As dawn broke fair and clean in the east, the Dragon King raised his gauntleted hand and urged Blazer forward. The mighty warhorse jigged sideways and pranced, smelling the scent of battle in the air, feeling his bold blood race in his veins, eager to gallop with his master into the fray. Quentin, with Ronsard at his left hand, rode out into the field, his armor glinting in the early light.
He wore the battle dress made for him by the legendary Inchkeith, the armor he had worn against Nin the Destroyer on the day he became king. Polished smooth, bright as water, the pale silver shimmered in the sun’s first rays, throwing beams of light from its clean, flat surfaces like the facets of a gemstone. On his head he wore the silver helm that he had placed there on the day of his coronation. From his shoulders hung the exquisite cloak of chain mail, its tiny links rippling like quicksilver with every jouncing step.
Ronsard, too, was arrayed in his best armor, and rode beside the king with eyes ahead, visor up, surveying the formidable walls rising before them on the escarpment. His hand rested easily on the hilt of his sword; his shield hung down from the pommel of his saddle, ready to be snatched up in an instant when need occasioned. His battle steed shook its mane and pawed the earth as it pranced out into the morning.
Behind them came the king’s knights mounted on their chargers, their armor clinking in the silent dawn. No drums beat time; no trumpet sounded the call to arms. The army of the Dragon King would march unheralded into battle this day.
After the knights came the footmen with their pikes and ladders, and grappling hooks on long ropes to aid in scaling the walls. They wore short, heavy swords thrust through their belts, for in the close fighting on the battlements there would be no room to swing a longer blade; and any who were lucky enough to reach the heights of Castle Ameron would need a stout weapon.
The advancing forces reached the catapults, and teams of men ran out and began readying the machines, loading stones and fireballs into the slings. This done, the men waited for the king’s command. Quentin scanned the high ramparts, raised his sword—a sturdy blade he had chosen from among others in the armorer’s wagon—and lowered it in a swift movement.
The catapults sang through the air and the footmen raced toward the walls with a mighty shout, flooding over the rising ground to the very feet of the enormous stone curtains. There they flung their ladders against the walls and sent their grappling hooks snaking through the air, while archers positioned themselves to offer what help they could.
At almost the same instant, a cry went up from the walls as Ameronis’s men leaped to the embrasures and began hailing arrows, stones, and timbers down upon the men below. The first men on the ladders fell screaming to the earth, but others appeared to take their places, and others behind them, each with a shield over his head to stop the deadly rain. But arrows found their marks, stones struck down with bone-shattering force, and brave soldiers fell.
As the attack began, Ameronis and his noble friends, sitting in the banqueting hall over their breakfast, heard the cry go up from his men on the battlements. Ameronis rose from his chair and said, grinning, “So, the king’s army has no patience, eh? It sounds as if they mean to tumble these walls with their wailing. Come, my friends, this will be rare sport. These walls have never been breached in living memory. Let us see how the Dragon King’s army fares.”
With that he turned and hurried from the hall, Lupollen following after him. The others sat in silence, looking awkwardly at one another for a moment, and then followed. “He did not seem to think it worth mentioning that his walls have stood secure all through the years because of the Dragon King’s favor and protection,” muttered Gorloic.
“Aye,” agreed Denellon. “I am sorry we ever listened to him. We will pay for our error before this day is through. Mark my words, sir. We will pay.”
They found Ameronis striding the wall walk, barking orders to his men, exhorting them to a fighting frenzy. Heedless of his own safety, he dashed here and there to join in the worst of the fighting, leaning out over the crenels and shoving the ladders away with his bare hands.
“See how he rages!” cried Lord Kelkin, holding his head in dismay. “He is like a wolf, blood-drunk and ravening for the kill!”
Catching sight of them, Ameronis shouted, “Look! Here is a sight for you! The Dragon King has joined the contest!” He thrust out a hand and pointed below.
The other lords rushed to the embrasure and peered fearfully down into the moil; and there, amid the writhing, seething mass of men struggling to mount to the walls, they glimpsed the white flanks of the king’s charger, flashing here and there among his troops, and the Dragon King himself riding with his sword uplifted and shield held high.
“Bring me a bow!” bawled Ameronis above the clamor. “A bow! Bring me a bow!”
“Stop!” bellowed Gorloic. “Think of what you are doing!”
But Ameronis would not listen; he snatched up a longbow from one of his archers and notched an arrow to the string and let fly at the king. Gorloic and Kelkin rushed forward and grabbed Ameronis by the arms. “Let me go!” he screamed. “Let me go!” He struggled free of their grasp and backed from them. “If you have not stomach for the fight, get below and hide with the women in the scullery! I mean to wear the crown, and I will take it however I must!”
Horrified, the noblemen backed away and withdrew to the gatehouse turret, where they could watch the battle in safety.
