Jaspin met Nimrood’s eyes with a look impossible to interpret: a mingling of relief and disappointment, of anguish and fleeting hope. “I . . . I don’t . . . understand . . . I . . . ,” Jaspin stammered.
Nimrood’s eyes sparked lightning, and his voice cracked thunder. “The prize is gone! My prize has vanished!”
He cast a hateful glance out across the plain where King Selric’s army waited. “Black is the day of your doom! Your bodies will be food for the carrion birds and your bones scattered to the ends of the earth! You will not escape Nimrood’s wrath now!”
Then, seizing his marble rod, he held it aloft and wailed a long incantation into the air. The black stallion beneath him shook its mane and pawed the earth, whinnying its impatience. Nimrood paid no heed; he raised himself in the saddle and repeated the incantation. “Ratra Nictu deasori Maranna Rexis!”
A cool breeze stirred the silk of Jaspin’s pavilion. The red and gold banners fluttered on their stanchions, and the pennons waved as a small dark cloud appeared in the sky. Nimrood continued his incantation, eyes closed, hissing out the fearful words.
The wind rose and the banners swung and the pennons on the lances of the knights snapped smartly. The roiling cloud mushroomed, spreading into a churning, seething storm. The ropes of Jaspin’s silk pavilion sang in the whistling wind.
The Legion of the Dead came riding on the wings of the storm.
There were six of them—riding two abreast on snorting chargers. They rode from the south, galloping out of the forest. A murmur went up from the assembled armies, and as they drew nearer, those who stood in line with their approach fell back.
Jaspin watched them come closer. Six knights in sable armor—the color of the darkest night—long black plumes floating from the crests of their helms. They looked neither right nor left, but galloped at a measured pace to halt directly before the pavilion. Their visors concealed any recognizable feature; no glint of eye sparkled from the dark slits.
The earth plunged into an eerie twilight as the clouds boiled up and blotted out the sun. All grew deathly still. No one spoke; no one shouted; ten thousand men stood as one. Silent. The only sounds were the howl of the rising wind, the snap of the whipping flags, and the impatient blowing of the horses.
At a gesture from Nimrood, the foremost of the knights of Nimrood’s fell Legion urged his mount forward to stand directly in front of Jaspin. The chink of the horse’s iron-shod hooves rang in Jaspin’s ears like a clang of a funeral knell. The pale usurper winced and shrank away from the black knight’s address.
“The day is ours!” shouted the necromancer boldly so all gathered on the plain could hear. Then, turning to Jaspin, he said, “Look upon the face of death, and despair!”
Jaspin watched in horror—his heart trembled within his breast and his blood ran to ice in his veins—as the appalling specter placed a gauntlet to its visor and slowly raised it. Jaspin closed his eyes and looked away.
“See my handiwork!” cried the wizard.
Jaspin turned again to meet the apparition’s gray, bloodless face. And as he cowered before it, the knight’s ashen lids slowly opened to regard Jaspin with a chilling stare. Jaspin gripped the carved arms of his throne and uttered a low cry: the knight had no eyes!
“Away!” sobbed Jaspin.
Durwin turned his face into the streaming wind. His knowing eyes watched the great black clouds rolling over the plains of Askelon and regarded the sky growing murky as the unnatural gloomy twilight descended upon the battlefield.
“Nimrood has arrived. He is here, and his Legion with him,” said the hermit. “We must ready ourselves for the final assault.”
“I am ready,” said Ronsard. His strong tone held no trace of fear. “I have faced death many times: he is too old an adversary for me to quail in his sight now.”
“Well said, Ronsard,” replied Theido. “I, too, am ready. Come what may, I see glory waiting for us all out there.” He nodded with eyes squinted toward the plain. “I mean to earn my share.”
“Yes,” agreed King Selric, “and a place in men’s hearts wherever deeds of valor are storied round the fire.”
Alinea, who had been long silent, now lifted her eyes to the horizon and looked her last upon the shimmering shape of Askelon’s far walls, misty in the distance. Trenn, his mouth set in a defiant frown, stood resolutely beside her.
“I am a woman,” said the queen softly, “and no soldier. But for the love of my king, I will gladly take my place beside my gallant friends and gladly pledge my life to theirs.”
Trenn said nothing, but his thick neck bulged as he tightened his grip on his sword and touched its hilt to his heart.
