The Unbidden Guest
As night came, the silence upon the streets of Middanhal was occasionally broken by boots walking on cobbled stones; moving two hundred men into position could not be done without noise. However, the many buildings gave cover and prevented the defenders of the Citadel from observing the soldiers of Isarn approaching the great fortress. In small groups, they filtered towards the gates of the castle undetected.
To the south, the men under Ernulf kept their distance; the Arnsweg ended in front of the gate and gave a broad, open area where they would instantly be spotted if they moved forward too soon. To the north, those following Ulfrik could approach much closer. Some went along the city walls to the fortified passageways between the fortifications and the Citadel; the rest crept closer by moving from building to building until a hundred men were scattered in a wide arc to surround the northern gate of the Citadel.
Once in position, an eerie mood spread. Every man was tense, and the anticipation of battle loomed heavily. No words were spoken, no smiles were seen, only resolute expressions mixed with the occasional anxiety. The tension was made worse by the uncertainty. All eyes were on the northern gate in hopes of seeing it open, in hopes that with one blow, the Citadel could be taken. Yet nothing happened.
The moon was still all but invisible, but the stars moved slowly across the sky as the only measurement of time that the would-be attackers had. Impatiently, Ulfrik stood moving his neck from side to side, rolling his shoulders, weighing the heavy two-handed axe in his hands, constantly glancing up.
“It is past midnight,” he finally growled, “and nothing. This smells like a trap.”
“What do we do, captain?” asked the nearby thane who acted as his second-in-command.
“We give Ernulf his chance. Make some noise, men!” Ulfrik exclaimed, roaring the final sentence.
The sudden disturbance of the night silence passed like an ethereal tidal force through his soldiers, breaking the tension. It took a moment before they caught on; then they roared battle cries and banged their weapons against their shields, stomping their boots as they moved around to give the impression that many hundred soldiers hid among the buildings.
South of the Citadel, Ernulf and his men heard the sounds too. Turning towards the engineer, who stood ready by the ballista, the thane nodded. “It’s time,” he told the man from Fontaine. Two of Ernulf’s soldiers pushed the ballista forward into the open street by the Citadel walls with the remaining men surrounding the siege machinery; meanwhile, the short engineer prepared the munition.
The Citadel had two major towers, dominating the others in size and height. Respectively they lay at the northern and southern end of the main cluster of buildings that comprised the central construction of the fortress; they served as small headquarters for the garrison. One tower had easy access to the northern castle walls, the other to the southern. When fully manned, each would hold hundreds of soldiers, constantly moving to or from patrols of the fortifications, and the rest stood ready to respond to any threats arising while they were on duty.
With the garrison starved for men, only twenty could be spared in either tower. However, on this particular night another fifty had been added to their numbers in the northern tower. They were kingthanes all along with Berimund and Theobald. Despite his bad leg, the captain of the Citadel was restless. He moved about, limping slightly, and occasionally he took a seat only to momentarily afterwards get up again. At the great noise and clamour raised by Ulfrik’s soldiers, every man in the northern tower leapt to attention. All grabbed or unsheathed their weapons and ran out towards the northern walls. Reaching them, no enemy was in sight, however; no foes had breached the fortifications. The soldiers guarding the gate stood bewildered, shrugging in ignorance as Theobald reached them.
Elsewhere, Ernulf and his men moved into position. The few sentinels nearby spotted them and began raising cries of alarm, but the noise from the north deafened it. A climbing hook, attached to a long length of rope, was loaded by the engineer into the ballista with the other end of the rope tied to the machine. Taking aim, the engineer moved a few levers and released its power. The hook and rope shot upwards into an arch, landing perfectly against the crenellations. Immediately archers on the ground began shooting at any defenders approaching the hook, preventing them from removing it.
A soldier grabbed the rope and pulled back, ensuring that the hook had a safe grip. Untying the other end of the rope from the ballista, the soldier ran forward towards the wall and began scaling it, pulling himself up while bracing his feet against the wall. Behind him, other soldiers immediately followed suit, climbing up the fortifications as well. Further behind, the engineer loaded the ballista with the next hook and took aim.
In the southern tower, its garrison of twenty men was dispersed in various activities; some were playing dice, a few talking and drinking diluted ale, one man repairing his shirt with needle and thread. Fionn was there as well, commanding the small garrison; he was sharpening his meat knife with a small whetstone. “What was that?” a soldier exclaimed, who had been gnawing on a carrot. The clamour and clangs of battle, although faint, had reached them.
“They’re attacking the northern gate,” Fionn replied. He was frowning, but he made no signs to move.
