Siege, Part Five

The 30th Day

The Arsenal was impressive.  Even Nathalia wanted a moment to appreciate it. 

The Pool and its slipways and berths teaming with galleys and other watercraft was impressive enough.  An entire navy, it seemed, could shelter there, far up-river from the bay, but close enough to quickly sortie at need.  It was a piece of design and execution of which Nathalia could only approve.  

But when she entered the Arsenal itself she had to stop and take it all in, with something approaching reverential awe.  A thousand feet long, its gabled roof was mostly panes of thick glass, cunningly set so as to allow the maximum amount of sunlight in.  The roof was held up by a  complex web of support beams, and two rows of load-bearing pillars down the length of the structure. 

Down among those pillars, the Arsenal floor was divided into different areas of work and research.  As an apprentice led her down the central aisle, Nathalia was hard put not to stop and stare into each area.  In one, workers were assembling what had to be mortar bomb fuses; in another, cannon were being hoisted onto gun carriages.  Some of the areas had brick walls facing the aisle, suggesting that whatever work was being performed might need to be contained.  There was a general din of hammers, scrappers, chains in pulleys, and shouted questions and orders. 

“Come along,” the apprentice snapped over the noise, as Nathalia did hesitate, looking in on a workbench were clockworks– very like those she had worked on in the workshop of Master Podrimiri– were being fitted into metal casings.  Land mines— it was the only explanation of why you would use mechanisms like that.  In a single glance she comprehended the whole of what she had seen before only in part. 

“I don’t have all day,” the apprentice said, peevishly, and Nathalia stopped gawking and followed him.

Apparently now, however, she had earned the apprentice’s enmity.  “I don’t know who you are, girl,” he muttered, “but I have better things to do than leading you around by the hand.”

“I am sorry,” Nathalia murmured, not really feeling sorry and still fascinated by what was going on around her. 

To her disappointment, the apprentice led her out of the Arsenal.  They crossed a flagged courtyard easily two hundred feet across, to another building in the complex.  This was no lofty construction, but a hulking brick block that resembled an ancient pyramid tomb of the Ascalanans more than anything else.  It seemed very out of place, something ancient and ominous in this place of industry. 

He led her inside a very tall side door that was nevertheless dwarfed by the wall in which it was set. She followed him down a dimly lit corridor.  They passed rooms with heavy doors, made two or three turns and at last came to a workshop.  Here, too, there was the sound of work, but it was muffled, as if by thick walls.

An older man sat at a table here, looking over an assortment of gears and flywheels.  Another man, younger, leaned against the far wall, his arms crossed.  The younger man stared at Nathalia as she entered, and it was not a welcoming look.  

“Benicusi Nathalia, master,” the apprentice announced, as they entered the room. 

The older man looked up.  He had an open, almost youthful face, although Nathalia suspected he was about the same age as Master Podrimiri.  It was the next moment she realized whom she faced. She had to brace her knees against a sudden case of the shakes. 

“Apprentice Benicusi,” the older man said, “welcome.”

“Apprentice!” the apprentice who had brought her sniffed.  “Next they’ll be naming dormice journeymen!”

“Atalus,” the older man said quietly, “don’t you have something to do?”             

The youngster stiffened, as if he had suddenly spied a snake in his path.  “Yes, master.  No problem, master,” and he slipped out the way they’d come.

“Apprentice, please be seated,” the older man said.

There was a stool across the table from him.  Nathalia seated herself, and held her hands in her lap to keep them from shaking.  

“Master Podrimiri has told me many things about, apprentice, many very glowing things,” the older man said.  

“Master Podrimiri is very kind,” Nathalia said. 

“Master Podrimiri is an old acquaintance of mine,” the older man said, “and while he may be kind, he is also very demanding and does not hand out praise where it is unwarranted.”

True, Nathalia thought, but she kept her peace.

“He names you,” the older man went on, “his most able pupil and apprentice.  Do you agree with that sentiment?”

“Perhaps,” Nathalia said slowly, “it is only in comparison with his other pupils.”

The younger man snorted at this, rolling his eyes.  The older man seemed to be fighting a smile.  “I do hope that is not just by comparison, young lady.  Your family is known to me– silversmiths and clockmakers both, correct?”