Toli, who had returned from the forest after searching fruitless hours for his missing friend, grasped a longbow and fitted an arrow onto the taut gut. Beneath his dark aspect a smoldering fire kindled against those who had cut Quentin down.
Into the stillness that had settled over the plain, the comrades-at-arms heard the growl of distant thunder marching through the heavens toward them. King Selric took his place at the head of his soldiers and sprang up onto a rock to address them, raising his hands and voice into the air.
“Men of Drin, my warriors! Hear me! You have made me proud to be your king, and though our time grows short, I would ask no greater boon than to lead you into battle one last time.
“The enemy is great, but even if he breaks our bodies, he will never vanquish the proud spirit that strengthens us to our end. Fight well, my friends. Look ahead, not behind. You will earn glory and honor today. Be worthy of it. Be strong. Do not be afraid.”
The soldiers, still as statues, now raised sword and spear, and with a mighty shout a thousand voices rang out, “For glory! For honor! For our king!”
Then, taking their swords, they began to beat on their shields and sing a battle song, chanting to the rhythmic cadence. With Selric in the lead, they ranged themselves into the shape of a spearhead and marched out onto the plain, there to await the foe.
Theido and Ronsard took their knights and drew up beside their fearless comrades, flanking each side of the formation. The warhorses tossed their heads and snorted as the wind gusted smoke from the burning woods across the battlefield.
Again they heard the sound of drums as the enemy came forth. Theido looked round to catch the eye of Durwin to bid his friend a last farewell, but saw that the hermit had vanished again.
Then, through the smoke rolling across the plain, the enemy emerged once more. This time they were led in close procession by the six black riders of Nimrood’s Legion of the Dead.
They stopped. The drums quickened their tempo. The six lowered their lances, and at the trumpet’s blast they spurred their chargers forward.
The Legion flew across the plain, their horses’ hooves striking sparks as they hurtled across the gap. Behind them came the knights of Jaspin’s forces, followed by the foot soldiers, who now began to run with a mighty shout.
The men of King Selric’s army, rattling sword upon shield, steeled themselves for the clash. Theido and Ronsard launched their coursers to meet the charge.
There was an enormous crash. The earth trembled with the shock.
Dust billowed up to shroud the combatants from view. Horses screamed and the cold clang of steel rang out. When the dust parted, Selric saw that Theido and Ronsard and their riders had succeeded in lancing through their opponents with but little hurt to their numbers; what is more, they had succeeded in unhorsing one of the Legion. His horse lay screaming in agony on the field, but he came on, on foot.
Theido, ignoring the sable knights, turned his attack inward upon the more assailable enemy. Jaspin’s own men, surprised at this strategy, nevertheless joined the battle. Instantly all were surrounded by the foot soldiers who thronged to the fight.
“Away!” cried King Selric, and the trumpeter sounded the call as the stalwart thousand rushed to join the combat.
Footmen struggled to pull down the armored knights—for as long as a knight held horse, he proved well-nigh invincible.
The knights rained blows upon the ill-protected heads of the footmen and took on each in turn. Unsaddled knights grouped their comrades behind them and advanced like living shields once more into the struggle.
Theido hacked his way into the thick of the strife, but his followers failed to keep pace and were cut off. He became stranded in an angry sea of enemy soldiers. Throwing his shield before him, he bore down, his arm rising and falling upon the necks of his attackers. Then he felt a jolt and glanced down to see an enemy spear jutting from his mount’s side. The horse reared screaming and plunged down, hooves flashing out, destroying the face of its assailant. Theido slumped to the ground with his dying horse as eager hands thrust out to haul him from the saddle.
Ronsard saw his comrade fall and turned his charger into the thick of the fray. His sword sang through the air, and the whistling blade became a flashing rampart before him. Enemies flung themselves down to the ground rather than face his terrible sting.
The fearless knight plunged into the tumult surrounding Theido, and in an instant three of the foe crumpled to the earth. As the enemy drew back, Ronsard reached down a hand and pulled Theido to his feet and up behind him on his horse. “Your hand is much appreciated, good friend,” said Theido.
“A knight without a mount is a sorry sight. I do not like to see my friends looking so forlorn,” Ronsard replied as they bounded away.
King Selric hewed a swathe before him as he and his men advanced to where Ronsard’s dauntless forces labored valiantly, though sorely beset. Many brave knights had fallen as their bodies felt the fatal sting of a blade thrust into some crease in their protection. By the time Selric reached the place, only one remained upon his steed, his reddened mace dripping with the gore of his luckless opponents. He saluted his king and his fallen brothers and turned once more to the havoc.
