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THE AGE OF THE WARRIOR

by Hank Reinhardt


The chatter and gaiety of the feast had been stilled, and although the candles still burned brightly, fear and apprehension darkened the Great Hall of Castle Glaun. Rank was forgotten as lord and lady, townsman and guardsman mingled in small, quiet clusters. The low murmur of their voices would still as the door to the ducal chambers opened, but picked up as soon as only a servingman or maid appeared.

The evening had started out well enough. Lyulf II, King of Lyvane, accompanied by his retinue and the Duke of Jagai, had arrived earlier in the day. The Duke of Glaun had been well prepared for his royal guests, and the feast he had served was splendid. The recent treaty between King Lyulf II and Togai, King of the Shang, was an event to be well remembered, and the Duke had spared no expenses to celebrate it.

It was right after an impromptu wrestling match, won by Asgalt, Duke of Jagai, against a young guardsman, that the blow fell. A messenger arrived bearing the ill news that the Shang had invested Castle Kels, and it looked as if the castle would fall within a few days.

Pandemonium broke loose, and the King with his closest advisors retired to the private chambers of the Duke of Glaun.

In the chambers the King sat hunched over a table, poring over a map as if seeking to change the very lay of the land with his thoughts. Around the table stood several of his ministers, while in the corner the two Dukes engaged in a heated argument.

The King glanced with annoyance at the two men, and with a tone of less than regal forbearance snarled, "Will you two stop that damned bickering and get over here! The whole kingdom is threatened and you two argue over propriety!"

Asgalt, about to make a point, stopped in mid-sentence and looked at the King. "Sire, I do not argue, I merely defend myself."

The Duke of Glaun, Colwen by name, bowed from the waist and answered. "Your Pardon Sire, but I feel that it is unseemly for a Duke of the Realm to wrestle a common guardsman, even if the man is a champion."

Asgalt grunted in disgust. "Bah, you only object because I win." Lyulf glared at the two, then in his most Kingly voice, "We do not care about wrestling, or the proprieties. We do care about advice!"

Colwen, Duke of Glaun, walked over with dignity and stationed himself behind the King. He was a tall man, with hair as white as snow, and a face lined with years of care and worry.

However the Duke of Jagai merely ambled over to the front of the King, and stood looking down at him. He saw a man full grown, calm and stern, well suited to rule, but in his mind's eye he also saw a young boy, gawping up at him in awe and wonder.

Asgalt pointed to the map. "Look, you can see what has to be done, or at least tried."

The King shook his head. "I said no."

Asgalt slapped his thighs with anger. He was a large man, with cold blue eyes shaded by iron gray hair. Thick necked, running into massive shoulders and chest, with arms to match. Only the iron gray of his hair and the thickening mid-section betrayed his age. He turned away, then turned back again.

"You young puppy, were you not a man grown I'd shake some sense into you, King or no. By Kimwalt's Eyes, all you have to do is look!"

The ministers glanced at each other in embarrassed silence but the Duke of Glaun spoke up in shocked reprimand.

"Your Grace! You can't speak to the King like that! It isn't proper!"

Asgalt swelled and roared. "Proper! Proper! With Shang soon to be riding through every hamlet, butchering and pillaging 'till their black hearts' content, and you say 'Proper!'"

He shook his head in wonder, then continued in the same roaring voice. "Colwen, you were one of the best fighting men I have ever seen, but"— His voice trailed, and he spoke to the King in a lower voice. "Do you remember when Colwen and I held the breach during the siege of this castle? Fifteen years ago it was, and he wanted me to stand to the left rear, as he was borned to the Ducal Chair!"

The King, despite his woes, grinned. He had heard this story at least once a month for the past fifteen years. But then reality returned, and his face tightened.

"Enough of this. Togai has broken the treaty, the Shang are marching, and the Kingdom has to be warned and the levy raised. I don't have time to sit and listen to your constant bickering."

Asgalt nodded, dropped his pretended fury and spoke seriously. "No, you don't. Nor do you have time to send a messenger the long way around the Blue Mountains. The Shang are already at Kels, and before you can move the long way around, they will be here, and the main army will be moving. Before the levy is raised, Lyvane will be open."

He continued. "The only way to better the time is over the Pass of Jagai. Once through, and the Shang can be avoided by a good man, the levy can be raised by the time the Shang reach here. We could easily catch them here. And there is only one man who knows the pass, me."

