His shout was like an alarm call. Windows and doors flew open, and everyone who could, rushed out. Ghyll came from the Great Hall, hastily tying Childegard to his back.
‘Zethir!’ Damion said, still out of breath. ‘Caught! They have beaten him up.’
‘Who are they?’ Ghyll asked calmly.
‘Those bastards at Derivall. There’s a private army inside, not a guard to be seen.’
‘Wait,’ Ghyll said. He turned to Davall and the Companions, who had joined him with Druyel and Judge Dennarias. With his arm around Damion he said, ‘Davall, we ride in ten minutes. Druyel, I want from you twenty men, and your number two.’
Ghyll knew what the lieutenant was going to say and he shook his head. ‘Captain Davall is in command. It’s not in your interest to go; your responsibility is here in Rabogst. Father Dennarias, I want you and your colleagues to come with us. You represent the law, after all.’
‘After you, Highness,’ the priest said gently.
Ghyll nodded briefly. That somebody had recognized him didn’t even surprise him anymore. ‘But you can advise me if I start losing my patience.’ He turned to Damion. ‘Now tell me the whole story from the beginning.’
Ghyll rode at the head of the long line of soldiers, Torril with the proud banner lance at his side. The road through the heath wasn’t too bad and the horses were fresh, happy to be out of the stable. Faster than he expected, Derivall came into view. He reined in his horse and stared at the castle.
Behind him, Olle whistled thoughtfully and he understood why. It would be a hard nut to crack. Derivall lay on a rock in a dark lake, connected to the shore by a narrow dike. It was a high, pentagonal structure, with heavy walls guarding a massive keep. The gate was closed and Ghyll took for granted that among all those black figures on the walls were trained archers waiting for them.
With a curt signal to Olle and Torril, he rode slowly along the causeway to the gate. Within shouting distance, he halted. ‘Hail them.’
His foster brother put his hands to his mouth. ‘Ghyll Baron Halwyrd, King’s Lieutenant, summons you to open the gate and to give him free entry, on behalf of the Crown.’ His words echoed against the walls and from the battlements came an audible dispute. Finally, a voice shouted, ‘Anyone can say that he is the King’s Lieutenant. Prove it.’
‘The Royal Banner is proof,’ Olle cried. ‘And our sixty guards. Open the gate before we blow it up.’
A scornful laughter sounded from the wall and with a loud snok, a red-feathered arrow buried itself in the earth at their feet.
‘Let’s go, this is useless,’ Ghyll said with a straight face. They galloped back to the waiting troops, chased by catcalls from the walls. Ghyll didn’t allow himself to become riled. ‘We’ll have to open that door.’
‘That won’t be easy without siege equipment,’ Davall said carefully. ‘And with those archers on the towers, it’s not safe enough to attack with axes.’
‘I can keep the archers occupied,’ Bo said quickly, seeing the angry look on Ghyll’s face. ‘But not for hours on end.’
‘Hasn’t Bo got anything that goes boom?’ Torril asked.
The mage sniffed. ‘Look at those doors. Have you any idea how much energy your boom will need?’ He looked thoughtfully at the gate. ‘That wicket door now…’ He turned to Ghyll and Captain Davall. ‘Should that wicket in the main door be gone, could the men get inside?’
Ghyll looked at Davall, who nodded. ‘At least a vanguard, to open the main doors.’
‘That’s a suicide attack,’ Damion said.
‘Yes,’ Davall said seriously. ‘Do you know another way to get inside?’
The young beastmaster’s lips tightened. ‘No.’
‘I can make a lot of noise, blowing down that wicket,’ Bo said.
‘And if we send for siege engines?’ Damion asked.
Davall’s hands gripped his saddle horn. ‘That will take hours. Before they are here and ready for use, it’ll be dark. Your man will be dead.’
Ghyll saw three pairs of eyes on him. ‘Ask for volunteers,’ he said finally, silently aghast at what he was ordering. ‘Only volunteers.’
‘I’ll go.’ Embit-Koy sat straight in the saddle, his face impassive.
‘Are you sure?’ Davall asked. ‘I can send a sergeant.’
‘No, Captain, this is an officer’s job,’ the young knight said. He smiled. ‘Besides, it’s good for my advancement.’
