Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 5
Next: CHAPTER 7

One moment Tristen's company crossed a wide meadowland in the bright sunlight; and in the next, slate gray ribbons of cloud raced across the heavens, broader and broader, until, rapid as the drawing of a canopy, the sun gave up a last few shafts.
"Gods!" Crissand said, for it was not only the gray space which changed so easily, but the world itself which had shifted, and Men and horses faltered in their march, dismayed. From the confidence of a world that could change but slowly, they had entered a territory where magic met magic and the sun itself was overwhelmed.
A sudden gale buffeted the foremost ranks, and lightning cracked and sheeted across the hills. From ranks behind them came wails of dismay: seasoned veterans and country lads who had run to the banners of the High King met hostile magic and wavered in their courage as the lightnings gathered alarmingly above their heads.
Tristen flung up his hand and willed the lightning elsewhere. It took a tree on the wooded ridge to their left: splinters flew in a burst of fire.
Owl came winging to him, and swung a broad, self-satisfied circle, on a light breeze.
Well, well, said the Wind. We are quick to seize the advantage, are we not? And confident?
Owl! Tristen would not distract himself in debate with his enemy.
He let Owl settle on his fist, and sent out one burning message through the gray space to all he loved and trusted, nothing reserved now: Ward yourselves! Let nothing in or out!
"Damn!" Uwen said on the heels of the lightning strike. "That were close!"
"Do you hear it?" Tristen asked him, and then thought, foolishly, no, of course not. Crissand and Cevulirn might have heard the Wind speak. But Uwen did not. The army stood in ignorance, blind to its real danger, its confidence shaken by the lightning.
One rider came up from the ranks in haste: Aeself drew his frantic horse to a halt and pointed to the horizon ahead.
"Ilefínian!" Aeself said. "Just beyond the hill, my lord! The end of the ridge!"
"Then move ahead!" Tristen said, for when he ventured to know what Aeself said was there, he felt the truth of the threat in the gray space, a tightly warded opposition, so wrapped about with magic it was hard to see at all as that near him. He set Dys in motion, and reached out in the gray space for Crissand and Cevulirn both, settling his own protection on the likeliest targets of hostile magic. Such as they knew how, they warded him, and Uwen, too, while Owl lofted himself again and flew outward and back, a long gliding passage that ended on Tristen's outreaching hand as they crested the hill.
Here the stony ridge ended in a long, forest-girt plain, and a last outrider of that ridge, a hill rose within the valley. On that hill, towers and town walls rose from skirts of winter-bare pasturage and fields.
Lightning sheeted across the sky, a wall of brilliant light, west to east, and against it that distant fortress stood clearly to be seen, above its strong town walls. It was a Place as Ynefel was a Place, ancient and deep-rooted, and in the fire across the heavens it unveiled itself in all its power. Tristen felt it and shivered in the crash of thunder.
Far to the south, the Lady Regent herself knew they had come to her capital.
To the west, Efanor, at his prayers, knew.
And in the ranks, the Elwynim behind them knew, and raised a shout that drowned the thunder.
"The king!" someone cried, and other voices shouted it: "The High King and Elwynor!"
But others shouted, " Lord Sihhë!"
And clearer to him than all the voices was a sense of foreboding presence beyond the ridge that pointed like a spearhead toward Ilefínian, the knowledge of lives at risk the moment Men and horses set themselves in motion.
Cefwyn was in danger, Tristen thought in anguish. He had brought his army where he wished, to the end of the ridge, and in sudden clarity he knew Cefwyn was on the other side, he knew the enemy lay in wait, where he could come at them from behind, but he could not turn aside. Cefwyn was in reach of Tasmôrden's forces, in peril from his own men… but worse—he was within reach of Ilefínian, where the danger was wrapped not in iron edges, but in an ageless, malevolent will.
"It has to fall!" he shouted to those nearest, to Uwen and Crissand and Cevulirn, and pointed toward the fortress on its hill. "We cannot go to the east! We have to break the wards of that place, or Cefwyn will die. They all will die!"
The carts went into place, a line between the rocks and the woods, men hauling gear off the carts in feverish haste—casting anxious looks at the heavens, for a pall of cloud flowed from over the ridge, west to east, and all across the horizon what had seemed hazed blue sky proved to be gray. Lightning raced across the heavens and thunder boomed from off the heights, and now men looked up from their work in fear.
"Form the line!" Cefwyn ordered his forces as lightning cast white light over all of them, once, twice, thrice. "Form the line, Ylesuin!
