The horns from the city gate blasted out their call, the citizens of Pendar spilling out into the streets to see what terrible event had befallen their army. The young dwarf Relysis stood atop the wall next to his mother waiting for the soldiers to enter the gate. They were at the gate visiting his father, a captain of the home guard assigned to securing the portcullis. Peering between the battlements, Relysis could see the army approaching. The dwarves all had the hoods of their cloaks pulled up, their faces hidden as they crossed the bridge below him. At the center of the detail, they bore with them a litter, the body covered with a simple non-ornate blanket. Following along, immediately behind, was the pony of the dwarf king, Orvald Karan, its saddle empty.
Relysis tried to run to the inner wall but his mother, sobbing, held him fast to keep him out from underfoot. Men scrambled to their posts along the wall and messengers were sent to alert King Rommel Ellingstone. Relysis finally pulled away from his mother’s grasp when the way was clear, running across to see the dwarves. Hoods cast, they were forming up in the courtyard, lining the roadway to receive their fallen king into the city. Upon seeing the body of the king pass below him in the courtyard, Relysis instinctively moved to pull his hood over his head, struck by the moment and vowing to someday bring justice to the gnomes who had slain his king.
The funeral lasted a week, as was dwarf custom. Throughout the entire city, men and dwarf alike were in mourning. Shortly after Orvald Karan was laid to rest with his ancestors in the tombs of the ancient mountain city of Zoisite, the dwarf council met with King Rommel to determine the ascension to the dwarf half of the shared throne of Pendar. Orvald was without an heir so the council voted against elevating one of their own in exchange for the highest cabinet position on the council, and so it became that the two races combined to be one.
Pendar remained strong and united for the next hundred plus years without being threatened … until now….
Stephen watched from his balcony as the first of many wagons laden with possessions and provisions left through the gates of the thick granite walls. Mothers, with their children perched atop the loads, guided teams of oxen in the absence of their husbands. A smaller security detail than Stephen felt comfortable with, was escorting the caravan up into the mountains. It was all the soldiers they could spare while still leaving enough behind to defend the city walls when the gnomes arrived. No news from the front lines had arrived for two days now and he felt it could not be good news that they were being spared. A noise behind him broke his train of thought and he turned just in time to see little Prince Edward scurrying to hide behind the tapestry that hung on the wall of Stephen’s chambers.
“What was that?” Stephen pondered aloud for the child’s sake. “Could that have been that pesky rat that I saw in the dungeon the other day?” A little giggle from the bulging tapestry confirmed that it was no rat, but rather the self-proclaimed hide-n-seek champion of the palace.
Edward hadn’t quite figured out that usually the adults he was hiding from were not really looking for him, or were merely letting him entertain himself. Stephen walked over to the lump in the tapestry and nudged it gently with the toe of his boot.
“Well, it feels like a rat, but it’s awfully big. Maybe I should call the castle watch and they can come up here and drag it back down to the dungeon where it belongs.” Stephen knew that Edward wasn’t particularly fond of the old dungeon, damp and dark as it was. Edward had insisted on following him down there on an occasion or two and had clung to his pant leg afraid of being left behind. It wasn’t used in its intended capacity anymore, and had been converted instead into a root cellar to keep stores for the palace kitchen.
“Oh look, it’s a little boy!” Stephen exclaimed in mock astonishment as the little prince immediately jumped up from his hiding position.
“Hi, Uncle Stephen. Mommy sent me to fetch you down to breakfast. She says you need to eat so you grow up big like Daddy.” He announced in his most important sounding voice, clearly trying to convey his mother’s tone.
“Are you sure she didn’t mean that you needed to eat your breakfast so that you could grow up big like your dad and not me?” The innocence of the child gladdened his heart. Edward just stared at him, not sure how his uncle could misunderstand the directions. “Come on Edward, I’m sure breakfast is just the thing for both of us.” Stephen scooped the boy up into his arms and threw him across his shoulder like a sack of potatoes as he left his chambers en route to the dining hall. Maybe the queen was right about not leaving the city. He sure would miss this little guy if he was sent off to the mountain fortress.
Stephen’s day was filled with meetings followed by more meetings. The first such meeting was immediately after breakfast with the city defense council, followed by one with the troop commander in charge of the next caravan of evacuees scheduled to leave tomorrow. Those meetings took up his morning and after lunch he met with the palace chief of staff to determine the needs of those staying behind after all others had been moved to the mountain fortress. After that, a steady stream of various individuals met with him concerning matters that hadn’t even crossed his mind. He understood that people would be looking to him for answers in his brother’s absence but it was beginning to wear him down. He never envied Samuel’s position on the throne, and a day like this only served to reinforce his contentment at being the younger brother. Thinking of his brother reminded him that no messenger from the battle had arrived today and that could only mean one of two things. A knock at the door brought him back to the task at hand and he invited the caller to enter.
“Your Highness,” Eloise curtsied as she addressed Stephen. “The palace staff is gathering for a last meal together before most of us leave in the morning and we would like to request your presence.”
