In which Kai acquires a bodyguard
Before the troopers had time to obey the order, Ewan took action. The leader jerked a hand to his face. A small dart projected from his cheek. As he slowly keeled over and slipped from his saddle, an arrow skewered his dark companion's neck. The latter's eyes bulged in horror as he clawed at the arrow, his fingers slipping in the vermilion cascade pulsing from the wound. A bubbling gurgle and he, too, fell to the ground, blood gushing from his mouth.
"Messy, Leon," Ewan commented critically.
"Just be thankful we don't have to clean up after this one," the barbarian grinned, unabashed.
" I like the 'we'," Ewan replied drily.
The remaining men were milling around in disarray, not knowing what to do. They seemed completely disoriented as though they had awoken suddenly from a deep sleep. Leon had another arrow nocked but held his fire since the immediate threat seemed past.
"Mental enslavement," Omanisa observed. "Now, they're in a state of fugue. We must prevent their masters from returning to the hells or they can never be set free."
"Those were daemons?" Kai asked sharply.
"Be assured that they were - still are. We have little time before they dissipate. Then it will be too late. These others will be damned - and we will be in trouble "
Valarien was already fishing in his saddlebags and cursing under his breath. At last he found what he was searching for and sprang lightly down from Wildfire's back. Already, there was a faint trace of oily vapour oozing from beneath one of the bodies as the wizard sprinkled the contents of a leather pouch over them. The gritty pinky-grey powder sparkled faintly as it coated the two forms.
"Saxafeetay!" he commanded.
A pale pearly light coruscated across the powdery forms and faded away.
"I think that should - um - do it," the wizard muttered, rubbing his hands as if to brush away some taint.
"Petrification?" enquired the shaman sagely. Valarien nodded.
Leon shuddered. He slipped off his horse's back and examined their erstwhile enemy. True enough, where the fallen daemons had lain were two outcrops of solid granite. He shuddered again at the wizard's awesome power and was thankful he wasn't called upon to witness it often.
He recalled the spell Valarien had nearly completed in the pool and his blood ran cold. If Kai hadn't ducked him, would he, Leon, now be standing as a rocky pillar, guarding that pool - forever? He made a silent vow to show the wizard much more respect in future.
By now, there was quite a babel of voices, demanding of each other and the newcomers where they were and what was going on. Kai called them to order, chose one as spokesman, and asked what he could recall.
"I used to work on m' father's farm - near Gyldenburg," the man, Garth, responded hesitantly. "Then - they came for me . . . "
"Who are 'they'?"
"The King's Men. They wanted me and Bart - m' brother - for the Guard. They said the king needed us as there was plots agin 'im, an' the pay would be good. Bart di'n't want to go, as it'ud only leave Dad an' young Hal to run the farm - and Fanya'd just 'ad their first bairn - but Mam said 'e had to. While we was packin' our things she told us the news was, that the King's Men was killin' them as wouldn't go willin', like. So we went out smartish and showed willin'.
"We was took to Gyldenburg - to the Castle - for training. We was marched up an' down till us legs was nearly droppin' off, then we was taught to use weapons. When we was good enough, we was took down inside the castle An' I don't remember anything else till I suddenly found meself here... " Garth concluded, looking around in perplexity.
There were murmurs of agreement among his fellows, while their rescuers exchanged significant glances.
Kai became aware that he was being closely observed by one of the men. He returned a questioning look of his own. The face was oddly familiar. Its owner was somewhat older than his fellows, with grizzled hair and lines deeply etched. As the years seemed to slip away, there was a flicker of recognition. The man was executing a low bow over his saddle horn, as best he could.
"Sire," he breathed reverently. "I cannot be mistaken. It is Prince Edric, is it not? King Edric, I should say."
Kai acknowledged the tribute with a wry smile.
"It is, but I am travelling under the name of Kai. You are... Stoddard? Yes?"
The man nodded.
"You were there, were you not? That day?"
"I was, Sire, and right glad I was that you made it away safe. Had I known what you were at, I would have come with you, Sire, and right willingly."
Kai was touched. He found the eyes of all the Belsarians upon him, eyes filled with hope. It was plain they looked upon him as a saviour. They all insisted on swearing fealty to 'the True King' without delay, and Kai found himself in possession of a Royal Guard. So much for the 'small elite force' working covertly.
None of the guardsmen had any recollections beyond the time they 'was took down inside the castle', so there was no way of knowing if and when they would be missed. Presumably they had been patrolling the borders and camping out at night. They had enough supplies for three days, so it was likely that they were not expected to return to wherever it was they were billeted before then.
