Authors: Mike Simmons
“Janga, you are always there to keep me on track. You always tell me the things I need to hear. Thank you.” They looked at each other with a mutual understanding, an understanding of men and brothers of duty only attainable by years of friendship.
“Come on, gather yourself, and come down to the courtyard with me. Your people want to see you.”
Cedric took in a deep breath and nodded his head. As he stood, he grabbed the golden crown on the table, ornately worked with colored jewels, and placed it snuggly upon his head. He took a deep breath and walked towards the door. Janga had the door open and his hand out inviting the King to go through.
Cedric walked down the hall, stretching his fingers outward and into clenching fists, filled with the anticipation of what he had to do. He felt like he had to rebuild everything from the ground up, but he had a lot to do before he could even start that. His army of eight-thousand were wounded and needed aid to both their bodies and their equipment. No one secured in the Castle, prepared food, hammered on horseshoes, or filled the bath yard with hot water; so much needed attention to get the machine of his life back in working order.
He stepped down the stairs light-footed, half expecting to hear the voices of the kitchen maids or the people around the dining tables, but only silence answered him. Two knights tossed refuse and rotting food into wheelbarrows in the kitchen; the sour smell drifted into the hallway. The kitchen counter tops were bare. A small fire lit underneath a boiling pot had the handles of the preparation utensils sticking haphazardly out of the top of it, boiling and spitting water. The knights looked up, half sick from the smell, and bowed their heads to Lord Reinhold as he walked by. Cedric nodded back in approval.
As they passed the massive dining room, adorned with the mounted heads of trophy game, another knight wondered through the room, looking around for something. Lord Reinhold stopped and gazed in at him.
“Everything alright?” he asked.
As the knight looked up, surprise streaked his face.
“My Lord!” he said, instantly snapping his feet together and slamming his right fist to his left breast.
“At ease, good knight. Is all in order?”
“Yes, Milord, the First General ordered a small group of us to ensure the castle interior was cleared. We are finishing our checks now. All is clear, and all is secure.”
Reinhold nodded at the man.
“Sire?” the knight asked carefully. “What are we supposed to do with the man in the caged wagon outside?” He had an uneasy look on his face. “The men are frightened of him. They say he is a demon and that he cannot be killed. He wears a look of death in those eyes of his.” Of course, they talked about Bram, the Avatar of War.
“Leave him be. Stay clear of the cage. He cannot hurt you there. He is of no threat to you, I assure you.” The knight once again snapped to attention, and the King moved on down the hall, First General Janga Blackhand on his tail.
As they exited the hallway, the two men entered the massive thrown room. Standing pillars of polished stone extended from floor to ceiling along the floor’s edge on either side of the room. Reinhold’s battle standard, the Red Banner of the Lion, hung from the top of each pillar. Master-worked rugs of many colors covered the center of the floor, but the stains of the dead required some of the rug flooring to be removed, showing a visible area of clean floor amongst other areas darkened with dirt and age. Five knights arranged and cleaned up the area. As they noticed Cedric and Janga, they snapped to attention.
Cedric walked on towards the entryway, and Janga, without looking said “At ease, boys, back to work.”
They continued to walk towards the courtyard, through the welcoming rooms, past the entry storage halls and guard stations, and through the main gate. As Cedric exited the castle, the roars of his men broke out in excitement. They threw their fists in the air and shouts of goodwill rang clear. It took Lord Reinhold back a bit, especially seeing the black smoldering stack of smoke that rose into the air from outside the castle walls as a grisly reminder of what happened here. Amidst the death and the losses, these were his men and they were here to do what needed to be done. He was Lord Cedric Reinhold, Master and King of Karpathos Kingdom, the Soldier of the Light, and the only one who would risk everything to combat Empress Aurora, the mad woman.
He raised a hand in the air, patting a flat palm up and down to quiet the men. As they hushed, he walked around them, through the groups, checking out the condition of the equipment and the men. He shook hands, gave many nods of approval, and thanked his warriors for everything they have done. As he neared the end of his walk, he approached his First General.
