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Chapter 57: A deserted kingdom
12 December 1263
12 December 1263
Clouds were rolling over the mountains, obscuring everything behind them. A fog as thick as butter surrounded Culmarr Castle by the time we arrived at the gates. We faced no opposition. No arrows came flying down, no tar greeted us with its hot embrace, no stones rolled down the majestic cliffs. Only fog. Thick, white fog. Even the most hardened soldiers felt unnerved by this scene. I pushed everyone aside and walked towards the gates. They rose high, hardly visible from across the stone bridge. Were the archers waiting for me to cross it alone, to strike me down without any support? Maybe it would be better to send someone else ahead of me. No, I would do this myself. For some reason I was anticipating what I would find, but still my heart raced like a hare on fire. I felt that everyone behind me was holding their breath.
When I got to the big wooden doors, I noticed that one was ajar. I beckoned to my companions, who quickly ran towards me. Together we opened the heavy oaken door and entered the castle. Our drawn swords pierced the fog, letting narrow bands of light through. There was no wind: the fog had settled and intended to stay. Every step we took reverberated all around us. Slumbering echoes of a once busy castle seemed to finally awake again. Ghostly sounds were all around us. What happened to the people here?
On the courtyard I heard whispers coming from the well. Did all the people pass away while their souls got trapped deep beneath the mountain? Wary I stepped closer and looked down. Darkness. Even if the fog hadn't obscured my view, I wouldn't have been able to see the bottom. I shouted; my words echoed along the stone well down. To my surprise an answer came. I couldn't understand much of it: the person down deep was speaking too fast for the echo. But when he finally calmed down, I asked him for his name. The answer he gave me shouldn't have surprised me:
'I'm a veterano!'
'No, I asked your name. Not your rank.'
'I already said so, I'm a veterano.'
It was of no use. The echoing didn't help either: to fully understand what happened here I would have to get him out of the well. And looking at the fog, listening to the silence being broken by my army, I'd rather know it sooner than later. There was no rope ladder long enough to get him out, so we lowered the rope with the bucket. Unfortunately the soldier had broken his wrists in the fall down, so it was of no use. How would we get him out? He was just a soldier, not an important figure that would rise again, like my late wife. With that exact thought I knew how I should free him. I called my best archers and let them gather around the well. Then I raised my arms and exclaimed:
'I hereby declare that you shall henceforth be called lord Diederick, and shall be given the village of Bazeck to govern, as a loyal vassal of the kingdom of Holland.'
Before anyone could grasp what I had just done, I lowered my arms, after which twenty arrows, with ropes attatched to them, whizzed down the well, piercing the newly named lord. Immediately all the men started to pull and soon the body of the soldier was outside his narrow prison. Looking at his bloody remains I felt some doubt. Had I made the wrong decission? I commanded the maidens travelling with me to clean him, and lay him to rest in his room. I would see him in the knight hall.
The misty courtyard of Culmarr Castle, with the well.
I didn't need to wait for long before lord Diederick appeared in the knight hall. Murmers were going around. How could he rise from the dead? How could I know this would happen? But no-one would dare to interrupt his tale with such questions while I was listening.
'My liege, I was just a soldier before you bestowed this grace upon me, but I did hear a few things.'
It was like hearing myself echoing. These lands really got to me.
'Rumours of your army spread to our lands. An army greater than Calradia had ever seen. Cities emptied, castles abandoned, all in a quest to destroy our lands. More men than the eye could see. Like a swarm of locusts you would descent upon us. Them now, since I'm now one of your lords. Thank you, my liege.'
I waved my hand so he would continue and not rattle on with thanks.
'King Graveth thus ordered everyone to gather at the coast, to abandon all cities and castles like you did and face you with an army htat would rival yours. I dared to queston my former lord, by asking if it would be wise to basically hand all our estates to you without a fight. But upon hearing these words he shouted at me: "We! Are! Rhodoks!", after which he kicked me in this well.'
After hearing lord Diederick's tale, I decided that there was no time to lose. We would need to cross the mountains in order to get to the sea.
The mountains I would need to cross.
The mountains were high, the passes dangerous. And even tough the earth has warmed up and the mountains were not as snowy as they should be in December, it was would still be a hazardous and cold experience. With the army I had gathered I figured we would loose most of the men and women if we would attempt to cross this dangerous landscape. Thus I decided to not go there. From Culmarr Castle we rode south, towards Etrosq Castle. It was as deserted as Culmarr. Even in the village of Dirigsene no people could be found. Dumar and Epeshe were no different. All hope abandoned, no-one left to tell any tale. Everyone had obviously headed to the coast.
Upon reaching Dumar I let my army west, towards the city of Yalen. My army filled the entire mountain valley that lay between the village and the Rhodok capital. If there was one place where king Graveth could make a last stand, it was at that city. Slowly my army approached. I had send scouts ahead to tell me if I could savely skip this city, like I did with the castles and villages, or if this would be the location where the battle would take place.
Today scouts from all winds returned. King Graveth has indeed entrenched himself with the entire Rhodok population in the city of Yalen. But he wasn't alone. Thousands of ships had arrived. The Nord had defied the seas and sailed around the coast. A new alliance was born: they would help defend the Rhodoks. The siege of Yalen would be moer violent and bloody than any battle Calradia had seen before. Maybe the ten thousand men and women following me now would not even be enough to take such a well defended city.
Then more news came to me. An enormous army marched from the north-east. Nelda is coming. Everyone who had not joined my army is now part of hers. She is angry, and Calradia is using her to march against me. Can I conquer the Rhodoks, Nord and face her? I'm not sure, but I have to try. Just as I was watching the sunset over the Rhodok coast, the final scout returned. He told me that another army was on the march. Camels, horses, elephants: desert folk were crawling from beneath every rock in the wastelands in the southern part of Calradia. This could only mean one thing: Hakim is making another move. But what is it? Will he join the Rhodoks in their resistance? Join me in the offensive? Or will he have his own agenda? I need answers, and I need them now.
The coast where the armies will clash.
Still the battle I had promised so many chapters ago hasn't happened yet, but don't worry: the stage has been set, and soon everyone will fight.
Once again I used some holiday photo's. Can you guess where I've been? And where I took the photo's from the previous chapter?