We've beaten wizards before! Forward, the banners' ."
He let Kanwys have rein, wary of the woods that fringed the road on the right… on the right, where shields were on the left. Those woods slanted away rapidly toward the right as he moved past the trees into meadow, and there the hill arched away downward, while on the left the ridge descended with it in a tumble of rocks the size of peasant huts. He knew his maps: this was the dizzyingly long, broad downslope which both his grandfather's maps and Ninévrisë's warning had told him was a long, long highland… but gods! All the subtle rise of the land over two days came downhill at once, grassland pasturage spread out for a long, long, uninterrupted descent to the cultivated plain. The view captured the eye, distracted the wits, suddenly beset with the scale of that descent, while the sky flickered with no natural storm.
But the Dragon Guard advanced, men who had stood before worse than this. The Prince's Guard moved, and so did Ryssand and Nelefreissan and Murandys, earliest ready, a wall of iron to shield men still preparing.
Were it not for the courage of the scout the army would have had no warning until an assault disorganized their line of march. "Bear east!"
Cefwyn said. "Dragons! Ryssand! Hold center! Panys to the right!
Bring the blackguards out in the open!"
Messengers sped and banners moved outward under the flash of lightning. As Panys' line formed, light midlands cavalry probed the border of the woods—and rapidly fell back before a howling outrush of motley armed men.
Irregulars, the Saendal, armed with axes and pikes and bows, and the force with which they charged was considerable even across the slope and on the uneven ground. Brigands, hirelings, hill bandits who regarded no law but gold, hire, and murder… with them Murandys'
stolid peasant infantry proved of some use, standing for a first taste of battle largely because they did not regard the trumpet signal that called them back, and for a moment there was a sharp contest, before some of Maudyn's forming right wing alike began to give backwards, disengaging in the distance across the hill.
"Hold fast!" Cefwyn shouted, chafing to have the rest of the heavy horse move up from behind. He chosen to engage the brigands'
ambush quickly on this eastward fringe of woods, to keep the enemy from harrying their flank. Two of his allies, Sulriggan and Osanan, were still behind the lines, equipping their heavy horse to bring them forward, please the gods, at some convenient time: damn Sulriggan's lackluster drills!
Ryssand, however, had moved with dispatch, and so had Murandys, spreading their forces behind the immediate deployment of the red-coated Dragon Guard and the company of light horse who went at the ready.
And granted Ryssand's naive peasants who had gotten in the way of the Guard and trammeled up their advance, those peasants still had made a line, a line they must hold long enough for the heavy horse to set itself in order. He was sure now Tasmôrden's main force lay closer than that streamside he had planned to have for a battlefield, never dreaming Tasmôrden would give him the advantage of the higher ground, but knowing it had its disadvantages, too, in the very momentum it gave them.
Traps were more than possible.
"Guelens, Maudyn, damn it, Guelen Guard!—Tell him so, boy!
Ride!"
If Ryssand's and Murandys' peasant farmers yielded more ground on the flank, where they had crowded together, he had to trust the Guelens, the city troops among them, would account the skirmish with the Saendal their sort of brawl. And as he shouted the order another messenger of the Guard scrambled to horse and was off behind the confused wing to reach Lord Maudyn.
The embattled Dragons, too, under Gwywyn, bore toward the tangle of the peasant line, not where he wanted them situated, for this attack he was certain was meant to create as much confusion as it could, pouring downhill at the back of his right wing if he had formed early, at very least keeping him from coming onto that slope unreported to the enemy.
"Majesty!" Now, now, there was a general movement of Sulrig-gan's heavy horse from out of that screen of carts and forest. Cefwyn settled his shield and stilled Kanwy with his knees, putting him to this side and the other to settle his restless forward impulse. That would be the difficulty, with all the men: the impulse to charge downhill. Discipline; discipline: a peasant army could not restrain itself; veterans could scarcely restrain themselves when tumult surrounded them and deafened them to signals.
"Lance!" he shouted at his pages, and the solid ash arrived within his grip. His guard had gathered around him, and now others of his house guard had arrived, the heavy-armed center of the Dragons and the Prince's Guard, Gwywyn's ordinary command, solid heart of Guelen force. Panys' younger son, near him, caught away from his father's command, had his grooms fighting to further tighten a cinch, the horse wild-eyed and resisting.
And in the skirmish with the lad's recalcitrant horse, one of those cursedly ridiculous incidents that precede battle, for some reason, no reason at all, he found himself in high good spirits, all the strictures and obligations of kingship fallen away from him.
