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The Battle for Hart's Pass

By SMarshallWilson All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Honor, Brother

Among the men of Taermun was a cartwright named Ivor who had two sons. The older, Alistair apprenticed to his father. Ivor apprenticed the younger, Ardal, to the doughty smith who had no sons of his own. The brothers differed in many respects. Alistair had a taste for mutton and an appreciation for good, stout walls. Ardal preferred venison and broad perspectives. Alistair mastered his trade and left Ivor’s house to build his own. Ardal mastered his trade and left Ivor’s house to wield a sword in the service of the High King.

On a day of days, when he was a stripling of a lad and a freshly minted soldier with his eye set on glory, Ardal was assigned to a small unit at a small outpost on a small plain reached by a narrow pass between two large mountains on the southern end of the western frontier. It was called, “Stonebreak Pass.” Of course, now it has another name.

Very little happened for a very long time. Then, a great deal happened in a very short time. Being a fully apprenticed blacksmith thanks to his father,  and being a curious lad thanks to his mother, and being bored senseless thanks to the remote location of the outpost, Ardal began to hang about the armory workshop. You see, there was naught else to do other than the endless rotation of patrols and standing watch on the wall.

By the time he’d been at Stonebreak long enough to begin to believe that boredom would kill him long before an enemy blade, he’d earned his ratings as a bladesmith and as an armorer to boot. Soon, the standard repair of armor and weapons wasn’t interesting enough for him. He began to play with ideas for improving the stuff. Most of his ideas were useless in the long run, but he learned quite a bit from the process.

Anyhow, this day of days began early enough with Cian, Leader of the Thirty of Light Footmen, rousting his men to prepare them for a patrol at first light. Their mission was to secure the pass to allow the Thirty of Horse to search for the supply wains they’d expected since three days before.

Elgin, Thirty Captain of the Light Footmen, inspected his unit then told Cian to send a lad to the gatemaster to request that he open the gate. Cian sent Ardal who mounted the ladder beside the gate and made for the gatemaster’s lookout in the gray dawn light.

As he walked the wall and looked out across the plain, he imagined dark shapes darting about in the thick mist. ‘We’re bein’ watched,’ said Moreley the lookout. As though his words had conjured them, they appeared whooping and leaping through the mists like foul spirits come to take the defenders' souls rather than just men intent on slicing them open.

Something flew between them, and ripped out Moreley’s throat.

Ardal jumped from the wall and hit the ground rolling in front of Cian who was on his way up. Cian pulled Ardal to his feet, shoved him toward the ladder, and shouted for him to climb.

It was fortunate for all on the post that the invaders struck just when they did with a third of the strength of the caer on the wall and another third standing ready to fight. If they had assaulted after the gates had been opened for the patrol, it would have been the worse for all of Tierasal.

After three days’ chaos and pain, the Dearthmen pulled back into the high ground surrounding the plain and shouted threats and taunts at the defenders hoping to draw them out from behind their walls. What they didn’t expect was that they would come out like they did.

Cian sent word to Ardal through Ekurn, his Ten Leader, that he was to meet Thirty Captain Elgin outside the Hundred Captain’s Seat. He ran by the horse trough to wash his face on the way. When he arrived, he found Elgin leaning against the corner of the Seat and his helmet under his arm tapping the toe of his right boot against the ground.

Ardal jogged over to his Thirty Captain and nodded sharply in salute. Elgin returned the nod. “Your Ten Leader claims you can write and accuses you of being smarter than you seem.”

Ardal acknowledged that he could write at any rate and asked how he might be of service. His Captain asked if he’d be willing to take notes for a meeting of the captains so they could focus on working out a strategy. Ardal said he’d do his best, and they went in together. Elgin pulled out a chair and told Ardal to sit down. He left for a few minutes and returned with some writing supplies and a cup of tea.

The Hundred Captain, Elgin’s commander, came in a few minutes later trailing his orderly. “Initiate final inspection on Horse as soon as they are assembled. I will be out shortly to conduct spot checks.” The orderly nodded curtly and almost broke down the door on his way out.

Hundred Captain Hart scanned the room, taking the measure of each man. Each Thirty Captain or, in this context, each ‘Thirty’ sat at the table except Elgin who stood behind Ardal. When Hart’s eye met Ardal’s, he nodded then raised his gaze to engage Elgin behind him. Then he took in the Gatemaster, the Armorer, and the Quartermaster who had also come. “Welcome, Swordbrothers. Begin.”

