The portcullis rattled slowly upwards, the waiting horses breathing ragged white puffs into the still night air. Hearing the new arrivals, the Captain of the Guard hurriedly opened the large iron-shod doors.
"Charles, I have urgent news for the King. Meet me in my quarters. I'll need to see you afterwards."
Dismounting, he handed the reins of his lathered horse to his companion and strode into the Keep. A head ducked back inside an upper story window.
"I wonder what is of such importance to disturb the King's slumber."
The small figure darted quickly and quietly through the darkened passages to a small niche secreted behind a tapestry in the King's audience chamber. The eavesdropper had just settled into position when a rather disgruntled looking monarch entered the room in the company of the tall, cloaked horseman.
"Your report had better be important to disturb Adelaide and myself at this ungodly hour." King Roland ran a hand through his sleep mussed black hair.
"It is. An army fifty-thousand strong is approaching from the north. Patrick and I weren't able to get close, there were too many scouts."
Wakened by these unpleasant tidings the monarch asked, "The Forest Dwellers aren't attacking them at all?"
"Why not? The Forest Dwellers wouldn't break our treaty lightly."
"No, they wouldn't." Erik paused, "They aren't easily intimidated, it doesn't make sense."
"When do you expect the invaders to reach us?"
"Tomorrow, with a forced march it could be as early as daybreak."
Prince Erik watched his older brother's eyes narrow at this grim news.
"That doesn't leave us much time. Tell Charles to recall any troops from town and have them ready for battle in the morning. I will brief them in the inner bailey at sunrise. Also get Charles to send some messengers to Chancellor Lucas at Alamane for reinforcements."
After the King retired from the chamber Erik turned to the tapestry, "You can come out now, Caitlin."
"How did you know I was there, Uncle Erik?" asked the chagrined Princess.
"I am your father's tracker."
The disappointed face reminded Erik of his brother at the same age, despite the long fair hair and pretty elfin features inherited from her Forest Dweller Grandmother.
Looking up at him, her large green eyes sparkled with determination, "Someday I will be as good a tracker as you, Uncle Erik. After all, I do have a good teacher."
"I'm not bad, but a Forest Dweller would be better and you aren't allowed lessons from them 'till next year."
"I know, in the meantime I'll continue to concentrate on my sword fighting and archery."
"You will certainly need them in the battle tomorrow."
"Only if I can convince Mum and Dad to allow me to fight."
"If you promise me to keep Patrick with you at all times and not take any foolish risks; I will speak to them for you. Combat experience is advisable for someone who will eventually command her own soldiers."
"If you can convince them to let me fight tomorrow, I won't take any unnecessary chances. Is it a deal, Uncle Erik?"
"I'll speak to them in the morning. Go to bed now and rest; tomorrow you will discover how exhausting real fighting is."
Despite the excitement of her first genuine combat, Caitlin slept surprisingly well. Hoping her unusually substantial breakfast was confirmation of her parents' permission, Caitlin ate heartily.
Having donned her quilted leather gambeson unassisted Caitlin had difficulties in putting on her hauberk.
"Julia, could you please come in and help me with my armour?"
The door opened and two strong hands helped Caitlin pull the mail shirt over her head. As her head emerged from her armour, Caitlin saw her helper was Patrick Taylor, her lifelong friend and Uncle Erik's apprentice.
"What are you doing here, Patrick? I thought you'd be with Erik or the other soldiers."
"Erik asked me to fetch you, I'm under orders to play watchdog."
"So Mum and Dad have agreed to let me join the battle? I'm amazed Erik could pull that off." Caitlin adjusted her black surcoat and put on her helmet.
"They know the need for campaign experience," Patrick passed Caitlin her sword, safely sheathed in it's jeweled scabbard, the only outward symbol of her rank as Princess of Deveure.
"Thank you," slinging her quiver over her shoulder and picking up her short bow she headed for the door, "we'd better get a move on, I, for one, don't want to be late."
