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©2001 Robert M. Leahy
2110 East Crosby Road
Carrollton, TX 75006

Approximate Word Count: 9,200

Guardian Ghost

As he came to the edge of the Althenwold Forest, Sir Reagan reined his mighty, white steed to a halt on the crest of a hill, which overlooked a broad, treeless plain. Icy rain slashed against the knight's face as he peered through the darkness.

A lightning bolt zigzagged across the sky. In that moment of brightness, Reagan saw the outlines of a castle on another hill to the southwest. I should make for shelter, he thought. He gave his mount an affectionate pat along its neck.

Another bolt of lightning crackled overhead. This time, the white-hot energy sent shivers down the weary knight's spine. A third flash of light, and a crash as a nearby tree split in two and burst into flame.

The horse reared. It's hooves raked the air. Reagan shifted his weight forward and wrapped his arms around the animal's neck. "Hold, Triumph," he said keeping his voice steady even though his heart pounded, even though he could barely find the breath to speak. "Hold, I say."

Once the horse stood still, Reagan released his hold around the animal's neck. He reached out and scratched the beast between the ears. "Let's find a place to rest," Reagan told him. "Let's find a place to rest."

The knight pressed his knees into Triumph's flanks and shook the reins; the animal picked its way down the hill.

The rock-strewn valley was difficult to cross for the weary horse and rider. The ground was slippery, and secure footing was difficult to see. Triumph picked his way, head down low, ignoring the arcing lightning. Sir Reagan kept his eyes focused on the castle. It seems to be moving away, he thought to himself, as he pulled his rain-soaked leather cape tight across his back.

His Lord, King Alfonse, ordered Reagan to Heartland Tor Galthspur. Trouble with the northern province threatened. And King Alfonse hoped Reagan could persuade the Thane of Heartland to abide by the peace forged at high cost just a few years before. Reagan did not hold out such hope. He had dealt with the thane before and found him unreasonable of mind and distasteful of demeanor. But as his lord wished, so he would obey.

By the time the pair had crossed the wide plain, the pelting rain had stopped. The argent moon broke through the clouds and cast its silver glow across the land. Triumph was now able to see the safe footfalls as he sped his pace toward the castle.

As he moved closer, Reagan could see the castle was abandoned and in ruin. He wondered at its emptiness. Is this not the domain of the Lady of Broadplain? But the weary knight could not be sure. In the storm and darkness, he was unsure of his location.

The bridge to the inner courtyard of the castle looked sturdy in the silver moonlight, and Triumph, with an added kick in the side edged forward. The mighty horse whinnied in protest, but kept moving.

The pair moved under the heavy stone archway into the muddy keep. Two wagons, recently set afire hugged the far castle wall. And the bodies of half-dozen peasants lay just to the right of the stone arch.

Sir Reagan slapped his steed on the side of the neck. "It is as I feared," he told Triumph. "This is the castle of the Lady of Broadplain. The thane has already begun his mischief.

The horse neighed and shook its head. It started to turn back toward the archway, but the knight reined the beast back and urged it forward. "We will stay the rest of the night," the Reagan told the animal. "We both need the rest."

The two crossed the courtyard and entered the castle before the knight dismounted. Sir Reagan led the horse up a broad stairway into the main hall. There, he took his saddle from the beast's back. Then he gathered pieces of broken benches and tables and started a fire in the cold hearth. "At least we will be warm tonight," the knight said as a tiny flame began to grow across the stack of wood in the sooty pit.

Triumph stomped the floor. "Why so nervous, Boy?"

The mighty beast whinnied.

Sir Reagan laughed. "You're afraid of your own shadow in the darkness. I'm not going to let your fears scare me."

The crackle of the growing fire, the smell of the wood smoke and the hard ride all made the knight ready for bed. With a big yawn, he dragged his saddle nearer the fire pit and went sleep.

It seemed like only a moment after he had closed his eyes that Triumph was pushing him back awake. "What are you doing?" the knight asked, turning to face the mighty horse.

But he rubbed his eyes and looked past the horse to the far corner of the hall where he saw the specter floating. "You see that?" The knight asked, pointing.

Triumph snorted and shook its white-maned head.

Then the white cloud of light moved closer. Sir Reagan bounded to his feet and grabbed the hilt of his sword. "I cannot defend myself against thee," he said, forcing his voice to remain steady. "Tell me what you want that I may serve thee."

Closer still came the hovering spectre. When it stopped, Sir Reagan could make out the shadowing outlines of a short, stout woman.

“My Lady,” said the knight with a courtly bow. “How may I serve thee?”

“Arise, Sir Knight,” the spectre spoke. “There be no one to observe us here and I do not require your deference. I beseech your aid for my house and realm. You see how the Thane of Heartland abides by the peace forged so recently. My guards knew not to be wary and gave him entrance to my castle. We feasted his coming. And he repaid us with poisoned meats and sharpened blades.”

“As I saw, My Lady.”

“But you, as the King’s envoy, must know that there are many who still pledge their allegiance to the Throne in Clavern from which Alfonse reigns. You must go to these loyal ones and help them mount their attack on the Thane.”

“Alas, My Lady, I am unworthy of your charge. I am more diplomat than warrior. I am old and past my prime for fighting.”

