Authors: Jonathan Moeller
By the time he looked up the cheer had spread to the rest of the freed prisoners.
"The golden knight! The golden knight! The golden knight!"
Apparently, they were his men to command after all.
The sun rose as Riothamus watched Mazael confer with Sir Philip Montigard, Sir Edgar Tallbarth, Maurus, and the other captains outside of the village. Behind them the men prepared themselves for a journey, arraying themselves with arms and armor and reclaiming the horses the Aegonar had captured.
"Amazing," said Riothamus to Molly. "They've known him less than a day, but they're ready to follow him into battle."
Molly laughed. "Well, we did free them. And that's what Father does."
"So you think that Malaric is behind this invasion?" said Maurus.
"Almost certainly," said Mazael. He had not given his name to Sir Hugh's men, who referred to him simply as the Golden Knight. "I have my own business with Malaric and his San-keth masters. I suspect the Aegonar invaded Greycoast at Malaric's invitation, and he plans to use them to seize Barellion for himself."
Maurus scowled. "I knew Malaric when he still lived in the Prince's Keep. I would expect this sort of treachery from him."
"I have business with Malaric," said Mazael, "but so do you. We can help each other. You want Sir Hugh back...and I want Malaric's San-keth master."
"A solid basis for an alliance, sir," said Sir Edgar. "What do you propose?"
"It is simple enough," said Mazael. "We make the Aegonar howl."
The men smiled at that.
"Your scouts, Sir Edgar, report that the Aegonar are preparing to move south," said Mazael. "That means we'll be behind their lines. They will leave light forces behind to secure their conquests and watch over their slaves."
"Barracks sweepers," said Montigard. "Assuming the Aegonar even have barracks."
"We will move from village to village and hit the Aegonar," said Mazael. "I'm sure the Aegonar have made themselves unpopular masters, and the peasants will likely aid us once we rid them of the Aegonar. My wizard can watch for scouts, and my daughter will eliminate them."
A shudder went through the men, and Molly smirked. Tales of Molly's exploits during the battle had spread, and any amusement the men might have felt at seeing a woman with a sword had vanished the first time they had seen Molly walk through the shadows.
"We will also try rescue your Sir Hugh," said Mazael. "Either way, we will make a great deal of trouble for the Aegonar. If the Aegonar send forces to deal with us, that will weaken their main force before they face Prince Everard. If they ignore us, we can cut off their supplies...and weaken them before they face Prince Everard."
"A solid plan," said Maurus.
"Good," said Mazael. "I suggest we get to work."
They hastened to carry out his bidding.
"He could conquer the world, if he wished," said Riothamus.
Molly frowned at him. "What do you mean?"
"A day ago, those men were beaten prisoners," said Riothamus. "Now he has turned them into an army. They don't even know his name, and some of them think you're a devil, but they are ready to follow him nonetheless."
Molly shrugged. "We're Demonsouled, Riothamus. This is what we do. Fight, destroy, and conquer. And my father is better at it than most." Her voice grew softer. "He could conquer the world, if he wished. He could make himself the Destroyer and throw down the kingdoms of men. But he won't. He wants to save Romaria. And if he has to drive the Aegonar back into the sea to do that...so be it."
In the next five days, Mazael's force struck six villages held by the Aegonar. As he predicted, even the villages that had sworn to worship Sepharivaim had quickly grown weary of their new masters, and eagerly furnished supplies to the Prince's men. The Aegonar had taken numerous prisoners, and the freed men eagerly joined the Golden Knight.
By the end of the five days, Mazael's ragtag force had grown to three thousand knights, armsmen, and militiamen, and he had in mind to hunt larger prey.
Chapter 26 - The True Prince
He sat up with a grunt, trying to get comfortable. He had been imprisoned in this tent for the better part of a week. Despite all their talk about making him into a figurehead Prince, neither Skalatan nor Agantyr had spoken with him since. Perhaps they planned to let him stew in doubt and fear until he accepted their offer.
Because the fear never stopped gnawing at him.
What were the Aegonar doing?
