The massive palace ship of Nin the Destroyer, Immortal Deity, Supreme Emperor, Conqueror of Continents, King of Kings, rocked gently in the swell. The waves rose and fell like the rhythmic breathing of an enormous sea beast. They slapped against the broad beams of the palace ship’s sides and made soft gurgling noises along the mighty keel.
The ship was square-hulled, with three towering masts and two great rudders amidships. It was truly a seagoing palace, outfitted with costly timbers and exotic trappings from the various countries Nin had subdued. The decks were teak and rosewood from the Haphasian Islands. Brass fittings, which gleamed like red gold from every corner, came from Deluria and the Beldenlands of the east. Silks and shimmering samite fluttered from delicate screens on deck and in the honeycombed quarters below; these had come from Pelagia. Thick braided rope and the vast blue sails were made in Katah out of materials procured in Khas-I-Quair.
The ship itself had been built in the shipyards of Tarkus under the direction of master Syphrian shipbuilders. Its makers had anticipated every necessity, foreseen all desires of the ship’s chief inhabitant, and had accommodated them in ingenious ways. Nin lacked nothing aboard his ship that would satisfy his many voracious appetites.
The ship rode low in the water. The slightest swell could rock it gently, but a raging tempest could not overturn it. And if it moved slowly and ponderously, like its master, what of that? Time meant nothing to the Immortal Nin.
The Emperor of Emperors lay stretched upon a bed of silk cushions, listening to the even breathing of the sea, rocking with the slight roll of the deck. His immense bulk heaved and swayed dangerously, now tossed one way, then the next. The motion was making him feel ill and irritated. With each movement of the ship, his huge, oxlike head lolled listlessly, dull eyes staring outward in mounting misery.
Nin, with a supreme effort of will, prodded himself up on one elbow and grasped a mallet that hung on a golden thong near his head. With a backward flip of the wrist, the mallet crashed into a gong of hammered bronze. As the reverberating summons filled the room, he collapsed back onto the pillows with a moan, dragging one huge paw across his forehead in a gesture of enormous suffering.
In a moment a timid voice could be heard, muffled as it was by the owner’s prostrate posture, saying, “You have summoned me, O Mighty One? What is your command?”
Nin, with an effort, turned his head to regard the pathetic form of his minister. “Uzla, you lowest of dogs! What kept you? I have been waiting for hours. I shall have you flayed alive to teach you haste.” The large eyes closed sleepily.
“May I say, Your Omnipotence, that I regret my tardiness and the blindness which prevented me from anticipating your summons. Still, I was but two steps away and now am here to do your bidding.”
“Arrogant swine!” roared Nin, coming to life. “I should have you lick the decks clean with your festering tongue for presuming to address me so.”
“As you wish, Most Generous Master. I will obey.” Uzla made a move as if to leave and begin scouring the decks of the palace ship.
“I will tell you when to go and when to come. Did I not summon you? Hear me.”
“Yes, Immortal One.” Uzla’s voice trembled appropriately.
“Has there been no word from my warlords?”
“I regret to inform Your Highness that there has been no such word. But as you yourself probably know, there is perhaps a message on the way even now.”
“Nin does not wait for messages. Nin knows all! You fool!”
“It is my curse, Great One. You would do me kindness to have my tongue torn out.”
Nin rolled himself up on his elbow once more and teetered there like a mountain ready to topple at the slightest touch.
“Shall I send for your chair bearers, Supreme Conqueror? They shall hoist you to your feet.”
“I grow weary of waiting, Uzla.” The sleepy eyes narrowed slyly. “I do not wish to remain here anymore.”
“Perhaps you desire to be somewhere else, Master of Time and Space. Shall I make your desires known to your commander?”
“I have been patient with this desolate country long enough. The conquest is taking too long.” One pudgy hand rubbed a sleek jowl with impatience. “We will go up the coast to the north to make ready to enter Askelon, my new city. I have spoken. Hear and obey.”
“It shall be done, Master. I will tell the commander to set sail at once.”
“I feel like a common thief,” growled Lord Wertwin under his breath. “I would much rather lead the mounted assault of the camp.”
“We have been through all that, my lord,” Theido explained patiently. “Ronsard is better suited than either of us for such duty. He has experience in the Goliah wars to aid him.”
“I was in the Goliah wars too,” whined Wertwin.
“Yes, of course. However, before this night is through, and before our campaign is ended, we will both be thankful for Ronsard’s bold blade. I will tell you plainly that I would not welcome a ride into the camp of the Ningaal.”
“Hmph!” Wertwin snorted. He trudged off to his appointed station with his men, now armed with longbows and arrows and hidden in a bushy hollow.
The army of the Dragon King, such as it was, had been training with their new weapons and reclaiming rusty skills. They were now ready to try them in combat with the Ningaal and had, with extreme care and cunning, moved to within a stone’s throw from the camp of their enemy. The archers lay hidden behind trees and bushes, in hollows of furze and within gorse hedges. Despite the grumbling that had accompanied the announcement of the proposed change in tactics, there was a tingling of excitement in the air as the men readied themselves for the ambush.
“Theido, are your archers in place?” asked Ronsard, bending to whisper from his saddle. It was very late; the moon was low in the western sky, slightly above the horizon. The knight’s face shone faintly, but his features were barely discernible.
“They are.” The two men looked at one another briefly. Theido reached a hand out and gripped his friend by the arm. “Take no undue risks. This business is risky enough.”
“Do not worry. Surprise is on our side—this once, at least.”
“The Most High God goes with you, my friend.”
