Durwin sat with his head in his hands upon a log. It had been hours since Quentin and Toli had raced off into the woods alone. He feared the worst.
“Ease your fears, good hermit,” Alinea said lightly. “It is you who say we are to trust in all things. We will trust their safety, as we trust our own, to the god.”
“Your words are true, my lady,” answered Durwin, raising his eyes to her lovely face. “But my heart does not hear them.”
“But look!” she said, springing up. “Here is something! Riders are coming in! Theido and Ronsard! They have returned alive and safe!”
“Yes, that is good news,” said Durwin, rising slowly. He walked over to where a group was already gathering to hear what the scouts had to report. In a moment Durwin’s hopeful expression was once again exchanged for one of despair.
Theido came through the crush without speaking; Ronsard followed close behind. “Come,” he said. “Let us go to Selric’s tent. You come too, my lady.”
They gathered in Selric’s tent, where they found the monarch poring over detailed maps of the area drawn on skins and parchment.
“You are back, the gods be thanked! What news? What did you find?”
“Nothing good,” replied Ronsard. His face was flushed, and sweat trickled down his neck into his tunic. “We have ridden far and find that all approaches are cut. We are surrounded.”
“Jaspin is strengthening his forces on all sides.”
King Selric received the information with calm acceptance. “I see,” he said.
“So it is!” said Durwin. “No more than we already know.”
“What?” demanded Theido.
“Kellaris returned just after dawn,” replied King Selric evenly. “He did not get through. Your words confirm his own.” He pointed to the maps. “I have been studying these charts to see if there may be some vantage we may defend.” He sighed heavily. “I find none.”
“What will happen?” asked Alinea. Her voice, though steady, held a note of anguish.
“We will fight them,” said Theido simply. “They mean to destroy us. That is certain. Jaspin will offer no mercy. He has summoned men from every corner of his kingdom.”
“He means to cut us down where we stand,” said Ronsard hotly.
“When?” asked Alinea.
“That I cannot say,” replied Theido. “The enemy is still building his position. He may attack at any moment.”
“Nimrood’s dread Legion has not yet arrived,” replied Durwin. “That is what they are waiting for.”
“I have put my men to work excavating a ditch just beyond the trees. It may be they will have time to finish it. That will offer some defense,” said King Selric. “We must keep our backs protected in order to retreat to the ships when the time comes.”
“Must we talk of retreat so soon?” demanded Ronsard. “I will die rather than retreat.”
“Yes, of course,” replied Selric evenly. “I was thinking of the queen.” He glanced at Alinea’s dark eyes, which flashed defiantly. “I am sorry, my lady . . .”
“I will fight side by side with my comrades and die with them if necessary. I will not fly. If my king has not life left in him, of what use is my crown? Without my king, I am no queen and there is no kingdom. I will fight.”
The stouthearted companions looked to one another around the tight circle, silently pledging their lives to the cause. “Then it is settled,” said Theido softly.
At that moment a shout went up from the men outside and a messenger came running. King Selric stepped from his tent to receive the runner. “The enemy approaches, Sire. They march hither—half a league distant.”
“To arms! To arms!” Selric bellowed. He called to his trumpeter. “Sound the alarm! Call the men to arms!”
Within moments the scene was a flurry of flashing steel and shouting voices as the king’s men took up sword and shield and the knights buckled on their armor.
“Assemble the knights before me!” shouted Theido above the tumult. “I have a plan that may buy us time.” He himself had donned his armor in a flash and was standing before the king’s tent with shield slung over his shoulder, his sword raised high in the air.
The tumult in the camp subsided as quickly as it had begun. The soldiers ranged themselves behind the earthen wall they had that morning constructed and lined with sharpened pikes. The knights under Theido’s and Ronsard’s command, sixty in all, formed two groups that would take up positions to the right and to the left as the enemy approached the field of battle. It was Theido’s plan to cross these two mobile forces back and forth between each other, scissorlike, and thus wear down the enemy, blunting his attack before he could reach the footmen behind the ditch. King Selric commanded the footmen and, with Trenn, kept watch over the queen, despite her protests. For her part, she appeared hard of nerve and eye, armed with a slim sword and a buckler, more fitted to her hand than the heavier shields of the knights. She wore a corselet of plaited mail and a helm with a visor, as did all the king’s men-at-arms.
