Captain Carridoc, son of Mallow, Duke of Brynnkelton, the home of the Garruth Clan Doonnaugh, sat on his warhorse and watched the flank scout return at a gallop. What now?
This was the third time since he’d left the Mercian capitol at Tamworth on his way home to attend his cousin’s wedding that a scout had lathered his horse to bring him news. I hope it’s
not another bridge out. The last detour took us much father east in the Freeholds then I’d planned. But then, I was able to stop in Bar Elam and buy a few casks of
malted drink. Might as well wait and see what he’s got to say.
The scout’s horse pounded up and danced to a stop. “Milord, there’s a hundred men camped less than a league to the east.”
“A hundred men?” His head went back. “What are a hundred Freemen doing encamped this time of year?” He scratched his chin. “Did you see a reeve’s flag with them? It
sounds like an outlaw hunt to me.”
“They’re not reeve’s men, Milord, and they’re not Freemen by their dress. And I think there’s a wizard with them. There’s a man in a black robe in the camp who’s treated like
“A wizard in the Freeholds?” He turned to Alin, his lieutenant. “It’s coming on to dusk. Make a cold camp here. I’m going forward to check this out.”
“Yes, Milord.” Alin brought his right arm against his chest in salute.
Carridoc waved ahead. “Lead on, Cathal.”
The scout turned his horse and galloped off to the northeast. As he followed, Carridoc thought, What madness is this? The local Freemen will tear a wizard apart with their bare
hands rather than let one live among them. And yet, Princess Evaughnlynn traveled safely through the Freeholds to Anglia a couple of years ago. Is she on the road again? Or is
this some dru on his way to treat the sickness we heard about?
He recalled seeing the beautiful young girl and her near-twin cousin at the banquet after the queen’s funeral. Poor Prince Thrall. He’s a foolish young man, like all
youth, but he’s been blessed with an incredible wife. He smiled as he recalled the bard’s stories about her exploits as a wizard and dru. Even discounting by half for the
sake of the story, she’s a formidable woman for so young an age. She’ll be more mother than wife to the lad.
As his horse trotted on, he thought, The rumors of sickness in Bar Krouth must be true if she or some other dru are on their way to treat the sick. I’m relieved the illness was
not just an excuse to keep me and my men, their closest allies in the Confederation of Clans, outside the city walls.
The rolling hills were covered with stands of trees, large farms, and pastureland. This far from the main roads, the farmers and their families came out to watch him and the scout ride
by. The children pointed and chattered at each other, while the adults waved. The memory of his father telling him not to cry because the boys in the palace of Anglia had called him a
giant sprang to mind.
“Boy,” his father had said, “’tis not an insult they mean. Look at me.” His father had stood tall with his hands on his hips. “Wherever the king goes, I go, on a horse hands
taller than his, and me sitting more than a hand taller than him to begin with. Now, that’s impressive. The little people can’t help themselves when even our allies, the Iceni, tower
over them. Just remember, the stories about stupid giants are about Trolls, not Garruth, and city children don’t know that. Do you understand?”
“Good.” His father had nodded. “And you won’t pick up any more of your playmates and throw them across the room, now will you?”
“No, Father.” And he never had. Playmates, at least. He smiled.
The last of the pastureland gave way to woods that covered the rolling hills ahead of them. The scout reined in and dismounted before the crest. He moved through the trees until he
emerged away from the edge of the road on the downward side of the hill.
Laid out in the valley below was a large camp made up of round, animal skin tents with high pointed tops. Smoke from cooking fires rose from the camp. Scores of men were moving around
the camp dressed in homespun shirts covered by waist-length sheepskin jerkins, coarse wool trousers, and sheepskin boots. Carridoc had seen both men and tents like this before in the
Wildermarch. These were wandering goat herdsmen who supplemented their diet by raiding local settlements. What are they doing this far south without their women or flocks?
“There’s a dark one with them for sure,” Carridoc whispered to the scout. “That’s the only thing that would keep them from raiding the local farms. How is it you didn’t ride right
over the hill into them?”