Davall didn’t laugh. ‘All right. Take eight men. We stand ready to support you when the main doors are open.’
Embit-Koy saluted and turned to the men. ‘Volunteers for a simple task.’ Everyone took a step forward. ‘Yes,’ the sublieutenant said grimly. ‘As long as it’s simple, eh?’ Quickly he chose eight guards. ‘You’re the lucky ones.’ To Ghyll’s astonishment, the warriors grinned as if they’d just got rewarded.
Embit-Koy pointed to Derivall. ‘See that little door? The mage will blow it up directly. Then we go inside and we open the main doors. After that, we conquer the castle. Got it?’ The soldiers laughed as if it was a big joke, and again it surprised Ghyll. What they had to do was dangerous and yet they didn’t hesitate. Was their faith in the young sublieutenant so strong? Embit-Koy turned back to his superior. ‘We’re ready, Captain.’
Davall looked at Ghyll, who turned to Bo. The mage took a deep breath, closed his eyes and raised his arms to the sky. Everyone stared at the flame growing between his hands. Bo kneaded it as a pastry cook kneads his dough and the flame became a ball. It crackled and sparked threateningly, but that didn’t bother Bo. The ball seemed to leap in his grasp and then Bo threw it in a high arch at the wicket door. From the battlements came a taunting laugh. The fireball hit the wicket with a fierce bang, followed by a shower of wood splinters, smoke and clouds of dust. Bo sighed and slumped down on the ground, where he remained seated with his head in his hands.
‘Get going!’ Davall roared.
Under cover of the smoke, Sublieutenant Embit-Koy with his eight guards ran to the ragged hole where the wicket had been, and disappeared inside the castle.
Agonizingly slow minutes later the heavy doors swung open.
Ghyll didn’t hesitate. ‘Attack!’ He spurred Ulanth on and galloped towards the castle, with flaming Childegard singing in his hands. Halfway, the mounted guards dashed past him and the noise of their charge echoed against the walls. With a loud ‘Hallali!’ Ghyll steered his horse towards the mercenaries who were fighting the vanguard.
Embit-Koy was the last of them standing. The sublieutenant fought two mercenaries at once, as coolly as if he was on the training field. Just before Ghyll was close enough to assist him, the young knight stumbled over the corpse of one of his men. For a moment, he lost his balance and then he died with blood spurting from his throat.
Ghyll screamed in rage and the mercenaries turned. They raised their reddened blades, but Ghyll was faster. Still screaming, he felled the first man and turned to the next. The mercenary yelled something and dropped his sword. In his anger, Ghyll didn’t care about his enemy yielding. At a slight tug on the reins, his steed reared and brought his sharp hooves down on the man’s shoulders. Screaming, the mercenary fell. His voice broke off abruptly when Ulanth danced over him. Now the gateway was empty of life. Ghyll turned his horse, ready for the next enemy, but it was no longer necessary. The last mercenaries had surrendered.
Ghyll rode through the courtyard, past the dead and wounded, with Childegard in his hand and Torril hurrying up to him with the bannered lance. In the middle of the courtyard, he stopped and looked around. To the left he saw a row of gallows, each occupied, and to the right, tiny cages with crouching figures inside. Disgust nearly choked him.
‘Amdal Ridaud!’ he shouted. Only silence answered.
Around him, Guards took possession of the castle and disarmed the remaining mercenaries. Nobody resisted them; the castle population seemed stunned by the reversal of their fate.
From a side door the sound of voices came, and a scuffle. Then a tall man in leather armor appeared, holding a second figure as a shield in front of him. The knife at the throat of his prisoner spoke plainly.
‘Zethir!’ Torril’s whisper sounded shocked.
‘Safe conduct,’ the man cried. ‘A free retreat for me and my men. ‘At the first raised weapon your boy will die!’
Ghyll hesitated. He looked around at his archers, his guards, the massed people of castle.
‘Lay down your weapons!’ the man yelled. ‘Disarm, or by the gods, the boy will bleed like a sacrificial lamb.’
Ghyll looked over his shoulder. ‘Davall?’
‘I can have him killed,’ the captain said. ‘But your man dies first. The choice is yours.’
Ghyll nodded. ‘Put your weapons down,’ he said calmly.
