The Search for the Unicorns Chapter Eight

This is the eighth chapter in the story, if you have not read the previous chapter please do so before continuing: Chapter 7 – Dumberlin’s Forge

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Here is the eighth chapter:

Chapter 8


They made their way back down the mountains, the trip down being a little easier than that coming up. They had achieved their quest, and all their hearts were much lighter now. Lungand, in fact, told a few jokes from time to time, which surprised Carla very much. One evening after supper, Bruderic was even able to prevail upon Lungand. Convincing him to recite to them the whole of the poem. The very one which he had begun to recite when the dragon had appeared at Dumberlin’s forge.

On the day that they came down out of the mountains into the hills, they saw a far-off plume of dust on the road. Lungand’s face turned grim again. “A man only hurries like that if he bears important news. I fear that it will be bad news for us.”

“Bad news?” asked Bruderic. “What sort of bad news?”

“It could be any number of things. But let us wait until the messenger himself appears before we borrow trouble.”

Carla looked at Wissagebreht. She hoped that the Wizard would describe other reasons for a person to be hurrying along this particular path toward them. But even she had a fear in her heart that Lungand was right. And Wissagebreht was looking nearly as grim as Lungand.

Long before the rider came close enough to be identified, they could see sun glinting on helmet and armour. Which meant a man-at-arms. For some reason this fact made Carla even more fearful.

At last he was close enough that they could see his face. It was Brehtand. As they drew closer, it became clear from his face that there was serious trouble ahead.

He spoke even as he came riding up. “Treachery, Milord King! Treachery and rebellion!”

“Calmly now, Brehtand. What is it?”

“Milord King. Nechtgang and Volkenor had begun plotting against each other from the day you first installed them as Regents. Last week Volkenor died, and it is suspected that he was poisoned. Three days later, the people who serve Nechtgang began to put it about that you have left the Kingdom alone for too long, and are no proper King. They do not say so, but the idea is left that Nechtgang would be preferable.

“Then Nechtgang called the people together in the Market Square. He began making a long speech about how the land needed a ruler of whom they could be certain. Not a boy who was serving at Lungand’s every whim.”

He glanced at the Chancellor at that point, but there being no interruption, he continued.

“While he spoke, the Wizard Gaistferu was standing behind him, overlooking the crowd. From time to time he would say something to a scribe standing beside him, who wrote quickly. The next day, guards were sent out to arrest several people, Lords and leading citizens. Everyone who appeared to object to Nechtgang’s plans. Rumour has it that the Wizard himself interrogates them, and often sends out guards to arrest others whom they mention.

“A few of those thus arrested have been executed, and some others released. But those who are released appear to have had their minds affected in some way. Much to the point that they are capable of little more than eating and sleeping.

“All this has made many who would otherwise be loyal to you either join Nechtgang or flee the city to avoid being taken.”

“You came out alone?”

“Yes, Milord. Some of your loyal Lords, such as Malemergen, wished you to be warned, but dared not set out themselves. Nechtgang has them all watched, though there are some whom he dares not touch just yet. And that cursed Wizard is everywhere! using his power or his mere presence to frighten those who would object.”

“So, if Nechtgang is spreading doubts about my return, then it is likely that he will be seeking to insure that I do not return. Did you see any suspicious-looking people along the way here?”

“No, Milord, but they may have come out since I did.”

Bruderic nodded. “We are fortunate that you got away so soon, Brehtand. If people have been sent out to guard against my return. They will almost certainly have orders to guard against anyone warning me. I think that before we go further we had best make some sort of plans. Uncle, have you any suggestions?”

“Only some obvious ones. You must show yourself as soon as possible, but you dare not show yourself alone. You will first have to go to one of your trusted Lords, and work from there. The problem, of course, is to pick a Lord whom you know for certain to be loyal. If the man is already a creature of Nechtgang or frightened by Gaistferu, you might well walk into a trap.”

Bruderic nodded. “Malemergen would be best, but he is in the capital, under the eye of Nechtgang. Who is the nearest Lord who will be loyal to me?”

Lungand stared off into the sky thinking, and a moment later said , “Hergard is probably the best choice. He has enough force to protect us until we have gathered an army to fight.”

“Fighting will be necessary?”

