DargonZine 7, Issue 1

Campaign for the Laraka III Decision at Gateway Keep Part 1

Yule 13, 1014 - Yule 17, 1014


This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Laraka

Crown Castle, Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur 13 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

The eight Regiments of the Royal Hussars filed through the gate to the Inner Courtyard and made for the barracks they had vacated just eight days ago when they began their journey south to join the fighting against the enemy army moving rapidly north towards Magnus.

 

General of the Cavalry Count Sir Luthias Connall and Commander Sarah Verde, Commander of the 1st Royal Hussars, dismounted and entered the King’s Keep. Luthias was worried. The tone of Sir Edward’s message indicated that the scarred Knight Commander was himself worried about something. And if Sir Edward, a man Luthias admired deeply and who had seen more than his fair share of battle, was worried, then Luthias reasoned that he himself had more than enough reason to be anxious — even without knowing the reason for his hasty return to the Crown City.

 

He and Verde turned a corner leading to Edward’s offices when they both literally ran into the man they had been seeking. “Sir Edward, we were just on our way to see you. Your message said to return as fast as I could. What’s wrong?”

 

The Knight Commander glared up at Luthias. “What’s wrong, General,” he said in icy tones, “is that you seem to have forgotten the proper form of address when speaking to a superior. I will not tolerate that in any of my officers, regardless of rank. Is that clear?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Luthias responded instantly, confused by Sir Edward’s rebuke.

 

“Excellent, General. Now, if you would accompany me.” So saying, Edward turned and led the way down the corridor back the way Luthias and Verde had just come, Commander Courymwen following behind her commander.

 

Commander Verde laid her hand on Courymwen’s arm, indicating that Verde wanted the two to hold back slightly so they could talk. “What was that all about?” Verde asked her friend.

 

“Things have been fairly tense since you left eight days ago, Sarah,” Jan replied.

 

“So I gathered. What’s wrong?”

 

“Some rather high-ranking nobles have started campaigning for Edward’s replacement recently. That and…other things have put a great strain on him. He doesn’t need this now, Sarah, not with all he’s got to worry about.”

 

“Since when have you and the Knight Commander been on a first name basis?”

 

“We’ve been close friends for some time now, Sarah,” Jan said defensively.

 

“Is that all?” Verde asked carefully.

 

Jan stopped suddenly and turned, stricken, to face her friend. “Not you too, Sarah!”

 

Jan had perhaps spoken more loudly than she may have wished. Edward stopped and turned to face the two women. “Something wrong, Commander?”

 

“Er…no, sir.”

 

“Then let us proceed.”

 

“Yes, sir.” The four entered the Hall of Warriors and made for the guarded door leading to the Audience Chamber.

 

Jan was silent for most of this time. She didn’t speak again until the group had passed into the small waiting room leading to the Audience Chamber. “Sarah, what am I going to do?”

 

“Relax, Coury,” Verde answered. “We’ll figure something out.”

 

The group paused outside the double doors. “Sir,” Luthias began to ask, ignoring the warning look he got from Commander Courymwen, “couldn’t you tell me what’s going on?”

 

Edward rounded on Luthias. “The King and I are risking a very great deal on you, Sir Knight,” Edward said. “I care little for what happens to me or my reputation, General,” Edward went on in a low voice, his eyes utterly cold and menacing, “but I will permit nothing — nothing, do you understand? — to endanger my friend and Sovereign. You had best prove worthy.”

 

“Sir Edward,” Luthias declared, the hurt tone in his voice evident, “I would never do anything to dishonor the King. Or you, for that matter. I will do everything you ask of me with the utmost determination and all the strength I can muster in body and soul.”

 

The battle-scarred Knight Commander of the Royal Armies looked up at that intent face for several long moments before finally speaking. “I think you’ll do, Luthias Connall,” he said with a note of satisfaction. “Yes, I think you shall do very nicely indeed.” Sir Edward turned to order the guards to open the double doors but Luthias stopped him.

 

Now Luthias was very confused. He risked a quick glance at Commander Courymwen and the look on her face only served to further Luthias’ confusion. Clearly something had happened since he had departed eight days ago. Luthias caught the distinct smell of politics in the air.

 

“‘Do’ what, Your Excellency, is the question?”

 

Edward smiled ruefully, making the diagonal scar on his face contort strangely. “That is for His Royal Majesty to say. Not I.” He nodded to the guards and the great doors opened.

 

A staff thumped three times against the unyielding stone floor. “His Excellency, Sir Luthias Connall, Count Connall, General of the Cavalry. His Excellency, Sir Edward Sothos, Knight Commander of the Royal Armies. Commander Sarah Verde, Commanding Officer the 1st Royal Hussars. Commander Jan Courymwen, Officer of the Royal Foot Guards and Chief Aide to His Excellency the Knight Commander.”

 

The four proceeded towards the throne at the far end of the nearly empty Audience Chamber. They halted at some invisible line perhaps ten feet from King Haralan and all four bowed deeply from the waist as was their right as soldiers of the King. “General Connall, as ordered, Sire,” Edward announced.

 

“Very good. Sir Edward, Commander Courymwen, attend us.” Edward and Jan moved to stand on the raised dias, Edward on the King’s right, Jan to the right of Edward. “There are two others who must be in attendance. The wait shall not be long.”

 

Great! Luthias thought. Wonderful. I absolutely hate these things and now I’m going to be forced to stand here while we wait for some arrogant, self-important court functionary to get here to witness…well, whatever. Why couldn’t I have been just an ordinary Knight like I’ve always wanted? Was that so much to ask?

 

Just then, one of the functionaries they had been waiting on stepped from behind the tapestry hanging behind the throne.

 

Marcellon, High Mage and advisor to the King, moved to stand on Haralan’s left, his face an expression of anticipation mixed with satisfaction. Luthias nodded and Marcellon smiled in return, that mixed expression still evident.

 

Perhaps two menes passed before the second functionary made his appearance. During this time, Luthias’ natural fish-out-of-water reaction to any court situation came to the fore. Luthias prayed his nervousness wasn’t noticeable to anyone.

 

When Myrande stepped from behind the curtain it was too much for Luthias. “Sable!” he burst out. Myrande smiled and Luthias made to go to her but was stopped by a single command.

 

“Hold!” Sir Edward commanded. “You have not permission to approach the throne, Count Connall.”

 

“Easy, Edward,” Marcellon said quietly. “Calm down.”

 

“The cause was sufficient, Sir Edward,” King Haralan lightly rebuked. “I think we can permit the Count and Countess time to exchange greetings.”

 

Luthias went to the dias to greet his wife. He took both her hands in his and kissed her lightly on the cheek. “What’s going on?”

 

Myrande smiled again, accentuating her raven-haired beauty. “Later,” she said softly.

 

“Count Connall,” the King said, “I would not begrudge you time with your beautiful lady wife, but there are pressing matters of state we must see to.”

 

“Of course, Your Majesty.” Luthias cringed inwardly. He’d done it again, messed up in protocol matters. “I apologize, Your Royal Majesty,” Luthias said as he resumed his place in front of the throne next to Commander Verde.

 

“Sir Edward,” the King said, “perhaps you should bring the Count up to date on events transpiring along the Laraka River.”

 

“Yes, Sire.” Edward then launched into a very concise briefing. When he was done, the look on Luthias’ face had gone from slight confusion to that of a man planning the minute details of a campaign.

 

“I take it, then, Your Royal Majesty, that I am to lead my cavalry against the enemy army on the Laraka?” Luthias asked eagerly.

 

“In good time, Count Connall, in good time.” The King paused, gathering his thoughts. “We were much distressed to hear of the death of our beloved Knight Captain Sir Ailean. He was a good man and a fine officer. His death now renders the Northern Marches leaderless. Granted, Lord Morion is a good man as well and we have no doubt that he will serve Baranur as well as any man, but we cannot have such an important position as Knight Captain of the Northern Marches go unfilled. Lord Morion will not accept our offer, that much is certain. Therefore we have asked our Knight Commander for advice as to whom we should appoint to ward our Northern Marches.

 

“The Knight Commander has suggested someone rather young and not primarily an officer holding the King’s Commission, but we tend to agree with the Knight Commander’s choice.

 

“So what say you, Count Connall? Do you accept our offer to act as our Knight Captain of the Northern Marches?”

 

It took a moment for Luthias to realize the full import of what the King had just said. When he did, his first act was to think that he must look rather foolish with his jaw hanging down to the floor. After he’d rectified that particular shortcoming, all he could do was stand in stunned silence.

 

I’ve done it, Father! he thought. I’ve done it, Roisart! I’ve actually done it! A slow smile spread across his face. “I — you — me?”

 

Marcellon heaved a theatrical sigh. “All that education and the young man still has trouble with sentence structure. I am most distressed at today’s youth’s shortcomings.”

