Upon the straining backs of groaning slaves, Nin advanced along the old river road from Lindalia on the western coast toward Askelon. Fifty thousand footmen followed in his train. The Arvin here ran bold and deep, and wide enough for those who could find boats—and even those who could not—to escape to the other side as Nin’s terrible caravan passed by.
He had sat in his palace ship waiting just beyond the island, where the river mingled its waters with bright Gerfallon’s. But his rage had flared and burned while he waited for word from his warlords that Askelon had fallen. When it was not forthcoming, the Supreme Deity of the Ningaal had decided to go himself and see to it that the end came swiftly.
He ordered his standing army of fifty thousand foot soldiers, waiting in their ships, to disembark upon the western coast, and then he had ordered his throne to be carried ashore. There he mounted his throne over the prostrate bodies of his slaves, and with a wide, generous sweep of his hand, ordered them ahead. Like an army of locusts, they cut down everything standing in their path: crops of fields, the hovels of peasants, small villages. Nothing deterred them, and no one lifted a hand to prevent them.
By night and by day they marched, tirelessly, relentlessly, inexorably drawing nearer and nearer to Askelon.
By night and day the evil Wolf Star shone in the heavens. By day it could be seen shining low on the horizon, a bright spot appearing as a tiny second sun. By night it nearly assumed the brightness of the sun itself, transforming night into an eerie, mocking reflection of the day just passed. Unnatural shadows stood upon the land; birds fell silent in the trees, and animals huddled in the fields, uncertain whether to sleep or graze; the masses, crouching in temple courtyards and castle wards across the land, wailed with fear and covered their heads.
And Nin marched on toward Askelon.
In Askelon the lords met secretly and discussed the strange behavior of the king. Some said it was the star that had driven him mad, that it had touched him as it had touched the people cowering within Askelon’s mighty walls. Others said his illness was upon him again. They all worried together what would happen if their knights and soldiers should find out that the Dragon King would be unable to lead them in battle, for none of them held the slightest hope that they could long endure the siege. Sooner or later they must meet the enemy on the field to defeat him. Desperately they hoped Eskevar would be recovered in time to lead them, if only for a show to the men, for they were certain the fateful battle was drawing swiftly nearer.
“Is there any word?” asked Eskevar anxiously. He seemed composed and in his right mind, resting peacefully in his bed. Biorkis and the queen stood by him as the lords entered his chamber.
Lord Rudd, who had taken it upon himself to speak for the rest of the lords, approached the king’s high bed.
He knelt, saying, “Sire, we have had no word, and now the opportunity for such is gone. The warlords of Nin have surrounded the castle on all sides. They occupy the plain below the rock and have taken the town as well. They have as yet not dared to draw near the ramp, but that will come soon, I have no doubt. Askelon is besieged.”
“So it has begun,” sighed Eskevar wearily. “I had hoped a messenger might come from the lords to the north to bring word of their decision to join us.”
“It is too late, I fear. Even if a messenger came now, he would not get through the enemy. But even so, the lords might still come.” Lord Rudd glanced at his peers and hastily added, “We would seek a boon, Sire.”
“You shall have it,” replied Eskevar. “Ask it and it is yours.”
“We would have you come and speak to the knights and men, Your Majesty. There are rumors . . .” Rudd fell silent, feeling he had said too much.
“Rumors? Ah, yes, what are they? You need not fear to anger me. I know full well the rumors voiced about.”
Rudd looked nervously to the others for help.
“Well?” demanded Eskevar, his temper rising. “Speak, man!”
“Some say that you are changed, Sire. That you do not have the will to fight—”
“They say that I am insane! That is what you mean. Say it is so!”
“It is so, my lord.” Rudd lowered his head.
Eskevar made a move as if to leap out of bed. “Please, Sire!” Biorkis jumped to life. “Stay abed but a little and regain your strength.”
“Listen to him, my lord,” pleaded Alinea, rushing up. She threw a dark, disapproving look at the unhappy lords, who made a move as if to withdraw at once.
“No!” Eskevar held up a hand toward the priest and his queen. “Do not hinder me. I will go with my lords to speak to the soldiers. They must have no doubts, nor harbor despair in their hearts for their king. I will show them I am neither ill nor afraid.”
