Alymndes 16: Montreduc

Hildegard’s eyes opened.
She could not move as she lay in the dark. Where was she? Her whole body felt numb.
Her mind began to clear. The battle… Her betrothed’s horse slamming into hers…
Something had fallen on top of her legs and chest preventing her from rising. Her hands wandered over the mass on top of her. She felt another body in full armor. Her hands came out sticky. The smell of blood woke her up completely.
The limp corpse belonged to, or used to, Clement d’Archet, her betrothed. A Knight, he and his horse had lain dead on top of her all the time since she had passed out. Now vivid memories came assailing her mind. They had been separated from the rest of the Knights and the Walkyries fighting for their lives after they had been attacked for no reason by an insane army of mounted soldiers who had blasted through their camp out of the city of Montreduc without any warning or parley. As she and her lover had somehow managed to climb onto their mounts she had noticed Duke Simon de Montjoie galloping at their head. The man was literally foaming and was screaming the same litany:
“Hammer of Fate! Hammer of Fate!”
He and his soldiers all wore tabards she had never seen before nor knew of. A golden hammer on a sable field had been sewn on long coats covering their armor from shoulders to knees.
The Walkyries and Knights had just arrived and were making camp as the vanguard of the Royal visit. They had been caught completely unprepared by the sudden assault. They had found themselves surrounded within seconds as the enemy pounced on them, leaving them no chance but to sell their lives dearly, which they did at a terrible price to the shrieking fanatics who were coming in a relentless wave of death.
In the middle of the battle she had heard one enemy soldier scream over the din:
“Your Grace! What do we do back in Montreduc? Some of our own followers might be among that scum!”
The terrible answer had been shouted back:
“Kill them all! Our God will know his own!”
Upon which the soldier galloped back to the city with a scream of mad joy.
What was happening to Montreduc? Hildegard had thought in a flash before she and her horse were slammed into from their right by a mass of horses and soldiers. She had fallen from her mount and had hit the ground so hard she had blacked out.
With Clement and her horse lying on top of her unconscious, their enemies might have left her for dead before finishing their grisly task.
How long had she lost contact with the outside world?
It was well into the night, although as her eyes became accustomed, she began to make out shapes and forms around her. After a long struggle, she finally managed to crawl out from under her dead Knight and horse. In spite of concussion and shock, she realized she was lucky to escape almost unscathed from the massacre. Apparently none of her bones were broken. But she felt horribly giddy as she kneeled down beside her fallen betrothed. A broken lance shaft protruded from the side of Clement leaving no doubt as to his fate. Little a Knight could do against a mounted lancer rushing his side in a melee. She could do nothing for him for the moment. Their enemies had not bothered to give funeral rites or last respects to their fallen prey. The stench on the field of death menaced to overpower her. She shook her head, painful as it was, to preserve the last shreds of her sanity.
The savages! My King has to know! She had to leave this hellish place at once!
She stood up looking and listening around her to find a live horse somewhere. Only a dead silence greeted her. Her Walkyrie’s strength and discipline barely stopped her from screaming in frustration, pain and anger.
She turned around to face the city of Montreduc. A red pall hung over the dark walls of the fortified town. Simon de Montjoie’s men must have put fire to the whole of it.
She had to leave at once and try her best to move in the right direction back toward the Royal Delegation to warn them of the danger and the dire destiny that had struck Montreduc and her companions.
She could not find her sword. She must have dropped it during her fall. She bent over Clement to retrieve his own sword that lay across the neck of his dead steed. It would make a good enough proof of the treachery that had befallen them. She bent over her prone lover, kissed his brow, promising herself to be back soon and avenge his murder. She will have to make sure to stay alive until then.
She needed a horse. All she could do until she came across one was to start on foot in the right direction. She was quite certain she would find a steed soon. Not all horses could have been killed, too.
The Royal Camp was astir with the advent of the new arrivals.
Umatar and her escort of Tribesman had arrived a little past noon. Quite a few Beaulieu people had expected some ragtag band of forlorn refugees. They had to revise their views very quickly when they discovered the splendid figure of the Golden Dragon riding ahead of her followers. These were proudly sitting on their mounts in an unheard-of display of discipline and haughty pride in spite of their smaller horses and outlandish accouterments.
Gerhart and his court were standing in wait in the middle of a vast meadow with Royal Guards to prevent overcurious retainers to come too close to the Tribesmen. This was not the moment for unneeded disparaging comments to be heard by their guests.
Guests they were, and the King had markedly emphasized the point with the formality added to their welcome.
The Tribesmen reined in their horses about fifty paces away while Umatar went on alone. She came to a stop just in front of the King. She gracefully got off her mount. Her horse did not move an inch as she calmly walked to Gerhart who admired the horsemanship. But the more he looked at Umatar, the more he felt convinced it was not skill only that kept the steed in perfect obedience to its rider. The most powerful single individual in the whole Steppes, a land many times as large as any other land in Alymndes halted in front of Gerhart and bowed low to him. She nevertheless kept her eyes on him unflinchingly. A warrior would never show his or her neck even in the deepest thanks or submission. That would be worse than acknowledging a state of utter thralldom or slavery.
“King and Queen of Beaulieu, the Free Tribes of the Steppes have come to offer you and your people their deepest thanks for helping them in their direst moment of need! May we ever be given the honor to repay you our debt a hundredfold before our children ride along us on the unending plains.”
To the surprise and disapproval of some of his retainers, Gerhart bowed back to the very same level of his counterpart and replied:
“She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, our people have always entertained friendly if rare relations. Help was freely given and freely taken. If this signifies the dawn of even deeper ties, then we are the ones who ought to be thankful!”
“Your Majesty is too kind. But you certainly brought a bright lining to the dark cloud that has momentarily shrouded our humble lives. I and my people therefore and forthwith deem ourselves duty-bound to the welfare of both our people and lands!”
From that day on, the Tribesmen of the Steppes would speak of Gerhart of Beaulieu only by the name of He-Who-Speaks-Fair when they would relate to their kin, wives and children of the Meeting of the Great Chiefs.
Umatar held her arm forward to Gerhart who took it hand clasping her forearm in the Tribespeople fashion.
Upon seeing the exchange, all the warriors of the Steppes got off their horses and stood waiting by them.
Gerhart took the arm of their leader to introduce her to his retinue. He led her first to his wife.
“She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, may I have the pleasure to introduce you to my wife, Marghrete?”
He was not going to bother with titles and he doubted the Tribespeople would attach any importance to them anyway.
A great smile adorned the face of the Golden Dragon when she faced the Queen.
“Oh, Queen Marghrete of Beaulieu, be this day blessed not only for the help you are so generously offering us, but also for the creation of life on the advent of our meeting!”
An uncomprehending Marghrete stood staring in confusion at the outlandish Tribeswoman’s grinning face.
Umatar’s laugh helped dispel the slight embarrassment caused by her cryptic remark among the people around her, although a smile had come on Amrel’s face, too.
“Sorry for speaking riddles! I shall explain. But before that, please bear with me and our strange ways for a little while!”
She turned to her warriors and in their language called for two of them who came running at once. She continued in the same tongue, apparently saying something of great importance as the visages of the young men first showed great awe to soon leave place to fierce joy. At the end of her address, they both took off a bracelet made of thin interwoven strands of soft leather and colored-cloth threads and handed them to Umatar.
The latter turned back to Marghrete.
“Your Majesties conceived well this morning before dawn. After the next snows have passed and before the new flowers start blooming, you will bear not a son, nor a daughter, but both! If you would accept to give these two warriors the honor of guarding your person until their birth and your children until their coming of age, I would pray you to take their birth bracelets to be tied to your heirs when they come to grace your lives!”
It was Gerhart’s turn to stare back at the woman in disbelief, but Marghrete, with tears of joy suddenly flowing on her radiant visage, stretched her hands towards Umatar.
“I’m glad and proud to accept them!”
The two warriors whooped in delight, followed by their kin who brandished their weapons high in the air and ululated their approval.
Amrel looked at the King:
“Well, Gerhart, don’t you have anything to say?”
Marghrete’s husband, at a loss with the turn of events, took a couple of seconds to react. A foolish grin came onto his face, and unable to think of anything else to do came to embrace his wife in unrestrained happiness.
The Blue Dragon noticed some who among the retainers did not show all the pleasure expected at the news that heirs would come to the crown and insure some kind of stability, although some laws would have to be changed. Of course, if Gerhart and Marghrete’s children proved worthy, there would be little trouble to have one of them elected as future ruler of Beaulieu. But she had the notion they would need all the protection they would be capable of. Some work for her and Alfred in perspective.
Gerhart reluctantly let free his wife, conscious other formalities could not be dispensed with. Keeping her hand in his, he introduced Arnaud de Betancourt.
“He-Who-Speaks-The-Law, I am deeply honored to meet a man of such wisdom.” Umatar greeted him with a serious mien. “My people shall need your expertise when they will devise a Code of their own. May I presume on your personal help in the near future?”
Arnaud smiled back at the Golden Dragon:
“She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, I doubt if I deserve the title you have bestowed on me, but it would be a lie to pretend I am not deeply touched by the privilege you are granting me! I shall be glad to visit your people any time you wish for as long as and as soon as Their Majesties will allow me!”