"Dragons!" he shouted out, sending Kanwy on a restrained, restless pace near Anwyll's command. "Trumpeter, sound out! Form the line!
Banners! Form and stand! By the plan!"
Banner-bearers spread out, signaling men where their companies should be. And, unraveling the chaos that had threatened the right wing, the veteran Dragons answered quickly to the trumpets and the movement of the banners and set position on the left.
Osanan drew his men into line: that was the centerward edge of the left wing; and Panys and the Guelens maintained the skirmish on the right wing, while Sulriggan's company moved in feverish and wasteful haste, crossing to the fore of the Prince's Guard, not the rear as he ought—damn the man! Cefwyn thought, but it was ineptitude, not treason.
More slowly, with laudable precision, Ryssand, Murandys and Nelefreissan, heavy horse and the center of the line, took their place and stood firm.
In the distance Maudyn's trumpeter sounded out another call that called the right wing to desist pursuit: the engagement there, which Cefywn could not see from the left wing, had become a downhill rout it was not Maudyn's choice to pursue: gods knew whether the peasant infantry remembered that trumpet signal, or knew theirs from Tasmôrden's.
More precise than the trumpets, the banners were a constant signal; and three more king's messengers hovered close at Cefwyn's side, awaiting orders that would send last-moment changes to the line, to answer whatever surprises Tasmôrden had contrived.
There was a moment that the army was poised, prepared. Everything they had done toward this moment came to the test.
The wooded ridge was to their left, a steep, brushy range of boulders that spilled away in a wedge downhill; a narrow band of woods played out to their right and gave way to meadow and a broad plain below, curtained close at hand on the left by the ridge.
But out across the plain and under the shadowed sky, all but obscured by the ridge, a keen eye could make out the regularity of cultivated land… it was a moment before Cefwyn was sure what he saw, but once he saw, there was no mistaking it.
It was the cultivated border of a town, its sheep walls and winter brown barley fields. This slope met the end of the cursed ridge that had kept them from joining forces with Tristen and their southern neighbors.
And at the very bottom of the slope, all but obscured by the downward fall of the hill, the massed forces of an army.
Tristen, he thought at first, seeing black banners. But Tasmôrden had claimed the High Kingship; and those lines held nothing of the bright banners that should be with Tristen, nothing of the White Horse of Ivanor, the Heron banner of Lanfarnesse.
No. It was not Tristen.
"He is there!" Cefwyn cried aloud. He had good eyes, better than most, and he pointed for those who might see once they looked.
"Tasmôrden's waiting for us below! We've come to Ilefínian, and we've met our enemy!''''
"Ilefínian!" Anwyll of the Dragons took up the shout. "The gods for Ylesuin!"
"The gods for Ylesuin and the Lady Regent!" Cefwyn shouted back, and loyal men of the Dragons echoed him.
The skirmish over by the woods had surely been a signal, messengers fled back to Tasmôrden, warning of their arrival, a light-armed force that carried word what they were, and in what numbers, and perhaps, essential to one who relied on traitors, word whether Rys-sand's banner flew among the rest.
It did, and if Tasmôrden's men had lingered to report how they ordered their line, why, it flew centermost, where he had ordered it to be, foremost of Ylesuin's defense, after all.
Tristen rode in the world at a steady, ground-consuming pace, with all the south at his back, while the gray space grew violent with lightnings and that black Edge appeared which had appeared at the Lord Regent's death… so vivid a sight Tristen had difficulty knowing what was the world of Men and what was the other place. Chill wind blew out of that gulf and threatened to sweep them all away into it: at one moment and in the white fire of lightning he felt the whole world tilted and sliding, and yet when he made himself look squarely between Dys' black ears it was no different than the world had ever been.
"Do you see anything?" he asked those about him, and yet knew it was foolish of him to ask. "Do you feel the cold?"
"The cold, yes, my lord," Crissand said: Uwen did not answer, but Tristen doubted any Man without the gift had perceived what he saw or felt. He hoped they did not, for the cold was bitter and the view unsettling to the heart… but courage, these Men did have, to face what came.
The town rose before them, veiled by fire-blackened orchards, its gates shut, and more than shut, warded. He felt the strength of it even here, warding that might admit those blind to it, but not him. He sent Owl out, as far as Owl dared go, to try to find a way for him, but Owl turned back suddenly as if he had met a barrier, and suddenly the horses went as if they trod on eggshells, sniffing the wind for what no one could see.