“Janga, give me a head count of what we have left.”
Janga responded without thought. “We have five hundred dragoons, more horses available then dragoons to ride them. Less than fifty Gifted, a thousand archers, and six thousand foot soldiers, give or take, plus six smiths, two dozen food prep workers, two fletchers, and three mechanics.”
Reinhold calculated the numbers in his head. “Send the smiths to the shop, have them fire up the forges and begin fixing the weapons and armors. Send a dozen soldiers to help them with whatever they need. Have the fletchers go to the wood smith shop and begin fletching arrows, six or seven soldiers with them as well. Give a dozen soldiers to the mechanics. We need the ballistas and catapults all in working order. Tell them to double check all wagon axles and carts. Have the kitchen maids check the store and supply rooms and get that kitchen cooking. Have them open up the reserve wine barrels and let us get these men fed and taken care of. I want a dispatch of archers along the guard wall, two groups of dragoons patrolling the outside perimeter. I want the trebuchets moved, and placed there… and there,” he said, pointing to areas of the battlefield. “Load up the ammo wagons. Make sure the tree line is cleared a thousand paces from the outer wall. Let’s move.”
Like a disturbed beehive, the castle came to life. Men and women shuffled in every direction, carrying loads of equipment, moving storage crates and boxes, and dispersing like spilled water throughout the whole castle. Fires blazed up in the blacksmith’s shop, choking out black smoke from the heat stacks. The rhythmic buzz of sawing droned from the fletchers in the wood shop. Soldiers moved wagons of barreled wine and cheeses, meats and salt to the kitchens. Archers filed up the ladders to the guard wall, loading up the arrows barrels as they went. Hammers rang against metal as the smiths worked. It was not much, but it was something. It was a start.
Arkam approached the King, speaking with a voice like ice on the wind.
“Milord, the Lancers and I are ready to serve. We stand sixteen strong.”
Sixteen Gifted may not seem like much help but numbers do not represent potential among the Ice Lancers. They are all Gifted in the Element Aspect of Mind; control and power over ice. They can form weapons and shields with it, bend it to their will, create and destroy it. Their ability to manipulate it far exceeds that of a normal element bender. They are a combat force to be reckoned with.
Cedric acknowledged. “Arkam, Madagrack paid his life here in the castle. We are without an Ice Lancer Champion. You have served me well and served your Kingdom; will you stand tall for me and represent the Banner of Lion as Ice Lancer Champion?”
Emotionless, ice-blue eyes locked on his King and Arkam replied, “It would be my honor.”
“Good. Glad to have you on board. I need you to take the Lancers to the wood line,” he said, motioning outside of the castle. “Use the trees as cover, and keep me updated on any activity out there. If there is someone out there, I want to know about it.”
“Consider it done, Milord,” he turned and ran like the wind out the main gates.
Men moved a wounded soldier on a make shift stretcher past Lord Reinhold. Bandages covered his head and half of his face, soaked through in blood and wetness. As he passed, Cedric reached out and gave the soldier’s hand a squeeze. The two men carrying him nodded at their King with respect.
Like a massive gong, the all bronze warning bell on the castle top resonated out like thunder; once, twice and then three times. The sound, loud enough to be heard in the castle dungeon, caused all in the castle to cover their ears. Lord Reinhold stood in the courtyard, shocked.
What is going on? Is this really happening? Is Aurora here already?
Men shouted and yelled and one of the archers screamed, “Incoming armies, from the south!” Reinhold’s heart sank into his stomach. They were not ready for this. Only moments before they began the long and treacherous road to recovery. Armors were broken, there were no ammo wagons to load the trebuchets, and the archers did not have enough arrows left to hold off any incoming troops. Cedric could feel the blood draining from his face.
Arkam bust through the entry gate and ran straight for the King. Sweat beaded off his face as if he had ran a mile straight. He spoke urgently.
