The muddy little tributary Myrmior had indicated on the map lay across the path of the advancing Ningaal. It was, as Theido had advised, not a particularly large stream, but it was deep and lay below steep tor-bound banks in a most dense part of Pelgrin. If anyone ever spoke of it at all, it was called Deorkenrill, because of the air of darkness and gloom that surrounded it. Its gray and turgid waters slid quietly along a serpentine course through noisome bogs and stagnant pools until at last it emptied into the mighty Arvin many leagues to the north.
As unwholesome as it was, it was at this very place that Myrmior proposed that the army of the Dragon King make a final stand to try to halt the invaders’ inexorable drive toward Askelon.
The plan was simple, designed to separate the amassed Ningaal into smaller groups that could be nettled more effectively by the defenders. But like most stratagems of war, Myrmior’s plan was not without its element of risk. The weary defenders closed their eyes to the danger, thinking that as it was likely to be their last hope of stopping the Ningaal before they reached the plains of Askelon, no risk was too great.
For many leagues to the north and south there was only one fit place for an army to cross the Deorkenrill: a hollow at the bottom of a slight hill where the stream flattened out slightly to form a natural ford.
“This is better than I could have hoped,” said Myrmior when he saw it. “It was made for our purpose.”
“Well,” remarked Theido, casting an eye around the wood in the gathering dusk, “it is not a place where I would willingly choose to do battle. Let up hope that the Ningaal think the same and do not suspect an ambush here.”
“They have become wary indeed. Their scouts now push far afield and ahead of the main body and are harder to elude,” pointed out Ronsard. “And Theido is right. This is not a place to do battle. Look around you: mud, trees, vines. A man can hardly draw his sword.”
“Brave sirs, that is precisely why this place is best suited for us. Whether they suspect or not, they must cross this water. I propose to make it as difficult as possible. But we must get busy. There is much to be done before first light tomorrow. We will need to work through the night.”
“Very well,” said Theido resolutely. “We have had our say, and have no better plan. We put ourselves at your command. What will you have us do?”
Myrmior looked around him in the misty twilight. A malodorous vapor was rising from the swampy banks of the Deorkenrill to drift slowly among the gray boles of trees.
“There!” He pointed out into the hollow through which the enemy must march to the stream. “We will begin by opening a channel into the hollow. We will fill it tonight and drain it in the morning. The mud should be very thick by then. And have some men start carrying water to that far bank. I would have that slippery with mud as well.”
And so they began. Though they had come unprepared for excavating and carrying water, the Dragon King’s forces turned whatever implements they had to the task. Knights more at home on horseback than on firm ground slogged tirelessly through mud and stinking water, digging with their noble swords or with bare hands, cutting a channel to bring water to the hollow. They worked by the glimmering of torches, listening to the forlorn cries of owls and other creatures drawn by the unnatural activity.
Others climbed the taller trees along either side of the bank and began building platforms of branches and limbs from which archers could rain arrows down upon the enemy. Ropes were wound with vines and stretched from one tree to another. And for Myrmior’s supreme surprise, three of the largest trees growing at the edge of the near bank were chopped to within inches of falling and their upper branches were tied with ropes to other nearby trees and filled with mud and leaves.
This activity continued through the night, and by the time the sky glimpsed through the irregular patches overhead began lightening, Theido, Ronsard, and Myrmior stood on the far bank, looking at their handiwork.
“All that remains is to drain the hollow once more. And we will need hot coals to use with the arrows,” said Myrmior, very pleased with what he saw.
“Then we wait. We should have a few hours to give the men a rest before the first of the Ningaal come through here,” observed Ronsard.
“I am for it. We have done a labor this night. Let us pray that it has been to good purpose,” replied Theido in a voice strained and rasping from shouting orders through the midnight hours. “We will do what remains and then deploy our men to their appointed places.”
So saying, the lords turned at once to finish their tasks. Then, as the thin light of the morning filtered down into the murky dell, all fell silent. All was ready and there was not the barest hint that everything was not as it should be, that it was not all it seemed. An army waited among the ferns and in the trees and behind the turfy hillocks and was invisible.
