In The Absence of Eagles: Book 1 of the The Chronicle of the Shires

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Chapter 29: The End

The new day dawned slate gray and foreboding. Storm clouds pushed in from the east with a new chill filling the air. A baneful wind moaned up and over the walls surrounding the city of Amon Ramlah.

The extra clothing worn by the beleaguered men filing silently onto the walls did little to bring warmth to the cold fear that crept in on them this morning. Once in position and looking over the ramparts the sight was like an icy blast. Dark troops, more numerous than could be counted, were being marshaled into position. Ships flying the black flag, likely bringing reinforcements, sailed up the Halcyon River just into view on the eastern horizon. Siege works and engines of Mephistopheles had been moved into place during the night. The absolute destruction of Ammon Ramlah along with the end of the Confederation would finally begin this day.

A small group gathered in the castle reviewing final preparations before leaving for the battlements. All huddled around Elder Samej as much for encouragement as to hear the plans for the day. Though loath to do so, the elderly man looked quite regal. Wearing the emerald green tunic of the High Steward of Carnelian, sword strapped to his hip, he looked every bit the leader while conferring with Tiglath on final details. The commander had been given charge of the area where a breech was most evident and the final assault would almost assuredly happen.

Queen Refinnej, along with Princess Rebekah, had also joined the party, eagerly listening to what transpired. They would be part of the command party in the city despite the protests of Samej who finally knew to argue with them was folly. They were determined to share the dangers of their people, not hide in the relative safety of the castle.

Mitt Cela silently watched the hushed conversation. Now considered a knight, though still only in the informal sense, he shunned any of the plate armor offered him in his new role. Instead he chose to fight in the clothes and manner familiar to him. He carefully pulled a small piece of silk cloth from a pocket in his jerkin and gazed at the embroidered sampler given to him by Lady Noner with the scene of the sun rising over Sirhc Hall. He’d carried it with him ever since their hasty departure and wondered anew what had happened to her. He continued to be filled with uncertainty. Not for the cause that was absolute, but rather he wondered about himself. When he thought of his life, all that he had done and been, how could that simply be forgotten? How could he now be considered one so virtuous? The balance of favor was definitely against him. Where and when did redemption come? Despite all he’d done in the defense of the lands doubt continued to cling to him like a leech.

Hai’asi stormed into the Council Chambers in a high state of agitation, one Mitt Cela had never seen his friend in before. His intensity caused the others to check their conversations.

“I hear there’s a list of who’ll enter into the castle and who’ll be forced stay out in the event we’re overrun. I want to see that list!” he commanded, neck muscles bulging, tightly gripping his axe with both hands.

Mitt Cela’s own hand involuntarily dropped to the hilt of his sword as Elder Samej stepped forward, an equally serious look upon his face. “You will not see the list Hai’asi, son of Hai’asi,” he said quietly.

“I will!” the now enraged man screamed.

Tension gripped the air. No one knew how this impasse would end. Instead of speaking further, Samej stared at the man who now stood in front of him looking down menacingly. No one moved, not a breath could be heard. The elderly man’s back was to the others so they could only see Hai’asi’s expression. To their surprise, after several minutes of this silent confrontation the powerful warrior began to break as if overcome with emotion. His head hung low and his thick shoulders heaved.

“That which needs to be done will be done,” Samej said with no hint of triumph in his voice but rather a melancholy twinge. Finally satisfied that all was back in order he commanded, “To the ramparts all.”

The command party moved about along the walls of the city encouraging the defenders. The sight of the queen and princess moving among them was particularly heartening. The beloved sovereigns stopped here and there, chatting with the men. This outward display of courage bolstered the defender’s spirits.

Everyone knew that in all likelihood the main assault would come from the south and west sides since the greatest number of enemy troops could be arranged there. North of the river a large array appeared to be only providing a blocking force. It was only a matter of when it would happen.

Hai’asi travelled with the group on the tour of the defenses as well. The captain of Amethyst though said nothing, preferring to remain sullen and silent. His relief troop moved along with him below as the command party went along the walls. They were to plug any gaps that opened in the line. Umim had volunteered to be part of that group the previous day so now rode with them.

Mitt Cela continued to act as personal escort to the high steward for the moment in case of sudden attack. That role would change swiftly though and he would attach himself to any group that found they were facing the Knights of the Black Sceptre. In addition, a handpicked party of Royal Guardsmen would accompany him in hopes of creating a group worth rallying too.