 

The King coughed. Myrande put a hand over her face to hide her smile. Courymwen and Verde did their best impressions of cadets trying hard not to laugh. Sir Edward, however, didn’t react at all.

 

Luthias cleared his throat and tried again. He found to his dismay that he couldn’t seem to make any words come out this time.

 

“What’s that?” Marcellon said in a dry voice. “You’ll have to speak up. Or have you lost all power of speech now, son? Perhaps you should choose another, Your Royal Majesty?” All of the Chamber’s occupants again made valiant efforts to control their mirth. Jan was not as successful as the others and a short sharp laugh escaped her lips.

 

Sir Edward turned a disapproving stare on his aide. “Sorry, sir. Won’t happen again,” Jan hastily said. Sir Edward turned his attention once more to Luthias, suppressing the beginnings of his own smile as he did so.

 

“No! I — thank you, Sire, for the offer. I accept.”

 

“Then approach, Count Connall.” Haralan stood as Luthias approached the throne.

 

“Kneel,” the King commanded. Luthias sank to one knee, hardly able to believe this was actually happening.

 

“Count Connall,” Haralan began formally, “do you swear by your sword, the sacred embodiment of your Knighthood, to ward the Northern Marches with all the strength in your mind and body?”

 

Luthias drew his sword and presented it hilt first to the King. “On my sword, I so swear,” he proclaimed, the weapon’s blade resting lightly in his hands.

 

“Do you further swear to maintain true and unswerving loyalty to your King, no matter the circumstances, no matter the cost?”

 

“I so swear.”

 

“Do you swear to show the same loyalty and obedience to the Knight Commander, He who speaks with our Voice and in our Name?”

 

“I so swear.”

 

“And do you swear to execute your duties fairly and impartially, with no thought of advantage to you and yours?”

 

“I so swear.”

 

Haralan brought Luthias’ sword down on the young Count’s left shoulder. “By my right as King, I give you the power to mete justice throughout the Northern Marches where you see fit to do so and in accordance with the laws I have laid down as King.”

 

The sword now came down on Luthias’ right shoulder. “I grant you the authority to command and well-discipline your inferiors serving with the Royal Army, both noble and common.”

 

The sword came down a third time. “I charge you to act wisely in your duty and to bring honor upon Baranur and your own House.”

 

Haralan stepped back a pace. “Rise, Count Connall, Knight Captain of the Northern Marches.” Luthias stood and as he did so the King returned his sword to him. Diplomatic as always, Haralan refrained from commenting on Luthias’ nervousness, which was evident to everyone present.

 

Speaking softly so that only he and Luthias knew what was spoken, Haralan said, “Many eyes are upon you, Count Connall. Eyes hostile to my wishes. Be careful. If you should fall, Sir Edward falls with you.” Luthias stepped back, giving no indication that the King had even spoken to him.

 

“We regret we cannot bestow upon you your rightful Badge of Office, Knight Captain. It was lost along with Sir Ailean, God grant him eternal rest, and there has not been time to fashion another.”

 

Luthias grinned wickedly. “No matter, Sire. I shall take it back from the Beinisonians.”

 

“Well said, Knight Captain. Sir Edward, you may proceed.”

 

“Yes, Sire,” Edward said, coming forward. “Once more, the Cavalry Wing finds itself without a General to command it. And, once more, Commander Verde, I must ask you to accept that duty you had performed since the death of General Tyre. I know you will perform with the same competence displayed in the past. It occurs to me, however, that having the Cavalry Wing commanded thus, by a Commander, would be inviting potential breakdown of the unity the Royal Hussars are famous for displaying in times when the Kingdom is threatened by outside force. Therefore, to ensure that one voice, and one voice alone, shall speak for the Hussars, I hereby promote you to General of the Cavalry.

 

“Congratulations, General.”

 

The shock and pleasure on Verde’s face was evident. She also had not been expecting anything such as this.

 

Haralan stepped down off the throne dias, the signal for the others present on the dias to do so as well. He congratulated Luthias and General Verde and then, begging pressing state matters, exited the Audience Chamber, his guards in tow.

 

Luthias immediately went to his wife and greeted her in a much longer fashion than he had had time for previously. “My God, Sable, can you believe it?”

 

“Yes, actually, I can. I always knew you’d succeed like this. Are you pleased?”

 

“Pleased?” Luthias laughed, making him seem younger. He grabbed his wife and spun her around. Planting a kiss firmly on her lips, he asked, “How’s that for pleased?”

 

Myrande chuckled and laid her head on her husband’s chest. Maybe he’s finally returning to himself, she thought.

 

“Now,” Luthias asked, “what’s been going on here the last week?”

 

Myrande raised her head. “What happened, Luthias?”

 

“The Knight Commander,” he said in a low voice, “nearly took my head off before we entered the Audience Chamber. I’ve never known Sir Edward to display that much outward emotion ever. It can’t just be the war.”

 

Sable sighed, putting her arms around her husband. “No, it’s not just the war. There have been rumors going around of late that suggest Sir Edward and his aide are more than just friends.”

 

Luthias turned in Myrande’s embrace to regard Commander Courymwen. The tall red-haired soldier was talking to General Verde and Sir Edward. All three seemed comfortable in one another’s presence, though Luthias could tell that his former second-in-command was slightly nervous. The Knight Commander did not often take time to chat with just anybody, after all.

 

“Sir Edward has good taste in women, then. I don’t see the problem.”

 

Myrande punched Luthias hard in the left arm. “Idiot!”

 

“Ow!”

 

“Just trying to knock some sense into you, you blockhead.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“Luthias,” she said, stroking his hair, “when will you learn that the customs of Dargon are not those of the rest of the Kingdom? Remember what I told you about how the attitudes towards that kind of thing are somewhat stricter here in Magnus?”

 

Luthias frowned. She had told him, but he’d forgotten. Come to think of it, when the Knight Commander had come to judge that tourney in Dargon he himself had said something to that effect. “I still don’t see the problem. What’s wrong with courting? Does her family disapprove?” he asked in disbelief.

 

“No, it’s not that. The rumors say that the two of them have gone past the courting stage. Far past. It was just those kind of rumors that destroyed the Princess’ marriage, or so I’m told. There are even rumors, vague ones that say that Sir Edward’s days as Knight Commander may be numbered.”

 

Luthias’ face took on a grim expression. That’s what the King meant, he thought. Aloud, he said, “Unless Sir Edward’s personal life interferes with his performance as Knight Commander, I don’t see that anyone has a right to criticize him.”

 

“Wait a mene,” Luthias continued before Myrande could comment, “how is it that you’re so up on the current rumors? You were never much for gossip.”

 

Myrande hesitated, not wanting to answer. She knew Luthias’ temper and she didn’t want him doing anything rash.

 

“There’s something you’re not telling me. And don’t deny it. I can see it in your face.”

 

“Luthias, it’s nothing. Really.”

 

“Now I know it’s serious. You never say ‘nothing’ in that tone of voice when it means nothing. Out with it.”

 

Myrande’s lips tightened into a thin line. “I didn’t have much choice but to become acquainted with the rumor mill. While you were gone there were those that suggested that the children I was carrying weren’t yours. Among other things.”

 

Myrande’s husband’s expression grew dark, promising suffering for those who caused her pain. “Who spread these rumors?”

 

“Who knows?” she lied. “That’s the nature of things like this. Any rate, the deed is done.”

 

“Then these rumors have stopped?”

 

“Oh yes,” Myrande responded, a hint of satisfaction in her voice. “The King saw to it personally.”

 

Luthias seemed satisfied with her explanation. He decided to change the subject. “Do you believe these rumors about Sir Edward?”

 

“No. I know Jan Courymwen sufficiently well to know she wouldn’t do something like this, if only to protect Sir Edward’s reputation. And as for Sir Edward, I don’t think it would even occur to him to make those kinds of advances towards a woman he wasn’t courting.”

 

Luthias let his arms drop to his sides as Sir Edward and Marcellon came over, having finished congratulating General Verde. “I trust I am not interrupting?” Sir Edward asked politely.

 

“Not at all, Sir Edward,” Myrande responded. “Ever since the war started, I and the children have seen too little of you.”

 

“Thank you, My Lady,” Edward said, bowing. “I assure you I will try to get around to see you and the children when I can. The war presses heavily upon me, My Lady, and my duties require most of my time.”

 

“I’ll make a deal with you, Sir Edward. Stop calling me ‘My Lady’. It makes me feel old. Call me Sable. Do that and I’ll stop pestering you about coming around to see us.”

 

“It’s a deal, My Lady,” Edward said with just the barest hint of a smile.

 

“Your stubborn streak’s showing again, Edward,” Marcellon said.

 

“Yes, Old Man.” Marcellon collapsed in a fit of laughter.

 

“Sir Luthias,” Edward said, turning his attention to his tall subordinate, “I must apologize for my actions earlier.”