The inner bailey was swarming with soldiers. Some were still bleary-eyed from their late arrival from town. Caitlin knew that each would acquit themselves well. Her father's warriors were the best and the minor inconvenience of lack of sleep or a hangover would do little to blunt their prowess.
As if a signal had been given, the men fell into ordered ranks as the king exited the Keep. Caitlin and Patrick stood slightly to one side of the soldiers, unsure which officer they would be assigned to.
"Our Trackers spotted an army of approximately fifty-thousand men travelling through the Darkwoods last night. We must hold them off 'till reinforcements can arrive from Alamane, which will take at least six days. Princess Caitlin will be on the walls under the command of Captain Thiele."
Surprised pleasure greeted the news of Caitlin's initiation. The Castle soldiers liked Caitlin, identifying with her drive to excel at archery and swordplay.
The King left the inner bailey, with one last lingering look at his precious daughter.
Caitlin and Patrick joined Captain Thiele's ranks. The officer was saying, "We are the first shift on the front wall. It is our task to thin their ranks as they approach the castle. Once the moat is breached, we will help the civilians with the burning oil and destroy their scaling ladders."
"He makes it sound so easy," Caitlin murmured to Patrick, "I hope everything goes that smoothly."
"He's sure to have strategies he hasn't mentioned to us mere soldiers, and he is supposed to bolster morale, not scare us to death before the fighting even starts."
As Patrick and Caitlin stationed themselves on the rampart, civilians carried stockpiled arrows to the soldiers. Healers organised bandages and medicines; cooks prepared fortifying food, men prepared fires to heat the cauldrons of oil.
Suddenly a soldier near the gates shouted, "Army approaches!"
Caitlin and Patrick caught their first sight of the enemy from their lofty vantage point between the battlements. Still too far away to distinguish individual features, it was obvious that there was something not quite right about these men. As the soldiers neared, defenders started muttering amongst themselves.
"Devils". . . "demons". . . "monsters," could be heard from the ramparts.
The officers moved quickly to maintain order amongst the nervous men. Fighting humans was one thing, this army was another matter entirely. Leathery wings were furled against armoured backs, horns and talons extended from the protective armour.
Caitlin and Patrick exchanged uneasy glances. Would normal weapons kill these things? There was only one way to find out, as the lead ranks entered firing range Caitlin sighted an arrow, and tensing her shoulder and upper arm muscles, she pulled back on the bow string. Her arrow embedded itself deeply in an enemy soldier. As the fatally wounded creature toppled, the defenders cheered. Monstrous as these creatures were, they weren't invincible.
Captain Thiele gave the order to fire -- creating gaps in the ranks of the front row -- as dead suddenly littered the ground.
Reaching for another arrow, Caitlin was stopped by a firm hand on her shoulder. "You may be a Princess, but, right now you are my subordinate and you will not preempt orders. No command to fire was given. Any more disobedience and I will send you back to the Keep to explain your actions to your sovereign."
As the Captain turned and walked away, Caitlin looked abashed but complained to Patrick, "If I hadn't fired there would have been a panic. He should have been thanking me."
"He did Caitlin. Captain Thiele gave you another chance to prove yourself as a disciplined soldier."
With that thought in mind, Caitlin sulkily returned to firing arrows on the creatures below. The strain on muscles was immense, but none of the castle archers faltered. As the enemy slowly crossed the dry, grassy field, they fired round after round into their seemingly endless ranks.
Many dead and dying covered the ground in front of the castle, but, the enemy kept advancing. They took no notice of their wounded. If they didn't move they were trampled. The callous disregard for their own sent a cold shiver down many a soldier's spine. This was a fight to the death; capture by these heartless marauders was not even to be contemplated.
