By the twenty-fifth day of the siege, the proud walls of Rondinburg were crumbling. Those architectural giants who had denied the assailants passage, like cliffs bestaying the thundering breakers, were falling beneath tools of human construction. Those men whose arrows shattered against them and whose ladders toppled over when attempting to mount them; these men, by a machine of their own construction, a catapult, were turning to rubble those colossal bulwarks. As water wears away stones, so did these engines wear away the strength of Rondinburg. All that remained was for the destructive breakers to surge over the breached cliffs and flood the mainland, to flood every habitation and wipe away every living thing. For the men of Rondinbug, though their hearts plummeted, they gripped their swords a little tighter and kept their stations, knowing that if death was their calling, it was their duty. In one location, at the front of the city near the main gate, the Earl had focused the main force of his catapults. Under their barrage, the wall there had crumbled nearly to the ground.
As the sun nestled in its peak, Sir Aldren stood upon the ramparts beside one of the smaller breaches in the wall. He was looking blankly before him out across the plain where the besiegers hustled. With a face that indicated brooding and a mood repressed, but vaguely despondent, he held his own silent contemplation. After a time his squire, Destin, joined him and together they watched the forces of Galldenborough hurrying about in preparation for some new assault. The presence of Destin seemed to change Aldren’s demeanor, and if bad odds were his wine, he had drunk his fill and his tongue was loosed. “It is a cruel destiny that I have inherited,” he muttered.
Destin turned to him in surprise. “I should think you are favored, having good men and a noble cause.”
Sir Aldren rose from his leaning position against the wall. He breathed deeply. “You do not know the full of my history.”
Destin raised an eyebrow. “I know that you underwent many battles in the war we of the Brinean lands fought against the empire of Argaloth before they were defeated. I have heard many stories from the time.”
“Aye, but you do not know of my history with the Earl.”
“You have known the Earl?”
“More than known him. In the first battle of that war, the battle of Layrdith river, both he and I were knighted together, foremost among all the young men in valor and service. We were friends then.” As he spoke, Sir Aldren compressed his lips bitterly. “He was both fierce and noble then, not so renowned as I, but a great warrior nonetheless. In those days he was as I, for we both fought bravest in desperate odds. As the war stretched on though, he began to change. When we were knighted, he had not yet become an earl, but then his father died and he took over the position. From then on, the Earl grew less and less prone to the fight and was often late to join in battle, allowing others to fight the foe alone. His forces grew in number and his power expanded, but his once generous behavior faded slowly away until he was only left with courtesy – a behavior any man may show if it benefits him. Now he even comes against me, once his fellow.”
A long period of silence followed after which Destin spoke. “I see. It had puzzled me how the Earl could come to betray his neighbors.”
Sir Aldren clenched his fist tightly. “I should have seen it earlier, but he is a great deceiver. It was I who was ever the bravest in battle, but his cunning will bring him victory. If I were to stand on the plain before us and challenge him man against man, he should certainly fall beneath my sword, but he surrounds me and hems me in. I am loyal, and he crafty, and for my loyalty I look to receive death. Indeed, Sestin was right; even the bravest of men must finally succumb to numbers. My name will soon be wiped away and forgotten.” Sir Aldren bowed his head; his brows were furrowed and he bit his lip in passion.
Destin opened his mouth to reply, but a messenger rushed in at that moment. “Sir Aldren,” he cried, “The Earl is gathering his forces near the gate. It seems he will be making an attack against the breach there. Your command is needed.”
Sir Aldren and Destin followed the messenger and arrived at the scene to find the majority of the defenders already assembled. The remaining men were spread thinly throughout the rest of the fortifications in case the Earl should surprise them at a new front and they be unready. This however did not appear likely, for the Earl seemed to be concentrating all of his forces into one mass for a final concluding assault.
Sir Aldren wove his way among his troops, somberly surveying the situation. His men were few in number, less than half what he had commanded at the start of the siege. All who were able to bear the sword did. Even beardless youths and those wasted by diseases mounted the battlements. Around the troops flocked the wives, children, and other kin of those who fought. Sir Aldren was forced to send them away. Many wives had to be practically torn away from their husbands, and they from them, for all looked upon this as the end. At last, the families of the warriors departed. They stole one parting look toward those who went to die, and left.
Now Sir Aldren was able to turn his full attention to the defenses. The breach made by the besiegers’ catapults was a gaping hole that opened down to within ten feet of the ground. Already, a large quantity of debris from the crumbled wall had accumulated on the earth below and formed a rough ramp which ascended nearly half the way to the opening of the breach.
Behind this opening, Galther had constructed an eight foot wall in an arc shape closing off the breached section. This wall was far weaker and shorter than the permanent walls of the city, but it was well built for the short time in which it had been constructed. Behind it, there projected a platform on which the defenders could stand and wield their spears down against all who might assail them. On either side of the breach, where the original wall was still intact, Sir Aldren positioned archers and others with stones, cauldrons of scathing water, javelins, and any other weapon that could be rained down upon the enemy. Those behind the barricade were also prepared with as many missiles as could be gathered.
When Sir Aldren had barely managed to bring order to his defenses, a riveting peal echoed from across the plain before Rondinburg. Sir Aldren turned and beheld the hosts of Galldenborough advancing. Their mass filled the plain as if they were a great lake which flowed, not with water, but with dauntless steel. Sir Aldren raised his sword and roared his defiant battle cry. Thousands voices filled the air from both sides and his voice was lost amidst the din.