The night at Marshtop silently slipped by, no incident had been reported by the sentries; all was quiet. The red hues of dawn crept across the skies slowly turning to blue heralding the arrival of the rising sun from the east; daylight once again had come upon the idyllic lands of Gillion. Staff were now up lighting the stoves and preparing breakfast for all and sundry; the smells of cooking meat, bread baking, and hot herbal beverages gently wafted from the kitchen and up through the garrison sending their welcoming aromas to all the waking soldiers reminding them that morning had broke and their empty stomachs needed feeding. In time, the huge dining hall began to fill up and soon the sounds of idle chat and the noises of cutlery squeaking on earthenware plates reverberated around its stone walls.
d’Gravernaugh whilst dressing himself in full battle attire, peered out from his slitted window at the ever brightening horizon. By the height of the sun he estimated the hour to be between eight and nine. The morning was cool, but not cold and the skies appeared clear with just a few puffs of pure white cloud scattered here and there. Once dressed, he hungrily attacked his breakfast which had been brought up to him; this he soon devoured and after taking a quick glance around his bed chamber, he purposely strolled out into the hallway. After walking a few paces down the hall he reached another door with guards posted either side of it; the guards stood alert on seeing his approach, standing to attention.
“Report,” demanded d’Gravernaugh, keeping his voice contained and looking to each intently.
“My Lord,” answered one, in a crisp manner. “Nothing to report. The princess has not left her chamber all night.”
d’Gravernaugh grunted an inaudible response and nodded in satisfaction, looking pleased. He reached over to a small side table just to the left of the guard posted there and picked up a sheet of parchment, he then knelt down and slid the parchment underneath the door then stood back up and waited. A soft rustling sound came from behind the door, then the tell-tale click of a lock being gently turned was heard. The door, but gingerly, slightly opened and a kind, middle-aged woman’s face appeared in the gap; she took a quick concerned glance behind her, then turning back round she fixed her eyes on d’Gravernaugh.
“My Lord,” whispered the woman, with an enquiring look.
“Mirvanda, how is the princess?” Asked d’Gravernaugh in a similar whispered voice.
Mirvanda majestically crossed over the door threshold and silently pulled the door behind her – not quite closing it, but holding it firmly against the jamb.
“My Lord,” said Mirvanda, her voice soft and full of motherly concern. “my lady has slept reasonably soundly but woke two times during the night mumbling to herself. I think my lady is having nightmares that are invading the peace of her slumber, making her unrestful. But under the circumstances, until my lady has come to terms with her loss and the responsibilities that have been so violently and unfairly thrust upon her, it is to be expected.”
d’Gravernaugh nodded, grimly staring down to the floor in thought.
“Mirvanda,” he said, looking back up. “I thank you for looking after our princess for me. I place her in your most trusted hands while I am gone. I leave for the castle within the hour, but please do not wake her on my behalf, but rather let her rest for however long she desires. When the princess wakes, bid her my fondest farewell and that I will see her anon.”
“I will see it done, and thank you My Lord,” replied Mirvanda, gracing him with a curtsey. “May the spirit of Emullien keep you safe and free from harm.”
d’Gravernaugh reached out for her free hand and placed a kiss on the back of it and, with a quick courteous bow, hastily departed and headed for the stairs, then down, and on toward the garrison armoury. Mirvanda watched as he disappeared down the stairs then slid quietly back into the bed chamber soundlessly closing the door. The guards remained in their positions just outside.
The garrison armoury was a hive of frenzied activity, full of hustle and bustle when d’Gravernaugh arrived. Weapons such as bows, arrows, longbows, spears, swords, maces, shields, and body armour, were all being inspected then tested for their battle worthy integrity and, having passed the eagle-eyed scrutiny of the armoury master were passed down a long line of waiting soldiers all forming an orderly queue. Once equipped, the soldiers would then peel off and join their respective units assembling in ever increasing numbers outside in the courtyard.
Amid the sea of bodies in the armoury one man towered above everyone else by a good foot, he was proudly barking out orders in gruff tones to the men who, after being looked over once by the giant-like sergeant and, only when he was satisfied by what he saw, were then playfully slapped on the back while he grinned making them involuntarily lunge forward by the force of his affectionate blow sending them on their way. d’Gravernaugh had found who he was looking for and allowed himself a little chuckle while shaking his head over the sergeant’s self-styled antics.
“Sergeant Duncante!” he called out as he approached him. Duncante looked over to where the voice had come from while sending another soldier on his merry way with yet another friendly slap on the back.