“Shouldn’t we reinforce, sir?” asked the soldier sewing up his shirt. He held the needle straight ahead as if it were a weapon.
“We have our post to man,” Fionn said, shaking his head. “We cannot leave.”
“But you’re a knight,” argued another. “You can command us.”
“Captain told me to stand fast,” Fionn retorted. “The boys at the other tower have their task, we have ours.”
“But they’re only twenty men,” objected the man with the needle. “How can they hold out on their own?”
“They are seventy,” Fionn corrected. “They will hold.”
“Seventy? You knew there would be an attack on the northern gate?” somebody asked.
“We suspected,” Fionn explained. “Though it seemed unlikely. We did not want to start rumours.”
“But what if they cannot hold?” insisted one of the dice players. “Twenty men may make the difference, milord. What if the castle falls while we sit here?”
“We have our orders,” Fionn said, though his voice wavered.
“Then give us new ones,” urged another. “We can’t sit here while the others are fighting and dying.”
Their conversation was interrupted by a soldier sprinting into the common room. “Enemies on the walls,” he panted.
“We know,” Fionn said gruffly. “Northern garrison is there.”
“Not north,” the soldier managed to spit out. “South, here. On the walls.”
Fionn stood up abruptly. “They are here? Near us?”
“What if it’s a trick, sir?” someone asked. “You said you knew they would attack the northern gate. They could be distracting us, keep us from helping them.”
“No, they’re here,” said the soldier who had arrived last.
“You have seen them with your own eyes?” Fionn asked sharply.
Fionn drew his sword. “If the enemy is south, we go south. I am tired of having a clean sword,” he proclaimed and hastened out the tower, followed by his men.
Reaching the fortifications and moving along them towards the Isarn soldiers, dozens of men could be spotted ahead by Fionn. If he had leaned over the side of the parapet, he would also have been able to see the same number of soldiers scaling the walls, and many more standing ready on the ground to take the trip as well. The knight’s attention was on those protecting the climbing hooks, however, helping their comrades reach the top of the walls. Discovering Fionn and his soldiers approaching, the men of Isarn turned to face them.
The three closest soldiers seemed fresh-faced peasant boys with little weapon training. The climb had not allowed them to bring spears, and only one had his shield with him. Furthermore, they did not even grasp how to spread out properly along the width of the wall, and they ended up facing the knight one by one. Fionn had a sword as they did, and he had his shield; added to that, he was a warrior hardened by battle and trained in weaponry since the age of seven. They did not even slow his momentum as he moved past them, and his sword needed only to strike thrice; then they all lay dead and Fionn faced the fourth attacker without having lost speed.
Fionn’s next adversary had the trappings of a thane, and he held his weapons with understanding. Both struck at the other man without inflicting wounds. Seeing that he dealt with a stronger foe, Fionn opted for different tactics. The thane wore greaves to protect his shins, but the back of his legs had only leather. The knight dropped to one knee and swept out his sword, just enough that the tip could tore through the tendons of the thane’s ankle. With an agonising yell, the wounded man fell to his knees. As he got up to stand, Fionn pushed his sword through the thane’s open mouth, pulled it back, and glanced forward.
The remaining soldiers stood grouped together, shields side by side and with more Isarn soldiers constantly climbing over the battlement to join them. Glancing back at his soldiers, Fionn gestured with his sword for them to advance. “Forward, men! There are beasts for the butchering tonight,” he said with a fell smile. “The Star!” he yelled as his battle cry, raising his sword high before he charged, followed by his men.
The sounds of battle had its effect on not only the soldiers in the garrison towers, but everybody who was inside the Citadel. All over the castle, men leapt out of bed and rushed towards the source of the disruption while putting mail shirts on and girding their sword belts. From the other towers and garrison posts, the soldiers gazed anxiously towards where the fighting unfolded, but none of them had the authority to abandon their position. With no visibility, they could not even watch the combat unfold; their only option was to pray and resist the urge to leave their post.
In his tower, Quill also woke. With a fearful expression on his face, he rushed into the library hall and towards the window that overlooked the southern courtyard. However, he could espy nothing in the darkness; instead, he grabbed the latch and pulled the window open. Immediately, the hitherto muffled, distorted sounds that had awakened him became vivid, evoking images of steel striking steel and men filled with battle lust.
Quill quickly pushed the window shut. He tried once more to look through its glass and gain any glimpse of events unfolding, but still to no avail. There were only a few torches outside within his field of vision that brought any light; they all belonged to the soldiers standing guard on the towers and battlements, and none of them moved or indicated that they were being attacked. Whatever assault was being made, Quill could gain no knowledge of it.