The steady march of the oncoming army suddenly wavered as the unsuspecting soldiers fell into hidden pits lined with wooden spikes. With the forward momentum pushing them, the soldiers continued advancing until their officers called a halt; but, not before many of them had fallen to their death. Scouts detached from the main body of the army and tested the ground with large poles. Unable to retreat out of arrow range, by the push of the advancing bulk of the army, the stalled soldiers died in large numbers as arrows mercilessly rained down from the archers positioned above them on the castle walls. Finally satisfied that all the pits had been revealed the army continued its march towards the fortress.
As the soldiers safely bypassed the staggered lines of pits Captain Thiele gave the order to shoot incendiary arrows onto the grass in front of the moat. A mixture of pitch and lamp oil that had been spread early that morning quickly caught alight.
Flames crackled skyward, almost drowning out the agonised death screams that sounded from the raw throats of soldiers caught in the inferno. Again the army halted. The smoke from the blaze made arrow fire impossible, but, many had perished in that initial conflagration.
The forward movement of the front ranks was checked by the heat and flames but the rest of the army continued its march until the entire army was massed in the fields in front of the castle.
The respite was a welcome chance to change shifts, allowing the exhausted archers the opportunity for a well-earned rest while fresh troops took their places on the battlements. By the time the area had cooled sufficiently for the survivors to reach the edge of the moat, hundreds had been slaughtered and the afternoon was waning. The enemy abandoned their advance for the day and started pitching tents for the coming evening.
In the castle, the tired troops had a chance to sleep while non-fighting personnel manned the walls to watch for a night attack.
In her chamber, Caitlin removed her soiled armour and lay on her bed, too exhausted even to sleep. While she tossed on her mattress, the door opened to admit two very thankful parents.
"Caitlin," Queen Adelaide drew her daughter's attention to their arrival. Startled by their presence, closer to sleep than she had realised, Caitlin sat up abruptly in bed. She smiled warmly at her parents and bade them welcome.
"We thought you'd want to be treated like the other soldiers, but, now that the first day of fighting is over we wanted you to know how concerned we were for your safety." The Queen told Caitlin as she sat on the bed beside her only daughter and held her tightly.
King Roland affectionately stroked her hair, "If you really feel you must, you can continue fighting. Captain Thiele said you prevented a panic this morning, even if it did involve firing without orders. That was not the sort of action disciplined soldiers are encouraged to take, but, it is the instinctive leadership that monarchs should display. We are very proud of you."
"Thanks Mum and Dad, it's nice to hear that. I was scared for my safety too. But, I'm also scared for the safety of our home. I'd like to continue helping in any way I can, and I am best qualified to help as an archer."
"Then you have our blessing to continue," King Roland answered speaking for himself and his wife.
"Just don't take unnecessary risks, we can't lose you, and not just because you are to be Queen some day."
The next morning the soldiers again manned the battlements. As the sun rose the golden light revealed a massive siege engine waiting beyond arrow range.
Captain Thiele addressed the troops, "Yesterday we suffered few casualties and the enemy lost approximately one-thousand men. That is very good, but, they still have forty-nine-thousand others to replace them, we have only two hundred in the castle. The longer we delay them, the better the chance of reinforcements from Alamane arriving in time to help us."
Patrick turned to Caitlin, "The fletchers worked all last night replenishing the stocks of arrows."
"Good, I intend to use as many as I can today, if it comes to hand-to-hand; I don't like the numbers we face at the moment." Caitlin shuddered at the overwhelming odds they faced.
"If these outer walls are breached, we will fall back to the next bailey and defend the inner walls. That should hold them off for a bit longer. If required, I have been instructed to get you out of the castle for safety."
"We will retreat to the Darkwoods? Surely there will be many enemy soldiers wandering around in there."
"Yes, but our escape route comes out quite far into the Forest, we should be safe, and hopefully it won't come to that."
"I presume that Mum and Dad won't be leaving the castle 'till it's all over."
"No, it'll be just you and I. They have to ensure the safety of at least one Deveure."
