Adull, gray-white dawn broke over Pelgrin, bringing mist from the turbid, muddy waters of the Sipleth River. On the riverbanks, at a place where the ground rose to form the rocky crag of a bluff overlooking an expanse of gray water, stood Ameron Castle. Below the castle the Sipleth flattened and widened as it curled around the bluff in its stony bed, giving Lord Ameronis a natural barrier on two sides; the forest, wild and thick in that part of Mensandor, protected him from the front, an approach made difficult for any attackers by rough terrain and a rising slope.
Theido and Ronsard leaned heavily on the pommels of their saddles and surveyed the fortress in the fitful light of the new day. “It is rockier than I remember it,” said Ronsard, “and better fortified.”
“We will take up our positions there and there,” indicated Theido with a sweep of his arm, “just out of bowshot. A man like Ameronis will be prepared for battle at any time, so we must not delude ourselves that we will catch him napping.”
“There is one thing we may do before they know we are here—send the sappers to scout a location for a mine beneath the walls.”
“Order it at once, and send archers with them in case the castle awakes and offers battle.”
Ronsard swung himself wearily down from his mount and walked back into the fringe of trees where the army waited. He talked to several knights who would act as field commanders and gave them their orders. Theido, too, dismounted and paced along the perimeter of the wood, studying the lay of the land and the situation of the castle upon it. While he looked on, a score of men dressed in rough hide clothing came running out of the forest toward the castle, carrying long, pointed rods in their hands. Behind them came bowmen with longbows and quivers of arrows on their backs.
When they reached the very feet of the towering curtains, the men split off into groups of two or three and began probing the ground and examining the stone all around the outside walls, jamming their rods into the ground, or thrusting them into cracks and seams in the stone at the foot of the outer curtains.
After a while Ronsard came up to stand beside Theido as he watched the activity of the sappers. “It will likely take some time. I suggest we both get some sleep if we can, before Ameronis awakes and discovers that he is besieged. I have already given the orders to the troops.”
Theido rubbed his eyes with his fists and turned to his friend. “My heart is not in this fight, this raising sword against one of our own, even if it is Ameronis. He is still a lord of the realm.”
Ronsard shrugged. “He ceased being a lord of Mensandor when he willfully defied his king. He is a renegade and must be dealt with. Treason is no little thing.”
“I do not disagree. I only wish there was some other way.”
“Every moment he abides within, holding the king’s sword, he holds the king’s heir in his hands.”
“I wonder if he knows that.”
“Would it make a difference to him, do you think?”
“Perhaps not. But I will see that he is informed as soon as possible. That, at least, will make him think twice before he forces this issue further.”
Ronsard frowned. “He will not bend. Ameronis is too proud and has waited too long. The siege will begin, and let us pray that it is a short one. We do not have much time.”
With that the two turned and went back to attend to the establishment of the camp, and to find themselves a place to stretch out for some much-needed sleep.
In Ameron Castle, Lord Ameronis and his friends slept in their high soft beds beneath fine linen in rooms hung with exquisite tapestries embroidered in silk. Ameronis was accustomed to the very best things and styled himself a king, so hot did the flame of ambition burn in him.
Now he slept soundly in his broad bed, dreaming the day was close at hand when he would ascend the Dragon Throne in the Hall of the Dragon King. It was a vision long cherished and nourished in his heart, and soon he would see its fulfillment—now that he possessed the storied Zhaligkeer. The sword itself lay in a locked casket at the foot of his bed; he did not trust even his own armorer to keep it for him, but wanted it near him at all times.
On the wall walk outside the lord’s tower window men ran shouting, their footsteps slapping the stone flagging. Their cries stirred Ameronis from his dreams of kingly glory and he awoke. “Chamberlain!” he cried, and his call was answered at once by a slight, weasel-eyed man with brown, rotten teeth.
“My lord?” the servant said, thrusting his head in through the doorway.
“By Zoar, what is going on? How is a man to sleep with such a clatter? I have guests in my house, and will not have them awakened.”
“Some disturbance outside the castle, my lord. Its nature has not yet been determined.”
“Blazes! I will see to it myself!”With that Ameronis threw back the coverlet and strode out on the bartizan and mounted a flight of steps to the battlements. The lord’s chamber was in the foremost west tower and overlooked the gate and the approach from the forest.
It took him only an instant, once the sleep had been rubbed from his eyes, to ascertain the cause of the disturbance that had roused him from his bed. “By all the gods of heaven and earth!” he cried. “We are besieged!”
At that moment a young knight, who was Ameronis’s commander, approached. “My lord, we are besieged.”
“I can see that! How many are there?”
“We have not had time to count. I have just come from fortifying the gates. One of the watchmen sounded the alarm only minutes ago at the southern battlement. Sappers, my lord, are looking for a weakness to exploit.”
“They wore no badges, my lord. Nor have I seen any.”
“Very well. Rain arrows down on their foolish heads. That will teach them to come sniffing like dogs around these walls!”
