About Me

My photo
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...

Search This Blog

24 February 2012

Chapter XXXIII

Chapter XXXV

It did not take Railon and Dunstan long to reach the place where those who had been chosen to carry the ram had congregated. Without speaking, the king and the general placed themselves at the rear of the group and stood on opposite sides of the heavy log. Resting it on their shoulders, as the other men had done, the Gairbairns stood waiting for the order to move, which was not long in coming.

“Set! Ready! March!”

At the word, eight Naiberns, and the two Gairbairns they most wanted to capture, moved forward to knock at the gates of the castle. Railon was nearly overcome by despair as he looked over the remnants of his destroyed city. “How can we rebuild this?” he thought “Would it not be far better to leave this place and make a new beginning in another land? This land is not friendly to its own people, let alone their enemies.”

The city of Gaimaron had been, and still was, so large that by the time the rammers had reached the gate, they were able only to lay the log on the ground before laying themselves down beside it to rest and regain their strength. King Railon and Sir Dunstan must be included in the number of those who felt that they required rest, but not for the same reason that the Naiberns had done so.

Having gained their rest earlier, the Gairbairns did not lay down to sleep as the others had. Instead, they seated themselves back to back on the log, looking out over the ruined city. Removing his helmet, Railon sighed heavily and said “We are close, and yet so far away. If you will believe me, man, not three weeks ago I was experiencing a festival to health and plenty in a place some hundreds of miles away. You can imagine my surprise when on my way home, I rode straight into an enemy force bent on complete destruction of my land. And so I am home, king of a land of despair and death. Is there any hope?”

“But the Naibern camp was in front of the city. How is it that you rode into it?”

“An adventurer does not always like to return home by the straightest path. My time was my own, since I did not harbor any hopes of ascending to the throne for years to come.”

“What did you learn while you were away, my lord?”

“What did I learn? I learned that there is much to enjoy in other places, but that one’s home, wherever it may be, always calls loudest in the end. I also learned that I had entirely forgotten where the capital lay.” Railon said with a laugh, replacing his helm upon his head once more. He stood up. “Come now, there is much still to be done. Rouse those layabouts.”

Dunstan immediately began shaking the sleeping Naiberns awake. “Come now, men. You would not wish to be found here after sunrise, by anyone. Let us complete our task.”

The Naiberns rose slowly, muttering under their breath at having been roused by a man no higher in rank than they were themselves. Still grumbling, they lined up alongside the log simultaneously, as if they were all together in a trance. The moment they had hoisted the log high enough, Railon and Dunstan ducked underneath, grabbed hold of it themselves, and with one voice, cried “Forward, now!”

At the word, the men began to run toward the gates of the castle, their feet pounding against the ground like hammers driving nails. Before half a minute had passed, they had run head on into the gates, which were still stoutly barred; Sir Dunstan had seen to this before the Gairbairns had departed the fortress. The shock of the first collision nearly knocked the men off their feet.

The rammers retreated and charged again. This time, having braced themselves, they did not stumble, but still they did not make a great impression on the wood.

The men retreated and braced themselves for a third charge. Though they ran harder this time than they had in the previous attempts, they still did not see any sign that their efforts were of any use. As they were retreating for the fourth time, Dunstan whispered to Railon “Fool that I am. I’d completely forgotten that I had the portcullis lowered. We could charge all day. It won’t do us any good.”

“Never fear” Railon replied “We shall get through in the end. Ten men is ample strength to lift a gate such as that.”

“Not if they run themselves to exhaustion, as we are doing. Moreover, I had the ropes cut. We can not leave it hanging.”

“So much the worse for these men. They will have to leave two behind.”

“No, my lord,” Dunstan grunted as the ram collided with the gates yet again. Winded, he began to gasp. “We-can not- manage-it- that way. We must find a more reliable source of support.”

“But how can we do that? Remember, we are Naiberns. We do not know yet where anything is to be found.” As Railon said this, a great crack appeared in the gates, wide enough to allow a man to pass through into the narrow space between the gates and the portcullis.

“I had forgotten.” Sir Dunstan sighed heavily. “And now our difficulty has opened up before our eyes.”

Putting the log aside, the eight Naiberns immediately lined up in front of the portcullis, staring through it as if they were inmates in a prison, eagerly watching the outside world go by before their eyes. Railon snorted with impatience at this behavior. “Come now, men! We have no time to lose! If you are so eager to see the castle, why are you not trying to get inside? Ready now! Lift!”

Bending one knee, Railon grasped the lowest bar he could comfortably reach. Realizing what he was attempting, the Naiberns immediately followed his lead. Sir Dunstan stood back from the gate, knowing that Railon would soon move away.

The nine men at the gate exerted all their strength against the great mass of iron which was blocking their path. As the land was covered in darkness, Dunstan could not really see how hard the men were working, but by their labored breathing, he guessed that they were struggling.

Suddenly, he heard a Naibern call out “It is raised! Now how are we to keep it so?”

And then his king’s answer. “Leave that to me… I have it! Two of us must remain here! The rest will bring up the ram! That will support this!”

A second strange voice called back impatiently. “Well, do it then! We’ll be crushed if we wait here a moment longer!”

“As you will, then!” replied Railon, releasing his hold on the metal and backing away. “Dunstan! Bring up the ram!”

It was not long before Dunstan and several of the Naiberns returned to the gate carrying the log, which was as tall as a man and astonishingly wide. “Quickly!” Dunstan called to the others “We have one chance!”

Running forward, they wedged the log underneath the gate so that it was standing straight up, taking the full weight of the metal upon itself, as the two Naiberns holding up the gate had by then ducked out of the way.

Suddenly, one of the Naiberns took charge of the operation. Pointing to one man, he said “You run back to the camp and report our success. We are entering the castle.” As the man he had designated departed from the group, the soldier added to the others “Remember. Leave no one alive.”

Railon and Dunstan immediately ran ahead of the other men so as to speak together in relative privacy. They maintained their dialogue as they moved through the courtyard up to the gate.

“Here is yet another difficulty.” said Dunstan, who was barely able to keep pace with his king, who was sprinting eagerly toward the doors. “How are we to dig a proper hole? Shields will not do for this task.”

“I am aware of that.” Railon replied “but you must believe there are spades hidden somewhere in the courtyard. Else I would not have agreed so readily to leave king Torlan buried in the grounds of his castle.”

“Is there not a rear gate? One which offers a swifter passage to the river?”

“Do you mean to say that you now wish to bring the king out after all? It was you who convinced to me to bury him here.” As he said this, Railon was engaged in lifting off the bar which locked the doors on the inside. The bar soon fell free, and Railon pushed the doors open.

“I did not know then how full of danger and uncertainty this whole venture was. We must bring him to his mound if we can. You wish to do so, far more than I do, as you are his brother.”

“Very well, man,” said Railon, pausing for a moment to watch the Naiberns spread out behind them, each making for a different point to begin their search. Laying his hand on Dunstan’s shoulder, he added “I charge you to find the path to the river, whilst I go to prepare my brother the king for the journey. Remember what that other man said at the gate, and leave none alive. Else we will surely be discovered and slain.” With a last look at Sir Dunstan, Railon turned and ran up the stairs.

Sir Dunstan stood frozen for a moment, watching Railon run up the stairs to the king’s chamber. Then, he remembered what he had been ordered to do, and hurried off to find the rear gate, only now feeling surprise at what he had said earlier.

“The rear gate… the rear gate…I have never been in this castle before! Why would I claim something was there which may not be? But he said…”

“Eh? He said what? Who said what?” demanded a bodiless voice. A moment later, the owner of the voice stepped out of the shadows. It was one of the Naiberns who had entered the castle behind Dunstan and Railon.

