we have just gone through the stores for the eighth time in the past two days, having nothing more to do.”

“The news is good, then. For you can be sure that if the time comes when even you must fight, the castle will have been taken long since. And now, I must return to the world and the battle.” With that, Robert turned and strode away, without waiting for an answer. As he grew increasingly closer to the top once more, the sounds of the battle outside grew more distinct. Several times, he heard the twang of a bowstring a moment before he turned the corner and faced the man who had just fired the shot.

When this happened on the central level of the tower, the man turned to him and remarked “The villains are thick on the ground today, which may be as well. I am not skilled at this, but neither, for that matter, are half the men in the castle now. It’s learn or die, and I don’t intend dying, today or tomorrow. Good fortune be with you on the wall.”

“And with you also.”

Without pausing again, Sir Robert hastened to return to his place at the top of the castle wall. when he arrived, he found that the barricades in the streets had served their purpose, and as they could not be expected to work with such success again, had been cast aside, allowing the men who had rendered them useful to run toward the castle in gradually increasing numbers, until there were so many of them trying to get through the gate at one time that only the men at the front of the line could pass into the fortress without being squeezed tightly by their companions first.

The reason for this surprising struggle to reach the safety of the castle was that the Naiberns were now pouring in through the ruined gate and walls in greater numbers than ever before, and none of the Corridanes wished to stand futilely against such numbers when they had the opportunity to increase the collective strength of their own side by successfully reaching the castle. In a surprisingly short time, all the men had managed to gain entrance, while the discarded barriers and the increasingly narrow streets impeded the progress of their foes.

But the city, which had been designed in the way it had precisely to aid in its defense in case of attack, could not be expected to hold an enemy back for an indefinite length of time, as, by necessity, the street opened at both ends, and so only impeded enemies without stopping them for a moment. The problem was compounded by the fact that the space between the last house and the castle extended fifty feet in every direction, allowing the enemy ample space to maneuver, though they still could not bring rams or ladders near the walls without destroying all the houses in their path, a task which would take several hours, or even days, to complete properly.

When Robert saw that the last of the soldiers who had fought in the streets had made his way inside and come up to the top of the wall, he turned his back on the enemies massing outside the wall and exclaimed “You Corridanes! My Countrymen! Do you wish to fight for your country?”

A thundering cry came back from all the men within earshot of his words. “Yes!”

Then, Robert continued. “Would you die for your country, even if you had nothing left of that country but the ground you would be buried in?” This question received the same reply as the first.

“So you see that I am asking that you die for this castle! For it is all that is left in the whole of our great country that we may call our own, and we will die defending it! But our deeds will not go unhonored, for there are still Corridanes living, and they will return to this place and find our bodies strewn throughout the castle as a testament to our courage and loyalty to our land, which we will give even our lives for! I know what many of you are thinking! You are asking yourselves why! Why did the Captain of the Guard say he would lead the men out of the city, why did he not do as he said when the chance came? And I tell you why now! There is not a man in this castle who would have won honor for himself by following me straight onto the blades of the superior force which waited outside for us, and which has now broken its own way in! Thinking on what I said, I saw that I was wrong to say that anyone should flee, like a coward. I saw that if I did such a thing, I would waste the lives of thousands of loyal and brave men. So we did not try to leave. Instead, we took the advantage that had been given to us by our wise forefathers, and remained in the city they had built to protect their sons! If we had left, we would have faced the same difficulties our enemies do in attempting to take it from us! I spoke rashly, and it is likely most of you are still deciding whether I may be trusted to act on what I say to you now! And you see that, proving my loyalty to you and our king and country, I stand here with the rest of you, ready to die defending our home! Yes, we may die, but it is those Naiberns down below our feet who shall suffer! All of us together have five thousand lives to give! Those men down on the ground have hundreds of thousands of lives to give, and they shall pay with them all for this last piece of our country that they must take before they can claim to defeating us!”

At the conclusion of this speech, as the men cheered Sir Robert’s bold statement, he was struck where he stood by an arrow, which lodged in his left shoulder. Ignoring the pain, he pulled the missile out and sent it hurtling back down toward its caster. “If you can not kill a defenseless man, how can you expect to slay five thousand who are ready and waiting for you on the morrow?” He called down, adding this verbal shaft to the physical one he had just returned. The Corridane guards broke out into derisive laughter at this remark, as the nearest one attempted to put a bandage around Robert’s injury.

“Can you fight, my lord?”

“Of course I can, even if I couldn’t, I would not leave the wall for one moment if there was danger near.” replied Robert, disgusted with the man’s apprehension. Leaving his place, he made his way along the wall until he reached the rear and had a clear view of the city wall on that side, which twenty men had vowed to protect to the death.

Now, when Sir Robert looked out upon that place, he saw the gaping holes, which had been made by many machines aimed at a single section of that defense, and through which thousands of enemies now poured unopposed. Looking more carefully, Sir Robert could see the bodies of the twenty men, encircled by a ring of slain foes, the great height of which made the red uniforms of the Corridanes almost imperceptible behind the bulwark of black worn by the Naiberns.

Pointing them out to his men, Robert called out “See how many enemies they sent before them! If they could defeat so many, down on the earth with no walls to protect them, we shall be able to send so many more before us, as we stand behind this wall! The storm will break with the rising of the sun! Be ready!”

After arranging the men in the best way he could, Robert returned to the interior of the castle, turning his steps in the direction of the king’s chamber. When he reached the place, he went straight to Valun’s writing desk and sat down to write a note to his friends. He wrote the day’s date on the top of the page, and then began.

My Lord, it saddens me to say that when, or even if, you find this letter, if you do not venture onto the walls first, I ask that you take this as proof that, if I have not come out to greet you and your men on your return to your great city, it is because I will later be found on the top of the castle wall, alongside my men. We do not have the amount of provisions we need, but I have not told the men, lest they lose hope. A great force of Naiberns (I recognized their banner from afar) came and laid siege to your city three days ago. At about that time, the cowardly traitor John escaped from prison and fled with the princess by way of the rear gate. In that, I failed in my duty, but I sincerely hope that my defense of the castle will atone for all else that I have done, as I will not be able to defend myself against any more accusations by the time you see this letter. The Naiberns have since battered the walls and the gates down and are now camped within the city, filling the area between the houses and the castle. Our only advantage lies in the fact that they are unable to bring anything more dangerous than ladders alongside the walls, but their numbers must bring us down in the end. But we will give a good account of ourselves, and so I hope that you will not forget to give due honor to all those you find, and if you can, number our foes so that you may pass our story down to those who come after us. Your loyal friend and subject, Sir Robert, Captain of the Guards.

When he had finished writing this last message to his king, Robert rose and, taking the letter, sealed it and left it lying on the desk. As he departed from the room, his expression and mood completed the transition from that of excited, defiant, expectation to solemn resignation. “As long as we survive, we shall give a good account of Corridane courage.” he said again as he mounted the last flight of steps leading to the top of the wall, for what he imagined to be the last time.

23 December 2011

Chapter XXV

Chapter XXV

When Meltran heard that Valun wished him to join in the evening meal in Valun’s tent, he was not surprised. “On the contrary,” he told David, who stood waiting to carry his reply, “I had been expecting your king to ask about his father at some time during this day. No doubt he will ask me to speak once I am in his tent, with none but you in attendance. I will come in one hour.”

With only the least necessary acknowledgement of the statement, for he was a man of few words when he had no questions to ask, David turned his steed and rode back toward the encampment of the Corridanes. Once there, he informed Valun of Meltran’s cheerful acceptance, and his hint that he could most likely answer the Corridane monarch’s most nagging question.

Immediately upon hearing this, Valun sent David away to order that the cooks double the amount they had sent Valun each night to this point, with the explanation that Valun’s counterpart was be his guest at the meal.

The allotted hour had scarcely passed before Meltran came riding into the Corridane camp. Valun rode to meet him, conducting him straight to his own tent, where they dismounted and gave their horses to David to stable. The two kings immediately entered Valun’s tent and seated themselves on the ground, there being no cushions, and chairs a waste of space on the march. A short time later, a man brought in the meat, and they were soon too busy eating with relish to say anything at all to one another for several minutes. When they had finally paused, Meltran put down his piece and said “I expect that you have been anxious to hear news of your father.”

Putting down the piece he had just raised, Valun replied “Of course. Else I would not have invaded your country.”

“Then I expect I shall have to tell you the whole story from the beginning.” Meltran answered. “But before I start, I must quench my thirst.”

Rising and putting his head out of the tent, Valun called to David. “The lord Meltran must quench his thirst. Bring us some from my stores and then see that no man disturbs us.”

After David had brought the drinks, and Meltran had taken a long draught, he finally began.

The man came running forward. Approaching the king’s throne, he made a low bow, straightened up a moment later, and announced “My lord, there is an old man outside the gates. He has a young boy with him. He is demanding an audience with you.”

“Let them in. I have been expecting them.” Meltran replied, glaring down at his chancellor, who remained standing where he was. Feeling the king’s eyes upon him, the man turned sharply and strode straight back out of the audience hall.

After giving orders that food for three men should be brought in to him, Meltran dismissed his attendants and remained, waiting silently for his visitor.

Nearly half an hour had passed before the guests made an appearance. One, a tall man who had seen as many as forty summers, and probably more, whose hair was just beginning the transition from its original dark brown to the gray of old age, and was clad in a large dark brown traveling cloak over a tunic of thick green material, was leading a boy by the hand toward Meltran’s throne.

