The Meridian; 26 April, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
In the chaos, Avenel felt Deena’s hand slip from hers. She reached out to catch it again, but someone shoved her roughly aside, and her shoulder slammed painfully into the wall. She turned, craning her head to look for the girl, but already the wave of people was moving on. It was impossible to find anyone in the crowd, but a thin slip of a girl especially. But nevermind; Vallus was still with her. That would be enough; it would have to be.
It was with difficulty that Avenel extricated herself from the crowd. She took the steps two at a time. Not down, with everyone else, but up, until she emerged at the parapet at the top of the tower. Guards ran about, some fetching bows and arrows, others already firing at whoever was below. Some wore the colors of Elyria’s Wardens, some Ajjraea’s Lords, and some the plain dun of the monastics. One of the Ajjraeans was barking orders, but only his own men were heeding him. He had a spyglass in his hand, which he looked through when not shouting.
“Give that here,” said Avenel, taking it from his hand.
“Hey!” cried the man, indignant. “Who are—You’re one of the Elyrians, aren’t you? That spyglass is Ajjraean property!”
“It’ll be no one’s property if we all die,” said Avenel. She put the spyglass to her eye. “Are we surrounded?”
“Yes,” said the man. “They came from both sides at once.”
“How many are there?” asked a voice, and Avenel didn’t need to turn around to know it was Desmina.
“A hundred on either side, maybe two,” replied Avenel. “Not counting the ones already inside.”
“Inside?” asked the Ajjraean, startled. “But how? We were watching all the gates.”
“Then there must be another entrance,” said Avenel impatiently. It wouldn’t be the first time a forgotten sewage tunnel or the like had been used to breach a castle, but whatever it was, only a small force would have been sent inside. They would have to look for it later, but for now— “Desmina, how many men do we have?”
“About thirty on our side,” said Desmina. “There are maybe a dozen monks who know how to hold a weapon, but most of them have never seen a real battle. I’m not sure about the Ajjraeans. Captain? It is ‘Captain’, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said the Ajjraean, “Captain Fiino of the Royal Guard. I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to share information about our troop strength.”
“What troop?” asked Avenel. “You can’t have brought more than a few dozen guards.”
“Twenty-six, to be precise,” said a voice, and Avenel turned to see Prince Greoore emerging from the stairwell below, one sleeve torn off and converted into a makeshift bandage around his leg.
“Your Highness,” said Fiino at once. “You’re hurt!”
“At ease, Captain,” said Greoore, though he grimaced as he walked. “We have twenty-six men, Lord Avenel, not counting myself, Lord Roniin, or my brother.”
Desmina frowned. “So even with all our forces combined, we’ve only about seventy fighters, and that’s assuming we can find everyone in this chaos. That’s three of their men for every one of ours.”
Greoore nodded. “Not exactly favorable, I know.”
“Perhaps if we took out their commander…” said Desmina.
Avenel put the spyglass back to her eye. If there was one, she hadn’t seen him; all the soldiers appeared to be on foot, and none stood out from the crowd. She looked to the northeast, to the forest that grew far too close to the wall; who knew how many men could still be hiding amongst the trees? Perhaps the commander was hidden there as well.
“I fought a few of them before coming up here,” said Greoore. “Individually, they’re mediocre fighters, though tenacious. The men we brought are all the best of our guards, and I’m sure yours are the same. If we coordinate our efforts, we stand a chance, even despite their numbers.”
“We’ll still need a plan,” said Desmina. “Avenel, any ideas?”
“Military strategy is your wheelhouse, not mine,” said Avenel.
“Yes, but you’ve always been the quicker thinker.”
Avenel looked down at the invaders below. “They aren’t expecting an extended siege,” she said. “Not when they already have men inside.”
“The guards by the door have all been alerted,” said Greoore. “If they meant to open the gates from within, they missed their chance.”
“That’ll buy us some time,” said Desmina, “but not enough.” She pointed. “Look, they’re bringing a battering ram. We only have as long as the gate holds.”
“And how long will that be?” asked Fiino.
“Not enough,” said Avenel. The structure was old, and not particularly well maintained; while the gate itself might hold, the mortar around it would crumble after just a few hits with the ram. She handed the spyglass back to Fiino. “Tell the men in the courtyard to fall back. We’ll need to open the gates.”