Davall shouted a command and unwillingly, the guards laid their weapons on the ground.
‘Good boy,’ the bandit crowed. ‘Untie my men.’
‘Do what he wants,’ Ghyll said.
Silently the men removed the shackles from the mercenaries.
‘Now give us your horses.’
At this, the Guards groaned in horror; their horses were almost a part of themselves.
The man saw their reaction and smiled. ‘You horse lovers,’ he said, in a tone that set the men clenching their fists in impotent fury.
From the towers came a loud flutter of black wings, where a mass of crows rose up. A single caw rent the air as the birds dove down on the bandit. Sharp claws bit into his face, his shoulders and his hands. The man screamed and the knife clattered on the stones of the courtyard, while he tried to protect his face from the raging birds.
‘Zethir,’ Torril cried. ‘This way!’ The young spy didn’t react. He stood there, indifferent to the angry birds swirling and dancing around his head. Torril sprang forward and pulled Zethir to the ground. With his arms around him, he rolled them both to safety. As the guards went for their weapons, the crows uttered a final, triumphant cry and returned to their towers.
‘Tie that bastard,’ Davall snapped. ‘And his mates.’
Rough hands dragged the bleeding man down and within minutes, they had him firmly secured.
A single crow landed. The air around it distorted and there was Damion, looking satisfied. ‘Went well,’ he said. ‘That bird does not have the power of the tiger, but it is much more agile. And with a whole flock together it’s really fun!’
Ghyll held out his hand. ‘Thank you.’ Then he looked around and his relief gave way to bitterness. So many casualties. Embit-Koy with his eight men, and at least seven others. A quarter of Davall’s troops had died here. He felt his hands shake. Calm down. Control yourself. He took a deep breath. ‘Amdal Ridaud, what keeps you?’
Again, there was some noise and as one, the guards went for their weapons. Only this time it was a flabby man with a large bunch of keys, being pushed forward by the crowd. He looked terrified as he hurriedly opened the smallest of the cages. An emaciated figure in soiled rags stumbled out. Bent over, he walked cautiously to where Ghyll waited and tried to bow. Almost he fell, but he managed to keep upright and opened his mouth a few times.
‘I’m Ridaud, my lord,’ he croaked.
Ghyll looked at him and beckoned a servant. ‘Let the baron change his clothes and give him something to drink. I’ll speak to him presently.’
Back among the companions, Zethir had become aware of his surroundings. He straightened his back and walked to Ghyll.
‘Here I am again,’ he said shakily.
Ghyll looked at the battered spy. ‘This disguise of yours is really tattered. But I’m glad to see you.’
‘Not half as glad as I am.’ Zethir tried to smile, not quite succeeding with his swollen face. ‘Have you got their leader as well? I only see his accomplice. Too bad, but that was to be expected.’ He leaned over and whispered. ‘It was a sorcerer, Ghyll. He and his helper, they were… cruel.’ The young spy had tears in his eyes.
‘Have Uwella patch you up first; we’ll speak later.’ Zethir nodded and stumbled back to the companions.
‘Damion.’ Ghyll looked apologetically at his friend. ‘Does your crow still have some energy left?’
‘Ha, flying is not nearly as tiring as walking or riding. Yes, I’m fit enough.’
‘Fine. We need a second healing master. I won’t ask Bo, he spent a lot of energy on that door. Go back to Rabogst and let the new portal adept, I don’t know his name, bring you to Rhidaun-Lorn. Ask Kathauna’s temple for another team.’
‘Avelore’s her name, Sire. She is of Bo’s Order.’
‘A woman? All right, but hurry.’
‘I fly for you, Sire.’ For a second, Damion grinned, before he changed and left.
Ghyll looked around. While he spoke, his people had not been idle. The mercenaries sat in a discouraged group on the ground, with their arms tied behind their backs; only the captured headman got a cage for himself alone. Davall had appointed a few disarmed mercenaries to take the hanged down and lay them out. Who they were, was a task for Father Dennarias. What else was there to do?
Torril interrupted his train of thought. ‘The judge asks if you’d come to the great hall, Sire. He has a few things that need your attention.’
A subtle way to tell me my dignity is better served with a formal setting. Ghyll grinned and clapped Torril on his shoulder. ‘Show me where the good father wants me.’