 

“Sir Edward, there’s no need,” Luthias protested. Marcellon was now clasping his hands to his sides he was laughing so hard.

 

“On the contrary, there is much need. I was — am — under intense pressure and I took it out on you, an innocent subordinate who knew nothing of his commander’s difficulties.” This kind of explanation was not required — it was dangerous, even — from a commander to those under him, but Edward was just to a fault, a legacy of his dead father. “My deeds and words were of unknightly conduct and, as one Knight to another, I ask your forgiveness.”

 

Luthias, overcome that the Knight Commander should treat Luthias as an equal, said, “Sir Edward, let’s forget the whole incident.”

 

“Good,” Edward said, managing a real smile for the first time in two days. “Now,” Edward said briskly, “I have some special orders to give you before you depart. That is, I will if the Lord High Mage can control himself.”

 

“Sorry, Edward,” Marcellon said with no hint of apology. “It’s not often you tell a good joke and I just couldn’t help myself.”

 

“I’ll go talk with Jan and leave you three alone,” Myrande said and started to leave.

 

“No, My Lady, stay.” Myrande looked at Edward questioningly, as did Luthias. “I need both your counsel, both of you being of the nobility, and possessing a more than significant amount of status. First, I must insist that neither of you speak of this to anyone. Not to Jan” — this to Myrande — “nor to the King” — this to both.

 

“I don’t think I like the sound of this, Sir Edward,” Luthias said evenly.

 

“Nor I,” Myrande added.

 

“I am not shouting from the Forum with ecstasy either.” Edward fixed both Connalls with that intent gaze of his that let the receiver know what was about to be discussed was in deadly earnest. “Since the news from Oron’s Crossroads was received, I have been seized by the impression that something other than training and professionalism and morale is the cause for our poor performance in the war to date. Having thought and mulled over the despatches in the last few days I have become convinced that the enemy within is aiding the enemy without.”

 

“Treason?” Luthias breathed.

 

“No,” Edward replied hastily. “At least not intentional. Let me explain. The reason that House Troops are outside the imperium of the Royal Army is to provide an assurance that the nobles have a power base outside the King’s control, yes?”

 

Luthias answered immediately; military history was his hobby. “I’m not sure I understand exactly what ‘imperium’ is but I believe the answer is yes. Having the House Troops separate was what helped the Loyalist forces come out on top during the Great Houses War. It also helped to curb King Darian’s excesses in the Shadow Wars afterward.”

 

Edward looked at Luthias as if Luthias should have come to a conclusion. “And?”

 

“And…I don’t see what you’re driving at.”

 

“Think, Luthias! A command structure that perpetuates a situation in which the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing or, when both hands do know what the other is doing but neither can influence the other…”

 

“…is fine for fighting an internal enemy but not an outside one,” Luthias finished in sudden understanding. “I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it long ago.”

 

“Because as you said the arrangement was often necessary for Baranur’s survival and that kind of history tends to put blinders on those it has benefitted. And I do grant that things have worked out when Baranur has been challenged by external enemies before but this time is not like before! This time it is Beinison, the largest military power on the continent.”

 

“There’s no need to preach, Edward,” Marcellon said. “I think you’ve got him convinced.”

 

“And I think I know why you are speaking to us before the King,” Myrande said. “You want us to test the waters for something, don’t you?”

 

“Exactly so, Lady Sable. I do indeed want the two of you to ‘test the waters’. I rather like that turn of phrase. I need to know what level of opposition I will encounter. I know King Haralan will be difficult, but I know my friend and while he may not be a Cadhless, he does have a goodly store of common sense so convincing him shouldn’t be too much a chore. It’s the rest of the nobility I am worried about.”

 

“What is it you intend to do?” asked Luthias.

 

Without even a pause, Edward answered, “I intend to ask the King to grant me the Edict.”

 

Luthias’ eyes widened. “My God!” he exclaimed in wonder that Edward would have the daring to go to such lengths. Noting Marcellon’s lack of reaction, Luthias asked, “You knew?”

 

“Edward came to me for advice early this morning.”

 

“Forgive my ignorance, gentlemen,” Myrande said, “but just what is this Edict?”

 

“An ancient decree,” Luthias responded, eyes never straying from Sir Edward’s face, “that gives the Knight Commander total and absolute control over the entire Combined Host of Baranur, Royal Army and House Troops alike. No noble may refuse the Knight Commander’s orders, no matter the circumstances. To do so means instant death. In effect, the Military Command Edict makes the Knight Commander Prince in all but name for so long as the Edict is in force.”

 

“And if and when the Edict is declared to be in effect,” Marcellon broke in, “the wails of protest will drown out even the sun. I would think it safe to say that House Northfield would feel directly threatened. One does not make enemies of the most powerful of the Great Houses lightly. Indeed, House Northfield might, just might mind, feel compelled to resort to a drastic and very permanent solution.”

 

“That is why I need the two of you to begin laying the groundwork,” Edward said, resuming the conversation. “Luthias will feel out those nobles he comes across while leading his troops against the enemy. You, My Lady, will seek opinions from those nobles here at the capital.”

 

“When do you plan to ask His Majesty?” Luthias inquired.

 

“Soon. If we can turn things around, I may not have to ask at all. But if the situation does not improve and improve very quickly, I may have to ask within the month.”

 

“You can count on us, Sir Edward,” Myrande said.

 

“Good.” Edward turned his full attention on Luthias. “Now that that is out of the way, I will give you your orders. They are brief and are the same I have sent on to Lord Morion.” So saying, Edward produced a message packet from his tunic and handed it to Luthias.

 

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, Lady Sable, Commander Courymwen and I have a great deal of work to do.”

 

“Of course, Sir Edward.”

 

“Knight Captain, I leave you and General Verde to your duties.” Edward returned Luthias’ salute, bowed to Myrande, and then left, Commander Courymwen in tow.

 

“Sarah, come over here and we’ll see what the Knight Commander has set out for us.”

 

“Sir!” General Verde walked briskly over to Luthias and Myrande from the far side of the chamber.

 

“Do you want me to leave?” Myrande asked.

 

Luthias thought a moment. “No, Sable, I’d rather you’d stay. If these orders are sufficiently lenient, we may be able to spend some time together before I have to leave.”

 

“All right, then,” she agreed. “General, it’s good to see you again.”

 

“The feeling is mutual, My Lady. I was afraid that after being away for such a long time as eight days you might forget me.” Both women laughed, which helped to dispel the somber mood that had been building.

 

“Well, we may be gone longer this time,” Luthias commented.

 

“What are our orders, sir?”

 

“I was just about to find out.” Luthias broke the seal and took out the parchment contained inside. Luthias quickly read the text and then silently held the parchment to Verde. Verde’s features hardened after she read the orders.

 

“May I see?” Myrande inquired. Verde looked questioningly at her commander. Luthias nodded. Silently Verde handed the parchment over to Myrande. Myrande read the words slowly, the unfamiliar style causing her some difficulty. The fact that some of the letters were Galician instead of Baranurian also accounted for her difficulty.

 

One line only was written on the parchment in a strong hand, the letters almost block-like: “Hold at all costs — done this the Thirteenth Day of Yule in the One Thousand and Fourteenth Year of the Kingdom of Baranur by my hand, Sir Edward Sothos, Knight Commander of the Royal Armies”.

 

Looking over Myrande’s shoulder, Marcellon read the order at the same time as she. “Not an easy task.”

 

“We’ll only be outnumbered two-to-one, Your Excellency,” Verde objected. “We may not have an easy time of it, but we’ll hold.”

 

“You seem very sure of yourself, General.”

 

“Of course, My Lord,” Verde said, nonplussed. “We are Hussars,” she said as if that explained everything.

 

“Of course. Good luck, Luthias, General.” Marcellon kissed Myrande’s cheek. “I’ll be by tomorrow to see you and the children.”

 

“See you soon,” Myrande agreed.

 

“Sarah,” Luthias said, “why don’t you go tell Michiya to give the troops plenty of rest. And then see to the replenishment of whatever supplies we may need.”

 

“Yes, sir.” Verde saluted and exited the chamber at a brisk pace. Neither Luthias nor Myrande said anything for long moments, the two just stood there enjoying the look, the presence of one another. Eventually, the silence was broken.

 

“Do you have much time?”

 

“Just one night.”

 

“I suppose that’s not so bad,” she replied with a smile.

 

“And we shouldn’t be away too long. Like Sarah said, we won’t be outnumbered by too much, not in military terms anyway. And we’ve got Gateway’s walls to shelter behind. I’ll let the Beinisonians smash themselves against us and that will be that.”

 

“Luthias, don’t lie to me. You don’t believe any of what you just said any more than I do.”

 

Luthias held her head against his heart. “Sable, promise me.”

 

“What, Luke?”

