You should have allowed me to accompany you today,” said Myrmior. “I could have helped you against them.”
“No.” Ronsard shook his head sternly. “You are too valuable an ally. You will help us more with your knowledge of the Ningaal ways than with your strong sword arm. If you had been killed today, as many good men were, we would have had no one to guide us in preparing against them.”
“I submit to your will, Lord Ronsard. I will obey. But I wanted you to know that I am not afraid, and that when the time comes to lift blade against my former enslavers, I will do so with all courage.”
“We do not doubt your valor, Myrmior. Truly. You will ride with us in due time, no doubt. But Ronsard is right. You are worth more to us as a guide to the Ningaal’s mind and heart than as a sword wielder. You are unique; stout blades we have many.”
Lord Wertwin sat nearby and did not speak. His heart was heavy with the loss of many fine men that day; he had borne the brunt of the battle and was now bereft of almost half his company.
After the daring rescue of Wertwin’s troops by Theido and Ronsard’s forces, they had all returned to make camp for the night upon the greensward. As they sat huddled in a consultation, the ring of the hammer upon the anvil and the moans of the wounded could be heard throughout the camp as smith and surgeon saw to the repairs of weapons and men. Sentinels had been posted, and fires had been lit for the night’s vigil. Theido, Ronsard, Myrmior, and Wertwin turned once more to the brutal events of the day.
“We cannot go up against them again as we did today,” said Ronsard grimly. “They are too strong, and too well disciplined.”
“Disciplined!” snorted Myrmior. “They simply fear their warlord more than they fear you. You can only kill them, but he has power over their souls!”
“Is he really so powerful? I have heard of such things in my time,” said Theido.
Myrmior shrugged. “Whether it is true or not, I do not know. But the Ningaal believe it, so it is for them—and for you—the same thing. They will fight to the death rather than surrender. And each foe they kill becomes a step on the long stairway of immortality, or so they believe.”
“Whatever gives them their ferocity, it is indomitable. I do not see how we can stand against such a foe. Though they are but lightly armed and our own men well protected, they wear us down by sheer crush of their numbers. We have lost near seventy-five brave knights this day.”
“Do not forget that you have only seen but a fraction of the total. Three other warlords with their armies are abroad. When they have joined together once more, nothing will stop them.” As Myrmior uttered this gloomy pronouncement, Wertwin glared under his brows and cursed.
“By Azrael! What would you have us do, you savage! Are we merely to fall upon our swords and be done with it? If you know so much, why do you not give us guidance? Instead you torment us with your lies.”
Myrmior suffered this outburst in silence. His countenance showed nothing but sympathy for the commander’s plight. “I have said what I have said in order that you will not build any false hopes of standing against the Ningaal in battle,” he said quietly. “They cannot be beaten in that manner. At least not with our numbers.”
He paused, and all was silent in the tent of the commanders. Outside the twilight deepened, the sky blue-black with the coming night. They could hear the clear ring of hammers on steel and the crackle of a fire nearby. The shadows of men were flung against the walls of the tent, making it seem as if they were surrounded by the shades of their fallen comrades.
“I have not been idle in my long captivity. I have seen much of the ways in which men make war. I have studied those who have fallen against the Ningaal and observed the things which offer the greatest hope of victory, though few enough they are.”
“Tell us then,” implored Ronsard. “What can we do?”
“Remember, too, that we will have greater numbers before long. The council continues to meet, and we may expect help soon, I think,” said Theido hopefully.
“That we must not count on,” said Myrmior. “What I will propose now will serve us for the time we have to wait, little or long.”
“Well said. Begin then. We are ready to hear what you would suggest.”
“Are the soldiers of your country familiar with the bow and arrow?” asked Myrmior.
“Why, of course!” laughed Ronsard. “It is a useful thing, but hardly a weapon to be relied upon in the field. It is highly inaccurate, and it has not a chance against the steel of a knight’s hard shell.”
“It is more suited for annoying forest creatures and for striking from a distance in seclusion. It is not a weapon for a knight,” agreed Theido. “The bow cannot be managed from the saddle of a galloping horse.”
Wertwin only harrumphed. “Bows and arrows! Umph!”
“At least you have such weapons,” said Myrmior quickly. “Do not condemn the plan before you have heard it fully.
“I do not propose to take archers onto the field with us, but neither do I propose that we take the field again. I will speak most bluntly. You were lucky today; your gods smiled on you. In all the times I have been with Lord Gurd, he has shown pity to no one and has never left the field if there was the smallest chance of victory.
“What he did today is rare, but not unheard-of. He gave you a chance to regroup and ready yourself for another battle, because more than the battle itself, he loves a skillful opponent. To him it is no sport to kill a weak and defenseless foe. That is mere slaughter, and there is little immortality to be gained from taking a weak life.