The boy being led was clad in the same material that his father wore, the only difference being that the boy’s tunic was also brown. The boy was scarcely twelve years of age, but looked older than his years. His hair, which was the same color as his father’s had been, was cut short.

With admirable dignity, the man led the boy straight up to the foot of the throne upon which Meltran was seated awaiting them. When they had come within two feet of the king, the visitors paused. Remaining upright, the older man finally broke the silence which had hung over the room since his sudden appearance. “Hail, Meltran, lord of Brandia! May you reign longer than your father! I have come upon the usual business, which we may speak freely of later. But at this moment, I have a boon to ask of you.”

“Whatever it may be, it shall be granted with all possible speed. I know how great a friend you were to my father, peace be upon him.”

“I ask that you accept this boy, who is my second son, Valnor, into your court as a page, so that he may aspire to a high place in your court, but not to the throne, which is your own.”

“That is easily done. But why do you wish him to grow up away from his own country?”

“I do this because I do not wish my sons to fall out and war with each other over the throne when I am gone. Valnor understands why this is done.”

“Then he understands what he must do?”

“He does.”

“Come forward, boy.” Meltran said to Valnor when he heard this.

Valnor came forward, albeit slightly nervous now that the time had finally come. As he made the final few steps to the throne, he glanced back at his father, who only smiled back in a yes-I see-you- and –you’re- doing- fine sort of way. Seeing this, Valnor took heart and immediately began to walk in a more confident manner. When the Brandian king asked him solemnly if he promised to serve him faithfully throughout his life, and lay down his life if he must at his lord’s command, he answered “I do solemnly promise that I shall do whatsoever my lord commands.” In a firm tone which belied the hesitation he had felt a moment before.

“You have raised a brave boy, my lord Valun, and I shall see that he gets enough to keep him busy here.” Meltran remarked, making an about-face from the recent solemnities by breaking into laughter. “Yes, you have raised a fine boy! He will go far in my court, I assure you.”

The time was much later. Meltran was once more seated in his audience hall, but the visitors had long since gone.

Suddenly, a guard who had been stationed outside the doors stepped inside long enough to announce “The lord Damerson, Sire. He wishes to speak with you.”

“Let him in.”

A moment later, the guard disappeared around the door once more, being soon replaced by the lord Damerson, who was none other than Meltran’s chancellor. Without any ceremony whatsoever, he ran across the room, bounded upon the dais, and stood beside the king.

“What is the meaning of this outrage?!” cried Meltran, shocked at the man’s presumption.

“It means only this.” The chancellor replied in a menacing tone, drawing a knife which he had kept hidden until this moment. “It means that I have noted what you mean to do for that foreign page. You are favoring him, meaning to name him your successor over us, who are not his people. But your plans are foiled.”

As Meltran was about to cry out to the guards, Damerson quickly added “Neither are your guards as loyal as you would wish. Opening one’s money-bag in the right places can do wonders. All the fools who remained loyal to you are waiting in the courtyard; archers are menacing them still. I order you to join them now!”

“What of the old king of Corridane and his son? If you kill them, it will bring war down upon your head.”

“That question is settled. They have disappeared. Their deaths will be blamed upon the bandits of Waldon forest. To you I am merciful. You and your followers are henceforth exiled, but will be slain on sight if you do not leave my country within three days. But beware, I have outsmarted you once more. If you attempt to take the pass through the mountains to Corridane, and raise them up against me, you will die before you reach the pass. It is watched. Now go!”

“I was threatened with certain death if I defied him, as he had a knife in his hand and the guards at his call, and I was weaponless and, being in my own audience hall, saw no need for armor. So I left. My favorite steed, which would suffer no other man to mount him, was brought out, I mounted, and led my loyal followers out through the main gate, menaced by archers the whole time. Once outside the city, my followers and I rode hard for several days to reach Waldon forest. We succeeded in surprising the outlaw band at their merrymaking, and soon caused them to join my men, which they did quite willingly when they heard what my erstwhile chancellor had accused them of. We have been living there ever since my exile, waiting for you to take action to aid your family.”

Startled, Valun cried “You-!”

“Yes, I did” Meltran replied, downing another draft of wine. “I intercepted your messenger, wrote a reply within a day, and sent him back. I chose my words carefully to be sure that you would be insulted and invade. I also knew that you would not have received any answer at all if your messenger had reached his destination.”

“But what have you seen that makes you so sure that the new ruler is mustering against me?” cried Valun, who was suddenly worried that he had acted too soon after all. “If you intercepted my messenger, the man ruling your country now never received my message. They will not come out to face me, and I shall have wasted the fortitude and loyalty of my countrymen.”

“That score was settled also. If you had not spoken so suddenly, I may have explained before now. When I had intercepted your message, I did not fail to think of the consequences of the failure of a declaration of war to reach the intended opponent; or at least, occurrences which are unintended consequences to honorable men, of which I am sure you are one. No sooner had I read your message than I bade one of my men write a message to the man now styling himself king of this land. In short, it read ‘Any man who would keep an old man locked up in a dungeon for his own political gain, as you have, deserves death, or at the least, an even deeper dungeon somewhere far from his own country. That is my belief, and I and my men are coming to see that it is done.’ Have no fear! He has raised an army to oppose you. I have seen it myself.”

“And now,” Valun said, rising from his seat. “If your story is complete, it is dark enough outside that we may make our way down the cliffs in safety. The moon has obliged us by being nearly full. We must go. My men have darkened their weapons and wear cloaks. What of yours?”

“My men” replied Meltran, rising in his turn and becoming solemn once more. Crossing to the entrance of the tent, where Valun stood looking out into the darkness, he continued “have done the same, and must lead yours, for they know the path.”

“Very well.” Beckoning David over to his side, Valun added “Fetch our mounts, and rouse the men quietly. No shouts or trumpet-calls.”

“Aye, my lord.” was David’s whole reply before he disappeared to do as Valun had commanded.

In a surprisingly short time, David had brought both the kings’ mounts around to their tent and left to rouse the army before they had mounted properly.

Riding slowly in the darkness, Valun and Meltran could hear the sounds of the men moving into place quietly, seemingly without orders. Observing this, Meltran turned to Valun and remarked “Your man only makes me wish all the more that my own chancellor had not rebelled against me. Your man does everything well and without question. Kings would give many things to command an army of such men.”

“I am one of those. It was a happy chance that this man is in my court, or I would not have been able to do many of the things I have done.”

Meltran did not reply, and so the two kings rode in silence for a while, hearing the inevitable, though muffled, sounds of Valun’s army being marshaled into position.

When the men had been silent for several minutes, Valun heard a man approaching him cautiously. A moment later, David’s voice came out of the darkness near at hand. “Every man is in his position, Sire.”

“Very well. We shall proceed, then. The lord Meltran’s men must be found to lead us down the cliffs.”

Meltran replied on his own account, saying “I have no doubt I will find them at the edge of the cliffs. How shall I inform you of our movement?”

“The moon shines. The light it affords us should be enough for a runner to see by. Send two men to me when you are ready to depart, and we will follow you.”

“Very well. They will not be long.” Meltran replied, turning his horse and riding off in the direction of his own camp.

Valun and David continued in their original direction, speaking softly between themselves. “I admire your speed in forming the men up, my man.”

“The men are ever ready to do all that you would command, my lord.”

Struggling to keep a straight face, Valun replied “Really? I am glad to hear that it is so. But my heart tells me that one very popular aide is behind this unwavering devotion. Tell me, what is it that you say to the men which allows me to retain their loyalty?”

“Nothing, my lord. I hardly ever speak.”

“Come now! Silence never earned a man’s loyalty! What do you say?”

“If you really must know, when we were still traveling through the pass and you sent me back to see that the men were still following, I told them then that you were not allowing them a rest because you considered them stronger than normal men. I have only reminded them of that.”

Valun laughed. “Well, I see that I owe you more already than I had ever wished to owe to any man! What would satisfy you? To be the governor of Carribeasa when our adventure has reached it’s end? Name what you will. It will not be held from you.”

“I have no wish except that my lord should remain beloved by his people till the end of his days.”

“And if your wish is fulfilled, it will be due largely to your own exertions! Do not be offended if I offer you a position of power after all!”

“I do not wish to lead. I wish to follow.”

“And a fine job you do of that. Now you may follow me to the front of our force, if you please.”

“I please, indeed.” David replied. At this, both men broke into laughter, but cut themselves off in a moment, remembering that they were attempting to move down the cliffs silently.

Hardly five minutes later, Valun and his aide had positioned themselves at the front of the force. They were met there by two Brandians, who had been waiting for them for several minutes.

Before Valun could speak, one of the Brandians had come to the point. “King Meltran has moved on by this time. Now that you have arrived, it is time for you and your men to follow us.”

“Very well, then. Lead us.” Valun replied to this. Glancing at his king, David could see by the light of the moon, which shone down upon them unobstructed, that Valun had taken on a grim expression. He had set his jaw and was staring into the shadows as if he thought he could actually see men moving ahead of them.

The Brandian guides rode about six feet ahead of Valun and his guards, followed by David at the immediate head of the army of Corridane, marching slowly.

After several minutes of carefully calculated movement, they finally reached the top of the path. Here, everyone halted for a short time to make sure that there were no stragglers. When the ranks had become settled once more, they continued their march at a slow walk. Remembering that were archers stationed on the sides of the path, every man was careful not to make a sound.