“I’ll tell you what I say” the man continued sounding frustrated “I say there’s nobody left in this whole place, and we’d best be after them before they get away.”

Unsheathing his sword almost halfway, Dunstan snarled “And I tell you what I say, and that is you’re to die, now!” Drawing his blade completely out, he slew the man with one thrust before the Naibern realized what was happening. Only stopping for a moment to prop the man up against the wall, Dunstan hurried onward, toward what he knew by now to be the rear wall. .

Guessing that the rear gate would most probably be found in the scullery, Sir Dunstan quickly chose a direction and began to walk carefully, keeping one hand on the wall all the time. There were no torches to light his path, so he was unable to properly see where he was going, and was forced to trust to luck. He had been moving down the passage for several minutes when, suddenly, there was no longer anything under his feet. He barely had time to notice the emptiness before he had missed the step and consequentially began to slide head foremost down the stairway, which was, fortunately, a straight one.

As he was sliding, Dunstan found himself unable to arrange his thoughts. However, when he had finally reached the bottom and found himself skidding across the floor, he thought “Dash it all! That little experience will have all the Naiberns down on my head in moments!” Having waited a few moments, he rose from the floor slowly. Having moved in darkness for so long, he was now beginning to see dim outlines of the objects in the room, well enough that he was able to avoid a collision with any object.

Stepping over to the wall, Dunstan began to move along it carefully, hoping against hope that he would find a door here. When he had finished two walls and was searching the one opposite the door, he finally heard the sounds he had been dreading might come.

There was a cry of “There’s a live one down this way!” followed by the sound of several men moving quickly along the passage that led to the stairway which opened into the room he was in. Sir Dunstan noticed the reflection of light off the walls before he saw the men.

“Torches!” he said to himself. Where did they find those? I’m found! No matter. They shall pay for this!” Drawing his sword and putting his other arm through the straps of his shield, he prepared to make a stand.

Sir Dunstan had prepared himself not a moment too soon. The instant he had raised his shield, the Naiberns reached the bottom of the steps, their torches flooding the room with light. The leader called out to him angrily. “So there you are, you traitor! Will you come quietly, or do we have to kill you?” He paused, taking in Dunstan’s drawn blade, raised shield, and position against the wall. “You want a fight? Very well then, you shall get it, you rat. To your death. I have four men behind me.” The leader concluded, stepping into the room to allow the passage of the others. Drawing their blades, they moved in toward the Gairbairian knight.

“I am not a traitor.” Said Dunstan softly as they continued to move toward him. “I see you are missing a man. Has he been slain? It was I who did that. And now, if you are men, come and fight. Talimariooooooonnnnn!”

When he had left Sir Dunstan at the foot of the stairs in the central hall, Railon had run directly to the king’s chamber, in which he had placed his brother not two days ago. By good fortune, he found a torch which had not yet burnt down. Proceeding to the king’s room, he stopped in the doorway, taking a last long look at the serene, composed expression on the face of the late king. Moving to the side of the bed, he said “I have come. O Great One, spirits of our fathers, witness that I have come to give the last honors to my brother, Torlan the magnificent, who, as you know, fell honorably in battle. I held myself bound to place him in his mound, and I have come to honor my promise.”

Rising, he placed the torch in a bracket which was situated directly above the king’s head, several feet up the wall, where it would cast down light upon the whole of the bed.

First, he carefully removed Torlan’s helmet, which he placed so softly it hardly made a sound. Having done this, he continued to remove the late king’s armor until there was no longer anything to hinder him from removing the hauberk underneath. Rather than disturb the body, he drew a knife which he kept hidden and slit the materiel down to the belt, which he had not removed. Letting the two sides fall, he did the same to the sleeves. Having done this, he was now able to uncover the wounds which had killed the king, which had long since hardened.

Stepping across the room to a small alcove, Railon removed a fresh white hauberk. Carrying this back with him, he quickly cut off the sleeves and laid them aside for the moment. Then, he proceeded to draw the clean hauberk over the body, while endeavoring to move the body as little as possible. Having finished this task, he drew the separated sleeves over each arm in turn, and only then placed both arms across the chest in the traditional position. This done, he returned to the alcove and retrieved the long winding sheet which had been brought to him during his vigil. He had only just finally begun this last, longest, part of his task when he heard Sir Dunstan’s battle-cry echo off the walls.

Momentarily startled, he dropped the shroud and cried “Sir Dunstan is in danger! I shall return!” Running across to the door of the room, he snatched up his sword, clapped his helm upon his head, grabbed his shield, and ran down the stairs.

Sir Dunstan, backed against the wall as he was, was fighting brilliantly. He was, in fact, the greatest swordsman in all the countries. He was forced to bring all his carefully honed skill to bear against his attackers, none of whom were mean fighters themselves. Sir Dunstan had not yet had an opportunity to eliminate any of his attackers. However, with an unending series of lightning-quick moves of both his sword and shield, he was able to keep anyone from harming him.

After several minutes of hard combat, Sir Dunstan suddenly caught sight of a shadow proceeding down the stairway into the room. Even before he saw Railon coming to his aid, he cried “No, my lord! Do not come down here! You, of all men, must escape to lead the others! Trust me, my lord! You will help me far more by leaving me here!”

Railon, who had by now stepped within the range of the torchlight despite Dunstan’s warnings, said “Surely you would be glad of my help? I came instantly when I heard your cry!”

“I had forgotten then, that I was trapping you down here, my lord! Go! Return to your brother and honor him as you wish! These men are not too much for me!” As he spoke, Dunstan had been moving slowly along the wall. At his last words, he felt the wood of the door behind his back rather than the firm coldness of the wall.

Suddenly, the leader of the Naiberns, seeing what he was about, said “Two of you get that other. This one boasts and is fleeing. See? He was searching for the door.”

Railon, who had stood silently on the last step, heard the words of his enemy, and turned away, to run back up the castle to the chamber he had left. He could easily hear the sounds of the two men pounding up the steps behind him. “Just two?” he thought to himself “Ha. I may not be Sir Dunstan, but any king worth the respect the respect he receives can defeat three men. And now, to the chamber.”

Suddenly thrusting himself forward, Dunstan laughed at his enemies. “I boast and flee? You could not defeat me with four companions. Let us see how you do with only two!” Dodging a hasty blow, he spun away, so that his opponents now had their backs to the wall as they turned to face him.

Without speaking, the three Naiberns split up in an attempt to surround the defiant Gairbairian knight, who was now standing in the darkest part of the room. As his enemies closed in upon him, Dunstan charged, disarmed one of the men, and slew him in a moment. Now that his blood was up, Dunstan was reveling in the excitement, and he ran laughing past his enemies, to mount a table in the center of the room and wait there for the Naiberns.

The Naiberns advanced slowly, creeping along the walls. Suddenly, they grabbed the still-flaming torches they had brought from the brackets they had placed them in earlier, hurling them at the knight on the table.

Sir Dunstan reacted instinctively, putting his shield up to deflect the threat. Thus, he saved himself from the pain of the contact. However, he had been momentarily dazed by the bright light, and for several seconds could not see to protect himself. His foes, knowing this, charged at him and knocked him to the floor.

Though he did not lose hold of either his sword or shield, Dunstan, who now lay on his back on the cold stone floor, could no longer defend himself, for the shock of the contact had stunned him, and he was unable to move.

While the combat he had left was proceeding in the manner described, king Railon was locked in combat himself, in the upper chambers. Wasting no time, Railon had returned to Torlan’s chamber as quickly as possible, followed by the two Naiberns set to that task. Close by the king’s room, Railon had turned and set upon his pursuers. But they had forced him back, and now the three men were maneuvering around the room in which lay the body of king Torlan.