“My Lord! My Captain!” Called out the sergeant in greeting. “All is nearly ready, there are but a few more things to see to.”
“Then Hiam, everything looks favourable for us as does the morning itself,” said d’Gravernagh, walking up to him, smiling. “And what of the horses and riders?”
“Already assembled My Lord, they await your coming in the courtyard. I have the mighty Silvermane, your horse of choice waiting for you there, he will not frighten easily in the face of battle.”
d’Gravernaugh, by way of praise, slapped Duncante on his shoulder with a gauntleted hand and nodded his thanks.
“Then I must go and reacquaint myself with him at once. I will see you anon, Hiam,” said d’Gravernaugh turning to leave the armoury.
“My Lord,” cut in Duncante. d’Gravernaugh stopped and swung round to face him.
“What is it Hiam?” He asked.
“I would come with you today,” he said, looking slightly forlorn.
“Then who am I to entrust the safety of the princess to in my absence – let alone the running of the garrison?”
The entire armoury fell silent and everyone stopped what they were doing to listen in on the conversation, all eyes fell upon the two tall figures standing in the middle facing each other.
“My Lord,” pleaded Duncante. “The garrison will be secure and as long as the princess remains within its walls she will be in no danger. I have pledged my sword to protect her, if I may be allowed to come, I will be honouring that pledge. I have a man that I vouch will cover me in my stead, his name is Brynchel, he has my favour and respect.”
“You would personally vouch for this man, Hiam,” d’Gravernaugh asked.
“I do My Lord,” said Duncante with a slow, self assured positive nod of his head.
“Then know this Hiam, you will not be answerable to me if you leave your post, but to the princess herself, she alone will judge you. If it were in any other place than here then I would flatly refuse your request, but faith have I in the garrison’s fortifications that I will grant you your wish. You should go find yourself a horse.”
A huge cheer went up from all inside the armoury, their fearless sergeant, Hiam Duncante, possessing the strength of three men combined, would be joining them in battle. The two men joined hands then raised them above their heads in a unanimous gesture of the expected, glorious victory to come.
“For the princess,” they both shouted, their voices in unison while raising their swords aloft.
“FOR THE PRINCESS!” Came the reply from the entire armoury closely followed by a loud celebratory cheer. d’Gravernaugh then exited the armoury heading for the courtyard, and all the while he heard the volume of Duncante’s booming voice – resuming his orders to the men – gradually diminish to nothing.
A short while later the entire army had assembled in the courtyard waiting for orders to depart. At the head of the column stood d’Gravernaugh’s horse Silvermane who, on seeing his true master approach, lifted his head high in the air out of recognitive delight and shook it wildly making his proud mane dance in the morning sunlight, he then reared up on his hind legs and neighed loudly in excitement; it gave heart to all that watched this touching reunion. d’Gravernaugh rested his forehead against Silvermane’s and spoke to him in a voice that only the horse was able to hear, he then mounted his faithful steed and thanked the stable hand who had hold of the reins. Once he adjusted everything to his liking, d’Gravernaugh, using the stirrups for leverage, pushed up with his legs and looked behind him down and above the long line of waiting soldiers.
“Sergeant Ducante! Report!” He cried out.
A chestnut mare broke rank and came trotting up alongside d’Gravernaugh.
“My Lord, the company is ready and awaits your orders,” confirmed Duncante. “One-hundred and forty-one riders, forty foot soldiers, twenty archers, and four troop carrying carts each pulled by four steeds.”
“Then let us wait no longer,” said d’Gravernaugh. He then looked up at the gate keeper’s station. “Open the gates and lower the drawbridge!”
The huge inward opening double doors of the garrison began to creak and whine as the cogged, chain linked mechanisms engaged taking up the strain and weight of the wheel based heavy doors, pulling, inching them slowly but surely open. The doors had only just started their travel when a female voice shouted out “My Lord! Wait,” from somewhere down the line of the gathered company, this was accompanied by the sound of two pairs of running feet, getting louder, getting closer. A path was cleared and from it, holding up her dress skirt as she ran, emerged the princess. Mirvanda followed close behind. The princess came to an abrupt stop as she reached d’Gravernaugh, heavily panting, fighting for breath and holding Silvermane’s saddle for support. Mirvanda, equally short of breath, also came up alongside and looked up at him apologetically; he gave an understanding nod and gestured with his hand for her not to worry.
“Hold the doors,” he ordered, while looking expectantly at the red faced, panting princess.