Far in the distance could be heard the trumpets of King Jaspin’s army signaling their convergence. Dust from horses and tramping feet spiraled up into the noonday sky. Bright banners fluttering on long poles and pennons streaming from the lances of the knights, the far-off glint of a blade drawn, the sun’s rays catching the visor of a helmet— these could be seen by the soldiers awaiting the clash.
Closer. The steady thump of the drums and the rumble of five thousand soldiers marching as one carried on the wind. The sun darkened under the cloud of dust sent up by the advancing soldiers. Carrion birds soared overhead, gathering for a feast.
Trenn twisted his stout neck around, sniffing the wind. “There it is!” he muttered to King Selric. “I knew I smelled something. Look yonder.”
The first faint wisps of smoke drifted overhead. Selric noted the condition with a quick nod. “They burn the forest behind us.” He gripped the pommel of his sword tighter in his grasp. “So be it!”
“Where is Durwin?” asked the queen, looking around. “I have not seen him.”
“I saw him making off behind the tents. I do not see him now,” answered Trenn. “He will be up to his tricks, if I know him.”
The tempo of the drums increased. A mighty shout arose from the plain.
“They come!” cried King Selric. He flourished his sword in the air above his curly red head. “For honor! For glory! For king and kingdom!” His soldiers returned the battle cry.
The swiftly advancing front was a wedge of knights on horseback racing ahead of a larger body of men on foot who hurried behind. The rest of the assembled armies held back, waiting for their turn to bolt into the fray.
As the wedge thundered down upon the waiting troops, a shout went up from the woods on each side. Theido and Ronsard and their knights darted forth and caught the hurtling chargers in midflight. They came on from both sides at once: the advancing knights did not have time to turn or even to meet them as one. The charge faltered and then dissolved into confusion. Horses went down, rolling over their heavily armored riders.
Theido and Ronsard closed the gap and leaped to the attack. Instantly the heavens were rent with the ring of swords and the cries of the dying.
The footmen, seeing their advancing protection stymied, fell upon themselves and drew back. Theido turned his force after them as Ronsard contended with Jaspin’s knights. Many went down in the dust, never to rise again.
Jaspin’s warriors buckled before the fury of Ronsard’s knights and retreated, leaving half their number upon the ground.
Theido and Ronsard quickly called off the attack and rode back to the ditch to the cheers of the soldiers waiting there.
“Did you see them?” asked Selric anxiously.
“No, the Legion was not among them,” answered Theido.
“Where are they?”
“Most likely, they will wait to see how we acquit ourselves on the field,” answered Ronsard, raising his visor. “We surprised them just now; we may not be so lucky again. But I have a trick I learned before Gorr.” They fell into a quick discussion; then the knights mounted their coursers once more.
“Remember,” called Theido. “Tell your men to watch for any of the Legion. Stay out of their reach; melt before them and attack behind them. I think the soldiers will try to use them as protection and follow in their wake.”
Theido and his contingent ranged themselves behind Ronsard’s knights, one group forming a wall in front of the other. Then they waited.
The second attack came shortly. Two groups of knights charged, expecting to be met from each side as before. Instead, they encountered a wall of armored bodies waiting placidly for their onslaught. The foot soldiers advanced behind them over the dead upon the field.
As soon as the hurtling knights realized they were not going to be met on the flanks as before, they swerved inward and changed course to meet Ronsard’s wall. It was the precise moment Ronsard sought. He called a charge and dived to the left, followed by Theido, who dived to the right at the last instant.
The charging horses were once again thrown into confusion, carrying their riders headlong into the ditch and the sharpened pikes that seemed to spring up before them like quills. King Selric’s men there made short work of them.
