Friday, January 04, 2019

The Quest for the King, Scene 22

Over the course of the next hour, the Prince’s army trickled back out of its tent city and higher into the foothills. There wasn’t time for the refugees from Arrens to dismantle their tents or take their belongings; the encampment was left in place as the army moved back to higher ground. Only the weapons and provisions were hauled along the long, snaking lines of retreat to the new position.

The ravine was just where Mack had said it would be, and it was guarded by difficult terrain with easy defensive emplacements on nearly every side. When he saw it, Sir Kobi nodded approvingly.

“You were right, my friend. It improves our chances of surviving an attack by a factor of ten.”

Sim regarded the two knights incredulously. “Survive? But that’s not enough! We need to find a way to win back the city for Prince Halbrinnon!”

“We will, son, we will,” said Mack. “But I’m afraid that’s still a long way off at the moment. First we need to get past this challenge. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll find a way to lure the Steward into a mistake, a trap of some kind.”

Two hours had passed, and then three, before they again caught sight of the ordered ranks of Steward Presten’s men marching the trail through the foothills. The two armies measured one another’s positions with gazes accustomed to weighing the risks of warfare, and the result was that both stood firm in their newly-drawn positions: the Prince’s men up in the ravine, guarded by a steep ascent; and the Steward’s much larger army on the lower, more open ground of a valley between the hills.

“What now?” asked Joe.

“Now,” said Captain Drave. “We wait for an opportunity to present itself.”

It turned out that battles had an awful lot of waiting in them, so much so that it rendered the prospect of an attack a little less terrible for the children, if only to break the tedium.

“How long can this go on?” Sim asked Mack and Kobi as they sat around a campfire later that night.

“It’s hard to say,” said Kobi. “We don’t have to move until we’re out of provisions. Even then, we have the hidden pass at the back of the ravine that we can slip out of by night if we need to, and hopefully get away unnoticed. But it’s more likely that the Steward will at least try to attack us here in the next day or two, to test the strength of our position.”

“So that’s it?” Joe asked. “Wait until we’re attacked, or run away in the night?”

“Those are really the only available options at the moment,” said Mack. “But don’t worry. Our position is safe enough, at least for now.”

“Wait a minute,” said Joe. “If the Steward has his whole army out here, then there must not be very many left back at the city. Maybe we can use the hidden pass to sneak out and around the army, and then find a way to get back into the city. If we can threaten Arrens in an unexpected way, maybe we can turn their army back around.”

The two knights looked at him for a long moment, and then at each other.

“You may have something there,” said Kobi thoughtfully. “But I’m not exactly sure how to make it work. The gates are all closed, and we can’t break through with the forces we have available right now. But there is one weak spot—an area where the brickwork is falling apart beside the moat-drain near the Western Gate—though now that I think about it, I don’t think a grown man could fit through the gap.”

“I’m not a grown man!” Sim observed. “Could I fit through?”

Kobi chuckled. “Perhaps, perhaps. But we can’t expect you to re-take the city all on your own, now can we?”

Joe and Sim exchanged a meaningful glance. “Give us some time to work up a plan,” said Joe. “We may be able to come up with something.”

~ ~ ~ 

They didn’t even get a chance to make their plan. Before they could even get the beginnings of a scheme in motion, a bitter new turn of events broke out over the sheltered ravine.

It was only an hour after their campfire conversation that the boys heard a shout go up from the rearguard.

“To arms! To arms! Enemy soldiers in the pass! Enemy soldiers in the pass! To arms!”

The Prince’s army became a whirwind of anxious activity as officers shouted orders and soldiers ran to take up their posts. And even as they ran, there was a creeping note of despair echoing through it all. This was the one eventuality they had not planned for, the one deemed so unlikely that no one had even thought to prepare for it. And the terrifying truth, which they all knew too well, was that even if they had prepared for it, it would have made no difference. Now the Steward had men before and behind them, in the valley and in the pass, cutting off the ravine on both sides. They were trapped, and there was nothing they could do.

Joe realized the gravity of the moment, and he took hold of Sim’s hand on his left and Lady’s on his right. Together they stood there, hand in hand, watching what might be the last moments of their young lives play out before their eyes.

Suddenly Sir Mack raged across their field of vision, arrayed in all his armor, his muscles tense as he gripped the hilt of his heavy broadsword.

“Treachery!” he rumbled. “Someone must have given us away! That pass was simply not known!”

