All around him on the ground the lay bodies of the wounded, broken, and dying, some crushed beneath timbers and stones, many more pierced through with arrows. Still the king strove to rally his flagging forces to remount the assault. But disheartened by their lack of success in gaining the walls and dismayed at the loss of their numbers, the Dragon King’s army shrank from the walls, and Quentin was forced to withdraw to regroup his forces.
At the first sign of the king’s retreat, a cheer went up from Ameronis’s men on the wall. The lord himself joined in the exultation, and called after the receding troops, “Have you had enough, and so soon? Come back; let us finish it for once and all!” This brought more cheers from his men. So Ameronis leaned out over the wall and called still louder to the delight of his army, “The Dragon King slinks away like a scalded hound—with his ears bobbed and his tail between his legs! Come back and fight like a man of honor!”
Up on the gatehouse turret Lords Kelkin, Gorloic, and Denellon watched as the king’s forces retreated from the field. “It is going badly for them,” remarked Kelkin. “Would that I had my knights with me now; I know which side I would join.”
“I, too, would add my aid to the king,” said Denellon. “I have seen enough of Ameronis’s ways. His true face is revealed in war, and it is not a face I would care to see under the crown.”
“Nor I,” put in Lord Gorloic. “But though my knights guard my own fortress and are far from here, I still have a sword and an arm to use it! And while I live, both belong to the Dragon King!”
“Aye!” agreed the others. “So be it!”
“But,” said Kelkin, “we are only three. Ameronis and Lupollen have the advantage over us. We would be cut to pieces before we put hand to hilt.”
“Then we will have to find another way to better them. We cannot do that here. Come, my friends,” said Gorloic, “time is fleeting and we have work to do!”
“Are ye fair certain this be the wisest course, young master?” asked Pym as the two rode along through the forest. “What will yer mother say when she learns we’uns ’as let ye follow the king to battle—and we’uns without so much as a stick to shake at the foemen.”
“Be quiet,” replied Renny. “I’m thinking.”
“Yer lost! We’uns’ve been riding these woods fer near a day and no sign of the king. We’uns’d best go back.”
“’Ee go back if ’ee want to,” said Renny stubbornly. “I mean to fight for the king.”
Pym sighed—as he had sighed a hundred times in the last twelve hours—and scratched his grizzled head. “Well, if ye have yer heart set on it, there’ll be no persuading ye—not as I haven’t tried, neither. But ye must admit it: we’uns is lost.”
“Not lost,” replied Renny. “We just lack direction.”
They had left Askelon the day before when the king rode out, following him as he himself had followed his army. But the two of them on Tarky were no match for the spirited Blazer and were soon outdistanced and left behind. Pym had been for turning back, but his young companion pursued his course with single-minded determination, bent on serving the Dragon King beside those noble knights he had met when they tried to return the horse.
The two were resting along a little-used pathway through the southeastern reaches of Pelgrin when they heard the jingle of a horse’s tack and the murmur of voices on the trail ahead.
“Someone’s coming!” Renny jumped up and peered into the green shadows. “A horse and rider! We’ll ask him how to find Ameron Castle.”
Closer, they saw not one, but two riders trotting lightly along the pathway. Boldly Renny stepped out into the center of the trail so that they would stop, and in a moment he looked into the face of a black-bearded nobleman astride a sleek black charger.
“Ho! Who goes there?” said the nobleman with a wink to his companion, a knight with a broadsword on his thigh and a shirt of mail.
“A highwayman by all appearances,” returned his companion.
“Please, my lord,” said Renny, speaking up with all the courage he could muster. “We need help.”
“We are true men,” replied the lord. “You have but to ask, and if it is within our power, it is granted. But ask quickly, for we are about important business.”
Seeing how the lord received the lad, Pym brought Tarky and came to stand beside Renny. “This is my friend,” said the boy. “We are on our way to join the king’s army at Ameron-on-Sipleth.”
“We’uns’ve lost our way, Yer Lordship,” added the tinker. Tip barked once to affirm their plight.
The nobleman leaned forward in the saddle and studied the travelers closely. “What do you know of the king’s army?”
Pym grew tentative. “Only that they marched out from Askelon two—no, three days ago sunset time. The king followed last night, and we’uns followed him.”
Renny nodded. “’Ee goes to claim his sword back from them that took it!”
The lord glanced at his companion, then back at the two before him. Recognition came to him like a flash of lightning out of a clear blue sky. “Why, I know you,” he said, looking Pym up and down. “You’re the tinker in the road.”
“And I know ye, too, Yer Lordship. Ye were the one as didn’t want a poor tinker to come to no harm.”
“That bruise on your jaw, man—did Ameronis do that to you?”
“To say he didn’t would tell a lie, Yer Lordship. That he did, right enough.” Pym rubbed his still-swollen jaw. “When he took the sword.”
“Ah, so it was a sword you held under those rags, was it?” He watched Pym carefully. “The king’s sword?”
Pym nodded. “I don’t know if it be the Shining One or no, but there’s no end of them that thinks it, sir.”
“It must be!” said the nobleman to the knight beside him. “And Ameronis took it, you say?”
Pym nodded. Renny spoke up. “And we mean to help the king get it back. ’Ee needs it to save the prince!”
“What’s this? What about the prince?”
“It be the ransom, Yer Lordship. The sword must be delivered to the High Temple tomorrow midday or the young highness is to be killed.”
