Railon removed his blade from the body of his foe, and having nothing better to hand, tore a strip off the man’s tunic with which to clean his blade. Sheathing his sword, he went to Dunstan, who still lay on the floor where he had been struck down.
Knowing that more men were probably on their way to the castle at that moment, Railon did not mince his words. “Are you dying?”
“It is not likely, my lord, but possible.”
“Let us see you rise.” Railon extended his free hand to his knight, who took it in a viselike grip, and, with a protracted groan, raised himself to his feet.
Moving to dust himself off, Dunstan remarked “Well, my lord, am I dying?”
“You certainly are not, to my eyes. The time for jesting is spent now. How are we to complete our task? We have still to determine how we are to remove ourselves, and the late king, out of the castle.”
Dunstan moved over to a corpse and prodded it with his recovered blade. “Would you not say, my lord, that this man and I are of a size?”
Railon saw the plan in a moment. “I would say that.”
Reaching down to remove his greaves, Dunstan replied “Then, if you help me, my lord, we have little time to spare.”
There was little speech between the men in the time it took them to remove Dunstan’s armor and replace it with that of the fallen Naibern captain. When the task was finished, Dunstan looked back at his own gear wistfully. “This Naibern’s stuff is heavier than I had hoped. And now, my lord, the king’s winding sheet would serve us better. And I would count it an honor if Torlan the Magnificent were laid to rest in the armor made for me.”
“I would not have you do such a thing as that!”
“We have taken the first step already, my lord. We must be injured, so we should have bandages. We can not get past their lines in our own stuff unless we have been captured. You have been slain, I wounded. This man captured us and is taking us to the chief for the prize they have surely laid on our heads.”
“Can you talk like them?” Railon asked, worried that two wrong words might get them killed.
“That they will not regard. There are so many men in their force, if there are a few Gairbairns in their ranks, it would not surprise me.”
“Traitors! We will deal with them later! Come!” Railon suddenly started off up the stairs.
Dunstan, who was still adjusting to the greater weight of the Naibern’s armor, followed more slowly. As he reached the ground floor, he perceived the sound of men raising the portcullis again; it must have split the log supporting it and reached the ground once more. Gathering his strength to rush forward, Dunstan called “They are at the gates! We have no time!” When he reached the room, he nearly had to catch a hold of the doorframe to stop himself from passing it. He hurried in.
“What’s this? The greatest warrior in the land running from the foe?”
The reply was given as to a student. “It is not running from an enemy, my lord. It is saving your life.” Dunstan snatched up the winding sheet and tore off a piece, which he proceeded to wind around his forehead. He placed another bandage on Railon’s left arm and finished with one around Railon’s right knee. Then he stood back.
Railon then moved to the head of the bed upon which lay the body of Torlan. Grasping it under the shoulders, Railon lifted the body off as Dunstan took the legs. In one smooth movement they lifted the body upon their shoulders and started off.
But they were too late. They were confronted on the stairs by several armed Naiberns who had drawn their blades.
Adopting a superior tone, Dunstan said “Why do you stop us? Will you not let a dead man rest in peace? I at least will give him that much. These two gave me a hard battle. They are my captives by right and I will not have any man taking my prize from me!”
“We do not come for your bounty, dog of a desert rat. Only for your foolish king’s head.” The Naibern pointed with his sword, directly at Railon.
It was clear that they had seen through the ruse immediately. Evidently, Railon’s challenge at the gate burned these men still. Dunstan quickly lowered his burden to the floor, without taking his eyes off his enemy. “You who are here will not see his head on a spike, if you would.” Drawing his blade, he knocked his foe’s sword aside and killed him. “Keep coming, my lord. I will hold the way.”
Having regained a great part of his strength, it was a small matter for Dunstan to fight his way down the stairs past the ten men who had come to capture them. At the bottom of the stairs, he leaned on his sword and said “What I would like to know, my lord, is how it happens that these men recognized us in a moment, but those others did not?”
