With every ounce of strength remaining, the king’s troops threw themselves at the walls, planting their ladders once more and struggling to mount them. But wherever they attempted to gain a foothold—choosing a portion of unprotected wall, or establishing themselves within the protection of archers—always that attempt was repulsed. The enemy rushed to the edge to hurl stones and beams down upon them, or archers darkened the air with arrows and drove them back.
The Dragon King rode fearlessly through the fray, arrows glancing now and again from his armor and shield, shouting to his men, heartening them, urging them on. But the tide of battle was against them.
“Sire!” Quentin turned to see one of his commanders riding up. The knight threw open his visor, saying, “We have lost the left flank. Too many men have fallen, and we cannot continue alone.”
“Join with Sir Heldur’s men in the center!” ordered Quentin. “We must hold the center.” The knight rode off again, and Quentin was hailed from the other side. The report was the same; the right flank had been weakened and was in danger of falling. His army teetered on the brink of defeat. In only a few minutes the rest of his soldiers—overcome with fear and futility—would retreat, and once in flight would not return again to the field.
Even as Quentin thought this, the first ranks broke and fell back, shrinking from the fight. “Hold!” he cried, riding forward with upraised sword, though in his heart he knew that there was no good reason now to hold on. More and more troops were falling away as others, looking about and seeing their comrades withdrawing, joined the retreat. Soon soldiers were streaming from the field by the score.
Just as the foremost ranks of footmen faltered and fell back, someone shouted, “The gates! The gates are won!”
Quentin looked up to see the castle gates swinging open, pushed from within by figures he vaguely recognized. Then, as they were thrown wide, one of the figures sprang out and beckoned to him with a sword. “Gorloic?” shouted Quentin as he rode for the gate.
“Sire”—the nobleman dropped to one knee—“forgive me for my faithlessness. Allow me to earn back your trust with my sword.”
“And I,” said another.
“And I, as well,” replied another coming close.
“Denellon, Kelkin, Gorloic—yes!” shouted Quentin as already his knights surged through the gates and into the outer ward yard.
Those in retreat, seeing the gates swing open and their king standing in the breach, halted, turned, and came running back with a tremendous shout and pressed forward into the castle, sweeping their king and comrades before them.
“We are betrayed!” bellowed Ameronis. He stood with clenched fists and pounded the rough stone of the crenel as he saw below him the king’s army flooding in through his gates.
“Rally! Rally!” cried Lupollen beside him. “We can match them blade for blade. We have superior numbers now.”
It was true. The assault on the walls had weakened the Dragon King’s forces, depleting their ranks severely. “Yes! We are far from lost!” said Ameronis. “And I will welcome the chance to exchange blows with the king and best him with his own sword.”
In the space of a dozen heartbeats, Ameronis’s troops came flying down from the battlements to engage the enemy in the outer ward. Instantly the air was shattered with the clash of arms as sword beat upon sword, and axe and mace smashed steel armor. “For the Dragon King!” cried the king’s warriors as they forced their way forward through the press.
But Ameronis’s men were tough and well trained. They held forth and did not give ground. Fierce battle raged on every side, and Quentin dodged here and there into the fray, striking again and again, until he seemed to be everywhere at once. Those of his men who were pressed hard to the point of breaking, those who slipped and were about to fall, had only to raise their eyes to see the Dragon King’s blade swinging to their aid. And if it was not the Shining One that men had learned to fear and respect, it was at least a sword in the strong hand of a deliverer.
The archers on the battlements threw down their longbows, ran to the armory, and took up crossbows—a weapon better suited to the close infighting of hand-to-hand combat—and began hurling deadly bolts into the thick of the melee, driving the king’s forces back. For none could stand against the lethal missiles that pierced even the heaviest armor, and none could get close enough to strike at the assailants.
High up in the turret above the northern tower, Ronsard and his knights, who had cheered wildly when the king’s men shoved through the gates to win the outer ward yard, now stood mute while Ameronis’s forces turned the battle once more against them.
“We must help them!” cried one of the knights.
“Here!” shouted Ronsard. “Take up the prisoners’ bows—all of you! Aim carefully, sirs—there are friends among the foe down there!”
With that, the trapped knights loosed a volley into the chaos below. Ameronis’s men, so confident only seconds before, now drew back as death came whistling after them from the skies.
“That has helped, but unless we receive more substantial aid soon, the day is lost. See? Ameronis has our forces outnumbered two men to one.”
The words were scarcely out of Ronsard’s mouth when there rose a cry from out on the field before the castle. Ronsard dashed to the far embrasure and stared down upon the escarpment and at the host of knights and footmen running forward.
“Who is it?” asked one of the knights. “I do not recognize the blazon.”
“The crest is Lord Edfrith’s, I’ll warrant.”
“An enemy! We are lost!” It appeared that Lord Edfrith and his men were swooping in behind the king to cut him off, thus crushing all hope of victory or even honorable retreat.