Gerhart chuckled:
“As if our Doyen needed our permission!”
The King continued the introductions with Geoffroy, Birghit, and Alfred, before he came to Amrel at last.
“She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, may I have the honor to introduce you to Geraldine de Blanchefleur, our trusted…”
But before he could finish his sentence, the two Dragons were already locked into a fierce hug, laughing and showing an evident pleasure at meeting each other.
“Now, this is most embarrassing! Thinking of introducing two obvious friends to each other!” The King muttered to his wife.
He was not the only one surprised at the demonstration of long acquaintance by the two women. Some courtiers were already assuming some interesting theories. Why did those two ladies happen not only to be among the most powerful individuals in their two societies, but also to share so evidently strong ties?
Whereas Alfred perceived some great advantages to the pending establishment of a common Embassy in the newly built town of Beaucastel, others resented the fact that they were losing by the day whatever little power had been left to them.
Gerhart thought it wise to intervene:
“When you two ladies will allow us to proceed with the rest of the formalities to be attended to, maybe we could complete this little ceremony of ours?”
A merry Umatar reluctantly came out of her sister’s embrace.
“Sire, our people stand little for formalities as you phrase it. We tend to be very direct in love as well as in fight. In truth, we owe you an apology as neither of us mentioned that our friendship dates back to our childhood, although we had gone our respective ways for a long time!”
Gerhart sensed something very large at work hidden behind those words and he was not in a hurry to know about it. If that woman called She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons felt at ease with an actual Dragon, he had little chance to gainsay her. The best he could do was to show good face to the events.
Amrel came to his aid:
“Gerhart, why don’t we all retire to the banquet your retainers have so kindly prepared for that most important occasion? I’m sure your guests are hungry and thirsty!”
The King gratefully replied:
“Jay, you are right! I am found remiss with my duties! If our gentle guests would follow us?”
Taking the arm of his wife, he guided his nation’s new friends to the large awnings erected instead of the usual tents, as the weather had mostly become warm and dry enough, even at nights.
Soon enough, the party grew very informal. The Tribesmen, now unconscious of their rank, freely mixed with the other soldiers and lesser retainers at other tables mounted on trestles and lined with long benches.
After a while, Gerhart noticed two Tribesmen standing silently three paces behind Marghrete. They certainly had been very quiet in doing so. Alarmed, he turned back to face them, but he instantly recognized their faces. They were the two young warriors assigned to the safety of his wife. And warriors they surely looked to him at this precise moment. They were intently ignoring his presence, but he perceived a keen attention to details in their eyes. They had found the time to replace their ceremonial adornments with gear more propitious to their present obligation. Feathers and beads were gone from their hair now bound with a simple thin colored leather thong. They had covered their upper body with a sleeveless closed kind of long jackets made of hard skin reaching to their thighs and cut along the legs up to their hips for free movement. Some cloth, probably silk, could be seen under their jerkins. Why silk, Gerhart had no idea. They were also wearing knee-length boots over pants made of some sort of suede. No weapons were visible, as arms were prohibited at parties. He guessed some might actually be cunningly concealed, but both warriors were carrying seemingly innocuous coils of thin rope hooked to their belts. Gerhart understood these two had other purposes for such a tool apart its daily use for their horses and herds.
He very much doubted Marghrete’s new guards would miss anything. These two were born fighters and were radiating a natural predatory instinct that none of his Royal Guards or Walkyries would ever dream of.
He smiled at the two men who merely raised an eyebrow in recognition.
Well, well, he thought, I certainly can live with those kinds of allies. He wondered how his wife would look after their needs. If that could give him a few extra moments of freedom from her attentions, he would be pretty stupid to interfere with their care.
The banquet had progressed well into the afternoon when a stir at the far end of the tables claimed Gerhart’s attention. A Royal Guard in full armor and wearing weapons was hurriedly walking between the seated guests in the direction of the Royal Table. Gerhart stood up, his left arm stretched behind Marghrete’s back to signal the two warriors who had already moved one step forward not to take undue alarm.
The assembly went silent, curious to reason for such an unprecedented break of ceremony. Umatar and Amrel had become very attentive; their dragons’ senses feeling something sorely amiss.
The Royal Guard stopped at Gerhart’s table, flexed his right knee in respectful salute and waited for his King’s permission to speak.
“Stand up, Guard! If you have come at such a moment, you must have pressing news to tell us!”
The soldier promptly replied:
“Sire, Hildegard, Walkyrie of the Royal Guards Vanguard you had sent to Montreduc, has just come back alone, injured and on a horse not of her own!”
The laconic answer was enough to alarm Gerhart and people in the know of Beaulieu soldiery. No Walkyrie, or Royal Guard for that instance, would travel alone. Moreover, if any of them rode a steed not bred and looked after by the Royal stables, it meant a dire fate for the rest of them. The fact she was injured was almost irrelevant.
Voices started to rise among the revelers.
Gerhart took over.
“Guard, thank you for your swift initiative! Your sense of duty is deeply appreciated!”
Turning to the agitated guests:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, could you please calm down! As this is plainly a matter of concern for the Royal Guards only, I shall immediately and personally investigate the cause of this most inconvenient disruption in the company of my counselors and associates. Therefore, please resume your festivities. We shall be back soon enough!”
Facing back to the Guard:
“If you would guide us, please?”
The soldier turned heels and went out, followed by Gerhart, Marghrete and her two guards at a respectful distance, Amrel, Geoffroy, Birghit, Alfred, and Arnaud de Betancourt. Umatar discreetly signed to her Tribesmen and made after the Royal retinue. The Tribesmen would continue sharing the revelry, but would stand up as one at the very next call.
They all proceeded to a large isolated tent that stood a good distance away from the camp, its purpose as a field infirmary made obvious by the linen hanging to dry in the company of cots and washing basins.
But the Guards at the entrance had nothing to do with medical work. Other Royal Guards and Walkyries could be seen getting ready near the horse pickets. To a trained eye the soldiery were quietly preparing for impending orders. The sentinels stiffly saluted as they all entered the vast cloth shelter.
At their appearance, the caretakers started to rise and salute.
A single gesture from the King told them to go back their work.
A fully armored Walkyrie was lying on a cot. Her body was still, and her face wan under the dust of travel. Her clothes and armor were covered with mud and dust.
“Has she lost consciousness?” inquired Gerhart to one of the medical staff.
“No, Sire. She is just utterly exhausted. I’m afraid she shall need some rest before she can resume her duties again. We were about to undress and clean her. She has no serious injuries, although I’m worrying about her mental constitution. She’s been raving until a short while ago when she fell into sleep. She’s been talking about attacks, burning city, dead Guards and Walkyries. She has kept repeating the words Montreduc and Montjoie all the time. I can’t make any sense of it, Sire!”
“I think I actually might, although I need more information before I can find what happened to her. But how can we get her to talk in that state?”
Amrel stepped in between the prone Walkyrie and the King.
“Please, allow me.”
She extracted a small phial out of her robes, unstoppered it and brought it under the nostrils of the woman.
“This should wake her up soon enough.”
In fact, it did at once, as Hildegard opened her eyes wide and jerked her head away from the fumes coming out of the small bottle.
“Where am I?” she croaked.
Amrel slid her arm under her back to help her sit up.
“You are in the Royal Infirmary. You rode to us and passed out in exhaustion. The staff here said you kept repeating the words Montreduc and Montjoie. What happened there?”
An intense look of grief clouded the Walkyrie’s eyes. Tears flowed down her grimy cheeks. Amrel made to wipe them with her sleeve when Hildegard swatted her hand away. The fighting spirit of the Walkyries had quickly recovered inside her. It was with a fierce determination that she explained which fate had befallen her Vanguard and the apparent destruction of Montreduc.
But when she described the tabards worn by Simon de Montjoie’s soldiers, their shouts of “Hammer of Fate!” and the terrible order of their leader to massacre a whole population in the name of a god, Gerhart had to intervene:
“Hildegard, do you realize that what you are describing is the equivalent of a civil war, and even more, a religious one at that! As far as I can recollect, we never had such an occurrence in the long history of Beaulieu. We are just not accustomed to religion to make it an issue!”
However, the Walkyrie’s defiant visage was enough to convince him they were dealing with an unknown peril made the more terrible as its cause was entirely new to them.
Turning to Arnaud de Betancourt, Gerhart asked:
“Arnaud, you have been in this world longer than I. Have you heard of any occurrence of religious fanaticism in our nation?”
“You have me as surprised as you are here. As far as I know, religion has always been a very personal and private matter rarely mentioned in daily conversations. At the most, our people might pay respect to house shrines to thank fate and pray for prosperity, especially among farmers and fishermen. There is no church or temple to speak of. The rare monasteries that existed a long time ago were built more for meditation and escape from the worries of the outside world than for worship or proselytizing. I have personally never heard of preachers or fanaticism!”
Marghrete ventured:
“That could explain that long silence from Simon de Montjoie and his Duchy. I’d like to know why we have not heard anything from the envoys we have regularly sent there!”
