As promised, here is the revised draft of Chapter One. Enjoy!
Rolf’s breath came in ragged gasps as he pelted through the forest, trying to get as far away from the battle as possible. The clash of swords, the neighing of horses, and the screams of the wounded rang out behind him like discordant music. When he had gained enough distance, he scurried behind a tree and leaned against it to catch his breath. His halberd dangled in his grip and he knew he might as well let it drop to the ground; it would only impede his escape. It was far too noticeable anyway, holding its proud, glittering head high in the air for all to see. And he was a man who must hold his head low from now on.
He was about to press on when he heard a shout of pain and fear startlingly close by. He looked over to the open field not far away and saw two knights fighting on horseback. One had a seahawk across the breastplate: a treaty-breaking Cimbrian knight. The other was marked by a white raven, the symbol of the Ilarian allies. The Cimbrian had just delivered a thundering blow with his mace to the shield of the Ilarian, shattering it into splinters and sending the knight crashing to the ground.
His horse panicked and pranced away, nearly trampling his rider. The knight jumped up and grabbed the reins, but this only caused the horse to bolt, jerking them from his grip. Losing his balance, the knight fell to the ground again. The Cimbrian saw his opportunity; urging his charger forward, he raised the mace for a skull-smashing blow.
Rolf charged out of the forest with a roar, halberd in hand. Coming between the horse and the unseated knight, he plunged down on one knee and planted the butt of the halberd into the ground. He braced himself for the weight of the horse. Though the halberd would kill it, the momentum would probably bring it careening right into him.
The horse saw the bright steel flashing in the sunlight and tried to swerve to the side. Instead, it thrust itself right down the length of the blade, not in the center of the chest but through the shoulder. The whole shaft shivered in Rolf’s hands but did not break. For one long, awful moment the horse hung there, hoofs pawing the air in agony; then it fell right beside Rolf, dead.
The Cimbrian had thrown himself clear and now rose up, his long dagger drawn. He ran at Rolf, screaming in rage, and Rolf unsheathed his sword. But the knight proved too angry to fight well; his movements were too long and he was unable to react quickly. The fight was soon over.
Rolf cleaned his sword on the grass and turned to the Ilarian knight. “Are you alright, My Lord?”
The knight grunted and tried to stand. Rolf grabbed him under his good arm and hauled him to his feet. “Are you alright?” he repeated.
Hands shaking a bit, the knight slid back his visor, revealing kind, blue eyes. “I’m not badly hurt, my good soldier, thanks to you. It is an honor to meet such a brave fellow as yourself among my Skopjae allies. I’ll be sure to mention this to your commanding officer.”
Rolf managed to squeeze out a half-hearted smile. “Uh, thanks.”
The knight started to walk stiffly in the direction of the camp and Rolf could see he was in pain. He glanced back at the forest for a moment. Then he followed him. “May I help you back to your camp?” He held out his arm for the knight to lean on.
Taking the offered arm, they went slowly toward the camp. Their way was up a gentle slope and, fortunately, the fighting had moved to the west of them.
“Please permit me to inquire after your name,” the knight said as they walked.
“Yes, sir: Soldier Rolf. I am not of noble birth and I belong to no one.”
The knight smiled a bit at that. “A freeman then?”
“What part of Skopjae do you hail from?”
“Okau. I doubt Your Lordship has heard of it, it’s a small province.”
To his surprise, the noble nodded. “That’s near the northern border, isn’t it? I was once up there on a hunting expedition; beautiful country. Nothing but shepherds, goatherds, and wild pigs. Seems like a wonderful place to live.”
“Yes, indeed, sir. But I have not been there in…a long time.”
After a pause, the knight said very frankly, “I saw you hiding in the forest. I thought at first you were deserting, but you risked your life to save me and you are helping me now.”
Rolf met his gaze squarely. “I am no coward, My Lord. Nor am I a deserter.”
The knight held his gaze for several seconds then nodded. They walked on in silence.
They came to the fringes of the camp and were in sight of the command tent when a burly man came striding out of it. He was bald but had a white beard at the edges of his face. Rolf had been in the military long enough to recognize a chief officer when he saw one.
Seeing them, the man called out, “Your Majesty! The battle is won!”
Your Majesty? Then the knight must be—
“The Cimbrians have surrendered?” the Ilarian king asked.
“Yes, indeed, like the cowardly dogs they are.” The man suddenly frowned. “Are you injured, My Liege?”
“Not badly, Cerdic.”
Before the king had even finished his sentence, Cerdic turned around and bellowed, “Send for the physician! His Majesty is injured! Set up a couch for him!” A horde of squires jumped to obey his commands and Cerdic ushered them both into the pavilion.
Inside the pavilion it was comfortably but sparsely furnished. Rolf looked around with something like amusement; the Skopjae command tent was always stark, with not the smallest frivolity tolerated. The Ilarian command tent was practical and simple, yet they were allowed a brightly-colored rug, and the goblets set to the side were adorned with carvings and silver. And the couch they laid the king on was well-stuffed.
Cerdic poured wine into one of the goblets and handed it to the king. “The physician is on his way, My Liege.”
“Thank you,” the king said, taking the goblet. He gestured to Rolf. “Cerdic, this is Soldier Rolf; he saved my life.”
Cerdic looked at Rolf with something like approval. “Would you like some wine, soldier?”
“Thank you, sir.” He was handed one of the decorated goblets and he enjoyed looking at it almost as much as he enjoyed drinking from it. While he drank, a couple of squires started to remove his armor.
He took a step back. “Oh, no, thank you, I don’t need help.”
The squires completely ignored him and reached out again.