“Ma…malor…ma…maa…My Lord!” said the princess, still fighting for breath; she looked hurt coupled by a serious honesty which was plainly written on her face. “You would le-leave without any farewell on such a da-day as this? You are as a far-father to me. What if you should never return, wha-what then would become of me?”
d’Gravernaugh climbed down from his horse, removed his gauntlets, took hold of both her hands, and smiled while looking into her tear-filled eyes. The princess tried to smile back, but for her, emotional fears were now too highly strung, she felt completely overwhelmed by them.
“My Princess Pretty,” he said to her softly. “I would not have it so that I depart from this life without bidding you a last farewell, a day will come when I am called to join the splendour and magnificence of your forefathers kingly palaces, but that day is not yet upon me. I have many more years left with which to bask in the light of your eternal beauty and serve under your reign. This is my pledge, it shall not be broken by me. I did not want you woken before I departed for the castle because I know it in my heart to be true.”
The eyes of the princess were by now streaming with tears, and quite unashamedly too. Her emotions were on display for all her subjects to see, but through it all she managed to smile a smile of love. She removed the gold chain holding the blue stone of Gillion from her neck and reached up and placed it over d’Gravernaugh’s head allowing it to gently fall into place.
“This, My Lord, as you know belonged to my mother,” she said, sniffing. Mirvanda offered her a hanky which she gratefully accepted with shaking hands then used to dry her watery eyes. “I place it in your safe keeping until your return, whenceforth, you will personally give it back to me, do you understand me, Lord d’Gravernaugh?”
“I understand My Lady,” he gave her his trademark subtle wink. “I would not have it any other way.”
“Go then My Lord, reclaim what is rightfully ours, show no mercy to the foulness that would have it taken from us.” The princess suddenly appeared regal and proud once again, her voice resonating loudly around the courtyard. She turned to the waiting company of soldiers and addressed them directly. “Reclaim the castle for southern Gillion! For my father! For the people!”
The company, quite taken aback by this sudden abrupt change in the princess were suddenly inspired and they all started to chant in unison what she had just said, but with one or two additions.
“FOR SOUTHERN GILLION! FOR KING MESTIAN! FOR THE PEOPLE! FOR THE PRINCESS! FOR OUR PRINCESS! FOR OUR QUEEN!”
A tremendous deafening clamour rose up as the company bashed swords against sheilds, soldiers began shouting, bugles and horns rang out with long droning notes, whistles could be heard cutting through the cacophony of sound, everyone present began making a noise with whatever means they could find. Mirvanda grabbed the princess’s arm and pulled her back from the host into a wooden hut situated nearby, once there, they both covered up their ears and watched as the gate mechanisms started up again. Once the gates were fully open the drawbridge came down with a steadily solid, well oiled, motorised motion. When the drawbridge reached the ground, a deathly silence ensued.
All eyes in the company faced forward as strong daylight flooded into the courtyard almost bleaching everything white. The horse’s heads began to rock up and down, side to side, some neighed softly as if self-conscious that they would break the meditative silence by doing it any louder; all were waiting patiently for the command. d’Gravernaugh, now back astride Silvermane, looked over at the princess and Mirvanda who by now had uncovered their ears and were also captivated by the moment; they stood stock still like statues. He gave them both a bow then raised his hand in preparation.
“Royal company! We now take back what is ours! Move out!”
The two women solemnly witnessed the passing company of the royal guard, and as each line came up level to the princess, they would show their respect by way of a salute. What seemed like an age later the procession had all passed through the gates and onward to the Griven via the hidden secret pathway which led out of the marshes. The drawbridge was raised and the huge doors closed. Mirvanda led them both back to the royal chamber where she knew a tense waiting game was about to begin for the young, frightened princess.
The royal company of guards made good progress through the Griven by way of a steady trot, and now they were three quarters of the way through it; at no time did they sight any enemy near or far. d’Gravernaugh ordered two scouts to gallop ahead to spy out the castle grounds from the surrounding hills with instruction not to engage the enemy, but to return post-haste with anything they could glean by mere line of sight. The company halted just after the scouts had left, they were now within half a mile of the castle. The ground troops (archers and foot soldiers) alighted from their carts and unattached the sixteen horses that pulled them – these would now form an augmented part of the mounted company, half going to the archers, and the other half to the foot soldiers.
d’Gravernaugh ordered them into formation, mounted guards leading, foot soldiers following, and archers behind them bringing up the rear. Soon the two scouts returned and reported to their captain.
“My Lord,” said one. “The castle is riddled by the filth of the demonic beasts, they roam freely without purpose or reason. From our vantage point we could not tell with any certainty just how many may be inside the castle itself, but we have seen at least a dozen outside.”