Each of the assembled leaders reported his unit's or section’s situation in as few words as possible. Beginning with the Mounted Thirty, then the Heavy Footmen Thirty, and finally the Light Footmen Thirty, they rapidly and clearly informed all present of their strength, capabilities and any issues which might interfere with their ability to fight. It became apparent that the seemingly informal meeting was being conducted according to an established protocol. Ardal recorded everything even when it seemed unimportant.

Upon receiving all the reports, Hart waited for Ardal to complete the sentence he was writing. “Check on your Thirties. Meet back here in half an hour prepared to brief changes and to receive orders.” The meeting rapidly dispersed.

Hart looked to Ardal then to Elgin while he addressed Ardal, “Give me your notes, and bring us some tea.” Elgin nodded curtly signifying that he understood that Hart was telling him to leave Ardal with him. A moment later, Elgin strode out to meet Cian while Ardal went to see the cooks.

When he returned, he set Hart’s tea on the table within his reach then turned to walk to the far side of the room. “Soldier,” Hart spoke quietly.

“Hundred Captain?” Ardal turned to look at him.

“Your handwriting is atrocious.”

“My apologies, Captain.”

“Your observations, however, are excellent.”

“My thanks, Captain.” Ardal nodded.

“No, no. I thank you. Relax. It will be your last chance for a while.”

“Yes, Captain.” Ardal returned to the chair where Elgin had placed him.

The Hundred sat intent on Ardal’s notes and on his thoughts for a long while. Occasionally, he added notes of his own to Ardal’s. Then without lifting his eyes from the pages, he asked in a distracted tone, ‘Your name, Soldier?’

“Ardal, my Captain,” he replied, adding, “of the Avinn Vale,” as though it would matter to him. He nodded, made notes, and continued reading. The room began to fill again, and Hart sent Ardal to find more paper so he could continue taking notes.

The assembled leaders went through a rapid version of the previous meeting merely updating the previous reports. When it came Elgin’s turn, he reported, “No change except that one of my best sword arms now serves a pen.”

A chuckle went around the room, and Ardal’s face turned red. Hart smiled. “Happens to the best of us, Elgin. Won’t be long before you live in an office and see more paper than any decent man should ever see.”

Glendon, Captain of the Mounted Thirty appeared shocked. “Did the Captain just call Elgin ‘decent?’’

Hugh, Thirty Captain of Heavy Footmen shook his head. “That can’t be right. Have the scribe read it back.”

Ardal took a breath to read from his notes back, but Elgin cut him off. “I curse the day you see me behind a desk, Captain.”

The Hundred replied levelly. “Elgin, you curse every day.”

Raucous laughter broke out and shattered the severity that had previously pervaded the room; then, the leaders settled into their business. Hart stated the situation clearly for his Captains of Thirty. “Gentlemen and Elgin, I am not lying when I say that today will be rife with opportunities for you and your men to earn everlasting glory. The Dearthmen hold the pass. We are near a week past the anticipated arrival of our supplies. I expect no one to come this way from the Three Hundred until they realize in another day or so that the supply wains they sent us did not return to them. Were we to wait on them, none would remain to tell them how the rest of us earned everlasting glory.

“Now, we might hope that the supply trains turned back and so returned with word of the Dearthmen in the pass. In that case, we could expect help at any moment. There’s a problem with that plan, however, and that is that…”

“Hope is not a method,’ quoted the Thirties in unison like schoolboys. Apparently, it was something they had heard the Hundred say on more than a few occasions.

Hart nodded. “Right, but there are methods we might employ based on the safe assumption that we are on our own for a while longer. I believe that our best option lies in a rapid, aggressive assault coupled with an effective deception plan and supported by archery from the battlements. The problem with this idea is that there is no flexibility. We have no reserve force. We do it once; we do it right; we do it rapidly; or we fail and earn everlasting glory.

“Horse will ride out at a full gallop.” He looked to Glendon, Captain of the Mounted Thirty. “You must give every indication that your only thought is to escape the pass and go for reinforcements.”

Hart fixed Glendon with his intense gaze. “Glen, I am well aware that the restricted terrain within the pass will not allow you to maintain a gallop once you cross the plain. You will fly out of the gates headed straight for the trailhead, enter the pass and move as rapidly as you can down the trail without allowing the enemy to draw you into a fight. Just move, move, move. This is our deception plan.”

He held Glendon’s eye until he indicated his understanding with a nod.

“The purpose of the deception is to draw them into the open so we can slaughter them. A smoke arrow will signal you to turn like the tide and smash the enemy repeatedly against the rock formed by the phalanx of the Heavy Thirty.