“Yes, master.”

“I have seen their work.  Very fine.  Did you help in the shop?”

“My father was– has been– my first teacher in the mechanical arts.  I helped him with most of the orders our family has received for the last ten years, before I started work for Master Podrimiri.”

“Tell me, apprentice, what sort of ultimate gear ratio might there be between the pendulum of a clock and the hour gear?” the older man said, almost as if he were springing an ambush.

“Usually about five hundred to one,” Nathalia said immediately.  She wondered at the simplicity of the question.

The older man nodded. He swept a hand over the gears on the table between them.  “If I were to set you the task of assembling a gear train of at least three gears needed to drive a counter of one hundred out of these gears, which would you choose?”

Nathalia leaned over the table and examined the gears.  “This one, this one and this one,” she quickly said.  She picked up the selected gears, then frowned.  “But master, these gears do not appear to be of particularly good quality.  The metal may not have been tempered properly.  I think they would bend or break fairly quickly.”

“Indeed,” the older man said.  He glanced, seemingly amused, at the younger man.  The younger man’s mouth was pressing into a tight, disapproving line.  “You’re quite right, both ways.  Come here.”

He stood and went to another table, set against the far wall.  Nathalia, puzzled, stood and followed.

On this table were an array of gears, ranging in size from a huge gear with a twenty-inch radius down to a tiny sprocket half the width of Nathalia’s hand.  These seemed sturdily made, well-cast and clean-edged.  The older man again indicated them with a sweep of his hand.

“If I wanted to raise a hundred pound weight twenty feet quickly,” he told Nathalia, “which of these should I choose?”

Nathalia looked at the gears, counting teeth, comparing sizes.  Then she looked again, and got the same answer.  “None of them, master.”

“None of them?” the older man said. 

“None of them,” Nathalia repeated.  “The ratios are all wrong, in any combination.  You would struggle to even lift a small weight with most of them.”

The older man smiled.  “You are right.”  He turned to the younger.  “You see?  When Podrimiri says a thing is so, it is generally so.”  The younger man still looked truculently sour. 

The older man turned back to Nathalia.  “Do you know who I am, Apprentice Benicusi?” he asked.  

“You are Supreme Master Iunius Remiru, head of the Workshop of Laurentius, Lord Governor of the Arsenal, and Chief of Instruction at the Academy of Venia,” Nathalia said at once. 

Iunius smiled openly.  “Very good.  And, just to complete introductions, this stubborn fellow,” he swept his hand toward the younger man, “this is Over Master Denias Patris, head of the Special Projects at the Arsenal.  If you choose to work here, you will be under him.”

“This is still ridiculous,” Denias said, speaking at last. 

“Far less so than before we met her, Patris,” Iunius said over his shoulder.  

“Women have smaller brains than men, and so cannot be expected to handle complicated mechanical problems,” Denias said. 

Nathalia bit her tongue to keep an instant rebuttal from her lips. Iunius shook his head.  “If so, then you better go grab Suntilis Verrus and Draconis Cazara off the floor, Patris, because both of them are smaller than Apprentice Benicusi here.  Poor lads.”  He turned around to face Denias.  “Your objection fails by its own logic, and you just saw her performance.  I think your concerns have been answered.”

“Her mere presence will cause disruptions on the work floor,” Denias said.

“If she does, it will be your job to fix them,” Iunius said.  He sounded as if he had just run out of patience.  “I am tired of your pointless objections, Patris.  We need every skilled hand we can find for this work.  Male, female, native-born, foreign.  The Tou-tani are not going to give us the time to do anything else.”

He faced Nathalia.  “Would you like to work here at the Arsenal, apprentice?  It will be hard work, and there is a special project– several, actually, but one in particular– on which we need all the help we can get.”

“I would be honored to work here, Master,” Nathalia said.

“It might be dangerous,” Iunius said.  “Many of the things we work on have a tendency to explode, though not, hopefully, while we are working on them.  There is always the possibility, though.  Does that frighten you?”