“I would love to Eloise. It will probably be one of the last good meals we have once the army chefs take over in the kitchen. I don’t believe their pastries will compare favorably to your own. I would also like the opportunity to say ‘good-bye’ to that little rascal of yours, Bernard. I wish Marie would take Edward and go with you. Those two little guys are going to miss each other.”
“Thank you, Your Highness. We too will miss the Ellingstone family, and believe me your family will be in our thoughts while we are away. I must be to my chores now. Dinner will be ready in twenty minutes.” With that said, she curtsied again and left the room, closing the door behind her as she scurried back to the kitchen.
Those twenty minutes, he thought, would give him enough time to straighten the papers on his desk and scribble down a couple of thoughts that he had concerning the cities defenses and items that he wanted to talk about with the committee in the morning.
Dinner was a little more somber than he had anticipated and he couldn’t wait to finish the affair. ‘Good-byes’ were exchanged with all and a few tears shed by the queen and her personal attendants. When Stephen sensed that things were winding down, he stood.
“I want you all to know that I realize that the days ahead will be hard and trying. When you are feeling down, just hold onto the knowledge that Samuel, and our army will turn back the enemy in the end. Then we will all gather again in this hall and celebrate our victory. I want to leave you with that hope to get you through the days to come. I know that everyone has much to do tomorrow so I would suggest that we all get a good night’s rest. Good night, keep yourselves safe in the days to come. Like I said, we will meet again in this very hall in a short time.” He turned and left the room, afraid someone would notice the tears welling in the corner of his eyes. They needed to see strength and courage from him now, not doubt.
On his way to his chambers, he came across Prince Edward and his friend Bernard playing in the hallway. They were dressed as soldiers with their toy wooden swords strapped about their waists and capes trailing behind. Stephen could tell some plans were being conceived by the pair as they huddled together and whispered. They didn’t realize the point of whispering fully and were letting any chance of secrecy evaporate as they talked loud enough for Stephen to hear most of what the plan entailed. As best as he could tell from the portion he overheard, the plan involved sneaking down to the courtyard where they expected to encounter the Black Knight. They planned to swiftly subdue him and bring him to justice and this war to a close. With the war over, Bernard would be able to stay with his friend at the castle and the two wouldn’t have to part. Stephen had to admit their plan, in theory, was what needed to be done. If only Orgle and his gnome horde could be dealt with so easily.
He hated to break up this planning session but decided, unless he wanted to be searching the courtyard by torchlight for these two protectors of the kingdom, he better send them along to bed.
“Good evening, Knights of Pendar. I hate to interrupt your plans to rid the world of evil, but it is getting late and the world must wait until tomorrow before it is saved. You both must run along to your own rooms before your mothers find you roaming the halls. They are coming right behind me.”
Without a word, only a glance between them, they broke off and each ran off to their own bedchambers. Stephen chuckled to himself. These two who were bold enough to attempt the capture of the dreaded Black Knight, yet felt their mothers were far more dangerous. He watched as they disappeared down the hall and then found his way to his own chambers. He changed into his bedclothes after glancing over a couple reports. Ready for bed, he stepped to the window and looked down at the walls surrounding the castle. The guards were visible as they crossed into areas lit by torches along the walkways atop the walls. Darkness had enveloped the landscape and a quiet calm settled over the city that had been bustling with activity since dawn. His gaze lifted towards the city walls and beyond, looking for any signal that would announce a messenger bringing word from his brother. With a resigned sigh, he turned from the window hoping to find sleep and rest tonight. He just missed the shadowy form that dropped from atop the wall into the castle courtyard below.
Marie found her young son lying atop the sheets of his bed, still wearing his cape and his sword belted about his waist. She moved him enough to get his belt off then tucked him beneath the covers without disturbing his slumber. Leaning the sword next to the bed so he could find it in the morning, she stooped and kissed him lightly on the cheek. His eyes blinked open long enough to return her kiss. After giving her a hug, dropped back into his peaceful sleep. Marie smiled down at her precious little boy and her thoughts went to his father.
Where was Samuel now? How much longer could he hold off the gnome horde? She knew it was futile to try and answer these questions and would only cause her another sleepless night lying awake and imagining the worst; guessing at what was transpiring on the battlefield. She patted the boy on the head and headed for her own room where she ended up lying in bed and forcing herself to think of better times to come. In her mind Samuel was with her and Edward and they spent their days enjoying time together. Edward played, his youthful energy tiring out his parents just by watching him. She drifted off to thoughts of her family and slept peacefully for the first night in days.
The cloaked figure glided from cover to cover. The courtyard was dark now except where torchlight from the wall above illuminated patches on the ground. The small spots of light were spaced about and easily avoided, almost as easily as the guards on the city and castle walls had been. The patrols walking the streets of the city weren’t aware they had an unannounced visitor. That was how he felt about himself; someone who could go where he wanted without anyone knowing of his passage; an unannounced visitor. Often, he was neither welcome nor invited, but a visitor nonetheless. He stepped in the shadows as two of the kitchen staff passed on their way home. They noticed nothing out of the ordinary as they passed within arm’s length of the late night visitor, their eyes not yet adjusted to the night. They talked together as they passed his hiding place and he learned what he could from their casual conversation. It appeared from what they said that the palace staff was off until morning and that all the residents of the castle had turned in for the night, which meant fewer chances for someone to mark his passing and announce his presence. A smile almost creased his face.