 

Luthias had to clamp his jaw a moment; the old nickname made him shake with fear and the grief that he might not come back again. “If I die–”

 

“You won’t die.”

 

Luthias was never sure how she could believe this. She knew battle; her father had been a Knight. She had treated wounds, and watched people die–watched her own father fall valiantly to the Red Plague. “I might die,” Luthias admitted, and the fact never frightened him so much as it did now. “If I die–”

 

“You won’t die,” Myrande insisted tightly. “If you do, I’ll have Michiya’s head and Marcellon’s.”

 

Luthias frowned with exasperation. “That won’t solve anything, and it won’t bring me back, either.”

 

Myrande’s face was getting its customary obstinate look. “You won’t die.”

 

“Then you won’t have any trouble promising.”

 

She sighed. “What?”

 

“That you won’t…” Luthias was unsure how to say such a thing. “That you won’t be alone forever. That…”

 

Myrande raised both eyebrows and her face took on that look which made Haralan remark that she would have been an excellent queen. “You would have me marry again?”

 

Luthias nodded mutely.

 

“And who would you have me marry?”

 

Luthias blinked; he had never considered that question. “Michiya –” he fumbled. “Sir Edward — hell, I don’t know. Marry King Haralan if you can get him, Sable. I just don’t want you to cut yourself off from life, and –”

 

“You don’t need to worry about it,” Myrande replied, and her voice was hard. “If you die, I will never marry again.” Her head tilted upwards, and her black eyes were hard as stone. “I won’t be able to endure your death a second time, Luthias. They’ll bury me beside you.” She looked over her shoulder. “You’d better go.”

 

Luthias stared at her. “You wouldn’t kill yourself!”

 

“I wouldn’t have to,” Myrande stated, her voice stale. Then, her eyes suddenly filled with dark fire. “No, I’d make the Beinisonians pay first.”

 

Suddenly, Luthias laughed, and he kissed her quickly. “You’re right, Sable. I’d better go.”

 

Confused, Myrande shook her head and reached for her husband’s hands.

 

“What is so funny?”

 

“Oh, nothing, but I’ve really got to stop Beinison before they kill me.” And suddenly, Luthias found his wife in his arms, clutching him tightly. “I’ll see you this evening.”

 

 

Gateway Keep, Royal Duchy, Baranur 17 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Lord Morion kicked at a stake in the earthen rampart, sending it flying. “Sergeant,” he said harshly to the soldier in charge of the men working on that portion of the fortifications Morion had started, “I want these stakes driven in securely! They’ll cause no one trouble the way they are now!”

 

“Yes, sir!”

 

Morion continued on his inspection of his defenses. When he’d been denied access to Gateway Keep on his arrival seven days ago, Morion had all but given up hope of even making a stand against the Beinisonians when they came. Morion had been a soldier for too long though to give up without a fight. And so he ordered what he optimistically called fortifications built.

 

The thing his men and women had been laboring on for close to a week now was finally nearing completion. The fortifications consisted of an earthen rampart two hundred yards long with a twenty-five yard belt of pits and stakes placed in front. All this was built on the south bank of the Laraka’s tributary where Morion’s force had forded, only a few hundred yards from Gateway’s comforting walls. Defending behind the rampart might enable Morion to prolong the battle by one bell’s time, perhaps two.

 

Despite the fact that Morion knew the defenses were mainly for show — the morale of his troops badly needed reinforcement — it was not the unfinished state of the fortifications that worried him (after all, it was just possible that the rampart and Outer Works would actually stop the Beinisonians for more than a bell) it was the fact of the enemy’s absence that caused him to have sleepless nights. The Beinisonians should have taken Port Sevlyn five or six days ago and if the enemy general force-marched his troops it should only take four days to reach Gateway. But the Beinisonians weren’t here. And that made Morion uneasy. He had been sending out patrols formed from the Battalion of current and former students he’d raised but so far the patrols had reported no sign of the enemy. Strange.

 

“Well, Colour Sergeant?” he asked the man who just came up behind him.

 

“Three patrols ha’ reported back, sair,” the Lederian answered. “They’ve nae spotted a thing. Tha fourth patrol is overdue.”

 

Morion had been absently staring across the river as he listened to MacLaird’s report. Now, his head snapped around. “How long?”

 

“Two bells, sair,” MacLaird said in a tone that said the Lederian was having the same thoughts as Morion.

 

“Double the watch, MacLaird. I’ll be in my tent if you need me.”

 

“Aye, sair.”

 

8 Leagues south-southwest of Gateway Keep, Royal Duchy, Baranur 17 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Goren Winston and three guards moved north along the Laraka’s west bank toward the last and only ford before Gateway Keep. The newly exonerated Lord of House Winston was pushing himself to the limit in order to reach Gateway and reclaim his birthright from his brother, Ne’on as soon as possible.

 

He no longer knew his brother. The boy that had grown up with him, rode a raft down the Laraka to Port Sevlyn (to the consternation of their mother, and the amusement of their father). The boy that, he admitted, took the brunt of Goren’s anger every once in a while. Perhaps it was his fault, he thought, that Ne’on had been driven away from the family. Goren was three years his brother’s senior. Ne’on probably never understood why Goren, while he loved his father, had felt so constrained by Kald’s rule, even while hunting in the woods. Goren now had freedom, but at the price of his father’s life. No, Goren did not drive Ne’on to kill their father. That was another’s influence, and something he had been avoiding thinking about.

 

I’ll think about it later, he thought. Meanwhile, some where in the back of his mind, he knew that ‘later’ was drawing nearer with his every movement closer to Gateway. ‘Later’ was not going to be an option, when he encountered Phos.

 

Whatever his feelings, Goren had to tackle the problem of how to gain access to Gateway. For all he knew, the Beinisonians might be laying siege at that very moment to his home. And who knew what changes Ne’on had made since Goren left. His best hope, his only hope, he realized, was that Marcus was still Castellan. If Ne’on had left Marcus in his position as Castellan, then Goren’s task would be made easier. If Marcus was still Castellan. If the way to Gateway lay open. If, if, if…

 

Goren adjusted his baldric and increased his pace. With any luck, he thought, I should make it by late afternoon.

 

83 leagues south of Gateway Keep, Royal Duchy, Baranur 17 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

The half-noon sun beat down on the long line of men, women, and horses, hot and doubly so for those wearing amour, which was practically all of the column. Luthias marched with General Verde and Sho-sho Kirinagi at the head of the eight thousand- strong procession.

 

“Well, Sarah?”

 

Verde thought for a moment then answered, “I don’t think we’ll reach Gateway before Beinison, sir. Not unless we push it.”

 

Luthias made an instant decision. “We’ll continue on as we are then. No need to tire the horses any more than we absolutely have to if we’re going to have to fight once we get there. Do you agree, Sho-sho?” Luthias asked through Michiya.

 

Kirinagi replied through Michiya, “Whatever you think best, Tai-shu. If the horses tire, then we shall fight on foot. Regardless of the circumstances my samurai and I will allow nothing to deter us from our duty. We are yours to command.”

 

Luthias inclined his head as acknowledgement. “How about you, Michiya?”

 

“It would seem to me, Luthias-sama,” Michiya said, “that the decision should be based on the news from Gateway Keep. Until we know more, we should not commit ourselves to an unalterable course of action.”

 

“When’s the next patrol due in, Sarah?”

 

Verde shifted her reins to her left hand while she used her right hand to shield her eyes from the worst of the sun’s glare. “There should be a patrol due in sometime within the bell, sir.”

 

Luthias considered. He still felt that his decision to carry on as things stood to be the best. However, if Gateway was under siege…no, stick with his original decision. Unless one of the patrols brought back news that would require a change in plans. “We’ll keep to our present rate of march. But we might as well get as many leagues behind us as we can. Pass the order to mount.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Verde said and signalled one of the buglers. The bugle’s call sounded three times and was quickly passed on down the column. Baranur’s elite mounted their horses and were soon making good time toward Gateway.

 

 

Gateway Keep, Royal Duchy, Baranur 17 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

MacLaird paced back and forth on the ramparts, anxiously watching for the overdue patrol. The patrol should have reported back three bells ago and its absence was causing the Baranurian army’s commanders worry. That sense of anxiety had communicated itself to the troops and more than one occasionally looked up from whatever he or she was doing and scanned the north bank of the Vodyanoi for some sign of the missing patrol or worse, the enemy.

 

MacLaird decided that endless pacing would accomplish nothing, whereas a few bells’ rest would do wonders. He turned to one of the two soldiers standing guard near him. “Laddie, Ah’m goin’ tae take a rest for a while. You and ye’re mate keep a sharp eye oot for tha’ patrol. If ye see anathin’, coom an’ fetch me quick-smart. Got it?”

 

“Yes, Colour Sergeant.”

 

“Good lad.” MacLaird had just stepped down from the ramparts and was heading for Lord Morion’s tent when he was stopped by a shout from the ramparts.

