Alymndes 22: The Pass

A large crowd was anxiously waiting in front of the Royal Palace. The news had spread in town that the Queen had entered labor at last. Amrel had thrown out all men out of Marghrete’s room when the Walkyrie had suddenly stood up with water running down her legs.
Only her two guards stood outside the door of her chamber while Amrel, helped by Umatar, got busy. All night women had gone in and come out with basins of hot water, clean linen and other necessities. Late in the morning a large smile had come on the two warriors’ face when they heard the first cry and then the second cry half an hour later. The delivery had taken almost a full circle of the sun and the moon. But the two Tribesmen were still fresh, whereas even Royal Guards would be exhausted at the end of such a long guard duty.
The door suddenly opened to let Amrel out.
She addressed the two men:
“Warriors, have you washed?”
The surprised guards had no time to reply before the Blue Dragon made her second query:
“Now, show me your hands!”
The two Tribesmen docilely obeyed.
Amrel pointedly scrutinized them. She then proceeded to inspect their clothes. She shook her head.
“That will not do! You two will go to the baths at once! Scrub yourselves from head to toes, and do not forget your nails! Then put on your festival clothes, and leave all your weapons, including your lassoes!”
“But, Lady Geraldine!” they started in concert.
Amrel’s eyebrows frowned into a scowl, which made them flinch.
“Do you want She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons to come and tell you?”
The two tribesmen were excessively brave, but they were not fools enough to dare face their Queen. They immediately decamped.
Amrel was waiting for them inside the frame of the open door when they came back. She inspected them again with a critical eye. They appeared truly magnificent, garbed in very soft suede tunic and leggings with a belt and boots of the same material. They had braided their hair anew and adorned it with colorful beads and bird feathers. They were wearing necklaces and bracelets of polished stones, which shone in many hues.
The Blue Dragon smiled at the two nervous warriors.
“Come in!” she ordered.
They hesitantly followed her inside.
Gerhart had been called in while they had been away. He was sitting on the side of Marghrete’s bed, his arm around his wife’s shoulders. Joy and concern were fighting for supremacy on his face.
Marghrete was visibly exhausted but looked happy nonetheless.
Two babies were lying side by side on her left. She smiled when she saw her two resplendent guardians coming near.
They bowed deep.
Marghrete turned to her husband:
“They are beautiful, are they not?”
“I could not agree more!” Gerhart replied.
His wife held a hand forward to the two warriors. Two thin leather strands lay in her palm.
“Warriors of the Steppes, protectors of the Royal family, may I ask you to tie the tokens of your duty round the wrists of our children?”
The two usually unflappable Tribesmen approached and each took a strand in one trembling hand before gently tying it to the wrist of each child with meticulous care. As they stood back, Amrel noticed that both men’s eyes had turned shiny. Were they crying? She marveled.
Gerhart spoke:
“Warriors of the Free Tribes of the Steppes, we have asked the permission from your Queen here present to give you your names on this day of the birth of our children. He who will take care of our son will be called He-Who-Leads-The-Son, and he who will take care of our daughter will be called He-Who-Leads-The –Daughter. Do you accept?”
The two Tribesmen bowed low again in mute consent.
Gerhart smiled. For once, these two seemed overwhelmed by the occasion, he thought with amusement. He continued:
“My wife is too weak to walk yet and I will not appear officially without her by my side. But today our children and heirs have to be introduced to our subjects for the sake of our country. May I ask you to do it for me? She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons and Lady Geraldine will accompany you!”
The two warriors bowed again. This was a great honor offered to them indeed, which would help them achieve a status among the Tribes only second to He-Who-Stands-Upright. Such responsibility put on so young shoulders would prove once for all that the citizens of the Realm of Beaulieu considered the Free Tribes of the Steppes as equals. Not only that, but all Tribesmen would also accept He-Who-Talks-Fair, as they called Gerhart, as the de-facto second ruler of the Steppes after Umatar.
Not long after, the crowd assembled on the square discovered a strange cortege filing out of the Royal Palace. Lady Geraldine and Umatar walked ahead of the Queen’s Tribesmen garbed in celebration clothes and carrying two newborn babies. Many dignitaries and representatives of the embassies came after. Among them stood all the leaders of friendly nations. But King Gerhart or Queen Marghrete were not to be seen anywhere.
Amrel and Umatar halted in front of the cortege before separating to leave space so as to let the two Tribesmen stand between the two of them.
The Blue Dragon raised her hands. The crowd went quiet.
“Citizens of Beaucastel and Beaulieu! Friends from all Alymndes!” She started. “The Queen is well but tired, and the King has decided to stay by her side until the official announcements! But King Gerhart has requested that his newborn son and daughter to be immediately introduced to you all!
She turned to the Tribesmen.
“Behold the heirs of King Gerhart and Queen Marghrete! Behold the Prince and Princess of Beaulieu!”
He-Who-Leads-The-Son raised his charge high above his head for everyone to see, simultaneously imitated by He-Who-Leads-The-Daughter. A great ovation spontaneously rose from the crowd punctuated by strident ululating celebrations by all Tribesmen present. But as the babies, struck by all that noise, started to cry, Amrel and Umatar took them off their guardians’ arms to hand them to the two nannies who had been keeping near behind them.
Now the whole of Beaulieu would surely very soon know that the Royal Couple had guaranteed the Realm with heirs, the Blue Dragon reflected. That would not please everybody, but at least we will discover who would faithfully support the nation and its leaders, she concluded. It was up to the Dragons to make worthy heirs to the Crown of the two babies.
————————————-
It was a moonless night, and nothing could be distinguished in the chasm lost in the dark between the two sheer mountain faces in front of the Wall.
Numnir was standing on top of the rampart. Even his Dragon’s eyes could not perceive anything.
A premonition had brought him here. As his senses never failed him, he felt compelled to investigate further.
He climbed down the Wall and went back to his private quarters. Once away from the guards and dwarves’ eyes, he would be able to translocate to a point he had already visited on top of a cliff overlooking the defile called the Pass miles away from the barrier they had erected.
Once he reached the top of the cliff he changed back to his dragon body and lifted in the air. Watching straight ahead, he slowly glided high above the Pass. Soon lights, which had never been there, caught his eyes.
He landed. If he did not move, he doubted anyone could espy him. What were those lights? The fog, which constantly covered the land ahead, stopped a few hundred yards from him.
He discovered a steady line formed by those lights slowly approaching inside the chasm. There were many of them actually, bobbing up and down along the bottom of the Pass. The long-expected invasion had finally begun! Judging from their pace and knowing the state of the terrain, he expected that at least a few weeks would pass before an army could reach the Wall. He had seen enough. It was time for him to leave lest the evil that he had sensed for so long lurking in the South discover him.
They had to prepare themselves!
——————————-
One more ceremony was taking place inside the Royal Palace of Beaucastel.
For once everyone in attendance sincerely felt to have been invited.
King Gerhart and Queen Marghrete were formally announcing the names chosen for their children.
In spite of a reduced representation from all nations of Alymndes and Beaulieu in particular, the main room of the Palace was crowded.
Being aware that many a stomach had already been stretched to uncomfortable limits, Gerhart had ordered for wine and light food only. As the season permitted it to some extent, early fruit and nuts from the former year had been liberally served in Dwarven glassware among the flagons of red, white, amber and pink wines.
When he deemed the audience ready, Gerhart rose from his seat at the head table.
“Your Majesties, Your Highnesses, Your Graces, Ladies and Gentlemen! I would like first to thank you all for answering our invitation to this particular function to celebrate the naming of our heirs! I understand that many of you, including me, barely stand in shape after all those banquets and state affairs, and I sincerely hope you can bear with me a last time!”
Laughs were heard among the gathering, although a few Dwarves and Dunlago citizens made it clear they could very well put up with a few more of these parties, consequently provoking more mirth around.
Gerhart raised his hands for attention.
“I did ask for my children to be brought to this reunion. Unfortunately I had to give in to my wife and Lady’s Geraldine’s argument that they already had to go through such a celebration, that they needed their sleep, and that if I continued to interfere with their health and well-being, I might have to face their guardians’ wrath as well! You will surely understand that King or man, I did not have much of a chance against such odds!”
More chuckles and guffaws resonated inside the room.
“Therefore, I will announce right away that for the name of our son, I have consulted King Hammerblow, King Marcus and Prince Consort Aerdhel. We agreed that he should bear the name of one who offered his unconditional friendship in time of hardship. So our heir will be called Charles in gratitude to Earl Charles d’Estrees!”
All guests were cognizant of the help extended by Charles and his three sons at Montreduc when the Kingdom of Beaulieu had been in the certain danger of losing their suzerains to bloodthirsty fanatics led by the former Duke Simon de Montjoie.
Everyone naturally clapped his or her approval to the great embarrassment of the venerable Earl who had had no inkling of the great honor suddenly granted to his person. In that single gesture, Gerhart was confirming the Estrees Family as his first and foremost ally. Some nobles left in their estates would cringe at the news, but he did not care a fig about those individuals, as they would indeed weigh little in front of such a powerful coalition, which was besides based more on friendship than on personal interest.
The old earl rose from his seat and bowed deep to redoubled cheers.
“As for our daughter,” the Beaulieu King continued as soon as the hand clapping and acclaims had sufficiently abated, “my wife has conferred with Queen Atraxa, Queen Brighteyes, Queen Ellana and Queen She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons. They have, after endless consultations I must add, reached a choice.”
Gerhart was about to digress on women’s propensity to make simple things more complicated than needed, when Marghrete unceremoniously clapped his back:
“Go on with it, will you? Nobody is interested in your comments concerning feminine preoccupations!”
Gerhart spread his hands in mock defeat, a sheepish smile on his face. Some onlookers found it ironic that a Walkyrie would admit to a ladylike character, but nonetheless joined in the general amusement caused by Marghrete’s remarks.
“Sorry!” Gerhart slyly apologized, “our heiress will be called Glavina!”
Why the Queens of Alymndes had chosen such a name, nobody would ever know, but everyone gladly cheered and approved.
Hammerblow chose the moment to bang his fist on the table, almost breaking the furniture and glasses in the process. When he had the audience’s attention, he rose a glass full of wine instead of his usual fare of beer and declared in his booming voice:
“A toast to Prince Charles and Princess Glavina!”
“A toast to Prince Charles and Princess Glavina!” repeated everyone. At last the serious business of drinking and reveling could start.
King Gerhart was duly enjoying himself in the company of Marcus and Aerdhel, the latter increasingly proving himself a convivial character, when Alfred de Vigny slightly tapped the King’s arm.
“Yes, Alf? How about sharing a drink with us?” he genially said to his intelligence chief.
The look on the face of his aide had nothing to do with the present celebration.
“Sire, I’m afraid you ought to put your drink down and read this!” he somberly replied.
The Beaulieu King knew that Alf would not barge into such a ceremony without a very good reason. He put his glass down and took the proffered document.
He broke the seal, opened the scroll and ran his eyes down the words written on it. He suddenly felt quite sober. He handed the document back.
“Alf, you know who to call. Make it as discreet as possible. We will meet in my study.”
Turning to his friends, he said in a low voice:
“Marcus, Aerdhel, Drumbeat, we have to discuss a very important matter. I do not want to alarm other people unnecessarily. So, could you find an excuse and join me in my study as soon as you consider it polite. Could you also be kind enough to relay the request to Ellana and Atraxa? I will take care of the others!”
Not waiting for an answer, he walked to his wife.
“Ah, Marghrete! I am so glad you could join our celebration today, but I do not want to tax your health more than absolutely needed! Will I accompany you to your apartments?”
A surprised Queen of Beaulieu made to protest, but checked herself upon noticing the very serious mien of her husband. She sensed his urgency and acquiesced:
“That is very kind of you, my dear husband! I am actually getting tired. If you could wait until I excuse myself?”
But Gerhart would not let her. Instead he spoke to the nearest neighbors:
“Ah, but I am sure that Lady Geraldine, Brighteyes and She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons will help you to your apartments. They certainly cannot trust a clumsy husband to look after his wife in the middle of a crowd!” he said with a meaningful glance at the three ladies who had been sitting around his spouse. They had caught the message implied in his appeal and promptly rose to assist Marghrete.
————————–
A strange couple walked side by side along the parapet of the Wall. They stopped in the middle to observe the Pass ahead. The tall Royal Guard stood with his elbows on top of a breastwork while his short companion watched on his left, her head barely reaching over the crenel. Firebrand had a full-face helmet on while her flame hair poured over her shoulders. Gratien turned to look at her.
“Firebrand, do you really need to carry that shield and mace around?”
“War is coming, is it not?” she grumpily retorted.
“We will not have to deal with that for at least three weeks. There is no way that invading force can progress any faster. The bottom of the Pass is littered with rocks. I do not have a clue how our foes plan to travel through it, but I am pretty sure they will be completely exhausted when they reach us!”
“Unless they have means we have not foreseen!”
“Why are you Dwarves always looking forward to a fight?”
“We are not! We just want to get done with it as soon as possible!”
“Well, you might have to bite your bit for quite a while yet. What with the traps that Ironfoot has set along their path and reinforcements coming soon, we will probably end up worrying about finding enough space to lodge all these idle soldiers of ours!”