Lyulf sat and never spoke. All there knew his concern. Asgalt had been a close friend and advisor to his father, indeed, he was responsible for his father gaining back the throne after the rebellion. But Asgalt had aged, and the journey he spoke of so easily was hard on even a much younger man, and the Shang were out in force.

In the end it was Colwen who forced the issue. "Sire, the Duke is right. 'Tis the only chance that we have! The course of action is plain. You leave at once taking the long road, and Asgalt leaves, for the Pass."

Lyulf nodded in final agreement. He looked at Asgalt and his face softened. "Have a care, Old Warrior. Remember that a young king still needs old friends."

The Duke grinned back at him, and for a moment his hard, craggy face looked boyish.

"Old? Ask that young guardsman. He thought I was old . . . but his back and shoulder will tell him different this night."

"Then take him with you. He looked tough as boot leather."

Asgalt ruefully answered, "He is."

***

The morning sun had not yet risen as the King and Duke Glaun watched Asgalt and Flan ride from the castle.

The King shook his head in fear, and spoke to his companion. "'Tis a fear good Duke that we may not see Asgalt again. Strange, that yet again the fate of this land rests on the shoulders of an outlander."

Colwen nodded his agreement. "There are no stronger ones for it to rest on." He paused, then continued. "He seemed more than merely eager to go. Is it that he fears his age, or is it his hatred for the Shang?"

***

The morning fog had lifted and now the sun shone warm. They rode at a steady pace, rarely speaking, each in his own thoughts. At noon they dismounted for a quick meal, and to walk the horses. Flan, the guardsman, was a tall youth, wide and rangy in appearance, with jet black hair and matching eyes. He eyed the Duke, then spoke.

"Tell me, Your Grace. How is it that a chief of the Haga Hai becomes a Duke of Lyvane?"

"That, lad, would take some telling. I'm not a Haga Hai, but a Birkit. I joined one of their raiding parties to settle a personal score against the Shang. Well, one thing led to another, and I ended up as Chief. It was a good life, all the Haga Hai want to do is drink and fight. I'd probably be there still, but a Shang raiding party hit us one night. They killed everyone but me. They planned on strangling me, then stuffing the carcass." He chuckled. "That was a mistake. I broke loose, killed a few more.

"I wandered a few years, then ended up in Lyvane serving in the Army. It was at Iron Mountain that I met Old Lyulf. The line broke, and it was clear that the rebels were winning, so when the whole army broke and ran, I tried to stay alive. Couple of days later I came on a man trying to fight four of the rebels and protect a boy. I killed the rebels, and the man followed me." He laughed outright. "It was a damn month before I found out it was the King. Old Lyulf was a cagey devil."

His mind drifted back over the years, and he spoke in a low reverie, forgetting he had an audience, talking more to himself than to Flan.

"Five years we wandered and fought. Hiding out in hills and caves and with a few loyal to the Crown. Finally we had an army, and we caught Morgaun at Whitewater Flats. What a battle that was! I killed Morgaun, damn well cut him near in half! But enough of me. How is it that a man of Lyvale ends up in Lyvane?"

Flan smiled. "Not much to tell, Your Grace. The wanderlust that hits many a young son of a poor farmer. I roamed awhile, tried the sea, but my stomach didn't care for it. I fought with Lord Conlenach, was with him at Colnar Ridge. Got away, wandered a bit more, then ended up in Glaun. The Duke hired me," he then added with a smile. "He was impressed with my wrestling!"

Asgalt laughed, a full-throated bellow. "I knew that old devil was trying to set me up! And he damn near did. You almost had me, but I tricked you. You wrestle well; all you lack is age and experience."

"Next time, Your Grace, I'll try not to be tricked."

They continued on, and soon the land began to change. The rolling hills gave way to open woodland, and this in turn to lowlands, with rich and fertile valleys. This was beautiful land, but now the beauty was marred by signs of war; burnt farms, scattered livestock, and whole villages put to the sword. The occasional stink of death they encountered as they passed a burnt-out steading soon gave way to a horrible stench, that filled the air and seemed to get into their very pores. Death was all about them.

Asgalt reined in his mount. "Now 'tis time to arm. Shang are all about, and we'd best keep a sharp eye."

Quickly they stripped the pack pony and each donned his mail shirt, steel helmet, and slipped their shields onto their backs. Their spears they set horizontally, so that they wouldn't project upward and give warning of their presence.

The Duke cut the pack pony loose and sent it running with a slap on the rump.

