The warlords, perceiving that the victory was theirs to be won, did not rush at once to the attack. They waited, gathering their forces and ordering their troops for the final conflict. This gave the Dragon King time to position his knights as well, placing them in stout ranks around scores of footmen with pike and spear who had joined them from the castle.
The first clash with the Ningaal found the Dragon King ready and waiting at the forefront of his army. The bellowing mob, with battle-axes swinging, rushed down upon the Dragon King’s forces from the upper plain, led by two warlords. The two remaining warlords held a vast number of their foul flock in reserve.
Amut and Luhak rode with the charge and were met with a wall of steel. The Dragon King’s knights, fighting with a strength born of desperation, held the line against the warlords’ fearsome bodyguard and reduced that number effectively. The Ningaal axe men boiled onto the field like a tempest-driven flood. Though they beat against the armored knights with terrible blows of their cruel axes, the defenders withstood all.
Thwarted and repelled, the attack broke off and the warlords withdrew— to the cheers of the knights—leaving the field with the blood of their fallen.
Theido, astride his charger on the king’s right hand, lifted his visor and looked over the battlefield. “We have made a good account of ourselves,” he said. “What is more, we have not suffered much loss.”
“Even one man is too many in this fight,” Ronsard retorted from his place at the king’s left hand. “Do you fail to see it? They mean to wear us down one by one to the last man.”
“By Azrael!” said Eskevar. “It is the only way they will take Askelon. But we are far from defeated yet. And I have a plan that may confound them. Theido, gather the commanders. I would speak to them before the next attack.”
They met on the field, and the king spoke hurriedly, finishing just as the rolling whoop of the advancing enemy once more filled the air. As the Ningaal closed on the defenders for the second time, there was a stirring within the king’s army, and the attack met not a solid wall this time, but a rank that gave way before them. The enemy was instantly drawn inside the ring, like water into a flask, and then the stopper replaced, cutting off the axe men from their leaders, who were now inside. Thus the battle began with the Ningaal herded together within a palisade of stinging blades.
No one in the enemy’s camp noticed the small force that broke away from the rear of the Dragon King’s army and made its way back to the castle.
Once more the king’s knights stood to the task, hewing down the enemy before them. The pikemen worked among the flashing hooves of the horses to bring the warlords’ bodyguard down, where they were pierced with spears. The Ningaal axe men, separated from their commanders within the palisade, ran screaming around the outer ring, throwing themselves ineffectually upon the unforgiving lances of the knights.
Warlords Gurd and Boghaz, watching from a distance, soon realized what had happened and readied a second wave to smash the outer ring of the king’s defenses, and thus lay open the battle for a speedy end.
Mounted upon their sturdy black steeds, they swept down into the fray. They had nearly reached the field of combat when their attack faltered and broke apart amid a deadly flight of arrows. The Ningaal fell in such numbers that the warlords pulled up short of engaging the king and swerved to meet the archers who were now running to join their comrades on the plain, having staved off the second wave. The archers, who had been left behind to defend Askelon in its last need, were led by Myrmior and several of the boldest knights. They had been sent to bring the archers as part of Eskevar’s plan to divide and confuse the enemy.
The charging Ningaal could not draw within blade range of the archers and were at last forced to retreat and regroup. The archers reached the plain with ease, and the air sang with their killing missiles. Within moments of their arrival, the Ningaal withdrew once more and left the field to the Dragon King.
“We have not fared so well this time,” said Theido, once more surveying the carnage around him. “We have lost many good men. Perhaps too many to withstand another charge.”
“Withstand we must!” shouted Eskevar. “We must hold.”
“We have surprised them twice. I do not think we will again,” said Ronsard. “But we have stood them a battle that will be sung in the halls of brave men everywhere. That is something to take with us. Yet I begin to think that if we last this day, we may yet turn the tide of battle in our favor.”
“If Wertwin were as good as his word and brought the armies of Ameronis, Lupollen, and the others with him, I would agree with you,” said Theido. He turned his eyes to the north but saw nothing on the horizon. “But even if they came now, I think it would be too late.”