Nathalia hesitated.  “Sir, my mother’s mother walked three days through a dust storm to escape Rohara when the Tou-tani conquered it.  Half the people with her died.  My father’s father had to be smuggled out of Rohara under a load of rotting cod fish, into which Tou-tani shoved spears, looking for refugees.  They both arrived in Venia with nothing, and out of that nothing built families and businesses.  If they could be that brave, I can face the possibility of being blown up to keep the Tou-tani out of this city.”  She shrugged.  “Things like that don’t frighten me, sir– they just make me cautious.”

Iunius’ smile widened.  “Welcome to the Arsenal, Apprentice Benicusi.”

*****

“All I’m saying,” Eaman said, lifting and flinging a spadeful of earth onto the pile, “is that the city has whole work-gangs for this sort of thing.”

“What I hear,” Gederanus said, shoving his own spade into the earth, “is that the city aediles and their work-gangs weren’t getting the job done, so General Nicranus volunteered the garrison.”

“We’re archers!” Eaman said.  “We don’t dig fortifications.”

“We do now,” Galen said.  He added his tithe to the dirt pile.  “Every unit on the wall is doing exactly what we’re doing, Eaman.  And believe me, when the shelling starts you’ll be glad enough for this bombproof.”

“Look on the bright side,” August told Eaman, “you’re outside in the fresh air and sunshine, getting exercise, working up a good appetite.  What more could you want?”

“A lot of things,” Eaman muttered, plunging his spade into the ground.  “Out of this damned rat’s hole of a city, to start with.  Then maybe a really eager young woman and a barrel of good beer.”

“See?” Galen said.  “Setting your expectations too high only leads to disappointment.”

“Yeah,” Gederanus said, flinging dirt.  “I don’t think there’s a single barrel of good beer in this whole city.”     

Ten days after the scout, the archer cohort had been transferred from the Bastion of Joy to the Chapel Bastion.  No one had explained why.  Eaman and others had complained, but the veterans in the cohort resigned themselves to another deployment without apparent reason. 

Galen, for his part, had a theory.  The Chapel Bastion was one of the obvious weak points in the city defenses, with an incomplete ditch, scarp and counterscarp.  It urgently needed improvement.  

Sure enough, as soon as the cohort arrived it was set to work.  

The first task was to demolish all buildings standing within a hundred yards of the wall for a considerable distance on either side of the bastion, to clear away anything that might provide cover to enemy troops who made it inside the city, or fuel for fires set by incoming bombs.  Galen and the other archers had already done the same work around the Bastion of Joy to the south, and indeed, this sort of preparation had been going on in every sector of the city since its gates had closed.  What surprised Galen was the fact the owners and tenants of the buildings– in this area, mostly godowns and workshops for various crafts– had made no preparations to move, despite having been warned days and days before.  Some of these folk came out to argue with the city officers directing the work.  It was all to no avail, and then those same folk had to move their goods and tools and supplies in a great hurry, because those same officers were not about to let their schedule slip.  Some of the people barely made it out before the soldiers sledgehammered their roofs down. 

The archers were to share this section of wall with a regular army battalion and a company of garrison soldiers.  As a consequence, they also shared the fatigue duty.  The regulars were all right, in Galen’s judgment, but the garrison soldiers were apparently used to an easier set of duties.

When the buildings were flattened and their salvaged materials put aside, the soldiers, archers, infantrymen and garrison troopers, were all set to digging bomb-proofs.  The officers marked out several squares of about ten feet by ten feet in the newly exposed earth, and assigned gangs of men to dig down about six or seven feet in each location.  Again, there was much grumbling among the soldiers.  

This lasted until the afternoon of the fifth day.  Galen and his gang were about shoulder deep in their excavation when distant booms, as if of far-off thunder, made them all look up– except the sky was clear, and the detonations grew louder and louder, as if advancing from the south.  Corosa shouted, “They’ve started!”

The cannon-fire suddenly sounded very, very close.  Something shrieked.  One of the merlons on the wall close by shattered into a shower of broken stone.

All at once everyone, archers, foot-soldiers, and troopers, was trying to pile into the lowest corner of the digging.  Galen found himself beneath Corosa and two infantrymen, themselves at the bottom of a huge scrum of men.  The grunting and crying was so loud that Galen had trouble hearing the guns in the bastion returning fire.  

This went on for a couple of minutes; and then one of the city officers appeared, cursing and pulling men to their feet.  “Get up!  Back to work, all of you!  If you were wondering why you were digging these shelters, now you know!  The sooner you finish them, the sooner you can cower at your leisure!”