The first of the Ningaal to come through the hollow were the scouts. They crossed the ford and passed on unaware of the army lying in wait on either hand. The next to pass were rank upon rank of horsemen, and just as Myrmior had hoped, the horses churned the hollow into a mud pit and made the far bank, already slick with the muck Ronsard’s men had created, a treacherous slide. But they, too, passed on unaware.
Tension seeped into the air. Theido could not understand why the enemy did not feel it, too. His stomach was knotted, and his nerves felt stretched as tight as bowstrings. Though he could not see them from where he hunched among the musty ferns, he knew his men must feel the same. Willing himself to remain calm, he waited.
The sun had marched to midday when the first of the footmen started across the ford. Hundreds of men, line upon line, waded through the waist-deep water and slithered up the far bank with difficulty. Theido could see them as they poured into the hollow and noted with satisfaction that the soldiers moved more slowly now as the mire deepened and sucked at their feet.
He heard a sound and a swift shout, and suddenly a horse and rider appeared at the edge of the ford. It was a warlord on his black steed, and Theido could tell he was unhappy with the time it was taking the soldiers to cross the stream. Without understanding the crude language at all, Theido knew that he was ordering his men to move along quickly; it was exactly what he would have done in the same situation.
The warlord sat straight in the saddle and looked long up and down Deorkenrill. Theido held his breath. Had the warlord spotted something amiss? Was their trap discovered?
But the grim lord swung his horse around and shouted once more to the scores of footmen trudging through the fen. Then he plunged through the stream and disappeared on the other side.
Nin’s soldiers were crossing in masses now, a hundred at a time. They staggered muddily to the ford and plunged in, then flung themselves up the far bank like fish flopping out of water.
Another warlord appeared, surrounded by twenty horsemen. He waited, as the other had, watching the men cross the stream, and then splashed across.
The forest echoed to the sound of something ponderous and heavy crashing through the underbrush. The wagons! thought Theido. Get ready!
The wagons were what they had been waiting for. According to Myrmior’s knowledge of the movements of the Ningaal, they most often traveled with their weapons and supplies in the wagons, half of their troops going before and the rest after. It was the second half of the Ningaal host that the defenders would attack.
Theido peered cautiously through the man-high ferns to see the first of the heavy wagons mired nearly to its axles in the hollow, now trampled into a swampy bog by the hundreds of feet of men and horses that had passed before. Around each wheel twenty or so footmen grunted and strained to push the wagon along, and the four-horse team leaned into the harness to the cracking whip of the driver.
Theido’s hand sought the hilt of his sword. He knew that even now a thousand arrows were being notched to their strings in anticipation of the signal that would not be long delayed. Each archer readied his cannikin of live coals and arrows with shafts wrapped in cloth soaked in palbah—flammable spirits. Myrmior, seeing Theido’s unconscious move, placed a hand on his arm and whispered, “Not yet. Give the others time to move up into position, and allow those who have passed on to distance themselves from the ambush.”
Theido took his hand away from his sword hilt and drew it across his perspiring face. He let his breath escape between clenched teeth.
The Ningaal, by sheer force of numbers, had succeeded in hauling their wagons to the brink of the ford, but now other wagons were entering the hollow and succumbing to the morass. Shortly, the hollow was filled with wagons hopelessly enmired and hundreds of soldiers clustering around them in an effort to budge them along.
“Now!” whispered Myrmior shrilly. “Do it now!”
Theido drew his sword silently and stepped calmly from the ferns. He raised his sword, knowing that all eyes were now on him. He dropped his arm, and suddenly the air was filled with a sound like an enormous flock of birds taking flight from the treetops. The dim air of the dank dell was instantly alight with darting flames arcing to earth like stars falling from on high.
A confused cry of alarm went up from the unsuspecting Ningaal as the flaming arrows found their marks: the wagons. In moments the wains were afire and the befuddled soldiers were overwhelmed with terror. The Dragon King’s archers then hailed down arrows upon the enemy without mercy. Ningaal dropped where they stood, never seeing their assailants nor hearing the sting that felled them.