Despite the efforts of the royal family of Carnelian the fear Mitt Cela saw in the eyes of the men on the wall did not encourage him. He knew that everything the people valued was hanging on a thread of courage.

Belac trailed behind the group. His role was to act as chronicler for Elder Samej for the coming contest. Wearing a sword on his side he would readily put his tablet away at a moment’s notice and draw the weapon. He burned with a desire to ride with either Hai’asi or Mitt Cela, though he knew his place. Frustration again mounted at the course of his life, especially after the experiences he’d had of late. He knew he could fight well and only wanted the opportunity to serve his land in that capacity.

Rather than looking out at the army set to destroy them, Princess Rebekah and Queen Refinnej were more interested in the flurry of activity within the city. Any man, and many a young boy, able to carry a weapon had been conscripted to fight. Now the makeshift battalion began moving into the defensive position about the town. Other citizens and refugees scurried about nervously in hope that activity would distract their attention from the unsavory thought of what was about to happen. The hearts of the monarch and her daughter were heavy for the fate of their people. They knew about Elder Samej’s list but not the contents. Unable to fathom the hard choices that needed to be made neither wanted to know.

Among all of these silent thoughts Samej walked, hands clasped behind his back, with the appearance of calm. All eyes appeared to be on him while every captain seemed to need some form of instruction from the man. In reality it was merely reassurance the nervous men sought. He in turn amply dished it out keeping everyone going. While all of these things were happening around him the man’s quick mind continually assessed a variety of choices and options. At what point were troops to be shifted? At what point do we pull back to the castle? How long could they hold?

Samej cast a seemingly casual glance over his shoulder to see that thirty Royal Guards were now positioned in front of the drawbridge into the castle, ready to enact his orders.

The sound of drums beating and horns sounding along Mephistopheles’ line brought them all back from their individual thoughts to one common point: the assault was about to begin.

Though the span of distance was large around the town, the enemy showed themselves to be well coordinated. Battalions began to shift, revealing their true disposition and intent.

In seeming concert, the dozens of ships on the river flying black flags put on fresh sail and headed towards the city. Despite the added threat the display of seamanship was impressive to the beleaguered Carnelians while a yell of approval arose from the Natas troops on the north shore.

The scene on the river caught the attention of those on the wall. Nerves tensed to face a strong new assault from this position just as the other enemy troops were about to attack. Looking at the black flag snapping in the wind on the lead vessel, the defenders were surprised to see it suddenly hauled down and swiftly replaced by a new one. Halfway up the pole a gust caught the large flag, revealing it to be royal blue in color, with the golden eagle device in the center.

“It’s the king!” came a shocked yell from the ramparts, as the symbol of the king of Carnelian was immediately recognized.

A deadly volley of arrows flew from the boats at the attackers of Ammon Ramlah, immediately followed by a relentless shower of arrows into the ranks of Natas on the shore near the north docks. As this happened the lead ship nudged into a berth without being tied off then dropped its gangplank. First to come charging down the ship, followed by his standard bearer and personal escort, was King Criosd Pherein. He hurtled into the enemy, golden helm shining in the sun, which had just broken through the clouds, golden sword raised.

A cheer rose from the walls of the city, so loud it drowned out the sound of the approaching army. Many of the men-at-arms wept openly at the sight of their beloved king and his returned army.

The Natas, expecting reinforcements instead of an attack were caught flat-footed. As other ships pulled up to the long dock, the army of Criosd Pherein took advantage of the surprise, pouring out of the boats. After securing a foothold they then formed up and swept out destroying everything in their path. Inspiring his troops the king led the way. They fell on the would-be destroyers of their kingdom like dew settling on the ground. All the while the king led the way, his sword flashing as he dispatched any that stood in his path.

The Natas regrouped quickly after the initial shock. The dark creatures swarmed around Criosd Pherein but still he sat tall in the saddle easily countering those that came into reach. Despite numerous attempts none could topple him.

This scene, along with the efforts of the king’s troops fighting valiantly against superior numbers caused first a stir of emotion among the men in Ammon Ramlah and then action. Finally those inside the city could no longer be held back. The River Gate flew open disgorging men who unleashed pent up fury that had been building for so long. The Natas holding the line along the river were overwhelmed, caught between the angry mob coming out of the city and the army pressing out from the docks. The total collapse of Mephistopheles’ troops north of the Halcyon seemed a real possibility.