"If it please you, Sire," said Garth, "I do remember - before I was took for a guard - we 'ad a troop of men arrive at our farm one night. They used it as a billet for nigh on a week. When they left, they took most of our stores with 'em - not that there was much left by then - and they never paid so much as a penny for all they took."
He paused for a moment, then added glumly, "I suppose that means we've been doing the same thing to other poor farmers."
Kai grasped the lad's shoulder.
"The blame does not lie with you," he said consolingly, "but with those who would bring ruin to Belsaria. The Goddess willing, we will restore this once fair realm to its former prosperity."
Fine words, Kai thought privately, gazing around with sinking heart. To make them reality... ? That would take something like a miracle.
Luck certainly seemed to favour them. The Dark Lords did indeed appear to have lost sight of the travellers for the only hostile forces they encountered in the next three days were two more troops of guardsmen. The leaders of both groups were dealt with as expeditiously - and as messily - as the original pair, and the men were quickly assimilated into Kai's 'Royal Guard'. Garth was delighted to find his brother, Bart, among the new recruits and there were a few other reunions in the ranks.
"We're - um - going to have to do something about that lot," Valarien remarked over supper.
Kai looked at him thoughtfully, Leon blankly and Ewan inscrutably.
"At this rate, we're soon going to have an army," the barbarian enthused. "Thirty men, six dead enemies and no casualties - can't be bad."
"Yes it can," Kai contradicted. "I'm not entirely sure what Valarien's plans are, but I do know they don't include any pitched battles - nor wholesale war - and I go along with that. We would be doing the Dark Lords' work for them. There'd be brother fighting brother unbeknownst, the country would be devastated and there wouldn't be enough manpower left to repair the damage afterwards.
"On top of that, our chances of reaching Gyldenburg unnoticed are round about zero, and with supplies running low, they pose a logistical problem we can well do without. In fact, right now, they're far more of a liability than an asset."
"Very easily acquired, too," Ewan added shortly.
"Hmm, my thoughts exactly," agreed the wizard. " I do not think our - um - whereabouts are known to the enemy as yet or we would have met with firmer - um - resistance. I believe this to be a contingency plan, designed to slow us down and highlight our position, should we evade their spies. Rather like - um - a ball and chain on an escaped prisoner."
"It's working, isn't it?" Kai said wryly.
"What do you suggest?"
It was Ewan who, unexpectedly, responded to the question. "Best place to hide apples is an orchard. Send 'em back to their families - start putting their farms in order."
This suggestion met with instant approval and in the morning, twenty nine of the men were sent off in small groups with a gold mark apiece and orders to avoid any patrols.
Stoddard elected to remain with the King on the grounds that he could identify many of the people to whom Kieran had given power. He was surprised, and not a little grieved, to find that he had effectively lost five years of his life, that being the length of time that had passed since he had been recruited into the guard. As it seemed probable that some of his inside information would still be valid, and as he had no close relatives to return to save a sister inside Gyldenburg itself, Kai agreed to his joining their company.
He instantly appointed himself the King's personal bodyguard, much to the amusement of the others. It was rather like an elderly terrier volunteering to guard a wolf but Kai was touched nonetheless.
They managed to avoid several more patrols and steered clear of habitation. Leon and Chilali acted as scouts and supplemented their dwindling supplies with fresh game. Now that Leon had abandoned his attempts to seduce the falcon, they developed a comfortable working relationship. It was a relationship, based as it was on voluntary co-operation, which gave him quite a kick.
Right now, he was really enjoying life. It was a far cry from the oxen herding of his younger days. Would he ever go back? Probably not. He had no sentimental ties like Kai - or King Edric, as he supposed he ought to start thinking of him. Shame really. He had got to like the stern warrior but a king would have no use for a barbarian at his court and there was no way Leon was going to change his ways for anyone.
The sun blazed and the days became hotter as the company neared Gyldenburg. A precursor of the things to come? In the heat, the travellers became more and more edgy. Where was the enemy? Had they really concealed their approach so well? Or had they been watched all the way? Were they walking blithely into a trap? Valarien dared not use any of his scrying devices lest it light a metaphorical beacon over their heads. Omanisa however, knew other methods.
The night before they expected to reach Gyldenburg, he set up a small wickiup for himself alone in which he drew his strange sand paintings. This done, he made a small fire outside the wickiup and sat cross-legged before it at the entrance to his shelter. From his belt pouch, he pulled out a handful of leaves which he cast on to the fire and which produced a sweet aromatic smoke that hung around the camp making them all feel drowsy. A low chanting took the shaman into a trance and the rest into the blessed unconsciousness of sleep.