For days there had been constant noise – the shouts of men, the sound of blacksmiths’ hammers, the rumble of carts and the whinnying of horses. Yesterday there had been a great tumult – the sound of thousands of marching boots and the thunder of drums.
The Aegonar host had gone to war.
Hugh struggled against the ropes around his ankles and wrists, cursing under his breath. His city and his people were under attack from a horde of serpent-worshiping barbarians, and he was trapped in this damned tent. Worse, if Skalatan had told the truth, Barellion lay in Malaric’s bloodstained hands.
And still worse, Adelaide was in Malaric’s power. The thought of what he might do to her filled Hugh with terror, and he had not stopped looking for a way to escape.
But no opportunity had presented itself.
But with the departure of the Aegonar host, Hugh thought his chance might have come. The only Aegonar he had seen since the march had been a single sour-faced old man who brought his meals. Hugh suspected the best warriors had marched south, leaving the old and the injured to watch over their camps.
Which meant his best chance to escape had come. If he could get loose from the ropes and overpower his guard, he could sneak out of the camp, make his way south to Barellion, and find a way to deal with Malaric before his murderous folly handed Greycoast to the Aegonar.
The tent flap rustled, and Hugh sat up. If the old guard came alone, Hugh might have a chance to overpower him, seize his weapon, and cut the ropes loose.
It was a risk. But he had to take action.
The tent flap opened, and someone Hugh had never seen before stepped inside.
Mazael sat atop his horse and waited.
His ragged little army, now over four thousand strong, camped in a patch of woods east of the Bannered Forest. The Aegonar would have detected the approach of such a large force, but Riothamus and Maurus located the Aegonar scouts with ease, and Molly and Sir Edgar’s riders dispatched the scouts before they reported back to the Aegonar commanders.
Which meant Mazael had been able to take the Aegonar unawares again and again.
He pulled the compass from its case and looked at the glowing needle. The needle now pointed to the southwest. Sir Edgar suspected the main Aegonar host marched south, and it seemed that the San-keth archpriest, the Herald of the Sepharivaim, was with them.
Mazael was so close. He wanted to abandon the others and ride for the Aegonar and find the archpriest. But that was folly. He was Demonsouled, a child of the Old Demon…but he was still mortal.
Even he could not fight an entire army and win. And if he failed, Romaria would remain in her deathlike sleep forever.
To take the archpriest’s blood, he needed to defeat the Aegonar. And to defeat the Aegonar, he needed to save Greycoast.
He returned the compass to his belt and took a deep breath, the pain throbbing in his limbs. Gods, but he was sick of the pain. It was better than it had been, but he hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since leaving Castle Cravenlock.
Little wonder Morebeth had not appeared to him for days, he thought with dark amusement. Perhaps he was simply too exhausted for her spirit to communicate with him.
Hooves drummed against the earth, and Mazael looked up. Sir Edgar Tallbarth and Riothamus rode towards him, followed by Maurus. The men feared Molly, but they had come to respect Riothamus and his power to heal wounds and injuries.
“It’s a camp, sir knight,” said Edgar. The man looked like a brigand, but he was one of the best scouts Mazael had seen. “A large one, too…but it’s mostly dismantled. I think the main strength of the Aegonar rested here, and then marched south a day or two past.”
“How many men remain?” said Mazael.
“Eight hundred or so,” said Edgar. “Old men, the injured, and boys. The wizards say no seidjar or ulfhednar are in the camp.”
Mazael nodded. “They’ll need their best men if they’re to take the walls of Barellion.”
“They have prisoners,” said Riothamus, “and a goodly store of supplies, as well.”
“Good,” said Mazael. “Then at one stroke, we shall add men to our force and deprive the foe of food.”
“You have a plan, sir?” said Maurus.
“Aye,” said Mazael. “You and the Guardian will locate their sentries, and my daughter shall kill them. The horsemen will circle the camp, while Montigard leads the footmen and the archers in a direct attack. Once they’re engaged, I shall take the horsemen and charge from behind. Does anyone object to this plan?”