“They will pursue Horse with the majority of their force leaving a small element behind to watch the gates. At the signal for Horse to turn, Elgin, rope down the southeast corner of the battlements and use the streambed to cover your movement. From there, move rapidly into the surrounding high ground. Your purpose is to locate the commander and his support personnel who will likely be among the stay-behind force.

“You must destroy their leadership as rapidly as possible. Once that is done, they cannot long sustain the attack. Until this is accomplished, yours is the primary mission. A smoke arrow will signal mission accomplished. Fire it as you fight your way down to join us on the plain.

Hart addressed the Captain of the Heavy Foot Thirty. “Hugh Mor, I have this insane notion that you might form your unit into a new terrain feature in the center of the plain against which Horse may drive the enemy to crush them repeatedly until there is naught left of them but the stench of their fear.”

“Aye, Captain, it does seem the mission we were made for. We’ll head out when Horse enters the pass?”

“That’s it.” Hart’s grim satisfaction was evident in his tight smile and terse nod. “Though you are buried in bodies and drowned in blood, you must not move. Fix the enemy in the center of the plain to allow Horse to maneuver against them repeatedly. You grab them by the throat, Light will decapitate them, and Horse will bash them to bits. All hinges on you.”

“We will stand, Captain.” Hugh spoke simply as though he were informing the Hundred of his intent to take a walk.

“That, Gentlemen, is the plan.” Hart looked around the room and received nods of understanding from each of the assembled leaders.

“I will ride with Horse if they will have me.” He glanced toward Glendon.

The Horseman nodded curtly, “My honor, Captain.”

Certain now that the captains of his fighting units understood their missions, Hart instructed the leaders of the support sections to harry the enemy from the battlements and to open the gates of the caer if necessary.

“Any questions, Lads?” Hart met the eye of each man; then, he dismissed them. “Go in the strength of your brothers and quit you like men. I will meet you on the plain or in eternal glory. Horse rides within the half hour.”

The leaders rose to rejoin their units, and the Hundred stretched out his hand. “Ardal of the Avinn Vale.” Ardal placed his notes into the Hundred’s hand. Hart thanked him, laid the notes onto the table and extended his hand again. Ardal grasped his forearm and the Captain returned the gesture. “Ardal, it is my honor to fight alongside you, Brother.”

“The honor, Captain, is all mine.” The next time he saw Hart, Ardal discovered what honor looks like.

Ardal watched Horse ride out; then, he roped down from the battlements with Light. They separated into Tens and moved through the high ground hunting the enemy commander’s Seat hidden among the rocks and draws. Elgin moved with Ekurn, Ardal’s Ten Leader, as they picked their way through gorse, stones and defiles toward the point of convergence for the Tens’ designated search patterns. Elgin had previously identified a particular high meadow as the most likely location for an encampment. A field of springs filled a small pool that ran off to a waterfall at its lower end. Rather than approach from the lightly wooded gentle southern slope, Elgin led his swordbrothers to climb the narrow, treacherous defile under the waterfall to the east of the meadow.

As he reached the top of the climb, Elgin slipped over behind a sentry who was watching the southern approach. He caught the sentry from behind and hefted him over the waterfall. Ardal watched the Dearthman bounce down the ravine then climbed quickly into the fray. He rushed an approaching Dearthman, sliced him open and left him squirming and screaming.

Elgin called out for his men to join him. “Light. To me.” Ekurn impelled Ardal with a shove to follow Elgin. As they arrived in the center of the camp, a soldier crushed Cian’s left thigh with a steel-bound cudgel. Elgin removed the man’s forearms and pursued the fleeing enemy captain.

Ardal broke clear of the skirmish and ran to the rear of the camp where the horses were tethered. There, he found the enemy commander cutting a horse free of the tether. As he ran toward him, he shouted for Elgin.

The enemy commander mounted, and Ardal tickled his ribs with his blade. If he’d had a longsword, the commander would’ve been done; but his reach was too short, and the Dearthman kicked him in the chest. He hit the ground hard and scrambled out of the way just in time as Elgin pulled the horse down by its bridle. The rider rolled free and Ardal kicked him hard in the head.

Three enemy soldiers came to assist their commander. Elgin ran toward them shouting over his shoulder, “Do him.” Ardal slid his blade in between his adversary’s ribs and twisted it. The Dearthman spasmed wildly, and a gout of blood shot from his mouth. Ardal ran to assist Elgin.