“Open the—You want to let them in?!” sputtered Fiino. “That gate is the only thing protecting us from—”
“It isn’t,” said Avenel. “They’ll still need to cross the courtyard.”
Desmina met her gaze. “The Battle of Argrave.”
Avenel nodded. “I know you don’t like it.”
“If you’re referring to what I think you are,” said Fiino, “then I vehemently oppose. It’s far too risky a maneuver, and while you Elyrians may be happy to take such risks, my job is to serve the good of Ajjraea.”
“Your job, Captain,” said Greeore, “is to protect my family. If that means a re-enactment of Argrave, then so be it.”
“But His Majesty—”
“I’ll deal with my father,” said Greoore, “assuming we survive.”
Fiino nodded. “Yes, your highness.”
Desmina looked thoughtful. “We don’t have much time to prepare. The archers will need to conserve their arrows in the meantime.”
“I’ll let them know on our side,” said Greoore.
“And I’ll inform ours,” said Desmina “Avenel?”
“I’ll join them at the wall, see if they need any help.”
Greoore nodded and extended his hand. “Best of luck, Lord Avenel.”
She took it. “Best of luck to us all.”
She made a detour to the sleeping quarters on her way downstairs, to retrieve her weapons. The weight of her knives were comforting in their leather bandolier as she slid them back into place. Had the attackers known that so many of their fighters would be unarmed? Had they been waiting for the meeting to commence? She slipped Ephraim’s dagger into its habitual place at her side, and then the small knives in her boots and bracers. Lastly, she strapped her sword belt around her hip and ran her thumb over the ruby pommel.
Above the gate on the Elyrian side, Ildora was already supervising the boiling of vats of fat. Her husband was there too, wrapping arrowheads in oil-soaked rags, ready to light.
“Thank you, Ildora,” said Avenel. “I’d say that you should get inside with the other non-combatants, but—”
“I understand,” said Ildora. “We need all the hands we can get.”
“And she has me,” added Terrn. “We’re alright here, Lord Avenel. You should see if they need any help on the other side.”
Avenel nodded. Ildora was already shouting for more firewood to be brought up.
Avenel turned. Garthniiel was running toward her, a claymore strapped to his back with Flame following close behind. “Garth, you should go and—”
“Greoore already told me,” said Garthniiel. “Flame is going to join the archers at the northeastern gate. We’re heading there now.”
“So am I,” said Avenel. “We’ll go together.”
Lord Roniin had taken de facto command at this gate, barking orders from the top of the wall as he instructed his archers to get into place. Frost was beside him, but dropped her bow and ran to them to pull Flame into her arms.
“Flame, oh thank the gods,” she exclaimed. “I couldn’t find you.”
“I’m fine, Sister,” said Flame. “Here, I brought you your crossbow.”
Garthniiel turned to Lord Roniin. “How are things holding up, my lord?” he asked.
“Poorly,” grunted Roniin. “It’s just a matter of time before they break through, and sooner rather than later. And the trees don’t help; they could be hiding anything in those woods and we wouldn’t know until it was too late.”
From atop the wall, they could see a battering ram emerging from the trees. Large wooden shields protected the men who were pushing the ram from any sort of assault from above. From the handful of arrows sticking out from the wood, it was evident that more than one archer had tried. Frost loaded her crossbow and fired, but even the bolt failed to punch through the shield.
“Damn,” swore Frost. “There must be metal under the wood.”
“We should be saving our arrows anyway,” said Garthniiel. “Greoore said—”
The rest of his sentence was lost when the arm of a catapult broke through the forest canopy. The ground shook as the massive rock smashed into the side of the tower. Stone bricks, knocked loose, cascaded down onto the courtyard. For a moment, it looked as if the whole structure might collapse, but when the dust cleared, the tower still stood.
“We won’t take many more like that,” said Roniin. “I suggest we start praying.”
“I don’t pray,” said Avenel. She flagged down a nearby Sister. “You. Go find some sturdy rope.”
“Rope?” asked the Sister, perplexed. “How much?”