Little by little the superior numbers of Jaspin’s troops and Nimrood’s Black Legion wore down the stout defenders. The cruel end approaching swiftly, King Selric signaled the remains of his tattered army to circle and form a wall of shields to stay the destroyer’s hand as long as possible.
Theido, having regained a horse, led his cohort wading through the tangle in an effort to join Selric, who stood within the circle of the shields next to Alinea. “Fight on!” He urged them forward. “Fight on!”
Suddenly, two of the dark Legion appeared side by side in his path. Theido dodged to the side to avoid them, but too late. A blade flicked out and caught him a raking blow on the arm. A deep gash opened up, and his sword spun to the ground as he felt the strength leave his hand.
He spurred his mount and jerked the reins back, causing the horse to rear; the well-schooled animal lashed out with its forelegs. But the sable knights ducked aside. A blade flashed; Theido threw himself upon the horse’s neck and heard the swish of the sword as it chopped empty air where his head had been only an instant before.
Theido desperately searched the ground for a weapon, throwing his buckler over his head to protect himself. A blow struck the small shield, nearly wrenching it from his grasp. Another hit home, rending the metal in two. Another blow and the buckler would be useless protection. Theido reeled in the saddle.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a curious sight. The sable knight to his left raised his sword above his head to deliver the killing stroke. But as the black hand began the downward arc, the arm suddenly went askew, careening off like a branch from a tree. An axe had severed it completely. Bloodlessly.
He heard a whoop and saw Trenn’s blustery face beaming back at him. The next thing he knew, the axe had been thrust into his hand.
The black rider on his right, heedless of his comrade’s plight, came on with whistling mace. Once, twice, the mace battered into Theido’s poor shield. The third time it struck; the mace bit through the metal and snagged the buckler away. Theido let it fly. In the moment of confusion while the fouled mace hung down with the weight of the crumpled buckler, Theido swung the axe up and with a mighty heave flung it into the foul knight’s breastplate.
The war axe bit deep, cleaving the armor and neatly burying its head deep in the knight’s chest. No cry of pain came forth, no sign of weakening. Theido could not believe his eyes—an ordinary man would have dropped like a stone.
But the blow did have effect, for Theido was able to spring away as the black creature tugged at the axe sticking out of its chest.
Now Prince Jaspin’s army began to crush Selric’s dwindling numbers as they staunchly stood their ground. Again the courageous king rallied his men, but strength flagged and still the enemy came on.
“I fear it is the end,” said Selric when Ronsard and Theido, abandoning their horses, came to stand beside the valiant warrior.
“We have fought a good fight,” said Ronsard. “I am not ashamed to die this way.”
“Nor I,” replied Theido. He gripped the hands of his friends as the foe opened a breach in the wall of shields. “To the death!” he shouted.
At that moment an uncanny sound reached the battered comrades’ ears: the sound of hearty voices lifted in song. Then someone cried out, “It is the Dragon King!”
The words struck their hearts like living sparks. Could it be true?
“I see him!” someone called. “The Dragon King comes with his army!”
All at once a shout went up. “The Dragon King lives! He has returned!” Then they heard the song streaming forth:
See the armies so
Line on line, ten thousand strong.
See the Dragon King’s sharp blade,
Rising to a song!
The attackers faltered and cast worried looks from one to another. Before they could think or move, there arose a whooshing sound, as of a mighty wind. Instantly the sky burst open. The gloom that hung like death over the field of combat fled as a brilliant ball of white light roared into the heavens.
Then he was there: King Eskevar, sitting astride a great white charger, armor glittering in the blinding light, sword held high above his head.
The sight was too much for Jaspin’s warriors. They cried out in terror and threw down their weapons. Some fell to the ground as if they had been struck down; others backed away, stumbling over those behind them.
Jaspin’s commanders sought vainly to rally their cowering soldiers. Another streak tore through the air, and another fireball exploded in the sky, transforming the scene to deepest crimson. This decided the wavering forces; the line broke, and Jaspin’s army retreated. Thousands fled into the forest, shrieking as they ran.
In moments the plain was in turmoil. The nobles who had traded their loyalty to Jaspin for heavy favors held to their grim task, but the men-at-arms, who had nothing to gain by staying, bolted and ran.
