There had been preparation all week for the ceremonies and all the more hectic because the king was leaving soon and needed them to take place now. The simultaneous preparation for the king’s departure had added, then, even more disorder to the chaos. The king had finally finalized the treaty with the Vikings, and they (Danes) had been given a week to go down to a certain point to be picked up by ships from Poole, where the rest of the Vikings were quartered. With them, King Alfred had also sent enough gold to them quite contented for a few months, if not longer.
Immanuel pulled at his new uniform. It wasn’t that having a tunic with Ahearn’s insignia was not handsome, but it was baggy and iching to the skin. The king stood on the dais and smiled.
“It is on this day that I grant to my loyal subject—and the subject of England—Edmar, until lately a civilian privateer coordinating strategic raids against our enemies…” The pirate straightened and stuck his chest out as the corners of his gold mustache twitched upward slightly
“…Chartered his vessel to the king’s services at his own risk,” the king continued, “and valiently defended at the risk of damages and at the risk of the loss of property in the form of a ship. For this noble servant:…”
Immanuel grinned openly at Edmar and suppressed a laugh, but Edmar’s face had now grown solemn.
“Therefore, I give you the castle of Exeter to keep and guard for me as a reward for your great service you have rendered me. I thank you.” So saying, he drew his sword. “Kneel, Edmar of the sea.” Edmar sank to his knees with a grunt. “I knight thee: Edmar, keeper of Exeter tower and the surrounding ground for his lord high master, King Alfred of England. Rise Sir Knight, keeper of Exeter!” There was a cheer and Edmar bowed and and walked down the rug leading from the dais and melted into the crowd of onlookers on the side.
“Sir Rolf!” the king said suddenly. Immanuel started and bit his upper lip wonderingly.
“Yes Sire?” Rolf asked stepping from the crowd onto the worn red rug before of the dias.
“You have proved faithful to me in the matter concerning the Danes. In addition to effectively dealing with the Danes, you have thwarted a dangerous Druid while protecting part of the royal treasury and uprooted several spies in the army. By this, you have fulfilled the command Igave you on to discover any uprisings and problems in Bedford–especially in association with the Danes—and to quail them. I than tell you Sir Knight that your service here is done. Further, because you have proved faithful to me in theis matter, I promote you to Ealdorman of a certain county in my realm. Kneel, then, Sir Rolf, and swear.
“By the Lord, I will be to the Great King Alfred be faithful and true, and love all that he loves, and shun all that he shuns, according to God’s law, and according to the world’s principles, and never, by will nor by force, by word nor by work, do ought of what is loathful to him; on condition that he keep me as I am willing to deserve, and all that fulfill that our agreement was, when I to him submitted and chose his will.” Rolf said.
“Rise, than Rudolf, ealdorman and faithful agent of the king.
Immanuel leaped into the air, tossing his hat high above his head as a cheer erupted from the crowd.
It was not until later that Immanuel realized that Rolf would be leaving him. But, a preparations are apt to do, they dragged on another week and Immanuel had not much time to brood over this or to wish that his friend were not so busy these last days.
At last, however, the preparations were completed and Rolf sat on his mount to depart. “Immanuel,” said he, “I am glad to have met you. You have been useful to me, and you are becoming ever more useful. Perhaps I will see you soon in the king’s employ.” He smiled, “Fare well, my friend.” and he leaned down to shake Immanuel by the hand.
“Good-bye, Sir,” Immanuel stammered, “I will make myself known to the king, if only to see you again. Fare well.”
The call to ride sounded some short time later. Strangely, however, action did not follow it, and when Immanuel went to investigate, he found that the king was occupied in talking to someone who had just arrived. Immanuel was told that the ragged man had run from the forest. Immanuel thought that he seemed familiar.
Then, the call was sounded again, but this time, the party started quickly westward.
“Immanuel!” Rolf called, quickly taking stock of the situation as the divisions began began to move.
“Yes?” he answered, running over.
“Up!” Rolf commanded, taking hold of Immanuel’s right arm and dragging him up over the horse’s flank to sit behind him.
“Walter!” Rolf called to the commander standing near by. Immanuel now realized that the rest of the hall’s men were hurrying—not just the king’s train.
“Use my horse,” Rolf said, motioning to his extra horse.
Walter leaped onto the bare back of the horse. He called to his lieutenant to explain that he was to take his place until they met again.
“Now,” he said, “any details?”