The scout tapped his nose. “It’s worse in the heat of the day.”
“Now that you mention it,” Carridoc said, “there is a slight sour smell on the breeze from the valley.” Carridoc waved to the west and began moving back through the trees to where they had
left their horses. “These are not the Freemen’s friends,” Carridoc said as he walked. “You were right to let me know of them.”
When they returned to camp, Carridoc dismounted and sat by the fire to toss in twigs and think the situation through. I can’t leave a hundred savages loose in the Freeholds,
particularly if there’s a dark wizard with them. Rallying the local Freemen will just bring in unskilled infantry who’ll get in the way of my cavalry, and there’s no way to get word to Bar
Krouth. By the time the Freemen get troops here, whatever is about to happen will be long over.
If we attack, the dark wizard will go for me first with his curses, so the center will be our weak point. I’ll advance the flanks ahead of the center, that way we’ll be in
their camp by the time the wizard kills me.
He took a deep breath and called for Alin to join him. When the lieutenant arrived, Carridoc said, “There’re a hundred Sulisie warriors and a dark wizard encamped a league to the
northeast. We’ll attack at dawn using the horn formation. You’ll lead the right flank, your sergeant the left. I’ll hold the center with the unmarried men. If we kill
enough of them, whatever evil they plan will fail.”
“Yes, Milord.” Alin stared into the fire. “Brandon will carry your banner.”
Carridoc felt his eyes burn as the image of the fourteen-year-old lad rose in his mind, and he also stared at the fire. “Your son has shown great heart in his training. Make sure all
the men know where he rides this day so that his name is told as long as mine is heard in the hall of the Doonnaugh.”
“Milord, with your leave.” The lieutenant stood and moved into the darkness.
Carridoc continued to stare into the fire, trying to recall the names and faces of his fifty men. How many will die with me tomorrow? Brandon, for sure. The banner is always
a target and a dark wizard will know the heart of my men would be weakened by its fall. He sighed deeply. I must remember to prepare them for its fall. He shook
his head and concentrated on picturing the view down the valley from the stockade wall of Brynnkelton. He could see clearly in his mind the river that ran past the wall on its long journey
to the western sea. He had fished along the banks many times as a boy.
I have lived a charmed and privileged life, he thought, as he recalled the farmers working in the fields. Now, their sons ride with me to keep our land safe. Am I asking
them to pay too high a toll for my honor? No. He shook his head. The Doonnaugh do not run. We stand and fight, even here, where no man will know what we’ve
Suddenly, he was fourteen again and standing in the hall at Brynnkelton as his father slapped his face. He smiled at the memory. It had been a ceremonial slap, but still hard enough
to bring tears to his eyes. When he’d finished slapping all ten boys being declared warriors, his father’s booming voice had echoed in the hall. “Remember always this day, for you are
now a Doonnaugh warrior, and you carry the honor of the Doonnaugh with your shield and sword. Life is hard and it is not fair, and we do not always win. But when we fight, we stand,
and all men know the price to come against us. Few there are who have been willing to face us twice. That is the price we pay for our land and freedom.”
When it was time, Carridoc stood. Alin, seated on the opposite side of the fire with his son, shook the boy awake and both stood. All over the camp, men came to their feet and began
preparing their horses. Carridoc strode over to the wagon, where his banner and lance stood, and handed the banner to Brandon. “Defend it and hold it aloft at all costs. The men
will rally to it.” He mounted his horse and, grabbing his lance, rode to where the men were already lining up, the young unmarried men in front.
Brandon rode up and around him as the boy fought his horse for control, and Carridoc fought the smile trying to escape. He was proud that he would walk into the hall of the gods with such
“We ride now in defense of our allies, the Freemen. But we are Doonnaugh, and when we fight, we stand until we fall or have victory. We fight this day, as always, for the honor of the
Doonnaugh. Those of us who fall will be remembered in our halls for all time.” He placed his lance in the cup on his right stirrup and turned his horse to the east.
“Doonnaugh!” rang out from the men who followed him.