It seemed an eternity before the last rank reached the ground at the bottom of the cliffs, but the well-disciplined troops actually completed the passage in short time. The moment David rode to the front to report that the last rank had passed unharmed, they started again, making for a ring of large fires which the guides judged to be nigh on a thousand yards farther ahead and to their right.

Breaking the silence for the first time in nearly an hour, one of the guides told Valun “Those fires mark our lord’s camp. He told us where to seek him. But we must yet go warily, for we yet know not whether our enemies are nearby.”

“Why do you speak falsely? That their archers are watching us here is proof enough that they are nearby. We must take care that we do in truth go to your own camp instead of theirs.”

“Very well, we will ride ahead and prove that we ride to our own camp.”

“Do so.”

At Valun’s insistence, the guides rode forward without another word. As soon as they were out of sight, which did not take more than a few moments, David rode up alongside his king and began “My lord, do you-“

Valun cut him short. I know what you say, Sir David. You would say ‘what if these men are spies, and are now returning to their own men to attack us?’, and for that reason, I order you to return to the men and tell them that we will make camp here, but that they must hold themselves ready to defend themselves at all times.”

Stunned, David had barely listened to the serious orders. “Sir-Sir…”

“And why not? Now do what I have ordered. Tell the men they may make camp and hold themselves ready to repel an attack.”

“But King Meltran and his men? We were to join them!”

“They are all skilled archers. If they have made their way past the enemy force and camped in another place, they will be a much greater aid to our cause from the enemy’s flank.”

Having no answer for this reasoning, David left without replying to comply with his king’s earlier orders. When he had returned to the army’s position, he approached the closest man and said “Pass the word. We are ordered to make camp here, and stand ready for an attack.”

The man he had spoken to replied “Then we will not make camp. If we were setting up camp, we would have no time to defend ourselves if the enemy attacked. I suggest you dismount and make the best of your position. We will be roused early on the morrow.”

Heeding the advice, David swiftly dismounted and, hobbling his horse, lay down beside it. Once on the ground, he found that he was far more exhausted than he had thought himself to be, and swiftly fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Strange as it may seem in light of the impending battle, there were few who did not share David’s peaceful sleep. One of those few was the rightful lord of Brandia, Meltran himself. Unable to compose himself to sleep, he rose from his place and began walking toward the edge of the camp. There, he met the sentry and spoke with him.

“Does any sign of the Corridanes’ coming reach your ears, Dranulf?”

“None, my lord. Those fires you can see before us do not aid me to see their approach if they are coming after all.”

“Aye, I see the fires. You are sure they mark the camp of our enemies rather than our friends? When did they spring up?”

“Not long after I had begun my watch, and my watch is the second tonight. I am sure it marks the camp of our foes, for the Corridanes, being our allies, would doubtless consider our camp their own.”

This answer disconcerted Meltran, who began muttering under his breath. “Spies…spies… mayhap that is why he will not come to find us… fears a trap, as I gave no detailed directions and lit no fires. Moreover, he has seen that my men cannot endure close combat. He means to have us remain on the flank and ply our skill from an unprotected side.” To Dranulf he said “Do not expect the Corridanes to approach, but keep your eyes on the foe’s camp yonder. If you wish, send a silent man out toward their camp to determine their plans. Do not hesitate to rouse the men if they seem to be massing for an attack.” Then he turned away to return to his place, speaking to himself once more. “Folly. It was folly, and other men must pay for it….”

Acting swiftly on his lord’s words, Dranulf left his post for a moment to rouse and speak with his successor.

“You, Eldarn, are you a swift, silent, tracker?”

“None better in this band, though I say so myself.” replied Eldarn, raising himself up on his elbows to look more closely at his companion. “Your watch has not yet passed. “Why do you rouse me now?”

“The king desires a silent tracker to enter our enemies’ camp and discover their plans. I thought of you promptly. Will you go?”

“If the king desires it, of course I will go. I will remain there until I die or until your watch has expired.”

With an attempt at a laugh, Dranulf replied “Don’t die. Then we would have no information and fewer men. Now if you will go, you had best go now.”

“Then goodbye.” Replied Eldarn, who was standing by this time. He put his hand out toward the other man, and Dranulf clasped it hard, slapping him hard on the back with his free hand.

“If you are caught, take a few with you. Our uncle would be proud of you for this.”

“If you think so, leave the telling of the tale to me!” Eldarn cried in a parting shot as he began to jog toward the ring of fires some five hundred yards ahead in the direction of moonrise.

When Eldarn had come within one hundred yards of the enemy camp, he slowed to a stop and began to use all of his considerable skill as a tracker with the aim of entering unnoticed. He waited for several minutes, lying flat upon the ground, to determine whether a sentry had been stationed outside the ring of fires. His senses and skill telling him no one had or was going to pass; he swiftly rose from his position and began once more to approach the closest blaze.

From a distance of fifty yards, he could hear the voices of the men sitting around the watch-fire nearest to him, but could not yet make out what they were saying. As he approached even closer, it became clearer to him. It was the best he could have hoped for. They seemed to be discussing the occurrences of the recent days.

“Relman and Salium returned nigh on half an hour ago. They brought bad news.”

“What could that be?”

“The Corridanes have invaded. Their force is large; so large that our men could not make out the true size. They seem to have captured the watchtowers at the end of the pass. Relman, who escaped only because he appears to have insisted that he must carry the news to us here, claims that both towers were captured by only seven men. That proves two things: that Relman is a coward, and the Corridanes are dangerous foes.”

“Whether those claims be true or no, there is a claim which would startle you, brought by Salium, rather than the ‘coward’.”

“And what could startle me?”

“The old king Meltran has returned. Salium spotted him riding in the midst of his band of followers.”

“Meltran! The old king! He and all his followers were exiled, not to return on pain of death! I saw them leave, all riding away so proudly as if they still had the power!”

“So my news has startled you, after all. It’s quite obvious that they never left, and now they have come out of hiding because they expect these invaders to do the heavy work in clearing our leader from their path. But I have never heard that fifty thousand men quailed at the prospect of combat with an unknown number of enemies.”

While the first speaker was still groping for an answer to this, Eldarn rose and strode into the view of the fire casually, as if he was one of their companions coming to bring fresh news. Crouching down near the fire in the space between the two men, he turned toward the one who had spoken last and said “Do not take such an insult from him, man! He is insulting you and all your comrades in one blow! Besides, darkness makes it hard for even the best scouts to count the enemy’s numbers properly. The Corridanes could have a much larger force, or they may have, in their pride, deployed a vastly smaller number than our own. But of course that question can not be answered until the sun has risen. Have you knowledge of the general’s plan?”

“Do I have knowledge of the general’s plans? No! I am just a sentry. When was there ever a need to tell a man what he is expected to do?” the soldier replied in a tone laden with sarcasm.

“If you can not tell me, where can I find out that information for myself?”

“You could go to the general, but if you’re only in the rank and file, as we are, you won’t get an audience, much less be told what the plan is.”

“I’ll try anyway. I must know.” Eldarn answered, rising and hurrying away before the soldier could grow suspicious of his plans.

As he walked through the camp, he noticed several similar camps, where small groups of men clustered around firepits were smoking their blades. Several men called out to him, inquiring what his business, but he ignored them, continuing on his way without slackening his pace. After several minutes of silent walking, he spotted a large tent which had been erected in the center of the camp and could only be the general’s. Slowing to a crawl, he crept ever closer to the side of the tent.

It seemed that luck was with him this night, for, without detection, he reached the side of the tent, and from there could easily hear the raised voices of the men inside. At least one appeared to be holding a torch, for he could see the silhouettes of the men against the side of the tent as they spoke.

“What do you say, Salium? Shall we try an attack tonight?”

“You ask for my opinion, my lord? I say that it would be better not to risk it. The Corridane king is alert and will have his men prepared. When I pointed out our camp, speaking as if I were one of the old king Meltran’s followers…”

“Meltran?! Has he come back? I exiled him and all his followers years ago!”

A different voice now made itself heard. Eldarn presumed it was the voice of the other spy, Relman. “Oh yes, my lord, he has returned! I saw him myself, in the midst of his band of useless followers, holding his head high as if he thought he was already king again!”

“Why did you not follow my orders, then? I ordered that he was to be slain if he showed his face in my country again!”

“I would have done the deed, my lord, except that we would not have succeeded in our attempt, for his followers were clustered around him too tightly for us to squeeze in more closely than we did.”

“My lord, will you let me finish! As I was saying… Hold! I see a man outside this tent, where none are permitted to be! We must catch him, quickly!”

“At this last cry, Eldarn remembered that the light worked both ways; if he had been able to see them on the inside, they would be able to catch sight of him on the outside if he moved too close. And he had done just that.

A moment before Salium had finished speaking, Eldarn began to run at his utmost speed, sped onward by the cries of “Spy, spy!” which were growing gradually louder as more men joined the chase and gave the call to warn their comrades nearby. As many of the soldiers were carrying torches which they had lit swiftly from their communal campfires, it took all of Eldarn’s speed to stay out of the range of the growing circle of light pursuing him.

He ran, ducking and weaving, doubling back, stopping in his tracks and dropping to the ground while the outraged enemies ran past him, for what felt like hours. After several minutes of exhausting evasive maneuvers, he was finally surrounded only feet from a fire at the edge of the camp. Before he realized it, he had almost run straight into the arms of two especially large soldiers, who, having been seated beside the fire, had simply stood up and turned around, and were now barring his only path of escape. Desperate, he did the only thing left open to him; with a tremendous effort, he avoided their outstretched arms and leapt upon their broad shoulders, launching himself off into space directly over the fire. He landed on his feet and continued to run before the shock of the landing could cause him to fall.