Once the fighting began, Ronsard allowed the main force of footmen to establish themselves before the gates of the castle before leading his own small force to the less-defended northern wall. Ladders were thrown up and secured. One knight gained the battlement without being seen, and another as well before the alarm was sounded and Ameronis’s men came running with sword and halberd to repel the invaders. But Ronsard’s knights fought well and held their own while their number was strengthened from below. Ronsard was the third man over the wall and was soon joined by others until there were twelve of the king’s knights on the wall.
Together these twelve labored to butt through to where their comrades fought to gain the western wall. They inched along the northern curtain toward the northern tower; from there they could cross over to the west. Once in the tower, however, they encountered strong resistance. Ten of Ameronis’s knights, hearing the alarm from the northern curtain, had come running up from the ward yard below to meet them.
The foremost of these, a giant of a man in an iron morion and carrying a double-bladed axe in one hand and an ox-hide shield in the other, came crashing in through the door of the tower, swinging his weapon in a deadly arc around him. Ronsard, with two of his knights, managed to force the giant back out of the door, which they sealed at once.
“Can you hold the door?” asked Ronsard, throwing open his visor.
“I think so,” replied his second-in-command. Just then there came a fearful crash at the door they had just sealed as the giant’s axe thundered on the planks. “For now,” he added.
“Hold out as long as you can,” said Ronsard, “and then join us below. I am going to try to fight through to the gates. Perhaps we can force them open.” So saying, Ronsard led the other knights down the spiraling wooden steps to the tower keep below, which was as yet unguarded.
With swords singing they forced their way across the outer ward to the gatehouse, encountering little resistance since most of the castle’s defenders lined the wall walks above. Once inside, they overpowered the frightened foe easily.
“In the king’s name, open the gates!” demanded Ronsard, his sword at the throat of the quaking gatekeeper.
The man wailed and rolled his eyes in terror. “Though you sever head from shoulders, I cannot!” cried the man.
“Open them, or I will drop you where you stand!”
“I cannot!” screamed the gatekeeper. “Brave sir, believe me! The doors are fortified and cannot now be opened by anyone—leastways, without removing the timbers and chains.”
“My lord,” shouted one of Ronsard’s knights, “he speaks true. The gates are bound in chains and reinforced with timbers. To remove them would take us half a day!”
Ronsard was about to make a reply when behind them on the staircase leading to the parapet they heard a shout and the sound of many feet pounding down the wooden stairs. “We are discovered!” cried one of the knights.
In the space of three heartbeats, the loyal besiegers were swarmed by knights as the gatehouse filled with troops from the ramparts above. And though Ronsard and his men stood toe-to-toe against the defenders, they were sorely outnumbered and were forced to retreat back across the ward yard to the northern tower. There they rejoined their comrades who still held the doors leading out onto the wall walks.
“Seal the doors below!” ordered Ronsard. “We will go above and win the turret!”
They clattered up the stairs to the turret, which was defended by archers. One look at the armored knights boiling up out of the tower, however, and the archers, assuming that the king’s forces had breached 1098 the walls, threw down their weapons and begged for mercy. “Take their weapons,” said Ronsard, and the archers were herded together at the farther rim of the turret and made to sit down while a knight stood over them with a sword.
Ronsard then strode to the embrasure and stood up in the crenel, waving his sword over his head. Men on the ground below recognized him and cheered, swarming at once to the tower with their ladders and hooks.
The minor victory proved short-lived, however, for Ameronis, too, saw Ronsard’s signal and sent a force of his best knights to the northern tower. In moments the knights had rushed to the tower and were hacking at the doors. At the same instant, the giant on the wall walk succeeded in battering the door to splinters with his huge axe; he came charging through, followed by others, and they all came thundering up the stairs to the turret.
“We’re trapped!” hollered one of the besiegers. “We are cut off!”
“Here!” said Ronsard, motioning to the archers who had given themselves up. “Sit on the hatchway—all of you!”
The prisoners scrambled together and sat down on the planks, holding the door closed with their combined weight. “That should keep them out for a while at least,” said Ronsard. “We can only wait now. The fight is taken from us for the moment.”
In the secret passage deep beneath the castle, the clash and clamor of the combat could be heard, muted through the heavy gate beyond the portcullis. “Listen!” said Theido, and the hammering halted. Into the silence drifted the eerie sound of heated battle—as if the echoes of an ancient war still lingered in the rocks of the cave and now came drifting out from the stones that had held them.
“By the One!” cried Theido. “It has started! Hurry, men, or we come too late!”
At once the hammers rang out on the cold iron, filling the cave and tunnel with a horrendous din as chisels bit deep in an effort to free the last section of the gate, for now they did not have to worry about the noise; any racket they made would be drowned in the battle roar above.
With shouts and curses the soldiers threw themselves at the unrelenting iron until, exhausted, they fell back panting into the tunnel. When one man faltered, another took his place as the assault on the portcullis continued.