“You shall not go alone or unprotected, Sir Knight. What I was unable to do while alive I have vowed to do in death. My shield will protect you. My thoughts will guide you. And my people will support you.”

“Wouldst it not be better, My Lady, to return to the King and have him staff and arm the force that battles the Thane?”

“It wouldst,” the spectre replied, “if there be time. But each day the Thane grows stronger. Each day the will to oppose him grows weaker. On the morrow you must go to the Keep of the Grotto. Know you of it?”

Sir Reagan shook his head in reply.

“Worry not, for I will lead you there. The loyal men of the realm are gathering there.”

“But will not the Thane be suspicious of such a gathering,” Sir Reagan asked.

“Like you, I doubt he knows of the Keep. And the few that are directed there at any given time should not raise concern. If he takes note, the Thane will likely only believe he has one less adversary to fight.”

* * * * *

As the first light of day streamed through the windows of the great hall, Triumph nosed his master to waken him.

“I am getting old, my trusted friend,” Sir Reagan said as he rolled onto his knees and the used his sword to help him rise to his feet. The knight opened his saddlebag and pulled out the last of his hard cheese and bread. “I should be in Heartland this afternoon,” he said, taking out his knife to cut into the wedge of cheese.

Triumph whinnied.

“So it was real,” Sir Reagan said to his white steed. “I hoped I had dreamed the appearance of the lady. But I only need to look about this place to know the deed of which she spoke was done. Still, I think it wise to stop and see the Thane. He cannot be ready to take on the King or else he would have done it. And I do need more supplies.”

Reagan led his horse to the castle paddock where hay and oats were stored. The groomsmen had been slaughtered and left to rot. And some of the carts were put to the flame, but the fire was somehow put out before destroying the paddock. But the grain had not been burned. “I do not know if this be magic or fate, but at least you will have food before we go,” Reagan said, letting go of Triumph’s reins and patting him on his white flanks.

While his mount ate, Reagan climbed to the ramparts and looked out across the wide plain that surrounded the castle. The fields to the south had been trampled and burned. The stone buildings still stood, but their thatched roofs had been torched. The wooden structures were pulled to the ground. They too had been set on fire, but most had not been burned to ash. Looking out across the land, the many small lakes and ponds that dotted the ground told Reagan that the rains had been falling for quite some time. They may have started before the Thane’s men even left the castle.

Reagan gave passing thought to going to the kitchen to find additional food but feared what might be poisoned.

“We must be off,” Reagan said, gathering Triumphs reins and hoisting himself onto the steed’s strong back. “We must not tarry. I must be at Heartland by midday to make my taking immediate leave reasonable.”

Triumph galloped off to the northwest toward Heartland. Despite the rain, the road was surprisingly firm and the mighty charger ran easily away from the carnage and ruin of Broadplain.

When the Sheltered Woods came into view to the east, Reagan slowed his horse’s pace. He would be in Heartland within an hour. He looked up at the sun and judged that he would be within the Castle before noon. He knew he had already been spotted by the Thane’s guards and, when he came to the top of a small rise, was unsurprised to see a guard waving the Thane’s flag a short distance ahead of him on the road. Sir Reagan unfurled the King’s flag as he road down to meet the messenger.

“What brings you to Heartland, Sir Knight,” said the guard.

“Business of the King,” Reagan replied.

“What says the Lord of Clavern?”

“The King would have me speak with the Thane,” Reagan replied, as he came abreast the guard holding the flag. He is but a boy, Reagan thought looking at the clean cheeks of the flag bearer. “Will you ride with me to the castle?” Reagan asked the boy.

“I…I” the boy stammered.

“If this be your post and you stay here, I understand,” Reagan said, smiling slightly at the youth’s confusion. “I thought I might have need of the Thane’s protection.”

The youth gave the wizened knight a quizzical look. “The Lord of Clavern’s messenger is safe in Heartland,” the boy said, trying to sound sure. But his voice cracked as he spoke.

“As I thought,” said Reagan; he applied subtle pressure with his knees to his steed’s ribs, and the horse picked up speed as it continued down the hill. Reagan wanted to turn to see the look on the guard’s face but did not do so.

The last half hour of the journey was without incident. The workers in the fields stopped just long enough to see that Reagan was not one of the Thane’s men and went back to their labors. Unlike the fields about the Castle of Broadplain, these fields were well kept and looked close to harvest.

Trumpet blasts announced his arrival. And a colour guard met him about a mile from the castle. Sir Hendrick, an old and noble Knight who had served with Reagan in the Great War, led the twenty-man squad.

“Sir Hendrick,” Reagan said, recognizing his old comrade as he approached. The King, Lord Alfonse of Clavern would be pleased with the honour you show me.”

“Sir Reagan,” Hendrick replied. “My Lord greets you and offers you his protection. Will you be staying the night? It would give me pleasure to talk to you at length.”

“Nay, I cannot, my good Hendrick. My business requires I return to the King this very day.” Reagan studied Hendrick as he spoke. Most who watched would not see the slight dip of the shoulders that bespoke the old knight’s true disappointment at the shortness of his stay. “But,” Reagan continued, “if your Lord might agree, we could ride together a while as I depart?”

Hendrick nodded and turned to lead the assemblage back to the castle and through the gate. The nod told Reagan much, too.

