Chapter 4 The Hero
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The meager forces of County Dilnamarra, some two hundred men and boys, and a fair number of women as well, stood quietly about the perimeter of Dilnamarra village and watched helplessly as the flood that was the Connacht militia, rank after rank, flowed across the rolling fields towards their village. The Dilnamarrans would be no real match for the trained and well-armed soldiers of the southern city, but they were ready to fight and to die, in defense of their homes and their heroic Baron.
Still, more than one sigh of relief was heard when a small contingent rode out from the swollen Connacht ranks under two flags, one the lion and the clover symbol of Connacht, the other a scythe in a blue field, Dilnamarra's own standard. The horsemen trotted their mounts into the town unopposed, stopping and dismounting by the main doors of the square and squat keep that anchored the village proper.
Rumors ran along the Dilnamarran ranks that it was Prince Geldion himself who had ridden in, and there was quiet hope that the fight might be avoided - especially when the stone building's iron-bound door was opened and the Prince and his men admitted.
For the little boy (who was really a leprechaun in disguise) sitting atop one of the unremarkable houses, news of the Prince's arrival did not bring optimism. Mickey had dealt with Geldion before, had been chased halfway across Faerie by the man and his soldiers twice in the last few weeks. In Mickey's estimation, Geldion's apparently peaceful foray into Dilnamarra did not bode well.
In Mickey's estimation, nothing concerning Prince Geldion boded well.
Baron Pwyll met the Prince and his entourage in the main audience room of the keep's first floor. The fat Baron rested back easily in his chair, trying to appear composed, as the always cocky Geldion briskly strode in.
"Good Baron," the Prince said in greeting, and he jumped a bit when the heavy door slammed closed behind him. There was only one window in the room, barely more than a tiny crack, and two of the four torches set in the sconces at the room's corners weren't burning - and the two that were aflame were burning low. Geldion glanced around knowingly, guessing correctly that Pwyll had arranged for the darkness. In the dim light, the obviously nervous Baron's true feelings might be better disguised, as would any of Pwyll's henchmen, lying in wait in case of trouble. Geldion did not doubt for an instant that at least one loaded crossbow was trained upon him at this very moment.
"Back in Dilnamarra so soon, Prince Geldion?" Baron Pwyll asked sarcastically. He was playing with one of the long and straggly hairs on his bristling beard, pulling it straight and twisting it so that it would stand out at an odd angle.
"And I was not expected?" Geldion slyly replied. "Really, good Baron, you should set better spies out on the road. Our approach was more than a little conspicuous."
"Why would we care to set out spies?" Pwyll asked, matching sly question for sly question, trying to get Geldion to play his hand out first. He had not missed the Prince's reference to the sheer size of Connacht's army, though he did well to hide his fears.
"I am not alone," the Prince said gravely and bluntly.
"Ah, yes," Baron Pwyll began, straightening his large form in his seat. "Yes, you have brought your army. Really, my good Prince, was that such a wise thing to do? The dragon is dead, the land is again at peace - and long live the dragonslayer!" he added, simply for the sake of his guards standing tall behind him and for the other secret allies, men hiding behind the room's many tapestries. As far as the soldiers of Dilnamarra knew, their own Baron had taken on mighty Robert and had won out; at this dangerous time, Pwyll thought it a good thing to remind his soldiers of the reasons for their loyalty.
"But considering the unfortunate incident on the eastern fields," the Baron went on, trying to turn the situation back on Geldion, "parading around the land with your army on your heels might be considered tacky, at the very least."
Pwyll thought he had the Prince at a disadvantage with the reminder of the unnecessary skirmish, a battle facilitated by Geldion. He expected an explosion from the volatile Prince, a tipping of die man's true intentions. He expected it and hoped for it, for Pwyll was not unprepared. If he could wring the truth from Geldion in here, then he and his men would simply not honor any pretense of truce. Geldion would be taken prisoner and ransomed to force the army back to Connacht.
So Pwyll hoped, but Geldion's next statement caught him off guard.
"The dragon is dead," Geldion echoed, and he bowed low. "But that is the very reason that brings us to Dilnamarra."
"Do tell," said an intrigued Pwyll.