On the wall pandemonium broke out where the command group was positioned. The queen and Princess Rebekah were holding onto each other, crying at the sight of the unexpected return of husband and father. They were almost unwilling to believe their eyes. Fear then replaced joy at the prospect of witnessing the beloved man fall before their eyes. Men from the Royal Guard desperately wanted to leave their post to join in, as did Mitt Cela. Hai’asi, sullenness forgotten in the excitement, itched to join the fight.

While the returned Confederation army took advantage of the element of surprise, Criosd Pherein’s force was still vastly outnumbered. The day was far from won, disaster for man still at hand. Already a large column of Natas could be seen marching from Dan Dera to the river threatening to overwhelm the king’s forces.

Elder Samej quickly assessed the situation. “Hai’asi, take your troop immediately to the king,” he commanded. “Link up with him and destroy whatever enemy you can across the river. Once that’s done leave a blocking force then as many as possible must return to deal with the array we face on the south and west. Now go!”

The sense of urgency in the high steward’s voice proved unnecessary. The Captain of Amethyst moved instinctively knowing that the battle hung in the balance.

Seeing Mitt Cela moving as well Samej put out his hand to stop him. “Not you, my son. Your time has not yet come.”

“But the battle’s on. I can be of use,” Mitt Cela exclaimed, desperately wanting to join in.

“Your use is still before you. Patience my eager friend. This contest is far from over, though now is the time for you to join your guard and make ready to act.” Pausing for a moment he then added, “It is also the time to wear this.”

The old man quickly pulled out a tightly bound package from his satchel. Engrossed in the moment, even though the sound of battle and clamor rang all around them it was as if the two were alone.

Opening the package, Mitt Cela found inside a luxurious purple velvet cloak trimmed in fur. On the back was a symbol in thick silver thread, circular in shape, with twelve distinct points knit together like a web, covering the image of a jewel. It was the symbol of the Knights of the Crystal Orb.

“Elder Samej I can’t, I….” the man who continued to think his use and worth limited stammered.

“It is your destiny Mitt Cela,” Elder Samej declared confidently. “Unleash the man within. Accept that your past has been forgiven. You have been redeemed! Put it on, look to the new day. It is time to do that for which you have been prepared.”

With a look of uncertainly the man who continued to think of himself as nothing more than a bounty hunter placed the cloak around his shoulders. Immediately his appearance changed. As he moved down towards the riders who would form his troop others looked at him differently, deferentially giving way.

Ahriman had witnessed the raising of the Golden Eagle standard and knew what it meant. While irritated, he calmly watched the battle unfold north of the river understanding his plan of attack must change. No matter, he thought, I can adjust with little difficulty. Signaling to his commanders south of the river, they accelerated their assault on the city. He could deal with Criosd Pherein later on. In fact it would be his pleasure.

Natas and heavily armored Gershonites surged forward towards the largest of the breeches in the wall. The defenders of Amon Ramlah, led by Tiglath, braced themselves to hold. Then placing themselves to the front of the advancing force a dozen Black Knights took their place leading the way. The men holding the line began to waver, involuntarily inching backwards, giving ground in memory of what they had experienced before at the hands of this foe. The line threatened to break before contact was even made until a voice growing from the rear, ringing loud and clear, checked their movement.

“Hold men, hold. This day is ours, don’t fear this enemy, they can be defeated!” Mitt Cela cried out. Then, with all eyes upon him, he challenged the defenders. “Fight for those you love. Fight for your homes but stand and fight with me!”

Jumping off his horse, knight’s cloak moving in the breeze, the renewed man strode confidently through the ranks of soldiers to the front of the line. Above, the clouds were breaking and shafts of light began to illuminate the land. One hit Mitt Cela causing the symbol on his cloak to sparkle and him to almost glow. Looking first to their advancing enemy then turning back to the defenders he drew his two-handed sword. “The hour is finally at hand!” he shouted, thrusting the sword in the air. “The king has returned and our deliverance arrived. Do your part, strike back against our oppressors. Show these heartless creatures what men of valor can do. The day is ours!”

A great cheer arose from the massed men, renewed resolution evident along the line.

The Natas wavered but the Black Knights steadily pressed on. Boulders from Ahriman’s catapaults flew while siege towers were pushed into position. While some scaling ladders were in evidence, the arrival of reinforcements to the beleaguered defenders of Ammon Ramlah precipitated a rushed change in plans. The assault of the dark forces would happen piecemeal, but the initial and critical thrust would be concentrated on the breech in the south wall.