They rode through the silence of the night, past darkened farmhouses and breeze-stirred fields, until the column stopped at the base of the hill beyond the valley, and the men dismounted to fan
out into the horn formation. Two scouts moved off to silence any sentries. Then the men led their horses up the hill through the woods in the dark, fighting to keep their lances from
fouling in the tree branches. Carridoc and Brandon were in the center on the road. By the time they reached the crest of the hill, the sun was just beginning to light the skyline in
the east. Carridoc mounted and the boy followed as he started his horse down the hillside at a walk toward the three campfires.
The formation was halfway to the valley floor when yelling started in the barbarian camp. Carridoc yelled, “Couch lances!” Then, “Charge!” His horse lunged forward into a
gallop, as did those of his men on either side of him.
They reached the valley floor with the riders on the flank a few rods ahead and closed on the camp at a gallop. The barbarian warriors were already mounting their horses and riding to
intercept his formation, but it was the center tent that he watched. A man in a black robe and cowl stepped out and looked around. It was too dark to see the man’s face, but Carridoc
was sure he was looking around and trying to understand what was happening.
The distance between them was closing rapidly and Carridoc breathed in deeply before yelling as loud as he could, “Doonnaugh!”
The cry, “Doonnaugh!” echoed along the line of riders over the thundering of the horses’ hooves. The wizard jerked and then brought up his arm to point his wand directly at Carridoc, who
instinctively brought his shield around in front of him. At the same time, Brendon spurred his horse to pull ahead and into his path, forcing Carridoc’s horse to give ground to the right.
Over the thunder of the horses’ hooves and shouts of the men, Doonnaugh and Sulisie alike, the cry of the wizard rang out like thunder. “Fulmini!”
A beam of light shot from the wizard’s wand toward Brendon, but the light failed as quickly as it formed. A bright light streaked from the wizard’s own wand to his chest, leaving the wizard
bathed in a ball of swirling bluish light. He screamed as his arms flew out from his sides and his long hair stood on end.
Brendon couched the banner like a lance as he closed on the shining wizard at a full gallop, taking him in the center of the chest and throwing the man backwards into his tent as he thundered
past on his horse. Carridoc yelled, “Doonnaugh,” again as his lance spitted a barbarian off his horse. Then he was through the camp and turning his horse.
The Sulisie broke in all directions when their wizard fell. Carridoc saw only a score turn to face the Doonnaugh on the return charge. They were quickly ridden down. As his men
discarded their lances and drew their claymores to pursue the scattering barbarians into the woods, Carridoc dismounted, strode into the tent, and dragged the wizard’s body into the light of the
breaking dawn. He was dead. There was a charred mark on his right hand and his wand was gone. He looked up at Brendon. “I don’t know why or how, lad, but his curse turned
back on him.” He looked around the valley floor and saw no one besides himself, Brendon, and dead Sulisie.
“Keep watch.” Carridoc pulled a brand from the nearest fire and walked back into the tent to look around. It was the only tent opening to the west, the others facing east for the
morning sun, and he supposed the wizard liked sleeping late. He touched nothing. Wizards, like goblins, he thought, are fond of setting traps. There were no
parchments or maps, and he walked out again.
Carridoc’s men began straggling back into the Sulisie camp, all dragging at least one dead enemy. When Alin returned, Carridoc told him, “Count the dead as they’re piled in the tents, so we
know how many we’ve let loose in the countryside. Then set them afire.”
When the lieutenant turned to walk away, Carridoc added, “Brendon proved himself in battle this day. When the wizard tried to kill me, he put himself in the curse’s path. And it was
he who killed the dark one, with the staff of my banner, no less.”
Alin turned with surprise on his face. “Your banner?”
“Aye, and a right proper hit it was too.”
While Captain Carridoc stood watching his men return to the camp and deposit the dead Sulisie in the tents, Uric, the acolyte, watched in terror from the woods as his master was killed. He
heard one of the giants say to their leader, “I think we got them all.”
“Good,” the Garruth leader replied. “Then we ride for Brynnkelton. We’ve wasted enough time here.”
A moment later the tents filled with bodies went up in flames and the Uric moved further back into the woods.