“I would not bet on that!”
“Why are you so pessimistic? Aren’t the odds overwhelmingly in our favor?”
“If that unknown enemy has decided at last to take such risks in attacking our Wall, it must be pretty confident it has the means to do it! I have a hunch that we are in for a few nasty surprises!”
“Well, we will see what we will see, as they say back in my country!”
They kept silent for a while until the Corporal ventured:
“Firebrand, would you mind answering this question? Why are you keeping me company most of the time? Do not get me wrong; I do enjoy your being around. You are certainly more entertaining than my bunch of Guards who think only of eating, sleeping and getting out of here as soon as they can, or your own kind, who for all my fondness for them, are a bit dour at times!”
“Simple! Only two reasons for that! The first one being that as a soldier, I need to know as much as possible on our situation, and that you are not only the most qualified person to teach me, but also the only one willing to do it!”
“Fair enough. But what is the second reason?”
He heard her chortling behind her mask.
“I like you, that is all!”
The Corporal missed a beat.
“What do you mean, you like me?”
“Silly lump of a human! Why do women like men, if I may ask you?”
“But…” a very embarrassed Gratien stammered.
“But what? Do you have anything against Dwarves?”
“No, but, …”
“Because you are a human and I am a Dwarf! Because you are almost half again taller than me? Gratien, you are disappointing me!”
Gratien suddenly found himself inside a trap he would not escape from unscathed. He furiously tried to think his way out of that impasse. But Firebrand would not let him. She pulled him by his sleeve.
“Lend me an ear, would you?”
He knew he would not be able to pull his arm free if she had decided that she would not let him go. He hoped that nobody among the many soldiers bound to watch would construe the wrong conclusions. He bent his back to bring his head at her level.
She talked to him in fast low words for a while.
Gratien’s face turned a deep red. He jerked himself up.
“But that’s wicked!”
The female Dwarf stared at him, her fists on her hips.
“What’s wicked about it? Are you going to tell me that you are not man enough to please a woman?”
The Corporal was about to shout a few very well chosen epithets, when Firebrand put a finger across the slits of her mask supposed to cover her mouth.
“Keep quiet, will you? Unless you want everybody around to notice and spy on the two of us?”
“Now, this is blackmail!” growled the Knight.
“Really?” she teased him.” Now lend me your ear once again, and I will leave you alone!”
He did not trust her but he bent to her level again.
“I will see you tonight, and do not lock your door, or I will knock it down!” she laughed, with a sound pat on his rear.
The poor Corporal thought he was done for if anybody had seen that last gesture from that pert female Dwarf!
He went back to his position, standing with his elbows on the breastwork. He found himself thinking very hard for the first time in a very long while.
He shook his head.
He slowly went a deep red color as a foolish grin appeared on his face.
He shook his head again.
—————————–
There was little space left in King Gerhart’s study room. The ladies were sitting on easy chairs, but most men were standing, their backs against walls or windowsills.
Fresh coffee and fruit drinks had been brought to clear everyone’s head of the effects of the celebration that they had left in a hurry. For once, Marghrete’s guards were not present as their duties included overseeing her children. As they would have to stay in Beaucastel, there was no need to have them included in affairs of state for some time to come.
Gerhart gloomily went through Alf’s report. The intelligence chief could be found at the door.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid that the time has come for some fast decisions. An invasion column of undetermined size has been spotted making its way up the Pass. By undetermined size I mean we do not know yet how large it is. But you can bet it has nothing to do with the extent of any of our forces. It has to be huge to dare and march through such unfriendly terrain. The Pass is literally covered with piles of stones and boulders. So, this is where the main attack against Alymndes will come. But as we had anticipated, the enemy is already trying to divert our attention. Boats have been seen along the Western Shores, although none has tried to land. The Tribesmen and Elves have kept hidden behind the dunes bordering the sea. They have sufficient numbers to repulse any incursion from the sea. But it also means that these very forces will be pinned there. No further intrusion has been repeated in the Elf Forest, but I would personally advise Queen Ellana to return there to insure the defense of the Southern Borders. As for the Eastern Ocean, the Dunlago ships have reported activity from the South, although they are still smarting from their debacle at Villefranche. But we cannot afford to loosen our vigilance in that particular spot.
Nods and words of agreement confirmed his judgement.
“So the crunch will occur at the Pass! That makes things fairly simple, does it not?” growled Hammerblow.
“In theory, yes! But how big is their force? And what is more, what kind of force?”
“What do you mean by kind of force? There must be only humans facing us!” the Dwarf King retorted.
Gerhart turned to Aerdhel with a significant look.
The Prince Consort spoke:
“This has been a state secret until now, but we suspect that the humans south make use of fabulous beasts and monsters.”
A stunned silence welcomed his last words. Some of the assistance knew but kept quiet. Others could not believe their ears.
“What is that talk of monsters?” Marcus finally inquired.
“Last autumn, we intercepted a small invading band in the forest, which had somehow managed to come through the Mountains of Fire. We found the carcass of a dead pegasus when we investigated their probable route.”
“What is a pegasus?” a puzzled Dunlago King asked.
“It is a flying horse.”
It took some time for most members of that very private meeting to come to grips with the notion.
The Dunlago Judge recovered first:
“How can you be certain such a beast does exist?”
Aerdhel quietly explained:
“A long long time ago, when the Elves were found all across the South of Alymndes and before humans spread inland from the Eastern Shores, many such beasts freely roamed the land or soared in the sky. Pegasuses, but also griffons, which are part lion, part eagle, and harpies, the most despicable sort of flying creature you could imagine. Centaurs, half horses, half humans could be seen running in the company of unicorns and fauns. Less desirable specimens included chimeras and manticores, whereas the sea, rivers and lakes were the abodes of sirens, tritons and mermaids. But one day, for no reason we could explain, they suddenly vanished from all over Alymndes. Long we have searched for them in vain. Now they live only in our lore.
“Is there the remote possibility that they somehow all migrated to the South?”
“Maybe. But I would not call it a migration. Only magic could have transported them over the Mountains of Fire in such a brief time.”
Arnaud could not hold it any longer:
“Magic? What the heck has magic to do with all that? Magic does not exist!”
The Dunlago Judge laid a gentle hand on his new friend’s shoulder.
“Arnaud, I would not be so sure. Too many things seem to have the knack to happen at the same time. Too many coincidences. Even this meeting of ours could not have been imaginable four seasons ago!”
Ellana concurred:
“There is magic in Alymndes, Arnaud. The Elf women are the living proof!”
The Beaulieu magistrate’s eyes went from the Judge to Ellana to Aerdhel. He gave up, sitting back in his chair, although the deep frown on his brow clearly indicated that he was not convinced yet. The Dunlago Judge sincerely felt sorry for him. One day, other revelations would have to be made.
The ever-practical Hammerblow said:
“What are our forces, anyway?”
Gerhart went on to describe the situation at hand.
“The Royal guards, the Golden Dragon Squad from Beaulieu are already stationed or on their way to the Pass. I will have to dispatch the d’Estrees brothers to hold Villefranche and help the Dunlago fleet.
He turned to Alf:
“How about the Baronages in the North?”
“A lot of dissent, I’m afraid. Things are not looking too good there. Even if they ever deign to send reinforcements, they will probably find enough excuses for delays and only after the battle to pick up the pieces!”
Amrel uncharacteristically growled:
“Gerhart, one day the Crown will have to assert its authority in the north once for all!”
“Well, if it cannot be helped, I will prefer to lean on trustworthy allies only, instead of hoping for elusive subjects!”
“That’s the spirit!” the Dwarf King forcefully agreed. “We have enough Dwarves there. Put two to each crenel and no one will go through the breastworks! My wife and I will make sure they do not move as many as a step backward!”
Gerhart had a reservation:
“As a King, I understand you will wish to participate in the fight along with your people, but what of your wife?”
“What of his wife?” Brighteyes almost roared, “Are you trying to intimate that our females are not as good fighters as your Walkyries? Know that I will not be the only female Dwarf warrior on the Wall!”
The King of Beaulieu raised his hands in appeasement. He certainly did not wish to initiate an argument with the most feared Dwarf under the Iron Crags after Drumbeat Hammerblow. Why did he have to be surrounded by so many headstrong women?
Aerdhel came to his help. After all, he had the innate ability to deal with the so-called weak gender. Years of referring to Queen Ellana had provided him with a thick skin and sharp sense of opportunity. Dargelblad was slowly coming to like the Elf.
“Gerhart, our women will go immediately back to the Elf Forest, but all male Elves, led by our Marshall Wilfred here, will stay and provide you with skillful cover. I suggest you post us atop each end tower so as to be able to shoot at any foe coming through land or air and catch into a crossfire!”
“Excellent strategy, indeed!” Umatar intervened. “I can have the Shamen stay in Beaucastel to ensure the safe delivery of messages between the Pass and the capital. But all Tribesmen available will join me to the Wall. Our warriors will be most proficient at ensuring fast communications, fill any gaps or breaches in our defenses, as well as helping the Elves shoot down our enemies!”
No one this time dared mention the gender of the Queen of the Steppes.
It was the turn of Marcus to make himself heard:
“We do not have many of ours here, but all men will join me to the Pass! I am sure we can be of some help. Do you think not, Jonas?””
The black giant coldly replied:
“Count on me! I might even enjoy it!”
“Now, this is a big boon!” Hammerblow rejoiced. “I have read reports from our Dwarves on that battle in Villefranche. If there are foes that Dwarves would think twice before angering them, they must be the men of Dunlago!”
Marcus turned to his wife. She raised a preemptive hand.
“Do not tell me! I know that we women of Dunlago are no fighters! That is, with weapons made of steel! I have the notion that Lady Geraldine wants to erect a field hospital like she did in Villefranche, and I will be glad to help. At least I will be near enough to keep you out of mischief!”
All men chortled despite the seriousness of the situation.
Gerhart sobered up:
“Alright, Ladies and Gentlemen! We had better start right now. As far as I am concerned, I will be ready to move tomorrow. I suggest that every one else moves at his or her own pace. I doubt we will see action before at least three weeks. But the sooner we regroup at the Wall, the better, as we will have to train and coordinate our troops!”
He addressed his intelligence chief:
“Alfred, have messages sent to all dukes, earls, barons and whoever else, to request their immediate support. We will see who answers and comes.
Looking at his wife, he continued:
“Marghrete, I’m sorry. I know you want to come, but for once you will have to stay. Our children will not travel and your warriors will stay with you. You will not be completely alone. Arnaud, may I ask you to remain in Beaucastel in the company of Nepomucene de Beauvoir to organize everything during our absence and look after the Realm? Choose whomever you wish to stay and help you! Alfred will take care of the communications between the capital and the Pass with the aid of the Tribesmen messengers!”
Arnaud had a perfect grasp of the situation.
“Your Majesty is right. May I request King Marcus to allow me the company of the Judge of Dunlago, provided both agree?”
The Judge replied before Marcus could air his opinion.
“I will reside in Beaucastel indeed. There are so many things the two of us still have to discuss. So why not work and study at the same time?”
Gerhart gratefully laughed.
“My most profound thanks to both of you! Frankly speaking, I prefer to know you will have our subjects running in Beaucastel and wherever else, instead of having you around my neck!”
Arnaud reflected that this new habit of contributing such a nasty reputation on his person and that of the Dunlago Judge was becoming tiresome.
——————————–
The table of Philippe de la Marche, for all his vaunted titles, had never been renowned for its manners. The present baron came from a long illustrious line of petty nobles more inclined on pillaging their own lands than fructifying them. Such an attitude would have had all farmers literally up in arms in the deep south of the Realm. He had received his own share of official protests and warnings, and the recent garrisoning of Royal Guards in addition to his momentary banishment from the Capital irked him no end. He had had ample time to benefit from the new comfort of Beaucastel to resent the absence of everyday amenities such as sewers and clean water, without mentioning the access to public baths and competent physicians.
He did not particularly appreciate his guest, but Jehan Desmesne was a crafty merchant and his advice was always welcome. Moreover, the two of them shared a hatred of those puffed up Royal Guards that he had the pleasure to see depart in the morning at the news that help was requested in the south at a place called the Pass. He had sent a reply promising his aid to the present campaign. But he had not seen fit to mention that such assistance would be limited to moral support only. For all he cared, if that war could get him rid of that nuisance called King Gerhart, the happier he would be for it.
“As if I could afford to leave my lands, especially so near harvest time!”
Which was still three months away to tell the truth.
The merchant nodded in agreement.
“Absolutely, Baron de la Marche, absolutely! Mark my word, this King of ours, although I never elected him, will be the ruin of our land! These wars bode no good for business. And to think I had to pay taxes for the upkeep of these parasites called Blue Knights and Walkyries! Women soldiers, you tell me! All these females should be at home, cleaning and cooking for hard working men!”
One day, the two of them would learn that their contempt for women would become their ruin. One of the maidservants kept her ears wide open, her attention concealed under a veil of servile demeanor. The more she would be glad to report the two crude men after all their lecherous pawing and fondling that she had to endure.
———————–
Hammerblow suppressed a groan.