Galen, practically the last to emerge from the dog-pile, wiped dirt off his tunic.  Work they should and must, he knew– but he also knew that people who didn’t respect Tou-tani gunnery often learned to do so the hard way.  He went back to work, but with one ear cocked for more incoming rounds.  

There was, however, a lot less grumbling from then on. 

That afternoon the Tou-tani fired four or five more grand volleys, the batteries again firing in sequence from south to north, as if the enemy just wanted to prove they could.  None of the subsequent shots hit anything nearby, however, and a couple of them missed completely and sang off over the wall and into the city itself.  Afterwards the enemy guns fell silent, except for occasional harassing shots in the distance, and so did the return fire from the Kuiritans.  Neither side, Galen knew, had unlimited supplies of powder and shot, and both would need to conserve their ammunition for the serious wall-pounding to come, and the assaults that would follow.

The soldiers delayed their dinner that evening to get some of the salvaged timber in place over the bombproof, to provide at least a little overhead cover.  They were just sitting down underneath it when Sinicus appeared.  He had a bandage around the bicep of his right arm.  “What happened to you?” Corosa asked, as Sinicus squeezed in among the others.

“Captain Verion had me running messages today down to the Bastion of Joy,” Sinicus said, as he accepted a bowl of stew.  “I was there when the bastards started shooting.  The south portal of the bastion took a direct hit, and I caught a stone splinter.  It’s not bad, but it hurt like hell.  Still, I was lucky– five men were killed, and a bunch wounded, some of them pretty bad.  That stonework can cut you up when it starts flying.”

Galen reflected on how often he had gone in and out of that portal.  If the archers had not been moved, perhaps he would have been one of the men cut to pieces.  But that, he knew, was one of the chances of war.    

“That’s a pretty tidy bandage,” Gederanus said.  “You do that yourself?”

“Naw– they’ve set up a medical station close by the bastion down there, and a priest-medico pulled the splinter out and bandaged me up, just like that.”  He took a spoonful of stew.  “Hear they’re setting up stations like that all along the wall,” he said around the mouthful. 

“Well, that’ll be handy,” August told Galen.  

“Oh, yes,” Galen murmured. 

The next morning Galen’s gang was pulled off their bombproof to hurry up and finish putting the roof on another.  This one was deeper and wider than the others, and its floor had been flagged with salvaged brick.  Galen and the others wondered to one another, in low voices, if this was going to be a shelter for officers, but soon enough the truth was revealed.  

They were just finishing spreading a top layer of earth over the timbers and a layer of more bricks when a train of people came down the nearest street.  It was an odd assortment– a couple of medici, several priests, attendants, even a couple of priestesses.  The women wore men’s clothing, boots, leggings, knee pants and tunics– practical, if strange to the soldiers’ eyes.  The attendants carried bundles of gear; at the rear a couple of servants led a pair of mules bearing cots and other equipment. 

The officers shooed the work gang back to their own bombproof, as the medici and medicae took possession of theirs.  The gang was close to finishing their digging, and everyone talked about putting the final touches on the roof.  Galen thought they could probably get the job finished before nightfall, and wondered if they could secure some old bricks of their own– having a flagged floor for the shelter, like that of the medical station, would be much nicer than having to lay down straw or rushes to cover the bare ground, especially as Galen had no idea where they would get either.  He mulled the problem over in his head as he dug, and completely forgot about the medici.

He was widening the sloped entrance to the bombproof when he heard, “You, soldier.”  He looked up.

It was one of the medica-priestesses.  Galen saw a slim young woman of middling height.  She wore her dark hair in a long but practical braid down her back.  She had the smooth brown complexion of most Venian women, but her eyes were a rather startling green.  Galen wondered who she had hidden up in her family tree.  

“Where can I find the supply master for this section of the wall?” the priestess said.  She wore an expression of grave responsibility. 

Galen was somehow suddenly, uncomfortably, aware of his shirtless and rather muddy state.  Irritated, and not knowing why, he pointed to the lower entrance to the back of the bastion.  “Go in there, go up to the fourth floor, ask for the master,” he said.  