 

“Colour Sergeant! Across the river! I see something!”

 

MacLaird bounded up the earthen steps and was at the soldier’s side in a flash. “Wha’, lad? Wha’ d’ ye see? Where?”

 

The soldier pointed. “That copse of trees off to the left. I thought I saw something moving at the edge.”

 

MacLaird and the soldier stared for a long time at the wooded area. Nothing. “Laddie, are ye sure?”

 

“I’m almost positive…I thought for sure…I…I’m sorry, Colour Sergeant, I guess my mind was playing tricks on me. I wanted to spot that patrol so bad.”

 

MacLaird picked up on something in the young man’s voice. “Ye ha’ friends in tha patrol?”

 

“Yes, Colour Sergeant,” the soldier said in a low voice.

 

“I understand, lad. Ye’ve done no wrong.”

 

“Do you think any of them are alive?” the soldier asked in a pleading voice.

 

MacLaird, in a surprisingly compassionate gesture for the normally hard man Morion’s students had come to fear and respect, laid his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Laddie, I wilna lie to ye. They’ve been past due for three bells now. Chances are they found tha enemy when they wernae ready for it. It’s hard son, I know, but ye must keep ye’re spirits up. It’s nae easy, but ye’ll ha’ tae get used tae this if ye’re tae continue wi’ tha life ye ha’ chosen for yeself.”

 

“Thank you, Colour Sergeant.”

 

“Dinna. Ah was just doin’–” MacLaird stopped in mid-sentence. “Laddie,” he asked eagerly, “d’ ye see tha’ flash o’ light yonder?”

 

“No…wait, I did see something. Maybe…” Just then, a figure in tattered leather amour and dragging a sabre from a leather thong fastened to its wrist emerged from the trees. The figure was staggering and one hand was clasped to the figure’s side. The face was twisted in an obvious grimace of pain.

 

“Great Culchanan’s Ghost!” MacLaird exclaimed. He leaped down the stake-studded embankment and scrambled across the Outer Works. The two soldiers on the rampart with him were close on his heels.

 

MacLaird ran as fast as his legs would carry him, throwing up great waves of water as he splashed across the knee-deep ford in the Vodyanoi. He slipped once on the unsteady footing of the river bottom and came up soaking wet, coughing and spluttering from the water he’d taken into his lungs.

 

He reached the far bank just as the figure that had emerged from the trees collapsed. He turned the blood-stained soldier over.

 

“Aurellan!”

 

MacLaird looked around at the young man he had been speaking with just a short time before. “Ye know tha lass?”

 

“Yes, Colour Sergeant. We’re good friends. She’s part of our Battalion.”

 

“Well, she’s in nae good condition. Ye,” he said, telling off the second soldier that had come across, “get yeself o’er tae Evris tha Healer an’ tell him we’re bringing in a casualty. Quick-smart now, lad!” The soldier saluted, turned, and ran back across the ford.

 

“Here,” MacLaird said to the young woman’s friend, “gi’ me a hand gettin’ her across.” MacLaird and the soldier gently picked Aurellan up and carried her back to the Baranurian lines.

 

***

 

In the healer’s tent several dozen yards back from the ramparts, Evris, the Baranurians’ only healer, was preparing his large tent for the numerous casualties that were certain to arrive once battle was joined. Evris was not alone, though. He had ten assistants, two of whom had shown that they might posses the aptitude to become healers themselves given some intensified instruction in the healers art.

 

None of his assistants had seen anything like the horrible injuries the wounded would be suffering from and that worried Evris. The aging healer had been plying his trade for thirty years in the King’s service and had seen it all. Those thirty years had taken their toll. Of late, Evris had been considering leaving the Royal Army and retiring to Magnus, perhaps to a teaching position at the University. After this campaign, his was certain he would retire. Thirty years of tending to those whose business it is to maim and kill is enough for anyone.

 

The flap to the tent opened and two soldiers, one soaking wet, carried in a third soldier with a bloody gash across the abdomen. Evris pointed to a table to his left and the two soldiers set their wounded comrade down. “Ethros, finish laying out these instruments. You two, let’s get started on this one.”

 

When Evris emerged three quarters of a bell later he found a somewhat dry Colour Sergeant MacLaird, an anxious Lord Morion and two of the force’s Commanders waiting for him.

 

“She’s alive, but just barely and that for not much longer.”

 

“Can she speak?” Morion asked intently.

 

“My Lord, she has received a sword-cut to the abdomen. She is in a great deal of pain and I’ve been forced to give her a potion that makes her very groggy. She’s dying.”

 

“I realize that, Evris, but I must know what happened to the patrol. Our continued survival may depend on it.”

 

“Very well, My Lord. I can give her something to bring her around but you must be quick, My Lord.”

 

“That will suffice.”

 

“You and one other, My Lord.”

 

Morion motioned for MacLaird to follow and the two stepped past Evris and entered the dark tent.

 

“Through that flap and to your right, My Lord. I’ll be there shortly with a potion.”

 

Morion nodded and he and MacLaird stepped through the flap leading to the area reserved for the more seriously wounded. Aurellan was lying unconscious on a pallet, a blood-soaked bandage covering her wound.

 

Evris entered the closed-off area carrying a bowl filled with a vile-smelling brew. He sat on the pallet and tilted the bowl to the dying woman’s lips. Within moments, Aurellan began to show signs of waking.

 

“Lassie?” MacLaird tentatively asked. “Lassie, can ye hear me?”

 

Aurellan opened her eyes a fraction. “Who…where…?”

 

“Aurellan, it’s Lord Morion and Colour Sergeant MacLaird,” Morion said in a gentle voice. “Can you tell us what happened to your patrol?”

 

“Patrol?” Aurellan repeated weakly.

 

“Yes, Aurellan, your patrol. Concentrate. Tell us what happened.”

 

“Patrol…patrol…oh, yes. Ambushed.”

 

“Where? When?”

 

“Don’t…don’t re…remember. Hurts.”

 

MacLaird broke in. “We know it does, lass. All ye ha’ tae do is answer a few wee questions an’ then ye can sleep.”

 

“The patrol, Aurellan,” Morion’s stern tone resumed, “tell us of the patrol.”

 

“Benisons,” she responded in a still-groggy voice. “Ran into some few bells northwest. Lots. Tried to get away but caught us. Stupid officer. Wouldn’t listen when tried tell him we should scram. Beinisons kept coming. No more arrows. Keenan…Keenan went down. Couldn’t save him.” Aurellan was crying now, the tears silently flowing; the strength to do more than that was gone.

 

“It’s a’right, lass. We’ll nae trouble ye anamore.”

 

Evris stepped forward with a bowl half-full of a sweet-smelling liquid. “Drink this, Aurellan.” Evris helped the young woman drink. She’d breathed her last even as Morion and MacLaird were exiting the tent.

 

Outside, Morion stared at the ground for long moments. Neither man seemed willing to break the silence. Eventually, Morion’s warrior training reasserted itself, reminding him that he had a commander’s duty to perform that took precedence over everything else, even grief for a departed student.

 

“The pickets should be doubled.”

 

“Sair,” MacLaird protested, “tha men are verra tired. They ha’ been workin’ on tha ramparts since before sunrise.”

 

“And they’ll work on the ramparts long after the sun sets. The enemy is almost upon us. We’ll have plenty of time to rest after the battle.” If the gods see fit to spare anyone.

 

“Aye, sair. Ah’ll see to it straight away.”

 

Morion massaged his neck muscles as MacLaird walked away. Consequently, it took several moments before Morion realized MacLaird had stopped. “Something, Colour Sergeant?”

 

MacLaird pointed. “Aye, sair, ye might say tha’.”

 

Morion looked in the direction MacLaird was pointing. The senior Regimental commander, Commander Vroneth, was striding briskly towards Evris’ tent. From the set of his face, Morion could hazard a guess as to what news Vroneth was bringing. So could the soldiers whom Vroneth passed on his way. Work throughout the camp came to a halt as the soldiers’ intuition told them something was up.

 

Vroneth marched sharply to Morion and halted, giving a parade-ground salute. “Report, Commander.”

 

“My Lord,” Vroneth said, “the sentries report Beinisonians approaching from the north. Thousands of them.”

 

“Right.” Morion sighed. “This is it, then. Stand to, Commander.”

 

“Sir!” Vroneth moved away from the tent, catching the eye of Morion’s bugler as he went.

 

Vroneth stopped, facing the camp. He filled his lungs with air. “Stand…to!”

 

The clarion call of the trumpet filled the air, its rising notes summoning the Baranurians to the ramparts, stirring the blood with its call to battle.

 

***

 

Marcus Ridgewater stood on one of the two towers flanking the gate and watched the unfolding scene in the Royal Army camp only a few hundred yards from Gateway.