“Drumbeat, what do you see?” Gerhart asked the King Under The Mountain he had recently come to call by his other name. The Dwarf was looking through that strange contraception of his to observe the Pass ahead. Gerhart had already the occasion to use the telescope. He was pretty certain that one could see through it even further than an Elf. The Dwarf King handed him the magnifying glass without a word.
Gerhart took it and brought it up to his right eye. They had heard noises day and night for the past week, but had not been able to figure out what was happening deep inside the gorge. Now at last they could.
It was not a pretty sight.
The defile looked as if a sea of teeming insects had invaded it when he discovered innumerable small human figures, dressed in black pressing behind three giant forms apparently helping them with some obscure task.
“What can be those giants in their midst?”
“Trolls!”
“What on earth are those?”
“Monsters of legend mentioned in our lore. They must have been abducted together with all the fabulous animals of Alymndes by the evil lurking in the South long before our times, when Dwarves were said to fight dragons for the supremacy of their mountains! Those trolls are beasts about three times the size of your tallest humans. They are horrendously strong but extremely stupid. Those must have been enslaved to do our enemy’s work. Our foe has come with a very crude but effective solution to progress over all those stones and debris. Look at their middle: the trolls are pulling carts, some loaded with dirt, others with long planks. I dare not imagine how many forests have disappeared, or how many holes have been left in the earth down in the South, but they must have destroyed a whole land to attain their goal! Apparently, the traps laid by Ironfoot have not slowed them much! At the present pace, they will reach the Wall within seven to ten days, depending on how many of their people they are ready to sacrifice on the way!”
Gerhart came to understand the meaning of his last words when he noticed some small black figures falling under the carts or in front of the column, to be mercilessly trampled to death by the trolls or the other invaders.
“Can’t we do anything to impede them?”
“Not much. But we have to get rid of those trolls before they come under our ramparts, or their combined strength and stupidity, if properly harnessed and protected, may cause untold damage to the Wall!”
Gerhart passed the telescope along to Marcus who had joined them atop the parapet with Aerdhel, Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright. He saw a young Knight and a Tribeswoman standing closely behind the leaders of the Golden Dragon Squad. They must be new recruits, he thought.
“How would you plan to do that? The more I look at them, the more impervious to conventional weapons they look to me!”
“Unfortunately, you are right! An arrow would not leave much of a dent in their thick hides, and it would take a dozen Dwarves with axes and maces to have a chance at maiming them! But we still have time to devise another weapon for their demise!
“And what would that be?”
“Catapults! We will build a medium-size one on top of each side tower and also on the barbican in the center. Even trolls cannot survive flying boulders!”
William had joined Amrel to help with the field hospital. The Blue Dragon and her sister had reasoned that they would need him close to the fight after all, as he was their sole source of reliable information on their foes.
Having not much to do, Umatar had accompanied them as she had felt a sudden need for the physical proximity of her lover. Even a Dragon had cravings and longings.
In spite of the increasingly crowded area behind the wall, the three of them were able to converse under the unknowing eyes of their neighbors. All the other Dragons were listening and blocking their conversation from anyone else’s ears. William was aware of such a power, although he was not comfortable with the notion yet, even taking in account the fact that he happened to be the human most cognizant of their ways.
Umatar spoke to him:
“William, our foes have finally been sighted. Where do you think these come from in particular?”
“I would surmise that they have either been recruited or forcefully enlisted in Drastan, the nation between Thalamus in the East and Andragon, my country in the West. The Inquisitors and Commanders have probably emptied the whole of Drastan of humans if I can believe the reports of the immensity of the army coming to us.”
“You say humans. Do you mean that we can expect something else?”
“I would not be surprised if our own lore suddenly found itself vindicated. Drastan is a very strange land with many mountains, forests, lakes and rivers. They say it is a beautiful but mysterious region full of alien beasts. It is also a guarded land. Even as an errant healer, I was not allowed to roam through it. Only Inquisitors, Commanders and their minions are privileged with a free access.”
“We understand the roles of the Inquisitors. They are obviously the pawns of a greater power that has decided not reveal itself for the moment, although we have an idea of its name. Some of its creatures called it before dying. Have you ever heard the name Sacrach?”
The physician shook his head.
Umatar went on:
“How can we recognize Inquisitors and Commanders?”
“They are fairly easy to pick up. But why do you not come and look into my mind?”
The offer surprised the Dragons. No one, even a Dragon, would be too keen to let a stranger freely enter his or her mind, even out of free will. But William had different motivations that Dragons comprehended too well.
“You have our eternal gratitude for your sacrifice, William! Know that…”
The physician interrupted her:
“I already have your love. What else could a human ask from a Dragon? Now, if you would please come in?”
They complied and they saw.
Images of humans appeared, men or women they could not distinguish. They wore black robes with hoods fully hiding their traits. A golden hammer was embroidered on the chest of their garment. Only their hands came in sight, and these were gloved in black, too. The Commanders’ features, on the other hand, were shown for all to see. These were men of a cruel and brutal disposition, eager to exercise their power and inflict great pain. They also sported a golden hammer on a black surcoat.
His mind went blank. The Dragons had to retire. William was demonstrating a lot of strength to not only let Dragons penetrate his thoughts, but also to be able to set a limit to it. Was it the love of a Dragon or the thirst for revenge, which gave him that power to deal with the likes of Umatar?
He spoke to them:
“Now, these Inquisitors or Commanders, if they ever show up, will be prime targets for the Elves and Tribesmen to eliminate. They will not be easy to catch as they always keep to the rear to prevent any of their soldiers from escaping a fight. Any deserters or cowards are executed on the spot, most of them after terrible torture as examples for the rest!”
Days slowly went past. The enemy was inching its way forward. All the while, the Dwarves kept themselves busy with the building of their catapults atop the two towers and the barbican. A complex combination of pulleys and ropes helped haul wooden beams and metal bars that forced laborers had carried to the foot of the ramparts under the instructions of the Dwarves. Since there was not much else to do, everyone was lending a hand, even the Kings of Beaulieu and Dunlago, who considered that if Hammerblow was contributing his own help to the task, no one would prevent them from taking part in the fun. The Dunlago men, in spite of their small number, were leaving an everlasting impression with their strength. But all soldiers at the Wall, whatever their country or nation, felt the more compelled to confront their future enemy as they witnessed their own sovereigns either bodily participating to the defenses of their land, or keeping an attentive eye on the preparations like Aerdhel and She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons.
Gaspard and Who-She-Walks-Alone had little time to reflect on such lofty considerations. What with the two daily sessions of weapon and hand-to-hand fight practices, and Maheut sending them to the four corners of the camp with mountains of orders and messages, they were given respite only for rest or food. Gaspard was already showing a marked change from the Knight barely fit for parades when he first stood in front of their Sergeant. Almost a full moon of hard soldier’s life and training had taken some unneeded weight off his sturdy frame. He had cut his straw hair short on his pate and nape, and kept a large piece of dark cloth tied around his head to secure the efficient round helmet he had adopted instead of the impossible plumed headgear he had carried until then. The only concession to his former hairstyle was the simple braids falling from each temple. He had joined the Tribeswoman at a common table where she had kept a space for him while he fetched food for both of them. As this was the only way to grab a comparatively comfortable spot for their meals, they had quickly realized that it would be easier if the fierce woman, who nobody wanted to cross, sat first to fend other soldiers off their seats, whereas Gaspard might have to resort to cruder means. In any event, Gaspard preferred to serve a woman than being served by one. Their initial enmity had slowly evolved into a guarded camaraderie nurtured by their common duties. They had come to accept their different values and understand the mutual benefits of their companionship. Maheut had hammered into their heads that they would have to work as a team, like it or not, and had ceaselessly stressed on their fighting practice as an inseparable pair. This had developed into a constant challenge as to who would prove the best partner. Gaspard arrived with his arms full with bread, cheese and two bowls of soup. She-Who-Walks-Alone helped him unload them onto the table. He sat down, and the two of them began the serious business of wolfing down their fare. One would never know if they would have enough time to enjoy it.
“Warrior!” Gaspard started between two mouthfuls. He had called her so from the very beginning for the simple reason that he did not accept the meaning of the Tribeswoman’s name, and because he had doubts whether he would have enough time to scream her full name in a tight situation.
“Yes, Knight!” She seemed to take some pleasure in using the title in a disparaging manner, but Gaspard had quickly learned not to fall for her constant barbs in spite of their comradeship.
“I had meant to ask you for a long time. Sergeant Maheut mentioned all those weapons of yours. How many of them do you actually conceal on your person?”
“Do you mean you want me to undress?”
Gaspard almost coughed up a mouthful of food. She thumped him on the back with a giggle that brought faces up around them. He discovered that she had a very feminine laugh indeed. He had the grace to smile at her joke. She was much of a woman after all.
“I’m not ready to take them out for all to see, but I have a short knife in each boot, throwing stars and pins in pockets under my jerkin. I can use my belt and leather bands to strangle an enemy. A few pins are hidden in my hair. I also have hooks that I can tie to any rope. Give me a piece of metal and some fine twine, and I can create whatever weapon I need on the moment.”
“Impressive, when you think I only have my sword, shield and brute force. Since we are bound as a team for a long time to come, would you care to teach me their use?”
She intently looked at him:
“Do you really mean it?”
His serious face readily convinced her.
A rare smile lit her face.
“Gaspard,” she called his name for the first time as far as he could remember, “you are the first man to accept me as a warrior. I will be glad to teach you!”
The Royal Guard was about to thank her, when a horn blast from the Wall had every one jump from his or her bench. Gaspard held his hand to She-Who-Walks-Alone:
“Warrior, will we hurry?”
She took the proffered hand who pulled her straight her up.
“Aye, aye, Knight! Coming, Knight!”
They ran to grab their weapons and hurried to the Wall. They soon had taken their usual position behind Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright amid all the soldiers who crowded the parapet.
The enemy had reached a point two hundred yards ahead of them. They could clearly see the three trolls pulling and pushing the carts full of plank and dirt at the fore of an unending mass of human fighters clad in black.
Dwarven voices resonated over the hubbub of the soldiers’ comments. The booming twangs of three catapults being released at the same time exploded over their heads. Three large boulders were seen flying in a high arch to crash onto the advancing force. The projectiles landed beyond the trolls by a few yards, crushing humans and sending bodies in the air.
Dead or maimed, the victims of the bombardment were callously pulled or thrown aside, if not senselessly trampled over.
It took a quarter of an hour before the next volley was fired. This time a boulder decapitated the first troll, while the two other boulders wreaked more havoc among their enemies.
A cheer went up from the towers. The Dwarves were celebrating their success while furiously pulling the spoons back into position for the next shot. But the humans and Elves on the parapet stayed mute in sheer shock at the horrendous carnage happening in front of their eyes and the promise of more.
Gerhart turned to Marcus, who stood transfixed at his side:
“How many lives are they ready to throw to take the Wall? What kind of evil is driving these men to a sure death?”
Marcus shook himself:
“This has all the markings of witchery!” He grimly replied. “Although I do not have any experience of such evils, I know that something is controlling this army to the point of creating a totally mindless mass of killing machines. The descriptions that you gave us of the Duke of Montjoie and his Knights, and what we know of the slavers just corroborate. I’m afraid we will to prepare ourselves to kill, kill and kill until they or we disappear!”
“Unfortunately, I have to concur!”
The Dwarven catapults finally eliminated the threat of the two remaining trolls, But that did not slow the advancing column much, as the defenders discovered that the enemy soldiers were pulling at ropes tied to the carts.
The Dwarves changed their tactics. Instead of single boulders, they loaded the catapults with small rocks, each heavy enough to kill individual targets. The bombardment resumed with more hideous consequences. But it took time to pull the spoons back and refill them. For all their absurd stubbornness, the enemy had come to recognize the shooting pattern, and made ready for each volley, regularly raising their shields. The results of the barrage did not seem as dire, but the invaders still paid a heavy toll. Even so, more humans were taking the place of their dead comrades, like the relentless waves of a coming tide.
Soon or later, the Dwarves would have to replenish their ammunitions, giving their foes a respite.
Gerhart moved to stand beside Hammerblow on the barbican. He had noticed something.
“Drumbeat, may I borrow your telescope?”
The Dwarf readily handed the instrument.
Gerhart brought it to his eye and intently scrutinized the enemy forces ahead inside the gorge. His hunch was confirmed.
He handed the magnifying glass back to its owner.
“Drumbeat, whatever the nature or size of an army, it will always need to carry water and food along. Now, if you look beyond their front lines, you will find carts loaded with barrels. So why not forget their vanguard and hit their vital supplies?”
Hammerblow growled in response:
“You have a point there indeed! Hungry and thirsty men make for poor soldiers. Let me correct our aim, and I will take care of their stores!”
He barked orders, which were immediately relayed to the three catapults. Their handlers adjusted the spoons, filled them with the biggest stones they could find, and at the next shout from their King, they released their engines of destruction.
The aim was perfect this time. The three loads of boulders crashed into the casks transported on low carts to send their contents flying all around. Their enemy would not bring any more for quite a while.
Aerdhel came to Gerhart’s side. He wore full Elf armor made of leather and light metal plates. His helmet was adorned with wings made of fine silver. A plume of white horse hair floated at the top of his headgear.