By the time he ran the twenty yards to where Elgin stood against three men, one of them was screaming and retching on the ground while he tried to hold his innards in his hands. A second was sitting on the ground moaning and watching the blood pump rhythmically out of the stump of his leg. Elgin was trembling violently while he pressed his left hand over the gory right side of his face and attempted to hold the third at bay with the severed broadsword in his right hand. Ardal ran screaming at the soldier who menaced his Captain. The invader broke and ran directly onto the pike of Ten Leader Hai who had come up from behind him. Elgin fell to his knees.

Ardal knelt beside Elgin who was apparently mad with pain, because his words made no sense. “Take to heart the head.”

Ardal attempted to calm him. “Relax, Captain…”

Elgin slapped him hard and gasped, “Take… the head… to Hart.” He indicated the corpse of the enemy commander.

“Aye, Captain.” Ardal ran to take the head.

Hai knelt beside Elgin and attempted to pull his hand away from his face. Elgin slapped his hand away. Elgin poked Hai in the chest with his right forefinger. “Hai. Thirty Captain. Ekurn. Thirty Leader. Leave two for wounded. Take horses. Ride to fight.” He blanched and shuddered then reared back to fix Hai with his left eye. “Don’t look at me. Go.”

By the time he said, “Go,” Ardal was mounted on the enemy commander’s horse with his naked blade in his right hand, the topknot of the severed head in his left, and the reins in his teeth. He rode hard to the plain guiding the horse with his knees. The signal arrow rose up from behind him and passed over his head as if guiding him to the fight.

He heard the battle clash long before he saw aught. He rode to outstrip the wind before him and so the wind behind could not catch him. As he broke from the woodline into the open valley floor, he oriented on Heavy Foot’s phalanx at the center of the plain.

The Dearthman warband was sore beset by Horse before while Heavy mangled their flanks and rear as Horse turned them. Ardal rode directly for Horse shouting for Hart.

Drawing nearer still, he could identify individual soldiers and their feats. Each strove mightily goaded by Hart’s audacity. Repeatedly, he drove in, wrecked men, withdrew, whirled, and drove in again. He was a beautiful horror.

Finally, above the din, Hart heard Ardal call his name. Breaking free of the mob, he rode to meet him. He pulled up close alongside so that Ardal could have touched his mount’s heaving flank, and Ardal displayed his loathsome offering.

The Captain grimaced and shuddered as he leaned across to inspect the head of his enemy. Noting his pallor and that he bled freely from numerous gashes, Ardal realized that what he had taken for revulsion had instead been a disciplined response to severe pain.

“Well done, Ardal of the Avinn Vale. Much earlier than expected. I did not note your signal arrow fly. Hold it securely.”

Ardal laid his blade across his lap so he could hold the head with both hands. Hart shoved his spear point beneath the chin, through the head, and into the brain cavity so the head was firmly impaled at an angle of submission.

Hart handed Ardal the shaft and indicated that he should follow then whirled his mount and charged into the fray. Securing his sword with his right hand and lifting the speared head with his left, Ardal followed closely with no idea of his commander's intent.

Hart drew up on the verge of the fight and indicated to Ardal that he should hold his trophy high. He stood in his stirrups and, grasping the butt, lifted the spear high above his head and rode twice about the writhing mass screaming for them to look on him. The Tierasalan Captains and Leaders took notice and drew their troops into a cordon about the invaders while the Dearthmen pointed at Ardal and shouted unintelligibly.

By the time Ardal returned to Hart’s side, an uneasy truce reigned on the field. He lowered the spear butt to rest on the toe of his boot. The severed head was on a level with Ardal’s. The first foot of the spear shaft below the head was encased in congealed gore.

“Who speaks for the Dearthmen?” Hart wheezed at Ardal.

“Captain, I can’t know that.”

“You can if you ask them. Ardal, speak for me. My voice is gone.”

Even then, Ardal did not realize how dire Hart’s condition must be. “Aye, Captain. I will relay your words.”

“Nay, Ardal, use your words. Show them that their commander is dead. Offer them food and drink, rest and shelter if they will lay down their arms and come to the caer.”

The import of his message struck Ardal dumb. He wracked his mind for words to end the blows. Hart urged him to move quickly. “Ardal, you have their ears. Use them before they begin swinging blades out of boredom.”

Ardal nodded to his Captain and raised his voice. “Dearthmen, who speaks for you?”

A high voice from within the crowd replied half-heartedly. “He is dead.”

“Then you come represent your brothers.” Ardal scrutinized the crowd for the man who had spoken.

“These pigs are not my brothers.” The man laughed then swore. “Do not look shocked. They would say the same of me.”