Yet the shadow of a little girl appeared walking before them down that lane of burned orchards… gone for an hour and two and now back again, under the sky laced with lightning and muttering with thunder. Then, with her, hand in hand, Auld Syes appeared, looking like some country wife walking with her little daughter.
"There's the child," Crissand said in wonder, as if he could not see the mother. And Cevulirn said nothing, whether he saw or not.
Then Sovrag rode forward, swearing there was winter in the air again, and he had seen sleet on the wind, though the smell in the air was rain and burned wood.
Immediately behind him came old Pelumer, with little fuss, only silently joining them. And last came Umanon on his great destrier, with his guard. They all were to the fore now, all the lords.
"Shall we ride up to the gates and ask politely?" Umanon asked. "Or where is Tasmôrden, do you suppose?"
Umanon asked, and Tristen looked back at the stony ridge that spilled downhill behind them in a tumble of great boulders that ended with abandoned orchards and weed-grown fields, and the question wrung his heart, for after so long and hard marching they had come almost within reach of one another… almost within reach, but not in reach at all, and not within his protection.
There was Tasmôrden, he thought, and forgot to say so, his wits were so distracted with the threat aloft and the threat of the walls before them.
"I see the child," Uwen remarked in surprise. "Walkin' wi' someone, she is."
The light dimmed as if a dark cloud had gone over the sun, then dimmed further. Tristen looked up at a slate gray pall that streamed over the tops of the charred trees at their left. In the next moment a gale blasted through the trees, tearing the banners sideways, throwing Owl tumbling. Horses turned from the gale and riders fought them back to a steady course as the trees shed a sleet of broken twigs.
Shadows gathered out of that orchard, not the shadows of the overwhelmed sun, but Shadows from out of the depths of ruin, Shadows that flowed like ink in the gust-torn brush, with wafts of cold air. Thunder muttered above them, and lightning sheeting through the clouds whitened the black trees, but did nothing to relieve the flow of darkness seeping from woods and rocks.
"Something's beside us," Crissand said anxiously, and cries of dismay arose from behind them.
"Ride," Tristen said, urging Dys forward, for what swept about them felt to be neither friend nor foe, only the outpouring of magic reaching into dark places and drawing out all the Shadows imprisoned there. He swept them up, urging them also against the walls where the enemy had his citadel.
The heart of all that was wrong was in Ilefínian, and how they should pass its gates, he did not know.
Lightning chained across the sky, setting all that was bright in unnatural clarity against a darkened sky, and thunder cracked above the army's heads. A warhorse broke the line and charged forward, fighting his rider's signals, prompting other horses to break forward only to be turned back, and Cefwyn reined Kanwy about to shout at the Dragons to stand fast, no matter the wrath of heaven or the folly of horses.
The trumpeters sounded out loud and long, king's men, experienced and sensible, calling out for attention; and men heard that, through ears half-deafened by thunder, those who could not hear their king's voice. The line that had wavered steadied.
Cefwyn rode Kanwys out to the fore, riding across the slope in front of the red ranks of Dragon Guard, the black of the Prince's, and shouted out, over and over, "The gods for Ylesuin! The gods against sorcery! Gods save Ylesuin!" while the men, encouraged, shouted back,
"The gods for Ylesuin! Gods save the king!"
They had men enough armed, now, and the line was formed. The enemy had not come upslope after them, only prudent; but neither had they taken their greatest opportunity, that moment of confusion in the Saendal's assault on their flank. If sorcery helped Tasmôrden, in whatever balance it warred with Emuin and Tristen, at least it had not helped Tasmôrden come over that hill in time to catch them unprepared.
Tasmôrden waited instead in the valley, prepared to receive a cavalry charge.
But traps were possible, trenches and stakes and pikemen and other such unpleasant means to turn the charge of heavy cavalry into carnage: for that reason among others Cefwyn would not give the order to rush headlong downhill, letting his troops slip prudence and outrace the trumpet signals and the reach of couriers. He saw with satisfaction that Maudyn had completely crushed the attack from the woods.
And he had recovered his men from the panic charge they might have made. It was harder to go deliberately, to measure their advance, but he relied on his veteran companies, and had sent out messengers sternly advising the line to prepare a moderate advance… gods keep the peasant levies steady.
He gave the signal and led, keeping Kanwy tight-reined. Behind him, the veteran companies that were the stability of Ylesuin's line held their horses to the pace he set, allowing the peasant line to keep up.