Theido and Ronsard fell once more upon the men-at-arms and punished them severely. Once more Jaspin’s troops staggered back before the fury of their hungry swords.
“Twice we have turned them away.” Ronsard beamed when they had again rejoined the king. “What scheme can we hold to next to beat them back?”
“I have one,” replied Theido. Even after two sallies he was scarcely breathing hard. “If they do not send too many against us, it may work.”
Again the charge came, and again the small cohort was successful in disadvantaging the superior forces of Jaspin and his nobles. When they at last withdrew, the field of battle lay cluttered with men and horses. The ground beneath them was stained with their blood.
In a pavilion of blue silk constructed above the field on a high scaffold so as to command the best view of the battle sat King Jaspin, sputtering with rage, upon his traveling throne.
“Sir Bran! Sir Grenett!” Jaspin shouted, his face blackened with anger. “Lord Orwen! Lord Enmore!” The knights and nobles, grimy with sweat and dirt, their armor bearing deep gashes and crimson smudges, approached the pavilion on horseback.
Jaspin leaped out of his seat and threw a shaking finger into their faces. “You fools!” he screamed. “They are making sport of you! Cut them down! Crush them!”
“It is easier to crush a stone than a stream!” answered Sir Drake. “Or cut down a sapling instead of a shadow.”
“They do not stand and fight,” complained Sir Grenett.
“They vanish before the charge and appear in our midst. They have our bumbling, ill-trained foot soldiers attacking one another.”
“Do something! Soon Nimrood will arrive, and I had hoped to win this campaign on my own.”
“It is too late,” whispered Ontescue from behind him. “The wizard is already here.” Jaspin turned to see the black shape of Nimrood ride around the far side of his pavilion. The necromancer sat astride a black horse that looked half wild and pawed the ground as it snorted. Nimrood wore a black crowned helm with wings sweeping back from each side and a long black cloak edged with silver. In his hand he carried a rod of ebony marble inlaid with silver tracery in strange, convoluted patterns.
“Nimrood!” said Jaspin. His breath rattled in his throat. “We were waiting for you.”
“Were you indeed? I see dead stacked upon the field like kindling— they died of boredom, no doubt.”
“The fiends attacked us without warning. We had to retaliate. Th-there was no choice,” Jaspin stuttered.
“From the look of it, I would say they displayed the most remarkable luck,” the sorcerer sneered. “A thousand attacking ten thousand and holding them at bay. Ha!” Nimrood turned stiffly in his high-backed saddle and spat out orders to the knights and nobles gathered before the pavilion.
“Go back to your men at once. Nurse their courage; revive their spirit. And wait. When I return, I will bring my Legion to show you how to fight. I go now to bring my commander.”
“He is here?” Jaspin gasped and sank back into his throne, limp and trembling.
“Close by,” hissed Nimrood. “I will return within the hour. Meanwhile, do nothing. This battle will be over ere long. It should have been finished long ago. But never mind. You will all see a spectacle you will never forget.”
With that the wizard spurred his jittery steed forward and galloped off across the plain and into the woods beyond.
“What is this Legion that the mad magician speaks of, Sire?” asked Sir Bran. “Why should we wait? We can finish them now, ourselves. The victory is ours!”
Jaspin waved the suggestion aside with a damp hand. His jaw hung slack, and his eyes remained focused on some far-distant view. When he came back to his senses, he looked around feebly and said, “You will see soon enough. You will all see soon enough.”
“We can finish them this time. I know it,” insisted Bran.
“No!” shouted Jaspin, leaping to his feet. Spittle drooled from his lips; he looked like an enraged bull. “It is too late! Too late! We will wait!” He waved them away and hunched back into his throne. He passed a kerchief over his face and gestured for Ontescue to draw the curtain of his pavilion for privacy. He would wait alone.
“Oh!” he cried out in utter anguish. Sobs racked his body. “What have I done? What have I done?”