Before long, the two invaders, attacking relentlessly, had pinned Railon to the far wall of the room. A moment passed while everyone caught their breath, the Naiberns still menacing Railon with their blades. Suddenly, with a loud cry, Railon attacked. In two swift movements, he slew one man and pushed the other aside, so that the man almost lost his balance. Snatching up his brother’s sword from where he had placed it earlier, Railon turned and hurled it like a spear at the remaining man. Without waiting to see the result of this last action, he turned and ran back down the stairs as fast as he could go, determined this time to aid Sir Dunstan, whether the knight wanted aid or not.

When he reached the passage which led to the last room, Railon realized that he could no longer hear any sounds of battle. Fearing the worst, he redoubled his speed. Knowing that his enemies were likely waiting at the door for his approach, he made his way down the steps carefully, holding himself ready to fight at any time. On the last step, he stopped. Suddenly, with a cry, he brought his sword around in a great sweeping swing, hoping to hit the man who was presumably standing there.

But before his blade had yet met any resistance, Railon heard a cry. “My lord, if it is you, stay your hand, I beg you! If you are an enemy, come in and slay me face to face like a man!”

Quickly pulling his arm back once more, Railon leapt inside and turned to face Sir Dunstan. “My good knight! What has happened to you? Where are those men, your foes?”

“They deprived me of my senses, and placed me here in the hope that you would do just as you did. I am fortunate that I returned to the world not a moment too soon. They have taken my arms, so you will need to hold them off yourself. Turn. they are coming.”

At Dunstan’s last words, Railon turned to see the remaining two Naiberns running toward him, their swords and shields held high.

Railon, taking note of the speed at which his enemies were approaching, watched them come on, waiting for just the right moment, all his muscles tightened like springs to the point that, in the light, it would have seemed that his skin would break from the strain of holding them in.

At the last possible moment, when death was no more than a hand’s width from his face, Railon leapt aside, crying “Look to your hands!”, rolled over, and sprang up three feet away from the others.

Sir Dunstan, having heard Railon’s words, quickly lashed out with both his hands, giving the nearer Naibern a box on the ear while at the same time wrenching his own sword, which the man was wearing in his belt, away from its captor. As the two Naiberns skidded to a halt, narrowly escaping a collision with the wall which might have killed them, and turned again to face him, Dunstan ran to Railon’s side.

There followed a fierce combat which rang throughout the ground level of the castle, and would have brought men running had there been any alive to come. In the midst of the battle, when the opportunity presented itself, any one of the men would snatch a torch from the floor where they had been dropped, and place them in the nearby brackets, and so the room was gradually made visible and combat easier.

It was some time before the balance tipped in favor of either party. Sir Dunstan, who had spent the most effort in fighting of all the combatants, was beginning to tire, and had found that he was matched against one who could nearly rival his skill. At the moment, Sir Dunstan was being backed slowly toward the wall, and knew that he would not last another ten minutes if Railon could not soon come to his aid. Moments later, he heard Railon’s cry of victory and thought “I am saved.”

Over his foe’s shoulder, Dunstan saw Railon come dashing in, sword raised to finish the task. But at the last moment, the Naibern swung his blade back over his shoulder to parry Railon’s blow, locking the blades. Making use of Railon’s resistance, the Naibern then sprang away, sprinting to the body of his last companion. Snatching the man’s sword, he advanced against the Gairbairns, pointing both blades at them menacingly.

The Gairbairns advanced warily, as Dunstan advised Railon “Watch him closely. He is a match for either of us.”

Railon replied softly “Yes, but for both of us?”

Their foe cut in suddenly, mocking them. “Come now, are we playing the game, or are we still arranging the pieces? Are you men, or are you dogs the likes of which must be whipped back to your kennels? Yes, I know it was you” He said, pointing a blade at Railon. “Why didn’t you tell that old fool on the armored horse to stand out of my way? Of course, it is too late now. My men taught him his place.”

Unable to restrain themselves in the face of such open insults, the two Gairbairns charged upon their foe recklessly, shouting with one voice: “Talimarion!”

That fight, from the time of Railon’s return to the scene through to the end, had no equal in all the history of the country, before or after it.

17 February 2012

Chapter XXXII

Chapter XXXIV

Railon, newly king of Gairbairia following his brother’s death, ran through the underground passages in which all that remained of his men were hiding, holding a blazing torch aloft, shouting regularly all the while: “I go to the utter end! Follow me who will!”

Railon had been running for nearly fifteen minutes when he finally reached the ‘utter end’ of the passage and came to the final cave. When Sir Dunstan had caught up with him, Railon spoke, saying “Now we will find a passage to the world. If there is none, we will make one. We must leave this place without going back.”

“If you will allow me, my lord.” said Sir Dunstan, extending his hand for the torch, the king held. As Railon gave it to him, Dunstan lit a second one which he had brought, and then turned and strode off to explore the rest of the chamber, torches held high over his head.

As he grew farther away from the king and closer to the dark outer recesses of the cavern, Dunstan came across several creatures which would have caused most men to step back in shock. But Dunstan was not the man to shrink from a rat in the dark, especially when his lord had entrusted him with a mission. He paid no heed to rats scampering past or bats flying overhead. The only creature which drew a reaction from him was a snake which he nearly stepped on before noticing its presence. As he thrust a torch forward to deter it from attacking him, he thought ‘Snakes like this one don’t live underground. There is an opening! But will it stand up to five thousand men?’ Quickly stepping over the snake, Dunstan continued on his way, his hopes raised.

It was not long before he discovered the entrance to a tunnel which was wide enough to admit the passage of two men side by side. The floor of the tunnel was on the same level as the floor of the cavern, so Dunstan advanced a few steps into the tunnel in an attempt to see whether it was safe. As he spread his torches out to either side, Dunstan caught sight of stout girders of wood wedged firmly into the edges of the passage to ensure that it did not collapse. Keeping his torch as far away as he was able, Dunstan reached out to the nearest one and tapped it hard. It did not move and sounded firm. Unable to restrain himself any longer, Dunstan cried out “Praise The One and the wisdom of our fathers! We are free!” Turning, Dunstan ran back to the spot at which he had left Railon as if he were running for a prize.

Railon, who had been leaning against the wall of the cavern, stood up anxiously when Dunstan came sprinting into view, worried that perhaps the enemy had found a passage into this, their last place of refuge.

But this was not the case. The moment Dunstan had come within earshot of Railon, he exclaimed “I give you joy, my king! I have found the tunnel our forefathers dug! It is well supported, but we must begin moving the men out now!”

“You speak the truth, as ever, my good knight.” Railon replied calmly. “You catch your breath, and then take the lead, as it was you who found the passage. I shall tell the rest myself.”

“As you wish, my lord.” Sir Dunstan replied, slumping against the wall of the cavern and letting his head drop to his chest.

Going back through the tunnel himself, Railon stopped in every cavern to tell the men the message. “Sir Dunstan has found our way out of this trap. Those of you who are the strongest go to end of the passage to follow him out first. I shall come up at the rear to ensure that no man is left behind.”

It was not long before the men began to move forward, slowly but steadily. They moved in silence. In fact, the evacuation of the caverns continued without incident until only five men were left underground alongside the king. The first two entered the tunnel and completed their passage safely; nothing extraordinary occurred. The next two entered the tunnel and began to make their way outside; suddenly, when it seemed they were nearly at the top, an ominous sound became apparent to Railon and the man beside him. It was the sound of sand sliding down the tunnel, gaining momentum and volume every moment. The tunnel and the beams that supported it were finally releasing the stress put upon them by the crossing of five thousand men in no less than two hours.