After a meal fit for a king of which Reagan partook of little, the Thane called him forward to speak with him. Lord Richard, Thane of Heartland was a small man of slight build. He was a cousin of the King. His dark hair he wore long and combed forward across his forehead. His dark eyes sank into his face. His smile was stiff as he spoke, “Sir Reagan, what befalls that my cousin sends thee here?”

“There is rumor of trouble to the north of Clavern,” Reagan said, meaning in Heartland but making it sound more distant still. “And the King, Lord Alfonse seeks assurance that the loyalty to the Throne remains.”

“The King need not fear the north,” the Thane replied, the smile on his face momentarily true.

“And the King can be sure that you stand with the Throne?”

“My cousin can be sure that I will take care of the Throne,” the Thane replied.

“Would Your Lordship send an emissary to accompany me to bring these tidings to the King?”

“Wouldst not the King believe you, Sir Knight?”

“I have no doubt I could deliver these words and be believed. But the gesture of an emissary wouldst more impress his advisors who do not know the King’s cousin.”

“You are a wise diplomat, Sir Knight,” replied the Thane. “Do you have an emissary in mind for this task?”

“If I may be so bold,” Reagan said, “I would ask for my old colleague, Sir Hendrick, whom the King will remember from the Great War.”

“If he agrees,” said the Thane, “then my oldest knight will accompany you." Do you have other needs which we may serve?”

“I will require but some provisioning for the return trek to Clavern.”

The Thane nodded, ending the knight’s interview. Within the hour, the two old warriors were on the mounts and riding out of the castle’s gates. They rode at a slow pace as they moved down the long hill away from the Thane’s stronghold saying nothing to one another. There would be time for talk when they bedded down for the night.

* * * * *

As they roasted a rabbit they had managed to kill as they rode southeast from Heartland, the two old friends had a chance to converse.

“Thank you for asking me to accompany you on your return to the King,” Hendrick said, tossing another small branch onto the fire.

Reagan nodded in reply. “Were you to Broadplain?”

Hendrick slumped forward at the sound of the word Broadplain. He brought his fists hard to his forehead and held them there. Even in the darkening night, Reagan could see the knuckles whiten. Hendrick gave a horrible moan before dropping his hands to his lap and looking back at his companion. “I was not there. Nor could I have stopped it had I been.”

“So I suspected.”

“He has gone quite mad, you know. I thought he might detain you in the castle.” “I thought the same,” Reagan said. “Perhaps he planned to, but something changed his mind. Or, perhaps, his confidence is not yet so strong that he openly defy the King.”

“But in his madness, he will try to do something soon,” Hendrick said.

“So I was told,” Reagan replied. The comment hung in the air between the two for a moment. Reagan turned the rabbit a bit on the spit and tossed some more wood onto the fire.

“So you were told?” Hendrick finally asked.

“Yes,” Reagan replied. “The spirit of the Lady of Broadplain told me last night when I visited her castle. She directed me to Keep of the Grotto.”

“The Keep of the Grotto,” Hendrick repeated. “When I was a boy, I heard rumors of this place. And I searched for it often as a lad. But I never did find it and believe it a myth.”

“I had never heard of it,” Reagan replied. “But when the spectre told me to go there and said she would direct me, I believed her. It must be a place of magic that is protected from unwanted visitors.”

* * * * *

As they approached the crest of a hill the following morning, about an hour into their ride, Triumph suddenly turned from the road and galloped to the east. Sir Hendrick could do naught but follow. Until the two of them were down within the walls of a steep gully, neither of them had seen the spot of low lying ground. It was barely wide enough for the horses to walk into. And it stretched forward about a hundred yards, ending in solid rock. It wasn’t until they were nearly to the granite outcropping that the opening to a cave became discernable.

“Well, I’ll be,” said Hendrick.

Just then, each horse was grabbed by two men. One of the men holding Triumph called out, “The one on the white horse has the Kings colours.”

A moment later, a tall, white haired man came out of the cave and faced the riders. “Sir Reagan?” the man asked, without really looking at the two men.

“I am,” the knight answered. And the old man turned slightly at the sound of his voice. The faint light of the gully allowed just enough light to see the blankness of the tall man’s eyes.

“The Lady said you would come.”

The knights were urged off their mounts and led into the Keep. The entrance to the cave was much larger than Reagan expected. And the cavern concealed behind the wall of rock immense in its dimensions. The horses were led off down a tunnel away from the main room. The air was heavy with the smell of oil smoke from the torches that lit the space, the smells of sweating men and horses and of horse manure. But amongst all the acrid odors were the pleasant smells of roasting meat and baking bread. These last made Reagan realize how hungry he was. Eating trail rations the last several days and hardly touching all the food at Heartland left his stomach growling for fresh baked bread.

Whether someone read his mind or all newcomers were immediately led to the table to eat he did not know, but Sir Reagan did not complain when he found himself seated at a table near the back wall of the cavern confronting a large platter of roasted pig, potatoes and bread. He was surprised to be handed a tankard of ale.

Between bites of food, Reagan tried to get the men who stood nearby to talk to him. But they said no more than, “The Seer will talk with you after you sleep.”

Hendrick seemed less interested in asking questions. He ate and drank his fill, and then, when he stopped consuming the food put in front of him, he was led off to a stray mattress to rest.