Gerhart’s face darkened. Simon de Montjoie hailed from his own Duchy of the same name. The Capital also bore the name of Montjoie. Montreduc was the second city of the Duchy, only a few miles away from the Capital. No enmity between the two cities had ever come to his knowledge. There were quite a few Royal guards and Walkyries posted in both cities. If Montreduc was a sign, the lives of his soldiers in Montjoie might have already become forfeit. How long would it be before that the abscess burst and spread all over the nation?
Quick and ruthless action was sorely needed here and now, or he and his subjects could say good-bye to the lives they had enjoyed until now! This was the first time he would have to deal with real war. Would he be capable to face his responsibilities and prove his worth?
The King faced his retainers.
”I know only one way to find out!” he spoke through clenched teeth. “Geoffroy, Birghit, you assemble all the soldiers available. How many can we count on?”
The captain replied:
“If we take them all with us, about two hundred Royal Guards and Walkyries and five hundred pikemen. Seven hundred pairs of hands in all.”
“Alright. Send for all the garrisons between here and Beaucastel to join us at Montreduc at once! I don’t care if we have to outstrip the whole land of its defenses. Just leave enough guards to take care of our work-gangs! Even so, we probably shall not have enough to fight that whole army of fanatics in Montjoie!”
Umatar came forward.
“Sire, I understand this is not the best way to put it so, but the Free Tribes of the Desert would be extremely grateful for being given an immediate chance to repay our debt in this moment of strife and sorrow. I pray Your Majesty to accept our help!”
“She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, your people are already proving their friendship by caring for our affairs, but this is an internal problem we have no right to add to your present burdens. Moreover, you are fighting an organized army with heavy cavalry and what else!”
Umatar emitted a cold laugh.
“Sire, with all the respect due to you, may I point out the fact these sudden enemies of yours have forfeited that right to be called your own because of their treachery and wanton cruelty! On the other hand, they did not come to our help; they are actually attacking our friends! Can you in all honesty refuse our aid? Moreover, may I ask you why the people of Beaulieu have never fought the Free Tribes of the Desert? We might not be able to conduct battle inside cities or streets, but no one will stand a chance against the fast light cavalry of ours on open ground, flat or not!”
Gerhart looked at the tall woman warrior.
A smile came onto his face.
“No wonder you are an old friend of Jay’s. I even suspect you are welcoming the opportunity!”
Holding his hand forward: “In the name of the citizens of Beaulieu, I hereby gladly accept the offer of the Free Tribes of the Steppes!”
Umatar shook the proffered hand.
“Ayee! Who gives should be the one who thanks, Sire!”
She was about to leave the tent when Amrel restrained her:
“Just a moment, She-Who-Talks –To-Dragons! I want to know what happens when you tell the news to your warriors!”
Signing to Alfred:
“Alf, follow She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons discreetly and come to report the reactions later!”
As the two left Gerhart turned to the infirmary staff:
“Do I make myself clear when I say that all heard here does not leave of this tent?”
The personnel quickly bobbed their heads up and down in unison at their suddenly stern King.
“Alright, resume your work, then!”
Hildegard slid down from her cot.
“I’m going, too!”
The King tried to stop her.
“Hildegard, you are in no shape to fight!”
The soldier stood up to face Gerhart. She was as tall as he.
“Sire, I am a Walkyrie! I am not going to lie idle while your army is fighting those monsters! Even if I have to crawl at the back, I shall go!”
Gerhart was about to shout back when he felt his wife’s hand on his forearm. He immediately knew he had lost that particular argument.
Marghrete gently addressed the woman soldier:
“Hildegard, we know you are a Walkyrie and that nothing will prevent you from joining us in our mission. Will you at least go and restore yourself at once at the banquet? I’m sure there is still plenty of food and drink left for you there. If somebody ventures to ask why you are serving yourself without being invited, just answer these are the Queen’s orders!”
The Walkyrie proudly saluted Marghrete:
“Thank you, Your Majesty!”
As she was about to cross the entrance, the Queen called her back:
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
“And clean yourself! It will not do to have a dirty Walkyrie in our company!”
“Yes, Your Majesty!”
As soon as she had left, Gehart confronted his wife:
“Fine, I suppose I shall have to grant you authority on your women kin, especially when it seems I have none on the gentle sex in this country! But what do you mean by “joining us”, if I may ask?”
“Did you think I was going to stay behind as a Queen and a Walkyrie when your whole army is on the move to fight to preserve the peace of our nation?”
“Marghrete, do you believe a second that I’m going to take my expecting wife into a bloody fight?”
“Gerhart, do not insult me! I am not one of those cosseted wives spending their time spinning and cooking at home! I was born a woman soldier! What kind of authority shall I, or for that matter we, have if I do not march in front of our Walkyries today?”
Gerhart was ready to explode when Amrel interceded:
“Gerhart, I’m afraid she’s right. We need both of you at the head of our army if you want to achieve any kind of credibility in your leadership after we have dealt with the problem at hand! Hard times are coming and we have to face them with a united front! If it can reassure you, Marghrete will be well protected. Her two guards and their whole Tribe will die before anybody gets within an arm’s length!”
Gerhart rolled his eyes. Women who asked him to lead when they were twisting his nose in public! What sheer irony!
Looking at Geoffroy and Birghit who were trying hard to show an unconcerned face:
“Captain! Sergeant! Don’t you have anything better to do than to stand gaping at the sight of a domestic dispute?”
The two officers, not wishing to get involved or to hear one more of those increasingly frequent royal rows, made to leave.
“I’d better go, too! I should be able to make myself more useful outside than in that stuffy place!” the king added, following his retainers.
Umatar, once out, had shouted for a couple of warriors to come immediately and attend to her. She ordered the two to gallop at once to He-Who-Stands-Upright and bring him along with all his warriors and Maheut’s platoon.
The two tribesmen had jumped on their horses and departed at once.
While Geoffroy and Birghit came out of the tent and started shouting orders, she ran back to the banquet to stand and shout to the bemused crowd:
“Ayee! Free Tribesmen of the Steppes! Time has come to repay our debt! Cast your feathers and beads to the wind! Put on your fighting gear and get your horses ready! We are going to war!”
At these words, the Tribesmen stood up as one and without further ado ran to their tethered horses, leaving an astounded crowd of banquet guests in their trail.
The surprise quickly turned to confusion and disarray when the courtiers noticed guards and soldiers leaving the place as well to gather in front of the King and the Queen who had not bothered to come back and share their decisions.
A few guests became incensed at their treatment while others with a sharper mind realized that their life would change rapidly for the worse if they did not react quickly and participate in the chain of events.
Through personal interest or true patriotism, the latter started to stand up and leave their dumb companions to lend their help to the King. They knew that whatever the outcome, an accounting was due in the very near future when the powers-that-be would reckon with their friends and allies and choose amongst them for the new order that would inevitably result from the momentous chaos.
Alfred was already close at hand to observe who would choose the King’s party, who would be too dumb or stupid not to react in whatever manner, and who would prove detrimental to the future of the nation.
He was not really caught off guard when he espied the slinking figure of a rotund man ostentatiously dressed in rich and heavy clothes in spite of the clement weather. He knew the man too well, and had been expecting something like this to occur for a long time. If he thought he could get away from Alf with impunity, the bastard was gravely mistaken. The fat fellow did not realize that Amrel’s confidant was aware of his true identity. Alf’s prey stooped under a tree nearby to confer with two men in a low voice. These departed in a hurry at once.
The fat courtier walked back to the banquet awning oblivious of the other man lurking in wait.
As the man came within only a few paces from the tent, Alfred stepped out in the open to face him. Surprise appeared on his face, but he nonetheless tried to avoid the encounter. Alf smoothly moved to bar his way and force him to come face to face.
“Sir Etienne de Vassarel, good day to you! I thought you were on your way to join the King’s party! He shall need all the help he can muster!” started Alf with a cold smile on his face.
“Mind your own business, young man! As far as I can recall, we haven’t even been introduced to each other! Make way for your senior or I shall call the Guards!”
“And which guards are you going to call? Pray tell me! If I were you, I would hurry and pay allegiance to our King! Who knows what might happen to those who decide to stay here and wait when all this business in Montreduc is finished! But this is no news to you, is it? If I recollect well, you are also a distant cousin of Duke Simon de Montjoie, so I suppose you know what is being fomented in that part of the Realm?”
“I don’t have a clue of what you are talking about! If you do not clear the way immediately, you shall learn who I am and dearly suffer for it!”
“As if I don’t know you! Shall we stop that charade, Superintendent? I can see on your face that you did not expect this small revelation. I’m afraid the game is over for you now! Especially since I have found out that for the last three weeks, you and your henchmen have kept strangely very quiet. Talking of henchmen, how come a few of them have recently disappeared?”
“Alfred de Vigny, I saved the life of the puny bastard you are! You should thank me for living right now! Your little brains will never grasp the greater image of the world we have always worked for!” spat the Superintendent.
“Well, my poor little brains were good enough to find out who you were! You taught me well, didn’t you?” replied Alf, who continued in a colder voice:
“This is not the time, nor the place for a confrontation. But mark me well, if I don’t find you by the side of the King when I have finished with my present business, I promise you will answer me personally for your past deeds and the other ones you will undoubtedly commit!”
