Douglas Niles: The Crown and the Sword

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Douglas Niles The Crown and the Sword
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    The Crown and the Sword
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Douglas Niles

The Crown and the Sword



A column of dust marked the progress of two dozen horsemen across the flat expanse of the central Vingaard Plain. They rode in a neat file of pairs, and though the men and horses were coated with a layer of grit indicating a long, hard ride, they maintained ranks with military precision. The mounts were large, long legged, and nimble, and they crossed the miles with an easy canter. Even now, as they moved into a region where the ground rose and fell, their gait remained steady, their course as true and straight as the flight of an arrow.

At the head of the column rode a single man, wearing the garb of a knight with the unusual feature that his breastplate was not adorned with any symbol-as if he belonged to none of the orders, not to the Crown, the Sword, or the Rose. His shoulders and back were draped with a woolen cape that covered the back of his saddle and flapped loosely. His horse was a nondescript roan mare, a little sloppy of gait, though her eyes flashed with intelligence.

“We approach the Narrows, Lord Marshal,” commented a rider, spurring his mount as he came up on the left of the man. The rider wore the epaulets of a knight captain, though, like the one he called Lord Marshal, he bore no insignia upon his armor.

The lead knight merely nodded, taking in the changing surroundings through narrowed, but far-seeing, eyes. Only after studying the terrain for several moments did he raise his hand and point in a direction slightly to the right of their current bearing.

“General Dayr will gather the Crown Army there. We need to reach him before nightfall.”

“Aye, my lord,” replied the captain.

Without breaking stride, the lord marshal tugged his reins and swerved his horse in the new direction. No word was spoken, but the rest of the company followed suit.

The horses slowed to a trot as they worked their way down the steep slope of a ravine then surged and galloped up the other side. The formation opened only slightly at the increased speed, and the close ranks held firm as they moved fleetly over increasingly broken ground.

The column of riders came upon the army encampment in the scant shelter against the wind provided by a low hill. Lookouts on top of the elevation had spotted their approach and passed word down to the troops who were making their supper preparations. Two knights, a captain and a gold-caped general, left the warmth of their cook fire to greet the new arrivals.

“My Lord Marshal, welcome! Your timing is perfect. I plan to attack Ankhar’s North Wing by dawn tomorrow,” reported the gold-caped general. He was a handsome knight with the flowing mustaches of a traditional Solamnic. The insignia of the white Crown was prominent upon his breastplate.

“General Dayr, Captain Franz,” replied the lord marshal, nodding to the two knights as willing men-at-arms took his horse. He dismounted with the ease of a natural horseman, stretched, and for just a moment, winced at the pain of cramps in muscles that only a few years earlier would have made no complaint at the end of such a ride. Though his beard and hair were black, a trace of thin lines marked the area around his hard, cold eyes. His beard was short, neatly trimmed, and accented the outline of a strong, jutting chin.

“You made good time, my lord. We didn’t expect you until late tomorrow.”

“General Rankin and the Swords are advancing on the river. The enemy is in retreat in the south. Here, on his north flank, is the point of decision. I wanted to be here. And naturally, my Freemen were eager to ride.”

The lord looked almost with affection at the two dozen men of his personal guard. Like himself-and unique among the three armies of Solamnia-they did not wear the insignia of a knightly order. Instead, their loyalty-and their lives-was pledged to the leader who had forged those sometimes fractious forces into one great weapon of war. Captain Powell, the leader of the guard, had been an influential knight in the hierarchy of Palanthas but had renounced that post to serve the leader who, he devoutly believed, was the only man who could restore the realm of Solamnia to its past glories.

“Very good,” acknowledged the general. “Would you like a look at the position before dark?”

“Yes, right away.” The lord marshal turned to the captain of the Freemen, the man who had ridden at his side when they entered the camp. Another knight, his long mustaches caked with the dust of the ride, was making a report to the captain. Both men stood erect when the lord marshal looked their way.

“Captain Powell, come with us. Sergeant Ian, see that the men get something to eat. I want the Freemen to be well rested in the morning.”

“Aye, my lord,” both replied in unison.

The general and the two captains accompanied their army commander in a brisk walk up the low hill. From the crest, they could see a long distance.

The scene was dominated by a deep gorge, like a wound where a god had cleaved his sword into the flesh of the world. The Upper Narrows of the Vingaard River formed a bottleneck in that mighty flowage, a series of raging torrents and spuming cascades created as the water surged between two confining, looming walls. Even as the descending ground forced the Vingaard northward with relentless, irresistible velocity, the constricted channel compressed and accelerated the current. This was a wild place-the rocky ground around the river was inhospitable to farmers, and the water within its sheer-walled gorge too difficult for grazing animals to reach. The plains above the gorge were dry and dusty, bereft of trees and other vegetation, and subject to bitter, cold winds in winter and scorching, dry heat in summer.

It was on the west bank of this river gorge that two large military forces faced each other. The camp of the Crown Army was well situated between a pair of ridges radiating out from the round hill. With a company of infantry and another of archers on top of the hill, it was a formidable position. General Dayr had garrisoned both of the ridges flanking his camp and had an extensive picket line, with mounted outriders, guarding the main approach.

But all this was of secondary interest to the lord marshal. His attention was focused on the enemy, arrayed in a jagged, dirty smudge of fortifications backed by troops and war machines, all forming a semicircular bulge, with the gorge and the valley of the Vingaard at its right and right rear. There was a route of access-or retreat-behind the enemy camp, leading southward along this side of the river. Several paths dropped from the edge, vanishing into the depths of the canyon beside both camps.

“Is there a route through the gorge?” asked the lord marshal.

“A narrow path, my lord. We have a company defending it, and Ankhar has a similar force down there. It is a standoff-no advance for either side. And no retreat, either, considering that both paths are overlooked by the enemy.”

“Good. Your men only need to stand firm down there.”

“Ankhar himself is in the camp,” Dayr noted. “We spotted him late yesterday afternoon.”

“He knows his central and southern wings are already across the Vingaard. Here is where he has chosen to make his stand and fight,” the commander remarked. “I have come here for the same reason.” He turned toward Captain Powell of the Freemen, who was sitting astride his horse to the marshal’s right. “Go to the baggage train and find the wagon we dispatched here. Pull out a dozen of the casks that came from the Compound.”

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