Nearly an hour later, Eldarn staggered back into camp, only saved from falling from exhaustion for the fourth time by the timely arrival and support of Dranulf, who had remained on watch throughout the night to wait for him. As Dranulf laid him gently down on the soft grass and passed him a skin full of water, Eldarn finally managed to croak “I must see the king. I have valuable information!”

“You must calm yourself. You’re not in a fit state to move from here, and you won’t be for a long while. Tell me the message that I must take to the king.”

Eldarn bristled at this preemptive statement by his friend, and immediately cried No! I heard it! I would not be in this state at all if I had not had to run for my life from half the foe’s army! I will not speak if I may not speak to the king directly!”

“Very well. I will bring the king here, then.” Dranulf replied sharply, turning and striding off into the darkness. As soon as he had passed out of Eldarn’s sight, he accelerated his pace and began to run through the camp, not slowing down until he had reached the king’s place of rest. “My lord! Our scout has returned and he has news for you! I would have brought the message, but that he refused to speak unless you came yourself!”

“I will come. We must know what he has learned. Bring me to him now.”

At this, Dranulf turned, saying nothing but “Yes, my lord.” in answer to his king’s words. After several more minutes of walking back in the direction which Dranulf had come from, they finally arrived at the place where Eldarn was still lying prostrate on the ground. When he saw them approach, he called out to them.

“Hail, King Meltran! I have news, and we may thank our fortunes that the news is not half so dire as it could have been! Our foes’ leader in the field is your own chancellor, Damerson! His own speech told me so. He seems to have grown wiser since he exiled us, for he asked the advice of his spies. Yes, his spies! Those two men who were so eager to lead the Corridanes down to this valley! They thought to convince the king Valun that he followed them to our camp, there to set upon them in ambush! But the Corridane king seems to have seen through them, for their ruse did not succeed, and the more level-headed of the pair advised against attacking the Corridanes, as he believed they would be prepared for just such an event. But what is worse for you and all of us, my lord, they recognized you, and now know that we have come out to reclaim our country! We are all marked men! None who is captured will be spared!”

“Then we must take care to mark them first in the battle tomorrow, and may every shaft lay an adherent of that devious villain Damerson low! If only I myself could nock the shaft which laid him low, I would be content!” the Brandian monarch cried, saying all this in a cheerful tone in an attempt to revive his man’s low spirits. The attempt appeared to succeed.

“Oh, my lord!” Eldarn cried in a euphoric tone. “If only you could have seen my last great leap, you would have said “There goes a true Brandian, worthy to be my kin.”

“You are my kin. Surely you have not forgotten that your father was my younger brother? And whatever Damerson may have believed, you were never in danger of having your throne taken from you by Valnor! Now, you must be at peace. I expect you to return to your duty in a short time, though.”

“Yes, my lord.” Eldarn answered in a level tone, as Meltran rose and left

16 December 2011

Chapter XXIV

Chapter XXIV

It was the day following the events in the previous chapter. As Valun emerged from his tent shortly after dawn, he observed that many men were already roused and preparing themselves to march. Pleased, Valun turned and saw David striding toward him.

“I was only seeing that your orders were carried out.”

“I can see as much, and it pleases me well.” The king replied. “If the Brandians mean to offer battle, as their message seemed to show, no doubt they are marching toward us just as we are marching toward them. Now, how would you propose to fight this battle?”

“How would we arrange the men, you mean?”


“This is what I say. I do not doubt that they will expect us to order a cavalry charge to open the combat. If that is the case, we must send the foot soldiers first, for their line will be heavy with pikemen to stop our cavalry. The foot soldiers will charge, and after a short engagement, will fall back. As they do so, our cavalry shall divide and charge both sides of their line, as the remaining infantrymen return to the fray.”

“A simple, sound, plan, my man. But you have not said what you would order our archers to do.”

“That, my lord, would depend upon the land. On flat ground, the archers would be a danger to our own side if placed behind them, and in the way, and in danger themselves if placed in front. On high ground, though, our archers could deal heavy damage.”

“So you would keep five thousand men out of the fighting if the land is flat? That shall not sit well with them, my friend. And do you not expect that the Brandians also will have archers?”

“I do. If they are strong leaders, they will plan as I have, and search out high ground to place their archers upon. If they must, your men seem proficient at rooting enemies out of their positions.”

“Do not expect that. That was done under cover of darkness, and surprise. At this battle, the defenders will be fully aware of our approach.”

“If that is the case, there is nothing more to say on the matter until we have seen our enemy’s position. I shall ready the men to march.”

Nearly an hour had passed before the men were ready. When that time came, Valun sent David away to bring his charger, as he could see that the men were prepared to leave. As he mounted, he added “Call the Valkyries. We ride to battle!” As David turned and rode away on his own steed, Valun rode straight toward his position at the head of the soldiers. Once there, he was surrounded by the Valkyries. In the next moment, David called the orders in Richard’s place.

“Fall in! Standards! March!” With that, the army of Corridane began to march once more.

The force from Corridane marched swiftly and silently, meeting little opposition. Indeed, all Brandians they met turned and ran ahead of them, giving the appearance that they had been ordered only to watch for the approach of Valun and his army.

By the end of the first day, the Corridanes had sighted a forest on the horizon. It seemed to stretch on for miles. The many trees were set so close together that they appeared as an unbroken line from the distance at which Valun and his people stood from them.

Turning to David, who was sitting on his own horse beside the king, Valun remarked “An impressive expanse, is it not?”

“It is, my Lord. Do you wish to travel straight through it?”

“Why not? If one does not know how long either path is, would one not take what appeared to be the more direct route? In our case, the direct route leads straight through that forest. Tell the men they may make camp.”

Early the next day, Valun and his army rose swiftly and began to march toward the forest. Scarcely two hours had passed before they had reached it and entered by a path which seemed to open up before them as they approached.

Valun was several yards along the path when he heard the voice. “Move and you die. What business do you have bringing such a force of armed men through this forest, as if you wished to invade this land?”

After a short pause, Valun replied loudly. “I am King Valun of Corridane! I have come to rescue my father from his unjust imprisonment in your country! And if you mean to offer battle, then come out into the fields and fight like men rather than hiding behind these trees pointing arrows at us unprovoked!”

The voice suddenly broke out into laughter. “Really! Did you expect that the men holding your father captive would be living in a forest? My men and I have enough compassion to live in a castle if we wished to hold such an old man as a captive! But, as you are aware of their presence, there is no reason for us to keep ourselves hidden any longer! Stand down, men!”

Valun immediately began to hear rustling in the tress all around him. When it stopped, nearly thirty archers clad in dark brown or green suits stood before him. Their leader was a man only slightly more than six feet in height who had long golden hair and a beard. He was wearing a green suit and a quiver full of arrows, and holding a strung longbow, just as many of his followers were. He approached Valun, extending a hand to the monarch of Corridane, who remained seated on his mount.

“I welcome you, Valun of Corridane, to my grand realm of Brandia.”

“Are you, then, Meltran the first, king of this land?”

“Yes, I am. Let me introduce you to my court.”

“Introductions can wait for happier times. At the moment, I must ask you this: Why, if you are the king of this land, do you live in a forest, with no more than thirty followers?”

“I was overthrown by ambitious men and exiled. They are not aware that we remain, for any man who strays too close to our forest does not return.”

“Can you help me find my father?”

“I can not help you with that, but I and my men can and will help you fight your battle against the men who threw us out of the castle.”

“Do you have more followers, or are the men before me your whole band?”

“I have more, and I shall bring them along. I was popular to more than only thirty men of my own court.” The King of Brandia, replied, laughing again. “And my men shall serve as your scouts.” He added, before he turned back to his retinue and spoke to them, giving orders to prepare for their departure. Once his men had departed to carry out his orders, Meltran of Brandia turned back to the party of Corridanes and said “I will lead you through this forest myself. The paths are more treacherous than you would wish for a party as large as yours.” With that, he turned and strode away. The startled Corridanes could do nothing but follow behind him, keeping their horses restrained to avoid overtaking their guide.

Valun and his army followed the exiled king of Brandia through the forest, which served as his home, for several hours, hardly making a sound on the soft grass which carpeted the forest floor. Several times, Valun nearly rode off the trail by mistake, before noticing at the last moment that his guide had turned back in the opposite direction.

Before long, they were joined by Meltran’s followers. There were more of them this time, all carrying bows and quivers.

After about two more hours of steady marching, the army finally reached the other side of the forest. Pointing out distant hills which could be seen on the horizon, Meltran told Valun “Our enemies are bound to be positioned on those hills, waiting for you arrival. My men and I will go in advance of your force.”

Before Valun could reply, Meltran and his followers had departed, marching away in the direction of the hills, which the men could see on the horizon.

Unable to remain in one place long enough to wait for the Brandians’ return, Valun, after nearly an hour more, ordered his own men to continue marching toward the hills. They had been marching for nearly two hours before they met Meltran and his men coming back.

“You will be in grave danger if you continue on from here.” Meltran announced as soon as they had come within speaking distance. “The enemy has archers on the hilltops. If you go much farther, your lives are in danger.”

“Our lives are in danger in any case, unless you show us the path which allowed you to observe our enemies unmolested.”

“It is this way.” Meltran replied, turning back the way he had come.

