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