Gerhart looked at him.
“Aerdhel, you are beautiful, but you are making an inviting target with all that finery!”
The Elf laughed.
“Let them waste their arrows if they have any! A human dart will never come too fast for me to dodge! On the other hand, you had better tell Marcus to put on some protection!”
The Dunlago men were indeed tempting fate, all of them standing bare-chested way above the breastworks. Most of them were carrying evil-looking scimitars and a round shield. Dwarves had manufactured round helmets and wrist bands with sturdy leather and steel for them. But apart of their loose trousers, wide cummerbands and leather sandals, their only protection were necklaces and earrings of wrought gold or silver.
Gerhart looked at them dubiously.
“I doubt that we will be able to convince them to wear anything else. My guards have reported that these seemingly peaceful men have this peculiar habit of going berserk once fight has started. Their mass and strength should compensate their lack of protection!”
“We will see.” Aerdhel replied with a shrug.
The Beaulieu King asked:
“How many arrows do we have by the way?”
“Our fletchers and the Tribesmen have done some good work. I can confidently say that we should have about one thousand score of darts ready to fly in a couple more days.”
“Which will be when we will need them! That makes for plenty of shooting, but we ought to husband our reserves.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Well, we were told to shoot at their leaders as soon as we see any of them, and might need quite a few to support our ranks when our enemies will try and climb the Wall. There is also this notion that we may come under attack from above!”
“I agree. We had better tell our Elves and Tribesmen and whoever else will use a bow!”
Marcus who had come to join them after a last check of his own fighters suggested:
“Gerhart, your pikemen would be welcome if they stood behind our front line to hit and push back anyone trying to step over the battlements. The length of their weapons should allow them enough freedom to choose their targets!”
Gerhart scratched his unshaved cheek.
“I’d better call Geoffroy to recommend this excellent plan of yours and practice it until bad comes to worse!”
————————————–
The two Judges were conferring over coffee at the Palace. The drink had quickly taken hold in Beaucastel and persons of means had already placed orders to any Dunlago trader they happened upon. Arnaud loved the beverage. It kept him awake for the mountain of work he had to tackle every day. The Dunlago Judge had brought a big load of beans with him and made a point to brew them himself for the two of them.
A notion came to the Beaucastel magistrate as he contentedly sipped from the tiny silver cup where fresh coffee had been poured with honey and mint leaves.
“Judge, do you have some kind of pension in Dunlago for your soldiers in case they get maimed or killed in action?”
“Arnaud, I wish you could call me by my name, at least in private!”
“But nobody knows your name!”
“Nobody has asked!” The Dunlago official retorted with a smile. “Alright, I’m called Marsalis.”
“Interesting. It almost sounds as martial as Marcus. The name fits you, does it not?”
“Thanks. Now about this soldier’s pension, I must admit that not much of the sort has ever been designed in our country. What about your own?”
“The Royal Guards put aside a part of their wages in a retirement fund. But that is all I am aware of. Since these soldiers are all professional, the Realm should assume some responsibility for the care of their families and dependents. We discourage our soldiers to get married as long as they are on contract as a matter of course, but some take the risk. We do not believe in levies of volunteers or any kind of compulsory conscription. A professional soldier is a better investment and security in the long run. But it would not be a bad idea to encourage potential fighters to enroll with an insurance of additional pension for themselves if they get injured to the point of retirement, or for their families in case of death.”
“It would certainly read well in a contract. If we could make it proportional to the length of service, it would make our armies or navies the more efficient for it!”
“Why do we not submit a basic plan to our Kings as soon as that sorry business at the Pass is out of the way?”
Marsalis looked at Arnaud.
“You seem confident we will win that war?”
“Well, if we lose it, we will not have much to talk about, will we?”
—————————————
The enemy had finally reached a point less than fifty yards from the Wall, relatively free of rocks and debris. Swarms of black-clad soldiers were spreading their lines parallel to the barrier of stone facing them, while more were pushing behind, bottled up as they were inside the narrow defile. The Dwarves kept hurling a regular rain of stones at their backs, killing and horrendously maiming whole crowds of adversaries.
But still more were coming.
Well, we will see how many of them fifteen thousand of arrows will get us rid of, Gerhart brooded.
The time had come to let fly at will. He raised his sword high above his shoulder in the arranged signal.
Every human and Elf had one eye on him while pulling on his or her string.
The arm fell.
The first volley of arrows hit the enemy lines. Every Elf, Tribesman and Royal Guard had been ordered to make every bolt count. Aim was methodically taken without a hurry and each dart found its target with deadly precision. Whole rows of men fell back, arrows protruding from chests or throats. But their comrades, if one could call them so, merely stepped over them, muffling their cries and pleas under their combined mass.
A second volley crashed into their ranks with similar results. And a third one. And a fourth one. Archers on the Wall grimly carried on shooting. It soon became a hideously senseless butchery. The carnage went on for a full hour.
Suddenly the advancing army seemed to stop in its tracks.
Gerhart wondered at the unexpected lull.
It did not bode anything good.
Aerdhel, who had been keeping company with his Elves materialized at his side.
“We had better stop shooting at their foot soldiers for a while!” he advised.
“Why is that?”
“We have another kind of trouble approaching!”
Gerhart turned to Geoffroy who had stood nearby nearly all the time:
“Captain, order to stop shooting immediately!”
While Geoffroy passed on the command, he asked the Elf:
“What is it, Aerdhel?”
“Look ahead of you and above!”
The King of Beaulieu put his hand above his eyes to get a better view. He did not have the eyes of an Elf, but he clearly saw many dots in the sky rapidly approaching. As they increased in sight the nearer they came, he distinguished flying creatures with humans riding them.
“It seems that your fabulous beasts did exist after all!”
“You did not accept the story of that dead pegasus we found at the foot of the Fire Mountains, then?”
“Aerdhel, I apologize for not believing you, but you would agree that it required stretching our imaginations a bit!”
“Will we order all our archers to get ready?”
Gerhart was about to give his assent, when Wilfred arrived at their side.
The impossibly tall Elf gave them a perfunctory salute.
“Gerhart, Aerdhel, could you please command your men to shoot at the riders only?”
The request disconcerted the King of Beaulieu.
“But surely, if we shoot their mounts down, we will save our arrows!”
“That might be so, but do not forget that their beasts had been originally abducted out of Alymndes. If we have a chance to free some of them and provide them with a new abode, say in the Elf Forest, it could prove a boon in the future!”
“But you told me those beasts were magical. How do you expect to control them?”
“Queen Ellana and her magicians will help us!”
“From that distance! You must be out of your mind!”
“Not at all!” Dargelblad patiently explained, although he was not telling the exact truth. If they had a chance to liberate and lure some of these beasts, it would be Dragons’ work. “Our women Elves possess that kind of power!”
Gerhart incredulously shook his head.
“Well, in this case, it is your responsibility! Organize the archers. But if those beasts attack us, I will order their destruction!”
“Fair enough. My thanks, Gerhart!”
Looking at the back of the departing Elf, Gerhart wondered why he had given in to his request so easily. He actually had a good idea of the answer, and he could not say that he liked it.
Shouts brought him back to his senses.
The sky was suddenly filled with flapping pegasuses and griffons led by fully armed riders. The flying horses were beautiful indeed, but the griffons struck him as excessively menacing. The latter possessed the powerful paws of a lion and the wicked beak of an eagle. He wondered whether their riders could make them fight.
Arrows flew upward, but some fell soon from above, too. He barely had the time to lift his shield over his head. That was how their foes thought of breaking their defenses! Arrows were also coming from their enemies on the ground. It would soon become hell, he thought. But the enemy obviously knew nothing of the Golden Dragon Squad. Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright had taken command of the riposte. The Walkyrie screamed to all Royal Guards to build a wall of shields to protect the Tribesmen and Elven archers. After a short floating moment when the precarious balance threatened to tilt in their attackers’ favor, the shooting achieved a ruthless efficacy, and enemies fell in droves from their mounts onto their own soldiers on the ground with increasing regularity.
In a blur, Gerhart noticed that Jonas had joined Wilfred behind Aerdhel. The two of them seemed transfixed at the spectacle and utterly unaware of the danger.
Following the gaze of the two Dragons, he discovered that riderless pegasuses and griffons, after a period of disorientation, seemed to fly away from the fray. He followed their flight and was astonished to see them land on ledges found on the cliffs on the right side of the Wall and wait there in spite of their trembling legs and apparent fright.
But not all invading fliers had been halted or turned back.
Some had managed to soar over the Wall and were landing among their camps and barracks.
Maheut was the first to react.
She called for the nearest members of the Golden Dragon Squad as she rushed down the back stairs of the Wall closely followed by He-who-Stands-Upright, her two new aides and a score of other soldiers and Tribesmen.
A dozen beasts and their riders had landed. Each had born two or three of their foes. Some carried short bows and all held round shields and swords. Like their comrades on the ground, they wore a black surcoat with a golden hammer. They were of medium height and build, but all sported the tanned skin of people who lived outdoors in a hot climate.
And they were thoroughly insane.
They all had come down from their mounts and moving forward to meet Maheut’s force in a tightly bound bunch. Their pegasuses and griffons were standing at their back, snorting and hissing in great agitation.
Fortunately, their enemies had touched down in a spot relatively free of impediments.
Maheut could not fathom why they had chosen to alight in such an area where there was no cover, whereas an intrusion in the field hospital or store spaces would have created much confusion and damage.
In spite of their momentary numeral inferiority, she signaled her soldiers to fan out into semi-encirclement, as the beasts would effectively block their foes’ retreat, unless they wished to mount back on their steeds and flee off the scene. Instead, they rushed at their middle with bulging eyes and wide-open mouths screaming “Hammer of Fate! Hammer of Fate!”
The Golden Dragon Squad fighters were well drilled. They did not try to meet them face on. They gave way to encircle them completely. Their enemies found themselves looking at troopers and warriors all around them, and reinforcements were coming.
Maheut wanted to give them a chance to surrender. But like the slavers in the mangrove, they knew that they would have to kill them to the last as quickly as possible when she saw them rushing forward in utter disorder, screaming and shouting things that sounded like obscenities.
The Sergeant shouted: “No quarters!”
The foes from the South did not last long. The Golden Dragon Squad had perfected their strategy with Tribesmen throwing lassoes and knives at their enemies, immobilizing more than half of them before the heavier Royal Guards crashed into their opponents, hacking their way through till no adversary was left standing or alive.
Even Maheut’s young aides had contributed to the fight.
She-Who-Walks-Alone had quickly cast her rope around the arms and chest of their nearest target, controlling the raving man long enough for Gaspard to slam into him with his shield. As the man fell backward, he thrust his sword through his neck just above the collar of his jerkin. The young Knight stood looking at his dead foe in a daze. Enemy or not, a dead man was never a pretty sight.
She-Who-Walks-Alone urgently pulled his sleeve.
“Wake up, Knight! Do that again, and you’ll get both of us killed!”
They heard the Sergeant shout at them:
“Warrior, Knight, shake yourselves, will you? We have work to do!”
Under Maheut’s direction, the Golden Dragon Squad proceeded to pull their dead foes into a row where forced laborers would come later to dispose of the bodies and burn them on a pyre especially made ready for that purpose. Reusable armors and weapons would be stacked away for reuse or melting. Other belongings would go to fire with the corpses. Orders had been given that looting and pilfering bodies were strictly prohibited.
The fabulous animals had become quescient upon the death of their riders, so Maheut ignored them. In any case, she had seen Wilfred and Jonas arriving on the scene and planting themselves in front of the beasts.
The very first time that she had seen the two outlandish men coming to the Wall, she had guessed that they were of the same kind as Umatar and Amrel, and had concluded that to leave them alone would be for the best. On the other hand, she knew she would not have to worry about those weird animals.
She called to her soldiers:
“Every one back to the Wall! We have a battle to attend to!”
“Do we really need this, Dargelblad?” Ekan asked his brother. “Our enemy will have no difficulty in finding us now!”
“Which should suit our purpose! Let it concentrate his energies on us. The ruder its surprise will be when he finds out we are not alone! Moreover, we ought to save those poor beasts for the simple reason that they might prove very useful in the future. Do not forget they were living in the South! Now, help me!”
The two Dragons sent their thoughts to all the pegasuses and griffons in front of them as well as to those that had retreated onto the cliff. Soothing thoughts they were. For all their fantastic appearance, the animals had a simple mind, which could explain why they had been coerced by their riders’ will or more exactly by an alien being bent on enslaving a whole continent and all the creatures living there. Wilfred sent an image of a clearing in the Elf Forest that he knew well, and, aided by his brother, gently intimated them all to fly away to the West along the Fire Mountains to find their new home where they would be fed and looked after.
Inside the Elf Forest, Ellana’s retainers saw their Queen suddenly go rigid. They realized she was communicating with someone else, although no one would be able to invade her thoughts.
“Yes, my love?” she answered in mindspeech to Dargelblad’s query.
“Ellana, we are sending you pegasuses and griffons we have managed to save from that mess. Focus your powers and that of your subjects on their welfare. As soon as they arrive, keep the flying horses inside the forest and guide the griffons in an area along the Mountains of Fire where they will find food. Try to nurture them as supplementary guards of our Forest. If the pegasuses accept you, use them as mounts for inspections from above. Give them all the love you can muster! They will become an integral part of our world in the very near future!”