Valun and his guards followed Meltran and his men until they came to a little-used path nearly two hundred yards to the left of the main force. Halfway up the path, Meltran and all of his men stopped momentarily to nock arrows to their bows. They carried them on their left, pointed at the ground, ready to bring up and fire at a moment’s notice. Meltran took advantage of the pause to remind his men for the benefit of the Corridanes “Fire on sight. We can not wait for them to find us.”

Without another word, the whole party continued up the path. After another five minutes of marching, they reached another bend. Here, Meltran held up his hand to order a pause. “The end of the path is around this turn. None may go past this point, or they will be seen. One man at a time may move to the front and fire his shot. Then we must retreat.” After having said this, he raised his own bow and continued on for several feet until he had disappeared around the bend.

He returned several minutes later, his mood visibly brighter. “They keep their heads down so long, one would think they were expecting an invasion!” He began to laugh, and then remembered the situation and quickly fell silent once more, motioning the next man forward.

Nearly half an hour had passed since Meltran’s own shot before the last archer, one of Valun’s own guards, returned to the main party after having successfully fired his shot. Observing his return, Meltran remarked “I trust that we have thinned their ranks somewhat with our enviable aim. We shall have to face them in any case on the morrow.”

As the band of archers made their way back toward the place at which they had left Valun’s army, Meltran momentarily increased his pace until he had come alongside Valun’s mount. Once there, he began to dispense advice in solemn tones. “My men and I know this territory well. Much better, I believe, than our enemies, for otherwise they might have discovered our path. We shall have a hard fight ahead, for they have chosen well in the placement of their men.”

“Why may we not avoid them and continue on our way?”

To this inquiry, Meltran replied “If you attempt to proceed one day farther from the place of your current camp, you could meet your end in an awful manner, having plunged over the edge of the sheer cliffs you would reach. The hills our enemies have placed themselves upon mark this side of the only safe path down to the rest of my country. Doubtless, we will find the remainder of our enemies’ force arrayed at the bottom of the path.”

“Then we may wait for darkness, and make our way down then, when their archers will not see us.”

“You may try that, and it would work well, I am sure,” Meltran answered, quickly checking his counterpart’s impulsive decisions. “But you have not considered that their men will be waiting at the foot of the path for us to come down upon them. Do not think that they will not post sentries.”

“Under cover of darkness, they would not be prepared for our onslaught, even with sentries posted.”

“That is unfair advantage, which a true man would not deign to take. I would urge you, in the name of the honor which brought you here, position your men upon the plain, and fight the battle on fair ground at dawn.”

“If you make it a question of honor, to fight after dawn, instead of taking the advantage we would otherwise have gained, I must admit that I hold myself bound to do that. But we must take the steps necessary to insure that our enemies do not attempt to do the same to us. The single fact that they exiled you should prove that they set little store by honor.”

“You have my thanks. My men and I will stand watch to allow your men the rest they undoubtedly need. Remember. We shall not move before sundown.”

Following this final injunction from Meltran, the two kings parted, preferring to remain among their own people during the remaining hours till dusk.

That night Valun called David to his tent and said “I want you to tell the men that we shall make camp here for three days. They must have time to rest themselves after the hard marching they have been enduring for so many days.”

“It shall be as you say, my Lord.”

Valun spent much of the intervening days visiting with his troops and seeing that they were prepared for the impending combat. But after he had gone up and down the lines for the third time, he began to wish for Meltran’s company once more. Accordingly, he paused long enough, when he had reached David for the fourth time, to order him to ride to the Brandians’ camp to request that the lord Meltran take dinner in the tent of the lord Valun. This David did without reply.

09 December 2011

Chapter XXIII

Chapter XXIII

At the time that Valun was riding through the mountains to invade Brandia, there was trouble of a similar kind at the walls of his capital. As has been related, John had left with the Princess primarily because of the hostile army which had only appeared two days ago. All of Robert’s time was now occupied in devising the best defense he could manage against a far superior force.

The minute word had come of the hostile army’s approach, Robert had sent criers out to call on the guardsmen to meet him at the main gate. He stood now in front of that gate, looking out at the crowd of men who had answered the call, all of them armed and wearing the king’s scarlet.

After a moment tense waiting, Robert began to speak to the men who had come. “My friends! I am pleased to see so many men here today, prepared to defend their city against foes that have appeared so suddenly! I know that every man here is a brave man, for there is no place for cowards in the ranks of the guards! This battle is not a fight to the death, for there must be men alive to welcome our king when he returns! You shall fight knowing this: the city will fall if it must, but the people of Corridane must remain! The people can build a city, but no city can create a people! We must fight for the king above all, for if the people remain, so does the king, and if the king remains, so does the country. For country and for king! For your own freedom! Stand and fight! Valunarrria!” After a minute of riotous cheering, Robert continued, issuing his orders. “Half of you must man the walls now! The rest must remain alert and prepared to run to their aid at any time, but until then, they must prepare the devices we have built for the defense of the city. I myself will join the men on the walls!”

The cheerful excitement induced by Robert’s speech ended abruptly as the men reached the walls. The moment they put their heads above the ramparts, it seemed that hundreds of arrows had hung in the air waiting for that instant. Several men who had not thought to carry their shields on their arms fell with loud cries.

Seeing this, Robert promptly shouted “Heads down, all of you! Look to your weapons, for we have a hard fight ahead!”

Peering over the wall cautiously, Robert spotted the attackers carrying several siege ladders toward the city as their archers kept up a steady rain of arrows, most of which mercifully fell harmlessly onto the empty road below the wall.

“When I give the word, push with all your strength! They are coming at three places along this wall! You will see them when they set those ladders down!”

“Please, sir,” the guard crouching nearest to Robert said “Please, Sir. Get down like the rest of us. We can not lose you.”

“If you insist.” Robert replied, crouching down behind the ramparts. “They will place their ladders any moment now. Watch carefully.”

No sooner had he said this than at least five ladders knocked against the wall simultaneously. With loud yells, the enemy began swarming up.

Robert gave them ten seconds to begin their ascent, and shouted “Now!” At the cry, men stood up all the way along the wall, combining their strength to force the ladder nearest to them away from their position.

Minutes later, as the men along the front wall were beginning to celebrate their victory, a messenger approached Robert, imploring him to come to the rear wall with all speed. “The enemy has breached the outer wall! It is all we can do to hold them back!”

“They have breached the wall? Impossible! These walls are eight feet thick! They could not have breached them so quickly!”

“Nevertheless, they seem to have done so, and my commander has sent me to fetch you.”

“I am coming. Have you called on the reserves? If you have not, you must do so with all speed.”

As the messenger hurried off to call on the reserves, Robert made his way along the wall until he had reached the rear of the city. The first man he met advised him “Keep your head down, sir. They shoot anyone they see over the ramparts.”

“We had the same trouble at the front wall. I was told the wall had been breached?”

“Not breached, exactly, but there is a spot the enemy can get through. Many of the men are down there now, prepared to hold it.”

Looking down, Robert spotted the small crowd, which grew larger by the minute. “It is the gate! The gate has been destroyed!” So saying, he hurried down to the ground to see it for himself.

When he had reached the ground, the men recognized him and stepped aside to allow him to pass. Robert continued walking until he had reached the gateway, where he paused to examine the gate, which still lay in the passage. It was not long before he noticed that the hinges had been cut. “The hinges have been cut?! We have a traitor in our midst! Some man run to the prison!”

Heeding his words, several men near the back of the group quickly turned and left.

Moments later, one of the men standing nearest the passageway cried out “Prepare yourselves! They come again!” Robert barely had time to draw his sword before the crowd of enemies was upon him.

A quick thrust made an end of the man attacking Robert. Drawing his sword out once more, he looked around in search of guards in need of help. Rushing upon one group of four foes who had surrounded one guard, Robert cut down two of them from behind, which allowed the man time to finish the remaining pair.

Only moments later, as suddenly as it had begun, the battle was ended. As the men spread out to make room for him in the center of the group, Robert began silently counting the slain. “I see twenty foes here, spoiling our good ground with the remnants of their disgraceful lives. Alongside them, I see eight of our brave companions. How could this happen? You know well enough that there are so many of you here that you outnumbered your enemies by nearly three to one! How, then, could they be allowed to take even eight of your companions with them? You know also that the force outside our walls is greater than our own. If sixty of you can not defeat twenty men without losing no more than five of your own, count yourselves lucky that you are alive to hear me! We are outnumbered, but we may still survive! If you are to survive to return to your lives after we have defeated these enemies, we must first overcome them! To do that, we must fight, and fight harder than you have done here! The fate of the country rests on your shoulders! Fight for your lives! Fight for your country! Fight to maintain your freedom! Fight harder! Fight these foes with all your heart, and we will overcome them, to welcome our King home! When next our foes attack, give them no quarter and leave few men behind!”

It was not long after the conclusion of Robert’s speech that the two men he had sent to the prison came hurrying back, calling for the Captain. “Sir! Sir! The traitor has escaped!”

“Escaped? Where are the guards who were to watch him?”

“They, also, seem to have vanished.”

“It must have been the Traitor who has done this!” shouted Robert, pointing at the fallen gate. “Get those bodies into the passageway. We must repair this gate.”

Moments later, several more men came running toward Robert and the others. “Captain! Sir! They have nearly breached the walls! They are overwhelming us!”

“How are they accomplishing it? Are they bombarding the walls? Or have they brought their ladders up once more?”