“Do not talk so!” charged the king. “We will prepare to meet the attack with courage.”
“As you say, my lord.” Theido looked at his king, and his noble heart swelled within him almost to bursting, for he seemed to see a dark shape, like the wings of a raven, hovering around the king’s shoulder. When the knight spoke again, it was with a voice choked with sorrow. “You have ever shown us courage, my king. Lead us, and we will follow through the gates of death itself.”
Eskevar’s face shone fierce in the strange white light of the star, shining as bright as day. But when he spoke, it was with a gentler tone. “You have served me well, brave friends. I have trusted you with my life on more occasions than a king ought, but I have never found you wanting.” He stopped and looked at each of them before continuing.
“This is how I want to be remembered—turned out in my finest armor at the head of loyal men and brave. This is how I would enter the rest of my fathers.”
Ronsard raised a hand to protest, but Eskevar waved him silent. “Enough of dying,” he said. “Now to arms! For the enemy once more draws near.”
Across the broken battlefield, now slippery with the blood of the dead and dying, the Ningaal advanced, slowly this time, behind a vanguard of horsemen with flaming pikes. The four warlords had positioned themselves so as to command a phalanx of troops ahead and behind them. This time there would be no force held in reserve, and there would be no tricks, for they moved over the plain step by step, wary of the slightest shift among the soldiers of the Dragon King.
The baleful Wolf Star burned down upon the scene with its hateful light, bright as noonday sun, casting shadows all around. It seemed to grow larger and to fill the sky, making the forlorn moon rising in the east a pale and insignificant thing.
Eskevar turned his face to the Wolf Star. “Surely that is an evil thing. I feel its fire in my bones. How it burns. Ronsard, Theido”—he turned to them both—“do you feel it?”
“It is the heat of battle I feel, Sire,” offered Ronsard.
“Aye, that too,” agreed Eskevar. The king seemed to come once more to himself and looked out across the battlefield, now rolling in the smoke of the fiery pikes of the Ningaal.
“If they think us slow-witted enough to wait here like cattle for the slaughter, they are mistaken,” said Eskevar as he glared out over the field. “Assemble the commanders!” he called. A trumpeter sent the message ringing in the air.
“We will charge them there—in the center,” said the king, pointing with his long sword toward the advancing body of the enemy. “We will show them how the knights of Mensandor value their lives.”
“Aye,” agreed the gathered lords, their armor battered and bloody but their faces still eager in the light of the hateful star.
“And we will show them how the knights of Mensandor value their freedom,” shouted Rudd. “For glory!” The nobleman raised his voice and led them in a rousing battle chant.
“Go back to your men,” instructed Eskevar. “Be ready, and wait for my signal.” Eskevar took his place at the head of his knights. Theido and Ronsard stayed at either side.
Theido, guessing the end was near, looked across to his friend Ronsard and offered a wordless salute. This was the long, dark road he had seen so long ago. Now that it stretched before him, he did not fear it, though it saddened him. He wanted to speak some final word to his friend, but none would come. The salute said all.
“Farewell, brave friend,” said Ronsard as he returned the salute. He closed the visor of his helmet and raised the point of his sword to Theido.
“For Mensandor!” cried Eskevar suddenly. His voice sounded clear and strong as thunder as it carried across the plain. He raised his sword and spurred his courser forward, and with a roar the army of the Dragon King leaped as one into furious motion.
The shock of the clash as the charging knights met the stubborn Ningaal shook the earth. Horses screamed and wheeled, plunging and plunging again. Knights cut the air with mace and flail; swords flashed and spears thrust and bowstrings sang.
Eskevar’s white stallion could be seen dashing straight away into the thick of the fighting. Ronsard, bold and bright, defended his king’s left with a tireless arm. Time and again the champion’s sword whirled through the air, dealing death with every blow. Theido guarded the king’s right and strove to keep himself between his lord and the bloodthirsty axes of the barbarian horde.
Here and there amid the furious melee, the standards of the Mensandor lords could be seen, as the islands of defenders, surrounded by a sea of enemy fighting men, labored to remain abreast of one another. But one by one the standards fell, some never to rise again, as the long night of battle wore on.