Treading carefully under the weight of his predecessor, Railon replied “At that time, we were in darkness. We are in the light of the torches here. The leader of this party must have clashed with me on the wall. And it seems my words travelled swiftly through their camp. Still, he could chosen a better phrase. ‘Dog of a desert rat?’ he added with a laugh.
There was no more to say. What plans they could devise were laid, and they now had little enough time left to put those into practice before they would be discovered as they crossed the line. Upon reaching the underground room, they found that most of the torches had finally burned themselves out; in order that they could complete their task properly, Railon had to send himself to fetch more from the room where they were held.
Having replaced all the torches in the course of a few minutes, they set to work placing Dunstan’s armor on the body of Torlan. Setting a table upright, they laid Torlan upon it. Dunstan provided the support as railon went about placing the knight’s armor on the late king. The gear did not fit perfectly, because Torlan, whose length measured six feet and three inches, was several inches longer and broader than Dunstan was. Nevertheless, the two men secured the armor as well as was possible. Having done so, they fashioned a litter by tying a man’s traveling cloak to the spears two of the Naiberns had been carrying, lifted their burden once more and made for the door Dunstan had found some time ago during the worst of the fighting.
Drawing his blade with his free hand, Dunstan, who was in the front to afford the pair better protection, broke the lock and knocked the door aside. The door opened outward to reveal a short stairway that took them back up to the surface. To their dismay, it was no longer dark outside the castle. The sun had risen whilst they worked, and it was now nearly an hour after sunrise, bright enough that anyone who knew their faces would not fail to spot them as they moved across the lines.
“If I must, I will slay anyone who speaks, my lord. Have I your sanction?”
“Only if nothing less will keep us from capture. The first man you slay will reveal you as a traitor to the colors you wear.”
“I hear and obey, king Railon.” Laying his sword beside the late king’s feet, Dunstan raised his end of the litter and started up the stairs.
On the surface, they found that the enormous force of their foes was busy breaking camp. Astonished at the sudden turn of events, the gairbairn lords took advantage of their good fortune and crossed the camp staring at their feet, hoping no one would notice them amid the confusion of packing up. The sun was getting hot, and beginning to make Dunstan sweat under the Naiberns’ heavier armor. He hoped more than ever that no one would stop them.
Railon and Dunstan continued to watch the sand slide by under their feet. One quick glance forward told Dunstan they were nearly at the rear of the camp and free to make their way to the river to rejoin their men. Without warning, one pair of feet deliberately stepped into their path. Dunstan had just enough time to slip to a stop before the man spoke. He heard Railon grunt in frustration as they both steadied themselves.
“Explain yourself, man. Why is a soldier of the emperor out of line and moving with two prisoners toward the back of the line? Emperor’s soldiers are not gravediggers. let the dog bury his own dead.” He made as if to break the litter and knock Torlan to the ground.
Dunstan, who stood less than six feet and so found himself looking up at this insolent captain as he had many another man, stood his ground. “You will not touch these men! They are my prisoners, and I will claim their head-price, dead or alive, as I will!”
The Naibern captain laughed loudly and called out to men on the sidelines “You hear that? Those are his prisoners, there! It is clear that either of them could have pounded our friend into the ground, and he says he captured them? Were they sleeping on guard, my friend?”
It made Dunstan’ s blood boil to hear this man calling him ‘my friend’ in the condescending tone he was using. In the midst of the Naiberns’ laughter, Dunstan called out “I want to see him plead for his life before I send him after the other one. I captured them by strength of arms! Do you want proof of it?”
“It will be proof enough if you fight the man to the death right here before us.” The Naibern still did not move. A large group had begun to coalesce around them; Dunstan knew it was not long before someone recognized them and they were slain.
Lowering the litter and raising his blade, Dunstan took two steps toward Railon and then abruptly turned back. Slamming the hilt of his sword into the captain’s ribs, Dunstan waited for the man to double up and then swung his powerful left arm into the foe’s jaw. In a flash, his sword was sheathed, the litter was raised, and the Gairbairns were off.