“They have brought up catapults, which they have aimed at the walls. The men can not be expected to remain atop the walls much longer, for we shall need every one of them when the enemy breaks through.”

“You are right. They must fall back. All archers must place themselves on the rooftops. The others shall fall back to the castle. We shall wait for the foes to make their own way through, then cut them down as they search the city for us. The defenses within the castle must also be prepared.”

As the messenger hurried off to pass on Robert’s orders, the Captain of the Guards turned to the group of men who were still standing around him. “I do not have to repeat to you what I have just said to the messenger. I need only add that I am afraid I must change the orders which you heard before the battle began. I must ask many men here to remain here for the remainder of their lives. The enemy is breaking through the front wall. They will come again to break through this broken gate and surround us. Any man who remains here to fight to the death will be buying his countrymen the time we need to prepare our defense. You will take many with you, for only two men can come through this tunnel side by side.”

After speaking among themselves for a moment, twenty men stepped forward. One, who was taller than the rest, and had apparently been chosen as their spokesman, held his sword up in a salute, saying “We will remain. We do this in the knowledge that you will not throw our lives away by surrendering. You know the greatness of our sacrifice, as we understand that we can not expect decent burials by the time all is done.” Solemnly, the twenty volunteers stepped into the center of the party, in front of the gate they would give their lives to defend.

Robert stepped back into the ranks of the guards and joined his men in a silent salute of the valiant volunteers. A moment later, Robert broke the silence, saying “As much as we wish to, we will not see you alive again. Go on, in defense of your country, and pave your path with enemies!”

Nothing more was said. Robert and the remaining guards turned back toward the castle, running hard to reach the place in time to direct the defense of the city. When they had reached the castle, Robert broke the silence, saying “Every man run to the top. We shall watch and direct our fellows from there.”

Looking out over the walls, Robert could see the catapults the foes were using to destroy the walls. They had lined up ten enormous machines side by side three hundred yards from the walls and had them all firing at the city simultaneously. A moment later, the men heard the crash as all the rocks collided with the wall, causing several sections of the fortification to come crumbling down.

Robert turned to the guard standing beside him. “How long do you think the walls will stand? In any case, you had best go down into the city to see that the men are in their places.”

“In answer to your question, sir, I do not believe the walls will last past the next day. But, truly, there is need for me or anyone to go down into the city. If you look more closely, you will see the archers lying flat on the roofs of the houses.”

After taking a second look, Robert replied. “I can see that you spoke the truth. I can see them, all holding their bows flat so as not to give themselves away. Our enemies in the field are in for a surprising welcome.”

02 December 2011

Chapter XXII

Chapter XXII

King Valun of Corridane sat astride his black charger, several feet ahead of his guards and his aide, and still farther ahead of his army, silently contemplating the tall mountain range he had resolved to bring them across to invade the land of Brandia in the name of justice.

After he had been sitting alone for several minutes longer, he heard his aide, David, attempting to ride up beside him silently. “What is it, man? I told you to let me be.”

“Well,” David replied “It is that your army is growing restless, and they wish to know whether you intend to remain here on your own side of the mountains until snow begins to fall on us down here. For surely you know that when that happens, it means the pass is blocked.”

“That is true. At this time, we may be fortunate if we do not have to fight our way through the drifts before facing the forces of Brandia.”

“I take it that I may tell them we are moving on?”

“Yes. Send my guards after me. I ride ahead. Now.” Without further speech, the men spurred their horses in opposite directions; David back toward the waiting army, and his King forward, in the direction that the maps had shown him to be the way to the pass.

Valun had been riding for nearly twenty minutes before he reached the foot of the trail that led through the mountains.

Once found, it was easy to see, as it was the only path which led through the mountains, and as such was frequently crossed by caravans of traders coming and going between Carribeasa and the cities of Brandia. Each time a caravan had crossed, the trail had become clearer and smoother. It was wide enough that three men could ride side by side without fear of plunging over the precipice which lay on the right side. On the left side, the ever-dangerous mountains loomed imposingly over travelers.

When Valun had reached the foot of the trail, he paused, waiting for his guard to catch up, as he could see that they were riding hard to get into position to do their duty. A few minutes later, when the Valkyries had succeeded in making up the distance which had separated them from their ward, one of them spoke, saying “My Lord, if we are to protect you, we would prefer to be close enough to do so, rather than being forced to chase you all over two countries.”

“I understand you. I will not fail to give you due warning after this day.”

“The spokesman replied “You have our gratitude, my King. We shall fall in now.” Without further ado, the three lancers took positions in front of their king, as the two archers flanked him and the five swordsmen fell in behind, joined by David.

Once they had arranged themselves in the manner described, the king and his party set off along the path, as the army followed nearly twenty yards behind.

Looking back over his shoulder at the king, the spokesman of the guards said “I have ridden the path before, though that was many years ago. We must always be alert for rockslides down the mountains.”

“Have you ever seen one for yourself?”

“Yes. They do not occur often, though. If one were to happen today, we could only hope that it does not last long, else half your army may be stranded on their own side of the mountains, only after having gone through the agony of watching whole ranks in front of them perish.”

“I am sure they will work their way through it. The men have proved many times that they will follow me as far as I wish to go.”

“Count yourself fortunate. Not many leaders inspire the loyalty the men of Corridane have shown you, with the exception of the people of Carribeasa, of course”

“They will rejoin my cause soon enough. Richard will convince them to do so.”

“What makes you so sure, Sire?”

“I can be harsh when I must. Be silent now, or you will find that yourself.”

Hours went by, the only sound being the sound of the horses’ hooves knocking against the hard stone path. It had been early morning when they had begun. It was now closing in on midday.

Glancing up at the sky, Valun broke the silence, saying “Do you remember? How long does it take to reach the other end of this path?”

Looking at the sky in his turn, the spokesman replied “I do not remember clearly, but I can safely say that we will not reach the end this day.”

“Then how do you suggest that we make our preparations to rest after nightfall?”

“That is a simple matter. All those who ride, including ourselves, must hobble our steeds first. Then, every man is expected to lay down on the ground and remain motionless for the good of all, especially those whose place in the line dictates that they must sleep on the edge of the path.”

“I take it that there are no special procedures, then?”

“None. If you would rather not sleep on the ground, you can sleep in your saddle.”

“Very well. David! Ride back and inquire as to the progress of the force!”

“Yes, your Majesty.” David replied, stopping his horse and waiting until the rest of the party was several feet ahead before turning his horse in the narrow space and riding back toward the army. When he met them nearly ten minutes later, he was greeted cheerfully, the many friends he had made calling out to him

“What’s ahead?”

“No danger, is there?”

How long must we go on?”

Stopping in front of them as they halted at the same time, David replied to each inquiry in turn. “There’s nothing but more rock up ahead, there’s no danger yet, unless rocks begin falling on the path, and the king does not plan to stop until sundown.”

“Does he remember that most of us are walking?’

“I am sure he does, but he seems to have forgotten that the men of Corridane are the same as other men in all things except their unconditional loyalty.”

Heartened by their king’s compliment, the men began clamoring to start once more. David obliged, turning his horse back in the direction of the king’s party to lead the men.

To keep their newly raised spirits high, the soldiers began a chant. The men in the rear would ask a question of the front ranks, and the front ranks would shout back, harder so the sound would carry.

“Whom do we follow?!”

“Our king Valun, an honorable man!”

“Where do we go?!”

“Where he leads us!”

“Where is that?!”


“Why do we go there?!” “To avenge a slight!”

“When shall we rest?!”

“When the king allows it!”

“Who are we?!”

“True Corridanes, ruled by a true king of Corridane!”

When the last response had reached the final ranks, David noticed that they had long since passed the spot at which he had left the king’s party. After a minute of silence, he announced “I must ride ahead to return to our king! Do not slow down!”

With that, he spurred his horse forward. After several more minutes of riding as hard as the path and the condition of his horse would allow, David resumed his place in Valun’s retinue. When he had settled in to the pace of the others, the king inquired “How are the men?”

“They are as fit and as loyal as ever. They wait for your command to take their rest.”

“Good. When I decide that we shall halt, you shall ride back and tell them so.”

“Very well, my Lord.”

“And now, we must be silent. I have been told that even noise can sometimes make rocks fall on these mountains.”

Soon after this, they halted only long enough to water their horses and stretch their own legs. Then, they were back in the saddle. Nothing was said during the pause; Valun had ordered the halt through signals. They continued riding, with similar pauses along the way, until the sun had begun to set behind mountains they had not yet passed through. Then, Valun finally spoke once more. “It is time to halt. David! Go tell the army.”

David promptly turned to ride back as the others began to dismount carefully and restrain their steeds.

When he had reached the main force once more, David called to them “When shall you halt?”

The now weary men, reminded of their earlier statements, called back “When the king allows it!”

“That time is now!” David answered “The king grants you rest!”

Without answering to this announcement, the men began to lay themselves down in the path, some sighing with relief after their day-long march, which was to be resumed again the next day.

David, listening to the sound of thousands of sleeping men together in a small area, was one of the last to drift off to sleep as the sky turned black.

Farther ahead, surrounded by his guards, king Valun lay partially wrapped in the long cloak he had been wearing throughout the day. As he lay there, staring up at the black sky and the many stars, his mind was troubled by many things. Was Robert able to keep order in the capital in his absence? Was John still safely locked away? How did the foreign Princess feel about the flurry of events she had come into the middle of, and partially caused herself, through John’s secret scheming? Who was John, after all? He had let slip that he was not the man Valun had thought him to be, but who was he? And Valun’s biggest question: why had the Brandians refused to return the royal father and the prince regent? Staring up at the half-moon which seemed to be hanging directly over his head, the troubled king of Corridane drifted off to sleep, last of all his men.