“No, wait!” said Ronsard. “He rides before the king’s troops!” For an instant the lord was cut off from view as he passed beneath the curtain and into the gatehouse. “Look! He has come to our aid!”
“We are saved!” shouted the knights, and the turret erupted in shouts of jubilation as Edfrith and his knights came pounding in through the gates, swords flashing, voices raised in a battle chant for the king. And all who heard it took heart.
“For Mensandor! For honor! For the Dragon King!”
Ameronis, who at that moment was cutting a swath toward the king with Zhaligkeer, glanced up and saw the army of Edfrith streaming in through the gates. He heard the chant and turned to Lupollen, who labored beside him, matching thrust for stroke. “Edfrith rides for the king! We are twice betrayed!” Despair rushed upon him, and he staggered back.
“We are not vanquished yet!” Lupollen said, grabbing him by the arm and shaking him. “You hold the sword—let us escape while we still can. With the sword we may raise an army elsewhere.”
“Good counsel. Let us fly!” Ameronis turned and fled back through the thronging soldiers and into the castle with Lupollen after him.
Surrounded and disadvantaged by now-superior forces, Lord Ameronis’s commanders threw down their weapons and begged for quarter. Cries of “Mercy! Mercy!” and “Give quarter!” rang out in the castle yard where the shouts of “Hold forth! We win!” still hung in the air, so quickly had the battle ended.
Pym and Renny, astride Tarky, peered fearfully in through the gate. Lacking weapons and armor, they had hung back from the battle at Edfrith’s command; but upon hearing the cries of the vanquished, they had come close to see the struggle ended and discover which side had won. “The king has carried the day!” shouted Renny. “Hooray! The Dragon King has won!”
“So he has for a fact,” replied Pym sagely. “We’uns nivver doubted it fer a minute, eh? No, nivver fer a minute.” They slipped in through the gate and rode into the press around the king.
Denellon, Kelkin, and Gorloic also pushed through the mob and came to stand beside Edfrith, who had dismounted, and all four stood before the king. “It is over. We declare the victory yours, Sire,” they said, and all around them raised a victory chant.
Quentin held up his hand for silence, and when the cheer died down, said, “It is not over until I hold the sword.” He stood in his stirrups and scanned the crowd. “Where is Ameronis? I will have him here before me.”
Ronsard, who wasted no time in abandoning the turret once the tower was taken, shouldered his way through the crush around the Dragon King. “Ameronis has escaped!” he called, breathless from his run down the tower stairs. “I saw him and his cunning friend fly the battle and disappear into the castle.”
“Then he has taken the sword with him!” said Gorloic. “Our efforts have been for naught!”
“Curse him!” spat Kelkin. “There is no catching him now!”
“Why?” asked Quentin, sudden panic flooding over him, twisting his stomach. “Where has he gone?”
“There is a secret passage beneath the castle,” explained Kelkin. “It leads out onto the Sipleth and to a trail along the shore. Upriver he keeps a boat in readiness. At least, his father always did. I suppose Ameronis does as well.”
At this, Quentin and Ronsard threw back their heads and laughed heartily as relief chased the dread from their faces—just as sunlight removes the shadows when the clouds have moved on.
“You find this humorous, Sire?” Kelkin asked.
“You do not know the fears your words have slain just now, my friend,” replied Ronsard. “You may just have performed your greatest service to your king.”
“How so, sir?”
“Look!” said Ronsard, raising his arm. “I think friend Theido escorts two most reluctant prisoners.”
A wide avenue parted in the company as a group of knights came marching up, pushing Ameronis and Lupollen—much chagrined, yet still defiant—before them on the points of their swords.
“Sire!” exclaimed Theido. “It is heartening to see you. We did not expect—”
“Did not expect me, I know. But did you really think I would allow the likes of Ameronis to challenge me without a fight?” asked Quentin with a smile.
Theido grinned readily. “The battle is won, and none too soon.” The tall knight placed a hand on Ameronis and pushed him forward to kneel before the king. “We caught this one and his friend trying to escape through the secret passage.”
“Give me the sword, Ameronis.” Quentin glared down at the humbled lord. Ameronis put his hand to his side and withdrew the sword from his scabbard. Laying the blade across his outstretched hands, he offered it up to the king with his eyes averted and head bowed.
Quentin took up the sword and raised it in the sunlight, then slid it home to its sheath. He said, “I do not have time to deal with you now, traitor. But I will, and soon—you may count on it. And let your contemplation of your punishment add to its severity.” He turned to the others. “My friends, at midday tomorrow my son will die unless I meet the ransom demand. I ride at once to the High Temple.”
“I will go with you,” said Theido.
“And I,” said Ronsard. His words echoed all around, so that when the Dragon King rode out from Ameron Castle there followed behind him a great train made up of lords and soldiers and people from the countryside who had been drawn to the scene of the battle. And all made their way northward through Pelgrin Forest toward Narramoor and the High Temple beyond.