The woman gave him a curt nod, and strode off toward the bastion without another word.  Galen watched her go and muttered, “Huh. You’re welcome.”

He turned to find every man in the work gang leaning on their shovels, watching her go.  The reason was obvious– despite being skinnier than Galen usually preferred, she filled out those men’s britches quite nicely.  He felt irritated all over again.  

“Ho,” Gedaranus said, admiringly, “and here I thought all priestesses were old women with moustaches.”

“Get back to work, you gawkers!” Galen said.  “By the gods, one pretty woman sashays by and you lose your train of thought?”

“Oh, I got plenty of thoughts,” August said, smiling.

“Dig!” Galen snapped.   

The very next day, just before the noon meal, a runner appeared, telling  Galen, August, Eaman, Sinacus, and Corosa to all report to the command keep, just north of the Chapel Bastion.  The fact that the members of the patrol were called out and no one else was not lost on any of them.  With a sense of foreboding, Galen insisted they take just enough time to wash off the worst of their dirt and put on clean shirts before going up to the keep.

They were directed to the common room on the third floor.  Captain Verion was there, with a sour look on his face, which only seemed to confirm Galen’s worst fears.  He had them line along one wall; the only way that could have been more ominous would have been if he had them face the wall. 

A door banged open, and Verion yelled, “Attention!”  The five of them straggled to attention.  This is serious.  

Before the five strode none other than Brigadier Saricus Cassius.  The officer was followed by three or four aides, including Captain Aeminius Sandrel, whom Galen remembered from the Lady’s Day incident on the wall. Aeminius wore a look that seemed to suggest he disapproved of this whole business, whatever it was.  Saricus, however, was, strangely, beaming. 

“So!” he said.  “I’m glad to meet you lads.  Give me your names, just I have them straight.”

Stammering, the five of them repeated their names, from one end of the line to the other.  Saricus peered with particular closeness at Galen.  “Yes, I remember you, Decitus Galen.  A memorable Lady’s Day, wasn’t it, eh?”     

“Yes, sir,” Galen said, wondering what in the name of all the frozen hells was going on.

“I might have expected you’d show up in the business,” Saricus said, enigmatically.

He stepped back to regard them all.  “Lads, I have to tell you I got a very negative report about you,” he said, “from the eastern wall commander, Brigadier Kallius.  Kallius seems to have gotten his information from a source rather prejudiced against you.”

Alterus Ever, burn in hell, Galen prayed.  

“On the other hand,” Saricus went on breezily, “I have another source, one in which I put a lot of faith, who has given me a rounder, and more trustworthy, picture of the scout.  Calpurnius Iunio.”

“Oh!” Galen said, “beg pardon, sir, but how is the lieutenant doing?”

“You’re at attention, Decitus!” Verion snapped.  

Saricus, though, waved a hand.  “It’s all right, captain, he’s just expressing concern for a comrade.  He’s mending, archer, mending well, and should be back on duty soon.”

“Thank you, sir,” Galen murmured, resolving to keep his mouth shut until this was over.

“Iunio told me what he saw on the patrol,” Saricus said, “and it differed a lot from Brigadier Kallius’ version.  For one thing, Iunio credits all of you with saving his life– and you, in particular, Decitus Galen,, with holding off the Tou-tani at a critical moment, which allowed all of you to escape.  Considering all that, I didn’t want to let your efforts go unappreciated.”  He gestured to Aeminius,

The captain stepped forward, looking more disapproving than ever.  He had a purse in his hand.  “Put out your hand,” he hissed at Galen.  Galen did so; and into it Aeminius put a gold coin.  It was a heavy gold Imperial aureus, stamped with the regius’ own image and seal.  Galen stared at it.  He had never held one before.  

Aeminius went down the line and gave each of the men one of the coins.  Nobody said anything.  They all seemed to be as stunned as Galen.      

“There,” Saricus said, “there’s a token of appreciation.  Don’t spend it all in one place, boys, ha, ha!” 

“What do you say to the brigadier?” Verion said, sounding like a parent chiding children.

“Thank you, sir,” they all murmured. 

“Well and good,” Saricus said,  “Keep up the good work, all of you.”  He started to turn away, stopped.  “Oh, one more thing– Decitus Galen, you’re now a decarion.  Make me proud.”  He turned away, and followed by his aides, left.

