Chapter 28: A Tightening Noose
The reunion between mother and daughter was bittersweet. Queen Refinnej held her daughter long and tight, tears streaming down her face. Though overjoyed to see Rebekah safe again her disappointment at their inability to bring relief was evident.
When it had first been called out from the watchtower that riders were approaching from the north, word spread like wildfire throughout the capital. People flocked in anticipation to the walls to get a glimpse of their deliverance. The sound of fighting only gave rise to further optimism. The consensus thought was that a decisive battle had begun. A force to join in the fray gathered together ready to strike out. They were about to leave from the castle when the devastating reality struck. The small group from the north broke through the Natas line with the Black Knights pursuing scurrying through the defensive line along the north side of the river towards the castle. It was not their salvation but rather the remnant fleeing a still unbeaten enemy.
The queen herself had mounted one of the towers to watch in happy anticipation. She too had been sadly frustrated until the sight of her daughter shed some light in the growing darkness of her spirit. She watched as the remnant of original travelers and the few Northern Alliance riders left headed towards the castle, threading their way through the sullen throng that had gathered to celebrate the liberators. The riders, downcast in their failure, matched the mood of the people in the capital. It seemed as if the last thread of hope had been snapped.
Hai’asi waited at the gate for Mitt Cela to arrive. He hadn’t realized his friend stayed behind to face the Black Knights. When he found out he almost turned back to join him. Shock jolted the warrior when he saw Mitt Cela riding towards the gate with no one in pursuit. Each gave the other a confused look at how the confrontation had turned out but neither had the energy to speak. Instead, the pair rode behind the others towards the castle attempting not to make eye contact with the somber people watching them.
In the crushing reality a voice rang out. To the exhausted man from Amethyst it sounded like the song of an angel.
Looking towards the emotion-filled voice that had cried out he saw Talitha. Seeing her standing in the crowd wearing the same green cloak with her hair tied back as he had remembered her every day was a balm to his aching heart.
First she seemed hesitant, then a smile of joy, or perhaps realization, lit up her face at the sight of him.
Spontaneously he stopped Scobeo Deo then jumped down and gave the woman a warm hug. Regaining his composure, he released Talitha from the embrace.
She looked up at him affectionately with tear-filled eyes. “I…we…did not know what had become of you,” she stammered. “We feared some offense when you didn’t come to call. Then we heard rumors you were on some secret and dangerous mission. But we didn’t know what to believe.”
Hai’asi felt emotions he’d never experienced before strangely rise within him. A different form of pain then he’d ever felt seared his very soul. He looked down at this fragile woman seeing the discomfort he’d caused. “Every day I wished I could have told you about my mission or saw you before I left,” he replied, his voice curiously shaking. “We were all under orders to have communication with no one. I left in fact early the morning after we met. There was nothing I could do but feel the discomfort I knew I would causing by a broken pledge.”
Talitha, seeing the pain in the powerful man, reached out and grabbed his arm. “No,” she replied with passion, “you must not think that. Yours was an honorable course, ours was selfishness. But what you must have endured! I’m just so overjoyed to see you safe. I knew you would not be dead, or have abandoned us, though others doubted. Gideon never gave up either. He prayed for you every evening. He knew you would come back.”
At the boy’s name Hai’asi looked around for the mop-headed lad. “Where is he? I’d sure be happy to see my young lieutenant right now.”
A worried look spontaneously came over the mother’s face. “He’s been a little sick lately.” Seeing Hai’asi’s expression she hastily added, “Oh not terribly bad, don’t concern yourself. Gideon would have loved to be here to see you himself.”
“Then I’ll come and see him,” Hai’asi declared ready to do it immediately. But seeing Mitt Cela waiting, he knew his first duty was to report back to Elder Samej. “I will come to see him at the first moment available,” he promised.
Talitha’s face lit up once more warming the warrior’s heart. She took his rough hand into her soft, delicate ones. “Even though I didn’t know where you were, I prayed for you every day as well…,” she paused nervously, “and thought of you often.”