“I don’t know. How high is the wall?”
“What are you thinking?” asked Garthniiel.
“I can disable the catapult,” said Avenel, “but I have to get to it first. If I climb down from the side there, I don’t think their archers would see me.”
“You don’t think?”
“It’s a risk, I know, but if I don’t at least try then we lose everyone inside that tower.”
“Then I’ll go with you,” said Garthniiel. “There’ll be soldiers by the catapult. I can keep them distracted while you do what you need to do.”
Avenel hesitated. The word “no” was on the tip of her tongue when other words came unbidden to her mind. Don’t let your feelings cloud your judgement. Garthniiel was a decent fighter, better than most. She nodded.
“I’ll go too,” offered Frost.
Garthniiel shook his head. “You’re needed here, with the other archers. We’ll find someone else.”
They found three more volunteers by the time the Sister returned with the rope: a tall Ajjraean guard with a boyish face, a woman with a large scar across her chin, and a monk with a patchy beard. They rappelled down the wall where the trees grew the closest, letting the foliage obscure their descent. The trees had worked against them, hiding their enemies, but now it would hide them instead. Soft, mossy ground covering muffled their footsteps as they navigated through the trees.
The woods were quiet and empty. The enemy may have used it to mask their approach, but not their numbers. Nonetheless, their approach was slow and cautious; there was always the risk of a scout or a sentry. Even through the muffling of the leafy canopy overhead, they could hear the tower being struck again: once, twice. From the sound of it, they were nearing the catapult.
Avenel signalled for the others to stop, then climbed up the nearest tree. She had always liked climbing, liked the vantage that height afforded, liked the way she could see without being seen. She leapt, quiet and catlike, from tree to tree until she was close enough for a good look. A little clearing had been made, just large enough for the catapult and the twenty people milling about it. Four of them were busy readying another boulder, two stood ready to the pull back the arm, and the rest of them stood sentry at the edge of clearing, guarding the others. There was no sign of the rest of force; they must have moved on already, moved forward to shepherd the battering ram. Through the treetops, she circled the clearing just once, just to be sure.
Twenty was not many, but it was still too many for her to take on alone, even with her daggers and her vantage point.
She surveyed the clearing. She formed a plan. She returned to the others and instructed them on what to do.
She resumed her perch in the tree and waited. A minute passed, then two, then three. A caterpillar began to climb up her boot. She let it. She watched as her companions got into position: the patchbeard monk to the north, the boyish guard in the east, the woman with the scar to the west, and to the south of the clearing, just below and behind her, was Garthniiel.
She took a deep breath—it had been a long time; did she still remember how?—and gave two sharp whistles.
Her companions charged into the clearing. By the time the enemy reacted, they were already down by three. The remainder raised their weapons to meet their attackers, turning their backs to the catapult. Not a single one bothered to look up.
It was a bit of a leap from the tree to the frame of the catapult. For a moment, Avenel thought she wouldn’t make it, woefully out of practice as she was, but she did, landing in a crouch at the top of the machine, and slid down to the grass. The enemy still hadn’t noticed her, but it was only a matter of time; she had to work quickly.
The rope was as thick as her arm, too thick to cut through, so she searched her pockets for her flint and steel. The rope was slow to ignite, and even when it did, it smoldered rather than burned. But singed, the fibers snapped easier under her knife. The arm of the catapult fell back useless with a thunk.
At the sound, several of the soldiers turned her way. One charged at her, battleaxe raised, and she sidestepped to let momentum carry him past her. Before he had a chance to turn, she slammed a dagger into the back of his neck then wrenched it free, just in time to see an archer take aim. She dodged, the arrow just grazing her ear, then the bearded monk tackled him down before he could draw another. A third attacker ran at her, and she drew her sword, only to notice a fourth out of the corner of her eye. There was just enough time to raise her sword to block—
Pain shot through her shoulder as their blades clanged, and belatedly she remembered being slammed earlier against the wall. Her arm buckled, the sword knocked out of her hand, and she fell back onto the grass to avoid the oncoming blade. Her attacker followed her down, pinning her arm with his knee, and raised his sword over her head. She twisted, and with her free hand, drew a dagger from her boot and sank it into his thigh. He dropped his sword, and then Garthniiel was there, pushing him off her and splitting open his skull.