When the door had slammed shut behind them, Verion said, “And that’s the worst part of all.  Decitus, a decarion.  Strike me blind.”

The awards and Galen’s promotion were the talk of the Chapel Bastion for a week afterwards.  Soldiers came by to admire the gold pieces, or, at least August’s and Corosa’s, as they were the least shy about showing them off and telling the story– at least, until someone tried to steal Corosa’s one night.  After that all the aurei went into a locked strongbox in the regimental treasury.

Despite his promotion nothing really changed for Galen.  His section had had no decarion for some time, anyway, so it was no trouble moving him into that slot.  Galen found he had been doing many of the duties of a decarion already, particularly keeping the fellows digging when a certain young medica-priestess was around.  They saw a lot of her, as the local medical station was put into operation, and so for a while there was a lot of interrupted digging that had to be restarted by sharp words liberally applied.     

The Tou-tani had settled into a pattern of intermittent spasms of cannon-fire, more harassment at this point than a serious effort to create a breach anywhere.  Three or four times a day over the next several they fired a few balls at a time toward each section of the wall.  At any given point the soldiers could hear Tou-tani guns firing somewhere along the city wall, north and east as well as west.  

Even under such a desultory fire, though, the Chapel Bastion’s stone facing began to crack.  During his turns on wall guard, Galen got glimpses of the bastion’s outer wall.  It was already beginning to resemble the face of a man stricken by smallpox.    

Listening to the guns, he thought most of them to be twenty-four pounders– light ordnance for wall pounding.  Were the Tou-tani having trouble bringing heavier guns forward?  For that matter, the enemy still hadn’t deployed mortars.  While field guns served for chipping away at walls, mortars were the real horror.  Mortars were the chief reason everyone had worked so hard to get bomb-proofs ready.  Even a few mortar bombs lobbed each day into the city could cause enormous chaos and death. The forward saps of the enemy were surely in range for those bastards– but so far, nothing. Galen found it a puzzle. 

Kuiritan counter-fire seemed as desultory as the Tou-tani.  There appeared to be a tacit agreement between to the two sides that if the Tou-tani fired a few shots, the Kuiritans would fire approximately the same number back.  For the most part, both sides enjoyed about the same results– that is, occasional hits on something important and a scattering of casualties, but not much more.  Again from the wall, the Tou-tani forward gun positions were plainly to be seen, but they were well protected by gabions and mounded earth thrown up ahead of the saps.  One afternoon the sound of cheering came from one of the bastion’s gun positions– apparently the gunners had managed to put one of their balls right through a firing aperture into one of the enemy guns, knocking the barrel muzzle over breach into the air, and probably killing the entire crew.  Usually, however, the results were far less dramatic, and even the knocked-out gun was back in operation two days later. 

The thing that did progress was the Tou-tani trench system.  The forward gun positions were quickly linked by lateral trenches, and then more forward saps were started.  After a few days the new saps began to edge into extreme arrow range, and there was much discussion among the archers as to when they might try shots.  Personally, Galen was not yet tempted.  His personal best for an aimed shot was just over three hundred yards, with the wind at his back and using a light arrow.  Certainly the archers could try massed flights of arrows for longer shots, but the results would probably be disappointing– the forward saps zig-zagged, affording very little in terms of a clear shot, and here and there they were actually roofed over.  At this point the archers would mostly be just wasting arrows.  Galen, for his part, was willing to wait.     

Meanwhile they finished the counter-wall, and settled down to garrison duty in and around the bastion.  Galen would have called it routine, except for the occasional cannon shot from the Tou-tani, and the growing tension of waiting for the assaults to come.  It was like waiting for a thunderstorm to break over you, knowing it was coming, but not knowing when.  

Portions of the company took turns on the wall and living in the bomb-proofs, rotating through the troops.  When not on wall duty, the soldiers not on guard were available for fatigue-duty– and there seemed to be a lot of it to be done.  They helped other units on their own fortifications, or fetched-and-carried around the western periphery of the city.  Some of the details were mysterious to the soldiers– for example, just why, they wondered, were they ordered to move sacks of grain from one set of storage bins to another set, with no discernable advantage of one location over the other?  It sparked a great deal of speculation among them,but they never got any sort of satisfactory answer.  

