The council was held in Eskevar’s chambers with the king sitting up in bed, frowning furiously and darting quick questions to his advisors. Though he appeared even more gaunt and pale than ever, his eyes burned intensely and his hands were steady as he turned the sword that lay across his lap.
“This is not good!” he shouted. “It leaves us no choice but to fight them on the plain. The siege can kill us one by one as we drop from thirst.”
“We have a little water left, Sire,” put in the warder weakly.
“Three days. Four.”
“So we prolong the agony that much longer. No, I will not see soldiers weakened by thirst attempt to hold off the fall of Askelon. If Askelon falls, it must be on the field of battle. If the end is to come, let it come. But let us have our wits about us, and let us die with our swords in our hands.
“We can at least give these barbarians a fight they will long remember. This Nin will live to regret the day he set foot upon the soil of Mensandor, even if every one of us perishes.”
This fiery speech of the king greatly heartened several of the lords in attendance. Rudd, Benniot, and Fincher had grown restive during the siege. Not men of patience, they itched to take up arms and meet the foe in a fair contest, even though—as greatly outnumbered as the king’s forces were—there was nothing fair about it and not much of a contest. Still, the idea of taking once and for all a stand worthy of brave men appealed to them. They were ready to fight.
“What say the rest?” asked Rudd when he and the others had spoken their support of the king’s plan.
Theido was slow in speaking, and as he stepped forward, all eyes turned toward him. “Sire, what you propose is the last desperate act of desperate men. I do not think we are pressed that far just yet. I say we should wait a few days. Much can happen in that time, and we are safe within these gates. The Ningaal have done their worst and have failed. I think we may yet prevail against them if we but wait a little.”
“The time for waiting is over! It is time now to act. We have waited these many days, and we are no better for it. I am with the king; let us fight and die like men, since we have no better choice.” Rudd threw a defiant look around the room and gathered support for his position with his fearless tone.
“I am much inclined to agree with you, Rudd,” said Ronsard. “And when the time comes to stand toe-to-toe with the enemy, you will find me in the foremost rank; but there is good counsel in waiting. Three or four days may mean much. The lords of the north may yet appear at any time, and we would do well to be ready in that event.
“I say let the time be spent in readying ourselves to fight, but hold off fighting until we must.” Ronsard’s logic cooled several heads that had been hot to rush into battle that very moment.
“What do you say, Myrmior?” asked Eskevar. “Your counsel has been invaluable to us these last days. Speak. Tell us what you would have us do.”
Myrmior looked sadly at the king and at those around him. His large, dark eyes seemed wells of grief, and sorrow tinged his deep voice.
“I have no counsel to give, my lord. I have said all I thought best, and it has brought us to this extremity. I will speak no more but rather take my place alongside these men worthy to be called your loyal subjects and raise my blade with theirs against the hated Nin.”
The effect of Myrmior’s words was like that of a pronouncement of doom. He had said in a few words what most of them felt but resisted giving words to: There is no hope. We must prepare to die.
“Sire,” said Theido, coming near the bed, “let us not act hastily in this matter. Let us rather withdraw from here for a time and search our hearts before pressing for a decision.”
Rudd, too, stepped up, shouting, “And I say we must not wait. Every day we stand by, our men will grow weaker and our chances worsen. Now is the time to strike!”
The room fell silent as everyone looked to the king to see what he would do. “Noble lords,” he said gravely. “I will not force you to a decision. Neither will I tax you further with waiting which can belabor a man’s spirit.”
They all watched intently. Theido noticed the set of the Dragon King’s jaw and knew what was coming before the words were spoken. “Therefore, I say that we will ride out tomorrow and engage the enemy, that what little advantage there may be in surprise we may carry with us. Go now and look to your men. See that they are well fed and made ready. Tomorrow at dusk I will lead them into battle.”
The lords murmured their approval and left at once to begin preparing for combat. Theido and Ronsard lingered and spoke to the king in an effort to change his mind. But he turned a deaf ear to them and sent them away. After they had gone, Queen Alinea came in to spend one last night at the side of her king.
Eskevar had chosen dusk to lead the attack, because reports from his sentries had it that the enemy’s watch on the postern gate was reduced at that time, while the Ningaal took their evening meal. It was a bold move and a clever one. It was assumed that an attack by the castle dwellers would issue from the main gate—here it was that the warlords had positioned their greater strength in anticipation of such a move. The postern gate—being smaller, and the long, crooked ramp that led from it being walled and narrow—permitted knights to ride but three abreast.