"Robert is dead," Geldion reiterated with a grand sweep of his arm. "And we of Connacht are indeed 'parading,' as you so eloquently described it. We have come for celebration, in honor of the dragonslayer. Faerie has few too many heroes in this time, wouldn't you agree?" As he spoke, Geldion looked over to the fabulous armor and reforged spear of Cedric Donigarten, in place on its rightful pedestal in Dilnamarra Keep. The fabulous and shining shield rested in front of the suit, facing Geldion, and it seemed to the Prince as if its embossed standard - the mighty griffon, a legendary beast, half eagle, half lion - was watching him suspiciously.
Pwyll didn't miss the look, and he narrowed his eyes at the clear reminder of Geldion's treachery. Geldion, by the edict of his father the King, had tried to prevent the quest to reforge the spear. When that had failed and the spear was whole once more, the Prince had come back to Dilnamarra and had tried to forcefully remove the artifacts. That, too, had failed, for the items had been stolen away by Mickey McMickey before Geldion had ever gotten near to them. Was that the point of all this once more? Pwyll wondered. Was Geldion back in Dilnamarra, at the head of an army this time, in yet another attempt to remove the artifacts?
"And so we have a new hero, that we might place on a pedestal, that we might sing his praises," Geldion began again, excitedly. He looked back to Pwyll, stealing the Baron's private contemplations.
Pwyll didn't know how to react. Why was Geldion and the throne in Connacht ready to give him any praise? He was among Kinnemore's most hated rivals, and certainly, with his newfound mantle of dragonslayer (whether that mantle had been truly earned or not), Pwyll had become among the largest threats to Kinnemore's apparent quest for absolute rule.
There was another possibility, one that Baron Pwyll's considerable vanity would not let him ignore. Perhaps his fame had become too great for Connacht to openly oppose him. His name was being loudly praised in all the hamlets and all the villages of Faerie. By the actions and manipulations of Gary Leger and Mickey McMickey, and several others, he, Baron Pwyll of Dilnamarra, had been elevated to the status of hero. Did King Kinnemore need him? he dared to wonder. Did the smug ruler of Connacht fear that all the people of the kingdom would rise behind their newest hero and threaten Kinnemore's rule?
The thought intrigued Pwyll more than a little, and, try as he might, he could not hide that intrigue from his expression.
Geldion fully expected it, and did not miss the superior look.
"We may ride in, then?" the Prince asked. "To pay honor to one to whom honor is due?"
Pwyll, in spite of his vanity and his hopes, remained more than a little suspicious. But he was on the spot. How could he rightfully refuse such a gracious request?
"Ride in," he agreed. "We will do what we might to make your stay comfortable, but I fear that we have not the lodgings . . ."
Geldion stopped him with an upraised hand. "Your generosity is more than we ever expected," he said. "But the King's army will be back on the road this very day. We have been too long from Connacht."
Pwyll wouldn't disagree with that last statement. He nodded, and Geldion bowed.
"I will arrange the ranks about the platform in the village square," the Prince said, "and return with a fitting escort for the heroic Baron of Dilnamarra."
Again Pwyll nodded, and Geldion was gone. The soldiers behind Pwyll bristled and whispered hopefully at the unexpected turn - one even reached down to pat Pwyll's broad shoulder. But Pwyll did not acknowledge their relief. He sat on his throne, fiddling with his wild beard, trying to peel away the layers of possible treachery and figure out exactly what Prince Geldion truly had in mind.
The significance of the appointed site, of that platform in the square, didn't bode well, either. It had been erected a few weeks before by Geldion's men as a gallows for Pwyll, and only the last-minute heroics of Kelsey and Gary Leger had freed Pwyll from the noose.
But that was before the skirmish on the eastern field, before the slaying of Robert. Might it be that Connacht would try a new approach to their rule, a softer, more insidious touch? Might it be that Connacht would indeed pay Pwyll the honors due him, trying to wean him into their fold with coercion instead of force? Baron Pwyll, like his men behind him, wanted to believe that, wanted to believe that Faerie might know an end to the warfare, and that diplomacy might again be the rule of the day. For the man who had spent many years battling Kinnemore's iron-fisted and merciless rule, that was a difficult thought to swallow.