Ardal located the speaker and allowed his gaze to settle on him. “I am sorry to hear it. You do not strike me as a pig.”

The speaker shrugged. “What do you want?”

Ardal lifted his voice along with the spiked head to ensure that all could see and hear even if they could not understand. “My Captain offers you your lives in return for your weapons. What does your Captain offer?”

The man raised his voice and addressed the Dearthmen in their native tongue. A heated debate ensued. It raged until, prompted by a gesture from Hart, Ardal shouted, “Decide.”

The spokesman shrugged and addressed his response to Hundred Captain Hart. “I, for one, am willing to become your slave if it means that I might live. Who knows? Perhaps my master will be gracious to me. Some others agree with me. Still others ask if they might not return home.” He scoffed. “Others yet have threatened to kill any and all who lay down their arms. I, as I have said know that I am a slave in whatever country I live and gratefully accept your offer.” He looked warily about at the Dearthmen who surrounded him.

Ardal spoke again for Hart. “There will be no slaves.”

The spokesman bowed his head and spoke vehemently in his own language words that sounded like curses. He raised his head enough to glower from beneath his brows at Hart. “So, you will execute us.” He spat the accusation as though it poisoned him.

“Nothing of that.” His misunderstanding shocked Ardal. “We will take your arms, not your lives or your bodies. We are free men and have no use for those who are not.”

“Hostages for a while.” Hart grunted his instruction wanly. Ardal nodded.

“All who lay down their weapons will be conducted to the caer as our guests and as surety against another attack by your countrymen. Any man who does not, today, lay down his arms will himself be laid low.”

The spokesman relayed Ardal’s words to the Dearthmen. A great racket ensued. Ardal allowed the discussion to continue until it seemed that it might come to blows among the Dearthmen; then, he shouted for them to calm themselves.

“Any who choose to live may come and stand to my left where a contingent of our soldiers will accept your weapons and conduct you in safety to the caer. All who choose otherwise will be cut down where you stand.”

The Dearthman warband began to unravel, and the newly arrived Light Thirty mounted on their recently acquired horses dismounted to receive weapons and to conduct their former enemies to the caer under the command of acting Thirty Captain Hai. Ardal turned to observe and pulled alongside Hart to request further guidance. He sat upright and rigid staring at his mount’s ears with his mouth slightly open.

“Ardal gestured to Glendon, the Captain of Horse. He came near and inclined his head as though to hear from his commander. He glanced up at Ardal from under his brows. ‘He’s dead, you know?’

Ardal nodded. “Yes, Captain. How do we return him to the caer and keep that knowledge from spreading?”

Glendon considered the import of Ardal’s question “Leave it to me, Soldier. Next chance, you’ll have a dram on me.” He clapped his hand on Ardal’s shoulder then rode off to confer with his Thirty Leader.

A few minutes later, a Ten of Horse approached. Gerritt, the Ten Leader, casually walked his horse alongside the Captain’s so that the toe of his left boot extending through his stirrup connected with the heel of the Captain’s right boot. Another mounted soldier did likewise on the Captain’s left. Two others galloped back to the caer to prepare for his arrival. The six remaining horsemen rode three before and three behind the Captain like the personal guard he had never previously required.

All the while as they walked their horses back to the caer, Gerritt carried on an animated discussion with their dead Captain thereby maintaining the illusion of strength that he had established. All in all, it was rather nicely done.

Ardal turned back to the field to find that nearly all of the Dearthmen had surrendered to Light and were being herded toward the caer. His soul welled up inside him at the wisdom of the fallen Captain that had turned their doom on its head. Meanwhile, a small knot of no fewer than twenty Dearthmen had formed a tight perimeter bristling with blades. The Heavy Foot Thirty had surrounded them. They remained at a stalemate.

Ardal rode to the head of the ragged column making its way to the caer then rode back looking at the faces of the Dearthmen who had surrendered. When he found the spokesman, Ardal drew him up onto his horse and rode hard for Heavy. As they rode, Ardal asked the interpreter why the holdouts continued to resist.

The man’s immediate response was casual. “They are stupid animals.”

“They are men just as you are a man. Are you not all Dearthmen?” Ardal asked rhetorically.

The man scoffed then spat. “They call me their slave, yet they haven’t the wits to recognize how that word applies to them.”

Ardal turned in the saddle to more clearly see the man, but they had arrived at the standoff. “What sort of man are you, then?”

“I was ‘Partlan,’ a free man and scholar of The Bractlands. That was before I became ‘Boom (the Owl),’ a slave with too many questions according to my master.”