"From here it's two days ride. Then a climb up the mountain, across the bridge, and it's over with. All we need to do now is avoid the Shang."

The stench grew worse as they neared the outskirts of a small village. They passed death in its most grotesque forms, bodies lying with complete abandonment, bloated bellies thrusting at the sun. Neither spoke. Flan, with grim indifference, passed the scene, but Asgalt's face grew flint hard, and no expression crossed it.

As they neared the crest of a small hill, they could hear the sounds of battle on the other side, screams and curses and yells of agony. Quickly they reined in and slipped from their horses, crawling stealthily to the top of the hill. The last act was played as they watched. One man still stood, jabbing feebly at the circling Shang warriors. At his feet lay a young girl, wide eyed with terror. A warrior casually parried the spear, then slashed downward and the man fell, blood spurting high in the air from a severed neck artery.

The Shang circled the girl, making false attempts to grab her, and laughing at her frantic movements.

Flan started to rise, but Asgalt pulled him down. He turned angrily.

"Why? There are only five and we can hit them before they know what's happening."

Asgalt pointed to his left. In the distance a large party of mounted men could be seen.

"I feel as you do, but I've a Kingdom to worry about. If we're caught, it could happen to the whole land."

The girl's screams caused them to look up. The Shang were now close about her, poking with their spears.

Suddenly Asgalt stood up, and now his fury was real. He reached down and dragged the startled Flan to his feet with one hand. "Kimwalt's balls. The day I can't kill five and outride a hundred the kingdom can fall! Ride, damn you, ride. Grab the girl and ride."

The Shang were still laughing and jabbing at the girl when the two hit them. The first died never knowing what the strange pointed thing was that suddenly grew from his chest. The second turned, saw a flash, then nothingness engulfed him. The third screamed, parried a slashing sword, then had his neck broken by the edge of a shield. The fourth saw only a gray-haired demon suddenly appear and kill three of his companions, when a sword lashed out, and cut deep into his side. He looked up in bewilderment, saw a pair of jet black eyes, then life left him. The fifth almost made it, turning and galloping for the body of men in the distance. He fled for his life, but Asgalt wanted it also, and his sword took the man cleanly at the juncture of neck and shoulder.

Asgalt reined in the Shang horse and led it back to Flan and the girl.

"Mount up and ride. They've seen us." He nodded over his shoulder. "Into the hills, we can cut over and hit the main trail by tomorrow."


***


The night was cold and Asgalt cursed the Shang, the damp and the very small fire. He was tired. The ride had been long and hard, but so far they had outdistanced the Shang. He looked at the two across the fire from him, the girl and Flan huddled close under a cloak and Flan obviously enjoying it.


***


The girl, Eithne, a baker's daughter had been visiting an uncle when the Shang attacked. She had fled with several others only to be caught out in the open. The girl shivered under the blanket as Flan asked, "Do you think we've gotten away?"

Flan shrugged, "Ask the Duke. I've never even seen Shang until today."


***


"The Duke," and her eyes grew wide. "Your Grace," and she made a motion as if to rise.

"Stay seated, girl. It's too cold and late for such nonsense." Asgalt warmed his hands on the small blaze. "No, one thing you can say for the Shang, they never quit. I'm surprised that that one tried to run away. Never saw one break and run before. They're out there. My fear is that they know where we're headed."

Flan snuggled the girl closer and asked. "Why? And what is this pass of Jagai that we're headed to?"

"It's a pass up the mountain. No one knew of it until old Lyulf and I stumbled on it. The Shang can't use it, as they're cavalry, and no way you can get horses up it. We got to the top then found there was a damn deep gorge. All the way to the bottom of the mountain it falls. I managed to get across it. That is how we got back into Lyvane after the Rebellion. Later we built a bridge.

"Once across, we're in Jagai. I keep a way station about three miles down the mountain, so it'll be an easy walk and an easy ride to Jagai Castle. If they realize that's where we're headed, they'll have the whole army trying to stop us. Once we get across, the army can be raised, and the whole attack is ruined."

Asgalt looked longingly at the fire wishing it were larger, then doused it "Now get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a bad day."

Dawn broke cold and clear, and when Asgalt awoke, Flan and the girl had already made another small fire. He was stiff and his back hurt. "Damn ill trained horse," he muttered as he tried to stretch himself into some semblance of a man rather than an aching mass of bones. He was peeved that they had awakened before he did. Usually he awoke first and fully alert. But now he felt that he needed more hours of sleep. He was groggy and only half awake as he munched his meager breakfast. They mounted, and began a slow, tiring ride up the hill.