 

“Should we stand to as well, sir?” asked a young officer of Gateway’s small complement of soldiers.

 

Marcus remained silent. He wanted to answer “Yes,” to tell the youngster to sound the alarm. But he could not. For he was bound by orders to do nothing. The Lord Keeper’s son – make that, the new Lord Keeper, Ne’on – had ordered Marcus to remain aloof from the conflict.

 

Ne’on thought to keep Gateway removed from the war. Marcus snorted in disgust. He turned to the waiting officer. “No,” he ground out.

 

“But, sir!”

 

“I said ‘No’ and I meant it. I don’t expect you to question me again.”

 

***

 

MacLaird walked with a steady measured pace along the rampart behind the soldiers of his Battalion. “Steady, lads. Remember, they’re just flesh an’ blood like we are. Do wha’ ye’re told, listen tae ye’re sergeants, an’ show those wee bastards wha’ Laird Morion ha’ taught ye.” His words echoed those of the squad sergeants and did more to ready his troops than any oration could have.

 

As yet, no enemy had appeared. Almost a quarter of a bell had passed since the stand to had been given. Two of the three Baranurian Regiments manned the ramparts along with Morion’s Battalion, now under the command of Colour Sergeant MacLaird. Lord Morion waited behind the ramparts with the reserve, Vroneth’s Regiment.

 

An uneasy feeling had come over MacLaird but he couldn’t pin down the cause. It took him several moments to realize that what was causing his uneasiness was the total absence of sound other than that made by man. The Lederian pushed his way through the ranks ’till he found himself up against the wooden palisade of the ramparts themselves. He stood motionless, staring across the river with every fibre of his being, as if by sheer force of will he could force the Beinisonians to reveal themselves to him. (In the back of his mind the thought that the enemy might have wizards fluttered around until he caught it and squashed it; he absolutely refused to contemplate such a catastrophic happenstance.)

 

Very shortly he was rewarded with the sight of the enemy, a reward MacLaird would have just as well gone without. One moment there was nothing, just the slowly flowing water of the Vodyanoi and the gentle slope of the hill on the far bank, then the hill was moving as three thousand five hundred of Beinison’s elite marched into view, light sabres banging against their legs as they ran.

 

The Beinisonians stopped at the base of the hill, a scant few yards from the water’s edge. An elegantly armored rider trotted his mount out in front of the enemy line and rode parallel with the Baranurian fortifications. He was obviously the commander of the Beinisonian force. He studied the Baranurian defenses with an arrogant air. Finally, finished with his study, he rode back within his own lines and issued orders to a group of similarly attired mounted officers. His orders given, he galloped his horse to the top of the hill as his officers dismounted and moved to their units.

 

The Baranurians knew what would be next in the sequence of events and all along the line they tensed, ready to receive the enemy. In the very center of the line, MacLaird raised his hand, the signal for the few archers in the force to make ready.

 

Across the river, the Beinisonians were arranging themselves into four blocks of roughly eight hundred fifty men formed in thirty three ranks of fifty. In the center of each block was carried an oak pole topped with a golden eagle and encased in leather, the Colors of the Beinisonian Regiments. Each was ringed by the possessing Regiment’s fiercest warriors. Every man was fully prepared to die to keep the Colors from the enemy.

 

For long moments, the only sounds that could be heard were the low but firm voices of the Baranurian Sergeants as they gave final instructions and advice to their troops; the Beinisonians, for their part, were utterly silent, a fact which did much to unsettle even the most stalwart Baranurian veteran. Each line was immobile; the Beinisonians seemed hesitant, reluctant almost, to begin the contest and the Baranurians dared not take their attention away from the foe.

 

***

 

From Gateway’s battlements, Marcus saw movement in the enemy’s lines which he knew the waiting Baranurian soldiers could not see; buglers and messengers making their way to join their commander on the hill. “Won’t be long now,” he said, more to himself than anyone else.

 

“Excuse me, sir?” the officer who had earned Marcus’ wrath earlier asked.

 

“Nothing. The show’s about to begin.” Marcus felt sick. What Ne’on had ordered him to do was wrong. Marcus was sure he was betraying the soldiers about to die on the Vodyanoi’s south bank by complying with Ne’on’s orders. He was almost certain he was betraying the Kingdom. But if he didn’t do as Ne’on, his commander and Lord in law, bid him do then he would just as certainly be guilty of betrayal.

 

Unless Ne’on were relieved of his command, he thought, noting three horseman riding north along the Laraka, heading for Gateway.

 

“What do you make of that?” he asked the soldier at his side, pointing to the three figures.

 

“Someone’s riding toward Gateway, sir.”

 

Marcus looked at the soldier quizzically. “What’s your name, son?”

 

“Andrews, sir,” he answered proudly.

 

“Andrews, if you can’t make a better assessment of those three immediately, you’ll be cleaning outhouses for the duration of your assignment.”

 

Andrews’ face went slightly pale, and he stared intently into the distance. “If I didn’t know any better, sir…”

 

Marcus did not smile. “Let’s assume you don’t.”

 

“Well, I’d say that was Lord Goren. But isn’t he in the dungeon?”

 

“Officially.” Just slightly, Marcus grinned.

 

If Ne’on’s actions were to cause, or be likely to cause, the Kingdom great harm, then Marcus might be justified in disobeying orders. Further, if that was Goren Winston, riding with three of the King’s guards, then Marcus could assume Ne’on was no longer in rightful possession of Gateway. Marcus was not too concerned with what might happen to him, it was his soldier’s honor – and Gateway’s – which concerned him. Marcus had to be absolutely clear in his own mind that following Ne’on’s orders would conflict with his higher duty to King and Kingdom – and that Goren was returning with redemption.

 

Araminia grant me fortune, he pleaded silently. He stared at Lord Morion’s personal standard for what seemed like an eternity as his inner thoughts maneuvered and counter-maneuvered.

 

Lord Morion is not properly under the King’s sovereignty and yet he is ready to sacrifice all for the slim chance that he may somehow aid Baranur. And here I stand blowing in the wind. Ne’on has been too long here with his accursed Black Hand. No, my duty is clear. Ne’on may turn me into a toad or blast me to ashes but he will not have my allegiance. Only my fealty to the King is left. I will do what I must and Ne’on be damned!

 

Marcus straightened and turned. “Captain of the Guard! To me!” An answering shout and in moments Gateway’s Guard Captain was standing at attention before his commander.

 

“Captain, I want you to quietly stand the garrison to.”

 

“Sir?” The Captain was very aware of Ne’on’s orders.

 

“You heard me, Captain. The Lord Keeper is no longer in command of this keep. There,” he pointed to the three oncoming riders, “is Lord Goren, the new Lord Keeper. Our duty to Ne’on is finished. Our duty to the King is not.”

 

Marcus was rewarded with the largest (and only, so far as he could remember) smile ever to grace the Captain’s face. Obviously, the Captain of the Guard had not well-liked his orders. As the Captain was turning to go, Marcus stopped him with a hand. “One more thing. I want two score archers to keep an eye on the Black Hand. They may give us trouble. If they do, they are to be killed instantly. Handle it yourself.”

 

“All of them, sir?” The Captain knew the Castellan’s youngest son was a member of the Black Hand.

 

“All that resist, yes.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

***

 

On the hilltop on the Vodyanoi’s north bank, the buglers and messengers had reached the Light Infantry’s commander. A breeze began blowing up from the south, stirring the water slightly. At a command from their leader, the three buglers lifted their brass horns to their lips and blew a single note.

 

The standard bearers of each Regiment in the Beinisonian line reached up and removed the leather casings from their Colors. The wind caught them, making them snap and flutter.

 

Morion signalled his own buglers and the Baranurians unfurled their Colors.

 

On the hilltop, the Beinisonian commander raised his sword in salute. The enemy’s horns sounded once more and the enemy line moved forward into the water.

 

“A’right, m’ wee bairns,” MacLaird said, “make ready.”

 

At a silent signal from their officers, the Beinisonians drew their sabres en masse. When the enemy were approximately halfway across a single note sounded from the hilltop. With a mighty shout the Beinisonians hurled themselves at the ramparts.

 

“Now!” MacLaird shouted, dropping his arm. Here and there along the line, bow strings thrummed and arrows dropped among the advancing Beinisonians, felling a few of the enemy, too few to make any difference.

 

The Beinisonians pounded across the ford throwing up a great spray of water. The leading edge of the charge reached the south bank and immediately disappeared into the staked pits the defenders had dug; perhaps three-score of the enemy fell screaming to their deaths.

 

The survivors of the first rank advanced more carefully on the ramparts now just a few yards away anxious to avoid their comrades’ fate. Not everyone was successful in avoiding the pitfalls and another score went to meet their ancestors.

 

The enemy wave was at the earthen embankment now, frantically clawing their way up towards the waiting defenders while at the same time trying (unsuccessfully in some cases) to avoid the stakes that made the slope look like a massive, elongated pin-cushion.