Etienne de Vassarel pushed his way back under the awning without a word. Alfred let him go. The man was not worth much after his revelation and he cared little what would be the consequences if the Superintendent chose to stay. He was fairly confident their next meeting would be the last for one of them, and it certainly would not be him, if what he suspected of Jay came to be true.
He let pass some time to justify his “present business” and then made for the spot where the King and his retainers were assembling.
Gerhart was having a hard time trying to conceal his growing impatience. Some subjects he was expecting had not hurried to come and join his force yet. Upon seeing Alfred, he angrily muttered:
“Alf, have you seen Etienne de Vasserel? You know him, don’t you?”
Well, well, things are proceeding faster than I had thought, mused the young man who replied:
“I do indeed, but unless I’m dearly mistaken, we shan’t meet our Superintendent for quite a while!”
Gerhart looked at the young man with a frown.
“Alfred de Vigny, how much do you know of Etienne de Vasserel?”
“Enough to make his own decisions!” cut in Amrel.
“Jay, what’s going on here?”
“Simple. I have never trusted your Chief of Intelligence, or spy-chief I should say!”
“He is not my spy-chief! He was already in charge when I was crowned!”
“One more reason for not trusting him. Actually, he stopped working for the Crown a long time ago. As long as he was intriguing for his own ends, he proved fairly innocuous. But I’m afraid this is not the case any more!”
“Sire,” started Alfred, “I assume you are aware of Etienne de Vasserel’s parentage with Simon de Montjoie. Well, he has just sent two of his agents in the direction of Montreduc. I doubt this is to organize a welcoming party! Moreover, I told the Superintendent to be at your side when I would come here or else. Well, he isn’t, is he?”
The frown on Gerhart brow was deepening.
“Things are starting to unravel, aren’t they?”
“Yes,’ replied Marghrete, “and the more we wait, the more time we give Simon de Montjoie to prepare himself!”
“You’re right! Let’s march! We shall organize ourselves on the way!”
Because the pikemen had to walk, it took them more than two days and two nights to come within sight of Montreduc. They had crossed the river flowing by the city into the valley below at a ford located at a short distance behind a large wooded hill, which momentarily hid the view of the city and the land ahead. They followed a road circling around the hill and continued straight toward the town.
Gerhart had to stop the column less than half a mile beyond.
Apparently Etienne de Vasserel’s two henchmen had already brought the news of their arrival to their enemies. Half a league from them a mounted army had gathered in front of the still smoking city of Montreduc. Gerhart roughly estimated their number between four and five thousand men on horses. His present force would not stand a chance. He did not waste time worrying. He addressed Geoffroy and Birghit:
“Captain, send all the pikemen back to that wooded hill right now at a run to organize our defenses! Sergeant, choose a Royal Guard and a Walkyrie to gallop back and meet our reinforcements and lead them here at the best speed!
He then turned to Umatar:
“She-Who-talks-To-Dragons would you be kind enough to do the same and dispatch your two fastest warriors to meet her Tribespeople and Maheut’s platoon!”
“Aye, aye, Sire!” replied Umatar who shouted terse orders around her and the two youngest warriors were soon riding hard towards help.
The King spurred his horse forward and made it turn to face his own army:
“We are too many here!” he began in a surprisingly authoritative voice. Gerhart was revealing a keen sense of leadership in battle that few had suspected. “We do not want to run over each other when we shall have to move back!”
A young voice irreverently cut him:
“But Sire, no Royal Guard or Beaucastel noble would retreat in the face of danger!”
Gerhart addressed the insolent courtier:
“Nepomucene de Beauvoir, you are an idiot and a fool! Royal Guards follow orders because they know how to conduct battle! If you want to show bravery and be able to boast about it later, shut up and follow orders! Now, if one more of you damned dimwit nobles interrupt me again, I shall personally take care of him here and now! Is that clear enough?”
Gerhart noticed a few mocking sneers on the faces of his Guards and Walkyries at the look of some furious nobles who never had had any warfare experience before that day. Let them steam a bit. They shall have their fill of battle in the few days to come, he thought.
“All nobles to go back to the hill and picket their horses inside the trees! Half of the Guards to join them! Only the most experienced to stay! She-Who-Talks-To Dragons, could you and your Tribesmen go and protect the other side of the hill? We do not want any surprise from there! Your horses are faster than ours! If you notice anything out of normal, send a messenger at once!”
“Aye, Sire!” replied Umatar. She signaled her Tribesmen to follow and as they galloped back to their destination, they smartly divided into two groups to go past the retreating part of Beaucastel army and around the wooded promontory.
Gerhart asked Geoffroy to order battle formation while they waited for the enemy’s next move.
They did not have to wait long.
They saw a lone horseman gallop to them. He was holding a lance adorned with a white flag.
“What do they want to parley about?” muttered Geoffroy.
The man wore a black overcoat with a golden hammer over his armor. He came to a stop about thirty paces from the King.
The messenger sat immobile on his steed. His eyes had a strange look as if he was high on drinks or drugs.
A horrid grin came on his lips.
His mouth suddenly opened in surprise as an arrow sprouted from his forehead with a sickening thud. The man slowly toppled from his horse.
The King and all the Knights turned their heads back in shock to find out who had committed that senseless act.
Amrel still held the bow with which she had delivered a mortal blow to the enemy white flag bearer.
“Jay, what the hell are you doing?” screamed a furious Gerhart. “Killing a man coming for parley is the most despicable act of war!”
Amrel looked at him unruffled. She pointed forward with her bow.
“You could have said good-bye to your parley a long time ago. This was only a treacherous strategy to make you stall as long as possible. Look who’s coming to us!”
Gerhart swiveled his head back.
Effectively, he observed a cloud of dust rising over the Montjoie’s army. They were riding hard to meet them!
Gerhart shouted:
“Turn back and retreat, all of you! We make our stand on the hill!”
The Royal Guards and Walkyries turned at once and kicked their horses hard. Gerhart, Marghrete and her two guards, and Hildegard followed them with Geoffroy, Birghit and Alfred closing behind. Arnaud de Betancourt had already reached the hill with the younger Knights. He was not going to be of any use in the battle. Maybe he could lend a hand with the horses and the camp organization inside the wood.
Gerhart belatedly realized that the whole of his inner circle of confidants would be inside the forest. Luckily it was made of deciduous trees. No risk of fire there, but if his enemy had wanted to eradicate the whole flower of Beaucastel, he could not have hoped for a better opportunity!
They finally reached their shelter. It was none too early as the riding enemy were now only a few hundred lengths away when they made it through the pikemen who had already surrounded the hill on three sides with the help of the younger Royal Guards’ lances. Their back could be protected without too much difficulty, as the Tribesmen would be shooting arrows from the top of a steep slope. On the other hand, the front and the sides of their promontory offered only a gentle inclination covered with grass without any significant impediments to bother the incoming charge.
Gerhart and his company dismounted once inside the wood. It was barely large enough to protect the horses. While they left their care to junior Knights, they unbuckled their spurs and changed to foot soldiers’ gear. The Knights exclusively carried a long sword in hand and a short dagger attached to their belts. A light rounded shield allowing speed of movement completed their gear. The Walkyries, apart from their swords, carried a long bow and a quiver full of arrows. They would stand behind the Knights while they unleashed death onto their enemies.
Gerhart called Geoffroy and Birghit:
“Captain, form a hedgehog defense with the pikemen and the junior Knights. Have the more experienced Guards at their back to step in and secure any breach in their midst. Sergeant, make herces of half a dozen Walkyries with their bows every fifty paces to fire sideways onto the oncoming horses. Place the other Walkyries along the line shooting from behind the Knights!”
“Good thinking, Sire!” shouted back Geoffrroy who felt right in his element with that kind of leadership and knowledge of warfare. Where had the King learnt such things as herces and hedgehogs? A hedgehog could be easily understood, but the rationale behind the former formation which involved a special protection of the bowmen (bowwomen, he corrected himself) by pikemen advanced in a triangular position ahead of the general line required a very good grasp of battle tactics.
For the first time in his long soldier life, Geoffroy came to appreciate true leadership ahead of him. Things were going to feel a lot easier if they got out of this present mess alive. He hurried to carry out his orders.
Gerhart called Alfred:
“Alfred, I know you can fight, but since I shall have to rely more on you in the very near future, you are one of the people I must make sure survives the coming battle! Could you please go to Arnaud and organize our support: campaign infirmary, food and drink rationing, horses care, latrines and whatever else? You two will have the most unrewarding, but most vital task for the success of the coming battle! Are you up to it?”
Alfred was not too happy to be kept away from the front line, but he knew enough of warfare to understand the dire need for backup. The fighting arm should have not to worry about support coming or not, a crucial element in keeping good morale intact.
“I shall do as ordered, Sire! Count on me!”
“Good man! Do not hesitate to put all those pampered young nobles to work! You have all authority on that particular point!”
“Thank you. Sire!” shouted back Alf who was already running in search of Arnaud.
Gerhart went back to the front line to survey the field ahead.
The enemy had stopped a hundred paces away. He was sorely tempted to let arrows fly, but he bided his time instead.
“What are they waiting for?” inquired Marghrete who had come to his side. She had left her fineries before leaving their camp two days ago. Her husband looked at her admiringly. What he had at his right side was a true Walkyrie, not the haughty Queen he had always known. She had brought a bow and quivers, obviously her own, although it was the first time he put his eyes on them. A long and interesting talk was in store for them.