“Vikings, perhaps with Drough, took Exeter from Edmar and him men,” Rolf elaborated hastily. “We are going to need your advice before the men here can be moved,” he said to Walter, “Immanuel, you are the only one immediately present who knows the lay of the passages beneath and who will not be missed. Explain Come, we may get there in time!”
This trip to the castle was briefer, as well as more direct than Immanuel’s recent trip. When they arrived, none-the-less, the situation was urgent. Perhaps with Drough’s help, the Vikings had overcome the former pirates and small group of men stationed there, leaving only a small number to escape, but one of whom had gotten away to warn Walter. For a day now, they had occupied the castle with time enough to repair any damage they might have done taking it. They had bolted all the gates, posting guards. The towers were manned and all avenues of attack were closed. After a conference with several of his commanders, King Alfred had decided that a seige would be most effective. After all, the land was in the middle of a drought and all the wells were dry. “The well might have been fairly low when Immanuel hid in it,” Rolf conceded, “but” he pointed out, “There was a small lake underneath the tower if it came to that.” He sat up very straight suddenly. “That’s how we can get them to surrender!” Walter frowned. “If he’s as smart as all that , he’s nailed the trapdoor down. We could send for more troops instead” he said turning the the king.
King Alfred shook his head. The others didn’t pull out when the treaty was signed I now discover. They are subdued, but I fear that most of my men are occupied in holding them at Wareham. Besides, it would take months for a proper army to get down here. Aside from the men you have coming from the hall, this is what we have. I doubt we could starve them out. That Viper they have with them probably has quite a few secret ways like the one under the castle you found.”
Rolf shook his head “That wasn’t what I meant. I doubt many—if any—men could get into the tower that way undiscovered. I meant that this castle is supported is supported by wooden beams. A small group of men could sneak in, and in the branching passages. They could climb up the earthen walls, and set a fire to the supports, or hammer them if they were wet and rotten and get out quickly.”
“It would have to be a group of men who knew what they were risking,” Walter replied, “I do not see that our plight is yet desperate.”
“It will be, if the Danes are allowed to stay. They would pillage and burn and invite others of their sort. They must be gotten out” said Rolf, turning to Walter.
“But is there not another way?” someone else interjected.
“The longer we wait, the harder it will be to get them out.”
“Yes…,” the king agreed, “but if I send a party, who will lead them? You will be missed by the enemy if you aren’t there, to say nothing of my necessity that you are there: for who is here besides you who can direct the party?”
Unexpectedly Rolf replied, getting up, “My servant” said he, pulling Immanuel into the tent from where he had been waiting outside. “He knows the passages quite as well as I”
“What?!” Immanuel asked nervously
“It could work, if we sent some experienced men with him.” Walter conceded.
“If you are both sure that it will, than I will send a party to try. “But understand this,” he said looking at Immanuel. “If they fail, there will be no rescue party. Go quickly, before suspicion, if you are to do this.”
Immanuel swallowed as he nodded.
“Your majesty,” Rolf said bowing, “Come,” he told Immanuel, not looking back.
As they came of the tent, into the thick of camp, Immanuel paused.
“Oswald!” He cried, running toward the form which had just entered camp on horseback. His wrist was still hung from a sling across his waist. “Oswald! What are you doing here? I though you weren’t allowed to go any place with your wrist like that.” “I’m better,:” he replied, “and at any rate, you’re here” “That wasn’t my fault!” Immanuel protested. “Oswald!” Rolf sighed deeply, “You shouldn’t be here, but since you are, I’m sending you with Immanuel and a group to try something.” He paused, “Get ready and hurry.” So saying, he strode off.
Oswald glanced at Immanuel and slid off his horse.
“So,” he said, “we’re doomed, aren’t we?”
“What?!” Immanuel asked.
“Oh, come on, he’s sending us on a mission even though we have no experience and could botch anyting. So it’s probably more dangerous for us to stay in camp.”
“I don’t think he’d do that…” Immanuel contested.
“Really. So what are we hurrying for? We could camp all night without them suspecting a thing--(I assume this has something to do with the tower and if it doesn’t, why hurry? He still wants us out of the way.)”
“Wait…yeah,” Immanuel said slowly.
Oswald ran forward and caught hold of Idris’s arm as he hurried from the king’s tent. “Idris, Sir!” said Oswald, who had a personal relationship with him.
“What?” said the other quickly, pausing
“How many men are at the castle—about?”