“Does Ameronis know about this?” asked the nobleman.
“We’uns can’t say if he does or he don’t. But all Askelon knows now. It’s all anyone talks of, ye see. The word went out yesterday when the Dragon King rode out. Folks ’as said he went to claim his sword to save his son, ye see.”
“Yes, I see.” The lord rose up in the saddle and turned to the knight. “Ride back and call out my men—all of them, and my tenants, too. As many as have weapons. If any lack, let them be equipped out of my armory.”
“Yes, Lord Edfrith,” replied the knight, taking up the reins and turning his mount.
“Meet us at Castle Ameron. I go there at once.”
“I will hardly be alone, sir. I have two stout comrades with me here; no man in the realm could be better served. Go and bring my troops. The king will need all the help we can provide if he goes against Ameronis. Hurry!”
“Ronsard and his contingent are trapped, Sire. A few of our men managed to reach the turret to join him before the tower was taken again,” explained one of the king’s commanders. “They fight now just to stay alive; we cannot look for any aid from them.”
Quentin nodded gravely and dismissed the knight, turning his eyes toward the battlefield. His surgeons carried litters bearing the wounded and dying. Ameronis’s troops looked on from the wall, awaiting the next assault, content for the moment merely to watch and wait and conserve their strength.
So, thought Quentin, it has come to this. Ronsard trapped, Theido rendered useless, and I am here alone. His mind turned to the others he had depended on throughout his life: Durwin, Bria, Alinea, Yeseph, Eskevar, Theido, Ronsard, and Toli perhaps most of all. But now, at this moment, all were gone. When he needed them most, there was no one to turn to, no one to say to him, “Yes, go on” or “No, turn aside.” No one to give counsel, confer with, or share the arching anxiety of this moment.
Even the Most High stood far off, his hand removed and his presence withdrawn.
Quentin squared his shoulders. I am the Dragon King, he said to himself, and it is time I learned to accept what it is to be a king, to be a man whose choices must be his own, and who must live or die by his decisions. Oh, but it is hard. Look at all these others here, watching me, trusting me to lead them, to save them, laying down their lives. I never asked to be a king, but I was chosen. And I will lead these last faithful men as truly as I know how.
Quentin swung down from his saddle and handed the reins to a squire. He walked among his troops resting on the ground, speaking to them, rebuilding their courage for the next sally.
“Hurrah! The gate is breached!” The cheer echoed along the secret passage beneath Ameronis’s castle.
“Good!” said Theido. “At last! Now for the gate beyond. Come on, men. We are almost through!”
With axes and wedges the soldiers ran through the gaping hole in the portcullis and went to work on the timbers beyond. In moments the planks were shivered by the sharp blows of the axe and split by the thrust of the wedge.
“Ready yourselves!” called Theido to the others waiting behind him. “We will be through the gate in no time. Be armed and keen for the fight.”
Gorloic, Kelkin, and Denellon crept along through the castle corridors and galleries, having armed themselves from the hands of fallen and expired warriors. Now they moved quietly toward their objective: the gatehouse.
“I will see to the gatekeeper,” said Gorloic. “You two take care of his men.”
“What if Ameronis or Lupollen discover us?” asked Kelkin. He glanced around nervously, as if expecting the treacherous lords to appear at any moment.
“They will not,” replied Denellon.
“Aye,” agreed Gorloic. “If we wait until the attack renews, they will have enough to think about. But we must work quickly. See? The gatehouse is through the antechamber before us. Are we ready?”
“Listen!” said Denellon, for at that moment a tremendous crash was heard in the ward yard outside, and another shook the outer curtain. “The catapults! The attack has begun!”
From up on the wall walks above, the lords heard the roar of a shout from the troops lining the ramparts as the Dragon King’s army came rushing to the walls once more. “We go!” said Gorloic, and laying a hand to his hilt, he rushed forward through the antechamber and into the gatehouse, his friends coming hard on his heels.
“Gateman!” Gorloic shouted. “Open the gates!”
The gatekeeper and his men, some of whom had been crouching behind barrels in the corner, turned to meet the noblemen, their eyes showing white all around. “But Your Lordship,” he complained, “we cannot! The gates are fortified! It is Lord Ameronis’s order that they remain sealed.”
“Silence, fool!” shouted Gorloic. “It is his order that they be opened now. The battle is turned, and he expects the enemy to break ranks and run at any moment. He wants the gates opened so that he can give chase!”
The keeper shook his head slowly, peering doubtfully at Gorloic. “Sir, I dare not without an order from my lord himself.”
Denellon dashed forward. “Do you hear the shouting? Hurry!”
Kelkin added, “Think how angry your master will be when he learns you disobeyed his order.”
This rattled the gateman. His eyes bulged, and he threw up his hands. But still he refused. “I dare not go against my order.”
Gorloic turned on him angrily, grabbed him by the shoulders, and whirled him around. “If you and your men will not help us, we will do it ourselves! And I will personally tell Ameronis that you defied him!”
“No! Oh, I—”
“We have no time!” insisted Gorloic. He nodded to Denellon and Kelkin, who rushed to the gates and began hacking at the shackle-bolts with their swords. “Are you going to help us?”
“You will take responsibility?”
“Yes! Yes, gladly!”
The gatekeeper waved his men forward and produced a ring of keys. “Here, with these it will go faster.” And he proceeded to loose the shackle-bolts while his men threw off the heavy chains binding the timbers that had been jammed against the gates.