Hai’asi felt a lump grow in his chest. He placed his free hand softly on her arm. “As did I,” he could only whisper. “I will see you soon,” he declared emphatically.
If the travelers had thought the citizens of Ammon Ramlah downcast, they found the members of the council positively depressed. Gathering together to hear the story of the mission to the north an air of defeat hung like a stench over the chamber. As the princess and then Hai’asi gave their reports on what had transpired the last number of weeks, the mood darkened until it filled the opulent room like a black cloud.
Hai’asi had barely acknowledged his own king upon entering the room. He could not help but stare at the man who sat nervously chewing his fingernails while the warrior spoke of their fight. The ever present Bebai and Sasman were on either side, whispering to him throughout. What a contrast, he thought, to the High Steward of Carnelian who showed such strength or to King Jashud who rallied to defend his lands. The bombastic king had fallen, as it had been reported, among his people rather than flee like a thief in the night. Bitterness towards what he had thought so important a short time before gnawed away at his already fragile spirit.
Samej had sat expressionless, listening silently the whole time. As he heard from the gathered kings one declaration after another of despair and defeat he could finally take it no longer so dismissed them. As symbol of their totally vanquished attitude they gladly left without argument.
The five remaining travelers from the original party which had started out with such hope stood with heads hanging low in embarrassment.
Samej took a long breath then spoke. “Do not despair for yourselves my faithful ones. You did everything that this council and I asked you to do. You made it to the north under extreme duress. You were able to convince an otherwise reluctant people to rise and join with us. You were able to bring them almost within sight of the capital before suffering a setback. Now they are strengthened in their opposition to Mephistopheles and their support for us. Your efforts were commendable. I, for one, wish to thank you.”
“Yes, but we still failed to bring the support to you and we were defeated,” Hai’asi said quietly, making the declaration all in the group felt. “We don’t even know if the Northern Alliance army survived the pull back. Besides, we saw signs riding here of preparations for siege and the concentrating of a huge army. Where does our hope lie?”
“There is always hope!” Queen Refinnej declared passionately. Stepping forward she added, “I was in a dark place thinking my precious daughter destroyed in this quest to liberate our people. And for what? A hopeless cause doomed to fail many say. But having her here again, alive, gives me pause to remember that while there is still breath, there is hope. Let us not give up, but rather do all we’re capable of. May we trust that the righteousness of our cause will ultimately be judged with favor.”
Any criticism forthcoming was smothered by the declaration of one who had previously known only despaired. Now a new light shone from her. Confidence radiated upon her face. Hope had been restored.
“The Queen is correct, we are not finished,” Samej agreed to reinforce the new tone of optimism. Then he continued his inquiry of the travelers probing in a different direction. “Now tell me again about your final clash with the Knights of the Black Sceptre Mitt Cela.”
The bounty hunter recounted in greater detail how he had met the previously invincible foe and much to his surprise beaten one in single combat.
Elder Samej listened intently, a look of anticipation rising as he heard the particulars. Leaping to his feet, the high steward gazed at him with an unusual look. “Lift up your tunic, if you would be so kind,” he requested.
Mitt Cela was caught off guard by the strange order. “Pardon?” Was all he could stammer in reply.
“Please lift up your tunic. I wish to examine your chest.”
He complied still puzzled as to the purpose of this strange request. Opening his jerkin then lifting his shirt Mitt Cela was somewhat embarrassed to be exposing himself in front of the crowd. As he did, the bounty hunter unknowingly revealed the distinct birthmark he possessed above his heart.
“You have The Mark,” Samej declared, smiling broadly.
Queen Refinnej gasped, her hands involuntarily shooting up to her mouth at the discovery while the others, Mitt Cela included, stood with confused looks on their faces. Without any explanation or further discussion the wise man then called for the other kings and rulers to gather.
A short time later when the shire leaders had all been assembled, and a retinue of others filtered into the Council Chamber, Samej called them to order. “A tremendous discovery has been made,” he declared. “The legend has been fulfilled. One of The Twelve, the first Knight of the Crystal Orb has been discovered. Mitt Cela, leader of the group that traveled to the north, possesses ‘The Mark’. The order has been restored.”