“More than we know.” he replied, pulling away.
“Wait!” Immanuel said impulsively, running after him, “Where are the ships that left Poole?”
Idris paused. “Where did you hear that?” he asked Immanuel solemnly.
Immanuel went white at the truth of his guess. “I thought they might,” he replied faintly.
“Come on,” he said to Oswald as he ran across the grassy field, “He did have reason to hurry.”
Rolf trotted after Walter as he strode down the ranks inspecting the men.
“When do we attack?”
“Tomorrow at daybreak.” Walter said softly over his shoulder.
That will give them hardly enough time.” Rolf objected.
“Time or time enough, they went at their own risk” he grunted as he inspected a man’s sword
“But it isn’t reasonable–” Rolf began to protest, “Our own men need another day to reach here if they are to be fresh enough to fight and–”
Reaching the end of the line, Walter continued to stride on.
“The ships at Poole inexplicably left.” he said softly after a while. (without turning) “They were just sighted—120 ships —and they will be here soon. We must have this stronghold to defend from.” He turned back to the line. “Dis—missed!”
However, he caught hold of one man’s arm as he left.
“Dahy, I’d like you to volunteer for a mission. There is great chance that you should never come back from it.”
The army commander turned back to Rolf. “if you wish to have anytime, best get started now”
Rolf turned to Dahy. “We intend to sneak under Drough’s castle, are you in?”
The man nodded solomnly. “Yes, sir.”
Immanuel and Oswald found Rolf with a small troop of four men men from those still pitching camp in a nearby clearing.
“Rolf!” Immanuel called.
“Yes,” he replied, spinning around with a worried expression, “What’s wrong?”
“Is it true,” said Immanuel in an undertone, “that the Vikings are coming?”
“Yes.” replied Rolf, still more softly, “but that doesn’t doom us.” he replied, glancing over his soulder at the waiting men.
“Then why send me? Couldn’t someone else like Lamar do better? Why even waste men on this if there is so little hope of our succeeding?”
“Listen, there is always hope.” Rolf said rather more sternly holding his arm, “the subordinate always ought to listen to his master however little reason there may seem to him to be.” He turned back to the men as they readied themselves. His expression softened “I would not send you if I thought that there was no hope anywhere.”
“Yes sir,” Immanuel said down heartedly.
“Do well.” Rolf whispered, “Remember, you did want to distinguish yourself in the eyes of the king.Be careful what you wish for.”
“Yes, but, I–” Immanuel sighed and shook his head.
Rolf grinned down at him. “Come” he said, turning back to the men who waited beneath the steadily darkening sky. “I want you to meet Dahy.”
“If there was to be any chance of them succeeding at all,” Rolf thought, “then they had best trust the right people in the party above any spies.”
The small party set out cautiously under the pretext of gathering firewood. A short distance into the thick wood, Dahy dropped the few sticks he had been carrying and and motioned them to a swift trot. Immanuel dodged through the maze of gray trunks and green undergrowth half bent over in running. The man ahead of him ran like a deer without sound. Immanuel was breathing heavily, but he somehow managed to keep in sight against the gray of Dahy’s tunic the ends of the bright arrows that peeked from the quiver slung across his back. The woodsman had promised that he could guide them undetected to the south side of the watchtower; from there; Immanuel knew better than he did.
Early the next morning, when the sun cast only a bluish light without any heat over the forest, Rolf was up, shaking men to wakefulness. Stepping briskly from a tent, he followed Ahearn over the cold, dewy grass to the War Tent. Inside the king bent over the bright light of a dirty lantern to point out regions on a hand-drawn map. Look up strategy!!!
“Walter,” he was saying as they entered, “keep to my left flank. Ahearn will be on my right. I will lead the charge with a battering ram. Rolf will lead the archers forward on the flank. After a score of rounds, they will draw back in formation to shoot them men on the walls while we ram the gate. While this is happening, there will be a diversion at the east gate. Tancred, the east gate is impossible to breach in large numbers due to the thickness of the wood, but we may be able to detract from the amount men stationed at the main gate by it. You may even gain entrance, in which case, send a someone to fetch reinforcements.” He paused and ran his hand through his disarrayed locks and looked up at Rolf with bloodshot eyes. “Rolf, I may need you to replace any fallen commander; be ready. Meanwhile, assemble the men.” Rolf ducked out of the close musty tent into a red dawn where men where already rushing to and fro. He sighed and went to stir men from their breakfasts.