The terrain was rocky, with little clefts and culverts, down a short, steep incline, then up a longer steeper one. But slowly they climbed higher and higher. They rounded a bad bend and the mountain loomed forbiddingly over them.

They paused to rest the horses and Asgalt was quite pleased when Flan suggested it. While the horses drank from a small mountain stream the Duke looked back down the trail.

"Flan, come take a look. I can't make out anything, but do you see something? Seems to be some movement?"

Flan shaded his eyes. "Shang. A large party. Anywhere from fifty to a hundred."

"They know. Best get moving."

They camped that night under an overhanging rock. Not having planned on the girl, they found their supplies were quickly giving out. The Shang horse had had no food bag. It seemed to Asgalt that he had just fallen asleep when Eithne was shaking him. "Your Grace, time to be moving. The Shang followed into the night."

Asgalt rose quickly and his body protested. Pain shot through his back, and his elbows and shoulders felt as if they were locked in irons. "What? How do you know?"

Flan spoke quietly. "I awoke early, slipped down the trail. Saw them. They gained quite a bit on us."

The Duke nodded. "Let the horse go. From here on up we have to climb. One more day, then we can be over the bridge by mid-morning of the next."

Flan discarded his armor and shield, keeping only his sword and spear. He suggested that Asgalt do the same, but the Duke shook his head.

"No. I've had both for twenty years, and when they build my cairn I want them inside. And I need the axe."

The climb was slow and painful. Asgalt watched with envy as Flan made his way up, his breathing never quickening nor his stride faltering. Asgalt felt as if he weighed a ton, but stubbornly refused to discard his armor. He cursed the soft living, and resolved to spend more time in the field, refusing to admit that age had anything to do with it.

The land leveled and the going became easier. Asgalt pointed. "There's a stream over there. Good place to rest a moment. Afterwards, it's a bad climb, but we'll have a good place to sleep. It eases off in the morning."

Eithne greeted the small stream and pond with a cry of pleasure. Quickly she ran and jumped in it. Flan and Asgalt both smiled, and Flan quickly followed the girl. Asgalt slipped off his armor, and the release from the weight felt good. Then he, too, slipped into the pool.

But knowledge of what was ahead of them, and what was behind them made the stay brief. Asgalt brought the spears back, leaned them against the rock and spread their clothes to dry. They finished the last of the food, drank some water, then slowly dressed.

Just as they had finished dressing, Flan looked back up the stream, and his voice was cold and flat.

"Well, we're in it now!"

Asgalt followed his gaze. There, beside his armor and the only way out, stood three Shang warriors.

The Duke grunted and spat disgustedly. "Three, fully armed, and us with only spears."

He glanced around, and the bare rock walls loomed mockingly over him. He turned, plucked a knife from his belt, and casually tossed it to Eithne. "Here girl, in case we fail."

Asgalt and Flan watched stoically as the three Shang closed their ranks and began a slow march toward them.

Fully armed, the two would have been more than a match for the three. Fully armed, one alone may have won, but armed with nothing but a spear apiece, and with no armor, their future looked dim indeed. Both were too experienced in combat to feel they had much chance.

Suddenly the Shang stopped, and one pointed with his sword. "Old Man!" he yelled. "Do you know me? Look well and long, for I mean to give your dead eyes a better view on the end of my lance!"

Asgalt snarled and roared, "You spawn of a snake. I missed you once, but I won't now!"

He then spoke quietly to Flan.

"I know that dog. We fought once before, and my horse bolted before I could kill him. Then a Spaewoman said he would never die by my hand. Since then he's hoped to meet me." His voice grew low and urgent. "Listen, we may stand a chance. He's convinced that I want to kill him myself. What I want you to do is charge with me, then before we hit, fall back, and stab whatever comes open. I'll hit alone. But whatever you do, keep glancing at Artor, the one with the red shield."

The two gripped their spears and started forward. Their right hands gripped the butts, holding them tight and close to the hip, while their left hands were extended along the shaft.

Their pace quickened, and both pairs of eyes glanced left. Artor the Shang muttered low to his men, and their gait increased.