Machir of Jacinth stifled a laugh. “Him?” he snorted, “A knight? Come now. Look at him. Look at how he’s lived in the past. Where is the nobility and virtue in one such as he? I think you must be mistaken.”
“He possesses ‘The Mark’.”
“And you would have us place our hope in one such as this? Really Samej, this is just too much of a stretch. It smacks of desperation,” the king reasoned and others picked up the chorus.
Queen Refinnej could stand it no longer. She cut in before Elder Samej could respond. “So possession of ‘The Mark’ is not enough? Well he has not only stood to face the Black Knights, but he has also bested one. That is more than ANYONE can say,” she declared, staring right at the group of kings who shrunk under her glare.
A new voice entered into the discussion from the wings. “If Mitt Cela has beaten one of these devils then I’d follow him.”
Commander Tiglath, who had come in from the defenses, stepped forward to add his presence to his voice. Though fatigue etched his face resolution remained in his posture.
Samej decided clarification was necessary. “It is not a matter of Mitt Cela leading, but rather that the Knights of the Crystal Orb have been restored. They are defenders of the realm. Yes they can defeat the Black Knights but it is not their place to lead our armies. Remember the here and now. There still is the matter of the defense of Ammon Ramlah we must contend with. No, this is but one piece to the puzzle, though a critical one.”
Looking around the room at the gathered leaders he felt satisfied most understood the situation. He continued on, dealing with the immediate. “Now that we are gathered let us look to our preservation considering the new realities both positive and negative that have been revealed to us.”
On the second morning after the defeat of the relief column from the Northern Alliance, the forces of Mephistopheles under Ahriman began to squeeze the capital in earnest. First the hastily constructed defensive works south of the capital were overwhelmed. Then the entrenched line on the north side of the Halcyon River fell under a furious assault supported by all form of war engines before the bridge could be destroyed. While most of the defenders were able to retreat into the safety of the walls of the capital it also meant that their enemy was now within missile range and could batter the city at will. Finally, the troops positioned outside the south wall were battered relentlessly. Too few and too tired to hold back the dark force, they were easily rolled back and forced to flee into the protection of Ammon Ramlah as well.
Nothing acted any longer as a buffer between the army of Mephistopheles and Ammon Ramlah. While the city’s defenses did include their own catapults and ballista’s the Carnelians were outnumbered in this area as well. The only question now was whether or not the city’s thin stone walls, packed tight with the remnant of the Confederation, could hold the dark array back.
Instead of launching the expected attack Ahriman waited a full day. Soldiers now manned the walls of Ammon Ramlah preparing for the anticipated assault around the clock. They didn’t have long to wait. At mid-morning the next day the masses making up army of Mephistopheles moved in good order deploying by their legions into position to attack. The defenders braced for the anticipated assault, many whispering prayers for help but all determined to do their duty.
Surprisingly, rather then the dark masses surging forward as expected a single rider followed by a standard bearer flying the flag with a blood red dragon holding a scepter, symbol of the dark master Mephistopheles, rode out accompanied by the feared Knights of the Black Sceptre. Stopping on the plain in front of the city Ahriman sat quietly looking over the domain he’d once served as advisor.
Several times Carnelian officers on the wall hailed him and sought to seek his terms. Ahriman would not reply. Seeing an opportunity though one of the officers had a half dozen bowman in position take a shot since the traitorous advisor sat within range. The deadly arrows sang through the air each seeking the intended target. Contemptously Ahriman waved his hand in the air as if sweeping away flies deflecting the arrows. An audible surprised groan could be heard along the wall at the display of magical skill.
As if on cue, Ahriman smirked and lifted both his hands in the air. Each turned midnight black and began to glow. A dark, angry cloud formed above his raised arms which began to swirl and turn in growing intensity. Wind began to blow towards the walls of the city lifting the penants into the air. Twirling around and around the whirlwind grew until it became like a tornado. Then Ahriman threw his hands forward and the deadly black funnel cloud leapt towards the walls of the city. Soldiers yelled in surprise and scrambled to get out of the way.