"What is Geldion about?" Kelsey asked Mickey a short while later. The elf, Mickey, and Geno were holed up in a barn, a quarter-mile north of Dilnamarra proper. Geno had meant to go straight on to the east, to Braemar and Drochit, but Mickey had convinced him that he should stay around a bit longer. If the Connacht army meant to roll over Dilnamarra, then why had they hesitated? Certainly Baron Pwyll's ragtag militia would offer them little resistance. Mickey looked out the barn's south window, to the squat keep in the distance, and shrugged.
"You did not overhear?" Kelsey questioned.
"I'm not for certain what I heared," Mickey replied. "Prince Geldion went in to speak with Pwyll, and so he did. I seen it meself from the keep's small window. It's what I heared that's got me wondering. By the Prince's own words, the army's come to honor the dragonslayer."
"King Kinnemore has come a hundred miles to honor Baron Pwyll?" Geno asked skeptically, and Kelsey's expression showed that he, too, doubted that possibility.
"That's not what I said," Mickey replied after a moment of thought. Geno's incredulous question had sparked another line of reasoning in the leprechaun, made him recall all that Geldion had said to Pwyll, and more pointedly, what Geldion had not said.
"By all accounts, Baron Pwyll killed Robert," Geno argued, but Mickey was hardly listening. "Ye know," the leprechaun remarked, more to Kelsey than to Geno, "not once did the Prince mention that his father had come along for the ride."
Geno, of the rugged and secluded Dvergamal Mountains and not well schooled in the etiquette of humans, didn't seem to understand any significance to that point, but Kelsey's golden eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Aye," Mickey agreed.
"Enough of this banter!" Geno protested. "I'm for the eastern road, to tell Drochit and Braemar to prepare for war, and then to my own home, far away from foolish humans and their foolish games." "Don't ye be going just yet," Mickey warned. "By me thinking, things aren't all they seem in Dilnamarra. The day might grow brighter yet."
"Or darker," Kelsey added, and Mickey conceded the grim point with a nod.
They came into Dilnamarra to a chorus of blowing trumpets and the hoofbeats of two hundred horses. Prince Geldion rode at their lead, the proud army of Connacht. No longer did he wear his stained traveling cloak, but was rather outfitted in the proper regalia for such a ceremony. Long purple robes flowed back from his shoulders, and a gold lace shoulder belt crossed his thin chest. Even so, he wore no sword, only that famous dirk, tucked into his belt, not far from reach.
"And still there's no showing o' Kinnemore," Mickey remarked suspiciously. He, Kelsey, and Geno had moved closer to the village, to a hedgerow not far from the square (despite Geno's constant grumbling that he was getting more than a little tired of hiding behind hedgerows and fences).
Kelsey shook his head and had no practical response to the leprechaun's claims. Normally the King led his forces. It could be that Kinnemore feared a potential assassin, but that didn't sit well with Kelsey's understanding of the fierce King. Kinnemore was Ceridwen's puppet - all in Faerie knew that - but despite that fact, he was not known as a cowardly man.
The brigade formed into neat semicircular ranks about the perimeter of the platform that centered the square, while Geldion and a group of armored knights again went to the keep. They were admitted without incident, to find Baron Pwyll and a handful of his closest advisors waiting for them inside.
The Prince put a disdainful look on the fat Baron. Pwyll was wearing his finest robes, but even these were old and threadbare, reflective of the difficult times that had befallen all of the baronies in the last dozen years of Kinnemore's reign. The Baron held himself well, though. He seemed neither intimidated nor exuberant, had settled into a confident calm.
Geldion's expression changed when his gaze went from the threadbare clothes to the Baron's resolute features. The Prince's doubts about Ceridwen's plans came rushing back.
"I am ready," Pwyll announced.
"Are you?" Geldion asked slyly. He nodded to his knights, and as one they brought out their great swords and shifted about, each moving within striking distance of one of Pwyll's associates.
"What treachery is this?" Pwyll demanded. "What murder?"
"Fool," Geldion said to him. "There need be no spilling of blood. Not a man of Dilnamarra need die."
Pwyll raised a hand to keep his men from reacting, then to stroke at his bristling beard. He changed his mind before his fingers touched the woolly hair, not wanting Geldion to recognize his growing nervousness.