Ronsard cocked his head slightly. “Do you suppose he cares about such things as this?”
“Yes, I believe he does. Why do you ask?”
“Well, I have never prayed to a god before a battle. I did not consider it meet to invoke the aid of heavenly powers on earthly strife. It is man’s fight and should be settled by man’s own hands.”
“The Most High is concerned with the well-being of his servants. By his hand alone are we upheld in all we do.”
Ronsard straightened in the saddle, pulled the reins back, and wheeled his steed around. “I have much to learn about this new god, Theido. I hope that I may have time to learn it!”
The knight returned to the place where his men were waiting, already mounted and eager to be about their task. He glanced around at all of them, checking each one for readiness. In order to move more quickly in the saddle and more nimbly, Ronsard had required his raiders to don only hauberk and breastplate, leaving the rest of their armor behind. They each carried their long swords and small tear-shaped bucklers upon their forearms.
Ronsard nodded, completing his inspection. “For honor! For glory! For Mensandor!”
With that he turned and led his men into the wooded grove wherein the Ningaal lay encamped.
Theido saw his friend disappear into the darkened wood; he thought he saw his right hand raised in salute. The fifteen horses and men, Ronsard’s bravest, slipped into the darkness. Theido offered a prayer for them as they passed, and then he took his place, sword in hand.
He waited. The night seemed to grow suddenly still. He could hear nothing save the night wind sighing in the trees and a nighthawk keening as it soared among the scattered clouds.
And then it came: a startled shout, cut off short. And then more shouts interspersed with the cold ring of steel on steel. Then the sounds became confused—horses whinnying and men giving voice to their battle cries. In a moment he heard the sound of horses crashing back through the wood, much more loudly than they had gone in.
“Here they come!” shouted Theido to his archers. He raised his sword high above his head. In two heartbeats a charger came pounding out of the darkness, its rider low in the saddle. The rider did not stop when he reached the ranks of hidden archers, but continued on down the dale.
“Draw your bows!” Theido shouted. Instantly there came a whisper of arrow shafts against the bow. More knights were now thundering out of the wood, and there was the unmistakable clamor of pursuit.
“Hold steady!” cried Theido as the last knight dashed by him but a pace from where he crouched waiting. He bit his lip—he had not seen Ronsard emerge from the wood.
They waited, bowstrings taut.
Then suddenly the knight appeared at the opening in the wood where he had entered only moments before. He paused and waved his sword. The shouts of his pursuers now filled the wood and echoed in the dell beyond. Theido could see torches, blinking as they waved through the wood. “Get on! Get away!” muttered Theido under his breath. Ronsard spun and galloped into the clearing and away down the dell as the first of the Ningaal came running out behind him.
“Let fly!” shouted Theido, and instantly the night was filled with dark missiles.
The first rank of Ningaal stumbled forward and dropped to the ground without a sound. Their comrades boiled out of the wood behind them and hesitated, uncertain what had become of those just ahead. In that moment’s pause, death fell upon them as arrow after arrow streaked to its mark.
The enemy was thrown into confusion and dropped back into the cover of the dark wood with shouts of terror and cursing. But as the first force was joined by others from the camp, Theido thought he heard the coarse, authoritative shouts of the warlord himself. Almost at once Ningaal broke from the forest, but this time they crouched low to the ground and held their shields around them, making very difficult targets for Theido’s archers.
“Get ready, men!” ordered Theido. The Ningaal were now moving more quickly over the ground between them. “Let fly!” shouted Theido, and his words were answered by the rattling scrape of arrow points upon the Ningaal shields. But some of the arrows found a home, and cries of shock and outrage stabbed the night as the shafts bit deep.
“Retreat!” cried Theido a moment later. He had seen the warlord upon his horse jump into the clearing, surrounded by his bodyguard.
The knight and his archers did not wait to welcome the newcomers with feathers. Instead they jumped up and ran yelling into the dell, just as Ronsard and his knights had done. A mighty shout arose from the throats of the Ningaal, who now believed that they had the king’s army on the run. They bolted after the fleeing archers, treading over the bodies of their comrades.
Theido led his men down the slope and into the dell, across the small brook at its bottom, and up the other side to disappear just over the crest of the hill beyond. The triumphant Ningaal, bellowing praises to their destroyer god, dashed after them, heedless of the darkness that lay upon the land. They rushed headlong, recklessly, into the valley.
As soon as Theido and his men vanished over the hill, the first Ningaal were fording the stream with shouts and curses of anger. Hundreds more of the dark enemy were pounding out of the wood after them to gather in the dell, stopped momentarily by the obstacle of the brook. And once more, in that moment, whistling death streaked out of the skies as Lord Wertwin’s archers, hidden all along the sides of the narrow valley, loosed their sting upon them. The Ningaal shrieked in pain and horror, as terrified beasts mortally wounded by an unseen assailant.
Arrows hailed down upon them from every side. Ningaal running out of the woods fell upon their comrades and trapped those trying to flee from the deadly ambush. Those who went down never rose again.
In a moment all who had thrown themselves down into the valley lay still. No more Ningaal came from the forest. No one moved.
“Let us escape now, while we may,” whispered Theido. “The victory is ours if we do not long remain here. They will be back, and soon.”
Ronsard gave a silent signal, and the men, knights, and archers began melting away into the night as quickly and as silently as the shadowy clouds before the moon. Lord Wertwin’s force joined them, and they left the field in an instant, leaving it to the fallen Ningaal.
That night warlord Gurd lost five hundred. The Dragon King did not lose a single man.