“Just conferring about a battle plan. They are not stupid enough to run pell-mell into our defenses.”
“But this is just what we are looking for, isn’t it?”
”You seem to know more about warfare than I thought, my dear wife!”
“Talk for yourself, my dear husband! I’m certainly not the only one surprised at your prowess. I noticed a strangely obedient look in Geoffroy and Birghit’s eyes when you ordered them around. Where have you acquired such knowledge?”
“I actually suggested he could occupy all his free time by studying all political and military treatises he could put his hands on!” cut in Amrel. “It seems he has proved a better learner than I thought!”
“Thank you for wrecking the good impression I had made on my dear Royal spouse!” laughed Gerhart.
“In fact, you have truly impressed me,” his wife went on, ”as far as I can recollect, you must be the first king in a very long while to lead a Beaulieu army on the field, and competently at that!”
The King, embarrassed by this sudden unexpected praise tried to change the subject.
“Jay, tell me: how can we prod them into rash action?”
“Do not worry too much about that! This conference looks more like a harangue for more fanatic actions! Look at them!”
In truth, a lone figure was standing tall on his mount among the enemy, gesticulating and raising his sword, belching out all kinds of screams answered in unison by his followers.
“This is Simon de Montjoie, if I’m not mistaken,” commented Gerhart, “although from that distance I can’t tell how much he has changed. But I suppose we’ll soon find out!”
He waved for Geoffroy to come near him.
“Geoffroy, I shall need your strong Captain’s voice to make my orders heard all along the line!
“Yes, Sire, I’m ready!”
“Alright. Here we go: nobody let an arrow loose before my order!”
Geoffroy shouted the instruction in his stentorian voice. All archers stood with their bows at the ready, an arrow knocked in and their quivers standing in front of them. Gerhart continued his instructions:
“All bows inside the herces to wait for their own orders! Bows behind the lines to aim at horses only!”
Geoffroy spared a quick glance at his suzerain.
“Sire, this is nasty!”
“Captain, this is war!” Gerhart grimly shot back.
Finally, a great shout rose from the enemy. Swords and lances were brandished and the whole line broke in a canter.
Gerhart shouted:
“Archers, take aim! Pikemen, stand fast!”
He started to evaluate the distance between the two armies. Eighty paces. Sixty paces. Fifty paces.
“First arrow! Let fly!”
The first volley of arrows covered the short distance in a blur to strike full on the enemy horses at the front. Some buckled on their knees with their riders literally flying over the necks of their steeds, while others stopped in their tracks rearing up with dreadful screams of pain and panic. But the mounts following them uncaringly pushed them aside, jumped over them or simply trampled them.
“Second arrow! Let fly!”
A second line of horses came tumbling in horrendous chaos.
But the horses next after them kept coming.
Gerhart kept on repeating the same deadly order. The enemy slowly approached but they became more and more hampered by the entangled mass of dead and dying horses. Some of their riders who had survived the fall rose up and ran shrieking gibberish. The archers ignored them, following their orders with cold discipline. They knew others would take care of the raving madmen.
Some enemy horses, through lack of space or because of mobility impediments started fanning along the sides of the hill. They met the same fate, and soon all the land around, except for the back of their position where no horse could climb the slope, became littered with dead and injured horses and men.
But it would be only a matter of time before the first horses reached the hedge of pikes when all the front line arrows would be exhausted. Riders who had lost their mounts came rushing onto those very pikes to senselessly impale themselves with ghastly results.
If that continued in the same fashion, the pikemen would experience growing difficulty to push the dead bodies back to use their weapons with accuracy. The last thing Gerhart wanted was a free-for-all melee where the horses would have a chance to create breaches. The stench of battle soon became overpowering in the remaining heat of the afternoon. Flies added their distracting nuisance to the sorry lot of the combatants.
If they stayed more than three days in that place, people ran the risk of infection and loose bowels. Reinforcements had better come soon.
The enemy horses had come within ten paces of the pikemen’s line.
Gerhart shouted the next order:
“Archers in the herces, let fly at will! No quarters!”
A rain of death fell on the horses and their riders caught between the herces, the pikemen and their own comrades with no chance to turn back or any kind of escape for that matter.
At long last, somebody must have realized the futility of the assault inside the berserk army assailing the hill as a lull came on the field followed by a disorganized retreat of the Beaucastel’s foes. But before they all left the scene a lone figure came back to face Gerhart’s army.
“Isn’t that Simon de Montjoie?” asked Maghrete.
“Yes, but he has changed a lot, hasn’t he?” replied her husband who had a hard time recognizing the proud and handsome Duke of only a couple of years ago. The man was disheveled; his beard hadn’t been shaved for weeks. His hygiene had evidently become the least of his concerns. From where they were looking, the Beaucastel people could see that the man had lost most of his sanity. He was shaking with rage and his eyes were bulging white on his dark face.
He suddenly brandished his sword with a shriek.
“Filth of Beaucastel! Listen to me a last time before we get the land rid of your like! The Hammer of Fate is coming to you! Count the hours you have left to live. Next we shall take care of your whores and brood! Think about it before you die!”
He ended his speech with a mad laugh that rattled his whole body like a scarecrow in the wind.
”I’m getting a bit fed up of this Hammer of Fate talk! Shall I shoot here and now?” ventured Birghit who had come to join the Royal Couple.
“Don’t!” started Amrel from behind her. “The time has not come yet! It wouldn’t make any difference anyway, I’m sure. The way his army is fighting, they all seem to be under the same curse. He and his soldiers we shall exterminate once and for all if we survive the next two days!”
With a last shriek and a wave of his sword, the madman made his steed turn and left the battlefield.
A silence fell over the hill only interrupted here and there by the moans of dying men and horses. Men and women stared at the horrendous carnage surrounding them in silent awe. Some faces were turning livid among the nobles who had come out of the trees to survey the scene.
“Those bastards are not even looking after their dead!” broke in the rough voice of Geoffroy.
“And if we don’t take care of that ourselves as soon as possible, we are going to run the risk of disease!” commented Birghit.
“We have other worries to think of first, I’m afraid” cut in Gerhart. “Can somebody fetch Alf?”
A junior Knight ran to find him.
“We also have to think about our defenses.” Geoffroy said. “I’m pretty sure these crazies will come back tomorrow with all the troops Montjoie can muster. I reckon we have killed over five hundred of them. But that must leave them with nearly four thousand. We shall probably see two thousand more if I rightly remember the forces of Montjoie at their full. Horses and riders we can deal with. But if they bring foot soldiers, we may find ourselves in deep trouble!”
“In that case, I reckon we shall have a full night and at least all the morning to organize ourselves! Where do we begin?” asked Gerhart.
“If I may?” a voice said behind him.
They turned around to see Umatar coming to them.
“Yes, of course, She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons!” Gerhart encouraged her.
“We have two problems on our hands, namely the possibility of disease with all those dead which are going to start rotting in the sun and the improvement of our defenses. Well, first how about dragging all those corpses and piling them in a half circle around our hill, then devise a trench between their line and ours, covering the bodies with all that earth we shall have to dig out. We are more than seven hundred of us. Hard work, I reckon, but we have more than twelve hours to do it. Moreover, you have to recover all your arrows. We can use the fallen enemies’ lances and any pointed weapons of theirs to plant them inside the trench and around our lines. That should take care of any foot soldiers.”
A hard smile came on Geoffroy’s face.
“Nasty, nasty, but very good indeed. Sire, what do you think?”
Gerhart answered:
“Nasty as you said, but definitely feasible. Geoffroy, have everybody, except Arnaud and Alf start right away. Make sure everyone cover his or her mouth and nose before beginning, though. She-Who-Talks-To Dragons, as your Tribesmen are more fleet-footed and clever with their hands than our big fellows, may I ask you to take care of the arrows and weapons salvage as well as organizing water supply for the troops and our mounts?”
“Aye, Sire!” answered Umatar who only had to say a few words before her Tribesmen got busy.
Gerhart pensively admired the total obedience and efficiency of her people. They could teach us a lot, he found himself musing.
Alf arrived at his side.
“Ah Alf! What is the situation with food and water?”
“As far as food is concerned, proper rationing should give us at least three more days of supply. As for water, it might be wise to bring as much as possible before we are prevented from doing so, especially because of the horses. Moreover, we have prepared a field emergency infirmary. I think Arnaud and I can take care of it. But we shall need extra water for that, too. We shall have to build a fire to boil the water needed. As we have brought field cans and pans, two or three men will have to be constantly at hand for that particular chore. The latrines have been dug out, but seven hundred men and women will mean that we can insure that business for only three days. After that we shall run out of space!”
“Good man! You surprise me every day, don’t you? I’m pretty confident our first reinforcements will come the day after tomorrow. So time is not so much of an issue; our defenses are the problem at hand. Tell all the nobles they are needed for trench digging!”
“They won’t like it!”
“Who cares? Moreover, that will provide them with first-hand experience of warfare. Good education for them, don’t you think?”
“And good exercise, too!” laughed Alf who left to tell the good news.
The work started in earnest, as everybody understood that his or her life depended on the night’s work. Torches were made and planted along the hill or held by resting soldiers.