Rolf took another step back, bumping into the canvas. “Really, I don’t want it removed.” Desperate, he called over to the king, “Your Majesty, could you call them off? I don’t need my armor removed right now; I’ll be leaving soon—”
“Oh, yes, of course,” the king replied. He signaled to the squires and they returned to their places. “If you need to report to your commander, I understand, but I would like to offer you more refreshment—”
“No, really, sir, I couldn’t think of imposing,” Rolf said, hastening toward the exit of the tent.
Before he reached the opening, it was darkened by a figure stepping inside. It was a mostly unarmored cavalryman with the thick, wholesome smell of horse still lingering around him. The rider tugged the helmet off of his head, letting loose a tangled mess of long brown hair matted with sweat. He had a wiry, well-muscled body, but his face seemed surprisingly young to Rolf. He had playful blue eyes and freckles like fawn spots across his nose and face.
“The battle is won, uncle!” he called to the king.
“Indeed, Caon,” the king replied. “And I’m sure the cavalry had a great part in the victory.”
The young man grinned. “We were all the victory. I’ve never seen the men so fierce! They were like thunder!” He saw Rolf for the first time. “Well hello! Oh, sorry, am I in your way?”
“It’s quite alright,” Rolf answered, trying to shuffle around him and out the tent.
“Oh, Rolf, wait a second,” the king called after him. Rolf paused. “Caon, this is Rolf; he saved my life. Rolf, this is Caon, my nephew.”
Caon stuck out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Rolf!”
Rolf took his hand awkwardly. To shake hands with royalty…he squirmed to do it.
“Skopjae soldiers are very brave,” Caon remarked as if talking about the weather. “Very disciplined. Not much in the way of cavalry, though. I remember I once saw a—”
“Caon,” Conall interrupted. “That’s enough horse talk for now. Rolf needs to report to his commander.”
“You’re leaving already?” Caon asked.
“Yes, I’m afraid so. It was a pleasure meeting you…” Once more he started toward the opening, only to have it again filled with a figure, this time one of the king’s guards.
The guard announced, “King Tarki of Skopjae and a retinue of his court are here to speak with you, King Conall.”
The king nodded. “Let them in.”
Rolf started backing away from the entrance frantically. There was nowhere to hide and hiding would only draw attention to himself. He kept his head low and tried to blend into the canvas. ‘Of course the wretched tent would have to be blue and white,’ he thought to himself. His armor and the red and black trappings would stand out like ink on paper.
The guard stepped to the side and King Tarki came sweeping in, a few of his dukes behind him. He bowed his head while his dukes bowed at the waist in greeting.
“I hope I find you well, King Conall,” Tarki said.
“Not entirely, King Tarki; are you in good health?”
He nodded. “I am well.”
“I am glad to hear it. Have a seat; what is it you wanted to tell me?”
Tarki sat on the couch next to the king’s and his dukes sat on chairs next to that. The squire distributed wine among them.
“Well, Conall, as I’m sure you know, the Cimbri have surrendered; I arranged with them to meet at the brook to discuss new treaty terms. I hope your ill health will not hinder you from being there?”
“No, I will be there. Yet I must admit that I am rather dubious about the effectiveness of making more treaties; the one that they just broke was barely eight years old.”
Tarki nodded. “Yes, I am rather cynical myself. So, with that in mind, I had think we’d better—” His eyes wandered just a bit and he caught sight of Rolf. He stared at him for second then jumped to his feet. “YOU!” Crossing the whole length of the tent in one bound, he grabbed Rolf by the hair and yanked him to his knees. “It’s the traitor! Quickly, men, seize him!”
In half a second, Rolf was surrounded by Tarki’s men; his hands were bound behind him, his sword was yanked from its scabbard, and he was half dragged toward the entrance.
“Stop!” Conall’s voice cut the air like a dagger and they all froze. “Tarki, what is the meaning of this?” His expression was calm, but his blue eyes were hard and stern.
“I beg your pardon, Conall, but this is one of my own subjects and—”
“Yes, I know he is one of your citizens,” Conall interrupted. “I can see that by the device and armor he wears. He is also the man who saved my life and is an honored guest in my tent. Therefore, you must explain yourself.”
Tarki’s jaw tightened. “King Conall, I do not know what falsehood this blackguard impressed upon you, but he is—”
“I said no lies,” Rolf broke in. One of the soldiers surrounding him struck him across the face, cutting his lip.
“Do not touch him,” Conall said in a dangerous tone. “Proceed, Rolf.”
He spat the blood out of his mouth and continued. “My Lord, I am an exile. Ten months ago, I was banished from Skopjae, meaning, of course, that I am forbidden from touching this blessed soil or serving in His Majesty’s army. Therefore, for me to be here, a few miles within the border, dressed for war and among the troops, is a grave violation of my sentence.”
“You were here scouting for the enemy against us, weren’t you?” growled Duke Pilka.
“No. I am no traitor.”
King Conall gazed at him for a few seconds then turned to Tarki. “This young soldier saved my life. Hence, I am responsible for him as if he were kin. Still, I can not overrule your laws; only you can do that, which is why I ask you to release him to me. Annul his punishment and hand him over to me and I promise to keep him in my charge. On my honor, he will never set foot in Skopjae again.”
Tarki sighed deeply and tapped his fingers on the pommel of his sword for what felt like an eternity.
“We are old friends. Trust me to keep my word,” Conall urged him.
“Yes, that is exactly why I cannot let you do this,” Tarki replied in a new burst of energy. “Do you think I exiled one of my soldiers because he didn’t keep his armor clean? Because he stole a bottle of wine from his field marshal? He committed treason!” He pointed an accusing finger at Rolf, as if he wished to run him through with it. “Because of him, my daughter was kidnapped by a sorceress!”