"We will march out of here as planned," Geldion explained. "To the square, between the thousands of my army. There, you will announce the dragonslayer."
"King Kinnemore," Baron Pwyll reasoned.
Geldion nodded. "My father awaits your call," he said, and he stepped back and to the side, turning to the door and sweeping his arm for Pwyll to lead.
"I should not be surprised by your treachery," Baron Pwyll retaliated. "We have come to expect nothing less from the throne of Connacht. But do you really expect the people to believe . . ."
"They will believe what they are told," Geldion interrupted. "A man at the wrong end of a sword will believe anything, I assure you." As he spoke, he looked around to the grim faces of Pwyll's helpless advisors. Baron Pwyll, too, glanced about at the fuming men. They had no practical chance against the armed and armored knights - even the two crossbowmen whom Pwyll had strategically placed behind tapestries in the room could do little to prevent a wholesale slaughter by Geldion's men.
The Baron motioned again for his men to be at ease, then stepped forward, moving past the Prince. Geldion's hand came up to block him.
"I warn you only once," the Prince said. "If you fail in this, the price will be your life, and the lives of all in Dilnamarra."
Pwyll pushed past. When he exited the keep, he had no intentions of failing the task. What harm was there in granting King Kinnemore the honors for slaying Robert? he figured. Surely the cost would not approach the massacre Geldion had promised.
Pwyll and Geldion moved out through the parting ranks, Geldion's knights close behind. Pwyll's men drifted apart and scattered into the crowd.
"I'm not liking the fat Baron's look," Mickey remarked when Pwyll, Geldion, and three of the knights emerged above the crowd, climbing the steps of the platform.
Geno grumbled something and sent a stream of spittle into the hedgerow.
The group shifted about on the platform, with Geldion finally maneuvering Pwyll forward. Pwyll glared at him, but the stern Prince, always loyal, did not relent, did not back down an inch.
Baron Pwyll surveyed his audience, saw how vulnerable his people were with two hundred cavalry in the town and thousands of soldiers camped just outside Dilnamarra's southern borders.
"Good people of Dilnamarra," the Baron began loudly. Then he paused again, for a long moment, looking out over the crowd, looking to the hedgerow wherein hid Mickey and the others, the same hedgerow that they had used to get near to the action on that day when Pwyll was to be hung.
Hung by the edict of an outlaw King, the same King that Pwyll was about to announce as the hero of all the land. How could he do that? Baron Pwyll wondered now. How could he play along with Kinnemore's continuing treachery, especially with the knowledge that wicked Ceridwen, the puppetmaster, would soon be free of her island?
The Baron sighed deeply and continued his scan of his audience, looked at the dirty faces of the men and women and children, all the people who had been as his children, trusting in him as their leader, looking to him for guidance through the difficult years. Geldion had more trained soldiers in and about the town than all the people of County Dilnamarra combined. Images of carnage worse than anything he had ever seen before rushed through Pwyll's mind.
"Go on," Geldion whispered, nudging the Baron with his elbow, a movement that sharp-eyed Mickey and Kelsey did not miss.
"It was not I who slew the dragon," Pwyll began. Immediately there arose from the gathered folk of Dilnamarra a crestfallen groan and whispers of disbelief.
"So there ye have it," Mickey remarked. "With Pwyll and Dilnamarra in their fold, nothing will stop Ceridwen and Kinnemore."
"Time to go east," Geno growled, and he spat again and turned from the hedgerow. But Kelsey, who knew Pwyll better than anyone, perhaps, saw something then, something in the look of the fat man. He grabbed Geno by the shoulder, roughly turned him about, and bade him to wait a few moments longer.
Baron Pwyll had reached the most crucial test of all his life. Just as he was about to announce Kinnemore - and he saw the King then, out of the corner of his eye, bedecked for the ceremony and sitting astride a white charger at the back of the cavalry ranks - he came to consider the full implication of his words. He came to understand that by so proclaiming Kinnemore, he would be pledging fealty to the King, he would be surrendering Dilnamarra without a fight.
What would that imply for the people of Drochit and Braemar, and all the other villages? What would that bode for the Tylwyth Teg in their forest home not so far from Dilnamarra Keep? These were Pwyll's allies, friends to the Baron and to his people.