He could see the center, Ryssand's forces; and the right wing, Maudyn's, stretched out to indistinction against an unkept woods which had already sent out an ambush. They advanced, keeping their ranks, never quickening the charge. It was a game of temptation: Tasmôrden tempted him to a mad rush downhill: he had his own trap in mind.
"They aren't facing untried boys!" Cefwyn shouted at Anwyll, with the Dragons, where a little too much enthusiasm from Anwyll's lot crowded up. "Steady pace!"
Ryssand and Nelefreissan and Murandys to the center, the Dragons, Osanan and the Prince's Guard in the left wing with him, while Maudyn commanded the right wing: Panys and Llymaryn, Carys and the other eastern provinces, with the Guelen Guard, as they had settled among themselves. At the very last, their heavy cavalry had to screen their far fewer pikemen, who would be slow as tomorrow getting to the fray, and in peasant order, which was to say, damned little order at all… likely to arrive only for the very last action if the cavalry once lost its good sense and plunged downslope.
Yet it was always Ylesuin's habit to have the pikemen for support, and Cefwyn asked himself a last time was it folly on his part to have declined to summon the Guelen and Llymarish levies into this, not to have had the double line of pikes that had distinguished his grandfather's successful assaults.
It was far too late now for second thoughts. Kanwy fought him for more rein and jolted under him like a mountain in motion, plate-sized feet descending a steep slope in deliberate, uncomfortable strides that made it clear Kanwy wanted to run.
For a guard at his back he had those who had defended him for years; and for a man at his right he had young Anwyll, lately from watch on the Lenúalim.
Where are you now, master crow? Taking account of this? On the ridge watching?
I know where all my enemies are. I've dealt with it, thank you, faithful crow. I could use your shield just now. Anwyll's a fine young man. But he hasn't your qualities.
The horizon flashed white, then dark, and the foot of the hill gave up a sudden movement of dark banners with a white device that shone like the lightning itself.
It was the heraldry of the Sihhë High Kings carried before him, in the lines of the enemy, the black banner of the Tower Crowned.
And before Ylesuin's line, beside the red Dragon Banner of the Marhanen kings, shone the Tower and Checker of the Lady Regent, blue and white and gold, bright under the leaden sky.
"Hold!" Cefwyn said, and reined in, to allow his line to assume a better order: the wings had begun to stray a little behind. "Let's see if they'll climb to us!"
The line drew to a ragged stop, re-formed itself in an even, bristling row of lances.
He sorely missed the Lanfarnessemen, archers that would have taken full advantage of this height. From the right wing issued a thin gray sleet of arrows aloft, archers from Panys' contingent, the best they had, and likely to do damage with the higher vantage.
Back came a flight from the other direction, uphill and short, a waste of shafts.
A solitary horseman rode out from the halted opposing line, rode back and forth, shouting something in which Cefwyn had no interest at all, except the mild hope that an arrow would do them a favor.
There, he said to himself, seeing the glint of gold encircling that helm, there was Tasmôrden at last, taunting them, wishing the king of Ylesuin to descend into the trap he had laid.
He would not shout back, would not give way to anger. He set Kanwy out to the fore at a mere amble, rode across the center and rode back again, gesture for gesture, leisurely as a ride through his capital. Arrows attempted the uphill shot with no better effect than before. Arrows came back down the hill, and the dull thump of impact below echoed off the rocks to their left, with satisfying outcries of anger from the enemy below.
In the same leisure Cefwyn rejoined his wing, rode to Anwyll's side, and pointed to a stand of brush somewhat past Tasmôrden's line.
"When we do charge, we will meet Lord Maudyn there, behind his line. Bear somewhat left. We shan't be in a hurry until the last."
" Left, Your Majesty…"
"Left, I say. Out and around his flank. There may be trenches. But there we meet Lord Maudyn, and come back east again. No driving into Tasmôrden's center, where I most think he's fortified. That honor is Ryssand's."
"Yes, Your Majesty." There was grave doubt in Anwyll's voice.
"Relay that to Captain Gwywyn."
Anwyll rode off at a good clip, met with the captain of the Prince's Guard, who stood in Idrys' place in general command of the king's forces, and came back again in haste toward him, to take his place as shieldman.
" Sound the advance!" Cefwyn cried to the trumpeter, and as the trumpets sounded, gave Kanwy rein to resume a measured advance.
Only when he was close enough to the foot of the long descent did he let the pace increase, and set himself not in the lead, as he had done in other wars, but back with the line: his guard was around him, the Dragons beside him, and the forest of ash wood lifted at the heavens now began to lower as the ranks closed.
