Dremyth, the guard atop the Wyzard’s Tower, blew into his hands to warm them, then tucked them beneath his tunic. Winter is coming, he thought, looking out across the bare, open fields below the castle. I hate winter. I wish I could go somewhere where it’s always summer, or somewhere that doesn’t have ice and snow…
His wish was granted in a trice. Not through any magick on the part of the eponymous Wyzard—the latter was long gone with the end of the Age of Wyzardry, many centuries previous. Instead, Dremyth felt a powerful blow between his shoulder blades. He imagined, briefly, that a fellow guard had come up behind him and pounded him on the back as a crude joke. But the bloodied arrow tip he now saw protruding from the front of his tunic was clearly no joke.
Who has done this? was Dremyth’s last thought. His knees buckled silently, and he fell forward across the parapet, then tumbled down, down, down to the ground and rolled into the moat at the foot of the tower.
His death was unnoticed for several minutes. Then a soft chime rang in the courtyard, calling for the hourly report. “All’s well,” came from the Old Tower. “All’s well,” came from the New Tower and from the King’s Tower, too. Then nothing. A long silence followed as the three tower guards waited with increasing anxiety for their comrade’s call from the Wyzard’s Tower. It never came.
The guard atop the King’s Tower had his orders. He counted off three more seconds, then struck the bell beside him four times, the tocsin for the Wyzard’s Tower. Melgorn Castle began to stir. Slowly at first, then with growing commotion as soldiers erupted from their barracks and mounted the stairs to reinforce the watch. Torches were lit along the walls; lights could be seen in some of the interior rooms. Within a minute, the entire castle was awake and moving.
The soldiers peered out in all directions, searching for an enemy. They saw none. A squad of men climbed the stairs to the Wyzard’s Tower and cautiously went out onto the top. There they found nothing, not even a trace of blood. Had some gigantic bird of prey carried Dremyth off into the night? But surely such monsters were the creatures of fantasy, denizens of stories from long before. The men looked at each other and shrugged, mystified. They waited. Captain Grond would sort this out. Grond would know what to do.
At last, below in the courtyard, a door was thrown open with a loud boom. Grond was coming, helmed and fully armored, a battleaxe in one hand, a steel-banded torch in the other. His footsteps pounded across the flagstones and up the stairs to Wyzard’s Tower. The men relaxed at the sound of his confident steps. All would be well, now.
Grond came out onto the tower. He ignored the men and looked around, examining every corner, every inch of the paving, his gaze driving the others first to one side and then the other. Finally, he mounted the parapet and held his torch high above him. He looked down at the moat below. Others looked, too, from behind the parapet, but saw nothing in the dim light below. “There!” Grond cried in his deep bass, pointing down with his battleaxe. “He’s in the moat. Dead. Search the castle!”
Orders were carried out. One squad of searchers found a rope coiled up on the floor beside a window in the East Wall. Another squad found candles missing from the sconces nearby. Grond was told, and he arrived just as the intruder leapt from a garderobe and killed a soldier with a well-aimed arrow. Grond killed the spy personally, right on the spot, running him through with a spear before he could nock a second arrow.
The next day, the king and Grond toured the castle. In the East Wall, the king examined the rope, then threw one end out the window. The rope was long enough to reach the ground, they both agreed. “But how did he attach it up here?” the king asked Grond.
“Grapnel, Highness.” Grond pointed to where the rope had been previously tied into a tight knot.
“But where is the grapnel?”
Grond shrugged. “In the moat, most likely. He didn’t intend to leave, once he’d gained entry, Highness.”
“Why did he go to the trouble of untying the grapnel, then? Why didn’t he just toss the whole thing into the moat?”
“He was a berserker, Highness. Who can say what their reasons are?
The king nodded. Captain Grond had served him and his father and his father’s father, forty years, in all, through wars and plots and insurrections. Grond was wise and battle-hardened, the linchpin of the castle’s defenses. Grond was always right about these things.
Later, the window was provided with bars to prevent entry. The king’s counselors examined the intruder’s clothes to see which kingdom had sent him to do mischief in Melgorn Castle. Grond, when consulted, called their attention to the squarish buttons on the man’s tunic. “Peregolia. Definitely Peregolia. No one else uses buttons like that.” Which was undeniably true. Two spies were dispatched to Peregolia, but were never seen again.
All was peaceful.
Until, one night the following Spring, screams were heard from the nobles’ residences in the South Wall. Grond and the watch responded quickly, trapping four armed men in the blood-spattered bedroom of one murdered noble and his family. One of the murderers was captured alive and questioned by Grond. The man claimed that the attackers had gained entry by slipping under the portcullis, which, he said, didn’t extend all the way to the ground. The portcullis was examined, found tightly shut, and the man was punished severely for his lie (and ten murders) before being allowed to die.
Grond ordered the drawbridge raised nightly, as used to be the practice during wartime.
People of the castle eventually felt safe in their beds again.