“I do not think that Nechtgang will quietly put aside all his claims simply because you appear again. Of course, if the people he has gathered desert him, then the thought of a battle is likely to lose its appeal.”

“Let us go, then.”

“Softly.” The Chamberlain laid a hand on Bruderic’s bridle. “We have already decided that he will have murderers out and waiting for you. If you ride into an ambush, all our planning will go for naught.”

Bruderic relaxed himself a bit and nodded. “You are right, of course. Perhaps we should leave the trail altogether.”

“Yes, since we could hardly scout every bush and hollow, I think we must. It will make our travelling slower, but safer.”

As they began to move off the road, Yssagarit once again came up to Carla. “We are coming to Vorholm once again, and we cannot go there yet. But we hope to see you in the future.”

“Good-bye Quickfoot,” said Carla, “and thank you for your company and your assistance.”

“No thanks are necessary. It is not many unicorns who have seen the city of the Elves, or who have been in the Caverns of the Dwarves.”

With a switch of the tail, Quickfoot bounded away, followed by the others.

As they rode along, Carla managed to bring her mount beside Wissagebreht. “Wissagebreht, what does this mean? Must this war be fought? Can we win it?”

Wissagebreht shook his head. “Bruderic is the son of a man who took the throne with disputed legality. For that reason, throughout all his life there has always been the danger that some other Lord would see himself as being a better King. It has happened on several other occasions. But always the King and the Chamberlain were able to move quickly enough to prevent them from gathering support.

“As for your other questions, I am no seer, to tell the future. I can look at all the facts which come to hand and guess, but that is all. I fear the war must be fought. Nechtgang has had too much time to make his arrangements, to gather his forces and make promises to his followers. Some may drop away when the King declares himself and shows that he, too, has a following. But I doubt that those desertions will make much difference. Indeed, there will be many on our side slow to gather to our banner, waiting until things are more clear. And it is on such things which depend whether or not we can win this war.”

With Brehtand scouting ahead, they carried on. Occasionally Lungand and Bruderic conversed. Speaking mostly in low voices, they discussed the strategy to follow. She herself caught only scraps of this conversation. Since it referred to Lords and knights who were mere names to her, she could not put forth much interest in it. They came at last to a castle built in a river valley, right up against the river. A ditch had been dug around the castle to surround the whole with water. As with Wyrgenhelm’s castle, there was a large ramshackle village built outside the walls.

The castle was quite tall, but seemed to be in better condition than Wyrgenhelm’s hold. There was, however, one section of a wall which had collapsed, due to the weight of the stone on the wet ground. But there were workmen busily building that up.

Unlike the guards at Wyrgenhelm’s castle, the guards here knew the King and the Chamberlain by sight. And so, they admitted the party readily, calling a messenger to take them immediately to the Lord Hergard.

Hergard was big and bearlike, with a shaggy head of red hair and an equally shaggy beard. For all his large and imposing size, he displayed a rough good humour. When he came to the King, he knelt, a sort of a bob of the knee, then straightened. There was no insolence in the gesture. It was more a recognition of the fact that they had a good deal to do and little time in which to do it.

“Welcome, Milord King! I had hoped that you would come to my castle first, though to be sure it is not in the best of repair.”

Bruderic smiled. “I thank you for the welcome, Lord Hergard. And I hope that this business does not come down to a matter of holding sieges of castles. Hopefully we can bring Nechtgang to the battlefield and destroy him there.

“But before we go further, let me introduce my companions. Besides the Chamberlain, whom you already know. may I present the Wizard Wissagebreht and his ward, Carla.”

Hergard gave Wissagebreht a searching look. “Welcome, Wizard. You have chosen to return to the court, then?”

Wissagebreht shrugged. “I left the court for a particular reason, as you know. The King came to me for help in healing the land, and the help meant a long quest. Because of the quest, Nechtgang and Gaistferu were able to plan and carry out their treachery. I feel that the least I could do is add my counsel to the King’s cause.”

The large man continued to look at Wissagebreht for a time, then smiled. “Good! I am sure that we will need all the counsel we can get. We will also need every sword we can bring to our cause; have you any counsel as to that?”

“I might have some suggestions about that, yes. But we have had a long ride; can we not find somewhere to sit down as we discuss this?”

