With the rising of the sun, the extent of the carnage became visible. Mounds of headless sh'kurdaru, some chest-high, littered the battlefield, where they had been separated from equally grotesque mounds of torn and half-eaten human bodies. Not a soldier stood who wasn't wounded.
Sahl was stabbing his sword through a gorged sh'kurdaru when he saw the baron's procession arrive. He went out to meet the Baron, along with Ardith, Kay, Daluar, Redbelve and many other soldiers and knights. At fifty yards, the Baron already had to cover his nose with a cloth to keep out the stench that the soldiers had long since gotten used to.
“So this is what it now means to govern Huerten,” the baron said when the party, Sahl and Daluar at the lead, got close. “You did well here, but the threat of sh'kurdaru might be around for a long time yet. Two of those things were found in one of the villages last night…. Better than the thousands that could have escaped to the city itself, if it hadn't been for your diligence, Terradian, and Sahlman's leadership.” Here, Ardith struck the ground with her staff, and Kay rattled her bow against her quiver of arrows. The knights looked alarmed, but the Baron understood that this was applause, not aggression. “Come back to the city when you're ready, and get some rest. I can leave a few knights to watch the Rift for trouble.
“Yes sir!” said Sahlman. “I'd like to come down to the castle and make a report later, sir. The men did well; they fought bravely. Can they return to barracks now, sir? I doubt there'll be trouble during the day.”
“That's up to the Captain of the Guard, but I am sure he will be accommodating. His position is one of respect and competence.”
Sure enough, shortly after the Baron left, men started returning to the city in groups of a dozen or so. Remaining groups searched for the last of the gorged sh'kurdaru, and loaded bodies into carts, to be transported to the graveyard.
Daluar made sure the two sh'kurdaru, salvaged at Sahl's request, were securely caged and shaded. Then he made one last, tired round along the edge of the Rift. In doing so, he made a disturbing discovery. The side of the Rift facing Huerten had not been the only exit point of the sh'kurdaru. On the north face, there were a small number of tracks leading away from the Rift. With Vanatra in tow, Daluar reported this to the guards, then made his way back to the temple, found a place to lie down out of the way, and passed out.
Sahl returned to the city, slept for a few hours, cleaned himself up, and, by late morning, was presenting himself at the castle. He informed the functionary who greeted visitors that he was expected by the baron. The introduction was hardly necessary, however. Piled on to his reputation from the earthquake, Sahl's exploits at the Rift had made him quite a hero. He was put ahead of most of the other people seeking audience, and within twenty minutes, was standing before the Baron.
Sahl greeted the Baron respectfully and gave a terse report of events. Drawing to a close, he said, “The action was costly in footmen, could have been worse, but at least we learn some useful information. First these sh'kurdaru are brainless and will attack each other when wounded. A clever leader can use this. We might tie live goats sheep and pigs in their path. When they gather together, we can hit them with arrows and they will turn on each other. We can kill many before they reach our men. Much more dangerous is the large creature or creatures that lead the sh'kurdaru. This creature gives them commands and is more intelligent. Also it is not hurt easily by weapons. Maybe it heals fast or has tough skin. But it is hurt by fire, so maybe we can use fire arrows and fire crossbow bolts. Also flasks of oil. The wind stopped our arrows many times but crossbows will be affected less. The last lesson is our leadership. I do not want to speak badly of anyone, but I regret that the Captain Sir Benet may be good in a charge, but he is not able to deal with a new situation. He did not support the footmen, and did not control his knights well. We are dealing with new challenges, the men in charge must be intelligent and be able to deal with new things.”
Sahl paused for breath, then continued. “Also, Sir, If any sh'kurdaru broke out of the Rift, we should set hunters to track them and kill them before they can find a lair or maybe even breed. The two sh'kurdaru may be useful for this; they could be put on a strong leash and followed. They could lead us to others of their kind, or at least give the hunters clues about their habits. I also suggest a bounty on the head of each sh'kurdaru. This will bring hunters from far and wide to kill these vermin. That is all I have to report, Sir.”
“Yes, a bounty is a fine idea. I just hope not too many of them escaped, or the treasury will be drained. I will set a reward of ten gold attles for each sh'kurdaru head – you did say you threw all the heads you found in the Rift – until this time next week.
“So it seems we owe the safety of our city to you and the Terradian. without your leadership, or his idea to contain them with fire, we would be overrun. I wish I could continue to reward you, but the treasury must be preserved.
“As for the knight-captain, I am afraid there is not much I can do. Like most of this city's force, Benet was sent here by the king, and cannot be sent back or demoted without a royal writ. The knights largely have their way here. The only…” the baron fell silent for a moment. With a jerk of his head that was hardly genteel, he looked at the two knights in his office and shoed them away. When the knights had gone, he continued. “The only way to solve this problem would be to promote another knight to a higher rank. Someone I can trust.” He gave Sahl a good, hard look. “No, that would not work. You haven't earned the trust of the knights, nor would they easily obey a lower breed or foreigner.” He paused again, for a good long time. Finally, he said, “But we could make a start of it. Sahlman, I want you to come to the courtyard at sunset, with Daluar. Bring your friend Redbelve as well.”