"Fire!" Captain Thiele's bellow interrupted Caitlin and Patrick's conversation.
Caitlin and Patrick aimed their bows and let loose their first volley at practically the same instant. Both arrows found their marks in two unlucky soldiers below.
The day continued in the same pattern as yesterday. Pick up an arrow, place it against the stock, draw the bowstring back, aim and release, pick up an arrow.
The muscles in her neck, shoulders and upper arms ached, never had Caitlin known such continuous exercise. Exhaustion was overwhelming, but, the enemy kept advancing.
Around midmorning the enemy finished laying a hastily constructed bridge across the moat. Their work had been slowed by the arrows of the defenders and the attempts of lesser skilled soldiers to shield the engineers as they worked.
As the first soldiers attempted to scale the walls, cauldrons of burning oil were emptied onto them. Attackers screamed in agony and the sickening smell of burnt flesh rose to those stationed on the walls above.
"Prepare to repel the scaling ladders!" yelled Captain Thiele above the noise of agonised screaming and sickened retching.
Caitlin and Patrick slung their bows over their shoulders and picked up long thrusting poles. As the first of the ladders swung upwards, the nearest soldiers wielded their poles and the ladder fell back to earth.
Caitlin and the soldiers continued dislodging scaling ladders while the civilians of the castle upended boiling oil onto the attackers below.
The afternoon waned and although the attackers managed to strengthen and widen their bridges spanning the moat little else was achieved on that second day of fighting.
That evening after wounds were seen to, the castle defenders slept the sound sleep of exhaustion while the non-fighting personnel kept watch for a night attack.
The next day, a large siege tower was pushed forward by many creatures. The tower was enormous, the bottom story housed a battering ram aimed directly at the drawbridge. The upper stories contained archers who commenced firing on the brave defenders and at the very top was a hinged bridge.
The archers launched incendiary arrows, but, the tower had been covered in wet hides to prevent fire. Any flames that did catch were doused before they could take hold.
The bridge lowered onto the battlements and the storming party swarmed across. Defenders congregated at the breach. They fought fiercely to repel the invaders.
Caitlin engaged a beast, which at close range was even more horrific then she had expected. Great slavering jaws hung open, revealing massive teeth, waiting to rend her flesh from her bones. Razor-sharp talons gleamed at the end of furry, heavily muscled arms. Beady eyes flamed with blood-lust as the creature attacked.
Caitlin sidestepped the first swipe and stabbed her sword upwards toward the gaping maw in front of her. Her quick reflexes darted her thrust past its defences and the sword rammed into its mouth, through the skull and sunk into the soft brain behind. Disbelief shone momentarily from the creatures dulling eyes before the animal slumped to the ground.
Wrenching her sword from her fallen adversary, Caitlin turned to face the next foe and saw Patrick desperately defending himself against two of the beasts. Quickly leaping at one of the creatures, she plunged her sword into the back of its neck where the gap from the body armour and the helmet allowed penetration. Facing only one monster, Patrick despatched it and gave Caitlin a grateful glance.
Although they fought hard, the monsters kept swarming down off the siege tower bridge until the bravely battling defenders were overrun.
"Retreat!" yelled Captain Thiele, "behind the inner walls."
The soldiers disengaged and retreated leaving the outer defences in the hands of the victorious enemy.
Fresh troops already positioned on the inner wall covered the retreat of the weary soldiers. The inner wall was neither as high nor wide as the outer wall, but, sheltered from the use of the siege engines by the outer wall. The enemy would have to fight hard to gain further access.
Caitlin slept restlessly that afternoon, only sheer exhaustion allowing her to rest at all. She woke at sunset as the sounds of combat ceased. After eating dinner with her parents and Uncle Erik, she returned to her room to get her maid to massage liniment into her aching, abused muscles. Feeling more relaxed, she readied her armour and weapons for tomorrow's fighting.
The following morning Caitlin and Patrick again looked down on their foe from the heights of the stone walls.