The daring attack of the Dragon King produced at length an unexpected result. So fiercely did the king’s army fight, and so well, that they succeeded in punching through the center of the Ningaal formation. Despite the enemy’s superior force, the defenders cut a wide swath through the heart of the warlords’ offensive and in time came together behind the Ningaal lines.
“This is unexpected!” cried Eskevar, breathing heavily and leaning forward in his saddle. “Our cause is not yet lost. Look there! See, Rudd drives through to join us, and yonder Fincher and Benniot.”
Theido looked at the swirling maelstrom before him and separated the shapes of the Dragon King’s knights from the darker forms of the Ningaal. The din of the fight rang loud in his ears, but he did not see the faintest glimmer of hope that the battle could be won, as Eskevar had said. Their charge had scattered the larger part of the Ningaal and had divided them like a wedge. The warlords of Nin circled around the outside of the battle storm and sought to rejoin their troops, but in vain. The enemy was falling away in droves.
“Is it true?” shouted Ronsard, throwing his visor up to view the contest.
“Yes!” agreed Theido. “See how they crowd toward the center— their own numbers crush them. If we direct a sally there, we can further divide them.”
“Good eye, man! You are right. Trumpeter! Rally the men. Onward we go!” Eskevar urged his steed once more ahead, and the Ningaal felt the heat of his blade like a flame kindled against them. The king’s knights formed a spearhead that drove through the milling mass and cut it down. Ningaal warriors forgot their discipline and ran screaming from the battlefield in great numbers; their commanders slew many deserters with their own hands in order to stop the rout.
This second charge was successful, and the defenders took heart that they might indeed carry the victory. With jubilant whoops and courageous battle cries, they stood shoulder to shoulder and fought, urging one another to greater deeds of valor.
By the time the sickly moon had advanced two hours’ time, the army of the Dragon King had for the first time taken the upper hand in the battle. The warlords were fighting a defensive action, seeking a retreat whereby they could regroup their lagging regiments. But Eskevar and his commanders, though suffering from fatigue and the terrible attrition of their numbers, doggedly struggled on to put the invaders to flight.
At midnight an entire Ningaal regiment broke and ran from the field. The sight of the beaten enemy dragging itself away from the combat greatly heartened the defenders, who sent a cheer aloft that reached Askelon and was echoed by the fearful refugees who peered anxiously from the battlements of the fortress.
“We can seize the day!” shouted Eskevar. “The barbarians have lost the heart to win.”
“Sire, let us pursue them and drive them from the field,” said Ronsard. “But you remain here where your soldiers can see you. Gather your strength.”
“Yes, my lord,” agreed Theido. “Let your commanders earn some glory. Do not endanger yourself further. Rest a little and regain your strength.”
Eskevar glared dully at his knights as he sat hunched in his saddle, unable to sit erect any longer. His visor was open, and his face showed white with exhaustion. He shook his head wearily and replied, “I will rest when the day has been saved—and not before. If my knights wish to see me, they must look toward the heart of the battle, for that is where I will be.”
Theido and Ronsard exchanged worried glances. They would have preferred to have their king stand off from battle at least for a time. Theido was about to protest further when Eskevar closed his visor and jerked the reins, plunging once more into the clash. The two trusted knights had no choice but to surge after him and protect him however they could.
For a moment it appeared as if this final assault would indeed shatter the Ningaal strength, for the howling axe men of the warlords melted before the defenders’ blades as snow before the flame. And for a moment the Dragon King and his knights stood unchallenged on the hard-won battleground as the enemy roiled in retreat.
But the illusion of victory was fleeting, for there came a sound that seemed to tear out of the ground as if the very earth were rending. It filled the air and soared aloft to shriek across the plain. Those who heard it quailed in its presence; even the stoutest among them trembled.
All eyes turned toward the south, and for the briefest instant the rolling smoke parted to reveal a solid wall of warriors stretching across the plain. Nin the Immortal had arrived with his fifty thousand.