“Hold your ground!” a voice boomed from the castle above.
Eyes turned to see Elder Samej standing on one of the towers alone. Throwing aside his cloak of officer of high steward he raised his hands, made a fist in each then threw them forward. Out surged two beams of light looked like lightning. Crackling overhead they sped towards the approaching funnel cloud. Hitting with an ear-splitting crack the approaching whirlwind imploded.
Ahriman angrily raised his hands, a look of rage marring his face. Again, an angry tornado began to form, this time larger then the previous. Aggressively throwing his hands forward the black cloud rushed forwards towards the wall. And once again it was met by a blocking force of energy from Elder Samej.
A cheer went up along the Carnelian line at the magical display of their high steward.
Ahriman rode closer causing the defenders to brace themselves. Instead of a repeat of the previous magical attacks the host of Mephistopheles yelled out in his strange voice, “So we must do this the hard way, hmm? So be it. Enjoy your respite, it’ll be short lived!”
With that, Ahriman wheeled around on his horse and with cloak flapping rode back to the dark line with catcalls coming from the walls of Ammon Ramlah along with renewed cheers for Elder Samej.
The levity of the moment didn’t last long. The defenders were silenced when they saw the dark lines on the plain before them break to make way for a new and more deadly threat. Dozens of catapaults, balistas and siege towers started to be rolled into place to attack. Though the magic of the defender had been countered all watching knew there was nothing that could stop the power of the force being deployed in front of them.
Ahriman’s forces took another day to move their equipment into place. On the following morning they began to test the range of their weapons and the capabilities of the defenders. The host of Mephistopheles and Elder Samej continued their magical battle during the barrage. While impressive to watch, the display of power from each was consistently checked by the other meaning their efforts largely became a side show. The end result was that by the end of that day most of the catapults on the walls of Ammon Ramlah had been disabled allowing the dark army to fire at will on the wall and into the town.
This onslaught began in earnest the following day; measuring and systematically firing, taking their time as if to increase the anxiety of those who waited for the defenses to crumble. In spots the curtain wall of the city already seemed about to fall. Within view of the city could be seen moving closer siege towers to simultaneously breech the standing parts of the wall and rams to clear the rubble from the broken parts. The final assault on the town could happen at any time now. All then that would remain would be the castle.
On the day the walls began to fall Hai’asi suddenly found himself without a role after weeks of decision-making and effort. He was overjoyed to find that his friend Pagiel had survived, as had the majority of the troop from Amethyst. They now had been placed into a company for the defense of the capital, as had all the others. Hai’asi would have command of a force tasked with plugging any gaps that opened when the final assault began in earnest. For now though he was idle. In truth, with the strain-filled days of doubt over the troubled warrior felt relieved. Again Hai’asi would take orders rather than give them. This also allowed him to fulfill a pledge he deeply wanted to.
Searching the city and asking at various places, he eventually found the home of Holdar. He observed along the way that every stable and outer building had people lodging in it. The houses of the city seemed to be bursting at the seams with the refugees who had come here seeking protection. This sight weighed heavily on him, giving an unwelcome reminder of his recent failure. In a somber mood, by the time he walked up to the small cottage his head hung dejectedly.
Approaching the door Hai’asi’s heart began to pound. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he rapped on it lightly. A heavy-set woman opened the door briskly. Visibly started, she stepped back involuntarily at the sight of the large, leaf-mail clad warrior standing at the threshold.
Before either of them could speak Talitha appeared from within. With a welcoming smile on her expressive face she took Hai’asi by the hand and led him in.
After a round of introductions had been made for the numerous people dwelling in the home and talk of the magical battles between Elder Samej and Ahriman, the woman was able to take him aside so they could speak privately.
“How’s Gideon?” Hai’asi asked.
“He’s still not well but he’s been improving since hearing you’d return. Seeing you will cheer him up,” she replied, a hint of concern clouding her attractive face. “He’s been asking about you ever since I told him you were back.”
“I came as soon as I could,” Hai’asi responded guiltily.