A pang of sadness assailed her when she felt him cutting off their contact. How long would that war keep them physically separated?
The sight of her retainers looking askance brought her back to her duties.
“Ladies, let us go to the Clearing of the Sun! Guests are waiting!”
The Southerners were redoubling their assaults. They had finally reached the foot of the Wall.
Dwarves had stopped bothering with throwing stones with their catapults when they had discovered that their foes had caught their timing and were moving back into the general area where projectiles landed immediately after each volley.
The Dwarves, Elves and humans kept hurling whatever stones they had left over the parapet under the protection of the Royal Guards’ shields, although they could not judge the effects. Leaning over crenels was becoming an increasingly perilous business. All archers had been moved to the two towers from where they could shoot across the line of the advancing army in relative security. But they would soon run out of arrows as they had to keep some in reserve for any distinctive targets, or particular situations bound to arise soon or later.
The quality of the sounds coming from below the Wall noticeably changed. The defenders soon espied at least a dozen lines moving through the crowds of assailants. They were carrying enormous poles ended with a large metal hook and fit with rungs on both sides. The enemy had decided to take the Wall the hard way.
There was not much the defenders could do to impede them as they had used up all their projectiles. Geoffroy took over the organization of the defense. Two Royal Guards manned each breastwork, while a pair of Dwarves was posted at every crenel. That first line was backed up with a second row of defenders including the Dunlago men, while pikemen formed a third line, their lances ready to be lowered over each crenel. The parapet was wide enough to allow patrols of Royal Guards and Tribesmen to move along and lend a hand. The two front lines would regularly relieve each other until reserves would take over. The towers were exclusively manned with Elves and Tribesmen. Those would dispatch messengers along the parapet to report on the general fight situation and relay messages when necessary.
The defenders braced themselves for the imminent assault.
All stood silent and ready while Corporals, Lieutenants and Captain shouted encouraging orders to stay vigilant.
The grating sound of metal on stone was heard all along the Wall as the poles struck the parapet. The defenders had reckoned that they would not be able to push those ladders back without suffering heavy casualties. Everyone waited.
Geoffroy shouted:
“Here they come! Get ready!”
The first foe appeared screaming over a crenel, a sword held high. His shout was cut by a pikeman’s lance hitting him full in the chest. For a surreal moment the man flailed his arms and tottered on the brim of the parapet before slowly falling back. His scream of horror and death was soon lost in the overwhelming noise and shouts of the assailants climbing the poles and throwing themselves at the defenders.
The battle of the Wall had begun.
For two solid hours the united forces of Alymndes repulsed their enemies over the Wall. The strategy of combining the complementary skills of the Dwarves and Royal Guards efficiently backed by the pikemen flawlessly worked. Geoffroy ordered regular shifts, mixing in Dunlago men and Tribesmen to give them experience of their foes while the going was good. He understood too well that this first day of fighting would not be the last.
As the sun sank close to the Fire Mountains, the fight suddenly stopped.
Cautiously peering over the parapet, Gerhart saw their assailants move back a hundred yards away to sit on the ground in no apparent order. Either they had realized that the men on the Wall would not shoot at them unless a dire situation required it, or they did not care.
The sudden quiet over the field became eerie and oppressive.
“What the hell are they doing?” queried Gerhart to Geoffroy staring over the barbican.
Geoffroy scratched the stubble on his cheek.
“A soldier would act in that way only if he were on drugs or something. How could you explain their senseless fighting at one moment, and their disinterest at the next one? Unless I’m greatly misled, I doubt that they will fight until dawn has come. I had better organize the watch and tell our men and women to grab all the food, water and rest they can!”
The night passed without any incident. The invading army seemed to have gone into a deep sleep. Dwarves had brought lamps of their own invention to observe their enemies. Mirrors behind large candles reflected light in concentrated beams onto the apparently dormant Southerners.
The following morning, sentinels were substituted. Men and women went to the latrines, washed themselves and partook of food and drink.
Some of the refreshed soldiers took a peek over the parapet at the besieging force. They were still comatose to all appearances.
“Do these men ever wash or relieve themselves?” Gratien loudly wondered.
“I doubt it, with that smell coming up!” grumbled Firebrand who had followed him as usual.
The Corporal had not realized how highly the female Dwarf warrior was respected by her fellow Dwarves. She had already proven her worth and more than that as a fighter. Geoffroy and Birghit had also taken notice of the two on the rare occasions when enemies had grabbed half chances to burst through their first lines. The big human and the diminutive Dwarf had rushed in and crashed their own bodies and weapons into unhappy foes with such combined force and ferocity as to leave many a defender speechless, but more eager to fight. Nicknames were already traveling through he ranks. The female Dwarf warrior found herself the recipient of such sobriquets as the “Corporal’s Firebrand”, “She-Who-Burns-Like-Fire”, “Thunder-of-the-Earth”, or more simply “Fireball”, whereas Gratien earned the single epithet of “The Corporal”, a name he had already been awarded by his own Guards, thanks to his impossibly long name.
“Judging from the way that things go, we will soon have to cover our mouths, or we will quickly suffer from untold diseases with all those corpses rotting in the sun and that unbelievable disregard for basic hygiene!”
During the night, the Knights and Dwarves had tried in vain to break the hooks off the ladders resting against the Wall. They had finally opted to push them off the parapet with great difficulty. At least, they should have some warnings before their enemies erected them against their fortifications.
Ekan and Dargelblad were observing their apparently sleeping foes.
“Do you think we are facing necromancy again?” asked the Silver dragon.
“I doubt it. These men are alive, but on the other hand the rowers on the triremes were clearly dead. These soldiers are under the grip of some kind of black magic. How could you explain they could walk or even fight with so little water or food? How could their bodies rest in such uncanny manner? These humans are alive, but unless we can find and destroy their rulers or masters, they are lost and bound to die. I wish I could lock my hands around the neck of the cursed evil that holds them in thrall!”
“We all do, Ekan! We all do!”
At that very moment, shrill horn blasts were heard coming from rear of the invading army. Enemies seemed to awaken. They soon all stood in silent waiting.
Puzzled onlookers on the parapet soon caught the sight of hooded black figures handing out large bags to individuals who appeared to have some authority as they wore a different and showier uniform, although they also bore the golden hammer on their chests. Those Commanders, as Ekan and Dargelblad believed they were according to William’s description, began walking through the ranks and throwing around small wrapped objects out of their bags. The Southerners avidly grabbed them in mid-air or scrambled to pick them up before opening them and swallowing their contents. What they had ingested had an instant effect on them as they were seen straightening up, eyes bulging and entering some kind of seizure.
Shouts surged along the ranks to be repeated by all the enemy soldiers with ever-growing fervor. Soon the defenders could make out the words, “Hammer of Fate!” screamed all over the land ahead of them.
“Now we know they are on drugs and something else!” Dargelblad commented for all the Dragons who were linked in mindspeech and seeing through the eyes of their two brothers on the Wall.
“Is it not time that we interfere and put an end to this curse!” Umatar forcibly answered.
“No!” Glamrun’s voice screamed inside their heads. “That is just what our enemy wants! Do you not feel it lurking beyond our foes? How do you think so many enemies can be held together in such adverse conditions? No Inquisitor or Commander, whatever their numbers, can yield that kind of power as to enthrall such a multitude of humans!”
“What do you propose we do, then!” Amrel almost roared back.
“Contain them! We have to reach a stalemate when our foe will have no other alternative but to show itself. Only then will we strike!”
“And how long and how many lives will it take?”
“That does not matter. If we lose, we will all be as well as dead, anyway!”
Glamrun broke contact.
The enemy attacked again
The defenders repulsed them again.
All day long Southerners had to be beaten off the Wall. Geoffroy kept on rallying his lines. The massacre was horrendous. Soon corpses piled against the foot of the ramparts up to the height of two men.
The stench of war was overpowering, and as Gratien had predicted, everyone was ordered to cover his mouth and nose with clean cloth in spite of the stifling heat.
Water and food was brought to the parapet and distributed to any one ordered to pull back.
Soon the first casualties were carried to Amrel at her field hospital. Only when the sun had sunk over the Mountains of Fire, the enemy suddenly ceased fighting and retreated before lying on the ground like on the previous day.
Exhausted soldiers and warriors sat against the bulwarks or the back of the parapet. After drinks and food, most fell asleep on the spot. Geoofroy, accompanied by Maheut, He-Who-Stands-Upright, Birghit, Gratien and his Dwarf companion walked along the whole parapet to survey the battleground. Marcus, Hammerblow, Gerhart, Aerdhel, and Umatar soon joined them.
The other Dragons kept away from them. Umatar’s eyes and ears would be adequate.
“Geoffroy, how long do you believe we can keep them at bay?” asked Gerhart.
“At least one more day. But if reinforcements do not come quick, we will have to think very hard!” the Captain grumbled.
“Talking of reinforcements, who are we thinking of?”
“We could send an urgent message to Montjoie and strip the garrison there, but Villefranche is too far for them to reach us in time. Even so, it would take at least two days for the Guards in Montjoie to join us!”
“And who did not send any help at all?” growled Gerhart who knew the answer too well.
“We have called all our Guards from the North. But three baronages have not bothered to add to their numbers!” Birghit replied.
“And they are?”
“Marche, Montfaucon and Valmoray!”
“Valmoray? I suspected all along that the first two would not bother, but Valmoray should know better!”
Birghit shrugged her shoulders.
“But that’s a fact. These three have not turned up! And ever if they did, they will be too late!”
Gerhart barely contained himself. His face was livid when he turned to Geoffroy.
“Captain, send a message to Montjoie for all what it is worth! Let’s wait one more day and we will make do, then! But tomorrow, everybody will have to take part in the fight! Aerdhel, She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, Marcus, could you be kind to divide your forces along the wall to back up the Guards, pikemen and Dwarves? I’m afraid this is all for one and one for all, if I may allow myself this silly expression!”
All mutely acquiesced and went to organize their forces. In spite of Gerhart’s apparent leadership, all would have to assert their authority to lend a hand to the suzerain of Beaulieu.
Dawn on the third day came over the wall.
Defenders had to stand up and go to their morning cares when they still had the time. The ladders had been pushed back onto the heads of their enemies. They knew by now how long it would take before the first foes would climb the Wall.
The Royal Guards and pikemen were tired and painfully aware of their aching limbs and backs. The Dwarves still seemed fresh and eager for a fight. The Tribesmen and Elves did not show any strain, but they realized that they too would be sorely tried on that day. The Dunlago giants exhibited rare calm and poise, but they would reveal their true nature in battle.
The assaults were even more reckless than the previous days, as if the Southerners were aware that even their unnatural sustainance might not last forever. The assailants tried a new tactic, which almost succeeded. The first men on the Wall literally dived over each crenel to entangle the Dwarves under their bodies to let the next combatants walk or run over them to engage the second line, at the same time trying to evade the humans behind the breastworks. Only the relative freshness of the Dunlago men, Tribesmen and Elves saved the day. Even so, mistakes were made. Men, women, Dwarves and Elves died in spite of the desperate efforts of their comrades. Corporal Gratien de Salles-Lavauguyon and Firebrand reached a new height of sheer heroics and perseverance, constantly running along the parapet, filling in gaps, urging Guards to hold on and fighting beside Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright.
Now that the Golden Dragon Squad was fully engaged, Tribesmen were throwing lassoes around foes to drag them onto the lances of the pikemen.
Darts, stars and axes were seen flying, striking at the faces and necks of enemies.
Firebrand repeatedly screamed “For the Kingdom Under the Mountain! For Hammerblow and Brighteyes!” for all to hear over the Wall while bludgeoning to death any foe unlucky to come within her reach.
On top of the barbican Aerdhel, Marcus and Gerhart, covered from head to toe with the blood of their enemies were beheld by all slicing, hacking and cutting their raving opponents with unequalled anger and viciousness.
At one time, Geoffroy had told Birghit:
“Songs will be made of that day for all Alymndes to learn and teach their coming generations!”
“That is, if we survive!” Birghit had shouted back. “Until then, we had better emulate Corporal Gratien! Do you not think that Gerhart ought to promote him? He has shown enough to assume the rank of Lieutenant!”
“I do concur! What about that little horror always at his side? Shall we give her a special rank?”
“Talking of little horrors, you will have to face Brighteyes before you suggest such a notion to Hammerblow! And you had better mind your language in their presence!”
Geoffroy laughed. If they could still joke, they would see that day off.
Unnoticed in the fog of battle, the four Dragons on the Wall were distancing themselves from the fight. They nevertheless kept all their senses wide open. They would not participate in the fight today. But the morrow could prove otherwise. Would they keep their disguise, or would they take the shape of enraged Dragons?
The fighting finally came to an end as the invaders retreated with the sun.
No cry of joy or triumph arose from the Wall. All apprehended the next day, and the others after.
Geoffroy ordered for water to be brought to them, not to staunch their thirst, but to clean themselves and the fortifications, lest soldiers started slipping on the blood and gore spilled over the stones. Only then, did he allow all to restore themselves and rest.