In the morning, Omanisa was able to confirm that the minions of the Dark Powers were still casting about in the Marches, around the Great Fen and even south of the fen. Furthermore, Kieran had divided his forces sending half his men north through Sigoinia and half south into Lianura Neblina. Unknowingly, the company had passed between the two armies. Only a token force remained in the capital to maintain law and order. There was no doubt about it, Lady Luck was smiling upon them - for now. How long could it last?
The day grew hotter than ever. A heat haze hung over the land, and the air shimmered around the riders. In the distance, the Harlness - that craggy promontory on which Castle Malleckay was built - seemed to float above the surrounding lands in the grey-blue sea of mirage. By mid-afternoon, Kai could pick out the castle itself. His castle. Maybe... Right now, it might as well be - as it appeared - just another 'castle in the air'.
By nightfall, Kai and his companions had reached the woods in which he had nearly met his death so long ago. He led them to a cave where the woods met the rocky wall of the Harlness. In his youth, he had often camped out there. It had been a bolt-hole for when trouble loomed, as it so often had, given his maverick spirit. And here he was again, in big trouble. It certainly put the problems caused by youthful peccadilloes into perspective.
Over supper, they discussed their options. It was decided that Ewan and Stoddard would enter the walled town of Gyldenburg at the foot of the Harlness at daybreak and assess the situation. Though Kai was most reluctant to remain in hiding, he had to concede that Ewan, with his consummate skills in espionage, was by far the most suited to the job, and that Stoddard's knowledge of the town was more up-to-date than his own.
On the following morning, Valarien cast the illusion of disguise on Stoddard, endowed the pair with a number of gadgets and tricks, and the two spies set out on their reconnaissance expedition. The rest sat back to enjoy a long spell of inactivity and boredom.
Ewan and Stoddard made a wide circuit of the town and found a spot where they could observe the comings and goings at the gates unseen. There was quite a queue of traders waiting already.
Only one gate was open and a group of guardsmen appeared to be checking papers before allowing anyone through. They were taking their time and, every now and again, found some poor soul whose papers failed to satisfy them. These ill-fated ones had their goods confiscated, and were driven off with a sound beating, regardless of age or sex.
One doughty yeoman took issue over the seizing of his property. He was knocked senseless and dragged off inside the barbican. Another who was summarily carried off was a pretty young maiden, struggling and screaming while the remaining guards yelled obscene encouragements to her abductors.
Stoddard, righteously disgusted, almost had to be restrained from joining in the protests of the waiting tradesfolk who were now getting their ears soundly boxed for their impudence.
"But that was young Wendelin, the Widow Gytha's daughter. Ay, an' that were old Tyndall's son, as should know better, a-carryin' 'er off!"
"Peace, friend. He knows no more what he does than you did."
It was said without rancour but effectively put an end to any further thoughts of independent action that might jeopardize the greater mission. Ewan was concentrating on the problem at hand, namely how to enter the town without attracting attention.
It was protected by a high stout curtain wall. This posed no problem to himself as regards scaling it. He doubted the older man's ability to do likewise, however, and the surrounding land had been cleared for a couple of hundred yards around to afford a clear sight for the archers on the walls.
To the north, the wall abutted the sheer walls of the Harlness. No way in by that route. The postern in the west wall, though apparently unused, was under constant surveillance by guards on the battlement above. The main gate was well guarded and entry was gained only on production of the correct papers. Impasse.
"Is there another way into town besides the main gate and the postern?"
Stoddard thought a while.
"I believe King Walden did have a private entrance somewhere," he said, "but where...?"
He shook his head despondently.
"Would Kai know?" Ewan asked.
"If he did, I think he would have mentioned it. He and the King - his father - were never very close, you see, although I believe they were coming to an understanding shortly before Prince Edric disappeared."
They were still pondering over the problem when a diversion occurred. A tall heavy-featured man, richly apparelled in velvet and sable despite the warm weather, appeared at the gate and addressed the guards in stentorian tones.
"I want a dozen strong men for a slave party. Bring them directly to the Chamber of Art. The Lord Abralek requires further extensions to his quarters."
"That's no Belsarian name," Stoddard growled.
The guards saluted smartly and set off down the waiting line, picking out suitable specimens. Several fellows attempted to flee. A volley of arrows brought down two or three and the rest rapidly changed their minds.
"This is our chance," Ewan muttered.
"I don't think that's very wise " his companion protested but followed willy-nilly as Ewan joined the returning fugitives.