“Partlan, you are your only master, now. I hope to talk more with you soon. For now, we have work to do.”

“Aye, Captain, with a will.” Partlan responded like a Tierasalan.

Ardal dismounted, looked into Partlan’s clear blue eyes, and explained to him that he was no captain but the least and poorest of the High King’s soldiers. Partlan stared back doubtfully. Ardal clapped him on the shoulder. “Come, my friend, we must end this travesty if we may.”

Ardal walked rapidly with his impaled head, naked blade and disarmed enemy to the side of Hugh, the Thirty Captain of Heavy Foot, and spoke his name. Without lifting his gaze from his trapped quarry, he told Ardal to name his errand.

“It is three-fold, Captain. First, Hundred Captain Hart is dead.”

Hugh scoffed. “I saw him ride to the caer.”

“A ruse, Captain. I was there. Glendon, Captain of Horse, arranged to remove him from the field without revealing that he had fallen.”

“A wise ruse.” Hugh nodded but never looking away from the duty before him.

“As for my second errand, Captain, it is to ask your leave to dispose of this repugnant thing.” Ardal moved the spiked head into his field of view and noted the revulsion on Hugh’s face.

“And why would you trouble me with such a bothersome thing?”

“Forgive me, Captain, but it seems to me that in the current situation, you must become our acting Hundred Captain.”

Hugh nodded. “Perhaps, but, as you see, I am otherwise engaged. Elgin will do for the now.”

“He is currently unavailable, Captain.”

“Ah. Worse and worse.” Hugh spared a glance to look on Ardal’s face. “I suppose you saw this happen as well?”

Ardal winced but spoke plainly. “I did, Captain. His face was ruined.”

“His face, eh? No great loss then.” Hugh Mor sighed.

Bitter regret crept into Ardal’s voice as he explained that Elgin held off three men while he fiddled with killing one.

The Captain nodded in commiseration. “Go ye back to your swordbrothers, Lad, and do your duty by them.”

“Aye, Captain, only let me discharge my third duty here.” Ardal noted that the soldiers of Hart’s Hundred who remained on the field had gathered in a loose perimeter behind the tight one of the Heavy Thirty to observe and to support Heavy if the need arose.

“Do so and leave me to dispatch these stalwart foemen.” The Captain returned his baleful gaze the recalcitrant adversaries.

“I have brought you Partlan the Bractie to assist you in negotiating for the surrender of these men.”

“Hart offered them their options. They have chosen. We will execute. Take your Bractie to the caer with the others.” The Captain spoke through clenched teeth.

A moment later, Hugh sighed and relented somewhat. “Truth, Lad. I have no heart to murder such men. Gladly did I face them in battle, but the battle is ended, and they are but desperate men who must lose their lives or their honor. I would do the same if I stood where they do.”

Ardal considered the situation for a moment. “Hundred Captain, may I have your leave to negotiate with the foemen an honorable path to life for them?”

Hugh flicked an incredulous look at Ardal. “You might try. You’ll no doubt fail, but you might try. It’d be a boon to at least make the attempt. What’ll you say to them, I wonder.”

“I am uncertain, but I’ve an idea that Partlan will be useful. I’ll draw their leader here so you may overhear the discussion and offer your guidance.”

Hugh pressed his lips firmly together and nodded. “Aye, Lad. Do it, but first, give me your name.”

“Ardal, Captain, of the Avinn Vale.’

Hugh thought for a moment. “Not a place I’ve heard of, but I will know it hereafter. Put your Bractie to it, Ardal. Find me a way through this.”

“Aye, Captain.” Ardal turned to Partlan. “Call their leader forward.”

The former slave stepped forward and raised his voice. Ardal intently studied the response of the Dearthmen and noted that many of them glanced toward a grizzled man who stood on the edge of their cluster. He returned their glances furtively.

A young man in the center spoke up, and Partlan translated. “And why should we allow you to butcher our chief when you should face him instead blade to blade?”

Ardal stepped forward, thrust his blade into the soil, raised his hands and turned about to show that he intended no treachery. Slowly, he walked to the grizzled man he had observed communicating wordlessly with his men. Partlan walked behind him.

When he finally stood before the older man, Ardal again turned about to show that he bore no weapons. Ardal looked into his eyes and extended his hand. After a long pause, the invader switched his sword to his left hand and tentatively grasped Ardal’s hand then raised and lowered it slightly a few times while maintaining Ardal’s gaze. When he released Ardal’s hand, Ardal grasped his forearm in proper greeting. The Dearthman leader returned the gesture. Ardal released his grip and stepped back.