Reagan tried counting the number of men around him but lost track at fifty knowing there were four or five times that many in the cavern. He noted for all the crush of people, there remained a surprising amount of room. And he noted for the size of the throng, the cavern was surprisingly quiet. Reagan gulped down the last of the ale in his tankard and refused another draught when it was offered.

“If the Seer won’t speak to me until after I have slept, then I best be getting after it,” Reagan said, standing up from the table. A young boy, no more than ten, led him to a straw mattress along the side wall of the cavern. Hendrick was already snoring softly on a mattress nearby. Reagan took off his cape and vest for the first time in days. Moments after getting onto the mattress, the old warrior was fast asleep.

Sir Reagan had not planned to sleep long, but it was hours before he roused from slumber and stood up, intending to seek out the Seer. No sooner had he fastened his belt than he found the same lad who had led him to bed stood in front of him.

“Are you here to take me to the Seer?”

The boy nodded.

Reagan hesitated for a moment, looking over at Sir Hendrick who still snored steadily on his mattress. He decided against awakening his friend, and so he nodded to the boy to lead him away.

The Seer was seated at a small table near the entrance to the cavern. The air was decidedly lighter by the entrance to the cave, and Reagan could feel a slight inrush of cooler air as he approached the old man.

“Sit,” the Seer said as he heard Reagan approach.

The knight did so. He took note than several men moved closer to him and the Seer.

“We have no secrets here,” the Seer answered in reply to Reagan’s unspoken question. “Everyone knows why you are here. The Lady has told us of your coming.”

Reagan suspected the Seer was talking more for the benefit of those around him than for his own. “What else has the Lady told you?”

Before the Seer continued, the young lad brought Reagan a mug of hot tea.

“Thank you, young Patrick,” the Seer said to the boy. “He’s the last of the Lady of Broadplain’s line—a nephew, her sister’s only boy. All the rest are dead now. All the rest have been slain by the Butcher of Heartland. And he will be after young Patrick once he learns that he still lives.”

“How would he find out the boy is alive?” Reagan asked.

“We will tell him,” the Seer said. The boy is the rally point for the peoples of the north. As such, he is a greater threat to the Thane than are you. But don’t misunderstand. You have an important role to play in the Lady’s plans.”

The Seer outlined the plan to lure the forces of the Thane to the lands near Broadplain. Your job will be to plan the attack and carry it off. Then you and Hendrick will be needed to take the Castle of Heartland.

* * * * *

When Hendrick awoke, the Seer summoned him. The aging knight came to the front of the chamber led by the Lady’s nephew. He nodded at Reagan as he approached the table where his friend and the Seer sat.

“Sir Hendrick,” the Seer said, “we have been waiting for you.”

“Yes, my friend,” Reagan added, motioning Hendrick to a chair. “We have been discussing the Lady’s plan and your special role in it.”

“I...?” asked Hendrick. “The Lady has plans for me?”

“In truth, she does,” the Seer said.

As the Seer spoke, young Patrick returned to the table carrying another mug of hot tea. He set it in front of Hendrick. The old knight nodded; he held the mug in his hands to warm his fingers in the morning chill blowing through the cavern entrance.

“Stay a moment, young Patrick,” the Seer ordered, bringing the lad back to the table. “Sir Hendrick, meet Patrick, Lord of Broadplain.”

“But…” stammered Hendrick. “In truth, boy, we are told thou art dead.”

“And so he would be if the ransack of the Lady’s castle had gone as planned,” the Seer said. The Seer waved the lad away. “Know you now that he lives, and that is at the heart of the Lady’s plans. You must return to the Thane and tell him that as you journeyed with Reagan to Clavern you heard rumors that the boy lives. So many spoke of the boy that you believed the rumors true and begged Sir Reagan’s leave to return to tell the Thane the news.”

“The mad Thane will try and find him,” Hendrick said.

“That is part of the plan,” the Seer replied.

“If he finds the boy, he will kill the captain who commanded the raid on Broadplain,” Hendrick said.

“Yes, my friend,” Reagan said. “You see what the Lady plans.”

“But there is more to your part in the Lady’s plans,” the Seer continued. “You must lead the force that comes here to find the boy.”

Hendrick’s fingers tensed their hold on the mug in front of him; his knuckles whitened. “I am to lead the forces back here? Why would the Thane ever appoint me to such a task.”

“He will do so because it is the Lady’s plan. He will do so because he will want to reward you for your loyalty. He will do so because he will not trust the captain of the guard who pronounced the boy dead when yet he lives.”

An hour later, Hendrick was mounted on his horse and on his way back to Heartland castle.

* * * * *

The afternoon of the third day following Hendrick’s departure, word came back that a large force was moving southwest toward the Lady’s castle at Broadplain.

“The Lady said they would come in haste to find the boy,” the Seer said, as Reagan organized his forces for the battle with the Thane’s men.

“The fire has been set in the hearth of the great hall, and the smoke will be visible across Broadplain. The gates have been sealed shut so that the Thane’s forces will find no entrance. The Thane will want to see the boy, so Hendrick will not try to storm the fortress. And when Hendrick organizes his men for a siege, we will be able to surround them.”