He lowered his own visor, lowered the lance, took a good grip for the shock to come; and hoped to the gods the veteran Dragons evaded the brush where he wagered stakes were in place: they were too expert for such traps.
And his leading was not to ride full tilt into the lines that offered; they evaded the rows of brush that skirted the center and met the shock of heavy horse that swept out from the enemy's line to prevent that flanking move—met it with a crack like a smith's hammer.
Horses went down, fewer of theirs than the enemy's, and they slid by—doing nothing to attack the entrenched line of brush-hidden stakes and pikemen. They went past the flank of the cavalry, and the heavy horse of Tasmôrden's center, seeing the gap they had left, charged past them, going uphill, unchecked.
Ryssand had buckled, had retreated.
And Tasmôrden's riders plunged up and up into that pocket of retreating men, blind to the sweep from either wing that now turned behind them.
Cefwyn took down an opposing pikeman with the broken stub of his lance, sent Kanwy through a last curtain of infantry, and saw Maudyn's banners coming toward him from the east, to meet him behind Tasmôrden's line.
More, he saw Tasmôrden's banners in the heart of the remaining pikemen, and saw the cluster of mounted heavy horse guards that betokened a lord's defense, between him and Maudyn.
"With me!" he shouted at Anwyll and whatever of his own guard could keep up, and, sword in hand, he rode for that gold-crowned man in the heart of the enemy.
The pretender to the High Kingship failed to see his approach; he shouted in vain after his charging troops, who by now had chased halfway up the hill in pursuit of Ryssand's retreat.
"Tasmôrden!" Cefwyn shouted, and the man turned his face toward him, a dark-bearded man in a crowned helm, in black armor, bearing the forbidden Tower Crowned on his coat and his shield.
Kanwy went through the guard like a bludgeon, scattering unready pikemen, shouldering horses aside as Cefwyn laid about him with sword and shield; with a shove of his hindquarters as if he were climbing a hill, Kanwy broke through the last screen of defense, trampled a man, kept going. The clangor of engagement was at Cefwyn's back: his guard was still with him, shouting for the gods and Ylesuin; and the crowned man, realizing his danger, reined full about and swept a wild blow at Cefwyn's head.
Cefwyn angled his shield, shed the force of it, and dealt a blow past the opposing shield. Kanwy shouldered a horse that hit them hard, bit another. Cefwyn cut aside at the encroaching guard, veered Kanwy full about as he bore, in time to intercept another of Tasmôrden's attacks, this one descending at Kanwy's neck.
The sword grated past the metal-guarded edge of his shield, scored Kanwy's shoulder. Kanwy stumbled, recovered himself against another horse, and blows cracked like thunder around them. One numbed Cefwyn's back, but as Kanwy regained solid footing he had Tasmôrden in sight and drove his heels in, sending Kanwy over a fallen rider and through the mistimed defense of two pikemen who tried to prevent him. A pike grated off Kanwy's armor. A man cried out and went down and Kanwy bore him past, and up against his enemy.
Tasmôrden flung up his shield, desperately choosing defense: but Cefwyn's strike came from the side, with Kanwy's impetus behind it on a wheeling turn. The blade hit and hung, needing force and a twist of the arm to free it, and when Cefwyn freed the blade, Tasmôrden toppled from his saddle, helmless, a black-bearded and bloody face disappearing down into a maelstrom of horses and men.
"Majesty!" Cefwyn heard a man shout, and saw Lord Maudyn across an ebbing rush of Tasmôrden's forces.
Suddenly the air thickened. The hairs of his head and Kanwy's mane alike stood up.
Wizard-work, he thought. A trap.
And force and light and sound burst from the heart of the enemy.
Lightning broke above the towers, ripped across the sky, and even at a distance the air shivered with it. "Gods bless!" Uwen said, yet to Tristen's knowledge not a man behind them turned back.
The child and the Lady still went before them, and still that inky flow ran along the edges of the woods, but the lightning flash had for the blink of an eye seemed to illumine men and horses, gray as morning mist, that moved where the darkness flowed.
"I see men," Crissand said, while above them and near at hand the towers of Ilefínian now seemed to flow with inky stain in the cracks and crevices. The darkness flowed, too, in the ditch beside the road, and between the stones of a ruined sheep wall. It wound itself among the thin, straggling branches of blackened, bare trees, and drifted down like falling leaves, to coalesce and run like dark fire along the ground.
It became footprints, and the next flicker of the heavens showed ghostly riders in greater numbers.