When not on fatigue-duty, the archers trained.  There was a patch of waste ground a little ways past the cleared zone, by the Peddler’s Road, and the mercenaries practiced small unit movement as well as their archery.  The space was confined, which meant that the targets were ridiculously close, but it was better than nothing.  If nothing else, Galen reflected, it would keep their bow arms strong.  

When the mercenaries were off guard duty, they slept in the old go-down that was the billet for the three different units.  Galen decided that he preferred the bomb-proof.  Not only was it distracting to have to listen to a hundred or more snoring men every evening, Galen did not like the look of the place’s roof.  It seemed to him that one fair-sized bomb could come right through it and kill them all.  Even roundshot would probably punch through and scatter the brains of some poor, sleeping soldier.  Like him.  Sleeping in the bomb-proof was living rough, but it certainly felt more secure.

As the archers and infantrymen settled in, so did the medici.  After a few days the healers appeared to make their station into a going concern.  Their main customers at the moment were soldiers hurt during work details.  A few days after his promotion Galen carried one of his men, a Telanian named Sergius Portus, down to the station.  The man had smashed his foot with a sledgehammer and was crying like a child.  “Are they going to cut it off, Galen?” he kept asking.  “Are they going to cut it off?”

“Of course not,” Galen said, when in fact he thought there was a good chance of it.  Sergius had completely missed his swing on a tent stake and done a proper job on his foot, even though he had been wearing boots.  Galen had seen men not as badly hurt lose their foot or leg.

He got Sergius down to the station.  A pair of attendants came out and helped Sergius into the shelter and onto a cot.  Galen knelt down by Sergius’ head, holding his hand, as someone said, “Bring that lantern over here.”

It was the young priestess.  As one of the attendants held a lantern high she took shears and efficiently cut Sergius’ boot off.  She removed the foot’s blood-stained wrapping, ignoring Sergius cries.  Even by the lantern-light Sergius’ foot looked wrong to Galen, as if it had been put in a vise and twisted out of shape.  It was steadily seeping blood, and one of the attendants hastily wrapped it in gauze, which instantly turned red.  

“It’s nothing, Sergius,” Galen lied, smiling at the man.  “They’ll have it set right in no time.”

The priestess glanced at him, scowling.  “You can go, decarion,” she said.

Galen ignored her.  “They’ll just take you down to the hospital and they’ll fix you quick as that,” he told Sergius.

“Decarion,” the priestess said, “you need to leave!”

Galen faced her.  “Why don’t you stop wasting time and get the litter ready for my man here?” he said.

The woman drew back in obvious surprise.  She recovered at once, though, and snapped orders to the attendants.

In short order the litter was ready.  Galen helped ease Sergius on to it.  “You just do as the medici say, and I’ll come see you soon.”

Sergius looked distracted with the pain, but he nodded.  “All right, Galen,” he said, at that moment completely forgetting Galen’s rank.  

The attendants lifted the litter and carried Sergius away.  Galen stepped outside the medical station and watched them go.  He was more sure than ever that Sergius was going to lose that foot in a matter of an hour or two.  The thought left Galen down-hearted– there wasn’t much for a crippled soldier aside from beggary.  It wasn’t right.

“Decarion,” the priestess said.  Galen turned to see the priestess stepping out of the station.  She looked very stern.  “From now, when I say to leave, you leave.”

Galen snorted.  “Lady, I don’t know who you think you are, but you’re not in my chain of command, and you don’t give me orders.  If one of my men is hurt, I will do what I need to for him, and there’s not a word you can say to change that.”

“We can’t have you interfering,” the priestess said. 

“How did I interfere?” Galen said.  “Did I get in your way?”

“You told your man lies,” the priestess said.  “That foot is liable to come off.”

“I know that,” Galen said.  “Probably better than you.  And just how would it have served him, lady, to tell him the bald truth right then?  Wind him up, get him frantic with fear?  Yes, that would have been an excellent prescription, wouldn’t it?”

The priestess looked as if she wanted to rebut Galen’s medical opinion, but was having trouble finding a flaw in it.  “Never mind,” she said at last.  “Go back to your unit, decarion.  I have work to do.”