Then, late that same year, the night guard atop Old Tower sighted ten armed men rushing down the stairs from the North Wall. At first, as he counted them, he took them to be the men of the next watch, but wondered why they were going towards the barracks instead of away. When they started prying at the barracks door, he realized they were intruders, bent on murder. He rang the general alarm, which saved the lives of many soldiers.
Grond killed six of the intruders himself, swinging his huge battleaxe right and left in deadly arcs.
As others cleared away the bodies, Grond and the king made a strange discovery. All of the guards on the North Wall were unconscious, intoxicated by a flagon of powerful spirits that had evidently been passed among them. A rope dangled from the parapet to the ground, hooked between the crenellations by means of a grapnel hook.
The king awarded Grond a solid gold medal for bravery the next morning, and, later in the day, he gave the Old Tower guard a silver medal for alertness.
But as the guard was handed his medal by the king, he whispered, “Majesty, how many enemy bodies did we find this morning?”
“Nine,” said the king, taken aback.
“Sire, I counted ten descending the stairs, nine men whom I took to be the next watch, and a tenth at their head, carrying a torch and a battleaxe.”
“What are you saying?”
“Just this, Sire. Where is the tenth intruder?”
The king raised his index finger. “And who gave the North Wall sentries the flagon of spirits?”
The guard nodded once slowly and said nothing more.
The next day, the king convoked the Council of Nobles in secrecy. When they’d met, he sent for ten strong guards. “Arrest Grond,” he ordered. “He was the one who let the intruders into the castle.”
“But, Sire, surely that’s not possible…” began one guard, risking his position in defense of his captain.
But the king merely held up his hand. “Grond said the intruder last year used a grapnel to gain entry. But no grapnel was ever found…except for the one used yesterday to climb the North Wall. Moreover, someone inside the castle drugged all the sentries on that wall, making it possible for the nine attackers to scale the wall without raising an alarm. Grond has betrayed us.”
Again the guard spoke foolishly. “Why would he do such a thing, Sire?”
“We may never know. Now follow my orders, good fellow, and put Grond in the keep.”
And it was done. Grond gave his captors many a wound and countless bruises, but he was at last thrown into the dungeon. The king and several others went to him when it was done. “Why?” the king asked Grond. “Why have you betrayed us?”
Grond shrugged. “Not out of any hatred of you, Sire.”
“Out of hatred for our men that you killed?”
“No. They were…incidental.”
“Out of love of my enemies, then?”
Grond sneered. “They are meaningless to me. You are my king, and no other.”
“You still haven’t told me why, Grond.”
The captain turned away and paced back and forth in the tiny cell. “I live for emergencies. They are my reason for existence.”
“Of course, but…”
“Every emergency has made me stronger, has it not?”
The king thought. “Yes, that is so.”
Grond paused and faced the king again. “I finally reached a strength that made me need emergencies for their own sake. On days when there was no emergency, I created one, sometimes by drinking an excess of spirits, sometimes by…”
“You did this just for excitement?”
“Yes, and more! For excitement, for life, for power! For a life and will of my own, apart from serving you.”
The king was shocked. “Have you no loyalty at all?”
Grond thought. “Not much. Some, I suppose. I’m still a good captain.”
“But what shall I do with you?”
The captain shrugged again. “I don’t know. I really don’t think about tomorrow. I never have. I live for the moment, the thrill, the feeling of victory over a crisis. The consequences of my actions are not important to me, as long as my will prevails.”
The king left him, then, and returned to the throne room.
The other nobles sat with him. “Should we have him stretched on the rack, Sire?” asked one.
“Or perhaps burnt at the stake without shrift, Your Majesty,” said another, illustrating flames with his fingertips.
“There is a torture much favored among the eastern peoples…” began a third.
“No,” said the king. “You are abandoning reason in favor of hatred. We can’t kill Grond. He’s an important part of our defenses.”
“What? Let the traitor live?”
“He must be made an example, Sire.”
“What are your orders, Sire,” asked one of the more practical courtiers, taking out pen and ink.
The king smiled. “I was beginning to think no one was going to ask.”
All came to attention immediately, waiting for the king to speak.
“Have the dungeon fitted out with a suite of rooms. Comfortable, but not lavish. Got that?”
The practical courtier nodded as he wrote. “Yes, Sire.”
“We shall visit him every week and honor him for his service, past and future. We shall also make clear to him that we are in charge, not he. Let the priest minister to him and give him shrift.”
The nobles remained silent.
“And if our will is to achieve ascendency over his, it behooves us to ensure that our own will is without blame, lest we become like him. We’ll all be attending chapel or doing other spiritual exercises from now on, gentlemen.”
It was done as the king commanded. Grond was consulted during every emergency and gave good counsel. Years later, when the Peregolian army attacked Melgorn Castle, Grond was released temporarily to lead the final battle, conducting himself with valor, then led back to his quarters below the castle. Peace descended upon the entire kingdom.