“Did you see the King’s body at the foot of the gates?” Asked d’Gravernaugh.
“It is not easy to say one way or other My Lord, it is total carnage down there. From the distance we observed the scene from, everything merged into one red carpet of blood stained grass.”
“Very well, good work. Rejoin your fellow riders.”
The two scouts did as instructed and rejoined their unit.
“Right! Hear me!” Barked d’Gravernaugh looking around at his company. “We know not the number of the foulness which infests the castle, but we now know that at least a dozen inhabit the grounds. We do have some element of surprise in our favour so let us use it to full advantage. If we can pick some off, or indeed all from the hillside with archers, that will greatly reduce the immediate number that we must face, it is then my hope that any disturbance detected by the beasts inside will serve to draw them out into the open and, if fortune be on our side it will draw them all out for us to slaughter.”
He paused, training his sight in the direction of the castle while he considered options. He swung his head back around and faced the company again.
“I want two flanks of archers protected by two flanks of foot soldiers, two flanks of ten horsemen to cover the soldiers. Archers, get as near as you are able without making yourselves too exposed, seek out the nearest trees. When you no longer have clear targets in sight support the advancing foot soldiers and horsemen from the back. The rest, follow my lead in two groups of sixty from a central position. Sergeant Duncante! You and your unit will form the second group, you will have a free rein to do as you much damage as you can once I throw the hammer down.”
“Ha ha ha,” bellowed Duncante with relish as he wielded his gigantic mace in his huge hands and spun it around above his head as if it were as light as wood. “Just let me at the foul little beauties, tis all I ask My Lord.”
The company laughed heartily, buoyed by the sergeant’s fearless courage.
“Quietly now,” said d’Gravernaugh as he gave the signal to advance and led the way forward. It wasn’t too long until they had reached the very same grassy ledge which he and the princess had jumped down from the previous morning. He gave silent hand signals to his horsemen to go round using the ramped paths which ran either side of the grassy ledge; everyone else on foot managed to scramble up by any means they could. A short time later, they all reassembled and then formed their attack lines and silently advanced to the crest of the hill overlooking the castle grounds. The archers, foot soldiers, and horsemen then broke off left and right of the main party and made their way forward and down heading for the lowest trees that grew around the castle. d’Gravernaugh acknowledged the two units as they signalled back that all was ready, he then guided Silvermane to the crest of the hill and stared down at the scene below; he signalled for the company to follow up behind him.
d’Gravernaugh watched several of the creatures below as they meandered aimlessly around not appearing to have any purpose or reason to remain there. A look of disgust formed upon his face as he looked to either side of the waiting horsemen who then responded with facial gestures of equal distaste. With a quick look behind, d’Gravernaugh nodded to Duncante who looked back at him through the eyes of blood lust while sporting a stupid grin on his face.
d’Gravernaugh lifted his sword high in the air, he looked downward at the gathered archers at either side then dropped his sword arm down.
The retaking of the royal castle of southern Gillion in the name of princess Prittie Landannen began.
The skilled archers all picked their targets and let loose their arrows; d’Gravernaugh watched as most of them hit and sent the demonic beasts into an agonised frenzy, they all shrieked their terrible guttural roar, shocked by the sudden piercing pain now entering their bodies. The archers sent out a second volley of arrows which killed many of the already wounded beasts and severely maimed others. The beasts that had not taken any damage started to charge towards the direction the arrows had come from, the archers fired off arrows at their approach then held back as the foot soldiers prepared to engage them. Spears were thrown by the riders which found most of their intended targets leaving two on one side, and one on the other; the foot soldiers as a unit handed them a quick and instant death.
Sounds were then heard coming from inside the castle as if answering the roars from the wounded outside. From his vantage point d’Gravernaugh witnessed a sudden outpouring of creatures from the main gates. The exact number he could not tell, they all looked around in a seemingly bewildered way as they passed through the entrance way not knowing or understanding what had taken place. The emerging creatures began to bellow their terrible guttural roars in reaction to their unknown, unseen assailants.
d’Gravernaugh’s strategy had worked, more and more of the foul beasts came flooding out into the open for all to see; they were met with raining arrows as the archers continued their unrelenting assault upon them.
“It is time!” Shouted d’Gravernaugh. “No more hiding, let us show ourselves to these foul beasts. Buglers, sound the charge! Duncante! Remain here and wait for my signal.”
The echoing call to attack went out from either side of the royal guard.