Suddenly Asgalt broke into a run, and Flan quickly caught up with him, but just as contact was to be made, Flan dropped back. Asgalt, spear pointed directly at the man in the center, but eyes constantly glancing left, leaped forward, spun, and drove his spear directly into the face of the man on his right. The spearhead skimmed the top of the shield, smashed upward through the roof of the mouth, and stuck in the bone of the skull. Wrenching his spear loose, he barely slid aside in time to avoid the shearing stroke of a sword. Off balance from missing his blow, the man stumbled. Asgalt grabbed his shield with one hand, spun him around, and drove his spear into his back. The Duke looked up in time to see Artor's sword about to descend, when Flan, in a clean hard lunge, drove his spear through the body of the Shang. The spear caught Artor under the arm, and actually pierced the shield on the other side of his body!

Artor staggered, shock and pain clouded his face. He looked at Flan, then back to Asgalt. "You didn't kill me," he muttered. Then his eyes glazed, he fell heavily, twitched and lay still.


***


The rest of the climb was brutal. It seemed to Asgalt that he must have completely forgotten just how much physical exertion it required. He was thankful that the girl was sturdy, so that only a few times were they required to actually lift her. When they reached the ledge where they would make their camp, only pride kept him from collapsing at once. The Shang had all carried food bags, so at least there was now plenty to eat. The fare was plain, but all thought they had never tasted better.

"Asgalt, what do we face tomorrow?"

"A short climb, then it's merely a hard walk. Once we reach the top, it'll be over."

Flan looked quizzical, "How did you build a bridge?"

"We didn't build a bridge the first time we crossed. There used to be a tree, and we got a rope caught in it, and I swung across. We built it from the other side. It was while we were trying to raise an army. It was a good place to escape to if there was need. He was determined to keep the Royal blood alive, and we could hole up, then dash across. We built the bridge from the other side, and Old Lyulf, cagey he was, designed it so that it would be easy to chop through from this side. Other side has rock foundations."

Conversation died, and the stars shone down, diamond bright in the crisp, clear night air. Asgalt leaned his bade against the rock and tried to sleep, but for a change sleep eluded him. He watched Eithne and Flan, heard the low muted laughter, saw the looks into each other's eyes. He smiled to himself, and he remembered another girl, one with hair black as night, and lips that were red, and eyes that laughed. Another night, long ago, when he had sat with her, and their eyes had met. He could still hear her laugh, see her smile, and feel the touch of her hand. How the people had gasped when he had married her and made her a Duchess! The life they had was good. The pain of losing her was still with him. It had been hard, but she had given him two strong sons and two beautiful daughters, and he must see that they were taken care of.

He sat up and shook off the inexplicable nostalgia.

"Flan. Let me interrupt you children." He took off his Ducal ring. 'Take this. It's foolish for me to pretend I'm not bone tired, and the two of you can make better time down the mountain to the way station than I can. Take this, show it to the guard there, and grab two fast horses and go on to Castle Jagai. Give the ring to Olwen, and have him send riders out to raise the levy. He'll know what to do."

Flan took the ring. "Aye, and I'll have him prepare a Hero's Welcome for his Lord."

Asgalt laughed. "A hero, a hero. . . . Hell, have him prepare for a tired old man! And Lyulf will have parades and pageants after this is over. Now let me get some sleep."

But the sleep was brief, and this time Asgalt awakened with both Eithne and Flan. Food was gulped hurriedly and the last leg of the journey was begun.

The last of the climb was hard, but quick. As they reached the top, as if planned, all three turned in unison and looked back down the trail; sun glinted off Shang armor.

Shaking his head in disgust, the Duke muttered . . . "We're a lot alike, the Shang and I, we never let up, and we never forget."

The last portion was made at a dog trot over flat firm earth. A quick turn, a small hill, and the bridge was before them. It spanned a chasm that was only the width of five tall men, but it extended out of sight on either side, and the eye was lost in the distance to the bottom.

The bridge was a simple, crude affair, no railings, but two ropes on either side gave some security.

"Flan. Go cut the ropes on that end while I undo these." He knelt and began working on the thick rope. By the time he had finished, Flan had cut both and was standing beside him.

Asgalt stripped off his armor and began to fashion a sling to go around his body and between his legs. Once this was done he turned to Flan and Eithne.

"You two go on ahead. I can cut the bridge loose from this side and cross on the two remaining ropes. This was in case we ever got caught on this side. I told you old Lyulf was cagey."

Flan shook his head. "Let me climb down. I can cut them quicker than you."

"No, I helped build it. I'll cut it down. Now get on across."

Asgalt secured the rope and lowered himself until he was even with the supporting posts of the bridge. He swung out and back until he had grasped a beam, then wedged himself between it and the cliff, wrapping his legs tight around the wood.