First bodies and horses were dragged and piled manually or with the help of ropes attached to a few steeds. It was a grisly affair and soon everybody was smeared with blood and dirt. All of them hoped they would have enough time to clean themselves in the nearby river first thing in the morning. Hard toil it proved to be, but by dawn the “dead line” had been completed and the trench sufficiently wide and deep to become an efficient defense. Shifts were arranged to send people to wash themselves in the river while the last spears, lances and swords were driven inside the trench and around the hill. The Tribesmen volunteered as sentinels as every fighter was ordered to take a meal and rest as long as possible.
Geoffroy’s predictions came true when the sentinels signaled the arrival of the enemy shortly after noon.
Everybody stood up to get ready and shake out the stiffness out of their bodies while they still had the time.
Gerhart asked Umatar:
“She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, your Tribespeople can see farther than us. How many of them do you reckon we are facing?”
Umatar feigned to look ahead. She knew exactly how many they were, although she was careful not to overuse her dragon’s skills for fear someone among the enemy was in direct communication with the evil they were searching. After all, she and her siblings had been sent here for that very purpose.
“Only mounted soldiers, Sire, but more than yesterday, I’m afraid. Around six thousand, I would say. But order and discipline do not seem to be their strong point. There is very little organization there. I suppose we are in for a massed rush.”
“Let them do so! That kind of tactics can only impede their own efforts and will cost them as much damage as we shall inflict them. I wish I knew how many of their forces they are ready to lose!”
“We shall find out soon enough!” ordered Gerhart. “I doubt we shall have to improvise!”
Like the day before, the enemy blindly charged at the hill, with the difference that they had not bothered to check what had happened to their fallen comrades.
Gerhart waited until the first horses had climbed on top of the barrier of corpses they had erected during the night.
“Archers behind the line! Aim at the horses only!”
The first mounted enemies appeared on top of the improvised fortification.
“First arrow! Let fly!”
The result was even more harrowing than the previous day as riders fell over the necks of their steeds to impale themselves on the spears in the trench below.
Since no lateral defense was needed, the archers in the herces brought their own deadly contribution to the shooting with ghastly results.
Gerhart thought that if they persevered to kill themselves, there would be a real danger of their filling the trenches with their dead. On the other hand, their barrier was proving more and more difficult for the enemy horses to climb and soon enough they tried to overtake the obstruction away from the center. Their efforts met with the same outcome, and after an hour of futile attacks, the assault ceased altogether.
But this time they did not leave. They just retreated a few lengths away, callously abandoning their comrades to their fate, and dismounted to gather in sullen groups, waiting for orders. Instead of orders, they got an endless harangue from Simon de Montjoie who kept going and coming from group to group in apparent lecture on their religious mission and the extermination of unbelievers.
Gerhart’s army soon became sick and bored, and chose to ignore as best as they could. If their enemies were planning to spend the rest of the day and the coming night listening to a mad man extolling some fine theological points, that was fine by them. They could take advantage of the lull for a meal and a rest, although they had not exerted themselves much.
Gerhart placed sentinels all around the perimeter of their position, ordering for regular shifts and immediate warnings in case of any sudden change of attitude from the enemy. He asked Alf for a report on food and water. They had enough of the former to last a day or two, but the latter would become more problematical after another day, as they had found the way to the river cut by their foes using the same source of water.
“Well, support should start coming by tomorrow!” replied the King. “Whether we shall see the end of the day or not will not matter when it comes to water!”
“If they persist to behave in the same manner, it shouldn’t be too difficult to contain them until help arrives!”
“I don’t know about that. We can’t retrieve our arrows this time and it shall come to hand combat sometime.”
“In this case, rest will be the best preparation, won’t it?”
“Absolutely right!”
The King went to the spot where his friends were sharing a meal. He informally sat on the ground and began wolfing down the contents in the metal bowl common to all soldiers that Geoffroy had handed him.
Arnaud started:
“I wonder what kind of tactics they shall use tomorrow. They surely can’t go on committing suicide!”
Geoffrroy replied:
“For all his madness, I doubt Simon de Montjoie will go on killing his followers. Moreover, he should know we have only a few arrows left. Once he has filled the trench with more of his horses and soldiery, we shall have to defend our pikemen!”
“Well, there is one way Tribesmen can help.” Umatar interrupted.
“Yes?” a few interested voices answered.
“Our warriors are very adept with their lassoes at catching horses and cattle. If you post them just behind the pikemen under the protection of a shield of Knights and Walkyries, they can bring riders down onto our pikes and swords.”
Geoffroy laughed:
“Now I know one more reason I’ve never heard of a fight between Knights and Tribesmen! We wouldn’t stand a chance!”
“Good plan!” commented the King. “Put the nobles on guard duty at the back of the hill. She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, could you please tell your warriors to assume their own position right behind our pikemen? Birghit, order everybody to stay at their battle stations for the night. We do not want to be caught unawares. And from now, rest for everyone except sentinels on shift!”
The night passed without any major incidents but for occasional shrieks and shouts heard from beyond the barrier.
All that night spent staying awake; listening to their leader’s ranting must have contributed to their foes’ fatigue, as they did not show any sign of activity until noon. Their enemies must have been quite sure of themselves or had plainly gone stupid, as if they were not expecting any help to come to their prey’s salvation.
It just showed, if needed be, what kind of support and regard previous kings of Beaulieu enjoyed, Amrel thought. What evil she suspected to be lurking behind that unimaginable and sudden surge of religious fanaticism had also caused the catastrophic tornado that indiscriminately struck the Steppes. That same evil had not expected that its work would contribute to the forging of new ties between previously more or less estranged societies. Instead of division, it had incited union. Remembering what her brothers had witnessed in the Forest of the Elves and inside the Slavers’ ship, she felt they were in for some kind of revelation. Hadn’t Glamrun expressly advised against it, she would have made use of her dragon’s powers to halt that senseless massacre a long time ago.
As the sun reached its zenith, the din of sudden activity aroused their attention.
Although they could not see it, the enemy had seemingly concentrated their forces right behind the middle of the gruesome barricade and all kinds of orders; shouts and noises could be heard.
“What are those murderous maniacs up to, this time?” asked Birghit who had just come back from surveying the organization of the defenses as Umatar had suggested.
Geoffroy’s face went grim:
“The bastards! They are going to open a breach into our barrier and push the corpses into the trench to create a passage. They must know we can do nothing but wait for them to come as we are getting sorely short of arrows!”
Turning to the King:
“I think we ought to take all arrows and throwing weapons to the two herces covering our middle and shoot them from the sides while we face the brunt of their assault!”
“Good idea, Captain! Proceed with the orders!”
Maheut’s platoon and He-Who-Stands-Upright’s warriors had been riding hard the day before. Many a time they had been forced to stop to let horses rest. The Walkyrie’s forces could not emulate the way the Tribesmen were relieving their mounts by ambling along them half of the time every twenty or so miles. She had come to respect and admire the incredible stamina of those men and horses. But the armor and the sheer size of their own steeds meant they had to take an hour of true rest for every hour of hard riding. Even so, the horses were reaching their limits.
At one time, as they were taking a break, Maheut had drawn apart her companion who had not left her side since Umatar’s messengers had brought them the dire news.
“He-Who-Stands-Upright, you had better go in front of us and engage our friends’ foes while we do our best to come and join you later. I’m sorry to say, but we shall never be able to match your speed and mobility!”
“Maheut, that shall not do! This will not be good for morale,” he explained in his approximate common language. “We have to stick together for the simple reason that we shall also need your power of penetration while we harass our enemies! Besides, there are two more reasons for us to stay together. One is that She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons shall never allow our friends to be overwhelmed. Don’t ask me why, I just know!”
As her interlocutor paused, Maheut impatiently asked:
“And what is the second reason?”
The Tribesman produced one of his highly irritating smiles:
“I’ve heard that a Walkyrie always rides on the left of a Royal Knight. Since nobody is strong enough to do so, I shall ride at your right and the two of us will wreck such vengeance and havoc on our enemies that generations to come will tell our exploits around fire camps as has never been heard until now!”
Maheut rolled her eyes, kicked at a stone with exaggerated force and walked away to her horse, pointedly ignoring the Tribesman’s laugh behind her back.
One of her soldiers asked in a low voice to a companion Tribesman:
“What are those two up to?”
The warrior grinned:
“I think He-Who-Stands-Upright is courting Corporal Maheut!”
The soldier looked at him unbelieving what he had just heard.
“Your chief is courting our Corporal?”
“Why not? She is a woman. She is strong. She is a good leader. And she is beautiful. What else can you ask for?”
“Beautiful? Our Corporal is beautiful? You people certainly have strange tastes! If we survive, I shall take you to Beaucastel and show you what beautiful means!”
“Why shall I go into your city? Can you ride in a city? Can you talk and drink around a fire in a city? Can you make love to a woman in a meadow by the river in a city?”
The soldier gave up, fully knowing their conversation would never finish before they reached their goal.