Sahlman delivered the message to Daluar and Redbelve, and finally stopped by the temple to let Ardith and Kay know what was happening. When he spoke to them, he was surprised to hear that they already knew about it. They, along with the higher-ranking priests, had been specifically invited to a gathering in the castle courtyard that evening. None of them knew what it was about, but the priests weren't particularly curious. They were used to this sort of political to-do.
Sahl arrived at a castle bustling with activity. Knights, rather than soldiers, stood guard at the courtyard gate, outfitted fully for battle, but decorated with red and blue ribbons for the occasion. Daluar arrived soon thereafter, having eaten and made himself presentable.
Countless knights were present, possibly close to the full compliment of three hundred said to live in and around the city of Huerten. Other attendees were of the wealthier families, who stood near the walls, and those of noble birth, who sat on stools in a group to the right of a small wooden platform. To the left of the platform sat the priests, including Ardith. There were also a few people of miscellaneous origin, including Kay and various captains of the guard, who stood in a group off to one side.
Sahl and Daluar were directed to stand a full ten yards from the platform, off to the left, where they would not be in the way of newcomers. Soon, Redbelve joined them, along with Sir Benet.
After fifteen minutes, the Baron was announced. Everyone stood except the priests. The baron walked slowly to his seat atop the platform, and when he sat, so did the nobles and knights.
The Baron recited a long, prepared speech. He reviewed the events of the past week, commended the citizens for rebuilding so quickly and with so little strife, and described the recent battle. Finally, he got to the point. “The nature of this city has changed,” he said, “and so we must change to prepare ourselves for the future. Years ago, the Barony of Huerten was an outpost against Terradia. Since then, a sort of peace has developed, and, with negotiations between King Diure and the Duke of Bona Ferra under way, our border with Terradia may soon be secure. However, there are new threats to the kingdom, and once again, this is the barony which must step forward and address them.
“I call forth Sir Redbelve.”
Redbelve smiled at Sahl, and approached the Baron.
“Sir Redbelve, son of Sir Elebelve, son of Sir Redbelve, loyal Knight of Huerten. For bravery in battle against the sh'kurdaru, I hereby elevate your rank to Knight-Captain. With the new threat of the sh'kurdaru, we need new leaders. Henceforth, you shall be a leader in the protection of this city.” The baron added something softly before announcing, “You may step down, Sir Redbelve.”
The poor knight looked shocked and distraught as he returned. His shock was not unique. Many of the knights were surprised or annoyed as well at this unexpected promotion.
“I call forth Sahlman El Musafir and Daluar Sulanguan.” There was no time to consider Redbelve's plight. Sahl and Daluar had to approach the Baron.
“Sahlman El Musafir, 'the Traveler' as my linguists tell me. For your crucial leadership in our time of need, both against the Sh'kurdaru themselves and against the great earthquake that brought them here, I hereby grant you the title of Knight. Kneel.” Sahlman knelt, and the baron touched his sword to each of Sahl's shoulders, and then kissed his forehead. “Rise, Sir Sahlman, Knight of Huerten.” If Redbelve's promotion had surprised the knights, Sahlman's horrified them. The courtyard seemed full of insects as the knights muttered to each other as a whole. While they were settling down, the Baron spoke quietly. “I hope that they will soon learn that skill in leadership can be just as valuable as noble birth. If so, we may soon have a knight- captain who is equipped to deal with enemies besides Terradian soldiers. If they do not, I will find something else useful for you.” The baron sighed. “I wish I could knight you both – we need good men in these times – but it would hardly do to have a Terradian knight.”
The Baron spoke up then, silencing most of the muttering. “Daluar Sulanguan, despite your birth, you have proven yourself time and again. Countless citizens were saved by your trails through the fog, and without your containing ring of fire, this city would be overrun by sh'kurdaru. For your actions, Jereld, Captain of the Baron's Guard, has agreed to grant you a position of honor in his force.
“You may step down, Sir Sahlman and Daluar.”
All eyes were on Sahlman as he returned to Redbelve and Benet, and few were anything resembling gracious. Even the knights who earlier had followed Sahl without question, made no effort to hide their disgust at this turn of events. Benet himself was the worst, but he did not have time to make his feelings known.
“I call forth Sir Benet.”
The knight-captain nodded to Redbelve and spared a disgusted glance for Sahl and Daluar, before striding off with the air of someone born and bred for just such an occasion.
“Sir Benet of Duerstadt, Knight-Captain of Huerten and Royal Messenger of King Diure the Sixty-Fourth,” the Baron said when Benet stood before him. “For bravery in battle against the sh'kurdaru, and excellent leadership of your compliment of knights, I hereby grant you a small holding, thereby inviting you into the ranks of the permanent knights of Huerten.” The knights, as a group, cheered and clapped for a long time, nearly forgetting about their shock over the Baron's other announcements. “Furthermore,” the Baron said, quieting the crowd, “I have for you a most essential and honorable mission. You will lead the charge through dangerous territory, to warn the towns of Huerten and the capitols of our neighbors of the threat of the sh'kurdaru, and, if those towns and cities are already threatened, you will defend them as you have defended Huerten.” The knights cheered once again. “You will bring with you those knights that have always followed your commands, and you may send them as a group or separately, as you see fit. You may step down, Sir Benet.” As Benet left the baron, it was hard to tell whether he was honored or distressed. Perhaps he didn't know himself.