The Wolf Star could be seen glinting cold and bright as soon as the sun slipped below the western rim of the sky. It rose before the other stars and set last of all. The people of Mensandor, if they had not noticed it before, now were wary of it. Doomsayers went from city to city, spreading rumors of death and destruction and prophesying the end of the age. The weak-minded believed these rumors and fled to the temples, seeking the shelter of sacred soil where the gods would protect them. More stout-hearted citizens stood their ground and waited and watched. But all listened to the wind and paused in their daily tasks to lift their eyes to the far horizon as if they expected at any moment the approach of something they dared not name aloud.
Theido and Ronsard, having weakened the army of warlord Gurd, turned their attention to the army of the warlord Luhak, who was advancing at a fast pace to the north. Arriving late at night, having traveled ten leagues that day with little rest, the king’s forces struck once more on their midnight raid. Once again they caught the enemy by surprise and slew many.
On the next attempt, however, a confused signal almost defeated the Dragon King’s army. The warlord’s troops were waiting in a wooded draw, and Ronsard’s knights met them. But before Ronsard and company could disengage and break free, the archers attacked, and many good men fell by friendly hands. The king’s men withdrew from the field, leaving the Ningaal exultant.
As for Quentin and his party, the four ascended the empty foothills of the ragged mountains and labored up into the dismal heights. The way proved slow and difficult, even with sure-footed animals and Durwin’s knowledge of the more passable routes. They lost their way and spent three arduous days crossing and recrossing the same trail and finally gave up, camping that night in the same spot where they had camped three nights before. One of the pack animals threw a shoe straining over the rocks and had to be set free. Many supplies were abandoned in order not to overburden the remaining animals.
The dark cloud had deepened its shadow over the land. Mensandor seemed to be a country quivering on the edge of the abyss. The roads were filled by day with travelers hurrying from here to there in an effort to find escape. The temple courtyards became choked with peasants seeking sanctuary. At the high temple above Narramoor, the trail leading to the temple had blossomed into a tent city from the base of the plateau to its crown. All along its narrow length, people huddled in their tents and waited for what they had been told would come: the destroyer god, descending to earth to slake his thirst with their blood. And at night, all over Mensandor, men watched the star grow brighter and cowered in fear at the impending destruction thus proclaimed.
Steadily, despite Theido’s and Ronsard’s best efforts and most valiant and courageous fighting, the Ningaal drove further north toward Askelon. The king’s knights were solidly outnumbered, and the enemy soon grew wary of the crafty defender’s tricks, becoming more and more difficult to lure into traps and ambushes.
On and on the enemy pushed and at last achieved the very thing the Dragon King’s army feared the most: the four warlords joined their forces. The soldiers of Boghaz and Amut forged through to meet Gurd’s remnant and Luhak’s fairly intact regiment at the outer fringes of Pelgrin Forest. No invader had ever pushed so far inland in recent memory. No enemy had ever defied the Dragon King’s knights as did the Ningaal, whose combined forces shamed the stalwart defenders.
Under Myrmior’s inspired strategy, the Dragon King’s army fell back into the forest to wage a war of ambush and retreat among the paths they knew so well. This increased the rage of the enemy, and that rage induced him to make mistakes and lose men. But the relentless push to Askelon continued, slowly and surely and with mechanical precision. It seemed as if nothing would stop the cunning invader.
“We cannot continue this way,” said Theido wearily. It was the end of another long day of sting-and-run among the oaks of Pelgrin. The commander sat in Ronsard’s tent, ashen-faced in the fluttering torchlight. “We are giving up too much ground, even though our losses in men are lower than we could have hoped, thanks to Myrmior.
“I think it is time to send word to Askelon for the king to make ready for a siege. Though I hoped it would not come to this, they should begin preparing the castle for our return.”
“It would seem that in time we could bear these Ningaal if we but had more men,” observed Ronsard. “Could we not send Wertwin to the other lords to entreat them to take up arms? Now is the time if ever there was. They cannot fail to recognize the danger now.”
“Abandon any hope you may hold of persuading those jackals to join us. They have had every opportunity. Why, we are but ten leagues from Askelon now!”
“Even so,” Lord Wertwin offered, “allow me to ride to Ameronis and the others. They are not cowardly men and will be reasonable once they know the need. I will bring them around.”
“Go, then, my lord. Do what you can. But go with all speed. There is little time left. Each day we are pushed farther back.”
The nobleman stood and, though weary to the marrow and reeling on his feet, said, “I will leave tonight and take but two of my own with me. The others I will place under Ronsard’s command.” With a quick bow he left, and the others returned once more to their nightly exercise led by Myrmior, who listened intently to the reports of the day’s forays and then applied himself to creating some new strategy for the next day. He seemed to have a gift for anticipating the movements of the enemy and for diversions and surprises that allowed the king’s men to hound and harry the plodding Ningaal.
“From what you have told me,” Myrmior said, gazing at the map skin before him, “the Ningaal have tightened their divisions and march with a vanguard of their fiercest warriors. That is good—it means our raids are starting to worry them—but it also means that they will be much harder to trap and impossible to ambush from now on.”
“As if it were not difficult already,” said Ronsard. “I believe our time of nibbling away at the enemy’s strength is at an end. Yet we dare not meet them face-to-face. If we could be assured of fresh troops soon . . .”
“I cannot think what we may do,” replied Theido. “But you are right. We cannot charge them with lances or meet them toe to toe as we are often wont to do. I will defer to Myrmior’s counsel yet a little longer.”
“Lords, you flatter me,” Myrmior said. “I have no secrets here, and I freely tell what I know so that you will know just how perilous is our position. It is very grave for us, my brave friends. I do not see a weakness that we may exploit; they have countered all our tricks this time.”
He looked at the map, head bent down, eyes red-rimmed from sleepless nights of studying and pondering the movements of the foe as reported to him by the assembled commanders.
“How far are we from this river?” he said, stabbing his finger at the map.
“Let me see,” said Theido. “That is but a branch of the Arvin which lies two or three leagues to the west. It is not so large as it appears on the map, I assure you.”
“Nevertheless, I have found a plan which may gain us but a little more time.” Myrmior smiled triumphantly. “A very subtle plan.”