Dahy had guided them safely over five miles that night, indeed, the day had not yet dawned. Dahy halted by the rotting bole of a large fallen tree. Immanuel sat down on the ground and leaned against it. Oswald crept up straddled the trunk next to him. Immanuel took out some rations from a pouch and begun to gnaw on a piece of jerky. Oswald leaned forward and opened his mouth, but he sat back on his seat and began to scan the wood carefully.
“What?” mouthed Immanuel finally when Oswald turned for a third look.
“This snake?” Oswald said softly, “You fought it here?”
“Near dead when we left,” Immanuel whispered taking the jerky from his mouth.
“Evil things don’t die easily.” Oswald persisted.
“But I think that the druid is evil,” Immanuel replied.
“So long as he’s powerful, he’ll keep the snake.” Oswald breathed.
“Hush!” hissed Dahy, appearing from the wood suddenly. “Though I saw no guards, the sun is breaking. Boy, take us to the place.”
Immanuel glanced at the sky. A vivid blood red had broken over the horizon while he ate and was quickly spreading. Immanuel struggled to his feet, his mind full of foreboding.
“It was this way.” he said, seeing grass beyond the trees.
Immanuel gingerly stole out of the wood, breathing quickly. The wood was cut away so that no branches hung over the wall surrounding the tower. He glanced down the swarded passage between the thicket and the forest. Then he walked carefully up the slope to the wall and felt along it through the bushes, starting every time a branch pricked him. Although dawn had broken in the sky, it was still dark below, even on this hill. At last he tripped and fell on his knees in a small stream. Scraping the mud from his knees, he stood. Through the thick bush in front of him, he thrust his hands, only to hit nothing; he turned from the stream and walked down the slope to the others.
When Immanuel notified Dahy, the man, stood and drew his sword. He stepped up the hill, and beckoning the others, pushed through the bush and into a darkness.
Oswald is a little too smart. The Vikings might become extra watchful now that the king is here, so Rolf has good reason to hurry. (Oswald also knows too much about the mission unless he guesses well ; )
There was a splash as Dahy entered the cavern. Immanuel hurried after him, but as he stepped into the darkness, a hand grabbed his arm. He swung around, nearly tripping over Dahy, who seemed to be struggling to get up. The man holding him used Immanuel’s momentum in turning to swing him against a wall. He hit it with a thud and slunk down against it in the darkness. This time, he vaguely saw the pale shadow of a hand groping for him. The boy sprang up, knocking it away with his flailing left arm. He grimaced, pulling it back toward himself with his other arm and drawing his sword. There were the splashes of a struggle in the dark, but Immanuel could not see anyone. A shape suddenly started forward, and he had to duck under quickly. Immanuel dived away. The man advanced. Immanuel slashed wildly, somehow stabbing him. The man fell back. Immanuel turned and sighted Oswald, fighting near the doorway somehow, he had lost his sword and was struggling away from a large man with a mace. A man suddenly materialized from behind Immanuel, grabbed his arm and thrust at him. Immanuel somehow clumsily blocked it. The arm entwined around his waist and reached for his other wrist. Immanuel yelled; and with all his strength, Immanuel flung his sword to Oswald, who, quite fortunately, caught it and drove it suddenly into the stomach of his attacker. The attacker fell forward with a loud cry, brushing Oswald with his mace.
The hand found Immanuel’s wrist and he was suddenly jerked downward into the icy water, unable to move. Blackness began to cloud his sight. There was a sudden jerk, a cry, and Immanuel was hauled up out of the water. When he struggled against the hold, he was slapped smartly across the back. With the slap, he sunk to his knees coughing. Two hands pulled his face up, and a voice spoke.
“’manuel? ‘manuel? Can you get up?”
Immanuel groggily opened his eyes and found himself looking into the face of a young man. It was Oswald.
“Let’s go!” whispered Dahy, stepping over bodies. He grabbed hold of Immanuel’s belt, and hove him up.
“Two of ours fallen, but there were ten waiting. He was expecting us.” he said softly.
“Wait,” Immanuel gasped out, “moment.” he stood and panted in the silence. At last he replied,
“Yes, we followed him here before.” He paused for a minute to look for the the opening to the wood.
“The main passage runs straight from the door; that way.” He pointed, “I think that we will have to go a little beyond where I entered the first time to get under the center of the tower to light them. But we have to remember the way back once they’re lighted.”
Dahy lit a lantern.