No one did.
“Good,” said Mazael. “Prepare the men for battle.”
Hugh blinked in surprise.
The Aegonar was tall and lean. A slender sword and a dagger rested at his belt, different than the usual broadswords and heavy axes of the Aegonar, and the man’s lank hair hung in a curtain over his face. Cold eyes examined Hugh for a moment, and he saw two other men behind the Aegonar.
“You,” said the Aegonar at last, “you are Sir Hugh Chalsain?”
“I am,” said Hugh. “Who the devil are you? More of Ryntald’s yapping dogs?”
The Aegonar’s lip curled in a sneer. “No one that need concern you. Come. The serpents want you.”
He beckoned, and the other two men came into the tent, cut the ropes loose, and hauled Hugh to his feet.
Molly had to give the Aegonar credit for vigilance.
They were deep in Aegonar-controlled territory, and no word had reached the enemy of Mazael’s depredations to the east. Yet the Aegonar commander had still put out six sentries, watching the road, the woods, and the Bannered Forest for any signs of attack.
But Riothamus and Maurus could tell her exactly where the sentries were.
Molly strode into the shadows, sword and dagger in hand.
A few moments later she returned, blood dripping from her weapons. Mazael and his captains awaited her.
“It’s done,” she said.
Mazael and Riothamus nodded, but the other men seemed uneasy. Like the Tervingi, they had taken to calling her the Lady of the Shadows, and they regarded her with fear. Except for Philip Montigard, who looked at her with something like worshipful lust. Had he not seen Riothamus call down lightning and summon volleys of razor-edged ice, Molly suspected the knight would have done his best to seduce her.
That would have been entertaining. But Mazael might take it ill if she started killing his men.
“Did they have a chance to send any warning?” said Mazael.
Molly rolled her eyes. “Of course not, Father. But I suggest you rouse yourself to attack. Sooner or later someone will notice the sentries are dead.”
“Sound counsel,” said Mazael. He raised his voice. “Move out! Daughter, you know what to do.”
Molly sighed. Riothamus led her horse over, and Molly climbed into the saddle. She was not a knight or an armsman, and fighting in the battle line would be a waste of her power. Instead she would walk through the shadows, striking behind the lines of the enemy and sowing chaos.
She just wished she didn’t have to ride the damned horse.
“If we live through this and return home,” said Riothamus, grunting, “I am never laying eyes upon another horse.”
“You speak poetry to me,” said Molly.
Hugh blinked as the three Aegonar led him into the camp.
His eyes adjusted to the brightness, and he looked around. He did not see very many Aegonar nearby. He supposed most of the men had marched south to defeat Malaric, leaving only a few hundred guards to watch the camp. He saw heaped sacks of grain, carts laden with crops, even several milling herds of cows and pigs. Agantyr and Ryntald must have ordered foraging parties to scour the countryside, bringing tribute of food and cattle from the conquered villages.
“This way, sir knight,” said the lead Aegonar, beckoning towards a row of empty carts.
Hugh frowned, wondering if he could make a break for it. But the three Aegonar surrounded him in a triangle. If he tried to run, they would cut him down. And even if he got away, they would only sound the alarm.
No. He had to be patient.
But there was something peculiar about the three Aegonar.
They did not speak with an Aegonar accent, and their weapons were wrong. They seemed ill at ease, their eyes scanning the carts and the supplies for threats.
And none of the Aegonar had ever called Hugh “sir knight.”
He followed them, watching for any sign of an attack.
Shouts rang out from the east.
The Aegonar spun as a mass of footmen and archers charged out of the woods to the east, bellowing at the top of their lungs. Aegonar warriors sprinted out of the tents, rushing to meet the threat. Hugh looked at the attackers, and his eyes grew wide.
Those were his men!
A sudden surge of hope shot through Hugh.
“Damn it,” said the Aegonar on his left. “We’re out of time, Barth.”
Hugh blinked. Barth was not an Aegonar name.
“Then we work quickly,” said Barth. “Take him.”