The leader spoke, and Partlan relayed his question. “This is a respite for parley, yes?”

Ardal agreed. “Only you and I will be unarmed. Neither will surrender his weapon, both will leave them behind.”

Ardal gestured for the Dearthman to come toward him. The enemy chieftain stepped forward and turned to address his soldiers. At his words they looked about; then, one by one, they stood down.

Partlan and the man spoke; then, he handed his sword to a man behind him and displayed his empty hands and turned about as Ardal had done. He looked into Ardal’s face and made a sound he did not understand. It sounded like a cough. Ardal looked quizzically at his translator. Partlan explained. “It’s his name – Kaff.”

“What does it mean?”

Partlan sneered. “What does your name mean? It’s just the sound someone makes when they want his attention.”

Ardal explained. “In my home, our parents give us names with meanings they hope we’ll live up to.”

Partlan nodded. “In my home, as well, but his parents did not give him this name. His master did.”

Ardal urged the enemy chieftain and the liberated slave to walk with him to a position equidistant between the lines and directly before Hugh. Once they were in position, he gestured to Kaff who began to talk. Partlan focused on him for a long while nodding occasionally. He spoke twice to Kaff who gave a lengthy response to each question. Ardal listened intently and understood nothing.

After what seemed an eternity, Partlan turned to Ardal. “First, they will not surrender. Second, they will die first. Third, you cannot take their weapons from them.” The translator paused as though he expected a response.

Ardal considered Partlan’s pronouncement. “Is that all he said? You two talked quite a while. There must have been more.”

Partlan sighed and shrugged with his palms up. “He is a Dearthman. They are prone to flowery prose when a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will suffice. There was, however, another bit, but it was mostly nonsense, talking in circles. He said that they were sworn to the death to serve their master. He is now dead, and you seem to be the man who killed him. I believe that he might be indicating that they will die before they surrender…”

“Aye, Partie, I believe I got that bit.” Ardal fumed.

Partlan repeated the words pedantically. “I believe that he might be indicating that they will die before they surrender, but there might be another way. They took an oath that imperils the spirits of their families. The oath was to serve their master or his successor unto death. He did note, however, based upon the evidence you carry that their master is now dead without an appointed successor.”

Ardal looked over his shoulder to where the Captain stood listening. “Captain? What shall I say here?”

“So, they keep their lives, their arms, and their honor by transferring the onus of their oath to a new master?” The Captain screwed his face up in aggravated contemplation for a long while then finally decided. “Tell them I accept, and let’s get back to the caer.”

Ardal nodded at Partlan indicating that he should translate the Captain’s words. After another intense conversation with Kaff, Partlan turned to Ardal disconcerted. “He says they will not merely join your army. That is surrender. They will, here and now, swear service to their new master, or they will fight to the death… And the new master must be the one who defeated the old one.”

Ardal glanced from Partlan to Hugh and then to Kaff. “Elgin was responsible for the mission to destroy the enemy leadership. When he is able, I am certain that he will attend to this matter.”

The Captain’s exasperation was evident in his voice. “Elgin, if you remember, did not take the commander’s life. You did, and you bear his head. More importantly for the current circumstances, you are here. Accept their oath, and be done. We will work out how to handle the situation once we arrive at the caer. Only let us go there soon.”

Ardal glared at Hugh. “Captain, I’ll have no man take such an oath to me.”

Hugh’s voice took on an edge. “Soldier, you will do as your Captain orders you and take the oaths of any of these men who offer it. Then, you will take the lives of any who refuse. Understand that their wise leader has divined a way for them to live, retain their honor and protect the spirits of their families. You will honor his wisdom.”

Ardal bowed his head at the disgrace of the thing wondering what had happened to corrupt the sovereignty of these men so that they allowed it to be turned against them. He lifted the impaled head of their former master above his head and raised his voice so all could hear even if they couldn’t understand. “If you will offer me your oath, I will accept it; and you will retain your arms in my service.”

Partlan spoke to Kaff who then turned and shouted to his assembled men. All but two of them kneeled. Kaff stared at the two young men horrified. He shouted in a commanding tone at them. One shouted back defiant. The other pled with tears gesturing for Kaff to join them. Kaff shouted again. Both looked away from him - one stoic, the other weeping freely.

“Kaff faced about rigidly with tears standing in his eyes and muttered under his breath. Partlan translated. “The proud fools will lose their heads.”

“I don’t believe he meant for that to be translated, Partlan. Tell him to make the vow and be done. I’ve no stomach for more of this.”