 

The first of the Beinisonians reached the top and the smithy’s din of combat rang out in all its fury. Men and women up and down the line staggered back or fell clutching at slashes and cuts. More than a few, Baranurian and Beinisonian alike, lay sprawled in death. The fighting was bitter and the Beinisonians were taking most of the losses. Boiled leather just could not compete with chain and scale mail in close-quarter fighting.

 

After what seemed like forever to those on the ramparts, a bugle sounded, three notes rising in successive octaves, the Beinisonian signal to retreat. The enemy flowed back across the Vodyanoi leaving four hundred dead and wounded. The Baranurians counted their losses at nearly two hundred. The fighting had raged for almost a full bell.

 

***

 

MacLaird was relaxing on the ground after having issued orders to remove the dead and dying. Morion came up and sat beside his friend. “Water?” he said, offering the Lederian his canteen.

 

MacLaird snatched at it like a drowning man grabs a rope. Raising the canteen to his lips, he downed it in one go. “Thank ye, sair. Tha’ was much appreciated.”

 

Morion smiled. “What do you think?”

 

MacLaird thought for a moment before he answered. “Ah think we can hold these wee buggers from now ’till Burgondonan. It’s when those other lads show up tha’ we ha’ soomthin’ tae worry o’er.”

 

“My thoughts exactly.” Morion stared up at the sky, gaging the sun’s position. “I’d say we’ve no more than four or five bells.”

 

MacLaird swallowed the chunk of bread he’d been chewing and looked at his lord. “Aye,” he agreed without emotion, “tha’ be aboot wha’ Ah’d guess.”

 

“I’m sorry, MacLaird.”

 

“Sorry? For wha’ are ye needin’ tae be sorry aboot?”

 

“For getting us into this. I could have stayed out of this war, you know. But my honor wouldn’t let me.”

 

“Sair, we ha’ been together now for more years than Ah like tae count. Ye ken why Ah left my clan.” MacLaird paused, the moment making him feel uncomfortable. It was unusual for the pragmatic Lederian to make such a speech. “Sair, we saved each other tha’ day in tha’ forest. Ah dinna ken it then but Ah do now. Ye ha’ been my Laird an’ it ha’ been my duty an’ my honor tae help ye preserve yours.”

 

“Thank you, Colour Sergeant. But my honor seems to have gotten us killed this time.”

 

“Wha’ better way for a soldier tae meet his death than tae go down fightin’ for a good cause again’ o’erwhelmin’ odds?”

 

Morion sighed. “I’m getting too old for this.”

 

MacLaird leaned close and spoke in low and gentle tones. “Tha’ lass will be a’right. Lady Kimmentari ha’ a good head on her shoulders. She’ll scramble before anathin’ cooms within’ reach o’ Pentamorlo.”

 

Horns brayed, shattering the early afternoon respite.

 

***

 

The second round of fighting had been raging for just over two bells when Morion felt the ground begin to tremble. Then he saw them. The cries of the wounded, the grunts and groans of the combatants, the death screams, the clash of steel on steel, all were banished from Morion’s senses as his brain confirmed what his eyes were seeing.

 

The crest of the low hill on the other side of the river came suddenly and menacingly alive as rank upon rank, Regiment upon Regiment of Beinison’s heavy infantry rushed into view, sun glinting off shields and armor.

 

“My God!” Vroneth breathed. “Is there no end to them?”

 

Morion did not answer. He was far away from Gateway Keep. His world was a blue-skinned woman whom he loved dearly and now knew he would never set eyes on again. The vision passed. He realized someone had been speaking to him. “What, Commander?”

 

“Your orders, sir?” Vroneth repeated softly.

 

“Orders, Commander? What good will orders do now?”

 

Vroneth was shocked. “But, My Lord! We must do something!”

 

Morion was silent long moments. “Quite right. I don’t know what came over me.” He turned to regard Gateway’s battlements. “If only…but that will not happen. Ready your men, Commander. We’ll commit all our reserves. Our only chance now is to meet the enemy at the ramparts with everything we have.”

 

Vroneth saluted and moved off, giving orders to his officers. When all was ready, Vroneth signalled to his bugler. At the bugle’s call the eight hundred men and women of Vroneth’s Regiment marched to join their comrades in the fight for the ramparts.

 

“Any word from Captain Greerson?” Castellan Ridgewater asked a junior officer standing nearby.

 

“Not yet, sir.”

 

Damn! Marcus swore. I’d feel a damn sight better if I knew for certain the Black Hand was gone. “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

 

“Sir?”

 

“Nothing. Are the catapults and ballistae ready?”

 

The officer made a quick visual check. “Yes, sir.”

 

“Good. Set your sights on the Vodyanoi crossing.” He turned to another officer. “Make ready to open the gate. And keep an eye on Goren… it appears he has company.”

 

In the Keep, a member of the Black Hand was at that moment looking out one of the high, narrow windows that were really more arrow slit than for gazing out of.

 

“Are you in or out, Mak?” asked one of four Black Hand soldiers sitting on the floor in the midst of a dice game.

 

“Just a moment,” he replied absently.

 

“Come on,” pushed another. “I’ve only got another two bells before shift.”

 

“What has you so interested?” the first asked.

 

“Something’s going on. They’re moving the catapults into position.”

 

“What?” The first soldier joined Mak by the window. “Are we under attack?”

 

“Don’t think so.”

 

“What, you think the Castellan’s finally found some balls?”

 

“Maybe. We should let Clay know about this.”

 

“Right. Let’s go.”

 

***

 

MacLaird snarled as he swept the head off a Beinisonian skirmisher. The Lederian’s armor was splotched with blood, not all of it the enemy’s. In the best tradition of the men of Lederia he had given himself to the battle rage and the Beinisonians were paying a terrible price for it. Few there were among the enemy Regiments that found the courage to go up against the seemingly insane apparition.

 

To his rear a bugle sounded and all at once the pressure on his Battalion eased as Vroneth’s Regiment came into the line. Then MacLaird saw the glittering wave of the enemy heavy infantry Regiments rolling over the Vodyanoi. “M’anam don sleibh!”

 

The Beinisonian light infantry were thrown back by the added weight of Vroneth’s warriors but that meant little. MacLaird knew those heavy infantry Regiments had sealed the Baranurians’ doom.

 

Several yards away to right of center Lord Morion looked not to the enemy but to his camp — even now being dismantled by his order — and its wounded. Morion did not truly despair of dying, it is a thing all soldiers know comes sooner or later. He knew he would make his death a worthy one, but his being was permeated by a fear of the fate of those who lay helpless on their blood-soaked pallets. Morion had heard of Port Sevlyn’s fate and fully expected his wounded to be slaughtered.

 

“Vroneth?”

 

“My Lord?”

 

“Pass the word. There will be no retreat. We win here, or die.”

 

Vroneth saluted gravely and moved off to inform his officers.

 

***

 

Goren raced full speed toward Gateway Keep, six advance scouts following his group of four. As he sped along the river’s edge, his horse almost frothing with exertion, he saw a sight he’d never forget: Gateway’s main gates were opening. “Marcus, I love you,” he thought, and urged his men to ride faster.

 

The six Beinison scouts behind him were persistent, he had to give them that. But coming up the back trails of the Laraka, where Goren had grown up, he had spotted them and out-maneuvered them easily. The Laraka flowed north until it met the Vodyanoi, where the latter joined it and turned it west. Gateway was on the eastern rock base where the two rivers met. Fortunately for Goren, the rest of the Beinison army was on the other side of the Laraka and the Vodyanoi, not between Goren and Gateway.

 

As they continued toward the keep, Goren saw six men line up with bows, draw, and take aim.

 

“I hope they recognize us,” yelled one of his men. “Or at least, are damn good archers!”

 

“They’re in Gateway,” was Goren’s reply. “I’d put Marcus’ troops against the Legions of Death if I had to.” A flight of arrows streaked across the sky, landing thirty yards behind them and just in front of the pursuing Benosians. “If that doesn’t give them second thoughts, they won’t have time for thirds!”

 

***

 

Inside the object of so many people’s desire, Captain Greerson moved carefully out of sight among the buildings close against the keep overseeing the final positioning of his archers. A quick glance at Gateway’s siege engines told him he had little time. A quick mental review of his dispositions left him less than totally satisfied but he decided they would serve. They’ll have to, he thought.

 

The main gate to the keep opened and the bulk of the Black Hand emerged. Their attention was on the busy heavy catapult crews in the bailey. They totally failed to notice Greerson’s force concealed nearby. Swords drawn, they advanced on the catapults. Mak, the soldier who first noticed the garrison’s efforts at changing allegiance, opened his mouth to speak.