“FOR THE PRINCESS!” Boomed d’Gravernaugh as the proud Silvermane sped off into a full gallop, leading the charge. The demons all looked up as the sixty riders came thundering down the hill causing the ground around them to shake and tremble. The snarling beasts, with pure hatred in their blood red eyes, looked to the attacking guards with an evil relish and began to move forward to meet them in battle. Just before the riders came down upon the beasts, they all shouted their battle cries and let loose their spears which caused horrible injuries or instant death to the enemy. Many of them fell as the riders, with the sound of crunching bone and death howls, crashed through the demons, their swords in hand dealing out slashing cuts as they passed through the hoard.
The riders regrouped then turned about for the second charge; over half of the enemy now laid dead or mortally wounded. d’Gravernaugh was about to order the second assault when more loud roars came from inside the castle then suddenly, another screaming hoard of demons appeared; the first wave of riders were now caught in the middle.
“Sound for reinforcements!” Cried d’Gravernaugh. The buglers sent up their calls which were answered by the waiting party on the crest of the hill; they thundered down to join the fray with Duncante leading.
“Riders, spill out to the sides, give Duncante a clear path!” Shouted d’Gravernaugh. His company obeyed and raced out to the clearing at either side drawing the enemy to them. The guards held their ground as best they could as the demons came upon them, some were knocked off their steeds by pouncing demons, jumping at the riders, others dismounted and engaged in close combat.
The riders and soldiers up on the hills also came down to lend support as Duncante’s company came crashing down upon the hoard. After their initial spear attack, Duncante’s party had devasted the enemy and were now hacking and slashing at any target they could find. Duncante dismounted, and by use of his gigantic mace began to crush the skulls of any demon that dared face him, his men followed suit and assisted their Sergeant with swords and shield. d’Gravernaugh’s company now closed in from their flanking positions at either side forming an impenetrable barrier of horses that held the enemy enclosed; they were now totally surrounded.
With courage and gritty determination the soldiers held the enemy at bay while the thrust and parry of frenzied battle went on around them. Ducnate, acting like a man possessed, was cutting down everything in his path and all of his men around him were given heart by his show of bravery. Time and again the royal guard regrouped to renew their assault on the ever-dwindling number of fell beasts, and time and again Ducante called upon his men for one last push forward. Likewise, d’Gravernaugh led his men by example as he drove the beasts back, hacking and slashing at all that came near him. Just like the morning when the king had fallen, the ground surrounding the castle once again ran red with blood, but the tables had been turned and this time d’Gravernaugh stood victorious alongside his soldiers.
d’Gravernaugh’s royal guard had slain all of the demonic hoard, they all laid dead, piled up amid a sea of blood, torn limbs, severed heads, and ghastly entrails that gave off an unpleasant reek which turned up the noses of the royal guard in disgust. Good fortune had so fell upon the royal guard that no one had died in the battle, but several of the men had sustained nasty injuries and were being tended to by their fellow comrades.
All was now dead quiet apart from the birds who now began to sing once again as if out of celebration for the royal guard’s victory. d’Gravernaugh surveyed the bloody aftermath, gently panting for breath as he recovered from his physical exertions. He looked proudly upon the men of his guard as the sun burst forth from behind a cloud shining its light upon their faces making them appear angelic.
Silvermane trotted up to him and nudged him with his long head, he gave the horse an affectionate pat on his neck.
“My trusty friend,” he said to Silvermane. “Today is a good day to be alive, I am glad you are here to share it with me.”
Silvermane neighed and shook his head wildly causing d’Gravernaugh to laugh loudly. He then turned round to face his men.
“Duncante!” Front!” He barked.
The sergeant came lumbering up in response.
“Time for you to resume your duty at the garrison.” said d’Gravernaugh, taking his arm in a friendly grip. “Long may you be of service to southern Gillion, you are a hero amongst men.” The entire army let out a cheer on hearing this.
“Go now, go back to the garrison. Take two riders of your choice for company and report to the princess with what has befallen here today. Tell her we have retaken the royal castle and tell her – from me: I told you so! Understand?”
“I will My Lord,” replied the sergeant. “And you?”
“I will remain here and organise the clearing up and repairs, there is much to do.”
The sergeant bowed and took his leave of d’Gravernaugh. He chose two riders and with a loud farewell to the company, he sped off up the hillside toward the Griven and out of sight.
“Men! I want the wounded taken into the castle and tended to, then all take some rest – we have much to do before the sun sets.”
He then walked toward the main gates in search of the dead king.