The shadowy figure moved forward now that the courtyard was vacant again. Moving quickly, he stopped with his back pressed against the castle wall. He scanned the area behind him and atop the walls, assuring himself that he remained undetected. Once he was confident his presence was still a secret, he looked up for the window he had deemed the best point of entry. He’d spent a few hours perched atop a building across the square watching the castle, its inhabitants, and their movements. It was a ground floor window, which his experience told him usually wouldn’t be used as sleeping quarters, and it had remained dark since he began his silent vigil. He slid along the wall several paces until he found himself crouched below the window. His position, hidden from the sightlines of the guards atop the walls by the many trees that grew in the courtyard, only made his task easier.
It was a deadly mistake to get ahead of oneself and think an assignment easier than it really was. His discipline forged through years of training reasserted itself and he stopped, scanning his surroundings once again for potential resistance. His diligence proved justified as a foot patrol entered the courtyard in route to the kitchen for a late night meal. They traveled the same pathway the kitchen help had just used when they exited the courtyard. They too passed without noticing the visitor. He no longer needed to worry about another patrol entering the courtyard because he knew it was unlikely that more than one patrol would be relieved to eat at the same time. As soon as the patrol disappeared into the castle, he went about getting inside.
A small dagger appeared suddenly in his hand and he used it to pry open the window, quickly levering himself up and through the window with barely a rustle of his cloak. Once inside he crouched low, his back to the wall, and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark interior of the room. A quick scan of his surrounds revealed that he had found his way into the royal library. There were books on the shelves about the perimeter of the room. Crossing the room, he could see notes still spread out across the nearby table along with several maps. They were the defensive strategies for the city. He shook his head. Those making the plans for the city’s defenses had no idea of what was coming; Orgle and his army couldn’t be stopped.
He shook his head again. This was not his concern. He moved along to the door. There was no time to contemplate the future of this castle. He knew that time was his enemy tonight, but he also knew that being patient was his only defense against discovery. An alarm now meant almost certain death for him. And although intimately familiar with death, he was not looking forward to his own. Avoidance would be the key to his success and he concentrated intently on the noises that came through the night to his trained ears. The hall outside the library door was quiet and no light showed through at the bottom of the door indicating that the hall was dark and quiet.
He cracked the door open. Sliding into the hall, he found it as empty as he’d assumed it would be. He stole down the hall looking for a stairway to bring him to the upper levels and the sleeping chambers. The castle was large and it took a few minutes to locate a stairway that would serve his purpose. It was sparsely lit with wall-mounted torches that would reveal his presence to any that happened by. He could tell from where he crouched that the kitchen was not far away. The patrol that had passed in the courtyard was still making noise fixing their meal and he suspected, based on the castle layout, that when they were finished in there they would be passing this way when they left to continue their rounds. A quick assessment of the situation had him gliding silently to the top of the stairs on his soft leather soled boots. It would be safer at the top of the stairs should the patrol came out of the kitchen.
He found himself in a dimly lit corridor with a single torch burning at the far end of the hall. It was laid out poorly from his perspective, for it left him vulnerable. His form would be silhouetted should someone come along behind him. This was becoming an increasingly difficult task and time was slipping away from him. The royal staff would be up early to begin the day’s chores and the more people moving about made his situation much more precarious. Hurrying down the hall, scanning the doorways he passed, he was keenly aware that at any moment he could be detected in the open hallway with no immediate access to an exit. Suddenly he stopped, placing his hand gently against wood. This was the door he sought.
It was worn in manner to suggest that it was handled roughly, likely kicked open routinely. If it was a room at the tavern, it would go without notice, but this was in the royal palace and that wouldn’t be permitted. There was most likely another cause for the wear pattern. It fit the description of his target and he pushed the door open enough to allow entrance and slipped inside. Shutting the door behind him, he stopped to listen for any sound of disturbance from the person sleeping within. The slow steady rhythm continued uninterrupted and he advanced. Noting the window at the head of the bed, he quickly determined that it would be his primary escape route. Letting his highly trained body and mind take over, he strode across the room. His instincts were controlling his thoughts and actions, and stopping to think would only slow his response.
A small sword leaning against the bed nearly proved his undoing. Grabbing the toy as it toppled towards the floor, having felt the weight against his toe as he accidentally nudged it from its resting place. There was no room for error on this job; it demanded absolute secrecy. He was starting to feel uneasy and he forced his mind to refocus. He pulled his dagger from its sheath nestled within the sleeve of his cloak and bent down over the child, who unaware of the cloaked presence looming above him, continued to sleep peacefully.