The rout had only begun, however, when it was turned by the appearance of the two remaining warlords. One came pounding out of the wood, his bodyguard with him. Shouts rang out and orders flew, and in moments the chaos had resolved itself, though still the larger part of the Ningaal did not have weapons, confined as they were in several of the burning wagons.
That was soon remedied. A group of soldiers, in response to one warlord’s command, rushed upon one of the burning wagons, jumped into the flames, and began hurling weapons to their comrades. When one was overcome by fire, another leaped in to take his place.
The other warlord with his mounted bodyguard pointed his sword across the stream, and his warriors came galloping across the ford toward where Theido and Myrmior waited with a dozen knights. Arrows took two from their saddles at midstream. Another came on, and Theido found himself suddenly ducking savage thrusts that chopped the ferns and sent greenery flying.
He threw up his sword to parry the slicing blows and grabbed the enemy horse’s bridle, pulling its head down. The animal went to its knees, and Theido lunged at the rider, knocking him from the saddle. Theido’s poniard did its work before the warrior could disengage himself from his thrashing mount.
The murky wood now rang with the sound of battle. Men shouted their battle cries and fell to with a fury. Swords struck upon shield and helmet; axes whirled and bit, splintering anything that sought to stay the deadly blades. Theido stepped away from the riderless horse beside him and saw a dozen Ningaal axemen splashing toward him—some screaming, the handles of their axes still smoldering in their grasp.
He caught the first one in the throat as the warrior raised his axe. But he had not withdrawn the blade when a second was upon him. He saw the glint of the blade swing up, and he raised his shield, expecting his arm to be crushed by the impending blow.
But the blow never came. Theido dodged aside and saw Ronsard’s familiar face beside him, grimly determined, his sword streaming with blood as the wounded man at his feet writhed in agony. Behind Ronsard a host of knights stormed out of the wood where they had been concealed.
“I will take a warlord!” shouted Ronsard, leaping into the saddle so recently vacated by the rider at Theido’s feet.
The lord high marshal cut down two charging Ningaal as he flew across Deorkenrill; the dark water now bore the corpses of the enemy by the score.
The warlord, wearing a helm of white horsehide with a plume of a horse’s tail, whirled his mount around to meet Ronsard’s charge with lively skill. Ronsard’s sword flashed and flashed again; each time the warlord met his thrust and turned it aside. Neither could gain the advantage, and soon Ronsard, surrounded by enemy footmen, was forced to break off the attack and scamper once more across the stream lest he be hauled from the saddle and stabbed through a crease in his armor.
The archers poured their arrows upon the battlefield in a deadly rain. Flight after flight streaked down, and Ningaal fell by the score. The unhappy waters of the Deorkenrill flowed red with the blood of the dead. And on the far bank—that slimy incline of a death trap—the fallen lay like corded wood. In the quagmire of the hollow, the living surged ahead over the bodies of their comrades.
Myrmior had planned the fight well, and the Ningaal struggled in vain to gain the advantage. Myrmior dashed along the far bank, calling out orders and strengthening the position of the defenders where necessary and directing the archers to new and threatening targets as they emerged from the dim wood. Had there been more time, or had the Dragon King’s forces been larger, it would have turned out a day of victory for the stouthearted defenders. But it was not to be.
A mighty shout went up from behind the defender’s position. It rang in the dell like thunder, and even the most dauntless among the knights felt his blood chilled. It was the howl of the raging Ningaal who had passed over Deorkenrill, now returning, summoned by the sounds of battle. In moments the Dragon King’s forces were surrounded and would have been swept away instantly; but Myrmior, ever alert to the unexpected, had saved one last trick.
The bearded seneschal, heedless of danger to himself, mounted a small hillock on the far bank and there stood waving his hands. At first it seemed there would be no response to his signal; no one seemed to heed the commander presenting himself so foolishly in the thick of fighting. But then there came a groan as if the earth were rending, tearing out its very bowels. A hush fell upon the startled invaders as they stopped still to listen and look around them.
In the silence another gargantuan groan trembled the earth, and another, filling the wood with an eerie thunder accented by shuddering pops and horrible creaks as if some ancient beast were shattering the bones of its gargantuan prey. And then the sky itself seemed to pitch and sway.