Four hours later, as night fell across Broadplain, Reagan watched from his hiding place among the rubble of the farm buildings. The glint of light off the armor of Hendrick’s forward guard told him that Hendrick was less than an hour’s ride to the northwest. Reagan looked back to the castle. A huge fire burned in the central courtyard casting flickering light to the castle towers. A large fire blazed in the main hall, and the smoke billowed from the chimney and floated west in the evening breeze. Such fires bespoke a large gathering within the castle walls.

Reagan knew that Hendrick would set up camp just below the hills to the northwest. He was considering his moves when the spectre of the Lady appeared to him again.

“My Lady,” Reagan said in a tense whisper, “you must not be seen.”

“Fear not, Good Knight,” the Lady spoke. “No one but thee can see or hear me. I see that Hendrick has followed the plan. His men are about to break their march and set up camp. The forward guard has told him the castle is occupied and prepared for battle. You must be strong now for your time is near.”

“I am ready,” Reagan replied, bowing to the spectre.

“Remember that I am here,” the Lady said before her visage disappeared.

Reagan bedded down as best he could and tried to sleep. But his dreams showed him only what might go wrong with the Lady’s plans. And he awoke several times, chilled by sweat, visions of his own death and that of his men fresh in his mind.

As dawn broke, Reagan awoke once more. He and three of his men would soon ride to the castle gate and await the coming of Hendrick and his men. He began to cinch the saddle on his horse when the spectre appeared beside him once more.

“Be strong, Sir Knight,” she said to him. “Your dreams will not be true.”

Reagan took his small command to the front of the gate of the castle of Broadplain. The man to his left carried the King’s colours. The man to his far left carried the Flag of Truce. Neither he nor his second carried weapons of any kind. Reagan worried that treachery of the Thane would poison his knights and they would not abide the Flag of Truce. But the Lady had assured him the men would follow their leader, Sir Hendrick.

When Sir Hendrick and his entourage galloped toward the castle gate an hour later, only the Flag of the Thane was visible. Sir Hendrick and his colour guard rode side by side ahead of three fully armed knights.

“Be strong, Sir Knight,” said the voice of the Lady. “I am here.”

But Reagan could not help but wonder at the armed men with his old colleague.

“Sir Reagan,” said Hendrick, as he brought his charger to a halt fifty paces from his old friend. “We meet again.”

“What business have thee with the castle of Broadplain?” Reagan asked.

“We offer our protection to the young Lord of Broadplain. The Thane of Heartland shares the King’s concern that there be trouble in the land.”

“Tell your Lord, Thane of Heartland, that the King, Alfonse, Lord of Clavern, does himself offer protection to the young master of this castle. Thank your Lord in the name of the King. His protection is welcomed but not needed.”

“You do not understand, my friend,” Hendrick said. “My Lord requires that I bring the boy back to Heartland.”

“There he will not go,” Reagan said. “The rumors are that it was your very Lord who did sack this castle and kill the Lady of Broadplain. Until the King has found the Thane innocent of a part in that carnage, he will not allow the master of this castle to go to him.”

“As you say, the Thane is but rumored to have played a part—“ Hendrick’s began.

Reagan cut him off. “Rumors only they may be. But someone did sack this castle and until the King has found he that did it, he cannot trust any beyond his house.”

“The Thane of Heartland is the King’s own cousin.”

“But he is of Heartland.”

“We will wait for the boy to come out,” Hendrick said. “Or we will take him by force. But he will accompany us to Heartland.”

So well did Hendrick play his role that Reagan feared he was truly on the side of the Thane. “Relay the King’s message to your Lord,” Reagan told Hendrick. “This castle has the protection of the King.

Hendrick bowed, then turned his horse about and walked through his armed guards. His colour guard did the same. Two of the armed knight turned to follow, but a third remained facing Reagan.

“Does the King intend to fight for the boy?” the remaining knight asked Reagan.

“He does.”

“Then I offer my services to the King.”

The standard bearer, upon hearing the knight make his pledge of Loyalty, turned his horse again. He handed the flag to one of the armed knights as he returned to Reagan. “I too am for the King.”

One of the armed men remaining with Hendrick turned and drew his sword. But Hendrick stayed him with a shout. “They be protected by that flag of truce. No knight in my command will violate it.” Hendrick kicked his horse in the flanks and galloped off with his two remaining guards.

“Others there are who will stand with you if Sir Hendrick permits them leave,” said Hendrick’s flag bearer.

“But there are many loyal to only the Thane,” said the guard who left Hendrick. “And they will fight no matter Hendrick’s commands.”

Reagan remained in front of the castle gates for nearly an hour. Then, to the northwest, he saw the signal that alerted him that it was safe to return to his hiding place.

At noon, a band of fifty knights led by Sir Hendrick returned to the castle. In a loud, booming voice, he announced, “I have sent a messenger back to the Thane of Heartland that the King is protecting the castle of Broadplain and the young master within. These men and I offer our services in the name of the king.”

Reagan conferred with Hendrick’s former knights. They waited until nightfall to return to the castle. Sir Reagan took Hendrick’s former knights with him to meet the fifty at the gate. The flag bearer and the knight went among their colleagues and welcomed them, then returned to Reagan.

The standard bearer said, “I do not trust Sir John of Galthspur. “

“Nor do I,” said Hendrick’s former knight. “And I would not trust Kevin of Nahval.”