Then, just as he released the words, he froze in his tracks. He was staring down toward the enemy encampment in the valley, and he slowly raised his sword to point in that direction.

“Treachery!” he growled again, though this time his voice gave way to hoarse, raspy sorrow.

The children looked where he was pointing, and saw two mounted figures riding slowly up from the enemy camp. On one side was Steward Presten himself, dressed in flowing purple robes—royal robes that he had stolen for himself—and on the other side was a face and figure they had come to know well over the past few days: the stern and lanky form of Captain Drave.

Mack took a step forward, as if ready to charge out and do battle with both horsemen at once, but in a swift moment Prince Halbrinnon was beside him, laying a steadying hand on the old knight’s chest.

“Hold there, Sir Mack,” said the Prince. “Put away your sword.”

“But the captain betrayed us!” he shouted.

Prince Halbrinnon nodded, his eyes shining with a courage that was underwritten with sadness, and which seemed all the more courageous for that.

“I know.”

“That means we’re lost! Dead and gone, because of him!”

“No,” said the Prince. “There is yet one more thing I can do to save us. You stay here and keep the men from any action until I have finished my work.”

Then he paused and looked straight at the children. “It’s time to go claim my kingdom.”

With his head held high, he strode out onto the downward trail toward his approaching enemy. His gold-crowned helmet shone in the light of a hundred campfires as he traced his way down, but his sword remained sheathed at his side.

“What’s he going to do?” asked Lady nervously.

“I don’t know,” Mack sighed, his voice thick with despondence. “Negotiate a surrender, I suppose. Now that Captain Drave gave away our position, we don’t have any hope left to win this fight, nor even to survive it if they choose to go to battle.” He bit his lower lip in thought, as if suddenly realizing that he was speaking to children. “But, for all that,” he said with forced cheerfulness, “maybe there’s some other plan he has in mind. As long as we have the Prince, we have all we need.”

“But why would Captain Drave do that?” Sim wondered.

Mack frowned. “Disloyalty and greed, I suppose. He must have seen the odds were against us, and realized that the Steward would reward him handsomely for turning us over to him.”

They watched in somber silence as Halbrinnon and the two mounted horsemen met in the center of the trail. For a few minutes, nothing could be heard. Steward Presten and the Prince were talking, but no sound of their conversation reached the ears of the waiting armies.

“You said that he was negotiating a surrender,” said Joe. “What does that mean?”

“Well, it means that the Prince is probably going to have to make a deal to keep them from destroying us. But I don’t really know what he has to offer. Maybe a ransom from the Great King.”

“Wait, you mean it’s over?” Sim asked. “No matter what happens now, we’ve lost? There’s no way to win Arrens back for the Prince?”

Mack sighed again and shook his head.

They turned their attention back to the scene down on the trail again. Steward Presten had turned and shouted some orders back to his army’s encampment, and now there was a bustle of activity there.

It took a few moments to realize what was going on, but soon Mack gave a rough churckle.

“Would you look at that? They’re decamping—moving out. I wonder what the Prince could have said to get them to do that.”

For several long minutes they watched as the enemy camp was disassembled, and the army began its slow retreat back toward the plains of Arrens. All the while, the Steward and Drave kept their positions facing the Prince on the trail.

Finally, when the whole army was in motion, the Steward dismounted. In a grand, sweeping stroke, he pulled his silver sword from its sheath.

“Wait, what’s this?” Mack rumbled softly.

Prince Halbrinnon held out his arms, straight out to the side, as if opening himself up for what was to come. And then, in one swift and terrible moment, they saw the flash of the Steward’s sword. It whistled down on the Prince in a screaming arc, and struck him in the chest. He fell onto the ground.

“No!” Lady shouted.

“What’s happening?” asked Sim as tears flooded his eyes. “No, no, no!”

Joe was frozen in shock; he couldn’t move or speak.

They watched in quiet horror as the Steward and Captain Drave picked up the Prince’s limp body, slung it across the back of the Steward’s horse, and then began riding back down toward the city.

“No,” Mack whispered hoarsely.

“Why would he let that happen, Sir Mack?” asked Sim.

The old knight shook his head sadly, tears streaming down his cheeks. “It must have been the only way to save us.”

The riders disappeared into the darkness, following their army out through the fading glow of dying campfires. And then there was nothing but the silence of the hills, and the soul-breaking sorrow of those who were left behind.