Arrow fire was concentrated on the troops milling between the walls. Burning oil soon coated the walls and flagstones making footing treacherous and impeding the efforts of the enemy troops. Scaling ladders and ropes were chopped down as soon as they gained purchase. It was a hard-day's fighting and many enemies were slain, but, they still had many replacements.
Midday a messenger from the King requested that Caitlin and Patrick retire from the walls. As previously arranged, Patrick and Caitlin headed for the unused lower levels of the castle.
"Will I be able to say goodbye to my parents?"
"They should be waiting for us at the tunnel with provisions."
Quietly, they made their way through the castle corridors. Everyone was too occupied with the castle's defence to notice them.
At the far end of the dungeon block, Caitlin saw her waiting parents. Running up to them, she hugged them tightly.
"Are you sure you won't come with us?" she asked desperately clinging to them.
"No darling, we have to stay with our people. You and Patrick are to go to your great-grandparents, King Willifred and Queen Genevieve. Their Forest Dweller tribe is in the northwest of the Darkwoods. They will give you shelter and possibly some troops."
Giving their daughter one last kiss and embrace, the King pushed on a concealed switch which opened a door into the wall, "Travel fast, but, travel carefully." He advised, handing them two bulging packs.
Looking back as the door closed, Caitlin saw tears on her parents' faces and knew an answering tribute flowed freely down her face as well. "Goodbye Mum, goodbye Dad. You take care, too." Resolutely, Caitlin turned and walked into the waiting darkness, wondering if she would ever see her parents alive again.
Caitlin and Patrick had been walking for a couple of hours when they heard approaching footsteps. They froze, someone was coming down the tunnel from outside! Pressing themselves against the wall, they smothered their torches.
"Hello?" The voice came from nearby, "If you're from the Castle you can relax, I'm an ally. King Willifred and Queen Genevieve sent me."
Caitlin loosened her grip on her dagger, "Please come closer so we can see you."
Patrick struck a spark with his flint, relighting their torches to reveal the elfin features of a Forest Dweller. The catlike eyes bore a striking resemblance to Caitlin's own jade eyes.
"You must be a Deveure, your likeness to my sovereign is uncanny."
"Yes I am, Caitlin Deveure, your King and Queen are my great-grandparents."
"What are you doing down here, those creatures haven't taken the Castle have they?"
"No, but it looks like they might soon. We've lost the outer wall, but, we still held the inner wall when we left."
"Then I've made it in time, I may have the solution to your problem."
"You do?" asked Caitlin, eagerly envisaging a waiting army.
"You may not have known, but, we Forest Dwellers have fought these monsters previously. Before moving to the Darkwoods we lived in a Continent to the north. Unfortunately, we shared this continent with these creatures. Their lives are dedicated to conquest. To them everyone else is inferior and only useful as slaves."
"Is that why you left?"
"Yes. Not all fled, some stayed to defend our homeland. In their memory I offer you our help. We know one thing that can kill them very quickly."
"What is it?" Caitlin asked, grabbing his arm.
"Salt?" Caitlin and Patrick exchanged puzzled glances.
"Salt is poison to them. That is why we thought we'd be safe if we travelled across the ocean."
"Presumably they used humans to operate their ships for them." Caitlin mused. "If they stayed sealed away from the salt air they could make the voyage."
"Yes, that is what we think too. It seems likely they have enslaved the Forest Dwellers that stayed behind."
"We must get the salt into their food and water supplies. If we do that tonight they'll be unable to overrun the Keep."
Patrick put a restraining hand on Caitlin, "We've been fighting all morning, and after yesterday we're exhausted. Don't you even consider doing this yourself."
"Oh yes I am. I wasn't happy about running away, only the possibility that I could bring help salvaged some honour."
"It's only an hour's walk to the end of the tunnel, if you rest there you should still have time to double back to the supply wagons before dawn. If you hurry that is."