Partlan made a “get on with it gesture” toward Kaff who then kneeled before Ardal and laid his sword on the ground before him. All of his men except the two defiant ones followed suit. They bowed to the ground touching their foreheads to their blades and intoning a monotonous chant. After prostrating themselves three times, they remained kneeling. Kaff murmured from his kneeling position, and Partlan translated. “They are waiting for you to accept their vow and allow them to rise.”

Ardal looked back toward the Captain who gave him the same signal that Partlan had given Kaff. “I gratefully accept your offer of service.” Ardal spoke feebly with Partlan translating. “Please rise and join us in the caer.”

Twenty-two Dearthmen including Kaff rose. Ardal told him to bring the two dissenters forward. He nodded slowly and turned to fetch them. After a few paces, he turned back and asked if Ardal might not consider a substitution. He almost begged him to accept his own head in the place of those of the two recalcitrant Dearthmen. At first, Ardal was dismayed; then, he realized that the dissenters were his sons.

“Bring them to me.” Ardal’s command was unequivocal. Kaff nodded and staggered away.

Partlan sneered. “Congratulations. You now own two tens of slaves. So are fortunes built.”

Ardal glared his contempt at Partlan. “I’ll have no fortune built on the sweat of other men.”

Kaff and the two dissenters approached. The first was defiant and angry. He stood directly before Ardal so close he could hear him breathe. Suddenly, the prisoner’s hand snaked out and backhanded Ardal across the cheek. It brought tears to his eyes. Partlan and Kaff both grabbed the boy, and Kaff bloodied his lips with a slap.

The second boy seemed younger and frightened rather than angry but just as determined as his brother. He said something to his father that sounded like a reproach. Kaff merely looked into the boy’s eyes then turned and kneeled. He looked up at Ardal once with his head thrown back and his arms spread wide, then, threw himself forward babbling rapidly and very quietly while grasping Ardal’s ankles and bobbing his head so that his forehead repeatedly struck the tops of Ardal’s feet.

Ardal reached down and touched the top of Kaff’s head to make him stop. Kaff sobbed loudly, moaned, and raised his face streaked with tears, snot, spit, dust, and blood. After a moment, he began rocking on his heels, howling unintelligibly, and tossing dust into the air while his sons stood looking down on him in loathing.

Ardal looked to Partlan for an explanation. “He keeps repeating the same words. ‘Take my head. Take my head.’”

Ardal stepped away from Kaff and asked him with Partlan translating to go and bring the sword which he had left stuck in the ground near Hugh. Kaff rose laboriously and shuffled over to it. Ardal asked the Captain to loan him four stout lads to place the sons of Kaff into submission. Kaff turned with the sword in his hand and saw each of his sons held in the kneeling position by two men. He dropped the sword and ran to throw himself across their necks sobbing and shouting. Partlan informed Ardal that Kaff shouted, “Mercy, my lord.”

Ardal retrieved his discarded blade then directed Kaff to kneel facing his sons. He addressed the sons with Partlan translating. “Today, you have earned death. Not because you fought against us. Not because you kept your oath. Because you despised your father, you have earned the death sentence that I am prepared to execute upon you.” He raised the sword above the exposed neck of the older boy and slowly brought it down on the back of his neck then drew it lightly so that it merely broke the skin. “Your head belongs to me.”

The prisoner shouted and Partlan translated. “You are weak.” Ardal slapped the back of the prisoner’s head with the flat of his blade, and the prisoner slumped forward. The two men who had held him trussed him onto the back of one of the captured horses.

Ardal stepped over to the other boy, raised his sword and told the lad that he had earned a death sentence by despising his father. The prisoner agreed. “It were better had I called down utter destruction on myself and let no other man –especially this man – bear it for me. Take my head.”

Ardal laid the blade across the back of his neck and drew it toward himself until a trickle of blood appeared. “Your head is mine. I may claim it at will for any or no reason at all.” The boy nodded and sobbed.

Ardal then stood beside Kaff and raised the sword. “I spared your sons’ lives, Kaff. They are mine to do with as I will.”

Kaff’s countenance was serene. “Take my head. I gladly give it because you have saved their lives.”

“Your head is mine, Kaff. You took a vow to serve me. You cannot offer me what is already mine.” Ardal waited a long while for his response.

“What, then, can you want of me?” Kaff whispered fiercely.

“I want your heart."

Trembling powerfully, Kaff tore open his shirt and screamed. “Take it.”

Ardal touched his blade tip to Kaff’s chest and pressed slightly so that a trail of blood ran down his chest. Ardal lifted his blade. “Your heart is mine."

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