He leaned back. He was tired and wanted to rest for a few minutes, but there wasn't time. He removed the axe from his belt and began to chop.

The space was narrow, and the cut had to be made close to his body, so that there was little room for a full swing. He swung the axe in short, hard blows, wrenching it to clear the blade on each stroke. His hand cramped and his forearm began to quiver with the strain, but he never ceased his relentless rhythm. It seemed to him that with each stroke the wood grew harder and the axe duller.

But slowly, ever so slowly, the cut widened and deepened. He stopped, thrust the axe back through his belt and massaged his aching hand and forearm.

A few more should do it, he thought. Damn, will I be glad to rest in a bed again, beside a nice warm fire.

He hooked his knees about the beam, and trusting to the thick rope, leaned out, swinging the axe upward in vicious strokes, as if the wood were a personal enemy.

The wood cracked and broke loose, and Asgalt kicked out and swung free in case the whole bridge broke loose, but it sagged, creaked and held.

The Duke ignored the yawning chasm below him, and cursed with a fervor and feeling that was awesome in its intensity. Still cursing, he pulled himself back up the rope, attached it on the other side, and began the whole process over.

Sweat stung his eyes, and his back began to ache from the strained unnatural position. He worked more slowly, and would stop after several strokes to gauge the depth of the cut, and to clear his vision. The bridge creaked and sagged even further as the amount of wood holding it grew less. After what seemed hours, the top began to splinter and snap. He quickly slipped off the beam and as he kicked back and away, swung the axe once more. The axe bit, the wood cracked, and the bridge slipped downward, grabbing the axe, flipping it loose from his grip. Then bridge and axe fell end over end into the depths below.

Asgalt watched the dwindling shapes . . . "Hmmuph, man could starve before he hit bottom," he thought.

Again he pulled himself up the rope, this time more slowly. A shout greeted him, and he saw Flan and Eithne wave from the other side.

"Well done, Lord Duke, well done!"

Asgalt waved tiredly. Even his bones ached. His forearms quivered uncontrollably, and his knees were flaccid, almost unable to bear his weight. He pat down heavily, his body worn and his eyes dulled with fatigue. His hand aimlessly gripped the hilt of his sword, he gazed blindly at the mail shirt, helmet and shield that lay at his feet.

Wearily he rose and walked back along the path. Far down he could see the first of the Shang as they made the turn, walking cautiously, expecting an ambush behind every rock.

"Still time," he muttered under his breath.

He walked back and picked up his mail, slipped it on, and buckled the sword about his waist. The familiar weight felt comforting, an old friend.

Once again he sat down on the rock, ignoring the urgent shouts from Flan and Eithne.

He chuckled to himself. They're right, I'm growing old. Old Lyulf was right, it comes before you know, and soon you don't even care.

He looked across the gorge to Flan and Eithne, and their youthful figures brought back a flood of memories, and his past life fled across his mind's eye. He remembered the aimless wanderings, the battles; he stood again on the walls of Castle Glaun, with Colwen beside him, holding the breach against attack after attack, until the enemy fell back, dismayed and broken and not being able to break two men. He wandered again, guarding the life of the King and the young Prince, and he remembered the final charge in the battle for the Crown. The foes falling before him until he had reached the Standard, cutting down the bearer, and then with one stroke cutting through the helmet, head and chest of Morgaun.

He realized suddenly that life had been good to him, that he had achieved a great deal, and that now the battles were over. All he had to do was walk across that rope bridge. There would be parades, and feasts, and even tournaments, all in his honor. And once that was over, there would be a quiet life for the remainder of his years. He would grow old, and slightly fat, and honors would still be heaped on him. His sons were near grown, and his daughters already promised. The Kingdom was secure, no new threats, no new battles.

He thought of how nice it would be, to sleep in a soft bed, to take an attractive serving girl to the same bed. . . . Yes, life would be pleasant until that final sleep in that same soft bed.

The Duke of Jagai stood and wearily reached for his helmet and shield, an old man, gray hair glinting in the sun, and tired beyond belief.

The sword flashed in a short, bright arc, and the rope parted and twisted its way downward.

The years and fatigue seemed to melt from his body as he buckled his helmet and dressed his shield on his arm. He stood straight and tall and strong, and his eyes were hell-bright!

With a strong and steady stride, Asgalt, Duke of Jagai, marched down to meet the Shang.


Copyright © 1979 by Hank Reinhardt



Reproduced by permission of the author’s estate