His troubles did not stop after he had fallen asleep, though. Almost as soon as he had closed his eyes, he began to dream. He dreamt that he heard a voice calling to him. When he answered, the voice continued

“By the time the moon has become full once more, you will have seen your brother again. You will not know him until he leads you to an old man who shall call you by your name as soon as you enter his door, and then you will recognize both of them. They shall both return to your land, but you will not be there. Before the year is out, you shall have paid the price of your throne!”

The voice echoed in Valun’s ears. Suddenly, he became very worried, and struggled to rouse himself. Then the noise became real. Opening his eyes suddenly, Valun held himself in his place, desperate that the rockslide would not turn out to be directly over his party. A moment later, large rocks began thundering down onto the path only two feet from the rear rank of swordsmen, close enough to rouse everyone around. The men who had been closest to the rocks began to shout to the others.

“We are all alive. Do not worry yourself, my Lord!”

“What time of the night do you think it is?”

Valun heard David’s voice answer. “Look for yourself. The sky is just beginning to lighten in the east. It will soon be daylight.”

As David was speaking, Valun had turned around slowly, peering up the mountainside at the area he believed the rocks had come from. What he saw were the figures of four men, running away in the same direction that Valun and his party were going.

“Brandians! They have been ordered to kill me in the pass!” Nudging one of the archers by his side, Valun asked “Could you lay them low?” “No man could hit his target in conditions such as these, but, being ordered, I shall try.” The Archer whispered back. Without another word, he carefully strung his bow, fit an arrow to it, drew back, aimed, and fired. It brought satisfaction to all the Corridanes to hear the cry of despair from one of their attackers.

“Surely you are not a man! You are something better!” Valun cried in surprise.

“Do not be amazed. I am no more than an expert with the bow, else the general would not have chosen me to join the Valkyries.”

One of the swordsmen spoke up. “Those men must have a sanctuary farther along the trail. It is safe to judge that we are no more than a day from the end of our journey.”

“Well, they shall trouble us no more. We will start as soon as we can easily see the path. David, return to the army and stay with them until you have led them through the pass.”

As David rose and left, Valun and his guards prepared to continue toward the other end of the pass.

“One last order, David! The men are to maintain strict silence. No noise and hard marching. We must reach the end as quickly as we can!”

After the incident at sunrise, the Corridanes quickly resumed their travels, holding themselves to strict silence. They rode throughout the morning, with only a few short rests until midday, when they afforded themselves a longer rest. When the sun had reached the position marking one hour after midday, they began again.

After their rest at midday, they did not halt as often as they had in the morning. Their journey remained uneventful for several hours, until late in the afternoon, when twilight was coming on, they reached a sharp bend in the path. When the whole party had made their way around it, the spokesman of the guards broke the silence to alert his king to danger. “Your Majesty! Look! Those silhouettes on either side of the path! They are watchtowers! The Brandians must have built them to greet us, for they were not there when I last passed this way!”

“Our friends of the morning no doubt sallied forth from those towers. You had best raise your shields.” The king had not spoken a moment too soon. A split second after he had given the order, an arrow flew out from the shadow of the mountain and struck the small shield of one of the lancers riding on the flanks. Valun turned to his two archers, but they preempted him. “No, Your Majesty. We may seem capable of making impossible shots, but a shot to hit a man protected by one of those towers is ten times harder than the one you saw this morning. Not even we can be expected to try it.”

“Then I presume that this is a task for those who are best suited for work on foot. You archers must go along with them, or they will be dead men walking as soon as the men in the towers sight them.”

“You expect us to capture the towers? We have no way of knowing how large the garrison is!”

“Are you objecting to a royal order? Go now! Fall back, so you may climb the mountainside without being seen by our enemies! That must be the Brandian flag at the top of that tower on the right. We will be watching to see it come down. Before then we will not move forward. Waste no more time!”

Knowing it was futile to continue arguing with their king, the swordsmen and the archers dismounted and dropped back around the curve in the path, where, with their weapons slung over their backs, they began their attempt to scale the mountainside. It was as hard as it appeared to be; nearly twenty minutes had passed before the last of the raiders had reached the level of the secret path, nearly twenty feet above their heads.

Once they had all reached the secret path, Valun’s guards immediately began following it back toward the towers they had been ordered to take. The trail turned out to be longer than the path they had left, and it was almost fully dark before they reached the base of the first tower, moving from cover to cover quickly and quietly to avoid detection by their enemies. The darkness had actually become complete by the time that all the men were standing with their backs to the wall of the tower, but they could still see well enough by virtue of the large fires which the Brandians had kindled at the top of the stone towers. Aided by the glare of the bonfire, the Corridanes sidled along the wall until they found the door. They searched for a way to force it silently, but found none, as the hinges lay on the inside of the tower. “Very well” one man whispered “We must knock, and explain ourselves after we have taken the towers. You two had best string your bows and go before us.”

“That would not be the best decision. Rather, we should best draw our knives. We know that the rest of you would be unable to use your weapons well until we have reached the top of the stairs.”

“True,” replied the swordsman nearest the door “but we must not waste our time in avoiding petty insults.” With that, he left the wall, retreated about ten steps, and threw himself against the door. The door creaked audibly. “Tis a stiff one, but this time shall do it.” After his second attempt, the door fell flat inside the tower, and the man instantly stood aside for the archers with their knives to go up the stairs in advance.

The archers charged up the steps, prepared to strike the first man they met. When they had gotten about halfway up the winding stairs, they were met by two Brandians who had obviously been rushing down to meet them. The Corridanes dispatched their opponents swiftly and continued up the steps, all without a sound.

All seven of the Corridane raiders reached the level on which the sentries stood without further interference. When they had reached that point, though, they met a party as large as their own, though their opponents, who had considered themselves safe behind the walls, were ill-equipped for the contest, all being archers.

Before the Brandians had completely recovered from their shock, the swordsmen of Corridane had rushed forward. As the archers were unprepared for close combat, the swordsmen, protected by their shields, made short work of them.

The moment the fight was concluded, the two archers ran to the edge of the platform, took aim, and fired at their counterparts occupying the second tower. Ducking to avoid shots from their enemies, the archers remarked to the swordsmen “It is your choice. You may make your way down to the ground to finish those men, or you may take cover and wait for us to finish them ourselves. We warn you, though, if you attack them, we will be unable to aid you this time.”

After a moment, one of the swordsmen replied “We shall remain. This task is for you.” Everyone threw themselves flat as several more arrows flew into the area. Loading and drawing in seconds, the pair from Corridane returned their fire. As they took aim and fired, one remarked to the other “They are well disciplined. They seem to die without a sound. How are we to know when we have finished all of them?”

“If that is the case,” replied the second “We must not stop until they do not return our fire.”

“They may think of that themselves, and stop only to act as if they have all died, to catch us unawares.”

“Then, we shall send the swordsmen.”

“Very well.”

Following this dialogue, no one spoke for nearly half an hour, by which time they noticed that arrows had stopped flying in at them. Then the first archer spoke once more. “It is time. Make sure of them all. Then shout to us. We will finish the task.”

Silently, the swordsmen filed out of the tower. Ten minutes later, the archers heard the swordsmen shouting at them from the top of the other tower. “All is finished!” Hearing this, one of the archers drew an arrow he had prepared, put it into the fire, which the others had kept alive during the battle, and fired it up at the area in which he judged the Brandian flag to be hanging on the roof of the tower. A moment later, the flag caught fire, being engulfed in an instant and flaring up as well as any beacon. “That will draw the king’s attention. It being so dark, he will take that as his signal.”

The archer had judged correctly. As soon as the flag had caught fire, Valun and the lancers had noticed it and let out a great cheer. “The towers are taken! We shall cross in safety! Valunaaaria!”

As it was too dark to continue, Valun and his lancers dismounted to take their rest, after Valun had decided that they would wait the next morning until the army had caught up with them. Relieved by the quick resolution to the sudden threat, Valun and his men drifted off to sleep swiftly and silently, sleeping soundly until morning.

The next morning, David was up with the sun, shouting to the ranks of the soldiers. “We could very well reach the end of the pass today, and then I’m sure the king will grant you the rest you need!”

By the time he had stopped shouting, the ranks were upright and ready to move. A moment later, the whole force had begun to march. As they were nearly five hundred yards behind the king, nearly half an hour had passed before David, who was staying close to the men, sighted the king. “The men are ready and waiting, Sire.”

“Good. There are watchtowers at the end of the path, but they are held by my men.” With that, Valun and the lancers mounted and began riding toward the towers which marked the end of the pass.

After the army had been marching for nearly one thousand yards, Valun finally left the path and was the first to set foot in the land of Brandia. After the last rank of men had left the trail, the Valkyries who had taken the towers rejoined the king in their proper positions. When everyone had finally reached the end of the pass, Valun announced that they would go no farther that day

25 November 2011

Chapter XXI

Chapter XXI

Taking the knife along with him, John left the King’s chamber and turned his steps toward the Princess’s chamber once more. His approach, which he kept as silent as he could, nevertheless roused the two dark-skinned guards who had been sleeping on either side of the door. When he reached them, John stopped short and said “I must speak with your mistress.”