"What about the salt? I doubt we have any in our packs."
"We left a supply of it just inside the tunnel entrance."
The three walked to the entrance together, Llaff, the Forest Dweller, would return home now that his mission was accomplished.
It was a slow walk, fatigue had made Caitlin and Patrick stiff and sluggish. When they finally reached the entrance, Llaff volunteered to stand guard and wake the exhausted pair after two hours. At the allotted time they continued their journey, leaving the safety of the tunnel and entering the quiet darkness of the forest.
Large trees towered over them, their boughs entwined many feet above in an almost impenetrable canopy. The forest floor was clear except for decomposing leaves and fungus.
Having only been on the outskirts of the Darkwoods Caitlin was surprised by the lack of undergrowth, but she certainly wouldn't complain, she had not been looking forward to hacking a path through overgrown brambles.
After filling their backpacks with salt, they parted company with Llaff. He headed northwest to his village and they turned southeast to double back behind the enemy. Patrick lead the way, how he could tell which way was southeast, Caitlin had no idea.
With an army so close the forest's predators had made themselves scarce, allowing Caitlin and Patrick to reach the edge of the forest unhindered. They arrived about two hours before dawn. Hunkering down behind a tree, they removed their armour lest the noise wake any camp followers. Taking the salt from their packs, they emerged silently and scuttled from shadow to shadow 'till they reached the supply vans.
Hardly daring to breathe, they stealthily searched for the Officer's supplies. Fortunately, they had over an hour to find the food reserved for each company's commanders, and it took all their salt too. The lowly soldiers would be unaffected.
Feeling safe behind enemy lines, they retreated only a short distance into the forest.
Had they put enough salt into the food to disable the Officers? Had they put in too much, making it detectable?
Taking turns, one watching, the other sleeping they observed their intended victims closely.
Things started well, the cooks did use the seasoned food for the breakfast. Now they just had to wait and watch. When no alarm was raised Caitlin and Patrick relaxed and waited to see if the poisoned food had the desired effect.
After eating, the soldiers gathered into companies and prepared for the day's offensive. Leaving the camp in the hands of the camp followers, the soldiers approached the besieged Keep.
Just as they started the attack the first of the Officers doubled over and collapsed on the ground. Soon nearly all the Officers had succumbed to the poison and were incapacitated.
As their leaders convulsed, the soldiers milled about in turmoil. The attack for that day, at least, was ruined and the defenders managed to shoot quite a number of troopers in the confusion.
Patrick and Caitlin had stayed long enough to see their plan's success before retreating through the Darkwoods back to the tunnel. On their way back they thought of a plan they hoped would save the Castle, at least until fresh troops arrived.
It was quite late on the night of the fifth day of the siege when they reentered the Castle. They quickly made their way to the rooms of Caitlin's parents.
Knocking quietly on the door, Caitlin called softly, "Mum, Dad, can I come in?"
There was a muffled exclamation before the door sprang open.
"Caitlin, what are you doing back?"
"Sorry." King Roland laughed, loosening his bear hug.
"Hello Dad," Caitlin wheezed theatrically, "Patrick and I came back through the tunnel because we have information for you."
"Should I call Erik and Charles?"
"Yes, please. While I wait I'll wake up Mum, shall I?"
"Definitely, she's been worried sick."
Meeting a short while later in King Roland's anteroom, Caitlin greeted the assembled Council of War in her most mature pose.
"Gentlemen, when Patrick and I left yesterday we met a forest dweller inside the escape tunnel. He had been sent by King Willifred to give us some information."
Seeing their interest, Caitlin paused dramatically, "The monsters die when exposed to salt!"
"So, that's what made them sick today. I presume you two were somehow responsible?"
"Yes, Erik, we were," Patrick answered quickly, "I tried to dissuade her, but, you know how headstrong your niece is."
"I certainly do." Erik laughed, "Even though it was dangerous it turned out well."
