"A soldier follows the orders of his king." Ahad said firmly.
"You are telling me I should kill your king."
"I am telling you what a soldier should do." He retorted.
"But I cannot do this."
"Then you are a traitor to your own king." Ahad argued.
"When a man is put into a position where any action he takes is a betrayal then it is better to betray one's king than oneself for one can live without a king but not without himself."
"You have a strange way with words, minstrel. So what do I do with you?"
"I am no threat, not anymore."
"Had you told me this the day you arrived I would have had your head and yet now I find that ... You have turned this city and those in it upside down. What are we to do with you?" Ahad rose and as he was leaving, he turned to say: "Do not be too long in telling our king, I hold no secrets from him."
A two hour ride on his favorite horse brought him to Abib who was making the yellow smoke. The meeting did not go the way that he wanted but rather the way he had expected. It was a clear case of betrayal, the master had said. He was no longer a Khali-ti and therefore a renegade, an apostate, a traitor. He had become the sworn enemy of the order. A farewell was said since he and Abib had been friends for many years, a friendship that could no longer exist now that he was an outsider. The ride back to the city was a long one. Troubled thoughts and mixed emotions ravaged his mind.
The king wore a troubled look as he peered down at the young man standing next to Ahad. He rubbed his long, white beard and smoothed it down on his chest. He had heard of the order and of the deadly art they practiced. Time and again alliances had been made with other city-kingdoms to rid the country of them but to no avail. It was said and generally believed that once a man or a city was targeted by the Khali-ti it was of no avail to try to escape the outcome. How much of that was true?
"And so you were sent here to assassinate me and compromise the city." The old king said.
"My order was contracted by one of your enemies for this purpose, yes. The task fell to me."
"You do understand the penalty for a spy and an assassin?"
"I am no longer such. I have renounced my association with the order and I am volunteering my services to you."
"Then that also makes you a traitor to your kind." The old man said.
"If that is how I appear to your eyes then you must do to me accordingly. I became a member of the order of assassins through no choice of my own. I have renounced all association with the order and have therefore constituted myself an enemy of those once my family for the sake of my conscious. If I can be of no assistance to you then all of this was in vain and a man without purpose has no reason to live. "
"Sire, if it is permitted." Ahad spoke and the king nodded.
"If I may be allowed to suggest that his skills are great and..."
"Enough!" The old man bellowed. "It goes against my sense of right and wrong but I must put the safety of this city before all other things. Be gone!"
The king rose from this throne and walked out on the parapet soon to be joined by his daughter. She was in the room when the traveler had confessed and he was sure she would have something to say.
"Are you angry because he came to kill you or because you feel you have lost a son?" She inquired in her girlish way.
He looked at her in amazement and then chuckled. "Am I so transparent?"
"To everyone in the kingdom. Already there are rumors in the streets of our marriage and of you handing over the kingdom to him."
"How is it that..."
"A woman would know so much?" She ventured. "Men talk in front of women as if they don't exist. I know not if it's because they think us deaf or just not able to understand words."
"A mistake I shall never make again." The old man smiled. "Tell me, then, what say you of the young minstrel?"
"I like him." She said and waltzed away.
The next time the king saw the traveler it was in his war room where his advisors and generals had gathered. The king had just finished hearing reports that were quite disturbing, reports that substantiated what the caravan leaders had told him weeks earlier. His old enemy, the king of Cuit had managed to raise a considerable fortune and had hired the Khali-ti to come full force against the great city. Since their first plan had failed due to a traitor in their midst (the king had not yet revealed to anyone else the secret of the young traveler) the Khali-ti felt honor bound to come full force against the city. The king sat speechless as his generals and war counselors debated tactics and strategies. He looked past them at the young man who was looking back at him from across the room. Finally the king raised his hand for silence.
"I call on the young minstrel who has been in our midst for the past few weeks. I understand that in his travels he has had experience with this band of murderers. Can you shed some light on the matter, minstrel?"
And so with those words his majesty had let him know that he had chosen to enlist his aid and keep his identity confidential. He rose from his chair, approached the king and bowed low.
"The khali-ti are a formidable enemy." He began. "They are without peers in their skills as warriors and they are relentless. Ahad tells me that the great city has an army of twenty-five thousand valiant men. The Khali-ti number somewhere near five hundred which means the odds are against the city."
There was a murmur that arose in the room. "You make light of our fighting men, minstrel, you insult us." Someone cried out.
"Not at all, my lord. I am merely pointing out the truth."
"The truth" Someone else bellowed out "Is that with odds of fifty to one, there is no way our army can be defeated."
"Fifty to one are insufficient odds against this enemy, my lords, please believe me."