Into this panic the Dragon King descended with his peasant army at his back. In the violent red glare of the fireball, these simple peasants with their rakes and hoes were suddenly transformed into armed giants, every one a knight in the eyes of the stricken attackers.
A cry of terror rose from Jaspin’s forces as the Dragon King and his mysterious men-at-arms waded into battle.
Nimrood, watching the contest from a distance, shrieked, “Stop, you dogs! They are only peasants! The victory is ours!” He spurred his horse onto the field in an effort to halt the rout. “Turn! Victory is ours, I say! Turn back and fight!”
The wizard’s screams went unheeded. Pinched between the stubborn defiance of Selric’s soldiers and the Dragon King’s fierce vengeance, Jaspin’s army abandoned the field and fled to the woods and the river beyond. Only the nobles and their knights, and Nimrood and his Legion, remained to settle the issue so surely won bare moments before.
The knights and the nobles came together and formed a wedge to thunder down upon Selric, hoping to scatter his men before turning their full attention upon Eskevar and his peasants.
The wedge assembled and hurtled down the battlefield to crush the staunch defenders. A great whirring sound went up, and suddenly the air prickled with arrows. Voss and his foresters had taken up a position parallel to the flying wedge, where they loosed a stunning volley of arrows from their longbows.
The arrows, thick as hail, rattled off the knights’ armor for the most part, though some by force or luck found a chink or a soft spot and did their work. The poor horses caught some of the missiles aimed for their riders, floundered, and dragged others down with them.
The wedge broke apart and melted away.
Nimrood saw this last attempt to turn the tide of battle falter and knew then that all was lost. He turned his horse and galloped away. He had not run far when a rider darting out of the nearby woods intercepted him.
“Halt, wicked one!” cried the cloaked rider.
“Ah, Durwin—failed wizard, failed priest. I should have recognized your childish tricks,” Nimrood hissed as the other’s horse flew up to bar his escape. “Out of my way, or I will shrivel you like a piece of rotten fruit! You, I should have disposed of long ago. I should have destroyed you all when I had you in my keep.”
“Save your breath, Nimrood. There is nothing more you can do.”
“No? Watch me!” The necromancer pointed his finger and drew a circle around himself in the air. Instantly fire blazed up to form a wall around him. Durwin toppled to the ground as his frightened mount, eyes showing white with terror, bucked and bounded away.
“Ha, ha, ha!” cackled the sorcerer. “There is much this magician can do. Savor the death your meddling has won!”
Nimrood raised his black stone rod and uttered a quick incantation. From outside the shimmering curtain of flames, Durwin saw the sorcerer’s rod begin to glow as red as new-forged iron. Then cruel Nimrood lowered the rod and leveled it upon the hermit. “Say farewell to this world, hermit! You saved your friends; now let your friends save you—if any are left alive!” he spat bitterly.
Sparks like lightning bolts hissed from the rod, striking Durwin, who was instantly knocked to the ground. He fought back to his knees as the sorcerer laughed with glee. “That was just a foretaste. Now for the . . .” His voice faltered as he lowered the rod a second time to deliver the fatal stroke. From out of nowhere an arrow sang through the air and pierced the foul lord’s arm. The rod tumbled from his hand.
Before Nimrood could turn, another arrow found its mark in his shoulder, and he fell from his horse. In two heartbeats Toli was standing over Durwin, notching yet another arrow onto his bowstring.
He raised the bow, then bent its long length.
“No! No!” the sorcerer screamed. “Don’t kill me! Ahh!”
But the Jher ignored the necromancer’s pleas. The arrow flashed through the wall of flames and sank into the wizard’s black heart.
The old sorcerer crumpled inward and became a black heap upon the field. He quivered and lay still.
“At last he is gone,” said Durwin, dragging himself to his feet. His mantle smoked where the fire bolt had seared into his flesh. Toli offered his arm to the hermit, and together they turned to rejoin their comrades as the clash of battle, now diminishing rapidly, came quickly to an end.
They had not walked ten paces when they heard a great sizzling sound. They turned to where Nimrood lay and saw his huddled black form burst into crackling flame; thick black soot rolled into the air. Then, impossibly, in the sputtering flames, they made out the form of a great black bird rising in the smoke.
A moment later they watched as huge black wings slowly lifted away and flew into the woods. Drifting back to them came the rasping call of a raven.