Railon turned to his companion anxiously, to find that the man was looking even more anxiously back at him. Wasting no breath on words of encouragement, Railon said grimly “I order you to run for your life. Follow me.” There was nothing more to be said. Railon dashed headlong into the tunnel, not knowing or caring whether the man had followed or not. He was barely able to squint through the rain of sand which was now falling so hard that he could hear it more easily than he could his own footsteps.

Finally, when Railon was sure he could finally see the end of the tunnel, a large chunk of sand at the top of a narrow point, where many men had had their helmets covered with the stuff due to brushing against it, fell hard to the floor of the tunnel and broke apart. This was the moment that Dunstan and Railon had feared would come. The loosening of that piece which had just fallen, which was nearly a foot square, caused an almost instantaneous rupture of the entire tunnel roof. The tunnel had caved in.

Only feet from the outside world, Railon lost his footing as the sand came rushing down upon him. With all his strength, he shouted “Dunstaaaan!” Turning to grasp the hand of the man who had come behind him, Railon began to slide inexorably back down the tunnel.

On the surface, Sir Dunstan, who had been waiting anxiously for Railon to appear for the past hour or more, leapt to his feet when he heard the last, desperate, cry of his king. Wasting no time, he shouted at the men. “Swiftly! Do not tarry! The tunnel has claimed our king, but we may still save him! Use shields! Use anything you have! Save your king!” Setting an example to the men, Dunstan himself abruptly seized his shield, buried it in the sand, and launched a cascade of earth over his shoulder, forcing the men behind him to duck. In moments, a vast number of men had joined Dunstan around the site of the collapsed tunnel, digging furiously.

Seeing unintended danger in the situation of so many men in the most dangerous area, Dunstan called out “No more than ten should dig at a time! The rest of you keep watch! You’ll kill the king if so many of you stand around here!” Accordingly, all but the required number of men abruptly left the area.

Several feet beneath their frantic efforts to reach him, king Railon lay buried. He and the other man were now motionless, knowing that this would keep them alive for some time longer. It was a stroke of luck that one of the beams near the entrance to the tunnel had come sliding down after the men, laid out across the width of the passage. Railon had managed to get a hand on it as he slid down, and now, firmly wedged into the walls of the passage, it was the two men's‘ only hope for survival.

It seemed to Railon that he had spent an eternity beneath the sand. He had not been thinking this for long before he ceased thinking entirely, as he had fainted due to the lack of air under the surface.

Sir Dunstan and the men had been digging furiously since the time that the tunnel had collapsed, and it was exhausting work. Just as it seemed as if all was futile and lost, however, they finally succeeded in uncovering the king, who, as we have said, was unaware of their actions. Grasping Railon under his arms, Sir Dunstan dragged him out of the tunnel, while others leapt forward to rescue his companion.

Wasting no time, Sir Dunstan immediately began removing Railon’s armor as quickly as his could. Working feverishly, he and another man had soon removed the king’s helmet and his breastplate. Nervous with worry, Sir Dunstan called loudly for water. In a short time, he had gained possession of someone’s water-skin, opened it, and upended it over the king’s face. Having done this, he could now do no more than to wait, and hope.

Several anxious moments passed before the fresh air and the water on his face began to have an effect on Railon. No one moved; all of them were anxiously awaiting the results of their rescue. Then finally, when all the men were on the edge of despair at the king’s apparent fate, he began to breathe more deeply. A moment later, he opened his eyes to see Sir Dunstan standing over him, the tension he had felt still evident on his face.

“Thanks be to The One... I am king.... and... I am alive.” pronounced Railon in a low voice only those in the front ranks were able to hear. Seeing that Sir Dunstan had extended a hand to help him up, Railon took it and pulled himself slowly up onto his feet. His completion of this action was met with sudden and loud cries of joy.

“Hail king Railon! May he reign long and well! Hail king Railon!”

By this time, Railon had regained his strength. No longer accepting Sir Dunstan’s support, he signaled for quiet. When the men had fallen silent once more, he spoke. “Hail to you, my brave men. We have come through many trials, and yet we have many more trials, perhaps more than before, to endure before we may rest. All those who live and all those who have died have endured the loss of everything they held dear. But despite that, we will rise again, shall we not?”

There was much ringing of weapons as the men replied with one voice. “We shall!”

“Then I say to you, follow me, and I promise you that we shall one day regain what we have lost, and we shall make it greater than it was before! I go to Trepalenmar!”

Suddenly, Railon stopped short, and a look of despair became evident on his face. Turning to Sir Dunstan, he said “I failed. We failed to bring the king Torlan out with us, and now there is no passage into the castle which is not guarded by scores of enemies. Torlan will never rest in his mound. I have failed.”

“Yes, it is true. The king Torlan is beyond our help... Unless you consent that he shall not have a mound.”

“The greatest of the kings, and not have a mound raised over him? What can you be thinking of?”

“Would you prefer that he lie moldering in his chamber, so that when you return you will be compelled to seal it, and have it remain as a mark of what you consider shame? It would be better to send two men to go into the foes’ camp, enter the castle, bury the king quietly in the courtyard, and return. If men were to attempt to leave the castle carrying something they did not previously have before all have searched, they are bound to be detained.”

“I see the wisdom in your words.”

“Very well. Shall you choose the men yourself, or shall I?”

“We shall go ourselves. There is no one here more fit for the task.”

“There is also no one here the men would miss more.”

“The Great One will see us through. Come.”

By this time, Sir Dunstan could clearly see the obstinate determination in the king’s face; that he would attempt this thing alone if necessary, regardless of the danger, which was greater to him than to any other. Borrowing the shields of two men, Dunstan passed one to his king, saying “We should do our utmost to help ourselves. It would be best if you were to take this plain shield. The emblems visible on our own would betray us in moments.”

Railon, who had not yet regained his previous good humor, did not deign to reply. Snatching the shield from Dunstan, he clapped his helmet back upon his head and strode off angrily. He could see the wisdom in everything Dunstan said, but believed he had admitted the fact once too often. If he continued to defer to Dunstan, he thought, the man might begin to believe that he was not as wise as he needed to appear.

The two men walked in silence, approaching the Naibern camp from the direction of the river in order to appear that they had only been resupplying and so draw less attention to themselves.

The Gairbairn king and his general strode through the camp swiftly, not deigning to look to one side or the other. In a few minutes, they had reached a space close by the great gates. Removing their helmets, they lay down on the ground, gathering their cloaks about themselves to shield their faces from any who might recognize them from the battle. Leaning toward each other on their arms, they confirmed their plans.

“How shall we make our way inside?” asked Sir Dunstan, glancing around to ensure that they had not been noticed.

“This army thinks we are still within the castle. No doubt they will soon begin attempting to batter down the gate. They shall, for there is of course, no one inside to stop them.”

“But when they have done that, they will surely attempt to search the castle for us, and then plunder the place. We will be unable to do anything for the king then.”

“Do you remember how that whole army slept within range of an enemy because they are not accustomed to the heat as we are? They will do so again, and at that time, we will enter the castle, find the king, bury him in the courtyard, and return to our own people before they have risen. Watch and wait.”

“I am with you, my lord.”

“You shall be rewarded.” Railon replied. Turning on his other side, he attempted to gain what rest he could.

It was several hours later when the Gairbairn king and his general were roused abruptly by movement nearby, which could only be a party of Naiberns preparing to ram the castle gates.

The first voice Railon and Dunstan heard was that of a nearby division commander rousing his forces. “Everyone up! We’ll get them today! Eight men for the ram!”