The king raised his hand again and the noise died down. "Perhaps you could give us a demonstration, young minstrel, of some of this art of theirs that you have picked up that would convince my counselors of the skill of this order." The king said guardedly.
The traveler nodded and reached for his staff and advanced toward the king in a menacing way. All five of his body guards moved as one against him. What followed was nothing less than spectacular although most of the subtlety of the moves were lost on the observers simply because he was so fast. The staff twirled and men fell. Swords were knocked from their hands, knives were dodged, lances were sidestepped and soon others joined the fracas, drawn into the heat of battle. He moved through the mob as if invulnerable, untouchable. Time and again as he was cornered he would vault over his opponents using that most versatile staff. Several of the guards and two of the generals suffered considerable wounds at the hands of their fellows though the traveler himself never once drew blood. The king raised his hand again and the fighting stopped.
He looked about the room at the broken arms and bleeding limbs, the blackened eyes and torn clothing. The traveler was not even breathing hard. There was astonishment in the eyes of all. Never had they experienced such a thing.
"I think our young friend has made his point." The king said. Ahad, who had not joined in the fight was standing close to the king.
"He is a sorcerer, a demon in the form of a man." One cried out.
Enter The Traveler
"A soldier follows the orders of his king." Ahad said firmly.
"He is a man." Ahad broke in. "A man well trained and disciplined and we need to take heed of his words. We have twenty-five thousand troops. His majesty is able to hire five thousand mercenaries and have them here in three days giving us an army of thirty thousand. What say you to that, minstrel?"
"A gallant plan, my lord, but still far short of what is needed."
"Surely..." Ahad began but stopped.
"We need to have at least sixty thousand on that wall in ten days from now."
"Sixty thousand!" The king exclaimed. "There is no way! We are doomed!"
The meeting adjourned amid great despair on the part of all. The king's physicians tended to the wounded and the traveler took a walk in the garden. It was the first time in his life that he had encountered such a situation, where the fate of a city was in his hands. Many was the time that he had been responsible for the falling of a city but never for its salvation. He was leaning how much more difficult it is to protect than it is to destroy. So deep was he in his despair that he didn't notice that the princess was besides him until she spoke.
"You are troubled, minstrel."
"Yes, your highness, I am that indeed. Your city is in great danger and I seem unable to effect a defense."
"You could simply walk away and you would be in no danger." She offered.
"How can you say that?" He countered. "To suggest that I leave you and your city to be plundered, destroyed, ravaged...no, it is unthinkable on my part to do so."
"Then I want to help." She said in that childish way of hers.
He smiled condescendingly. "I am grateful for your offer, princess, but I..."
A strange and wonderful thought came into his head just as he was about to dismiss her. He made some quick calculations and a smile spread across his face. Yes, it could work. It would have to work, it was their only hope.
"That is a splendid idea, your highness. I think that with your help we will be victorious." He said with such enthusiasm that her face exploded into a smile.
The master of the Khali-ti sat in the saddle of his steed and surveyed the walls of the city. He had decided on a straight on frontal attack. The catapults were all in place, carefully brought in at night over a two week period and then assembled all in one night. Their distance carefully calculated for the height of the wall. The volley of burning sulfur and pitch would provide the cover for the rush of the small army. Once next to the wall the gate would be set on fire while the first wave of attackers began scaling the walls and the second volley from the catapults would be released. That would keep the soldiers off of the wall with the hot oil and stones they would surely be dropping on the climbers. Once near the top of the wall the catapults would no longer be prudent and at that time the archers would be picking off the soldiers brave enough to station themselves there. The archers were experts and never missed. The master had calculated his losses to be at most perhaps forty men by that time. Once the wall was scaled by that first wave of a hundred soldiers, the battle would be half over. Once over that wall and in hand to hand combat, the brothers of the order would realize a kill ratio of no less than a hundred to one. If the fire didn't do the job on the gate then the brothers inside would open it and the rest of the army would pour into the city.
The master had not discounted the possibility of the renegade inside setting up traps for them and each and every night spies were sent out to check the attack route to be sure that no pits or snares or any of the hundred and one entanglements known to the order would be set up to impede the invasion. He was certain that the path was clear because for the last five days no one had entered or left the city. As for what he could do beyond that, well that could not amount to much. The master knew the size of the army and there simply were not enough soldiers to stop them. The moment was approaching and he watched for the first sign of the sun poking its face above the mountain.
The city was quiet, perhaps for the first time in its existence. Not a soul stirred and if someone were able to see it as from the view of an eagle, he would suspect that all had fled and that no one remained. The fact was, however, that everyone was very much there, as a matter of fact, more than everyone was there. Twenty-five thousand soldiers lined the walls, five thousand mercenaries stood beside them and...