“So be it,” Reagan said. All the men were led to a place of hiding away from the castle and its fields. Sir John and Kevin were quietly separated from the rest and put into a place of confinement. The others were left free but with orders to stay out of the battle on the morrow.

The next morning, Reagan and his colour guard mounted and rode to the Thane’s encampment. Again, he flew the flags of the King and of Truce. And, as before, he and his second carried no weapons.

Reagan and his entourage were stopped as the crested a hill overlooking the camp. “I am on the King’s business,” Reagan announced. “I am here to speak to the master of the camp.”

“You are warned, Sir,” said the largest of the three guards who blocked their way, “that Sir Hendrick no longer commands this camp.” He clutched the hilt of his sword as he spoke.

“I ask to speak to the master of the camp.”

“The new commander refuses you entry.”

“But we fly the flag of truce,” spoke Reagan’s second.

Sir Reagan reached out and touched his second on the forearm. “Hold, man,” he told him. “Tell your master that this camp must be broken and the forces here returned to the Thane of Heartland. That is the will of the King, Alfonse, Lord of Clavern.”

The big guard spat on the ground in reply.

Reagan did not respond, and his second followed his lead. The colour guard turned and walked away from the guards of the Thane’s camp.

Moments later, an arrow sailed passed Reagan’s ear. “To camp,” he said calmly, “And to battle.” He gave his horse a sharp kick and galloped away from the Thane’s men with his guard in close pursuit.

As he reached the top of a rise a short while later, Reagan pulled Triumph to a halt. His guard stopped with him, and he gave the bearer of the flag of truce an order: “Now.”

The bearer rested the flag across his knees and brought a trumpet to his lips and blasted a call to arms. All around, a roar of the hidden forces rose. To the far northwest beyond the camp. To the east and to the south. The three bands of knights and country folk encircled and closed in on the Thane’s camp. With Hendrick and many of the best knights no longer in their number, the remaining warriors were confused and overwhelmed by the strength of those who fought in the name of the King.

Reagan watched the fighting from the hillcrest. Within the hour, the camp had been overrun and most of the men loyal to the Thane were dead or dying. A few prisoners were taken. Very few.

Losses for Reagan were smaller than the devastation unsheathed on the Thane, but they were still large, and Reagan lamented the death of each of those in his command. The rest of the day was spent in burial of the loyal men who died in service of the King. The bodies of the Thane’s forces were piled and burned.

Reagan led his forces back to the Keep of the Grotto the next day. Everyone would need time to rest and heal before the next battle. A much tougher battle on the Thane’s soil.

* * * * *

Hendrick’s knowledge of the Thane’s castle and the land around it were invaluable to Reagan as he planned the siege of Heartland. By going west and then heading north through the Sheltered Woods, Hendrick was able to move his troops close to Heartland without alerting the Thane. Hendrick said the Thane considered the woods impenetrable and posted guard only at the entry to the road to Galthspur, which lay on the other side of the woods to the west.

There were no roads through the woods going north, and the forest was thick with growth. But as the crush of nearly four hundred men and half again as many horses, two-dozen wagons and as many small carts pushed forward, a new road was created. On the first day of the march, Reagan made no attempt at keeping the men quiet. But when camp was made the first night, he gave orders that no fires be lit and that the men be as quiet as possible. Although still a half-day from the castle and several hours from the edge of the Woods, Reagan took all precaution.

In the morning, an advanced guardsman returned to camp with news: “I saw a lone rider make for the castle at all speed as dawn broke this morning. No guards stopped him as he made his way to Heartland. And, shortly after he entered the opened gates, the iron bars were lowered and a trumpet blasted alarum.”

“The Thane knows of the Battle of Broadplain,” Sir Reagan said. “The Lady said there would be no way to keep that news from him for more than a few days. I fear we have prepared too long and ruined our chance to take the castle.”

“It will be difficult,” Hendrick agreed. “Very few men loyal to the King remain within the castle. But there are some. And they will help us. Remember, too, what the Lady said: ‘The castle gates will not hold against you.’ And if we can breach the gates, we can take the castle and Lord of Heartland.”

Hendrick and Reagan made their final plans. Reagan would go to the edge of the Woods nearest the main gates of the castle with half the men, but only fifty riders. Hendrick would take the other half of the men and lead them to the north to approach the stronghold from behind.

At nightfall, when the castle trumpeteer announced the changing of the guard, the two forces must be ready to strike.

The afternoon was hot, and the men, crouching at the ready just feet inside the wood grew weary of the long wait. The complaints from the long wait in the heat grew louder, and Reagan had to walk up and down the line to remind the men to be quiet. Discovery now would mean all was lost.

Finally, as the last fingers of red light drained from the sky and a slight breeze blew cooler air into the Woods, the trumpeteer sounded the changing of the guard. Eight horse-drawn carts loaded with wood and dry straw raced from the cover of the Trees toward the main gates. Archers moved just beyond the tree line and prepared to fire arrows at the castle. Thirty other knights on horseback rode forward with the carts. Eight of them brandished torches.

As the first cart neared the gate, the driver jumped to the back of one of the horses. As he reined the horse away from the gate, the cart came free. As it crashed into the gate, one of the torches was thrown in and set it ablaze. All this happened as an alarum sounded from within the castle walls. And the first arrows sent to repulse the invaders flew from the ramparts above the gate.