He gave a start as somebody banged on the heavy door to the tower. With cautious steps, Quill approached as the banging continued, and eventually he heard voices too. Quickly turning the key, Quill opened the door and found a score of kitchen girls standing in the corridor with Kate in front. Opening the door wide, Quill gestured for them to hurry inside; once the last girl, one of the eldest who had pushed the small ones in front of her, had entered, Quill slammed the door shut and locked it again.
Having been in the tower before, the girls were less intimidated by its interior, and they scattered to find seats on the chairs and benches available. A few moved towards the window to gaze out, but they soon abandoned it when they had as little luck as Quill.
“Let me light a few candles,” Quill mumbled, opening the glass cabinets that contained the only source of open fire allowed in the library. “There we are, much better,” he said satisfied as light soon spread through the hall.
“It’s nice up here,” one girl commented. “You can’t really hear all the noise outside,” she nodded approving.
“It’s very good for reading,” Kate said, nodding as well. “Very peaceful.”
“What’s it like to read?” another asked. “Does it hurt your eyes?”
“You get a little tired, maybe,” Kate replied casually. “It’s well worth it though. It’s like somebody telling you a story, except you decide when. You just open a book and you get the story right there, straight to you.”
“I don’t understand,” a younger member of their company said, who was staring at an open book lying on a desk. “There are no pictures, just little lines. Where’s the story?”
“You must learn the secret of reading,” Kate explained with a voice overflowing with satisfaction. “These are letters, they tell you the words. Here at the front,” she said, grabbing one end of the book to show its cover, “is the title. The Knight’s – The Knight’s –” Kate read aloud, stumbling as she reached the word ‘Codex’. “This is a boring book, you don’t want this one,” she said dismissively, letting go of it again.
“How about,” Quill said loudly, grabbing the attention of everyone present, “that I choose a book. And you all gather here rather than rummage about through all my rooms and shelves. This one,” he suggested, taking a small book and sitting down on a bench. Quickly, the girls crowded around him. “Holgast and the Duke’s Dinner,” the scribe read out the title as he opened the book by the first page. “Though I think in most parts it is actually known as The Unbidden Guest.”
“What’s a duke?” somebody asked.
“A nobleman from Ealond. Almost as powerful as their king,” Quill explained.
“Like a jarl?” Kate suggested quickly.
“Yes, you might say that,” Quill smiled.
“Who’s Holgast? I don’t think I know him, does he work in the kitchens?” one of the smaller girls wondered.
“Doubtful,” Quill said amused. “This book is over a hundred years old, the story even more so.”
“Does it have pictures?” the youngest girl asked.
“No, but I am confident your imagination will suffice,” Quill said. Hurrying before further questions arose, he raised his hand to command silence, cleared his throat, and began to read.
“Once, a wanderer was walking the road between Fontaine and Tricaster. He looked most ordinary. A walking staff in his hand, a heavy cloak to shield him from wind and rain, and a cap for when the sun shone in his face…”
Half an hour later, the captain of the Citadel finally heard word that the southern walls had been assaulted. Nothing had happened on the northern gate; no attacks had been attempted, but Theobald had not dared to move his soldiers away when the enemy was clearly right outside. The noise caused by Ulfrik’s men had served its purpose as a diversion and obscured what happened elsewhere. Eventually, a guard came from the south to alert the captain. Splitting his forces, Theobald took twenty-five kingthanes with him. He ignored his limp and managed to move with astonishing alacrity through the Citadel until he could walk out onto the southern fortifications.
Theobald found Fionn cleaning his sword, surrounded by numerous bodies. Most wore Isarn colours, though some had the starry surcoat of the Order. “What happened here?”
“Climbing hooks, they tried to take the wall,” Fionn explained, sheathing his sword. “We repulsed them.”
“How many were they?” Theobald asked.
“Think we killed fifty or so before the rest gave up. It was not a full assault,” the knight replied with a casual voice. “More like testing our ability to repel them. We lost eleven ourselves. And you?”
“Nothing,” The captain shook his head. “Only noise. A distraction.”
“You think that was the plan? Somebody framed Lord Elis, left that note in your study, and made us think they would attack one place while attacking somewhere else?” Fionn suggested.
“Honestly, I have no idea anymore,” Theobald said disheartened. “Could be.”
“We have some long nights ahead of us,” the other man acknowledged. “Tonight was invigorating though. I have been itching to wet my blade with traitor’s blood for days.”
“I am glad you got something out of it,” Theobald replied dryly, glancing at the bodies of the slain attackers. “I will return north, in case the night is not over,” he told Fionn and limped away. The captain’s caution was unnecessary, however; nothing further happened that night.