Before Hugh could react, the other two men seized his arms and dragged him after Barth.
Mazael set his helm upon his head, checked the straps of his shield, and drew Lion in his right hand.
He watched the battle rage. The eight hundred Aegonar were the dregs of the enemy host, but they fought with ferocious tenacity, holding their own against Montigard’s armsmen. The Aegonar would lose in the end, but Mazael wondered how long they could hold out.
He didn’t intend to find out.
His Demonsouled blood thrummed, pushing the pain at bay, eager to begin the killing.
“Now!” said Mazael. “Sound the charge!”
One of Montigard’s standardbearers blew a blast on his war horn, and the other standardbearers followed suit. Mazael kicked his horse, and the beast surged forward with an excited whinny.
“The Golden Knight!” the horsemen shouted. “The Golden Knight and Barellion!”
The three men led Hugh around one of the wagons, out of sight of the battle.
“You’re not really Aegonar,” said Hugh, “are you?”
Barth grinned. “Oh, very good. No, sir knight, we’re not Aegonar at all.”
“Then you’ve come to rescue me?” said Hugh.
The men laughed.
“In a manner of speaking,” said Barth, drawing his sword.
A cold chill shot through Hugh.
“You’re Skulls,” he said as the realization came to him. “Malaric killed my father and brothers, but that wasn’t enough for him. He had to make sure he killed us all. So he sent you to kill me. Even though I was captured by the Aegonar.”
“We had,” said Barth, “a devil of a time finding you.” His grin widened. “But, no worries, sir knight. We’ll bring your body back to Barellion. The Prince will mourn his fallen half-brother, slain while nobly fighting the Aegonar. Perhaps you’ll even get a nice marble tomb out of it.”
“I can pay you more,” said Hugh.
“Doubt it,” said Barth. “Take…”
Hugh threw himself at the man on the right, slamming the assassin against the parked wagon. The Skull lost his balance, and Hugh took off running.
Or he would have, had he not tripped and fallen upon his face. He tried to stand up, but a boot slammed into his back, driving him to the ground.
“For the gods’ sake!” snapped Barth. “Just cut off his damned head. We can always say the Aegonar did it.”
Hugh heard the rasp of a sword leaving its scabbard.
Molly stepped out of the shadows and saw a trio of Aegonar leading away Malaric himself.
For a moment she froze in astonishment, and then her reflexes took over, and she reached for the dark fire within her. One quick stride through the shadows, and she would deal with the miserable scoundrel. Malaric might have stolen Demonsouled power, but that would not save him if Molly cut out his heart…
It was not Malaric, but a younger man who resembled him, with the same curly blond hair and bright green eyes. He looked dirty and tired, his clothes ragged and stained as if he had been held prisoner.
The realization clicked.
She had just found Sir Hugh Chalsain.
Another realization came to her.
The men with him were not Aegonar.
They were Skulls.
She recognized the leader. Barth was a competent swordsman and a better infiltrator. Malaric must have sent them to kill Hugh. But why bother? If Malaric was allied with the Aegonar, why not have them kill Hugh?
Hugh turned to run, and the Aegonar knocked him to the ground.
Hugh struggled to rise, but he could not force the boot off his back.
Gods, he wished he could have seen Adelaide one last time…
Then he saw a swirl of darkness. A man screamed, and the boot vanished from Hugh's back. Hugh rolled to the side as the Skull collapsed to the ground, his throat a bloody ruin.
He turned his head, and saw the woman.
She was slender, clad in close-fitting wool and dark leather, a sword and a dagger made from a giant fang in her hands. She had shoulder-length brown hair, and her gray eyes were wide with some emotion halfway between battle fury and manic glee.
“You!” spat Barth, face darkening with fury.
“Yes, me,” said the woman, spinning the dagger in her left hand. “Eloquent as ever, Barth.”
“Kill her!” roared Barth. “The First Dagger will reward us for her head!”
Barth and the remaining Skull charged the woman, but darkness swirled around her and she vanished. Hugh blinked in astonishment. Had she used some sort of spell to disappear? Or had…