One of the drivers was shot with an arrow before he could climb on horseback. The team of horses galloping in front of the wagon was flipped and fell as they tried to turn away from the gate and the fire. The cart they pulled flipped and bounced dragging them behind. When it came to a halt, on its side near the gate, a knight carrying a torch set it on fire.

Another driver made the jump to horseback, but as he turned his team away from the gate, the wagon did not come free. The turn the team of horses made was too tight for the cart they pulled along, and it, too, began to flip over. The rider jumped free and ran; he was caught up by one of the knights on horseback and carried away to safety. The flipping cart pulled down the horses of his cart. But the harness broke, and one of the horses was able to run free. Another knight chased the frightened draft horse down and pulled it back to the edge of the wood. Six of the carts found their mark at the gates and the blaze created by the burning carts heaped with dry straw and wood burned so brightly and so hot that the ramparts above the gate had to be abandoned. So high did the flames fly that the ropes and beams holding the iron gate of the castle caught fire and burned. So intense was the heat that none in the castle were able to reach the flames and put them out.

A short time later, the groan of metal could be heard above the trumpeting alarum, the roar of the flame and the bark of orders from within the castle walls. The grating sound was followed by thunderous snap of the beam above the gate. So loud was the noise and so unexpected that everyone within and without the castle walls stopped in their tracks. Everyone outside the castle watched as the iron bars dropped to the ground in an earth-shaking thud.

But no cheer went up from Reagan’s men. Until the fire at the gate was out, there was no way for them to enter the castle. Reagan gave the order for retreat, and the Knights and horsemen returned to the trees.

Suddenly, it started to rain. Reagan surveyed the sky overhead, which had been clear as the sun fell. Now, dark clouds swirled overhead and lightning zigzagged across the sky. But the storm seemed to be centered on the castle. Stars could be seen twinkling around the edge of the storm. The downpour lasted an hour, and when it ended, there were only a few spires of smoke curling from the remains of the carts at the gates.

Fifty men streamed from the Woods toward the castle to clear away the debris. A hail of arrows followed them as they worked to pull away the larger logs and pieces of the cart that blocked the gate from the outside. Many of them fell as arrows pierced through the armor. Some were able to stagger away. Others had to be pulled to safety.

Soon horsemen followed. But after approaching the gate, they returned without entering. Many of the horsemen picked up one of the knights who was on foot. Several of the mounted knights were hit with arrows, too. Three horses were lost.

“It’s been barricaded,” reported the leader of the knights upon his return to the wood.

About midnight, another alarum sounded from within the castle.

Reagan ordered his remaining horsemen to their steeds and led them toward the castle gate. So much confusion reigned within the castle that only a few arrows sailed down on the riders. As the force neared the gate, Reagan could see that part of the barricade had already been taken down. “Good work, Hendrick,” he said, although there was too much noise from the pounding of horse hooves for any to hear him.

While Reagan and his men had kept the castle focused on the front gate, Hendrick and his men had made their way to the back of the castle where two passages unknown to most lay hidden in the banks of a ravine. Most of the men remained at the entrances to the passages to await any who might try to escape the castle. Hendrick sent twenty men down one passage, and he led another twenty down the other. They were able to make their way into the central courtyard of the castle and dismantle part of the barricade as well as subdue many of the guards.

When Reagan and his horsemen entered the castle’s hold, about fifteen of Hendrick’s men were there to meet them. Hendrick was among them, but he had been shot with an arrow and was near death.

Reagan crossed the compound to the small niche where his fallen comrade lay.

Hendrick roused enough to speak when he saw Reagan kneeling at his side. “There are no more than fifty fighting men left within the castle walls. But be warned. They are the Thane’s men through and through. You will only subdue them by killing them. Whatever peasants and serving people are within will be used as shields. You will not be able to save most of them. The Thane will care nothing of their deaths.”

Reagan tried to reassure his friend. But it was too late. Hendrick had one last strangling, choking cough and he was dead.

“Honor lies in death in service of your King, my old friend,” Reagan said. Then he turned to organize his men for the search of the castle. “Hendrick said those who are left to fight would not give up. Be wary at those who would surrender. Know, too, that the peasants of the castle are being used to shield the Thane from your swords. Many of them may die as we try and find their master. The Thane is to be spared. It would be the order of the King, Alfonse, Lord of Clavern who would mete out this traitor’s punishment.”

Ten-men teams were sent into the castle. Four went to the west, and three to the north. Reagan led one of the three teams that went through the eastern side of the main courtyard and entered through the main door to the great hall. One of Reagan’s men peered around one of the great pillars at the edge of the cavernous room just long enough to see fifteen or twenty peasants tied together. From behind the human wall, five arrows shot across the room. The knight just pulled his head back in time, and the arrows scraped along the pillar and fell harmlessly to the floor.

With hand motions, Reagan was told of the wall of peasants and of the archers beyond. With hand motions, he asked if there were some way around them. The knight shook his head in reply. Reagan swore an oath under his breath. He did not want to kill the peasants. This was not their fight. Reagan looked at the men in his group and chose a young man named Oscar whom he had seen shoot arrows in contest. He motioned him forward and described what he wanted the young man to do as he fixed a large, heavy piece of sturdy cloth stained with oil on the end of an arrow. Reagan lit the rag on a nearby torch.