By the time the two men rejoined their men on the banks of the great river which ran hard by the city, they wished only for a long drink. They had been running harder than ever since breaking out of the Naibern ranks, and now both were beginning to feel the effects of being up and about so long before dawn. Barely acknowledging the cries of joy from their men, Railon and Dunstan set down their burden with the least decorum necessary, tore off the helms they had been wearing all that morning, and hurried off to the river to drink. They did not drop the helms, instead dipping them into the water and emptying them as if they were goblets dipped in an open cask.
Railon, who had endured less mental and physical strain over the course of the ordeal, rose first and spoke to the assembled men.
“My people! What I have to say now concerns not you and me alone, but also your sons, and their sons, and all the ages that will follow after us! It has come into my mind that we would better serve ourselves were we to move off this land to make our home in some other country. I know what you would say. This is our land, the land of our fathers. This is the land that long ages ago our forefathers came into, determined to sustain themselves and their sons. And it has! It has served them well, so well that their sons built the largest city anyone has ever seen! I know. I have been to other cities.” Having said this, Railon paused to asses whether the men had taken that statement as the flattery of the national pride he had meant it to be. Some men were laughing with close comrades, while others were beginning to look sour. Those were the ones who knew the speech for what it was and did not appreciate what was still to come. Finally, one spoke.
“I respect you, my lord, for none can deny that you have done great things, but I for one would prefer to hear exactly what you mean. You want us to desert our land. Is that not your purpose?”
A tomblike hush fell over the ranks. A man of the ranks had dared to speak sharply to the king? The men, steeped in the tradition of unapproachable majesty, expected that the man would be disciplined quite severely, and every one dreaded the thought of being called upon to do the deed. What they most certainly did not expect then occurred.
After a moment, Railon called out “That man who had the courage to tell his king to explain himself clearly, step forward!”
There was a slight commotion as a man pushed his way through to the front from the fourth line, where he had been standing when he chastised the king. He took a step forward, but then began to worry and thought about going back. But there was no escape.
Railon waved the man forward. He was a strong man, but carrying a little more weight than was good for a man of his stature; he was not above the usual height of the people of the land. What could be seen of his blond hair was cropped close to the tips of his disproportionally small ears, while his eyes were blue, his nose was of the type termed Roman, and his jaw was formed in the manner referred to as “square”. When the man we have just described had come close enough to his king, Railon bid him stop and speak.
“What is your name?”
Bowing, the man answered “Harold Raynoldson, my lord. My father was a blacksmith, my mother was a true daughter of the desert, my sisters have left for Trepalenmar, and my brothers have already been killed. One of them charged with the late king.”
Railon clapped him on the shoulder. “Having met you, I wish that I had been able to speak to your brothers also. What possessed you to speak to me as you did?”
Refusing to be ashamed of his presumption, Harold stared straight back at the king as he replied “Even here where there are no bushes to beat about, my lord, I am much happier with a man who talks the straight path, no matter whether he be lower than me or in your own place. So leave off your flattery and tell us what you are really saying. Do I have leave to return now?”
Railon could not contain his laughter at the man’s audacity. “Yes, you certainly do, and you also have leave to tell your comrades that for the courage he has shown in the face of a noble, who considered himself a straight speaker until this day, Harold Raynoldson, when all is said and done, will be sought out by king Railon himself and richly rewarded!-- I intend to move Gairbairia to Ronaiera. I passed through that country on my way home. I am sure there is ample space for a few thousand more men to settle there. I am also sure that the king will not be much put out by our removal thence, but to be sure, I shall ride ahead and get his decree myself. I place the burden of authority upon my general, lord Dunstan. He speaks for me.” Sheathing his sword and raising his own shield again, Railon began walking away downstream past the ranks of the men without further ado.
Some men tried to offer him packs of supplies, but he waved them off. “I am a traveller. Such as I know how to live off the land. May the sand ever blow in your enemies’ path!”