At the edge of the woods, the two parties assembled: one a force of twoscore men-at-arms, the other a dozen handpicked knights. The moon had climbed the night sky and sunk down behind the trees of Pelgrin, and full darkness lay upon the land. The castle rose before them on the slope, a massive black shape in the greater darkness. But for the blazing stars shining down like the fires of a celestial host encamped, the besiegers would not have had enough light to find their way.
“We will give you enough time to get into position,” said Ronsard. “You will know when the diversion starts, I daresay. With any luck the whole castle will soon be awakened to the alarm.”
Theido nodded. “We will be ready. Do not get careless, and stay well out of arrow range. There is no need for anyone to get hurt tonight. Yours is not the risk—at least not yet.”
“We will keep out of bowshot, never fear,” Ronsard assured him. “See that you do the same.”
With that the two men parted company, Theido leading his knights off into the woods, making for the riverbank where the slow Sipleth flowed dark and silent. After walking what seemed a lifetime through the woods, the knights came upon Sipleth’s east bank. The sound of moving water eddying and curling as it slipped along its shores told them that they had reached the first stage of their journey.
Walking silently, their tools and weapons muffled to prevent any sound, the small force turned and filed along the riverbank, proceeding toward the castle. Presently the river broadened, flattening as it bent around the castle rock. The bank rose to form a cliff above the black water, unseen except for the winking glint, here and there, of starlight on a ripple in the current.
The knights made their way up the rising cliffside, fighting through tangles of nettles and bramble thickets along the way. Their labors were rewarded when Theido at last halted their progress and passed the whispered word back along the file: “The castle is just ahead. We wait.”
Ahead, right to the very edge of the cliff, stood the west wall of Castle Ameron. The raiding party knelt down in the path to wait for the signal. It was not long in coming, for as the knights waited silently below the curtain, there came a shout from above, far off. “Fire!” This call was echoed by another and another all along the battlements. Then the knights heard the clatter of feet racing along the high walls directly over their heads as the cry resounded, “Fire!”
Still Theido waited, holding up his hand to stay his men. “Hold,” he whispered. “Give it time.”
Now the alarm cries could be heard echoing through the castle yards and along the furthermost battlement. But nothing more was heard from directly above; so Theido, moving stealthily, crept forward to the western wall beneath the tower and along the curtain, walking the entire length, gazing upward as he passed.
He was back momentarily, saying, “It worked. The watch has withdrawn to the far side of the castle. We have little time, so let us work quickly. Go.”
The knights leaped to action at once. Coils of rope were produced and heavy stakes driven into the ground. The ropes were attached to the stakes, and knights began lowering themselves over the edge of the cliff to the river below. Theido and two archers remained beneath the walls to protect the ropes while their comrades were vulnerable below.
When the last knight had disappeared over the edge Theido said, “Now we wait once more. Stay back close to the wall in case the tower watch returns, and keep sharp for my signal.”
The two knights melted back into the darkness beneath the tower wall. Theido, too, stepped back from the edge of the cliff, sitting down with his back against the immense curtain of stone to wait, praying that the watchmen would not return soon.
Theido need not have concerned himself, for at that moment every available man under Lord Ameronis’s command was either lofting buckets of water to quench the fires burning in the ward yards, or lining the eastern wall with bow and arrows in an attempt to prevent the siege force from sending more fireballs their way.
For when Theido’s party departed, Ronsard and his force had waited until they were well away and then moved out upon the field, dragging with them the crude catapults that had been constructed that very day. There were two of them, ungraceful machines of rough timber and rope; long poles of ash with slings at one end and counterweights of stone at the other were lashed to sturdy sledges of pine. Along with the catapults were two wagonloads of baled pine needles, tinder dry and awaiting the spark that would set them roaring into flame.
Teams of horses positioned the catapults—one below each facing tower on either side of the gatehouse just out of reach of the most determined bowman. Once in position, the horses were unhitched and led back to camp, and the war machines securely anchored to the ground with ropes and stakes. At Ronsard’s signal two riders came galloping from the campground with flaming torches, and the firestorming of Ameron Castle began.
The first bale was loaded into the sling, the catapult set, and the torch applied. Instantly the bale of pine needles burst into flame and the catapult released. Fwshh! The fireball soared through the air, describing a perfect arc toward the wall. In almost the same instant a second fireball swooped in from the opposite side.
The first missile cleared the wall and battlements and fell into the ward yard. The second missile fell short, striking the upper section of the stone wall and sliding back to earth at the foot of the wall.
“Take over, Sir Drake,” commanded Ronsard. “And keep them coming.” He dashed off to help realign the second catapult; it took a few minutes to shift the counterweight and lengthen the throw pole, but before the alarm had spread very far through the castle, the second catapult was hurling fire through the skies with deadly accuracy.