Unfortunately for the attackers, there had not been time to move the heavy rubble-clearing rams into place that would have allowed them to make the opening bigger. In the meantime the defenders had been frantically re-stacking rocks and rubble in an attempt to plug it up. As a result, the actual opening was now narrow so only a few attackers at a time would be able to make contact. They would be met by a solid wall of spears and in the center the sword of Mitt Cela.

Surging forward, the now dismounted Black Knights charged the line. Steels thundered against steel as sparks flew Their efforts to break through were checked by Mitt Cela swinging his sword with a fury. More accustomed to fighting in an open setting, the prince’s of Mephistopheles could not fully deploy. They vented their frustration slashing away with their jagged weapons, trying to find any opening against the mere man who stood before them. Unable to do so, the Black Knights let slip dreadful howls that were matched by the Natas behind them waiting for an opening to appear and so pour into the town.

But this time the hearts of the men stayed resolute. They did not waver.

One Black Knight went down so the others concentrated on Mitt Cela. Gershonites climbed up the piles of rubble to get around the log jam in order to scale the wall itself. There was little chance of this succeeding as long as the breach held. Unopposed, archers and swordsmen from Carnelian cut them down so a standoff ensued.

Meanwhile, the catapults of the enemy continued firing in an attempt to make a fresh opening while the siege towers, filled with Natas, neared the wall. While the gap in the defenses seemed to be holding, the threat of other fronts opening that the defenders didn’t have the manpower to confront became very real.

In intense concentration, Mitt Cela was totally unaware of what happened around him. All sounds were blocked out to him as he fought for his life with three Black Knights who hacked and slashed at him relentlessly. Meeting every blow, the man holding the others together parried and moved with lightning speed at each thrust. Fatigue, though, began creeping in. His shoulders ached from absorbing the blows, his arms felt as if they were filling with iron.

Involuntarily, he began slowing down.

Mitt Cela knew it was only a matter of time before he fell yet he didn’t pull back or waver. The years of isolation and loneliness were now being consumed with a love for these people. With a serenity-filled heart and smile on his face, the one who had spent so much time alone would fall beside his friends doing his part. He finally belonged to something greater than self.

Suddenly a hard, chopping stroke brought the issue back to the present, staggering the former bounty hunter who fell to his knees. With sword held precariously above his head, he expected the deathblow to come next.

Trumpets rang out clear and bold from the left of where the battle on the south wall raged. The regal call caused all the combatants to momentarily freeze wondering at the new development. Looking towards the sound both man and dark horde were met by the sight of the golden eagle flag along with a multitude of the Confederation charging towards the battle.

Moments earlier Criosd Pherein, at the head of his Grand Army, along with Hai’asi and the troops from the city pounded through the River Gate moving towards the South Gate. They galloped as swiftly as they could through the streets while those on foot ran as fast as they were able. Streaming out onto the field, the defenders and their liberators quickly reformed with the sound of a golden trumpet then charged forward.

Mitt Cela still stood, the breech had held. The deathblow never did come either. This new, motivated army of man fell upon the flank of Mephistopheles’ forces, seeking vengance on those who had caused so much destruction.

Caught out of position and off guard, the enemy didn’t know what to do. The attackers made little attempt to reorganize as shock at the turn of events seemed to blunt their decision making.

Doubt over the outcome of the final phase of the battle lasted only a moment. Then, like a fresh spring storm washing away the filth allowed to accumulate over the course of a dark evening, the army of the Confederation of the Shires began to overwhelm their opponents. Victory was assured. It became only a matter of time for one side to realize it and the other to claim it.

Ahriman spat on the ground in disgust wheeled his horse around and began to head west, planning already his next move.

The Natas broke and ran, the Black Knights suddenly were nowhere to be seen having mysteriously melted away at the sound of the horn. The Gershonites didn’t know what to do other than die where they stood. Troops continued to surge out of the city pressing the broken army of Mephistopheles, chasing them until signal horns and desperate calls from their commanders caused them to stop, finally realizing what they had done.

Though only mid-day, it seemed so much later after the intensity of the morning. But that was no matter, Ammon Ramlah was safe. They had won. A day that had started out grim and hopeless now witnessed unbridled celebration. The clouds had disappeared giving way to glorious sun. Shining and high in the sky, it illuminated the still remains of the enemy of man’s attempt to destroy him. Citizens who had been cooped up in the city moved about unimpeded, drinking in the sweet taste of freedom. Joy was not in short supply.

As if signaling a more permanent change, someone pointed out a golden eagle soaring above the city.

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