In response, the guards knocked softly on the door, spoke some words which John could not comprehend, paused as if waiting for an answer, and a moment later, pushed the door open to admit John. They made as if to follow him inside, but were stopped by the Princess, who spoke, again in words incomprehensible to John, appearing to order them to return to the hall, which they did, shutting the door softly as they left.

When the door was shut, the Princess turned to John, who was still standing near the door, fidgeting nervously, and demanded “And what would you want with me this time? Do you not already know everything which you could wish?”

As he replied, John looked around the room, observing that several more dark-skinned, turban-wearing guards were in attendance on the princess. “It is true. I know all I could wish of you. But do you know all that you could wish of me?”

“I do. I know that you are an emissary of King Valun, and that you have caused some trouble, of which I myself have been the central point. I do not wish to know anymore of you.”

“You are mistaken. You do wish to know more of me. You would be happy if you knew that I am a Prince, with an equal right to claim your hand, and if you knew the depth of my feelings for you.”

“You will be made to take back that rash statement someday, for I also know that you are a scoundrel who is not to be trusted, and I cannot understand why the king likes you so. Moreover, you should know that I am not the sort of empty-headed girl who can be convinced by any man who comes to me with expressions of longing, as you appear to believe.”

“The King no longer desires me to attend upon him. Also, I would be surprised if he actually entertains a semblance of my feelings toward you.”

“Do you expect me to believe that, simply because he is an honorable man, and as such, has gone out to act as he thinks proper, that he cannot care for me? All men desire sons to succeed them. He surely does, more than many of his subjects, being the King, and when he returns from the quest he is about, which is entirely due to his feelings toward his own father, I will be ready.”

Seeing that he could not succeed in convincing the Princess, John turned away to leave. As he made his way down the stairway which lead to the great hall, he began to hear a loud commotion coming from that room. “It is only those stupid guards, still carousing in their crude fashion.” He thought. “Why Valun did not appoint me to the position instead of Robert is something I will never understand.” By the time he had finished this self-centered thought, he was in the great hall. What he saw when he looked up was as far from his expectations as it could possibly have been.

Men were milling about in an utterly disorganized fashion, though most of them appeared to know what they were about. Some were shouting orders to the rest, while several more were hurrying to and fro carrying armloads of weapons and passing them around to the others. It was several minutes before anybody slowed down enough to allow John to catch their attention. When he finally succeeded, a huge guard with a thick beard answered him sharply, saying “You don’t know? Word was brought only ten minutes ago that an enemy force is approaching the city at high speed. Every man who can bear arms has been called to the wall. Order of the Captain, it is.” With that, the giant hefted the spear he was carrying and stomped away.

“Humph” thought John as the guard left “No one seems to care at all for the Princess, and if Robert sees me in the city, he will have me executed without further ceremony for breaching the prison. I must leave, and if I must, I will take the Princess along with me. She is not yet Valun’s Queen, so she could just as easily be mine. Now, how to draw her out…”

It seemed to John only moments later that he was in front of the Princess’s door once more. As soon as he had gained admittance, he began shouting “My Lady! We must flee! Enemies are approaching the city! We will die if we remain within these walls!”

“I have no need of you. My guards can get me out in safety.”

“Even so, you would be cut down and lost soon after you had emerged, for the enemy is approaching far faster than we would wish. If you permitted me to guide you and your guards, all of us would remain safe, so long as we leave soon enough that we are not surrounded by the foe.”

Moving to the window and looking out upon the approaching force, the Princess answered “Very well. If we must, we will follow you. Though I suspect that it is to save yourself from an execution, as much as you claim to wish to keep me safe.” Turning, she snapped an order at her guards in their native tongue. As one, they sprang up and hurried out the door. “It is your turn now.” She said to John, speaking the lingua franca of their lands once more. “I will follow when I am prepared.”

Understanding her meaning, John left the room, but remained in the corridor to wait.

Only twenty minutes later, though it had seemed an hour to John, the Princess reappeared, wearing a thick cloth riding cloak over a dress made of similar material. Noticing John’s look of surprise, she snapped “You didn’t think I was going to wear that thing while escaping into the country, did you?” Almost without pausing, she slipped into the language of her guards, appearing to shout at them too.

A moment later, two of her guards, having reentered her room promptly upon command, returned carrying a trunk. Lifting it above their heads, they continued on past the others and disappeared down the stairway. The Princess then ordered John to follow them, which he did, feeling strangely disappointed. The Princess and her remaining guards then started off only a few feet behind John, the guards carrying their cutlasses in their hands and walking on either side of her.

The party descended the stairs with all possible speed, not pausing until they were in the center of the great hall. When they had arrived there, they found that it was completely empty. Starting again a moment later, the party reached the main gate in minutes. There, they found several of the turbaned black guards waiting silently, holding the camels which their party had arrived on. Once each of them had mounted, John called to the sentries guarding the gate. “Let us through. We must pass!”

Slowly, the great gates opened. Digging his heels into his camel’s side, John sped down the tunnel formed by the gateway, the Princess and her guards following closely behind him.

As soon as they had emerged from the castle, John turned his steed and began riding hard down the nearest street, narrowly avoiding riding down several soldiers who flattened themselves against the walls to avoid being trampled. It happened that the men were guards of the prison and recognized him as he rode away. They prepared to run after him, but were stopped by the party following him. By the time that these had gone past, John was too far ahead to chase after. “We must tell the Captain that he is fleeing, though. He may still be caught.”

As the people of the city were either remaining inside their homes or mustering near the front gates, John and the Gairbairns did not meet anyone else until they reached the smaller gates within the rear wall of the city. Once there, they met only two soldiers who had remained behind to guard these gates. The soldiers rose to block their exit, saying “The Captain has ordered that no one may pass.”

At this, John replied “Bah! I do not care for the Captain or any of his rules! I do not care for anything that obstructs our escape!” Drawing his sword, he knocked both of the guards over the head with the pommel. As they fell unconscious, he leapt down from the camel, still holding the reins, and sliced the bar in two with his sword. Leaping aboard the camel once more, he charged it at the gates. The gates remained shut, nearly causing him to fall off his steed.

He dismounted once more. Grunting in frustration, he found the hinges and began hacking at them. A minute later, the doors could no longer be opened without the danger that they would fall on the opener. Mounting his camel for the second time, he charged it at the gates once more. This time, he succeeded. The doors, having no support, fell into the passageway. In a short, everyone had passed over them.

A moment later they found themselves outside of the city. The first thing John did was to confirm that the enemy had not already circled the walls. Having done this, he turned to the others and said “We are yet safe. They have not yet surrounded the walls.”

In reply, the Princess said “We can see that well enough. Where do you mean to go now?”

Without turning, John replied “You shall know when I am ready to tell you, not before. Until then, we must ride hard to escape.” Falling silent, John turned his camel toward the north and urged it forward. The party rode in the shadow of the walls for as long as possible. When they had reached the extreme corner of the walls, they were spotted by troops of the enemy. Ignoring calls to halt, they urged their camels forward once more, faster than before. As the enemies attempted to ride after them, their horses grew frightened and tried to run away with them. This allowed John and the others ample time to escape.

Looking up at the sky, John remarked “There should be no rest until nightfall.”

“What if my guards choose to halt? You can not order them, not speaking their language.”

“It makes no difference to me. They may stop if they choose.”

“Very well. But what makes you think I will continue on without them?”

John could not admit that he had been hoping that she would do this, and cursed himself for being so foolish. “Well then, we will halt when you choose, as dangerous as it may be.”

“If you saw the horses, you know that our foes will never be able to follow us mounted. And if they attempt to follow on foot, they will never catch us. There is no danger.”

As neither party was content with the way their escape had gone, they remained for some time after their dialogue concerning any possible pursuit. After several hours of silent riding, when they had paused beside a small stream to replenish their own supply of water, John looked up from his position on the bank to inquire of the Princess “What do your guards say of stopping here?”

After consulting with the guards, the princess replied “They wish to continue. They want you to know that they can endure much more than you can, and would rather that you left us, but if we must follow you to avoid getting lost, they advise you to tread carefully.”

“If they will refrain from attacking me by night, as one of their companions did before I left your country, I will not lead you astray.” John replied angrily, feeling insulted. Rising, he left to mount his camel once more.

They rode steadily until the sun began to set, then halted by the side of a stream similar to the one at which they had replenished their water-skins earlier that day. John watched as the Princess’s guards set about erecting the small tent she had, to John’s surprise, managed to bring with her all the way across Gairbairia and Corridane without damage. Catching sight of him standing several yards off from the place where her guards had chosen to erect her tent, the Princess came to where he stood, saying “We have escaped our enemies, and we are on our way to safety. What more could you want that the lack of it causes such an expression as I see on your countenance?”

“Consider our speech of the past. Remember what I have said to you several times before this day. In fact, I spoke of it again back in the city, only this morning. Think back and decide what you shall say when next I mention the subject, for it is that which is causing my unhappiness.”

After a pause, the Princess replied “I understand what you speak of. I must have more time to consider such an action.”

“You have had ample time before this day to decide on the question. Will you or no?”

“You are a man of hasty action. If you wish to remain in my favor, and I warn you that my patience with you is growing dangerously thin, you will allow me all the time I require to make my decision. Having that hanging over your every action should restrain you from doing anything too rash.” Without waiting for an answer, the Princess retired inside the tent, which had by now been erected.

Thinking on her words, John left his position to find a suitable place in the open to pass the night. Deciding to sleep with the beasts for the night, he lay himself down in the center of the sleeping camels, still thinking over the Princess’s last response.