“Of course! What a fool I am to keep you standing here. Come, come, this way!”

He led them quickly to a room with several chairs and benches, and a table in the middle with a map on it. Somewhere along the way he must have given a signal to somebody. Though Carla could not remember seeing it. They had no sooner sat down when servants came in bearing cakes and wine for them all.

Bruderic looked at the map and smiled. “You had made preparations for us, then?”

Hergard grinned. “As I said, I had hoped that you would come here, and thus I made preparations in case. And no matter what, I would need to make plans of my own, even if you had gone somewhere else.”

Bruderic nodded. “My uncle and I discussed things on the way here. We want to send out messengers to as many Lords as possible. Including Lords we know to be loyal and those we think might be won from Nechtgang by the knowledge that the King lives.”

“I have messengers standing by. All that is needed is to give them the word and say where they should go. Who do you plan to approach, and what do you plan to do?”

“What we plan to do is this: We will come to the capital on the day that Nechtgang has summoned the Lords to swear their oaths to him. We will gather as many as we are able before we go, and see if perhaps that might take the edge off those who are going without being too certain of themselves.”

“There may be a risk in that, if Nechtgang has already gathered a sufficient force of his own. But it is quite true that there will be very many who will not wish to be the first nor the last to swear their oaths to him. Particularly if he is really to become King. Equally, Milord King, you must expect that there will be many who will not wish to be the first nor the last to take up your cause. Many will want to see which way the wind blows before they move.”

“Yes indeed,” said Bruderic, “And while they wait and watch, the wind may well come up and sweep them away altogether.”

Carla felt a shiver of fear when Bruderic spoke thus. It reminded her too much of Lungand.

“Be that as it may, Highness, who do you wish to send word to?”

Bruderic began a list of names. Again, since Carla knew none of them, nor had she even heard rumours of few of them, she found this difficult to follow. She began to enjoy a tapestry on a wall. The tapestry which appeared to portray a young maiden sitting beside a stream, with a unicorn peeping shyly out from a bush behind her.

There was some argument about certain of the names on the list. So Carla continued to admire the skill which had gone into the work. The intricacy of the trees and bushes, the expression on the face of the unicorn, and the little rill in the stream running by the maiden’s feet.

Eventually the planning was done. Messages were written up for the various people. Then a succession of men, lightly dressed and carrying only short swords, came in to take up their messages and be away. When the last of them had gone, Hergard said, “Now what?”

“Now we spend a while waiting. I presume that you have your own force ready to march at a moment’s notice?”

Hergard grinned his huge grin. “Of course, Your Highness. And I have men out on all the roads to watch and warn in case Nechtgang should attempt to take this castle by a sudden storm. When do we march?”

“Tomorrow. We need a little time for our messengers to reach their destinations and for the Lords to set out. I know that many will be ready, even as you are. But we certainly must have the largest force we can manage, without waiting until the very last moment.”

“True. And wish Nechtgang as little luck in gathering his forces as we have.”

Hergard then turned to Wissagebreht. “Tell us, Wizard, these tales of what Gaistferu has done to the minds of men, what sort of magic is this?”

The Wizard scowled. “There are a number of tricks which may be used or misused. Just as a potion which eases pain may kill if administered in too large a dose, so other items in a magician’s repertoire may be used wrongly. I have known Gaistferu for a long time, and have always known that his ambition and his ability could take him far, but for his fear of failure. Somewhere in the past week he has managed to overcome that fear. Having done so, he becomes able to do practically anything which would further his ambition.”

“Do you hint that he may even displace Nechtgang?” inquired the Chamberlain.

“Possibly, but I doubt it. His wisest course, and I am sure he sees that as well as I, is to stand behind Nechtgang. Acting the loyal servant, but pressing his master into whatever action he thinks appropriate.”

“Do we need to fear spells cast at a distance?”

“Probably not. I have sufficient strength to protect against such, and he surely knows that. What magic is likely to be used will be short-range spells. Apparitions conjured up at a particular time and place to influence the outcome of a single battle. Or perhaps spells used to aid in the taking of a particularly important castle. Most of the work will still go to the swords of the warriors.”

Hergard was nodding his huge head as the Wizard spoke. “That relieves me. Swords and warriors I can fight, but I fear magic.”