“There,” remarked Ronsard proudly, watching a fireball burn through the air to fall well inside the inner ward yard. “This should keep them busy most of the night.”
Archers took to the walls and sent arrow after arrow streaking toward the dimly outlined men tending the catapults. But Ronsard had correctly estimated the distance, and arrows fell spent to the ground, short of the mark. This brought cries of outrage and frustration from those on the battlements, and jeers in reply from those on the ground, as missile after missile lit the night sky with roaring flames.
Lord Ameronis was summoned from his bedchamber as soon as the first flames appeared in the ward yard—a fireball had fallen on the stable roof and burst, scattering flames among the straw and fodder below. Frightened horses screamed and bucked as squires and footmen braved the flames in an effort to bring the horses to safety, thus turning the entire inner ward yard into a sea of churning chaos. Another fire burned near the kitchens.
Ameronis stood with his fists on his hips, barking orders to those around him, all the while seething with rage at the attack under way. Up to now, the ambitious noble had considered the contest something of a game where the spoils went to the winner. Now he saw that the king’s forces were in dead earnest, and his demeanor changed abruptly.
“More buckets!” he bellowed. “Bring more buckets!” He stood in the midst of the riotous confusion, shouting above the noise as men darted everywhere in an attempt to save the stables.
The fire was not large; it had been caught in time and was soon under control. Ameronis left the inner ward yard and mounted the battlements, bristling with anger. “Any luck with the archers?” he asked his commander, Sir Bolen.
The young knight turned, his face ruddy in the torchlight and the lights of several small fires in the outer ward. “No, sir; the enemy is too far removed.”
“None in the outer ward. The fireballs seem intended mostly to harass us. There is no real hurt. The fires are easily extinguished.”
“Not so easily!” snorted Ameronis. “If you had been with me in the inner ward yard just now, you would have seen the ‘harassment’ these missiles can do.” He glared out between the merlons at the torchlight glimmering on the field; this marked the position of the catapults. Just then a fireball smashed into the gatehouse turret and rolled down its pitched roof onto the wall. A dozen warriors threw down their weapons and dodged away.
“I could send a contingent out to put a stop to this,” suggested the young commander. In the dancing firelight his eyes glittered with the excitement of a man ready to brave any danger in order to distinguish himself and win favor in the eyes of his superior.
“What? And open the gates to them? That is just what they want us to do!” shouted Ameronis. “Use your head, man! No! You will do no such thing! We will weather the attack as best as we can and wait until morning.”
“I am sorry, sir,” muttered the young knight. “I only thought—”
“Wait!” said Ameronis, glancing up and down along the battlements. “Who is standing watch on the other walls?”
“No one . . . ,” replied the commander hesitantly. “When the alarm was sounded, they must have come to help—”
“Send the tower watch back to their posts at once! Have them report to me immediately if they see anything amiss! Hurry! Who knows what these dogs of king’s men may be about!”
“Did you find anything?” Theido lay on his stomach at the edge of the cliff and called down to the man dangling on a rope below him.
“There is a narrow shingle along the water’s edge, sir. It runs all along the bank below the cliff. We have sent men to scout in both directions, but have found nothing yet.”
“Continue,” said Theido, rising to his feet. Just then there came a voice from the battlements above.
“Halt! Who is there?”
Theido’s heart clenched in his chest.
Half crouched, half standing, he remained rock-still, hoping that whoever was above him would not see him directly below, an easy target for even the poorest marksman.
“Hey!” called the voice above. “Bring your torch over here! I think there is someone below.”
Theido heard footsteps come running as a second guard joined the first with his torch. He held his breath, fully expecting an arrow to come singing to its mark at any second. One heartbeat . . . two . . . three. Then—“There’s nothing down there, maggot-brain,” said the second voice from the battlements. “You are seeing shadows and thinking them soldiers. Get to your post, and do not call me again unless you see something more than a shadow on the rocks.”
The first soldier grumbled and moved on to his place in the tower. Theido released his breath and drew back to the wall to wait. From either side of him at a distance of no more than twenty paces, he heard the soft footfall of his archers withdrawing and realized that as soon as the guard had discovered him, two arrows had been notched to their strings and those strings drawn taut. Had either guard so much as squeaked a warning, the man would have been dead before the words were out of his mouth.
Theido drew his cloak over him and leaned back against the hard curtain. Random shouts still echoed from beyond the walls of the castle, but the initial frenzy that had greeted the first volley of fireballs had died away. To the east the sky held a lighter hue, tinting the sky iron-blue against the black. Hurry, whispered Theido to himself. Hurry! Dawn is coming, and we must soon be gone or be discovered. Hurry, there is so little time.