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.