“You stood against him, and he respected you for it. When you retreated, he recognized a most resourceful foe, one whose death would bring him much blood honor. He wanted you to regroup so that he could savor the satisfaction of your defeat.
“Like the vinemaster who carefully tends the fruit of his vines, the warlord was testing you and found a match worthy of his art.”
“What does all this have to do with bows and arrows?” asked Wertwin sullenly. His heart was shrunken within him, and a black mood twisted his features.
“They are the means by which we will snatch that savored victory from the warlord’s foul maw.”
“Defeat him with children’s toys? Ha!”
“Hold, sir!” said Theido. “Let him speak! For I begin to see something of his meaning.”
Myrmior bowed to Theido. “You are most astute, Lord Theido. I propose that we do not take the field against the Ningaal—at least not yet, not for a long while. Instead, we will harry them by night, raiding their camp and raining arrows upon them when they move to chase us.
“If we refuse to meet them face-to-face, Gurd will burn with rage. If we are very fortunate, his rage will consume him.”
“Where is the honor in that?”Wertwin shouted. “To skulk around by night like lowborn thieves, shooting arrows at shadows. It is foolish and absurd, and I will have no part in it!”
“This war will not be won by your honor. Your men died with honor today, and tonight they lie cold in their graves. How can that help you now? Hear me, my lords! Cling to honor and you will lose your land—more, you will lose your lives.”
“Myrmior is right,” said Ronsard slowly, glaring at Wertwin as he spoke. “There is no honor if your land is lost. Even if we die with valor, who will remember? Who will sing our praises in the halls of our fathers?
“We will do well to look first to the cause at hand, and lastly to our good names. I would stay alive to see Mensandor freed of this menace— however it may be done.”
“I agree,” said Theido thoughtfully. “But I am troubled by one thing. What you suggest is well and good for meeting this warlord with his contingent. But what of the others? Do we allow his brothers to roam unchallenged through the countryside?”
Myrmior shook his head slowly. He rubbed his bristly chin with a sallow hand. “This is the most difficult part of the plan, my lords. It would be well if your council would speedily send the troops we need, but as it is, I can see nothing for it but to proceed against all the warlords as I have suggested—one at a time. The plan will work, I think, as it does not require a great number of men to carry it out. But we will need archers.”
“Most of our knights are trained to the bow, though few will readily admit it. We can obtain more archers if we send to Askelon—which we must do to supply ourselves with the bows and arrows.”
“Then let it be done at once. In the meantime we will withdraw and stay just ahead of the Ningaal until we have weapons enough to begin our raids.”
“What? Are we to do nothing to impede the Ningaal? Are we to sit by and allow them to march free over our fields?”
“They have been doing so for a month or more, Wertwin,” said Ronsard. “If we must bear it a little longer to secure our purpose, so be it. We will have to risk that much, at least. Besides,” he added with a mischievous smile, “it may make them wonder what we are up to.”
“Yes,” agreed Myrmior, “it will increase his wrath. What we attempt to do is worry them so greatly as to make them angry enough to commit a foolish blunder, an error of strategy which we can seize and turn against them. And all the while we will wear away at their numbers bit by bit, like water dripping upon the stone, eroding it over time.”
Theido stood and stretched; it had been a long day. “Your plan is a good one, Myrmior. I will send a courier to Askelon at once. Tomorrow we will begin schooling our knights to this new way of fighting. I only hope we have enough time to make the change.”
“It must be made regardless. Believe me, my friends, there is no other way.”
Wertwin scowled at his comrades and growled as he stalked out of the tent.
“Do not mind him overmuch,” said Ronsard. “His heart will mend, and he will be staunchly with us soon enough.” He, too, rose and stretched.
“Thank you, Myrmior. You have given us wise and well-advised counsel this night. I think that, like Wertwin, I should not have believed you if I had not encountered the foe today and felt his cunning strength. I know now that you are right, and like Theido, I pray we are not too late.”
“It is no doubt that you were a faithful minister to your monarch,” Theido added. “He must have valued your services very highly, but no more than we do now. Before this is over we will have cause to reward your craft and loyalty as it deserves. Perhaps one day you may return as king to your own country.”
Myrmior turned large, sad eyes toward them. “I can never go back. The land that I knew and loved is gone. Here I have chosen to make my stand, as I should have long ago in my own country. Then I was afraid, but no more. I have daily lived through death too horrible to tell, and it can never terrify me again.”
The three men stood looking at one another for a long moment. No one spoke. A close bond of friendship had formed between the two knights and the man from Khas-I-Quair, and all three were cheered by its warmth.
“Good night, brave sirs.” Ronsard yawned and rubbed his eyes. “Tomorrow I take up once more the weapon of my youth. For that I will need my rest, I think.”
Theido and Myrmior laughed and went to find their own tents for the night.