Without warning, Railon felt a heavy boot collide with his back as the same voice remarked “Are we awake yet? The two of you look ready to carry a ram. Get up! Move!”

Unable to resist, Railon found himself being prodded to do that which he had most hoped he would not: giving aid to his enemies in destroying his own front gate. Picking up his cloak and shield, he glanced at Dunstan, who had done the same. Replacing his helmet upon his head, he snapped “Very well. Come on, then.” Without another word, the two men strode off to join the Naiberns who had been detailed to carry the ram.

10 February 2012

Chapter XXXI

Chapter XXXIII

At about mid-morning of the day that Valun fought the black Brandians, as Valun and his men were beginning to fall back before the foes’ numbers , Robert the Ram, the captain of the Guard, stood upon the wall of Valun’s castle, surveying once more the force arrayed against his few men. Three days ago, when the siege had begun, he had put on a brave face to ensure that the men's’ confidence in themselves would remain high. Since then, they had been forced to endure whole days of doing absolutely nothing on short rations, which were already getting shorter by the day.

But even so, he knew they would fight to the last and give a memorable account of themselves which would be celebrated in song for many generations to come. That is, if Valun ever returned and succeeded in defeating the force which was now besieging the castle. Willingly or not, he had caught himself thinking of that army again.

“Drive them from your mind!” He thought to himself. “They’re not doing anything. Why worry about them?” With this, he let his thoughts drift down other paths.

He thought of his friends; John, the sly one who had always shown a special skill for fooling people. Generally, he had only done it to aid his friends, but as he grew older, Robert had worried that he might turn against them. When told, Valun had brushed it off as excessive caution. Richard, the one who had always had a flair for the dramatic and been inclined to suggest how Robert and John might put their time to better use than what they were doing; namely, that they practice their dueling. Ah, Richard. Excellent at giving orders, fighting, and overdoing simple things. No wonder Valun had made him general over Robert. And of course Valun himself, the lord and sovereign over the other three. From the beginning, he had taken his duties as a ruler seriously. He had always considered it his right to step in and settle the others’ arguments for them, yet he always managed it in a way that allowed him to retain the respect of both parties. Robert could not remember a time when he had ended an argument with the phrase “ Enough! Hold your tongues by order of the throne!” And of himself, Robert? What did he wish the others to think of him? What did they think of him? What was he? He, Robert, was the quiet, strong, one who had always preferred to do things with as little flair as possible, in direct contrast to Richard’s style. Robert’s ability to withstand any test and inspire other men to do the same was undoubtedly a major factor in Valun’s decision to nominate him as the Captain of the Guard. That had left John only the position of emissary. Not the position Robert would have placed him in, but then, Robert would not have given John any position, and sending him out of the country was far better than putting the defense of the nation under his charge.

Loud cries and sounds of wood clattering against stone brought Robert back into the world around him in a manner far more shocking than he had hoped for. “Daydreaming on guard, with a hostile force at the door? What am I good for, then?” he thought, drawing his sword and attacking the nearest foe. He was soon so preoccupied with retaining his life against the overwhelming force that he had no time to rally the men.

Every time he thrust a man back from the wall, another took his place. Their weight was too much for Robert to risk attempting to push the ladder away completely. Finally, after several minutes of hacking and parrying, Robert was driven from the edge of the wall, enabling the Naiberns to gain that section of the wall, though at great cost. Robert could hear no sound anywhere save the clashing of swords and shields. A moment’s respite from his duel allowed him to see that he was now nearly alone on his side of the wall. The guards who remained were being swiftly overwhelmed by charging enemies.

At long last, when he was nearly overcome with weariness and the belief that his end had surely come, Robert heard a sound which both stunned him and filled him with joy. The horns of Corridane, accompanied by thundering cries of “Valunarriaaaa! Valunarriiaaaa!” Against all odds, much of the army had returned! Robert was so stunned, that for a moment, all he do was to stand and watch as the banners of Valun and Richard, with Richard in his great helm of the black plume before them, and at least twenty-five thousand men charging behind, came straight toward the city. This short moment that Robert paused was enough for the massive soldier fighting him to push forward with a last effort and send Robert toppling from the wall. Coming back to reality at the last moment, Robert dropped his sword, and with the last reserves of his great strength, pulled his enemy over the edge with him.

Only feet from the walls, Richard brought his dramatic charge to an abrupt halt as he remembered how the city was designed. After a short pause, he called out “Our own city opposes our attack, but that will not stop valiant Corridanes! Onward and give no quarter! The best and bravest must ride in front! Any man who thinks himself worthy of those titles, come with me now! The rest must follow close behind!”

With the conclusion of these words, Richard spurred his horse straight toward the center of the city. Several men followed behind him, as many more flooded the remaining streets. Their sudden, bold, charge caught the last Naiberns still attempting to scale the walls of the fortress. Desperate to avenge their countrymen, Richard’s men cut down the Naiberns as if they were harvesting wheat just before a storm. Only moments had passed before several men had scaled the ladders and held the battlements to enable their comrades to follow. They met little resistance because the majority of the Naibern force was busy on the ground finishing off the last of the guards, who, though disheartened by Robert’s fall and seeming death, were among the bravest men in the kingdom and were giving a good account of themselves.

In a short time, Richard’s men had recaptured the walls and begun to stream down the stairways to the aid of the remaining guards. They had captured the walls, but they still faced daunting odds. The enemy force, which had once numbered fifty thousand men still, even after suffering losses made all the more staggering by the defenders' small numbers, numbered as many as thirty thousand. In the first several minutes, the shock of the arrival of Richard’s twenty-five thousand men turned the battle in favor of the Corridanes. But soon, the Naiberns' superior numbers began to take their toll.

The Naiberns had pushed the Corridanes back to the walls of the city before Richard was able to rally them. “Stand firm, men! Only five thousand men stood against more than this, and they did not surrender! There are more than twenty-five thousand of us, and yet we fall back against a force hardly bigger than ours? Stand firm, and charge like Corridanes!”

Richard’s hard words gave his men new strength. They threw themselves from the wall and charged upon the Naiberns, fighting harder than ever before and breaking their foes’ line. From then on, the battle was turned in favor of the Corridanes. Despite their greater numbers, the Naiberns withered under the renewed force of the Corridanes’ onslaught. Throughout the combat, Richard, due to his great height and thick black plume, was clearly visible wherever the attack was most in danger of failing.

After nearly an hour of intense combat, the ferocity of the Corridanes’ attack had stifled the Naiberns attempts to reorganize, causing many of them to attempt to break toward the walls once the Corridanes had left them. Few of those achieved their goal. Finally, at the conclusion of the battle, which had been fought all over the city, the numbers on both sides had been reduced by staggering amounts. There were barely a thousand Corridanes fit to stand guard over the captives taken during the fighting, who numbered nearly as many as their captors.

Richard, whose lifelong regular practice alone had kept him alive, and had taken several life-threatening blows himself, was looking over the dead after the battle when he came to the place where Robert had landed after falling from the wall at Richard’s arrival. The face-down position of the Naibern intrigued Richard, who had noticed that nearly all the dead lay on their backs. A moment later, he noticed that the Naibern lay upon another body, which was presumably that of a Corridane. Richard called another man to his aid, and the two of them lifted the body of the Naibern and moved it aside. A long moment later, when Richard realized that the body he had uncovered was that of his friend, Robert, Captain of the Guards, he fell to one knee and tore off his helmet. Holding his hand out flat an inch from Robert’s face, he felt the hot breath which told him that his friend was alive. Standing, he cried “Praise The Great One! Our Captain is alive!”