The enemy had finally opened a large enough breach in the barricade to allow at least two horses to run through alongside. Since nothing else could be done, Gerhart had held fire. Their foes were presently pushing dead horses and men into the trench to create a safe path over the improvised stakes. Gerhart let them proceed. The lunatics would be exhausted by the time they reached the pikemen. Dead meat they were. Better concentrate on the horse riders who would charge in their wake. The latter did not even wait for them to clear the way and began charging in pairs in reckless abandon crushing their own comrades under the steel-shoed hooves of their steeds. The first two uselessly slammed into the pikes, but in doing so they had created a standstill in the middle of the defense as the pikemen were now facing the dilemma of either trying and pull out their spears or leaving them. Other horses were already coming fast.
Just as Gerhart was about to order fire, lassoes whistled over the pikemen from both sides to land around the necks and torsos of the charging riders and pull them out of their saddles to send them crashing onto uncovered stakes. More riders came and more lassoes caught them. But the end result was that the trench was slowly filling up with a consequent widening of the path separating both forces.
Soon the knights’ swords had to fight alongside the pikemen while the Walkyries and the Tribesmen let fly their last arrows and the javelins they had been making for the last two days.
Then the Walkyries rushed to join the Knights in the centre. The Tribesmen stayed where they were inside the herces but started throwing knives and darts with frightening precision. Gerhart who wanted to prevent at all costs a further widening of their front line realized that those enemies falling under the warriors’ missiles effectively channeled their foes into a manageable space. But if Simon de Montjoie decided to repeat the same tactic at other points of the barricade simultaneously, the Royal forces and Tribesmen would soon find themselves in dire peril.
As if his enemy had followed his thoughts, he noticed the very thing happening into two different spots at least half way between their center and where the slope at the back protected him. That would dangerously stretch their line of defense. After all, they were still facing at least more than three thousand cavalry.
He shouted:
“Captain, Sergeant! Go and take care of our wings! I’ll look after our middle!”
His two officers went running to their new positions while he rallied the center.
The assailants had changed their strategy. They had left their horses at the back and came rushing on foot. The costs had been of horrifying proportions but Simon de Montjoie was taking the right choice as all his dead had amassed into a platform large enough to conduct an assault on foot. Knights had to fill the breaches among the pikemen who valiantly resisted but were not so effective once their lances had been broken or pulled down.
Both Gerhart and Marghrete had drawn their swords, ready for the worst, when a horse rider who had somehow charged through their line came dangerously close to Marghrete brandishing an axe over his shoulder.
The arm never fell.
The rider slowly slid back two knives in his throat to fall behind his horse while the Queen jumped back away from the steed’s hooves. Two lassoes whistled over her head to catch the animal’s neck to befall it after a short struggle as Marghrete’s guards rushed to dispatch the beast. The whole action had lasted only a few seconds. The two warriors resumed their place behind the Queen’s back with a quick smile to her. She nodded in acknowledgement.
Amrel and Umatar were observing the scene a way back when the Golden Dragon pointed to their right.
“At last! And not too early! I was afraid we had to interfere!”
She called to Gerhart:
“Sire! Help is coming! Maheut and warriors are running to your right! I’m going through the back with my Tribesman to create a diversion on our left!”
Without waiting for the King’s reply, she emitted a piercing whistle that drew all her warriors’ attention. At a gesture from her, they left their positions to run behind their leader as she made for their horses picketed inside the woods. They recklessly rode down the slope at the back of the hill completely unnoticed by their assailants.
Gerhart perceived a sudden weakening of the enemy’s attack on his sides. He sent for messengers to run to Geoffroy and Birghit to bring their forces to the center of his line.
Geoffroy arrived first.
“Sire, why are we weakening our wings?”
“She-Who-Talks- To-Dragons has just told me that Maheut and the Tribesmen have arrived behind the enemy on our right wing! She has taken her warriors to attack our foes on the left!”
“At last some good news! But the most they can do is to prevent those maniacs from piercing our flanks! They still shan’t be enough!”
“I know, but at least we have only one spot to worry about until our army comes!”
“They’d better come quickly, then!”
“They should soon! They were almost the same distance away from us as the Tribesmen who are coming to our right!”
Just as he spoke, they heard a low distant rumbling sound coming from behind them.
A hard smile appeared on Geoffroy’s face.
“Now the time of reckoning has come, Simon de Montjoie!”
Without waiting for his King’s orders, he shouted in his stentorian voice over the tumult:
“Pikemen, all to regroup to the center and hold it until next order! Knights and Walkyries, first line of defense, step back! Second line of defense, step in!”
That would leave the younger troops and inexperienced nobles to back up the pikemen if necessary and be enough to secure their flanks.
He called to the retreating line:
“To your horses! We are going down the back. Come on, Your Majesties! You should be with your Royal Guards in their moment of glory!”
On his way to the pickets, followed by Marghrete and Amrel, Gerhart called to Alf who was helping Arnaud with the care of the casualties:
“Alf, join us! Arnaud shall have less work from now on!”
The Royal Guards cautiously drove their horses down the slope to assemble and wait for the coming army. It took some time and cost a few bruises. Their horses were far larger than the Tribesmen’s mounts, but they finally made it just in time to see the vanguard of the Beaucastel army cross the ford. The messengers had done well. There must be at least two thousand swords and lances. Half of them were Knights and Walkyries. The rest was made of regular militia of mounted men-at-arms. If the man in charge knew his job, technical and field support would follow. Gerhart realized only too well that they found themselves at the commencement of a full campaign. Montreduc would be in all probability only the first stage. Simon de Montjoie had chosen the wrong time to begin it as all Beaucastel had been out of the city, and in fact quite ready for such an event. Although they had to be thankful for Hildegard”s lone escape, or the damage would have been far greater.
Geoffroy was making use of flag signals to indicate to the coming forces to separate and run along both sides of the hill to attack the enemy flanks right away. He knew the Tribesmen would immediately leave the way and harass their foes from their back. They would have them bottled up quickly and the serious matter of retaliation could then begin.
A young officer came up to their group.
Gerhart recognized the man.
“Well met, Knight Banneret Gilles d’Estrees, eldest son of Earl Charles d’Estrees!”
“Greetings, Your Majesty! I hope we came in time. Our father is too old for such a long journey on a horse. He asks you to forgive him. He sent my two brothers and me in his stead. A train of wagons laden with food and supplies is coming behind us and should arrive before tomorrow night in the company of foot archers, miners and surgeons!”
“I see your dear father has taught you well! I beg you to accept my thanks in his name! If we see the end of this day, you have my solemn promise your whole family shall be duly rewarded!”
The young man laughed.
“Sire, you are too gracious! But as I’m sure we shall see the end of this day and the following ones, I shall remind His majesty of his promise! But before that, we have some work to do, do we not?”
“Well spoken, Knight Banneret! But pray stay with me a little longer as I need your knowledge of our present forces and logistics. Before we depart, let me introduce you. I suppose you already know Captain Geoffroy d’Arcourt and Sergeant Birghit as well as my dear wife, Marghrete. Here are also my personal counselors, Geraldine de Blanchefleur, and Alfred de Vigny!”
Gilles d’Estrees smartly saluted everyone. He was being offered a great honor as the King obviously wished to include him in his inner circle. Which was also clever politics thinking for the future, thought Amrel. Gerhart would need many capable and loyal men and women for the new order to come.
The King spurred his horse forward:
“Enough talk for now! Geoffroy, I reckon our party should go around the enemy and reinforce the Tribesmen at the back to squeeze our foes!”
“Right away, Your Majesty!”
They were only a few more than two hundred of them, but that should prove enough. It all depended on the timing of their intervention. They had to leave their lances in the trench, but they still had swords, daggers and maces. The Walkyries had left their bows and empty quivers, but they were as good as the Knights with the same weapons.
They decided to go around the left flank. All along the way, they saw the enemy harshly pressed by their troops and retreating in disorder towards the center. The Tribesmen stayed behind and caught any one who had escaped from the slowly tightening vice. When they finally reached the battle at a point straight ahead from the middle of their former stronghold, the enemy had been completed encircled. Hemmed in as they were by now superior forces, the men of Montjoie had one sole option left to them, to surrender or to perish to the last.
Gerhart, against his best judgment but for the sake of tradition and appearances, asked his Captain to blow horns and raise the white flag to stop his army and give Simon a last chance to survive and maybe explain, if not justify, his actions.
At the sound of the horns, the Beaucastel forces stopped their fight and stepped back in order, showing good discipline in spite of private feelings few cared to hide on their faces. All were eager to resume the battle.
Simon de Montjoie’s remaining forces were milling around in disarray. Most seemed to have become completely mad, shrieking incoherent obscenities, eyes bulging and mouths foaming. Simon could be seen in the middle gesticulating and screaming.
Gerhart brought his horse forward. Geoffroy and Birghit, sword at the ready, hurried to his side. The King went as far as he thought was safe with these madmen and shouted to his foe:
“Simon de Montjoie! Surrender! Stop this senseless massacre!”
Simon somehow heard him and turning to the King, he spurred his horse forward screaming:
“Gerhart, you worm! The Hammer of Fate is coming to you! I’ll erase you from the surface of the earth!”
Gerhart was about to face the Duke to the bitter end when a shout was heard over the sound of a charging horse from behind him.
“He’s mine!”
A bareheaded Walkyrie came rushing out of their group sword high in the air. He recognized her.
“Hildegard! Stop! Somebody stop her! She’ll get killed!”