"Haunts," Sovrag said, and Umanon blessed himself. Ahead of them all moved the lady of Emwy, but now it seemed banners had joined theirs, banners in great numbers, and a handful of ghostly gray riders, heedless of the trees, paced beside them toward the looming gates.
"Lord Haurydd," Aeself said in a muted voice, and Tristen, too, recognized the man and the banners, dim as he was under the flickering heavens. The walls of the town seemed manned, but it was uncertain whether with living Men or Shadows.
Behind his banners, the Elwynim, the Lady's sparrows, had come to take back their town; and the south of Ylesuin had come to defend their land against Elwynor's wars of succession.
Tristen turned in the saddle and looked back over the host that had come to this place, men who had left their own lands for a comfortless camp and the risk of sorcery out of the stones of walls that had known too many wars. The earth itself seemed to quake, and the gray place held no comfort.
At my very doors, the Wind whispered. Mauryl's precious hatchling. Have we known one another at some time, disagreed, perhaps?
He swung about. It was not only that voice. There was another presence, far more familiar, that drifted around the perimeter, one that taunted and mocked him and still dared not come close.
He recalled the courtyard at Ynefel, and Mauryl's face within its walls, as all the others had been imprisoned, all the lost, all the defeated.
So might Ilefínian stand, as haunted, as wretched in its fall.
"The gates are barred," he said to Uwen, for the Wind told him so.
Ylesuin's down, it said. Folly. Great folly. Will you help him, I wonder?
In the unstable clouds of the gray space he saw a field where lightning had struck, and the dead lay all about, men and horses, and Cefwyn… yet alive, within reach of him, if only he reached out to rescue him.
He turned his head suddenly and looked up at the walls, seeing the lure it cast him, its intention to have Cefwyn's life and his as surely as he turned that direction, and he would not do as it wished.
He struck at all of its presence he could reach within the gray space, he struck desperately and hard, and failed. His hold on the world weakened. His strength ebbed. It was the wards that drank it away from him.
"Uwen," he said, "I have to go in there. I have to open the gates."
"Not alone," Crissand said. "No, my lord!"
There was no debate. The way was plain to him for an instant, the blink of an eye, and he cast himself into it, alone, knowing only that there was within the fortress of Ilefínian a room where a banner had hung.
And that his enemy, bent on destruction of all he loved, invited him.
Lightning had hit, and only the fact he remembered that told Cefwyn that he had survived. He remembered Kanwy falling sidelong and pitching him to shield-side. He recalled the impact on his shield against a carpet of metal-clad bodies, and after that was uncertain whether Kanwy had risen or not: all the world was a noise in his ears and a blinding light in his vision, so bright it might have been dark instead.
He lay an instant winded and uncertain whether he felt the sword in his hand or whether it was, like the fall, only the vivid memory of holding it.
But his knee moved, and his elbow held him off his face.
And if he would live, his father had dinned it into him, no matter how hard the fall, no matter the pain, if Ylesuin would survive, he had no choice but cover himself and find his guards and his horse.
He gained one knee, levered himself to his feet with his sword, proving he did indeed hold it. He stumbled erect into a blind confusion of wounded men and horses, a morass of tangled bodies and shattered lances that turned and shifted underfoot, to a second fall and a third.
A distance along, his eyes began to make out moving shadows, but he thought others must be as dazed by the bolt. No one attacked him, no one seemed aware of any color or banner, and he had no idea at the moment where the lines were. He had lost his helm, his shield was in two pieces, and he shed it as an encumbrance, staggering on uneven ground, but aware at last that downhill was not the direction of his own men.
In front of him a fallen horse raised itself on its hindquarters and began to gain its feet, like a moving hill rearing up before him: his gloved hand found its shoulder and its neck and he seized the reins and tried to hold the stirrup, but the dazed horse tore away from him and veered off on its own way across the field, trampling the dead and the dying in its course.
Damn, Cefwyn said to himself, holding an aching side and recovering with difficulty from the blow the horse had dealt him. A second time brought to a standstill and having no other sense to help him, he listened past the roaring in his ears, trying to make of the sounds he heard any known voice, any sign of his own guards or any surety of his enemies. Men moved and called to one another near him, voices lifted over the distant clangor of battle, but his ears could not distinguish the words from sounds that might be wind or thunder.
It was a predicament, beyond a doubt, and he felt his father's disapproval of all he had done. Headlong folly had set him here afoot and alone.
But by the good gods, the battle plan had seemed to work. On a deep breath he recalled the successful sweep of two wings around Tasmôrden's flanks, while Tasmôrden's center charged uphill and Tasmôrden cursed his own men helplessly from the bottom of the hill.