But instead of taking a well-earned break, he went to Gerhart who was cleaning himself along with Marcus and Aerdhel.
“Sires! We need to talk!” he told them.
Gerhart looked at the face of his Captain. Profound lassitude was threatening to overcome his body and mind. He turned to the Dunlago King and the Elf Price Consort. Both nodded. The King of Beaulieu replied:
“You are right. Will we meet around repast away from that damned wall? We had better call everybody else, too!”
Whatever horrors they had seen during the day, soldiers knew that they had to eat as much as their bodies could hold until the next day. All partook of food without much enthusiasm in spite of the excellent fare that any soldier would have considered as a treat in a different occasion.
Gerhart finally pushed his bowl away and filled his cup with wine. He needed the kick of the heady beverage.
He was soon imitated by all around the table, except Hammerblow and Brighteyes who went on eating as if the whole world was in peace.
“Alright, Captain!” he grumpily began. “What did you want to talk about that we do not know yet?”
Geoffroy ignored the implied pessimism in his King’s query.
He briskly answered as the seasoned soldier he was.
“Sire, we have enough forces to hold those bastards at bay for a while. The problem is that we are still not strong enough to drive them back indefinitely, or at least until a sizeable reinforcement comes! We would need to create two distinct shifts, but we just do not have enough fighting hands for that!”
Silence fell on the assembly.
If they did not find an immediate solution, the invading army would soon or later create a sufficient breach in their defenses to spill over the Wall and into the land beyond.
Feeble attempts were made to find or develop new strategies, but all propositions seemed impractical or downright impossible, until Birghit made her own suggestion.
Gerhart and Marcus immediately refused to consider it.
But the Lieutenant would not budge, even under the dire threat of demotion by her King and Captain. Hammerblow equally disagreed with her.
Only Brighteyes came to her help:
“And why not? Desperate situations call for desperate resolutions! We stand to lose little and gain a lot! Why not gamble?”
Jonas had kept silent all the time. Marcus could not believe his ears when he heard him say:
“I think Lieutenant Birghit has a good idea and a lot of courage. It is definitely worth trying!”
The Dunlago King retorted:
“You, Jonas of all men present here, would agree with that foolish plan?”
“Yes, Sire! I would!” Jonas coldly replied.
Marcus was about to explode, and Gerhart began to worry seriously. But when he saw the black giant calmly facing his sovereign, he realized that both of them had lost the argument.
The two Kings looked at each other, then at Aerdhel, then at Umatar.
They did not bother to check on Hammerblow.
Gerhart spoke for the two of them:
“Alright, Lieutenant! You win. But it is on your head!”
A thin smile of triumph appeared on Birghit’s face.
“Thank you, Sire! But you will have to find a replacement for me!”
The Guard that Gerhart had sent to the wall found Gratien soundly asleep, sitting against the breastworks. Firebrand was awake sitting at his side. The Guard visibly flinched at her gaze.
“Yes, Guard?” she inquired.
The soldier stammered:
“The King has demanded for the presence of Corporal Gratien de Salles-Lavauguyon at his side at once!”
“Your King had better have a very good reason, or he will face me!” she icily commented.
She nonetheless gently shook Gratien’s arm.
The Corporal immediately opened his eyes.
“Yes, Firebrand?”
“The King is asking for you!”
Gratien was too good a soldier to discuss orders. He stood up with a groan. He looked at the female Dwarf.
“Firebrand, stand up! You are coming with me!”
The Guard hesitated.
“But, Corporal, the King has…”
Gratien squarely faced him, his eyebrows frowning.
“Yes, Guard?”
The man gave up.
“If you would like to follow me?”
When the Corporal appeared in the company of the female Dwarf, Gerhart felt that the Royal Guard was making a statement.
Birghit and Brighteyes smiled.
They approved.
The Corporal formally saluted.
“Sire, you have called me?”
Gerhart ignored Firebrand. Better make friends of all those strong-headed women, he thought. Why did he have the impression that all men present were either avoiding his eyes or suppressing smiles? Only Hammerblow looked straight at the female Dwarf. But he discerned admiration and respect in the eyes of the King Under The Mountain.
He had better get on with it. He needed his sleep.
“Gratien de Salles-Lavauguyon, I called you to inform you that you have been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant of the Royal Guards!”
Gerhart had the satisfaction to witness the Corporal’s usually impassive face go through all kinds of emotions.
“But, Sire! I am only a Corporal!”
“Lieutenant, I do not care if you jump a rank in military hierarchy. Your title was earned on the battlefield, not in some clerk’s office at the Royal Palace in Beaucastel!”
The Corporal would not easily be browbeaten.
“Sire, with all due respect, I beg to differ. Sergeant Maheut is my superior and Lieutenant Birghit already holds the rank!”
Gerhart appreciated his soldier’s honesty and solidity.
“Lieutenant, Sergeant Maheut’s rank means little as she leads the Golden Dragon Squad. But you have a point there, and she will be promoted to Lieutenant right now! She deserves it! As for Lieutenant Birghit, she will assume responsibilities of her own and you are the only worthy replacement I have for her. Now, if you and Firebrand would join us at our table, we would like to inform both of you on special decisions we have to take on the morrow and at last have some sleep!”
Early, the next morning, just before dawn, the press gangs were hastily assembled and made to stand in rows facing the back of the rampart. Guards passed behind each row and freed each laborer from his iron rings, dropping them on the ground behind each individual.
Lieutenant Birghit stood on a large stone, her back against the wall. She was garbed in full soldier’s gear, but wore a grey uniform on top of her armor. She sported no sign of her rank but for a thin green patch on her right shoulder.
When the Guards had finally completed their task, she gestured them away from their charges.
The condemned stared at her, shifting on their heels with uneasiness caused by the sudden freedom from the weights they had been carrying so long and by the mystery surrounding the whole affair.
The Walkyrie had a long grim look at them.
Before any doubt came to assail her, she made her mind up. Her strong voice resonated in the dead quiet of the early hours of the day.
“Filth of the earth! Listen to me! I will speak only once, so make sure your warped heads understand what I am going to tell you!”
Her tone was enough to catch their full attention, as she always did when she addressed her own soldiers.
“My name is Lieutenant Birghit of the Royal Guards and you will be my charges from now on! I asked and was granted a chance for you to redeem yourselves by our Kings and Queens! Our world is presently facing a dire peril and needs all fighting hands available, even those of scum like you! So here’s your choice: either you immediately go back to the forced labor camps and shackles for the rest of your sorry lives, or you fight for your freedom by my side! You have our Kings’ solemn oath that if we survive this war, the ones among us left alive will be granted full citizenship in all lands north of the Mountains of Fire and that your forehead tattoos will become your badge of honor! Actually, you have a third choice: whoever wishes so will be let onto the other side of the Wall to find out if they can make a living with our beloved enemies!”
The criminals were given precious little time to make their decisions as their Lieutenant relentlessly continued:
“Now, those who want to go to forced labor, pick up your own shackles! Those who think they have a better chance on the other side of the rampart, move one step back. The rest of you, stay where you are!”
A few did step back. They were all former Montjoie nobles to the last one. Birghit secretly felt relieved those particular men had opted to abandon them. Gerhart would not raise that particularly painful issue any longer. The renegades were seized at once by the Guards and briskly led to the barbican. They were subsequently dropped over the Wall with the help of ropes and left with no chance to come back. What befell of them became apparent later in the day at the first assault.
On the other hand none of those left standing in front of the Walkyrie picked up his shackles. A rare and unique chance was a chance to be taken. All those hard-bitten criminals knew too much the price of their forfeited freedom. Fighting was something they understood, even those more adept at lurking in the dark to stab the back of their victims.
Birghit divided them into ten squads with one Guard to command each of them. No Guards could be spared All the others went to rejoin their companies.
The Guards chosen for leading their company were dressed in the same grey uniform with a red patch on their right shoulder.
The new soldiers were led to the armory where they chose their armor and weapons. All were issued a grey tunic to wear.
Once all were ready, she climbed the wall stairs at their head and positioned them along the parapet.
They waited for the fourth day of fighting to rise. Now, they had a strong enough force to keep the Wall in their hands. But, even so, dangerous times lay ahead.
As the defenders saw the southerners wake up again and avidly swallow the strange food thrown to them by their Commanders, they noticed a difference with the routine of the previous days. Instead of roaring their Hammer of Fate battle cry, they stood restive, as if in wait.
A strange procession was seen coming from the defile at the back of the invaders’ army.
Soldiers on the Wall soon realized with unfathomable horror that crosses were being carried forward and that a naked man was nailed through hands, arms, legs and feet on each cross. The tortured humans were alive and screaming in dreadful pain. Every one of them was a Montjoie noble who had chosen life on the other side of the Wall. As the crosses passed among the ranks of Southerners, they were greeted with shouts of “Hammer of Fate!” and shrieks of raving madness.
The crosses were brought to the very fore of the invaders’ front line, the whole army yelling abuse and obscenities to the defenders standing behind the crenelations.
Gerhart called Aerdhel through gritted teeth:
“Prince Consort, time has come to use your last arrows! Have your best archers shoot one through each one of these wretched men’s hearts. Whatever their past sins, I will not condone such wanton cruelty!”
The Elf Prince nodded. He shouted a few words in Elven tongue.
A few seconds had not passed when darts flew in a blur to strike each unfortunate victim in the chest, instantly ending their torment.
Gerhart did not hear a single comment or protest from the soldiers assembled along the parapet. He had done the right thing.
On the other hand, their enemies went berserk with rage at the sudden loss of their sport. They hacked their victims into pieces in full view of the men and women standing on the ramparts to finally throw their grisly remains against the stones of the Wall.
Well, if the bastards believed they could cow them with that kind of demonstration, they were sorely mistaken, Gerhart thought. They had only succeeded in strengthening their resolve.
The King of Beaulieu stepped onto a small platform in the middle of the barbican. He drew his horn to his lips and blew a long blast.
All heads turned to him.
Gerhart raised his sword and shield high and spoke in his loudest voice:
“Elves of the Forest, Warriors of the Steppes, Dwarves of the Kingdom Under The Mountain, men of Dunlago, Men and Women of Beaulieu, soldiers and friends, today we will show the free world and its enemies what we are made of! To Alymndes!”
“To Alymndes! To Alymndes!” all the defenders shouted back brandishing weapons and shields high above their heads.
The day would see the worst of the fight, but all were convinced that they if they held on one more day, the Southerners would never breach the Wall.
Once again they heard the grating sound of the ladder hooks hitting the stones.
Once again they waited for their foes to appear over the breastworks and crenels.
Once again they fought for their lives.

Their enemies seemed even more possessed than ever and the defenders took a horrendous battering, but they held firm. Geoffroy, who had been given the responsibility of organizing the lines of defense had enough hands this time and methodically proceeded with regular shifts.
Birghit found herself battling at the side of a large Dunlago convict.
The man was covered with scars. He fought with a fury she had never witnessed on any battlefield. The man was not only fighting for the wall, but also for his own future. Her gamble was paying off.
That moment of reflection almost cost her life. She barely had the time to fend off an attacker who had somehow managed to burst through their line. In doing so, she slipped on a pool of blood and fell on her backside. The assailant was already upon her when she saw his head fly off his shoulders under the Dunlago man’s sword. The latter stretched his hand to take hers and pull her back. The man grinned
“Come on, Lieutenant! Now is not the time to leave us yet! We have work to do before that, have we not?”
“Thanks, soldier! What’s your name?”
“Gardan, Lieutenant!”
“Well, Gardan, will we keep each other’s company for a while and defend each other’s side?”
“I see no objection to that!” he laughed.
Birghit was about to put words into action, when she saw Jonas materialize by the side of her charge. The two men exchanged looks.
“Well done, Gardan!” the Black Dragon said, negligently swatting an enemy who had the misfortune to come too close. “Continue the good work!”
Jonas disappeared as quickly as he had come.
Birghit asked:
“Do the two of you know each other?”
“Yes. He is the reason why I’m here!” her companion grimly replied. He resumed the fight in earnest.
Birghit wondered what this man had done to be sent to the Wall. She knew that many of them had been saved from the hart to be dispatched and made to work all the way down here.
The tide of the battle seemed to change as noon drew nearer. For all their numbers, the assailants had not broken their lines in spite of casualties. But these had been caused more by lapses in concentration due to fatigue or sheer bad luck. The fight had taken on the monotony of a stout defense relentlessly pushing back gradually weakening waves of attackers sent to their death by the stubborn madness of a mistaken foe.
Suddenly, as the sun had reached its zenith, no enemy showed up over the battlements and no sound came from the other side of the Wall.
Perplexed defenders carefully peered between breastworks to survey the battlefield. Was it a ruse?
But their assailants had stopped in their tracks, eyes vacant and arms limp. What had happened to them?
Glamrun’s deep voice resonated inside the heads of Zamrel’s children:
“Make ready! It is coming because its armies and minions failed to break the resolve and courage of our charges!”
The defenders on the Wall saw the air shimmer over the battlefield.
A dry hot wind began to blow over the parapet.
A dark pall came to obscure the sky above them.
The wind became a gale and the first lightning cracked in the sky.