There was a shout—several shouts. Someone from the main force had noticed that something was amiss, but it didn’t matter, the catapult was already inoperable. “Let’s go!” shouted Avenel, as she got to her feet. The boyish guard was still occupied by two of the soldiers, so Avenel picked up her sword and drove it through one while the scarred woman slammed her mace into the other. Together, the five of them ran back the way they had come.
The rope—the one they’d used in their descent—was within view when the monk stopped. “You all go ahead,” he said. “I can’t climb anymore.” He held out his left hand. Three of the fingers had been reduced to bleeding stumps.”
“Don’t be stupid,” said Garthniiel. “We’ll pull you up.”
The monk shook his head. “They’re still chasing us; I can hold them off while you all get back to safety.”
“But you’ll die,” said the scarred woman.
There was no time to argue. “He’s made his choice,” said Avenel. She turned to him. “Good luck.”
The man nodded. Raising his sword, he turned and walked back into the woods.
To the monk’s credit, only a single arrow made it towards them as they climbed, and even then it missed by a mile.
At the top of the wall, it was Lord Roniin who helped her up over the parapet. “Prince Greoore told me the rest of the plan,” he said. “I don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to,” said Avenel.
“Was it your idea?”
“Does it matter?”
“No,” said Roniin. “My archers are ready, whenever you are.”
Avenel nodded. “Garth, you and the others should join your brother downstairs.”
“Will you—will your arm be alright?” he asked.
She managed a smile. “It hasn’t killed me yet.”
He smiled back, then without a word, led the other two back into the tower.
There was a spare bow and quiver waiting for her nearby. She took her time strapping the quiver to her belt, until she was sure that Garthniiel had joined the others. Then, she picked up the bow. “On your mark, Lord Roniin.”
Lord Roniin gave a shout. It was relayed down the wall, and the great iron gate lifted open. The enemy hoard streamed through, a great tide of arms and armor, filling the courtyard and trampling the chickens, the stables, the vegetable patch. They met resistance at the entrance to the tower proper, where Garthniiel, Greoore, and the others had barricaded the door. Still, the invaders poured in through the gate, and Avenel waited, scarcely breathing, as the courtyard filled with enemies. Soldiers. Men and women who were only following orders, as she herself had done a thousand times. But it was too late, far far too late, for regrets or second thoughts.
And then, with a clang, the great gate fell shut.
Roniin shouted a command, and cauldrons of hot oil were upended onto the soldiers below. There were yells, screams of pain and confusion, then a volley of flaming arrows set the oil ablaze. The screams were drowned by the ravenous cackle of the flames, as the soldiers below were no longer men and women, but mere flesh, charred and burning. More arrows—Avenel notched, drew, and fired with the rest—they had to end this. A few of the archers below—the ones the fire hadn’t yet reached, that still had possession of their senses—fired back. There were no crenellations on this side of the wall, nothing to hide behind, and the light of the flames made it difficult to see. An arrow barely nicked her ear; she ducked, heart thudding, crouching below the parapet as she refilled her quiver. The smoke stung her eyes, her nose, and she wiped both with the heel of her hand before rising to fire another arrow. Next to her, an archer—she couldn’t tell if he was Ajjraean or Elyrian or perhaps neither—screamed and died.
There had been soldiers outside the gate, the ones who hadn’t made it through before the gate had clanged shut. They had lingered by the gate, trying to continue their assault with the ram, but now they saw the carnage within and fled.
There was little movement within the courtyard now, beyond the flickering of the flames. Where there was some movement—some tiny twitch or spasm—Avenel was quick to end it with an arrow. A mercy, she told herself.
“I think that’s enough,” she said to Roniin.
Roniin nodded. He gave the order, and sand was thrown into the courtyard below, extinguishing what remained of the fire.
“Is it over?” asked a young soldier to her right, still clutching his bow. The sun had set, and without the light of the flames, he looked ghastly pale in the moonlight.
Avenel nodded. “Yes,” she said. “It’s over.” She unbuckled her quiver and set down her bow. “Excuse me,” she said. “I need to find my ward.”