“Bowmen have been ordered, my lord. But the sappers ran off as soon as they arrived at the battlements.”
Ameronis turned and gazed out toward the wood where the Dragon King’s army waited. “So,” he murmured to himself, “it begins already.” Then he barked an order over his shoulder to the young knight. “Post archers, and inform me at once if they show themselves again.”
“Yes, my lord.” The commander dipped his head, and Ameronis strode from the wall walk on bare feet, back down the steps and across the bartizan to his chamber. There he dressed hastily, throwing on his padded tunic in the event he would be required to don his armor before the day was out. Then he hurried to the armory to order the disposition of the weapons; from there he went to the warder to inquire into the castle’s provisions: food, water, grain, and fodder for the horses; next he went to the gates to personally oversee the reinforcement of their immense timbers with wedges and crossbeams.
All this Lord Ameronis did without fluster or anxiety, but as one well accustomed to war and its preparation. In truth, he had been waiting for this day all his life. If he went about his business with the clear-eyed dispassion of a battle-tried veteran, it was because he, like his father, was a man whose ambition for the throne schooled him well in the use of power and its attainment.
He would be king, he vowed, or die trying.
At midday Ronsard awoke from a too-short nap and made an inspection of the camp, visiting his commanders and men, all of whom had been busily transforming the woods round about into a small village—a village of fighting men.
“Sir Garth,” said Ronsard, hailing a thick-sinewed knight who was directing the construction of a tether line for the horses. “What word from the sappers we sent out this morning?”
The big man drew air into his great barrel of a chest and puffed out his cheeks; the air whistled through his teeth. “Nothing good, my lord. Castle Ameron is as secure as the rock she sits upon. The sappers found no breach point, nor any soft footing around the entire perimeter—at least three sides, I mean. The fourth side is the river.”
Ronsard frowned. “Nothing?”
Sir Garth shook his head. “Her roots are stone, my lord, hard as her master’s heart. We’ll find no tunneling place beneath those walls.”
Ronsard nodded and walked off. So be it, he thought. If we cannot go under the walls, we will go over. There is no time for a lengthy siege; the matter must be settled in four days if we are to reach the High Temple before . . . Well, one way or another we will reach it in time. With the true god’s help we will reach it in time.
Just then he heard footsteps behind him and turned to meet Theido. “You look the better for a bit of sleep, my friend. We are getting too old to be chasing through the forests all night, eh?”
Though Ronsard’s tone attempted cheer, Theido remained heavyhearted; his voice was gruff when he spoke. “Is there any sign from the castle?”
“None. I spoke with the watch commander a moment ago—he said there has been no signal from towers or battlements, though it appears a few archers have been posted. They are waiting.”
“Hmph!” said Theido. “Then I will give them something to think about while they wait.” With that, he spun on his heel and called for a squire to bring his horse.
“What is your plan?” Ronsard hurried after him.
The squire came running with Theido’s charger, and the tall knight caught up the reins and put his foot in the stirrup. Ronsard placed a hand on his shoulder. “Do not go alone.”
“Come with me, then. It makes no difference to me.” Theido swung himself into the saddle and wheeled his horse.
“Wait!” called Ronsard, and then sent the squire scurrying after his own mount.
When Ronsard caught up with his headstrong friend, he was halfway to the castle across the stony escarpment. Granite outcroppings pushed through the mossy turf, making the way more difficult. The sun shone down from directly overhead, glancing off the rock faces with a harsh light. Ameron Castle stood before and above them at the top of the slope, and Ronsard studied the walls carefully as they approached.
They rode to within bowshot of the walls and halted. Theido raised his hand to his mouth and called to the watchers. “I am Lord Theido, friend of the king. I would parley with your master. Bring him.”
The two riders waited while the men on the battlements debated this request, ultimately deciding that they could not refuse. One of the men said something, a head disappeared from the crenellation, and the first watcher called back, “We have sent for our lord, sir.”
They waited; the knights’ horses stamped and snorted impatiently, tossing their heads and shaking their manes, eager to move on. But the wait was rewarded with the appearance of Lord Ameronis at the battlements.
“So, Theido, it is you!” Ameronis called down from his wall. “And is that Ronsard?”
“I want to speak to you, Ameronis. Face-to-face.”
“I am sorry, but it seems that the gates have been closed and fortified. I cannot open them for you.” Ameronis spoke with good humor, as if he would gladly forget that the men before him bore anything but friendship and goodwill.
“Then allow us to approach, for I have something to tell you that you should know before blood is spilled on either side.”
“You’re wasting your time,” muttered Ronsard. “The only thing this wolf understands is the broad side of a blade.”
“I know,” replied Theido. “But those with him are not of the same stamp. We may be able to sway them. See? Here they are.”
Ronsard saw several more heads join Ameronis to peer over the wall. “I do not see Lord Edfrith among them.”
“Perhaps he has had the good sense to withdraw before entangling himself further in this greedy one’s plots. That shows, at least, that this pack is not of one accord.”
“You may approach,” shouted Ameronis down to them. “I will listen to what you have to say.”