Stars dimmed in the east, and their numbers dwindled as the sky lightened to dawn. Ronsard and his force still manned the catapults, but the fireballs soared less frequently now. “We are running out of bales,” reported one of his men. “These are the last.”
Ronsard cocked his eye skyward and said, “The others should have returned by now. Hold as long as you can. With any luck they will come before first light.”
Hurry! thought Ronsard. Hurry, before they find out . . . For one fleeting heartbeat he wondered, What if they have already found out? He dismissed the thought instantly, telling himself, Somehow we would have known.
The sandy-haired knight turned his eyes toward the ragged line of forest as it sloped down to meet the river. From here Theido and his party would return. But he saw no one. No figure hailed him from the trees, and no messenger came to tell him that all was well, that the raiding party had returned safely.
“Come on,” whispered Ronsard. “It will be daylight soon!”
The catapults flashed, hurling their flaming missiles to the castle walls, which could be plainly seen now, showing dull and imposing in the feeble light. But the interval between projectiles had stretched to several minutes, and though the enemy still lined the walls and scurried to put out each new blaze, they did not shout and rail at the foe anymore, but merely watched with casual interest, as if bored by the long-running spectacle.
There was a shout and a man came running up from the second machine, saying “Sir, the bales are gone, and we have nothing else to throw at them.” He waited for Ronsard’s leading.
“We must continue a little longer. Send some men back to camp, and ready some more bales; have the others there help. We will need enough for both catapults. Meanwhile, we must keep the attention of those on the wall; have your men move to a new position while you are waiting for your ammunition.” He pointed across the field. “There— more toward the center.”
The soldier hurried off to carry out his orders. Ronsard crossed his arms on his chest and frowned at the sky. “You should have been back long ago, Theido. Shall I send a search party after you?”
He decided to wait a little longer and began pacing back and forth between the catapults, glancing now and again toward the fringe of forest where he expected his comrade to emerge at any moment.
The sun burned nearer the horizon, flaming the sky bright red beneath the gray clouds. The outlines of the castle could be made out clearly now, and black smoke drifted on the rising wind from the numerous small fires they had set through the night. At least, thought Ronsard grimly, we have kept them busy this night, and none of our own have been hurt.
When the men returned, carrying more bales of pine needles and branches, Ronsard ordered the troops to be changed. Fresh soldiers took over from those who had worked through the night, relieving them so they might go to their well-earned rest. The new contingent fell to with zeal, and the catapulting continued.
Ronsard, increasingly anxious over his friend’s delay, placed command of the machines in a subordinate’s hands and returned to camp to form a search party. He had assembled the men, and they had armed themselves and were about to start off on the trail Theido had himself taken, when a voice hailed them from the forest. “Ho! Ronsard!”
The knight spun on his heel and met the returning party coming toward them through the forest, their faces drawn with fatigue, but adopting a jaunty air for their comrades.
“We were just setting off to look for you. You were due back long ago.”
“I began to think we would never leave. The watch returned to the towers and wall, and we were trapped below the cliff. We had to wait until the guard changed before we could move.”
“Well! Am I to guess the rest?”
“We found it: the secret postern entrance. Ameronis is clever, and it took us all night, but we found it.”
At this Ronsard and his search party broke out in cheers for their comrades, clapping them on the backs and shaking their hands. “Where is it? Tell me everything you know about it.”
Theido dismissed his men to their rest, and he and Ronsard walked to the tent that had been raised for them as their command post and private chambers. Inside, they sat down on benches facing one another across a rough-hewn table. “At first it did not appear that we would find an entrance—secret or otherwise. The cliff below the west wall is smooth-faced and drops away at a sharp angle to the water. But below is a narrow shingle a man may walk along.” He paused and pointed to a jug. “I could use a drink of water.”
Ronsard snatched the jug, poured, and handed Theido the cup. “Go on, go on. What did you find?”
“That is much better,” Theido replied. “Now then . . . Yes, the river bends around the castle rock, and if you follow it far enough, you will find that the shore widens as it passes the rock. Here”—he traced with his fingers on the table before them—“and here the forest comes down to the water’s edge. I sent the men up along this lower bank as far as it went before it flattened out to the waterline again.
“We found nothing at first. On the second sweep along the bank, one of the men found a cave well up on the cliff face—small, but large enough for a man to squeeze through. It was hidden by juniper scrub, so it was impossible to see from the northern approach. But from the opposite direction it could be spotted. They climbed up into the cave mouth and found that not more than half a dozen paces inside, the cave becomes a tunnel.”
“Yes,” Theido affirmed. “The tunnel, though long and winding like a snake, leads to a portcullis of iron and a gate beyond.”
“Right into the heart of Ameronis’s lair. Well done! Well done, indeed!” He beamed at his friend. “This was a night well spent.” Immediately the knight’s mind began making calculations, racing ahead to make plans for the campaign to follow. “Can we cut through the ironwork?”
“Yes,” replied Theido with a yawn. “I did not see it myself, you understand, and my man did not have a torch while he was in the tunnel —all had to be explored in the dark—but at least he was able to reach the portcullis without difficulty. I think it can be cut through—given time. The iron is thick, and appears to be well made.”
“Then we must begin at once.” He saw the look on Theido’s face and asked, “Can we reach the tunnel in daylight without being seen?”
“No.” Theido shook his head wearily. “At least not by land. But there is a chance that if we go by water, hugging close to the riverbank below the walls, we can reach it without being seen from above.”
“Too difficult. We could not carry the tools we would need.”
“We have no boats.”
“Rafts. We must construct two rafts of size enough to hold a dozen men each with equipment and weapons.”
Ronsard stared across the table. “That will take a day at least, maybe two.”
“We have no better choice that I can see. Scaling the walls without help from inside is our last resort. The foe is well equipped and certainly better positioned than we are, and we cannot wait for them to be weakened by the siege. No, the secret gate is the only way.”
Ronsard fell silent as he turned the matter over in his head. Finally, he admitted that Theido was right and said, “In that case, I must not waste time sitting here. I will have the carpenters begin constructing the rafts at once.” He stood to leave. “You look weary to the bone. Sleep now; I will attend to the raft building and summon you if there is any need.” He moved to the entrance and held back the flap, hesitated, and said, “We will win, Theido.”
Ronsard’s statement begged confirmation. Theido, always so certain before, so sure that the right would win out in the end, could not muster that same strength of conviction now. For once it seemed as if, despite all they might do, they would not prevail, that the evil that had poisoned the realm so swiftly had achieved its end already and they were powerless to turn aside its effects.
Ronsard lingered, watching him. Theido rubbed his face with his hands and yawned. “It has been a long night,” he said. “I am tired.”
For a moment the two held each other’s gaze, each trying to read the other, to plumb the depths and find there some hidden reserve of assurance or hope. At last Ronsard turned his face away, looking out into the camp but not seeing the men moving there, cooking their breakfasts before the fire, carrying firewood and water, looking after their weapons and the horses. The light shining on his face, his jaw flexed and set, Ronsard stepped outside, leaving Theido to his sleep.