He turned to the lords. “Assemble the knights and men in the inner ward. I will speak to them from the battlements of the inner curtain and will pass among them when I have spoken to quell their fears and apprehensions. They will see me and will know I am with them and will lead them.”
The lords, anxious to be away from that room, bowed as one and rushed out to begin bringing their troops together. When they had gone, Biorkis and Alinea came close to the king and helped him up.
“You are so weak, my king,” Alinea sobbed. Tears filled her green eyes and ran freely down her cheeks.
“Let me tell them you will come tomorrow,” suggested Biorkis. “Rest just this night, and you will feel stronger.”
“No, it cannot be. Tomorrow may be worlds away. I must go at once. The rumors must not be allowed to persist if I can stop them, for they would eat away my soldiers’ hearts. A soldier needs his heart if he is to fight for his homeland. I must go.”
Leaning heavily on their arms, he stumbled toward the door. When they reached it, Eskevar squared his shoulders and raised his head. “I will walk alone,” he said, and went out.
When he had gone, Alinea turned tearfully to Biorkis. “He should never have gone into battle, Biorkis. He was just getting better. He exerted himself overmuch and has not recovered his strength, and . . . and, oh, now I fear he never will!” She buried her face in her hands. “If Durwin were here, he would know what to do,” she sobbed.
Biorkis wrapped one arm around her slim shoulders and comforted her. “Yes, Durwin would know what to do, but he is not here. We will have to think what he would do in our place, and then do it.”
“I am sorry,” sniffed Alinea. She raised her eyes to the kindly old priest’s. “I did not mean to belittle you. Your help has been most valuable. I just—”
“Say no more. I, too, wish Durwin were here. He has far more knowledge of the world and men than I. I have been too long on my mountain, removed from the ways of mortals, and I feel old and useless. Let us hope that Durwin will return soon.”
“Let us pray that he does.”
“Yes, my lady. By all means let us pray that he does.”
Eskevar went out from the eastern tower and strode along the battlements in the cold, mocking light of the star. His great cloak swept like a huge, dark wing after him, the silver dragon device glittering in the strange light. Theido and Ronsard marched gravely by his side, and when they had reached the midpoint along the inner curtain battlements, Eskevar stopped and looked down at the ranks of soldiers that had been assembled to hear him speak.
As he looked down upon them, seeing their fearful faces turned upward to his, seeking strength there, and wisdom and assurance, he felt very old and tired. They were sapping him, he thought, and it was as if he felt his strength ebbing away even as he gazed down upon them. He felt too tired, too used up, to speak.
But they were waiting, watching him. His men were watching and waiting for him to banish their fears. How could he do that, he wondered, when he could not banish his own? What words were there? What magic could make it happen?
Without knowing what he would say, Eskevar opened his mouth and began to speak, his voice falling down from on high like the voice of a god.
He spoke and heard his voice echoing back into the small places of the inner ward. Murmurs arose in response to his words, and Eskevar feared he had said something wrong, that he had run afoul of his own purpose. But he spoke on, oblivious to the words that tumbled from his mouth unbidden. They are right, he thought bitterly. The king is insane. He is babbling like an idiot from the battlements and does not know what he is saying.
The murmurs changed gradually to shouts and then to cheers. As Eskevar’s last words died away, the inner ward yard erupted in shouts of acclaim and hearty cheers and battle cries. Then suddenly the soldiers were singing an ancient battle song of Mensandor, and somehow he, Eskevar, was moving through the thronging soldiers, touching them and being touched by them.
The Dragon King stood among his troops, bewildered by their cheers and high acclaim. He was humbled, realizing he did not know what he had said; he was gratified, knowing that his words had been the right ones.
The cheers and songs had not run their courses when they were interrupted by a sound not heard in Askelon for five hundred years. Boom! The sound rolled away like hollow thunder. Boom! Boom! It came again, and all around the Dragon King became silent. The cheering stopped; the singing shrank away. Boom! Boom! Boom!
The Ningaal had brought a battering ram to the gates of Askelon. The siege war had begun.