The first tree crashed to earth square upon the bodies of a troop of Ningaal too startled to move. Their comrades dodged aside, screaming, only to be met by the second tree, which fell at an angle to the first and stilled many voices as its branches crushed and pinioned all beneath it.
To the terror-stricken Ningaal, it seemed as if the forest were crashing down upon them. Many dropped their weapons and fled back across the river and into the forest, where they were dispatched with arrows. The third tree crashed down across the ford and blocked the retreat of those who sought to return once more the way they had come. A cohort of defenders chased the fleeing Ningaal and slew many as they ran screaming through the wood.
The terror inspired by this last trap was short-lived, however. Soon the iron-willed warlords had their men back in close command. With terrible efficiency the warlords bore down upon the sturdy knights, cutting through their faltering defenses, and the tide of the battle turned against the Dragon King’s forces. Still, though outmanned and exhausted, the staunch knights held their own through the middle hours of the day.
Teams of Ningaal, some with axes and some holding shields over their heads, began cutting down the trees wherein archers lay hurling death at those below. Thus protected, the Ningaal were able to fell the trees, if not completely stop the archers, who escaped at the last moment by swinging away on the ropes they had concealed among the vines. But the menacing warlords turned their attention to the armored knights now pulling their lines together along the far bank.
“It is time to flee,” said Ronsard breathlessly. He was bleeding from a dozen shallow wounds, and his face, beneath the blood and grime, was gray with exhaustion. “We have done all we can.”
Theido nodded. “Go now. Lead your men away. I will remain behind to cover your retreat and then follow you as soon as you are free.”
Myrmior appeared, white-faced and holding his arm while a crimson stain spread down his sleeve. “It is too late, my lords. Alas! I have just made a last survey of our position. We are surrounded on all sides. There is no escape.”
“We are completely cut off ?” asked Ronsard. The strength seemed to go out of him, and his sword fell to his side.
“I feared as much. There are just too many of them.” Theido turned his grim face away and called in a strong voice for the defenders of the realm to rally to him and prepare to make their dying stand.
In a few moments the remnants of the exhausted fighting force were dragging themselves together around the hillock where Theido stood with upraised sword. The Ningaal fell back to gather their numbers for the final onslaught. For a brief moment the clangor of battle died away.
“Brave knights of Mensandor,” said Theido, “you have fought well this day. You have proven the honor of your king and country. Your courage this day will be sung by men as long as deeds of valor are remembered.” The knights, some kneeling around him, raised their faces to his. Theido continued calmly.
“Let not the moment of death cheat you of the honor you have earned. It is but a little hurt, and then will come rest and sleep, and you will never again know pain. Have no fear, and stand boldly to the end.”
“For glory!” shouted a knight.
“For honor!” shouted several others.
“For king and kingdom!” shouted a chorus led by Ronsard, who came to take his place at the head of the warriors.
The knights raised themselves to their feet, lowered their visors, and turned to meet the enemy for the last time. The Ningaal, watching them from every side, paused for a moment. Then the four warlords raised their curved blades, and with a ferocious cry the Ningaal sprang forward once more into the fray.
“It’s better over quickly,” said Ronsard as the attackers swarmed them. “I have no regrets.”
“Nor I, my friend,” answered Theido, “though my heart is heavy at the thought of our country falling before these barbarians. But I have done all any man can.”
“Good-bye, brave friend,” said Ronsard. “Is this the dark road you warned me of ? How long ago it seems now.”
“It well may be. But wait!” He turned and mounted the crest of the hillock. “Trumpeter!” he cried. “Sound your call! Sound it until your last breath! Do you hear? Sound it, I say!”
He turned, his face shining and eager once more.
“Fight on!” he cried, throwing himself into the clash. “Fight on!”
Ronsard plunged after him, guarding his left, and the two men drove ahead, swords singing in the air as if they would single-handedly drive the invader from their shores. The knights around them, heartened by the example of their dauntless leaders, put their shields together and dug in. If death came now, it would find them brave soldiers to the end.