Soon the soldiers and warriors could not distinguish anything through the swirling clouds of dust that rose from the ground blanketing the whole area where the enemy army stood. The windblasts grew so awesome that all defenders, Dwarves included, huddled behind the stones of the parapet, lest they got blown over the wall. Thoughts of battle had left everybody’s mind. Every one was clinging for sheer life against the unleashed elements. Thunder exploded over their heads and they had to cover their ears.
The Dragons were waiting.
Without warning, the murk dissolved in the middle of the devastated battlefield littered with the mangled bodies of their dead enemies. In its place a monstrous shape gradually coalesced. The long scaled body of an immense dragon came into view, it stood on four massive legs, and gigantic wings fully spread, an enraged expression on its face as its head swiveled around in seeming search of a prey.
A terrible apparition, it was indeed, but it did not possess the magnificence of Ekan and his siblings. Scales were missing on his skin where open sores oozed ichor. Holes gaped open in the fabric of its wings and a deadly stench blew through its yellowed fangs.
“Surround him!” Glamrun’s voice ordered.
The five Dragons materialized around the loathsome appearance in a flash.
The dreadful voice of the abysmal creature was heard:
”So, these are the things that have thought of impeding me all that time!
“And this is Sacrach, the decrepit excuse of a dragon, which had its lackeys and hirelings do its dirty work in fear to be discovered!” Amrel roared back.
The monster momentarily looked at a loss, but swiftly regained its assurance.
“How did you happen on my name, I wonder! But this is no matter of great import. I stand too high above your station to bother! But know, brood of an unknown filth, that the puny being which you hold so dear has already paid for your temerity! As for…”
“Enough!” thundered Glamrun who stood abruptly revealed in front of Sacrach.
The latter looked askance at the arrival.
“How and from where could you have come?”
“Because I am older than you would ever imagine and because I have kept away from your sort! But it seems that I have no choice but to face you at long last!”
Sacrach cackled:
“So, this is another dragon I have missed! Thinking that I had destroyed or cowed all of you into obeisance and submission! I ought to thank you for your sheer foolishness! It will be easier for me to have you all join your same kind!”
There may be other dragons still alive, Numnir concluded in sudden elation, despite the dire peril at hand. But his thoughts were cut by Sacrach’s words:
“By the fire of the first dragon! Did you entertain the silly belief that you might be able to halt me here and now? Should you not be aware that six dragons of your breed would never suffice to subdue my person?”
“They did not know, and they did not need to!” a new voice roared back at him.
The glorious figure of an immaculately white dragon had sprung by the side of the flame red body of Glamrun.
An astonished Sacrach faltered:
“You are, … you are dead!”
“So I had you to think! It just shows how stupid and unworthy of being a dragon you have proved to be! Did you believe that I had taken my life instead of submitting to your whims and share your dreams of grandeur that are nothing but death and decadence?”
Just as she was egging on the nightmare in their midst, Zamrel kept talking to her children and Glamrun in mindspeech. She had understood that Sacrach would be too engrossed in their personal confrontation to be attentive to his surroundings.
“Ignore him and concentrate on all his senses while I keep that fool busy! Ekan, focus on his hearing! Umatar, blur his sense of smell! Amrel, impede his abilities of touch and feeling! Numnir, counter his sight! Dargelblad, confuse his taste! Glamrun, block his magic! I will prey on his dragon’s mind! Wait for my signal!”
They heard the evil dragon almost implore their Mother:
“Zamrel, Zamrel! It is not too late for us to make this world ours as it should have always been! We are the only two Dragons worthy of their name left! Leave that rubble and join me! Glorious days are begging for the two of us!”
“Fool! Look at yourself!” Zamrel replied full of scorn and contempt. “You have wasted yourself in the futile pursuit of the domination of a whole world! You are ready to destroy your body and mind to attain your deluded desires to rule all that was around you and beyond! What will be your ultimate reward? Tell me! Destruction, ashes, famine, disease until you are the last one left to contemplate your own masterpiece of desolation! No, thank you! I can do better than follow in the steps of a mad creature which has the gall to call itself a Dragon!”
An enraged Sacrach screamed:
“And what do you think you are yourself? I have been too generous to offer you a share of this world, which is for us, Dragons, to own and use at our pleasure! I certainly do not need the weakling you have become, and will show you forthwith how I dispose of …”
“Now!” Zamrel roared inside her children and Glamrun’s heads.
A torrent of blinding light burst through the gaping maws of the seven Dragons to engulf their evil foe. The air was ripped asunder in a cataclysmic explosion, which shook the Wall and its defenders.
Sacrach’s body writhed in shock and pain. His jaws opened wide in a silent shriek. He beat his great wings helplessly in a vain struggle to escape the dreadful trap he had let himself in.
But Zamrel screamed in the Dragons’ minds to redouble their efforts, releasing her eon-long repressed fury.
The white fire pouring out their maws, the Dragons began to move forward for the kill. No longer were they humans, Elf or Dwarf, but the magnificent and unforgiving scions of the greatest race that had ever lived in this world. And they had come to protect the same world from one supposedly of their own. But they possessed the only one sentiment foreign to Sacrach: Love. More than hate, love could break down the most forbidding barriers. Love for the world they were born into and love for its creatures was far stronger than any sense of good against evil. The Dragons of Alymndes were fighting for the survival of their land, their home and their dearest ones.
Sensing them approaching closer and closer, Sacrach endeavored to face them all at once, but his faculties were impaired and confused. His whole body was wracked in debilitating pain. He was growing blind. He could not distinguish the fanged maws of his enemies about to crush and devour him. He was lost.
He had only one hope left. He frantically called on all his last energies in an excruciating attempt to break free from the noose implacably strangling him.
The Dragons were about to spring on their prey, when suddenly their combined fires met an empty void where Sacrach’s body had been writhing in utter agony only an instant ago.
“We killed him!” Umatar yelled in triumph.
“No, we did not!” A somber Zamrel retorted. “He just translocated, the only way he could escape from us!”
“Which means he had still enough strength left!” Numnir tried to explain.
“In fact, if he had not spread himself and his immense powers thin with his unquenchable thirst for total domination, we might have not been able to fight him!”
“Thinking we had at last our claws on him after all this wait, and he disappears in the wink of an eye!” A frustrated Dargelblad commented.
“And the more dangerous for it! We will not hear of him for a very long time, but we will have to face him once again! And I wonder whether we will be strong enough to vanquish him once and for ever!” Zamrel concluded.
They stood there for a while, seven Dragons lost in their thoughts, when Umatar cried:
“Amrel, Geoffroy!”
The Blue Dragon had already vanished before her siblings and parents could react.
Birghit was stooping over the Captain who lay prone on the paved causeway running along the ramparts when Amrel appeared, pushing her way through the soldiers massed around the body of her lover. The Blue Dragon fell on her knees by his side. The Lieutenant respectfully backed away. Amrel took Geoffroy’s head in her hands. Blood was trickling from his mouth and ear.
Geoffroy was dead.
Unchecked tears flowed down her cheeks. Sacrach had killed him and she had been unable to shield him from the evil dragon’s wanton cruelty. A wave of guilt and grief engulfed her.
As she kneeled prostrated above Geoffroy’s body, she heard her Father talk to her in mindspeech:
“Amrel! My daughter! Take a hold on yourself! You are a Dragon! You have other concerns than pity the death of a human! You have a mission to fulfill!”
All the other Dragons could hear the Blue Dragon’s shriek inside their heads.
“Yes, I have a mission to fulfill! Yes, I am a Dragon! But humans are my concern! Did you and Mother not ordain us the safeguard of this world? Was I not instructed with my sister and brothers to live among its denizens and care for them? Geoffroy was only the first human I loved, and I will love more men and women! And neither you, nor anyone else will prevent me from doing so!”
“Amrel!” Glamrun began to retort.
“Father!” Amrel roared back. “I know my duties, and I will not fail you! Now, leave me alone!”
She clapped her mind shut, blocking her Father’s words.
She gently crossed her lover’s arms over his chest with his hands around his helmet that Birghit had picked up and handed to her, the she put her own arms under his knees and back, and effortlessly lifted him against her bosom before carrying him away.
She turned to Birghit:
“Lieutenant, have the dead brought downstairs!
The Walkyrie turned to the crowd of soldiers, Elves and Dwarves standing staring at the back of Amrel in mute wonder. How could be a woman so strong?
“You’ve heard Lady Geraldine! Move, all of you!”
Birghit took on her to organize the cleaning of the Wall and ordered every one, whatever their race or former status, to bring water and sand and scrub the stones after they had thrown the bodies and any belongings of the enemies back over the Wall.
That evening, all stood with their Kings and Queens to pay a last tribute to their fallen comrades in front of a simple long pyre where all the bodies had been laid side by side, united until the very end.
Few had understood what had happened beyond the Wall, but all knew that a dire peril had been averted. Even so, no joy or triumph could be discerned on the grim and tight faces of those who witnessed the funerals.
Amrel was the first to light the wood and straw under Geoffroy’s remains, before many more torches were lowered all along the line of bodies.
Flames soon rose high under the darkening sky.
Dwarves would carve all the names of the fallen into the stones of the Wall for everyone to remember as long as memories would hold and thereafter.
Later in the night, as all were making ready for sleep or night duty, Amrel took Gerhart apart.
“Gerhart, we will start cleaning the area beyond the Wall tonight as far as the eye can see. Have all the sentinels and anyone else leave the Wall. We do not want anyone to witness our work!”
The King of Beaulieu made the mistake of venturing a protest against a Dragon’s will:
“But, Jay, how could I explain anyone the reasons for such an order!”
The face of Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur started to change color. Even in the dark, he could see the blue tinge of her skin. The pupils of her eyes had altered to thin a vertical line in the middle of yellow discs.
A cavernous voice came out her mouth:
“Gerhart, King of Beaulieu, do as you are told!”
She suddenly disappeared into thin air.
A shaken sovereign began to walk to the ramparts to give his orders.
Birghit had obeyed the commands to leave the fortifications.
She actually felt relieved. She had little heart for military duty. She proceeded to regroup all her new charges and direct them to their quarters. But the lock had been removed from the doors of their former cells. Inside, all chains and shackles had been taken away. Each man in her company had been granted the same amenities as for a Royal guard. She ordered everyone to visit the baths and make ready for her inspection before being allowed privacy.
The former convicts were too tired to show any dissent or even protest. The next morning would see many more instructions and orders.
Before Gardan could leave, she signaled for him to stay. When no one could hear, she asked:
“Gardan, would you mind keeping me company tonight?”
The big Dunlago man could not hide his surprise. It was true that Walkyries, or women fighters, for that matter, were not to be found among the gentler gender in his land. He quickly recovered his wits. Birghit could clearly see his white teeth in the dark as he smiled:
“It would be a great honor and pleasure, Lieutenant!”
“Thanks! Scrub yourself clean first. I will be waiting for you in my room!”
The Walkyrie turned around and walked away without any another word.
The tall dark man stood on his spot for a while, his eyes riveted on her back. Fate was a capricious woman too, he wondered.
A naked Firebrand was rubbing Gratien’s back as he lay on his pallet. The newly promoted Lieutenant groaned with pleasure.
The female Dwarf inquired:
“What will become of all the army, now that we have beaten our foes out of sight?”
“I do not really know, but I can safely assume that many of us will go back to their land or garrison, while a token guard will be assigned to the Wall. I have a hunch this is only the start of a long series of missions and tasks!”
“I will have to question Hammerblow or Brighteyes. They might still get involved.”
Gratien turned around and had Firebrand sit astride his body.
“I will make a formal request tomorrow for the two of us to stay together. We are too good a fighting team to go our separate ways. Moreover, I have not explored some of your suggestions yet!”
The female Dwarf’s hands closed around his neck.
“You know, I could crush you for that kind of comment!”
The former Corporal laughed:
“I surely know that you could, but who would give your pleasure, then?”
Firebrand gave a sly look at the human.
“Why am I under the impression that no human female could ever be able to satisfy you after me?”
Someone gently knocked at the door.
Birghit smiled. The man had some manners after all.
“Come in!” she answered.
The door opened to let Gardan in who had to stoop under the lintel. He only wore the loose pants and wide sash prevalent in Dunlago, while he had simple sandals on his feet. She inspected him. For all his scars and brutal face, he owned a splendid body whose muscles rippled under the shining skin reflecting the light of the large lantern on her bed table.
She thought she had lost a man, even if she had shared him with Geraldine, but she felt the dark giant could help fill the void left by his death, at least for the moment being.
But for the roses tattooed on her left shoulder, she sat stark naked cross-legged on her cot. She had brought a large flagon of Beaulieu red wine, her privilege as a Lieutenant of the Royal Guards.
She laughed at the embarrassed look on Gardan’s face.
“Take your clothes off! It shan’t do if only one of us is naked! Come and join me! Do you like wine?”
The man mumbled his agreement and proceeded as asked.
When he sat down by her side, she handed him a full goblet, ignoring the obvious sight of his excitement and his futile efforts to conceal it. She knew nothing of the ways of Dunlago, but she was ready to teach him that men and women were equal in Beaulieu in work as much as in pleasure.