Richard and the other man lifted Robert’s body only enough to slip Richard’s shield, which he had been wearing on his back, underneath, and then put Robert back down slowly, lifted the shield by the straps, and slowly marched into the castle, where they set their burden down carefully on the great central table. With Robert safely deposited on the table, Richard left to visit the storerooms and draw some water.

There was no-one at the entrance when he arrived there; the storeroom wardens had indeed been called to fight, and had died like so many others, somewhere in the higher reaches of the castle. Opening the nearest hogshead, which appeared to be old wine, Richard took a flask from a nearby ledge, filled it, and brought it back up to the still unconscious Robert. Without further ado, Richard poured the wine down Robert’s throat.

Robert came awake with a start, but remained lying upon the table. A moment later, he noticed Richard standing beside him, grinning from ear to ear. “Richard? Wait- Why does my breath smell like old wine? Am I drunk? There are better ways to rouse a man who’s lost his senses, you know. Yes, you know, but you always have to go about doing things in the hardest way possible.”

Shaking his head and breaking into laughter, Richard replied “Oh, Robert! Robert my friend! Do you feel drunk? No, you don’t. You’ve never been drunk in your life, and you wouldn’t say that unless you’d just been rescued from near suffocation. That man I found you under was large enough to have knocked me aside as if I were a boy. How did you survive?”

“The one thing you never paid much attention to, my friend. Strength. You and the others didn’t give me the title of ‘the ram’ for nothing, remember?”

“If memory serves, we call you that because you’re so stubborn, and hard-headed.” Richard said, laughing.

“Stubborn and hard-headed, am I? It’s you who makes everything harder, with your useless flourishes and careless behavior!”

“Come now, enough jibes. The enemy is defeated, but heavy work remains to be done before we may rest.”

“You are mistaken” Robert replied, growing solemn “there is an enemy we can not defeat still working against us. Hunger. My men and I have been subsisting on insufficient rations for several days already.”

“Have no fear. A force as large as the one we defeated surely had enough provisions with them to sustain the much smaller numbers we have to feed now.” With that, Richard departed to the field outside the ruined walls, where he did indeed discover vast amounts of food. He had known it was there, having seen it as he arrived, but of course he had not been aware then that it would be needed so desperately. But it did not worry him overmuch now, as he knew that if there was one thing that could not be overestimated in wartime, it was the amount of food an army must bring with it to maintain a siege. In a short time, he had all the survivors, including the Naibern prisoners, moving back and forth between the field and the castle, carrying provisions.

Two hours later, when all the provisions fit to be saved had been safely stowed in the storerooms, Richard returned to the great hall, where Robert was still lying upon the table, and showing signs of great pain.

“What ails you?” Richard asked anxiously “You seemed well enough when I left.”

“That was because” Robert replied, grimacing “I had not yet regained my senses completely, and was unaware myself of how much pain I had brought upon myself by falling from the wall. Landing underneath a soldier in full armor who is as tall as the king and appeared twice his weight does not help either.”

“Not is. Was. I spotted your knife in his chest as I lifted him off you. How did you do that?”

“I felt it sliding out as I fell. My arm then put my training into practice. I hardly noticed what I was doing. And now, enough of talk. Get this armor off me and I will feel better.”

Richard nodded assent, and the next several minutes were spent in silence as Richard systematically removed Robert’s painfully crushed armor. When he reached the breastplate, though, Robert stopped him for a moment, saying “Just cut it off. We can repair it later. Right now, I need to remain still.” Without answering, Richard drew a knife he carried and slit the straps which held the two sides of the breastplate together. As he lifted it off, Robert remarked “That is a great help, but it won’t mend things immediately.”

“Where else have you been injured?”

“I feel that my right leg is broken, several ribs have cracked, and, as you have noticed, my right hand is hanging limp. I was still holding the knife when I hit the ground. It was my wrist or my life, so I count myself lucky that my hand gave way under that man’s weight.”

Expressing surprise, Richard then pronounced “Moving you far is out of the question in your state. I will have some men put a pallet down for you at the end of the hall.”

“Do that. Lying spread out like this on the great table is embarrassing.”

“It should not be to one such as you. You have achieved greatness. This hall shall echo forevermore to the stand of the five thousand, sung by the land’s greatest bard.”

“To hear that sung in my lifetime would satisfy me beyond compare. But before they sing of us, they must sing of the twenty.”

“The twenty? What do you mean?”

“Look around a few feet from the place where the rear gate stood. You will find twenty dead Corridanes surrounded by a ring of foes they slew. Give them a decent burial.”

“Twenty? Against how many?”

“As many as they were able to hold out against. Go find them.”

“As you wish, oh supreme Captain of the Guard.”

“Just go, you of the big boots!”

Retaining a straight face, Richard went out into the city once more. He immediately turned his steps toward that part of the city which faced the rear of the castle. He found what he was looking for about twenty feet from the ruined rear gate, in the midst of the rubble which had once been a wall eight feet thick. What he was looking for was a grisly sight. Any friends of the dead who had survived the battle would not have been able to recognize them. These men had paid the highest price, but they had exacted a high price of their own; when Richard and the men he had brought with him began to look, they discovered two hundred Naiberns within four feet of where the twenty lay. Many of the invaders were hidden under the bodies of others who had been slain after them.

For the best part of the next hour, Richard worked alongside the men in the grisly task of removing the bodies of the slain. They laid each of their countrymen in a separate grave, but the Naiberns they burned on a pyre, as the task of burying them also would have taken the best part of two hours in itself. Richard and his men gathered the blades of the Naiberns who had died and distributed them equally around the graves of the twenty, points stuck firmly in the earth. Richard himself completed the task, placing a sword or spear at the head of each grave. Stepping back, he spoke, loudly and clearly, so all could hear.

“Though their names and faces be forgotten, those men who lie in the earth before us now will never be forgotten. When all is said and done, and long after we have passed on when our time comes, men will speak of courage. When a man proves himself in battle, his comrades will say ‘he stood like one of the Twenty’, and that shall be the greatest praise a man can receive. For the Twenty abandoned all that they had, abandoned all hope of regaining what they had lost, thinking only of protecting their country and their countrymen for as long as they remained alive, in the face of overwhelming numbers. What should and will be remembered of the Twenty is not that their sacrifice did not greatly alter the fortunes of either side, but the sacrifice itself, that they stood and fought where they did simply because they had no hope of surviving, because their country needed men to rise up, stand, and fight. Who can say whether the rest of the guards would have fought as well if they did not have the memory of the Twenty to spur them on? Therefore I say they were the bravest of the brave, and I pray that The Great One may deem their sacrifice worthy of honor, and forgive them for all that they might have done against him.” Drawing his sword in a warrior’s salute, Richard turned away from the graves, back toward the city, where many more men waited to be laid to rest.

Throughout the rest of that day, Richard and the comparatively few men from either side who had survived the battle were kept busy laying their comrades who had fallen to rest. Inside the castle, Robert the Ram lay on the great table, seriously injured, uncertain that he would live to see Valun return. Around them all lay the rubble which had been the great outer walls. Over the course of the day, the sky had grown dark with clouds, and now not a single small patch of blue remained. The storm broke just as Richard and the men finished covering the last casualties of the combat. Their task complete, the men turned and ran inside the castle, eager to rest after their protracted, solemn work.

Overcome by feelings of disappointment and despair, Richard disappeared into a private room in an upper level of the castle. Whether he wept over his lost men when he was finally alone is not for me to say. It was indeed a dark day for Corridane.