"We snuck in behind the enemy during the night and put salt in the officer's supplies. It used all the salt we had and we didn't have much time, so, we hoped that would cause the most mayhem."
"Just backtracking slightly, why didn't the forest dwellers fight them themselves?"
"From what we can gather, it appears they made some sort of oath years ago not to bear arms against these creatures ever again."
"That's a pity, we could use some assistance."
"Yes, but Patrick and I have a suggestion."
"You've done well so far Caitlin, please continue." Charles encouraged, obviously impressed.
"We were thinking, since they outnumber us so badly we need some sort of edge: morale. If we can destroy their morale it might even the odds slightly. At least enough for us to survive 'till the reinforcements get here."
"True," said the King, "what have you come up with?"
"Patrick and I can't quite agree on the details. I thought we could bring half our garrison out of the tunnel and circle through the woods the way we did, and attack them during the night."
"They will have patrols out now." Erik reminded them.
"That had already occurred to us," Patrick interjected, "I thought you and I could go ahead of the main group and flush out any patrols and deal with them."
"Yes, after today's debacle they are still pretty disorganised. Hopefully the patrols won't be running smoothly for a couple of days."
"Even if we kill them quickly and quietly we only have one hundred men, it won't even the odds too dramatically."
"No, but it will shatter morale. Now we get to the part where Patrick and I disagree. I think we should go in and slay as many as we can. Patrick thinks we should assassinate selectively so that they will think we know more than we do and chose our victims for a reason."
"Each plan has merit," said King Roland. "Personally I agree with Caitlin that we slaughter as many as possible. The deaths will damage morale and we will only have the one opportunity. Anyone still outside the Castle after the bodies are discovered won't survive."
"Not to mention how quickly the men will be overrun if anyone realises what's happening." Caitlin added.
"It does leave the Castle very short of men." Charles added, ever mindful of his responsibilities.
"We can always take the others out through the tunnel and seek shelter from the forest dwellers if things go wrong." said Patrick.
"It would be better to lose the Castle than the people in it. Even if giving them a stronghold makes our job harder after the Alamane Garrison arrives."
The King sat for a moment, finally, reaching his decision he gave the order. "Tomorrow morning half the men will use the tunnel for the surprise attack. The other half must hold the Castle until evening. It's a pity it's too late tonight for the attack."
Caitlin opened her mouth, but, was cut off quickly by her father, "Before you ask Caitlin, you will be staying behind, don't worry you will still have lots to do here tomorrow. Patrick you will be needed by Erik, so, I will assign another soldier to guard Caitlin. You have both done a good job, we will remember it after the crisis is dealt with."
"Thank you, your Majesty," said Patrick ducking his head in embarrassment, "I live to serve."
"Goodnight everyone, see you in the morning." King Roland grasped his daughter's hand and lead her from the room.
"Goodnight Caitlin, sleep well, you will be on the walls again tomorrow."
"Thanks Dad. Were you really happy with our work?"
"Yes, Darling I was, even Charles and Erik were impressed."
"I'm glad. Goodnight Dad."
The following day Caitlin and Patrick's idea was implemented.
The men set out as planned, stripping the Castle defenders to half strength. Due to the good design of the structure and the desperate courage of the fighters, the Castle withheld for another day.
Caitlin however was not so lucky, only a few hours into the fighting an arrow pierced her shoulder.
Voices murmured softly, drifting in and out of Caitlin's awareness.
"Any time now. . ."
"Don't tire her. . ."
"I'll come back soon. . ."
Caitlin opened drugged eyes groggily, "Wha. . . " she croaked.
Immediately three faces appeared in her blurred vision.
"Hello darling, how are you feeling?"
"Here," her mother's face disappeared, replaced by a cup held by her father's strong hand. She sipped gingerly, trying not to choke due to her horizontal position.
"You were shot, don't you remember?"