The young traveler could not help but be proud of the feat he had accomplished. For the past few days he had been training the trainers of the merchants, farmers, business men, any man who was able to stand and hold a bow in his hand was now on the wall. But it was not that so much that amused him as what the princess had prompted as she stood there in her white linen dress and offered to help. On the wall, next to the men numbering forty thousand were the wives, daughters, mistresses, slave women, whores, and every woman not too old or feeble to hold a long bow in her hands. It was that that gave him his army of sixty thousand, an army so large that not even the Khali-ti would be foolish enough to tackle. True, most of that number were not warriors but those outside the walls would not know that. He smiled as he motioned the guard to open the gate and let him out on his mount just before the day broke.
A tiny crescent of light began peeking over the mountain and the masters horse, sensing the impending battle began to snort and prance about, eager to charge. Its rider's eyes swept the scene around him, assuring himself that all was in place. He raised his hand high as a signal to prepare the charge but before he could complete the sequence that would send five hundred of the finest fighting men ever assembled, he saw something that did not belong there. A lone rider coming right at them. An emissary suing for peace? A last attempt at a bribe? Then he recognized the man.
The master looked into the eyes of the one that had been his protege. "I have no business with dogs." He spat.
"This day it will be dogs that will be your undoing." The young man said without emotion, in the tone that the master had trained him to use when dealing with an enemy.
"You have been reduced to calling out empty threats, have you?"
"I come here to you out of regard for the bond that was once between us, master. I come this day to afford you the opportunity to prevent the slaughter of my former brothers."
The master smiled. "You were the best, you know. Your pleas will do you no good this day, jackal. Return to the city and prepare for your death."
"Would you do me but one favor and ride with me as far as the stream that is before the wall?"
"For what purpose?" He asked warily.
"Surely the lion does not fear the jackal." The traveler said with a smile.
The master barked out a command to his subordinate and spurred his horse on to catch up with the young man trotting ahead. The stream was close by and in a short time they were there. The master's eyes swept the top of the wall.
"In a moment I am going to reveal to you what it is that you are up against. I do this out of honor and respect to you and to my brothers of the Khali-ti. I bear you no ill though I was purchased by you as one might buy a goat and then trained as one might a horse and then used as one might plow with an ox. That is finished and I will count the missions I have accomplished for the order as payment for my education and sustenance while I was but a boy. I wish you to know now that I owe you nothing, our account is settled. After this day you might find yourself in my debt." Just as the master was about to become indignant over that suggestion, the traveler waved a hand in the air and shouted: "Behold your enemy!"
At that instant and in response to the signal, sixty thousand heads shot up from behind the shielding wall that ran on top of the main wall. Despite all his training and discipline, the master's face betrayed his utter surprise at what he saw. His eyes grew wide and his nostrils flared.
"This is trickery, an illusion. The city does not have that many soldiers."
"Then explain this." And with another wave of his hand he gave the second signal. A volley of arrows shot up into the sky that actually blotted out the morning sun for just a second. Sixty thousand missiles arched up into the morning sky and rained down just on the other side of the stream. The traveler's heart swelled with pride at the precision of the archers, the ones he had trained. A few degrees off and he and the master would have been riddled with he deadly shafts.
"How..." The master began.
"It is not necessary for you to know how only to know that you live now only because I am allowing it."
"You will leave, master, you and the brotherhood and you will not trouble this city for I have things that will make this look like the playing of children. Go, I give you your life."
And so it was that the great city was saved by not by soldiers alone but by its every inhabitant so that now even the butchers and herdsmen walk about with a certain pride and confidence unknown before. The women, however, never cease to remind the male inhabitants that it was their number that had finally tipped the scales. This newfound independence and assertiveness was a side effect that no one, not even the traveler had anticipated. The men assured themselves that in time this would diminish and that eventually things would be as they were before.
The legend of the traveler and his deliverance of the great city grew with each passing day much to the dismay of the young man. He found the freedom he sought in eventually sitting on the throne he once stood before. He wed the princess and her father gave him the throne as a wedding present. It is said but cannot be proved that from time to time he ventures out of the city to spend a night or two in a neighboring city, disguised as a traveling minstrel, sometimes sleeping in a tavern and sometimes a young chambermaid will claim that she entertained a man that sleeps on a pallet next to the bed in some king's castle. But these are only rumors.
That is the end of the tale my fellows. I pass not judgment on its truth but merely recount it for your consideration. Perhaps one of you would care to step up here in the firelight and tell us of some wondrous tale of your own???