Eyes full of compassion, Talitha touched him gently on the arm. “I know you did,” she said with emotion in her voice. “It’s wonderful that you would take the time to visit us.”
Silently he measured his words, uncertain where they would take him. With a feeling as if he were almost choking Hai’asi looked at his boots rather than the pretty woman. “There’s scarce little else I’ve thought of since I left,” he was finally able to say. “In truth it has sustained me on many a day.” Feeling he had overstepped his bounds he quickly changed subjects. “May I see Gideon now?”
Talitha, eyes wet and shimmering, felt her breath escape at the powerful man’s honest declaration. Emotions began to stir within that she’d suppressed for a long time yet had secretly hoped for with the handsome captain from her homeland. Without a word the willowy woman led him into a small room where Hai’asi saw again his young friend.
A pale Gideon lay still in the darkened room, beads of sweat hanging on his brow. He was awake though and his eyes began to shine at the sight of his hero.
Hai’asi noticed the dagger he had given the boy still at his side. The warrior desperately wanted to take the frail-looking child into his arms but instead grabbed a cloth. After dipping it in a bucket, he gently wiped Gideon’s brow while kneeling beside him.
The boy could speak, so he peppered Hai’asi with questions eager to hear all that had happened since they were last together. Gideon also wanted to tell what he had been doing before he fell sick so babbled on forgetting his illness.
The day grew old and night fell but still the Captain of Amethyst did not stir from the home. Eventually a place was set for him at the evening meal. He ended up staying long into the night, feeling an affection and acceptance he’d long sought.
While Hai’asi enjoyed the warm fellowship of Holdar’s home two men walked along the ramparts of the castle alternatively looking at the peaceful city below and the fires of their besiegers ringing them. Mitt Cela had been with Elder Samej for the day as strategy was plotted. The newly proclaimed Knight of the Crystal Orb, though still not officially installed, seemed to encourage confidence in those around him. Official or not, it didn’t matter. Word had traveled quickly as people looked for anything to give them hope. So Mitt Cela went everywhere with the High Steward, his public presence bolstering the spirits of the soldiers and people. As the day drew to a close with most decisions now being dictated to them it afforded an opportunity for some fresh air.
Samej, tired from his confrontations with Ahriman, stopped walking and stared at the town. He silently gazed below for several minutes. “Tomorrow the walls will be breached if they press us,” he declared. “There’s nothing I can do to stop it.”
“But what about your magic?” Mitt Cela asked hopefully. “That was a powerful display today. Don’t underestimate yourself.”
“I don’t,” Samej responded without emotion. “I know exactly how powerful I am and Ahriman is. We are evenly matched. Neither can gain the advantage. No, this will come down to strength of arms, not magic. The Maker seems to have balanced this all out.” The elderly man paused for a moment to consider his statement. ”Really, perhaps it’s as it should be, though I’d sorely like to do more.”
“So what happens when the walls fall?” Mitt Cela asked, somberly realizing the implication of the high steward’s declaration.
“The castle is stronger and can withhold, as the town cannot,” Elder Samej replied, rolling his head around as if to relieve building pressure. “I believe we can withstand a long siege and if the fates are with us can survive.”
“Then why the heaviness in your face?” Mitt Cela asked quietly.
“Because we simply cannot allow everyone who is now in the town into the castle. We do not have enough space to house them nor the food to feed them. A decision must be made as to who is admitted and who is left to face Ahriman without protection within our very sight.”
Disturbing images flashed in Mitt Cela’s mind. “Who’s going to make that decision?” he asked incredulously. Then allowing the thought to take its course added, “And then who’s going to be able to carry out this unsavory task?” Looking at the man he respected so much, the former bounty hunter knew the answer already before Samej spoke. No one else but the high steward would be able to do such a thing. It was not a matter of authority. He possessed that. No, rather the terrible role would fall upon him because he possessed the compassion and strength to make the difficult decisions needed no other would to continue to give them hope.
With a heavy sigh, the elderly man turned and walked alone to his chamber to begin to prepare the lists that were necessary. It was going to be a long night.