Now he recalled the encounter with Tasmôrden. Now he recalled that he had come within sight of Ilefínian, and remembered that the enemy no longer had any semblance of a king or a leader. Orders would no longer come to them. Captains must direct such fighting as remained, and for hired captains, there was no more source of gold, no reason to linger.
But then another realization came to him… that in the bolt that had overthrown him and obscured Tasmôrden's fall, there was no coincidence—none he accepted since he had stood on Lewen field—none, since he had claimed Tristen for a friend. The hand of wizardry was beyond a doubt in that bolt, and he was still alive—
inconvenienced mightily, afoot, half-deaf and three-quarters blind, but alive, while Tasmôrden was lying somewhere below.
He could in no wise say whether it was his wizards or Tasmôrden's who had just set the heavens afire and brought down the hammer of heaven on the battle with Tasmôrden, but they had called the lightning on the Quinaltine roof, and he began to suspect the answer lay in a wizardous tug of war.
Yet whatever magic had aimed or pulled the bolt this way or that, it had not hit him, and in that fact, he saw Tristen's hand.
He paused in that astonished thought, gazing toward the town his hazed vision could no longer find. At least he had seen it before the lightning fell… all his promise to Ninévrisë, all the ambition of his grandfather, all wrapped in one. That, and his enemy.
But if it was folly to have charged after Tasmôrden himself, it was greater folly to stand gawping in the middle of the carnage. He could not find a horse, or his guards: he began to realize he would not find either wandering here. From the mere effort to see, his eyes streamed tears. His very bones ached, his skin felt the first instant of scalding, endlessly maintained, and he doubted any man in the vicinity of the lightning could have fared much better. He recalled a field of dead men where he had waked, and told himself he had used all the luck that wizardry had parceled out to him on this field: he could not count on it twice.
And if downhill was the direction of Ilefínian, then he recalled the lay of the land, the spill of boulders that curved down to the flat where he had engaged Tasmôrden. That had been on the right: he knew by that which direction was east and west, where Tasmôrden's men had been tending; and knew now where he might find a place against which to set his back and live long enough to regain clear sight.
Determined, then, he went toward the west, where the ridge advanced outcrops of rounded stone and brush, and went unchallenged except by one wounded man nearly as blind. They hacked at one another, neither with great success, and blundered by, both shaken, both content to escape, the common soldier having no notion, perhaps, that he had engaged the king of Ylesuin.
His dazed wits wandered: he had caught buffets like that from his father in his day: had sat down with one ear near deaf in the practice yard. He was confused from moment to moment whether it was the practice yard or the battlefield, but after that encounter his ears began to make out sounds that informed him it was no practice, and when he reached a haze of gray winter brush and crashed against a sizable boulder, he was content only to sink down beside it and catch his breath.
Sight began to come to him, alternate with dark.
Uphill, his banners and Ninévrisë's still flew. Uphill, a band of moving red had swept around the blue ranks of the Elwynim.
It was his design. Ryssand's retreat had done exactly what he had hoped it would, and the Dragons had not perished in the lightning: they had lived, and charged back uphill. Ryssand in his compact with his Elwynim allies had started a panic retreat in his center, intending the army to break apart in confusion… but Cefwyn rejoiced to know his own plan had driven the wings both full tilt downhill instead, downhill and around, while Tasmôrden's men had chased uphill into the pocket Ryssand gave them… breaking their line, losing contact with their own wings: too much confidence, too fast an advance.
They had chased their own ally's retreat between Ylesuin's left wing and right, sure they had won the encounter down to the moment the jaws closed.
And Tasmôrden, who had let his troops slip his hand, could only stand behind them and curse, seeing disaster none of his men on the hill had been able to see.
Now the remnant of Tasmôrden's center was caught in a tightening noose, for surely in desperation, Ryssand's peasant muster had held its line better than the cavalry that had deliberately started the rout, and now the Dragons and the men of Panys, coming uphill, had the Elwynim in a bottle from which there was no escape.
And gods knew whether Maudyn was alive, or Gwywyn, or who of all them was giving orders up there. Gods forfend it was Ryssand…
who might just have assumed the crown was within his grasp.
On that thought, Cefwyn staggered away from the rocks that had upheld him, began to climb the hill to reach his troops, picking his way past the dead and wounded at the edge of the brush and the rocks and finding this part of the hill woefully steeper on the climb up than it had ever seemed going down it.
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Next: CHAPTER 7