 

An arrow sprouted from his neck. He stopped, a shocked look of disbelief on his face. He fell choking on his own blood. He was soon joined by many of his fellows as Greerson’s troops opened fire. Caught out in the open and now leaderless, the Black Hand died before any organized attempt at resistance could be made.

 

Even before the last of the Hand was dispatched, the catapults had begun their deadly song.

 

***

 

At the Vodyanoi crossing, the wave of steel-clad Beinisonians was at the halfway point when a series of low dull thuds issued from the direction of the fortress-waypoint commanding both Vodyanoi and Laraka rivers.

 

With heart-stopping suddenness huge gouts of water were thrown into the air as boulders the size of small huts found their mark. The first few ranks of the enemy disappeared almost without sound. The green-blue waters of the Vodyanoi turned crimson.

 

Morion spun and stared, slack-jawed, at the sight of Gateway Keep, its great gate swung wide and beckoning. It was several moments before he or anyone could react to what their eyes transmitted to their unbelieving brains. Morion pushed and shoved his way to his bugler’s side as another salvo from Gateway’s catapults arced overhead.

 

“Sound retreat!” The bugler raised his instrument to his lips and blew a discordant sound. “Spit, boy, spit!” The young soldier wet his lips and again tried, this time with more success.

 

So ended the Baranurian army’s organized defense. The bugle’s call to retreat, combined with the promise of Gateway’s beckoning gate, shattered the defending force. The discipline that had held through so much for so long fled as a wisp of fog on a blustery day. Where once there was a line of battle ordered into Regiment and Battalion, now there was a mob of desperate men and women frantically trying to reach the safety of Gateway Keep.

 

Here and there among the chaos, a sergeant or officer tried to rally their troops. Most met with failure. A few did succeed and Morion pushed and shoved his way to the nearest group. He found the leader of the group, a Captain, by the simple expedient of colliding with her.

 

“My Lord!” the Captain exclaimed with some surprise.

 

“Good work, Captain!” Morion praised. “How many have you?”

 

“Between three- and four-score, My Lord.”

 

Morion quickly assessed the overall situation, such as he was able to amidst the confusion, and the state of the body of troops before him. “They’re shaky.”

 

“Yes, My Lord,” the Captain replied in a voice that said she, too, was shaky.

 

“Well, no help for it. Can you hold them?”

 

“I don’t know, My Lord.” Seeing Morion’s expression, she amplified. “I’m sorry, My Lord, but that is the only answer I can give you. Some will stay…I’m sorry to have failed you, sir.”

 

“Worry about recrimination later, Captain. Right now, we’ve got to get some sort of line established.”

 

“With what?” The Captain pointed at her troops, drawn up in a loose square. “Look at them, My Lord. The enemy has not yet gained the rampart and already they’re wavering.”

 

“Well firm them up, Captain! Because wavering or not, in whatever numbers you can muster, you ARE going to form line! There is no way that ,” he said, gesturing at the packed mass before Gateway’s main gate, “is going to make it inside before the Beinisionians come over that rampart over there. We have to buy time for those at the gate and for the wounded to get inside.” To the Captain’s doubtful face he replied, “You don’t have to hold the entire enemy army. When they see a force deployed, they will also deploy and that will take time. A few menes, even a few moments, can make a difference.”

 

“Yes, My Lord,” the Captain said sullenly.

 

Morion regarded her intently for a moment then issued additional orders. “Gather what you can to you. Force them to deploy then fall back, then deploy again and so on.”

 

“Where will you be, My Lord?”

 

“I’m going to try and get some people together to help Evris get the wounded moved. We can’t leave them for the enemy.”

 

“No, My Lord.”

 

“Good luck,” Morion wished then turned and, with his bugler following, waded into the maelstrom.

 

***

 

“Goren, you blasted fool!” Marcus yelled as he worked his way down the stairs to the courtyard. His lord had just made his way into Gateway – probably would have died without his help – and didn’t bring half the forces Marcus had instructed him to months before. “What in Muskadon’s name are you doing? Damn good to see you, but where’s your escort? I told you to come back with a regiment of men and the King’s seal, and demand your rightful place. Burn my ashes in Rise’er’s feast, boy, you’re lucky I opened those gates… Ne’on himself ordered them shut and the garrison to stand down. If I-”

 

“Marcus!” Goren’s voice finally made its way through the castellan’s barrage of dialogue. He looked at the castellan, smiled, and grabbed him by the shoulders. “It’s good to see you, too. Now, where’s the rest of the force? With all those men outside, I counted on at least three more regiments in Gateway… did you deploy them before I got in?”

 

Marcus’ expression turned dark. “Your blasted brother, self-proclaimed Keeper of Gateway – you took care of that business, now, didn’t you?” When Goren nodded, Marcus continued. “Ne’on ordered the garrison to stand down, and not to allow access to Gateway. Just recently, I countermanded that order. The catapults and ballistas are firing on the Beinison army now, but I’m not sure how long it will take Morion to move his troops in – and the Benosian’s will be making for the entrance as fast as he will.”

 

Goren grasped the parchment from inside his cloak and handed it to the Castellan. “This is the King’s hand, and his decision to place me as Keeper of Gateway. Take as many horse as you can – leave one for me – and gather archers by the gate. I’ll return in menes, Ol willing.”

 

As Goren turned towards his father’s mansion, Marcus yelled to him, “Watch your brother, boy… he’s not to be trusted.” Damn fool, he thought, Morion and his troops don’t have menes. “Captain of the Guard!” He waited for the man to signal from the parapets. “Gather the two archer companies and all the horse you can muster. We’re going to get our hands dirty on this one!”

 

***

 

MacLaird stood in front of a group of soldiers from all units and glared at them with sword drawn. By dint of force of personality (and outright physical threat) the Lederian had gathered twenty-two to him. He wasn’t satisfied with their morale, but it would have to do.

 

Off to his left and toward the ramparts, a bugle sounded — hahn taa-ree — the signal “Form on me!” MacLaird smiled, a wide, vicious, happy grin. He sheathed his sword and bellowed commands to his force.

 

“Hurry, Colour Sergeant!” Morion exhorted.

 

“Sair!” MacLaird turned to his troops and spat out a stream of invective that would have melted stone. Morion, MacLaird, and close to two-score ordinary soldiers were desperately, frantically trying to move Evris’ field hospital and the wounded within.

 

Niceties were set aside for greater concerns. Those who were too badly wounded to walk were carried gently but swiftly towards the safety of Gateway Keep. The dying were aided on their way with a quick sword-stroke or dagger-thrust.

 

The hospital was mostly torn down and moving when the catapults stopped.

 

***

 

“Keep form, men!” Marcus yelled as he and two hundred archers of his own training were riding toward the enemy lines from behind the Baranurian ranks. Already, swarms of Baranurian soldiers sped past, some desperately lunging through the line of make-shift cavalry riding their way. Marcus silently hoped no men died of stupidity in their attempt to gain Gateway’s safety.

 

Seeing the hospital was already broken down, Marcus concentrated on the main bulk of the front line. At about three hundred feet, with hundreds of fleeing soldiers around him, he gave the order to dismount. “Concentrate your fire at the front line, enemy rear.

 

“Ready!” Two hundred bows pulled back, aiming at where the enemy was deploying a force meant to wipe out one of the few small patches of resistance left in the Baranurian force. “Aim!” Arrows steadied on their rests. “Fire!” Two hundred arrows swarmed through the sky, casting a small, fast-moving shadow of death over the troops until it struck its mark. A few of the enemy were killed, more wounded, and the advancing force slowed.

 

“Captains, choose your targets and command at will!” Marcus screamed as he mounted his horse. From his position, he could barely make out the form of a commanding officer nearly quarter of a league away. The wind was at his back. It would be a major set back for the enemy, he thought. Hefting his own great bow, he chose a long arrow from the quiver. More draw for more distance, he mused. He pulled back on the string, meeting the arrow’s nock with his chin.

 

As he took aim, he remembered hearing stories of incredible feats of archery, and how his childhood had been charmed with their heroic lore. Galthamon, in the Great Houses War, had slain a commanding officer from half a league away with a great bow. The Legion of Death, two regiments of archers, had defeated entire armies on their own. He gauged the wind another moment, and fired.

 

The arrow seemed to be in the air for an eternity as it sped towards its target. Marcus had adjusted for wind, distance, height difference… to no avail. It struck the ground harmlessly an easy twenty feet from the Beinison officer, barely noticed by an aid, and considered a random shot by all around. The officer did, however, quickly remove his presence from the sight of the enemy army.

 

Marcus thought all those stories about Galthamon were a little over stated, and returned to the situation at hand. His force of archers were causing a noticeable gap between the enemy and Baranurian troops. Morion’s mobile hospital, looking over his shoulder, was almost at Gateway. In fact, there were very few troops between he and the enemy, and all of them were moving towards safety.

 

“Cease fire!” he yelled. “Mount up, and ride for Gateway. In form!”

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