“Gardan, you said that Jonas was the reason why you were here. May I ask you about it?”
She noticed, with some amusement, that her question had produced a negative effect on more intimate parts of his anatomy.
The man took a long sip of the wine before answering.
He began:
“I might as well as tell you all, Lieutenant!”
“Stop that! It’s Birghit and Gardan in my room! Outside is a different matter!”
“Thanks. I was a bully of the worst sort back in Dunlago: beatings, extortions, thefts and all that. Jonas caught me red-handed. That day, I owed my life to Constable Petren!”
“So you were judged and sent down here. Well, you have fought your way out of it, if I may say so. Will you choose to stay with us or go back to your land tomorrow? Maybe I should not tell you, but this is what our Kings will ask you all on the morrow.”
The man smiled.
“That is very charitable of our Kings, indeed! But I do not have any doubt. I cannot say anything for the men of Beaulieu, but every Dunlago man will stay. We are not welcome home. I am not sure if we can call it so from now on. We were given a new life. Why not fight for it? That is the only thing we are good at!”
“Will you fight for me?”
Gardan nodded without a word.
Birghit took the goblet from his hand to deposit it with her own on the small bed table.
Putting a hand on his shoulder to intimate him to stay put, she rose from the bed to come and sit on his lap.
Her arms closed around his strong neck while his hands came to rest on her hips.
He had a moment of hesitation.
“What about …?”
She guessed. She smiled at his attention.
“Do not worry! Every Walkyrie carries a pouch of birthbane with her!”
For seven days and seven nights, the Dragons blew fire on the battlefield, taking regular trips to the River Blue valley, hidden in the midst of the Iron Crags where they could feed and rest in their natural shape.
More than one soldier, warrior, Elf or Dwarf had been tempted to take a peek over the ramparts to find out what was the cause of all those lights and booming sounds. But orders had been strict. No one, even a King, was allowed to climb the stairs.
Some, more discerning than others, wondered about the apparent absence of some important members of their communities. But their questions went unanswered.
The long work helped Amrel to take a firm grip on her deep sadness. Her siblings kept close and offered her the love and protection of Dragons. For the first time since they had left their valley, Zamrel’s children lived, worked, ate and slept together.
Their Mother and Father kept away from them, as they also needed some privacy. The two of them spent long hours soaring in the sky, exploring the desolate mountains of the north and sharing rest on a high edge or in a deep valley while their children slept, huddled together in their familiar lair.
On the eighth morning, Amrel appeared in the field hospital. She met Gerhart there who was making regular visits to check the health of the patients.
“The land has been cleansed. You may allow guards back onto the Wall!” She tersely said before joining William already busy with his rounds.
Gerhart decided to see for himself. Climbing behind guards, he wondered what had happened to the battlefield beyond the Wall. What he found did not match any of his expectations.
The whole area ahead as far as his eyes could see, seemed made of black glass or basalt. All had been melted into a smooth hard surface reflecting the morning sun. Not the smallest trace of the battle could be discerned. All had been utterly erased. Dwarves were bound to ask questions on what kind of heat could achieve such a striking result. He could always invent the story of a lava flow from one of the faraway volcano for human ears to believe. But the Dwarves would have to ask Hammerblow. As for the Elves, their lore would probably provide their answer. He was certainly not in a hurry to tell anyone the truth.
Unless the Dragons revealed themselves to all, which he very much doubted. The upshot was that at least no enemy would reach them unheeded.
Now that this sorry business of war had been taken care of for a foreseeable future, it might be a good idea for all of them to go back to Beaucastel. He and his illustrious guests and friends still had many tasks to tackle, what with commerce, trade, laws, treaties and what else.
He ruefully reflected that this conflict, for all its glory and the songs it would make for, had only been a short interlude in what could prove as a long and tedious series of bureaucratic chores, with the mountain of desk work that would pertain.
Unless he decided to pay a visit to those renegade barons in the north.
But the Dragons had other ideas.
————————————-
It was two full weeks later, a few days after all the delegations, chiefs of state and embassies had returned to Beaucastel.
Having left her patients in capable hands, Amrel had arrived the day before in the company of William.
She had gone straight to check on Marghrete and her children. All three were brimming with good health. The Queen had quickly renounced to continue breast-feeding because of her duties, leaving that particular task to two robust nannies. He-Who-Leads-The-Son and He-Who-Leads-The-Daughter had naturally taken the role of surrogate fathers, allowing the Royal Couple freedom from worry. Both parents could enjoy the company of their children at moments of their choosing, a prerequisite to the proper upbringing of future heirs to the Crown.
The Blue Dragon then had paid a short visit to Gerhart’s office.
The King was engrossed in more paper work in the company of Alfred and Nepomucene.
Gerhart raised his eyes from his task.
“Yes, Jay?”
“Can we have a little talk in private?”
The King’s aides, who knew when to make themselves scarce when the Blue dragon adopted that tone, decamped at once without waiting for orders to do so.
A wary Gerhart asked:
“What is that you want to talk about, Jay?”
“Nothing much. We need to hold a meeting tomorrow. Could you be kind enough to call everyone on this list?” Amrel replied handing him a sealed parchment scroll.
“Where will we hold that meeting, then?” Gerhart queried, taking the proffered document.
“The small banquet room behind the Embassy Hall should be fine. Just stress this is a state meeting and post guards outside the door.”
“And am I right to suppose that some individuals who are not on that list will also be there, whatever measures we take to try and prevent them from doing so?” the King retorted.
He was growing slightly fed up with her highhandedness. Who was governing this country?
“You are more perspicacious, Gerhart! I will see you on the morrow!”
She left.
On a hunch, he opened the parchment without waiting to check the names on the list before calling Alfred and Nepomucene back. Theirs did not feature on the parchment. He would have to make the calls himself.
Marvelous! He had become the official courier of Lady Geraldine de Blancheflreur! He fumed.
They all sat at the table, sipping coffee that Marcus’ retainers had brewed for all of them and savoring some cakes in spite of their recent breakfast.
For the sake of curiosity, Gerhart had given a copy of the list to the two Royal Guards on the other side of the door with instructions not to let in anyone whose name was not featured on it.
Well, Jonas, Wilfred and Ironfoot, who had not been mentioned, joined them in the company of Jay and She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons. That confirmed their identity, if he had ever needed it.
The two Judges, Arnaud and Marsalis were present with the Royal Couples of The Kingdom Under The Mountain, Dunago and Beaulieu. Three shamen were also there with the Elf Prince Consort.
Amrel had omitted to invite William. The Dragons were not yet ready to disclose his identity. Nor Boy had been called. Umatar had wisely deemed that he needed a few more years before he could fully deal with the realities of not one but seven Dragons.
But Dargelblad, for his part, was in constant communication with Ellana through mindspeech.
Everyone supposed to come was here.
Maybe they could start that meeting and be over with it, Gerhart thought, just as he noticed that one more seat stood empty.
He frowned.
He had counted the chairs when he had entered the room first. He had counted them again when he had realized that some “uninvited” guests had showed up to find out that chairs had somehow been provided for their benefit. Had the retainers brought another seat with the coffee before they left the room?
He turned to Amrel.
“Jay, if you think we are ready, would you be kind to impart us the reasons for that private meeting of ours?” he asked, his temper getting shorter by the minute.
“No, I would not. We are still waiting for one more guest!”
“But all on your list are here!”
“True, but Jonas, Wilfred and Ironfoot do not figure on that list, do they?”
Arnaud was about to ask a pointed question of his own when he felt Marsalis’ restraining hand on his arm. He turned to face his new friend, but something in the eyes of the Dunlago Judge made him relent. The two elders did not need words to convey their feelings.
Marcus, on the other hand, did not possess a quick mental insight.
“Jay, I am sorry to say, but all this seems a bit too mysterious to me, and slightly ridiculous, if I may add. Do we really need to surround ourselves with such secrecy?”
Amrel was about to reply, when the door opened to let in a tall man of uncertain age and a large dog. The Guards apparently had not been able to stop them.
Marcus sarcastically remarked:
“So this is the last unannounced guest we were supposed to wait for! Why is it that I keep seeing this old man and his wolf wherever I go?”
No one replied, but the five Dragons rose from their chairs as the new arrival took his seat while his beast sat on the floor by his side.
It suddenly occurred to a slightly taken aback King of Dunlago that some of the most respected or feared individuals in the five lands of Alymndes were according a lot of deference to the old man. He caught worried looks on the faces of Gerhart and his wife, the Dwarven Couple, the Shamen and even on that of his own Judge. What the hell was going on?
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Amrel began, “may I introduce you to our Father?”
A dead silence welcomed the unexpected disclosure.
Marcus seemed to be the only one willing to comment.
“Jay, I might be dumb at times, but what on earth do you mean by “our Father”?”
Jonas intervened before his sister had a chance to reply.
“It means that Mentor, as we have previously introduced him is the Father of five of us, namely Jay, She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, Ironfoot, Wilfred and myself!”
Marcus nearly choked. He wildly looked around himself. The three Shamen had gone pale in spite of their suntanned skin. A frown had come on some of the guests’ faces while others averted his eyes.
Jonas thought best to continue to save the King of Dunlago form further embarrassment.
“Let me explain: the five of us and our Father are not what we appear to be. We are not humans, Elves or Dwarves.”
“So, what are you?” Marcus almost screamed.
No answer came from the objects of his query.
It was Gerhart who answered him through gritted teeth:
“They are Dragons!”
Marcus stared at the King of Beaulieu for a long chilly moment.
He brusquely stood up.
“I’ve had enough! I’m leaving! Atraxa, come and …”
“Sit down!” a deep voice boomed inside the room.
An unseen force brutally flung Marcus back into his seat.
The old man had stood up. He seemed to have grown to twice his height. His human eyes had taken the elongated shape and color commonly found among reptilian creatures. The table shook and the cups and saucers rattled as he spoke:
“I do not have the time or patience to explain to puny creatures of your kind the reasons and purposes of our existence that even the more intelligent among you would be hard pressed to begin to comprehend! Know that five of our own have been sent among you on a mission: to protect you all and help you build a world at peace! Like it or not, they will stay and continue their work, and this long after your bodies have gone back to dust! We have seen too many civilizations go to waste to let this one be squandered by the petty greed and ambition of its denizens! You have been chosen to contribute to the making of a lasting and prosperous life for your fellow humans, Dwarves and Elves! Consider it as a privilege! But fail us, and you will be replaced without a second thought, with whatever dire consequences that will entail!”
The Shamen were cowering half-mad at the apparition and its words. Atraxa was openly crying in the arms of a badly shaken Marghrete. The Prince Consort’s face had gone grey and cold sweat was flowing down his temples. Marsalis was restraining Arnaud with great difficulty. Kings Gerhart and Marcus held onto the table for their dear life. Only the Dwarves showed great solidity in the face of their doom.
A thin smile appeared on Hammerblow’s craggy face.
For the first time in his life, he took off his crown in public.
“I won’t need that any more!”
”Put it back on at once!” Glamrun roared.
He became the old man again as quickly as he had changed into the ominous figure that had cowed his audience into abject obedience.
His shoulders seemed hunched under the weight of an immense lassitude as he sat back.
“Hammerblow, put your crown back on!” he almost gently said. “We are not here to take your rightful places, but to guide you against yourselves as well as against great dangers and evils that have been lurking for a long time and are only starting to reveal themselves. We have just thwarted the greatest of them, but for how long, we do not know. Therefore, the safety and unity of Alymndes has always been our primary and constant goal. This we have almost attained. There are still lots left to do in Beaulieu and all along the Mountains of Fire. Both oceans need to be better secured. But one day, we will have to move south and root out those evil forces for ever!”
“And when will we start?” venture the ever-combative Dwarf King.
“Ah, only time will tell, Hammerblow! One cannot coerce fate! We must be vigilant and act only when the time is ripe. That is why we will have to stay among you. But we will succeed only if Alymndes is firmly united, not only in its prosperity, but also in its defenses! Our five scions will make sure this is achieved, but it can be done only with your resolute help!”
Glamrun made to leave.
Aerdhel called him:
“Venerable Mentor, this is the second time that one of you mentioned the word “our”. May I assume there is a Mother to our five guardians?”
“Why do you think I am here? Of course they have a Mother, and be certain you do not want to face her!”
He walked to the door with the Wolf at his heels.
They did not bother to open the door. They just passed through it.
Later, as they walked in the streets of Beaucastel, the Wolf asked the Red dragon:
“Ancient One, why did you have to frighten those poor creatures with that image of a Mother of your children? It seems to me that you entertain an unhealthy gripe with females of all kinds!”
“Oh, leave me alone for once, Wise One? I know who you are!” Glamrun grumbled.
He had nothing against females. But why did they all want to domesticate the opposite gender, when it would be far easier to please males and make them docile servants with a little comprehension for their simple wishes?
“Like eating, sleeping and coupling?”
“Intruding into my thoughts now? Shame on you, Zamrel!”

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2 Responses to “Alymndes 22: The Pass”

  1. simaldeff Says:

    “The long-inspected invasion had finally begun!” shouldn’t be “long-expected”?
    Could be that I am wrong.

  2. dragonlife Says:

    Well-spotted!
    I will correcit asap!

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