03 February 2012

Chapter XXX

Chapter XXXII

Early in the morning, not long after the sun has risen over the hills, all Brandia lies at peace. All Brandia, save the valley of the white cliffs, lies at peace. Within this valley are three parties, two preparing to make war upon the other. On one side of the valley is the sword and anvil on scarlet, denoting the position and camp of King Valun III of Corridane, blowing proudly in the freshening breeze. On the far side is the banner of the usurper Damerson, which is completely black, and has no charge or emblem of any kind upon it. Between these two opposing camps, there is a third, that of the followers of the officially condemned and exiled king of Brandia, Meltran, which flies no flag and lies well hidden, as the men of that party are well-versed in being. All of them wait to see who shall order the first charge and strike the first blow. In order to discover the thoughts and plans of the commanders of each party, we must enter each man’s tent and hear them for ourselves. We will first visit the tent of Valun of Corridane, where he is discussing his plans with his favorite servant, David.

“If you, David, were the absolute ruler of twenty-five thousand men, and were about to send them into battle, as I am, what would you do?”

“If I were you, my lord, I would first discover how many men there are in the force that opposes us. Only then would I act. If there is a man who can tell us our foe’s numbers without deserting from his own force, it is king Meltran. We must send for him.”

“Precisely! We must send for him, but how are we to discover where he is? He left us no message.”

“If men go out to search for him, they may be caught. We can not risk that. We must assume that he is in this valley, with his men, waiting for the armies, which, you must remember, are each at least a hundred times larger than his band, to clash, so that he and his men may ply their skill by ambush.”

“You are using many words to say very little; that we can not find him, and therefore can not know the size of the enemy force.”

“Yes, my lord, I am afraid I am. But you must remember and think upon this; would it be better to have three hundred more bows on the front line, or some five thousand bows on the front, and three hundred more on the flank? For that is what you are faced with.”

“That is simply a part of the more pressing question I am faced with. The question I must really give thought to is how to fight the battle that is coming.”

“Do you mean to attack, or wait for the black Brandians across the valley to do the attacking?”

“I would prefer to attack, but if I do not know the size of the foes’ force, I must command my men to wait.”

“Would you have your footmen or your cavalry support the archers?”

“I will commit them when I see fit to do so.”

At this, David moved as if to leave. “Give the word. I go to find Meltran.”

“Go, if you must.”

We will here take leave of the camp of the Corridanes, and cross the valley to hear what is being said in the tent of Damerson, commander of the black Brandians. At the moment, he is in counsel with his spy, Salium, to determine what should be done to insure victory in the coming battle. It appears that they still disagree on some points.

“I say that we must be the first to attack, for if we do so, we may catch the Corridanes unawares, but if we wait for them to make the first move, we may well hear their war-cries within the bounds of our own camp before we are prepared to defend ourselves.”

“If you will restrain yourself, man, you will hear why I have not already ordered the attack, as I told you before! I am content to wait for the Corridanes to throw themselves upon us, for I have no doubt that our force is greater than theirs, and if that is true, then we may defeat their whole force with half of ours. Moreover, if they were to reach our camp unnoticed, as you fear they might, they would be swift indeed, and running through the air also, for to reach our camp across the valley they must be invisible, and silent too. But they are mortals, and therefore we are able to defeat them.”

“We are mortals ourselves, and therefore they are able to defeat us. You disregard two points which every commander must acknowledge at all times; that skill can counterbalance numbers, and the feelings of the men who do the fighting. I feel it my duty to tell you that your men do not love you, and if you push them too hard, or if the old king Meltran, whose presence in the valley I have not confirmed to anyone, were to reappear, many of them would desert.”

“I do not care whether they love me or not, they will attack or defend according to my orders alone, not according to the whims of an upstart spy! You must return to your place in the lines. I have no use for advisers who persistently oppose my views. I will send out orders within the hour. We will use a three-pronged attack. You are dismissed.”

Even as the commanders of the two armies at either edge of the valley are speaking with their aides just as we have heard, the aforementioned King Meltran is also discussing his plans regarding the impending battle. We find him in the center of his camp, which is situated some two or three hundred yards to the right of the battlefield, speaking with his two nephews.

“Eldarn, how many men do you think Damerson has in the field?”

“I can not give their numbers with any degree of certainty, my lord, but I trust I would not be far wrong if at one time I had at least a thousand men after me.”

“Tell me again. What did you hear Damerson and the spies say? Did they sound ready to attack the Corridanes or not?”

“Judging by what little I heard, I would be surprised if they have come to an agreement yet. Damerson was in favor of attacking, but the spies assured him that the Corridanes were many and prepared, so that attacking them would be foolish.”

“Do you think Damerson has more men than King Valun or not?”

“To find that he outnumbers king Valun two to one would not surprise me.”

As Eldarn was speaking, a man ran up to the group, stopped short, and announced “My lord, a man has just come from the Corridane camp. He says he was sent to request your presence there.”

Meltran rose in an instant, replying “Very well. I come. We do not have a moment to lose. Eldarn, you come with me. Dranulf, you shall remain here. Be ready to take command at a moment’s notice if Damerson charges.” With that, Meltran departed with the messenger. When he reached the edge of the camp, he found David waiting for him there. Without a word, the three men continued to run until they reached Valun’s tent in the middle of his camp. As they stepped inside, David announced the Brandians.

“My lord, I have found the lord Meltran’s camp, and he has come swiftly, with a companion.”

Then Meltran spoke for himself. “My companion is my nephew, Eldarn. If your question concerns the black Brandians, as I am confident it does, he is better prepared to answer it than I.”

“You are right again. David actually went for you on his own account, but I need to ask you precisely what you have thought of; what is the size of the force opposed to us?”

Eldarn stepped forward and bowed before Valun. When he straightened up, he also spoke up. “As I told my uncle soon before we came before you, it would not surprise me to find that our enemy has twice the men you do.”

“Why do you believe this?”

“Last night my uncle sent me into the foes’ camp to discover their plans. The distance between the edge and the center of their camp and the hundreds of men spread out throughout that length convinced me that what I say is true.”

“If that is the case, how are we to fight the battle, outnumbered as we are?”

Meltran replied “There is no question of how. We will fight because we have come to fight. You must fight, for otherwise, you would lose the respect of your people. How would you like to call them together now only to tell them that you are turning and retreating before the enemy you came so far to fight? The question is will you order your men to attack, or wait for the black Brandians to make the first move? I advise you to move forward at least one hundred yards, for your camp is placed in a narrow passage which would impede your men in pitched battle.”

“Where are your men?”

“My men are some hundred yards to the left of the battlefield, where we may easily harass that flank of the enemy.”

“Very well. I will order my men to move forward. We will concentrate our strength upon the right and the center, leaving the left open for your men to take down at will. If we cause them to retreat, we will give chase, then fall back once more and wait for them to charge again.”

“Very well. May it be the will of The Great One that we feast together after the battle is fought.” The men saluted one another, and the Brandians departed to return to their own camp.

Valun wasted no time, immediately ordering David to dress him for battle. Twenty minutes later, Valun, wearing full armor, was mounted upon his charger and riding through the camp giving his orders. “Forward until I call a halt! We shall wait for the black flag to strike the first blow! No horns, no cries! We must still try to surprise them! I will not hide from you that we are outnumbered! But we shall prevail despite that! Why? Because we fight to avenge our honor! Those men across the valley under the black flag fight to uphold dishonor! We fight to restore honor! If The Great One has chosen a side in this combat, He is with us! Archers, to the front and wait till I give the word, then let shafts fall like rain upon the foes of honor!” At the conclusion of his speech, Valun rode to the front of the lines, bringing his horse to a halt in the center of the line of archers. His visor was still raised, but he made no move to lower it as yet.