"In truth, the dragonslayer was . . ." Pwyll saw the smug look come over the advancing King, a superior look, an expression of conquest.
". . . Gary Leger of Bretaigne!" Pwyll cried out. Geldion turned on him, shocked and outraged. "And Kelsenellenelvial Gil-Ravadry of Tir na n'Og, and famed Geno Hammerthrower of Dvergamal, and Gerbil Hamsmacker, a most inventive gnome of Gondabuggan!"
Pwyll's body jerked suddenly as a crossbow quarrel entered his chest.
"And a leprechaun," he gasped. "My friend Mickey. Beware, people of Dilnamarra!" Pwyll cried. "They will kill you with weapons if they cannot snare you with lies!"
Geldion grabbed him roughly, and only that held Pwyll upright on his buckling legs.
"Do not hear the hissing lies of a serpent King!" Pwyll roared with all the strength he had remaining. "These I have named are the heroes. These are the ones who will lead you from the darkness!"
Pwyll groaned in agony as one of the knights came over near to the Prince and plunged a sword into the Baron's back.
"My friend Mickey," Pwyll said, his voice no more than a breathless whisper, and he slumped to his knees, where the darkness of death found him.
"Where did that come from?" a stunned and obviously appreciative Geno wanted to know.
"From Baron Pwyll of Dilnamarra," Kelsey declared firmly.
"Me friend," added Mickey, and there was a tear in the leprechaun's eye, though he knew that he had just witnessed Baron Pwyll's finest moment.
Geno nodded and without another word ran off, knowing that the road east would surely soon be blocked. All about the platform erupted into a sudden frenzy. The people of Dilnamarra could not hope to win out, but their rage consumed them, and they pulled many soldiers down.
Through it all, Geldion stood on the platform, holding fast to the dead Baron. He felt a twinge of sympathy for this man who had so bravely died, felt as though his father, and that wicked Ceridwen, had underestimated Pwyll all along.
King Kinnemore and his bodyguards pushed through the throng to the platform, the King rushing up to stand by his son. Geldion glared at him as he approached, and Kinnemore had no words to deny the Prince's anger. Kinnemore tried to call for calm, but the riot was on and out of control. Flustered, Kinnemore turned to Geldion, and smacked his son hard, trying to wipe that I-told-you-so look from Geldion's face.
Geldion started to blurt out a retort; then his eyes went wide as a long arrow knocked into Kinnemore's breastplate.
"Ye just had to put yer thoughts in," Mickey said to Kelsey, the elf's great bow still humming from the incredible shot.
"I thought the voice of the Tylwyth Teg should be heard at this time," Kelsey said easily.
Mickey looked back to the platform, to King Kinnemore, still standing, looking with surprise upon the quivering shaft.
"I think he got yer point," Mickey snickered.
To their amazement, to the amazement of Geldion and all the others who had noticed the arrow, Kinnemore calmly reached down and snapped the shaft. He took a moment to study its design, then casually tossed it aside. "Find the elf and kill him," he calmly ordered some of his nearby men, pointing in the general direction of the hedgerow.
"He's a tough one," Mickey remarked, his voice full of sincere awe. "And we should be leaving."
Kelsey didn't disagree with either point. He scooped Mickey up to his shoulder and ran off to the north, towards Tir na n'Og, where he knew that his fellow Tylwyth Teg would be waiting to turn back any pursuit. As soon as the initial shock of the riot faded, the skilled army of Connacht systematically overran the village. Dil-namarra was secured that very night, with more than half the populace slain or imprisoned.
Refugees, more children than adults, came to the southern borders of the thick forest Tir na n'Og all that night, where the normally reclusive Tylwyth Teg mercifully allowed them entry.
"Ceridwen might get her kingdom," Mickey remarked, standing by Kelsey's side and looking south from the tree line. "But by the words o' Baron Pwyll, suren she's to fight for every inch o' ground!"
Kelsey said nothing, just watched solemnly as another group of young boys and girls ran across the last moonlit field to the forest's dark border, pursued by a host of soldiers. A hail of arrows from unseen archers high in the boughs turned the soldiers about, and the youngsters made it in to safety.
The war for Faerie had begun.