“Milord, there are more troops, thousands of them, filing in from the trees to the west, and horsed riders approach from the east.” Cedric felt light-headed. This could not be. The warning bell blazed its song across the castle. Men panicked, trying to ready for the incoming assault.
Cedric’s mind raced in a million different directions; how the enemy would move against him, what troops they would send in first, how he could protect his people from the barrage of incoming arrows, and how long his people would survive. He knew it would not be long. Even though they had the castle as fortification, they did not have the supplies to successfully defend themselves.
His worst fear birthed to life. As he glanced across the courtyard, men ran and yelled in panicked disarray, and his eyes stopped still as death on the small wooden wagon made of oak, topped with thick steel poles that formed a solid cage.
Sitting inside against the bars, the muscular man with the shaven head, peered outward back at him, licking his front teeth as if trying to wipe something off them. His mouth curved in a small smile and his eyes glared with expectation. Cedric stared at him as the Avatar of War nodded slowly.
Time seemed to slow as they stared at each other. Cedric considered the consequences of his future actions.
Should I? What would happen? He will kill my men as fast as he will kill hers! He does not take sides! I only have eight thousand left, eight thousand to lose, but she… she has two hundred thousand and they are knocking at my front door. The Avatar of War will kill without regards to numbers, and if he was faced with fighting a few of my men or an army of hers… Would he accept the challenge? He would! I have to bet on it! I do not have a choice, do I? It is now or never, the time for idle plans is over.
His mind played over images of the Avatar stepping out the cage. If his men were anywhere near Bram when he gained his freedom, they would be slain on the spot. It is what he did and it is what he loved. Perhaps he could leave the gate open, withdraw all guard wall ladders and lock everyone else inside the castle.
Would I have time?
Bram did not have superhuman strength; he could not knock down walls. The castle doors would keep him out and if he went outside, he would be face to face with the enemy, with Reinhold’s enemies. Her army could not withstand the might of the Avatar of War. The odds could be evened up in a single blow. There might even be a chance that Aurora would be there.
How lucky would that be?
Cedric’s eyes raced over the span of the guard walls; ten ladders. With a single shout, those could be withdrawn upward on the wall, making the twenty-five foot walls impossible to reach. His archers would be safe. He whipped his head back towards the castle; roughly two-thousand men scattered across the courtyard. He could fit six-hundred in the inner ward, five-hundred in the great hall and throne room and another two-hundred in the chapel. There were also the smith shops, the grainery, and the storage cellars. It had to be enough. They were out of time.
Cedric exploded in action. “Archers! Withdraw the guard wall ladders!” he yelled, arching a pointing finger across the whole distance of the wall. “Soldiers, retreat to the inner ward and throne room! Seek immediate shelter in the grainery and storage cellars! Get out of the courtyard! Now, now, now! Go! Seek shelter! Lock the doors and protect yourself! Clear this courtyard immediately! Go now! Make haste! Run!”
As if confirming his commands, they slightly hesitated before his men did exactly what he ordered. The ladders shot upward out of view along the guard wall, soldiers in the courtyard funneled into the buildings, as Cedric stood alone in a sea of movement, watching and staring at the man in the cage.
Bram stood up within the cage. His smile broadened, showing his teeth. He knew he would be free to unleash his fury. As the King watched him stand, Cedric also knew something, something grave. He knew whoever opened that door would not survive it. Whoever opened the door to that cage would be trapped within the power of the Avatar as the Avatar hacked him to pieces.
Decisions and sacrifices, earth and stone; all a part of being the ruler of a nation. No one else could make the decision but Cedric, and no one else could offer such a sacrifice. Cedric took in his last conscious breath as he walked towards Bram. He had made the decision the second he realized his choices; sacrifice for his people.
As he approached the cage, Bram spoke. “About time, King. You should consider this an honor.” Cedric pulled out a key attached to the necklace hidden underneath his shirt and reached for the lock.