A moment later, as the Corridanes settled into their positions, silence fell over the whole valley. No one said a word. They tried to restrain themselves from moving. Men could hardly tell whether the man beside them was even breathing. A bird living in the forest above the valley could be heard twittering. A larger bird replied with screeching cries. The men remained silent. Then, suddenly, the horns began to sound.

Long, deep, notes issued forth from the midst of the black Brandians’ camp, rolling like thunder as they reverberated off the cliffs on either side of the valley. Before the last echoes had died, the Corridanes caught sight of men in the opposing camp preparing to charge. Suddenly, they began to run across the valley as fast they could go. The Corridanes stood watching them with bated breath, waiting for their king to order the archers to fall back before they were massacred by the oncoming troops. But Valun remained silent, watching the enemies. Finally, the moment he had been waiting for came.

The black Brandians who had been charging forward stopped abruptly when they had left their camp three hundred yards behind. They fell to the ground as the archers who had been running behind them nocked shafts to their bows. An instant before they raised the bows and fired, Valun simultaneously turned his horse back toward his own camp, jumped off, goaded the horse to safety, and shouted “Every man down!”

The men had noticed the danger at the same moment as their king. The moment he threw himself off his mount, every man on the lines had dropped flat as if the very ground had opened beneath them. Because of their swift action, very few men were hit, though many more came perilously close. A moment passed before a lookout that had been stationed beside the banner upon a hill close by the camp winded his horn to warn the men to rise and face new danger, which they could hear the approach of well enough themselves, as the thunder of the charging foes could be heard from several hundred yards away.

“Up! Make them pay for every shaft and then fall back! Right and center!” In an instant, the Corridane archers had risen in a body, and an instant later had sent their shafts speeding toward their closely packed opponents. They did not wait to see what came of them, but turned and retreated back to their camp as fast as they were able. As they archers retreated, the footmen charged toward the front, with Valun at their head, his cloak billowing out over the back of his mount, which he had remounted swiftly while shouting his orders.

But they had moved too swiftly. As most of Valun’s men charged toward the center of the black Brandians’ line, the flanks Damerson had ordered opened out behind them and threatened to surround half the army. When he saw this, in the midst of the melee, Valun cried to his men “Leave the left! Leave the left! Come to the right!” As many men as were able heeded his words and fought their way back toward the center, and a moment later Valun heard over the din of the battle the piercing notes of hunting horns and the sound of hundreds of shafts speeding toward the enemy’s left flank, just as had been agreed between Meltran and himself only an hour before the battle. This sudden attack on their rear by hidden foes threw the black Brandians into brief confusion, but the loss of three hundred men was not enough to cause them to turn and run. Instead, the men on the right and in the center began to fight harder than they had before the ambush. In consequence, the Corridanes had no time to appreciate the fact that, due to the skill of Meltran and his followers, the black Brandians stopped fielding a left flank only five minutes after the exiled Brandians had shown themselves.

A consequence of this, though, was that the two flanks which remained drew all of the black Brandians’ remaining force, which was still considerably larger than that of the Corridanes. In a last desperate move, Valun called on the cavalry to charge, just before the Corridane was forced back into the tight space they had left before the battle on Meltran’s advice. The Corridane cavalry, ten thousand strong, broke upon their foes like that last wave which dooms a ship in a storm at sea. But even that was to no avail. After their initial charge, which did deal heavy damage to their foes, the Corridanes were forced back once more. As the Corridane cavalry and footmen retreated, the five thousand bowmen began to rain shafts down upon the black Brandians. Every shot felled a man. They kept this up for as many as five minutes before their adversaries turned back to return to their own camp.

At long last, the battle had come to a halt. The valor of the Corridanes had cost their foes many men. Nevertheless, the overwhelming numbers of the Brandians had taken their toll. The Corridanes had lost so many men themselves that they could not hope to defeat their opponents as the balance now stood. Valun thought he would be unable to bear the shame of it. The valiant Corridanes, who had marched for three days and more to arrive at this place, had been soundly beaten by the forces of an evil-minded usurper.

Valun sat sullenly silent in his tent, refusing to speak to anyone, even David. Accordingly, David stood outside the opening, deterring anyone from attempting to come close. Those who were not engaged in properly burying their numerous fallen comrades were behaving in much the same manner as their king. After several minutes of morose silence, Valun rose from his seat and called “David!”

David entered hurriedly. “Yes, my Lord?”

Valun returned to his seat, his disappointment weighing all the more heavily upon him since he had made the effort to rise and speak. “David... I must send the men home while they can still get out of this place. As neither Richard nor Robert is here, I must put you in command of the return march.”

David was shocked by this announcement. “Me? In command?! My Lord, what will you be doing, that you will be unable to lead the men back yourself?”

“I... will be doing what I came to do. Looking for my father. I pledged my honor to find him and bring him back to his country, and if I do not accomplish that I am shamed forever! I tell you that I will not return to Corrandion, no not even to the borders of my country, until I find my father or his grave! Now, listen, and commit these words to memory; as soon as you return to Corridane, seek out Richard and Robert, and tell them both that they are to rule together in my name. They are to decide between themselves whose heirs shall begin the new line of kings. Go now to carry out my orders.”

“Yes, my lord.” David turned to go, as Valun had fallen silent once more, leaning forward and covering his face with his hands. But he was not yet done speaking.

“David, you must strike my tent along with the rest. I will abide with the king Meltran.”

“Yes, my lord.”

So it was that, acting on orders given by David, the remainder of the Corridane army broke camp and began to march away, back toward their own land. Their king, Valun III, stood watching them sadly as they marched slowly past him, staring at the ground. When the last man had passed him, Valun drew his sword, which had been cleaned thoroughly by David since the combat, and raised it so it caught the sunlight and flashed brightly toward the retreating army.

David caught sight of the movement and the flash as he was turning to make sure that the last stragglers had caught up. As soon as he saw what Valun had done, he called a halt. “Salute your king, Corridanes!”

Heeding his words, the army stopped abruptly and shouted with one voice, weapons raised, a great cry which could be heard nearly a mile away. “Valunariaaa!”

Sheathing his sword once more, Valun turned away from his men and began to make his way toward the camp of the exiled Brandians. He was not long in reaching the place, where he was met by a sentry who conducted him into the presence of Meltran.

Meltran rose to greet him, expressing surprise that he had not left with his men. “What is this, Valun? You are remaining behind while your men depart? Have they grown dissatisfied with you already?”

“No, thanks to The Great One, they have not deserted me yet. I sent them away.”

“And why is that?”

“I did draft the men, I will say that, but the ones who followed me to the field of battle came willingly, driven as I was by the desire to see the Peacemaker live out his life in his own country, as he deserves.”

Meltran could hardly believe what Valun had just told him. “Because they gave you unquestioning loyalty, you are sending them away? Do you expect that three hundred men, which are of course yours to command, will be better able to defeat our enemies than the ten thousand you sent away?”

“You saw yourself that another attack would have destroyed them. As their king, I ordered them to follow me. As their king, I ordered them to leave me. I would rather that the men who survived think less of me, than that they all die through my folly.”

“But what of you? Why have you remained?”

“One man can avoid an army. Ten thousand must fight or be shamed. I can not find my father through conquest, so, with your aid, I will find him without fighting.”

“Very well. That is the best that you can do in your situation. All I ask is that you heed my words when I wish to advise you, for as you might have determined from my story, I was grown and ruling when you were only a young prince.”

“I know the value of the words of my elders. I will do as you ask.”

“I in turn respect you for your deference. It is not often that a young man shows the growth of wisdom which you have. Cole! Prepare a place that the lord Valun may use while he abides with us!”