I do not like this, Ameronis,” said Lord Kelkin. “If it is true we hold the ransom for the king’s son, we must give it. I do not want the prince’s blood on my head.”
The friends of Ameronis were gathered with him in his council chambers, a room high in the tower keep above the dungeon. The windows were open so that the breeze might stir the air, which lay still and heavy in the room. Ameronis sat on a sill gazing out across the escarpment toward where Theido and Ronsard had retreated only a few minutes before.
“You had stomach enough for it when we rode to the king himself,” said Lupollen. “I did not hear you complain then. If it is true that he who holds the sword is king, then here is our king!” He gestured to Ameronis, who placed his hands on the sill and rose, facing them, silhouetted in the narrow window.
Lord Denellon muttered beneath his breath. “If he is king, why are we hiding behind bolted doors, waiting for a fight?”
Ameronis ignored the remark. “Do you not see that this is exactly what they wanted?”
The others looked at him askance. “What do you mean?” demanded Gorloic. “Speak plainly.”
“Then believe me when I tell you it is nothing but a trick to make us relinquish the sword without so much as an arrow exchanged. Theido is a crafty old fox; he knew this would cause dissension among us, and this is why he spread the lie.”
“You doubt him—after all that happened in Askelon?” asked Denellon.
“Oh, I do not doubt that the prince was abducted—that is true enough. Most likely he was abducted by simple highwaymen who only want a few ducats of gold to let the boy loose. For all we know, the lad may be free now, the ransom already paid.
“No, this story about the sword being ransom for the prince and his life forfeit if the Shining One is not delivered four days from now— why, it is a ruse, and a shabby one at that.”
The lords listened to this speech of Ameronis’s, spoken calmly and with assurance, and frowned—not convinced, but swayed somewhat by the sly reckoning. At last Kelkin stood and said, “I think we make a grave mistake, sirs. And one we will long regret. But we are already enjoined and must see the matter through. Aye?”
“Aye,” echoed the others. “It is the only course left to us.”
“Yes,” said Ameronis, nodding as if he, too, had been finally convinced by Kelkin’s address. “It is the only course open to us. They”— he pointed out the window—“they have forced us to it, and we must see it through.”
“What answer will you make to them, Ameronis?” asked Lupollen. “It is nearly time for them to return for your reply.”
“What answer can I make?” Ameronis spread his hands. “I will tell them that we cannot give over the sword. I will offer to forgive the affront on my honor which has been served me by their presence if they leave. If not? Well, it is out of my hands.”
With that, the lords rose and filed out one by one onto the battlements. On the ground below Theido waited alone, having returned for the reply to his demand to give up Zhaligkeer.
“Lord Theido,” called down Ameronis, “before I give my answer, I would ask a question of you.” The other lords on the ramparts with Ameronis looked at each other. What was the devious lord up to now?
“Ask it then,” replied Theido from below, leaning with an arm on the pommel of his saddle.
“What guarantee have I that if I give up the sword to you, you will not turn and use it in your own bid for the throne?”
“Only a man such as yourself would think such a thing,” snapped Theido angrily. “You who are true to none believe all men to be as disloyal as yourself.”
Ameronis merely shrugged. “What guarantee?”
With an effort Theido held down his temper. “I can offer no guarantee save my word of honor. But if you prefer, you may ride back to Askelon and place the sword in the hands of the king yourself.”
“With you and your knights as escort?” Ameronis scoffed. “I would be cut down before I rode a half a league.”
“Theido’s word is good enough for me,” replied Lord Kelkin. “As good as a king’s seal and promise.”
“He is offering a chance to save honor without shedding blood,” put in Lord Denellon. “I say we should consider it.”
“He is offering to have us flayed like trout, my friends. Do you suppose he would not seek to punish us once the sword was his?”
“He said we could deliver it into the king’s very hands,” argued Gorloic. “I say we should reconsider.”
“And find ourselves in Askelon’s dungeons as soon as the sword is handed off ?” said Lupollen.
“The Dragon King would not do such,” said Kelkin. Gorloic and Denellon nodded with him in agreement. “We could ask for safe conduct.”
“Safe conduct! Ha! The only safe conduct we would receive would be safe conduct to the headsman’s block!” Ameronis frowned. “No, we dare not give up the sword now. As long as we hold it, we hold our lives—give up the sword and we are dead men.”
“I am waiting,” said Theido. “What is your answer?”
“You have my answer,” said Ameronis. “I will not give up the sword. If the Dragon King wants it, let him come and take it from me himself!”
“You realize this is treason—”
“Do not speak to me of treason, sir! When I am king, your effrontery will be counted treason and we shall see who squirms then! Leave this place, and take your men with you.”
“We are charged to bring back the Shining One, and we will achieve our purpose. If you have no thought for the king, at least think of the life of his son.”
“A ruse! Be gone; I am tired of talking to you.”
“I am leaving,” replied Theido coolly. “When next we meet, it will be at sword point. You have forced us to declare the siege begun.” Theido snapped his reins, turned his horse, and galloped back down the slope. Ronsard was anxiously waiting for him at the edge of the encampment.
“How is it with them?” asked the sandy-haired knight.
“You were right, my friend,” replied Theido hotly. “It is a jackal’s den. Though the others with him—Gorloic, Kelkin, and Denellon— seem inclined to reason, they allow themselves to be led astray by his smooth tongue.”
“So the siege is begun.” Ronsard stared at the castle rising before them. “Those walls will not be easy to breach. And we cannot starve them out. We must go over the top.”
“Perhaps it will come to that,” replied Theido, following Ronsard’s gaze. “But not yet. I want to examine that fourth side of the castle, the west wall on the river.”
“How do you propose to do that?”
“It will have to be tonight, under the cover of darkness.”
“Very good. I will arrange a diversion as well; that will mask our true purpose. But what do you hope to find?”
“A postern gate. I have never yet been inside a castle that did not have a rear entrance of some kind. A man like Ameronis will have a secret gate if nothing else—if only we can find it.”
Ronsard nodded and added, “If only we can find it in time.”
For the rest of the afternoon and into the early evening, the camp bustled with activity. The woods nearby rang with the sound of axes as trees were felled and stripped of their branches; men combed the forest, gathering dry pine needles by the armful; the forge and bellows of the smiths sent black smoke rolling up through the trees and into the sky.
By nightfall all was in readiness. A pale half-moon rose in the treetops, casting a glimmering light upon the escarpment, bleaching the castle walls and the granite outcroppings on the field white as dead men’s bones.
“All is in readiness,” said Ronsard. He came to stand beside Theido, who was instructing a group of knights he had chosen for the night sortie.
“Good. We are ready here too.” Theido dismissed the men, saying, “Rest now. I will sound the call when it is time to go.”
The knights departed into the darkness, leaving Theido and Ronsard alone with the embers of a slowly dying fire. “Now to wait. The moon will be well down in a few hours; it should be dark enough then to move without being seen.”
“Once we start in, not a soul in Ameron Castle will think to look for you. I will make certain of that.”
“How long can you keep up the diversion?”
“As long as you require it. We are well provided.”
Theido sighed. “Ah, well then, all is ready. We may as well take some rest too. We must have our wits about us if we are to beard the lion in his den.”