The young man took a quick glance around the great pillar to survey the room, and ducked back just as another salvo of arrows smacked into the pillar and fell to the ground. The knight then came out into the chamber just far enough to get off his shot. As his burning arrow arched across the room, nearly scraping the ceiling, several arrows flew back toward him. One of them caught him in the arm before he could duck back to safety.

A scream of pain was heard from the other end of the room as the burning arrow found it’s mark. The pounding, which put out the flame, echoed across the room. A door opened and several pairs of boots scraped through to the other side before the door was slammed and bolted.

While the injured young knight was attended to by one of his men, Reagan ordered another forward to see if the way was clear. No arrows sailed across the room. Reagan’s men quickly ran to the peasants and untied them. Reagan asked how many more peasants were in the castle. But no one really knew. “Be there another way into the part of the castle into which the Thane’s men escaped?” Reagan asked. And all the peasants shook their heads, no, in reply.

Reagan motioned the peasants outside. Then he stripped the cloak off of the fallen knight who lay near the bolted door. Then he and his men picked up a large table and used it to batter down the bolted door.

Room to room they went. Room to room they encountered more resistance. Each time, the Thane’s men escaped. Or most of them did.

Finally, Reagan and his men reached a large room on the third floor. Here another group of peasants were found. Only this time they were already dead and stacked like cord wood in an imposing wall eight bodies high.

“The King, Alfonse, Lord of Clavern, does not look kindly on the butchery of his subjects,” Reagan roared at the sight of the shield of corpses.

A hail of arrows answered him.

One of his men was nicked in the arm by one of them. It was hardly a serious wound. But moments later, the knight was convulsing and died.

“It is not the way of the knight to use poison on his enemies,” Reagan roared. But the fury of the knight did not help him find a way to break the impasse that confronted him.

So focused was Reagan on the scene in front of him that he failed to notice the spectre of the Lady of Broadplain at his side.

“You cannot reason with them,” she told him.

“My Lady,” came his startled reply.

“These are no longer knights, and they do not fight by any rules.”

Before Reagan could answer, the Lady moved out into the room and toward the wall of bodies. She was greeted with a salvo of arrows, which passed through her without impediment. She stopped just short of the corpses piled on the far side of the room as a second wave or arrows shot over the dead peasants.

“Your poison is useless on one who is already dead,” she said in a voice that rattled down Reagan’s spine. “You have nowhere to go. And if you stay and fight Sir Reagan and his men, you will die. You have spilled the blood of my people and the blood of the King’s subjects. You protect a man who has no care for you or your lives. He cannot spare your lives. He will be unable to spare his own.

As she spoke, the spectre of the Lady of Broadplain grew is size. Soon she was a cloud covering the entire room and all the Thane’s men within it. One by one, the men crumpled to the ground. A moment later, the spectre returned to Reagan’ side. “They will be no threat to you now.”

“The Thane is in the door beyond them. It is bolted from within. I fear he may take his life,” the spectre told him, “and deprive the King of justice, so I will enter and subdue him. But you must break down the door and take him from the room.”

The spectre disappeared.

Reagan’s men quickly broke through the door and entered the chamber where the Thane stood. He was frozen in place, unable to move anything but his eyes and mouth. In his outstretched hand, he held a small vial, which Reagan suspected was poison. The Lady of Broadplain held the vial, too.

Even in this odd predicament, the Thane, in his madness, spoke to Reagan about the honour of knighthood. “You would let this ghost fight you battles, Sir Knight?”

“What would you have me do, My Lord?”

“Allow me to take the poison.”

“That I cannot do. That is not the way of a knight. That is the way of a coward,” Reagan said.

“Than fight me with your sword,” the Thane begged.

“What, and let you let me kill you? What would the King think if I took your life from him to do with as he pleases?” Reagan asked. “Your crimes are against the King and his people. And only he should decide your fate. And I owe my allegiance to him and his wishes. That is what it means to be a knight.”

All the while he was speaking, Reagan noted that the Thane continued to battle with the spectre for the vial of poison. Although she was in no danger of losing control, he stepped forward and took the vial from his hand. He motioned his men forward to tie his hands and feet, telling them to carry him out on a pole liked a dressed animal.

When Reagan looked around for the spectre, the Lady had disappeared.

Reagan had his trumpeteer sound the victory call from the windows of the room where the Thane was captured. His own men cheered loudly. A smaller group of voices from the remaining peasants of the castle echoed the cry of triumph.

Reagan accorded all the slain peasants burials along side his fallen men. The Thane’s men were piled and were to be set afire as the knights left the compound. Normally, Reagan would force the commander of the fallen to watch the blaze. But he did not allow the Thane to do so.

The trek back to Clavern took four days. One of the knights was dispatched to the Keep of the Grotto to fetch young Patrick. Together, Reagan and Patrick presented the trussed Thane to the King and told him the tidings from the north.

The King bestowed the titles of Thane of Broadplain and Thane of Heartland on the young boy and appointed Reagan his counselor and protector.

And when the old knight returned the young lad to his family home, he saw the spectre of the Lady once more. “I have done what I said I would do, Good Knight. And now my realm is left to you to protect.”

“I will do as thou biddest me,” Reagan said. “That is my charge as your servant.”

The End