These things Eskevar took into consideration and decided the result was favorable. He would achieve a fair measure of surprise in such a maneuver, and he would catch the Ningaal unprepared and in the wrong position to begin a battle. They would mass quickly as the call to arms was given, he knew, but by that time he hoped to have his own men ranged upon the plain and ready, having already dispatched a goodly number of the foe.
The Dragon King and his army spent the day preparing and positioning men and horses to move through the postern yards and through the gates as quickly as possible.
When all was ready, a hush fell over the wards and yards where the men waited. The sun sank in the west, a great, crimson orb, and the Wolf Star shone fiercely in the east, shedding its cold, harsh light upon all who huddled beneath it. The villagers and peasants gathered to send their champions forth, and to pray to all the gods they knew for the victory. Women cried and kissed the brave knights; horses snorted and stamped their feet; children stood stiff-legged and stared round-eyed at the men in their glittering armor.
At the far end of the ward yard, a commotion arose, and those at the near end craned their necks to see the banner of the Dragon King lofted on its standard and waver toward them as a path opened before it. And then there was the king himself, sitting erect upon a milk-white stallion that pranced in trotting steps toward the gate. Over his silver armor he wore a royal coat that had the dragon emblem worked in gold. His helm bore no crest but the simple gold circlet crown. Flanking him on either hand, two grim knights—one astride a black charger, the other riding a sorrel—gazed resolutely ahead. The shield of the dark knight bore the device of a hawk; the blazon of the other showed a mace and flail held in a gauntleted fist.
Behind them rode Myrmior, who, after the fashion of his own people, wore no armor, but carried only a light, round shield and short sword. Ronsard, however, had prevailed upon him to don greaves, and a brassard for his sword arm at least. He had refused a helm, complaining that it was impossible to see out of the iron pot.
They passed through the yard to the gate, followed by ranks of nobles and knights three abreast. When they reached their position, the king raised his hand and the procession stopped. He looked to the gatekeeper, who, peering down from the barbican, nodded in return, declaring that the Ningaal had moved off the gate, leaving only a small force to watch. Then Eskevar, his face gray and hard, his eyes gleaming cold in the evil light of the star, drew his sword with his right hand. It whispered softly as it issued from the scabbard, but the sound soon filled the ward as the movement was repeated a thousand times over. The heavy iron portcullis was raised and the plank let down over the dry moat. And the Dragon King rode out to battle.
The Ningaal at the postern gate were scattered as chaff on the threshing floor. Several of them foolishly drew their weapons and were cut down before they could lift their hands; the rest ran howling to sound the alarm that the defenders had broken free and were in pursuit.
Eskevar turned the attack not toward the town, where the main body of the enemy waited, but to the more lightly manned cordon that had been thrown around the castle. This tactic proved successful, for the thundering knights easily routed the ill-prepared foe and dispersed a great many who could have formed a second front if given the chance. No sooner had this been accomplished than the knights wheeled to face the charge sweeping down around the castle rock behind them.
The full force of Eskevar’s army met this hastily assembled attack and drove through it with little hurt. They then moved quickly on to thrust into the larger of the Ningaal’s many siege camps, where several thousand of the enemy had gathered to eat and sleep that night. The sight of three thousand knights charging through their camp banished all thoughts of food and slumber from their barbarian minds as the camp instantly became a boiling cauldron of confusion and terror.
The Ningaal were caught unaware; the alarm had not reached them before the knights’ fierce attack. In moments the scene was one of fire and blood, rearing horses and slashing blades. Many of the Ningaal fled from the camp rather than face the fierce justice of the king’s swords. And for a fleeting moment it appeared to the defenders that the Ningaal would be overcome and crushed.
But that notion faded with the appearance of two warlords astride black warhorses, rallying their panic-stricken troops with cool control.
The knights had encompassed the camp and had driven through the center of it. Seeing the warlords bringing their scattered regiments together, Eskevar sent a company of knights against them to quell that opposition before it could materialize in force. The rest strove to keep the Ningaal running and confused, not allowing them time to coalesce into a unified front.
But too soon the body of knights surrounding the camp was outflanked by a larger ring of bellowing Ningaal led by the two other warlords. These began pressing forward, pushing the knights inward, shrinking the diameter of the circle by force of superior numbers. It seemed that no matter how many of the enemy were killed, there were more standing than had been there before.
Eskevar realized that the position was indefensible. With Theido on his right and Ronsard on his left, the Dragon King led a withering charge toward a weak section of the circle. There was a tremendous clash, and many knights fell into the wall of Ningaal axe blades, never to rise again. But the circle bowed and broke, and the king led his soldiers out upon the plain.
When they reached a place in the center of the plain half a league from the castle, Eskevar halted and turned to face the enemy, which was now massing for the final assault.