A cold voice resonated by his side:
“No, she won’t!”
Gerhart’s head swiveled to his left to meet Amrel who had brought her mount forward. Her cold face was surveying the scene. Her eyes had changed color and the pupils were reduced to a thin vertical line.
“Jay! Not here! Please don’t!” cried the alarmed King.
“Keep quiet! Nobody will see it!” she retorted between her teeth.
A voice came inside Amrel’s head. It was Umatar’s:
“Sister! I hope you know what you are doing!”
“Don’t worry, Umatar! That evil knows who and where we are by now! I’ve looked inside this man’s mind. It’s not his. The creature inside his body has died a long time ago! Stay ready when his body dies, too!”
The Montjoie’s horsemen had suddenly come to sudden halt. All had their eyes fixed on their leader. In a surreal moment, the two foes met in a horrifying headlong clash. Both horses crumpled onto their forelegs throwing their riders forward who met in mid-air before bouncing off each other into the ground. The pair stood on their feet almost simultaneously under the uncomprehending stares of the Beaucastel’s army. Only a very few knew why the two combatants had acquired their unbelievable strength and rage, but they would never tell anybody. The two rushed at each other sword screeching against sword in a rain of sparks. The duel lasted for a long time, as they seemed evenly matched. At long last, a harder blow from the mad Duke brought the Walkyrie onto a knee. With a scream of triumph Simon raised his sword high above his head to deliver the killing blow. His gesture suddenly stopped in mid-air, his face locked in mute surprise. Hildegard had been faster and had impaled his midriff on her sword. The weight of his own sword slowly brought his arms forward. His opponent swiftly disengaged and, sliding aside, she brought her own weapon up in a wide semi-circle to let it fall at a slant across the madman’s neck. The blade sliced through to send the head flying in the air. But the shower of blood everybody expected did not occur.
“Now!” screamed Amrel in Umatar’s head.
Like it had happened to Dargelblad in the Forest of Elves, as the headless body started to collapse, a roil of dark fumes escaped from the gaping orifice left by the severed neck. A scream was heard:
“Sacrach! Help me! Sacr…!
But the apparition snuffed out of existence before the Dragons could interfere.
Had Beaucastel’s army expected that would have stopped the hostilities, they were sorely mistaken as the remaining Montjoie’s men rushed against their opponents amid shrieks and obscenities.
Amrel shouted to Alfred de Vigny:
“Alf! Take Hildegard back to the forest and look after her!” She pointed at the Walkyrie who had collapsed on her side.
“But she is one foot taller and half heavier than me! How do you expect me to carry her?”
“I don’t care, just do it!”
Muttering an oath under his breath, Alf called onto the nearest two Walkyries:
“Walkyries, help me take your sister out of this mess!”
The two soldiers did not appreciate to be taken away from the action, but he was their superior. They obeyed without a word or comment.
While fighting had resumed to a raw intensity around them, they heaved the unconscious woman across the saddle of a horse and left the scene.
A couple of hours later, when Gerhart came back to the field hospital inside the wooded hill, he saw Alfred busy helping Arnaud tending the wounded. The two men were working wonders. Arnaud, the Tribunal Judge showed great knowledge in an unexpected field. The King suspected the man had had some soldier’s experience in his youth, whereas he knew his younger counselor was a man of resource. Hildegard was lying unconscious nearby on an improvised cot.
Alf turned to him
“Has the fight ended yet, Sire?”
“It has indeed, but it was grim business. Now we have to bury the dead. I just don’t know how long it will take. There must be at least six thousand of our enemy dead. That is, without counting the few of ours we have lost. After that, we shall have to take care of that other business in Montreduc and then it’s a general march towards Montjoie!”
“Have you made any prisoners?”
“I’m afraid not. We had to kill all these raving madmen. They wouldn’t listen to any offer of surrender!”
“Then, how the hell are we going to know what’s happening in Montjoie?”
The King shrugged his shoulders with fatalism.
The rest of the day had been spent with the tedious but vital task of burying the dead. The fallen Knights and Walkyries had been laid in neat parallel tombs half way between the hill and Montreduc on a grassy meadow. Relatives and friends would come later to raise a low stone wall to mark the cemetery and decorate the graves with engraved flagstones and other funeral devices.
It had been decided to inter the slain enemies and their horses that had perished in the battle in long common trenches later filled with no marks. The horses that had been captured or saved from the slaughter were put to use by Gerhart’s army although no one wanted to appropriate any saddle gear, armor or weapons belonging to the Montjoie’s dead. These went under ground with their owners, such great and general was the distaste for the murderous zealots. Gerhart and his people cared little for whatever titles they might have worn before they had forfeited their allegiance to the Realm.
The series of trenches would appear later as a pattern of long and narrow tumuli avoided by travelers and local folk alike as long as the name of “the Tombs of Shame” endured.
The Beaucastel army and the Tribesmen had established their camps in various locations. Reinforcements would come before long. They had to visit Montreduc the following day. But for now, everybody was enjoying a well-earned rest.
Maheut’s company had stayed in the company of the Tribesmen instead of joining their likes in other camps. Reciprocal help and a common cause in battle had forged respect and ties between the two communities. Language still proved frustrating at times but conversation was not much needed. Knights, Walkyries and warriors had found out they had actually created a formidable force combining great penetration capability with speedy harassment. They had developed a strategy of repeatedly pounding into the enemy with the heavy cavalry while the Tribesmen galloped slightly behind their vanguard and along their line to grapple and unhorse anybody who had been thrown aside by the charge and then cover the tactical regrouping before the next thrust. Many a time Tribesmen were seen savagely defending Knights and Walkyries who had momentarily fallen from their steeds. Maheut for her part had been in constant worry for the safety of her suitor whose incongruous presence on his smaller horse alongside her charger had become the talk of the day in the camps. But nobody was mocking the incredible bravery and fighting ability of He-Who-Stands-Upright, although quite a few inquired about the reasons behind their outlandish association.
Maheut was inside the small personal tent her rank of Corporal entitled her to. She had washed and she was stretched naked on her stomach over the camp rugs when she heard a voice outside.
“Maheut, may I come in?”
“He-Who-Stands-Upright?” she asked recognizing the voice. “If you are not offended by the sight of a naked woman, you may!”
She herself did not give a fig about being seen in her natural apparel, although very few men or women had had the chance or misfortune to discover her in that state.
The warrior’s laugh answered her question as he entered the canvas shelter. The space was quite limited, even in spite of the fact that the Walkyrie had left all her equipment outside to be taken care of by a junior member of her company.
The Tribesman sat beside the prone woman.
“I’ve brought some of our medicine for you!” he matter-of-factly started. “It is a salve we use to lighten the fatigue of battle on your muscles and bones. Shall I apply it to you?”
Maheut emitted a small laugh.
“I wish my men and women would be as servicing as you are! I wonder how I’m going to get rid of you! I shall find a way tomorrow… Oh, well, smear your ointment on my body if you are so keen to do so, but keep quiet!” she said to the voluble young man.
He-Who-Stands-Upright did not reply but kneeled beside the Walkyrie. His hands covered her back with the substance and started to gently knead the muscles along her spine to make it penetrate her skin. Maheut soon relaxed under the expert massage. There were quite a few things her people could learn from those strange nomads. She slowly fell into a light and comfortable slumber. The young warrior continued for a long time on her whole back, shoulders, buttocks and legs until he was sure the muscles had completely relaxed and were absorbing the salve.
Two hours later, Maheut opened her eyes. She was still lying on her stomach. Her field candle lamp was almost spent. She discerned the sitting figure of He-Who-Stands-Upright facing her, his back against the canvass of the tent.
“You’ve been staying here all the time?”
”Sure I did.”
“May I ask you why?”
“Because it was a great pleasure.”
“Pleasure! You are puzzling me!”
The man grinned his mocking smile.
“Pleasure to look at you.”
“You mean you find this body of mine a feast for your eyes? You do have strange tastes!”
“Scars are on the outside. But you have muscles and bones of great quality under that skin. Actually your skin is very smooth. And your hair! Do you know what our women would give for such a color? You are like a running fire! And that’s only the back of you!”
Maheut looked at the warrior intently. The man was of an exasperating impertinent kind. But he was an incredible fighter. He showed a caring devotion unknown to her and still found the time to admire her!
She slowly rolled onto her side, exposing her heavy white breasts and firm flat belly in the full view of his eyes.
She noticed he had suddenly become greatly aroused and had trouble to keep his composure.
“And does the front please you?” she teased, feeling herself aroused, too.
The young man did not answer, but kept his eyes riveted onto her forms.
With a throaty chuckle, she reached for his neck with her right hand and roughly pulled the Tribesman to her.
“Come to me, He-Who-Stands-Upright! Maheut wants you hard!”


One Response to “Alymndes 16: Montreduc”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    Not quite what I was expecting, in a lot of ways. When I read about the white flag, a rather sarcastic remark floated through my head: “and if you believe that, I’ve all manner of bridges you can buy”. Turns out they didn’t believe it, and I’m impressed with the battle. I’d really like to speak to you about strategies and such. I could use some help with my own, and would greatly appreciate any input you could give me.

    Happy writing, Robert, and I hope we get the chance to talk soon.

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