Carla could not help but remember the battle at Dumberlin’s forge, and smile a bit.

Fresh clothing was delivered to them for the evening’s meal. But despite the entertainments and the diversions of the night, the land was still on the edge of a war. As a result, there was a sombre undercurrent to it all.

Afterward, as they were on their way to their beds, Wissagebreht took an opportunity to speak to Carla. “We will be marching tomorrow. You may stay here in the castle.”

He said it as though he were giving her a choice, but stating which choice he thought she should make. She thought it over for only a moment, then said, “No, I think I would rather come with you.”

His eyebrows rose.

“I know practically no one here, and would much rather be with you.”

“It may be dangerous.”

She grinned openly at that. “So was Dumberlin’s forge, but I was there.”

He nodded, smiling. “The difference is that I brought you to the Caverns of the Dwarves willy-nilly. This time I am offering you a choice.”

“And I choose to come along.”

“So be it. I fear that they will not allow you to take part in any battles, though.”

In the morning, Carla found that the servants had not brought back her travelling clothes. She dressed in the gown that had been lent to her for last evening, then went to look for someone to help her. Stepping into the corridor, she looked around to see where she was. There was nobody in sight. She went to Wissagebreht’s room; the Wizard was already up and dressed, and looked at her when she came in.

“I know,” she said, “I am not dressed for travelling, but the servants have not brought back my clothes.”

“Ah,” he said. “I don’t suppose anyone realized that you would be travelling with us. Well, let us see what can be done.”

He went to the door, and it happened that there was a young man, a page, passing by carrying a folded red cloak. “Young man,” said Wissagebreht.

The boy turned to look at him.

“My ward here needs clothing more suitable for travelling. Could you find out what happened to the things she was wearing yesterday?”

“I will ask, sir.” The boy looked up at Wissagebreht, gulped, and hurried off.

Carla looked after him. “Why is he so afraid of you?”

The Wizard grinned, with a bit of embarrassment in the grin. “He doesn’t know me as well as you do, and is probably afraid that if he doesn’t do what I want, I’ll turn him into a toad. That is one of the unfortunate things about having power; it tends to set you apart from other people. So many of them fear that you could and would use your power for such petty purposes.”

“And yet some do use their power for such petty purposes.”

The Wizard nodded. “Some do. And that is another reason to fear Nechtgang and Gaistferu as rulers. They are too much interested in their own desires. Bruderic at least feels some responsibility for the welfare of his people.”

They stood there for a while, talking about unimportant things. Then suddenly another page came hurrying up. “Milord Wissagebreht, his Highness asks if you are going to join them.”

“Certainly. However, there is a difficulty. My ward here needs clothing more suitable for travelling.”

The page looked at them, then gulped, his eyes widening. “Certainly, Milord! I will see to it immediately.”

“No need. We have already sent off another lad to do that.”

“But I will at least go see that it is being taken care of.” He hurried off.

Wissagebreht shook his head. “And that young man is frightened of me, and also frightened of what might happen when he goes back to tell the King what I have said.”

It was not too much later that a young dark-haired servant-girl, very much flustered, came running up with a bundle of clothing in her hands. “You wanted travelling clothing, Milady?”

“Yes, I do.”

“I have brought you a dress, and some riding boots.”

Carla looked at the bundle in the girl’s arms. “Those are not my clothes. They are not the things I was wearing yesterday.”

The girl nearly broke down crying. “Oh, Milady, it was all a dreadful mistake! The clothes you were wearing were so old and worn that someone thought they were of no further use to anyone, and sent them out to be burned! No one knew that they belonged to you, or that—“

Carla put a hand on the girl’s arm and quieted her. “No, no, these will be fine. Thank you.”

Carla reached out to take the clothing out of the girl’s hands, but she pulled away. “Oh, no, Milady, let me carry them to your room!”

She sounded a little scandalized that Carla would even think to carry her own things. Carla looked at Wissagebreht helplessly, but he was only smiling. She shrugged slightly and followed the girl to her room.

That was Chapter Eight. Please let me know what you think by emailing me at [email protected]

Or if you want to wait, I can email you a pdf of the complete beta in a month or so once the chapters have been released.

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