"Yes." A remembered sensation of pain flared in her shoulder. "The attack, what happened?" Her concern for their safety was still paramount.
The Queen laughed. "We'll let Patrick tell you if you think you're up to it."
"Hello Cait, sure you're feeling awake enough for this?"
"Yes. I need to know, I don't think I could go back to sleep 'till I've heard everything."
"All right, lets see. . . As you know we entered the tunnel early in the morning, while it was still dark."
"Yes---" Caitlin prompted, impatient as ever.
"Did you know that Dawkins is scared of enclosed places?"
"Neither did we until he was in the tunnel. He had to be sent back, he was a mess. Anyway, other than the upset with Dawkins everything went smoothly and we got to the woods around 8 o'clock."
"Did you come across any patrols in the forest?"
"Yes. We only ran into three and they were all small. Your Uncle Erik, Llaff and I were able to dispatch them easily enough, surprise was on our side all three times."
"Llaff? When did you meet up with him?"
"Oh, did I forget to mention that? He had returned after reporting back and had been keeping watch on the tunnel exit in case anyone came out needing assistance."
"That was nice of him. We will have to commend him to your grandparents." The Queen said to King Roland.
Roland nodded his agreement.
"We found a safe hiding place close to camp early in the afternoon so we had plenty of time to eat and rest."
"Then what happened?"
"We waited 'till the soldiers were settling down for the evening, then we entered the camp in small numbers. Apparently everyone except officers had a curfew, which was certainly fortunate for us."
"That's for sure, it certainly would have been harder if people were up late around camp fires."
"Yes. As it was it was close to eleven O'clock before we were able to start. The Gods must have been smiling on us, we killed probably close on three hundred of them before slipping away unseen."
"I'll bet that scared them, probably thought some ghosts had struck the camp."
"No. We got away without any alarm, but, one of the men, Harrison, hadn't been able to come back with us, we didn't notice he was missing 'till we regrouped where we had hidden all afternoon."
"What happened to him?" Caitlin had a clear mental picture of Frank Harrison with his pretty young wife and baby son.
"He was discovered, but, no alarm was given to search for us so it must have been after we had left. I don't quite know how it happened. We only found out after we returned."
"What did they do to him?"
"Apparently while we were on our way back to the tunnel -- it was too dangerous to wait for Harrison -- some creature discovered one of the corpses and raised the alarm. The camp was in such an uproar as they searched for new victims and intruders that they didn't get on our trail at all. We returned to the Castle to be told that the camp had been so loud that most of the Castle occupants had been awaken and watched the carry on from the battlements."
"They certainly were loud," Roland chuckled, "lights everywhere screaming and yelling. I think the screaming was when they woke to find a corpse next to themselves. The only thing that wasn't amusing was what they did to poor Harrison."
"Yes, while they were looking around the campsite they spotted Harrison -- we don't know what had held him up -- and vented their anger on him. They know more people were involved, but, he was the only one they captured."
"What did they do to him?" Caitlin asked in a horrified whisper.
"Let's just say they tortured and killed him and put his remains in clear view of the battlements."
"The poor man, and his poor family."
"Yes, it was indeed a tragedy. But at least the rest of the night's work was accomplished."
"I'm sure that doesn't make his widow feel any happier. Did it shake their morale?"
"It seemed to, first they were horrified, then angry -- which is why Harrison suffered the way he did."
"It worked very well, when our reinforcements arrived later that day they faced a very demoralised enemy. Chancellor Lucas had also managed to bring nearly sixty- thousand men with him, so the odds were no longer in their favour."
"So it's all over? I missed the end!"
"I'm afraid so, but you did a superb job, it's only a pity you were hit by that arrow."
"Yes," Caitlin sighed, "I helped a lot, pity I missed the finale."
"But you haven't," King Roland reassured his disappointed daughter, "you don't think we can leave them there to our north, ready to invade again, do you?"
© 1998 Sandy Cummins, all rights reserved
appears here by permission