“We all do, priestess,” Galen said.  “Hopefully, mine will keep me away from here for quite some time.”  He turned and walked away.

Siege, Part Four

The 13th Day– Evening

The sunset was lovely, red and purple swaths of clouds peeking over the tops of the city-wall and the high bastions.  Walking to the rendezvous, Galen paused to take it in.  Venia seemed to have the best sunsets.  He wondered why that was.  He had no idea; but he was grateful for it.

They gathered in the shadow of the Forest Bastion—Galen, Serica August, Datrius Eaman, Tartius Sinacus, and Amandus Corosa.  August and Sinacus were men from Galen’s same parish, the glades around Tenerabus; Eaman was a gloomy farmer from Curtanus; Corosa, from Lerat, was a kid who seemed to wear a perpetually surprised look.  Mixed company to risk your life in

Eaman was complaining as Galen came within earshot, and he complained as they stood there, waiting.  “Damned Venians should be scouting their own damn countryside, that’s all I’m saying,” he groused.  He glared at Galen.  “So they dragged you into this, Quickhand?”

It was Eaman’s nickname for him, and Galen was never quite sure how to take it.  “Yeah, which just shows what these Venians know, doesn’t it?  August, I thought for sure you and Sinacus would have been smart enough to dodge this detail.”

August grinned at him.  “You know us, Galen– we just can’t resist a bit of fun.”

“‘Fun’?” Galen said.  “Remind me to stay well away from you when you’re having a hard time.”

“Huh,” Eaman said, “like you’re going to have a choice about that tonight.”

Boots scuffed at the cobblestones of the lane; two city guard officers approached, followed by a squad of soldiers.  One, a captain and the older, looked at the bowmen with an expression bordering on disgust.  “You rustics are our detail tonight?” he demanded.

And who else would we be?  “Yes, sir,” was what Galen said aloud.  

“Fah,” the officer scoffed.  “This is going to go well.”

The other officer, a lieutenant, glanced sideways at his superior, then said to the archers, “This is Captain Alterus Ever, and I am Lieutenant Calpurnius Iunio.  Our orders are to sweep north through the Sacred Wood, around the Hill of Souls, and then across the high ground to the east, before dropping down and re-entering the city by the north sally port of Key Fort, on the bay shore.  The captain and I will lead, and make note of the enemy’s dispositions; you are here to protect us, but we are not to initiate any action.  We hope to do this scout undetected.”

“And if we are discovered, sir?  What then?” Eaman said.  

“If we can,” Iunio said, “we run.”

They waited for the light to fade out of the western sky.  While they did, the soldiers darkened their faces and hands with charcoal. The archers made sure to dull the polished gleam of their bows, so that they would not glint, and then they removed anything from their persons that might reflect light.  The Angreans were fortunate in that regard; their clothing tended toward browns and greens anyway.  The Venian officers, on the other hand, had to remove silvered belt-buckles and house sigils from their clothing.  Galen just hoped their britches would stay up.  

The lieutenant darkened his skin along with everyone else, although it was naturally the color of dark mahogany.  He noticed Galen’s questioning look.  “Even the son of a Carhalian woman has highlights in his skin that could give off a gleam at the wrong moment.  Better safe than skewered by some Tou-tani spearman.”

“If you say so, sir,” Galen said.  “Sounds as if you’ve done this sort of thing before.”

“Once or twice,” Iunio said.  

“Enough of your chatter, Iunio,” Alterus said.  “You’re wasting your time with these bumpkins.”

“As you say, sir,” Iunio said, but Galen glimpsed the lieutenant rolling his eyes.  

When the sun was well down and the light in the west was nearly gone, soldiers carrying lanterns led them all into the lower dungeon of the Forest Bastion.  A door, heavily barred, let them into a damp-walled tunnel, hewn into the native rock.  The tunnel angled downward, then ran straight for a long distance.  Galen, counting, made it to be about five hundred paces.  

At last the tunnel angled sharply up, and ended at what appeared to be another wooden door.  This one, however, slid silently aside, once the guides had covered their lanterns.  Galen saw that it was disguised as a rock face, set in a stone outcrop amid tall trees.  A curtain of living creepers covered the exit.  Ingenious—unless a man literally stumbled into the panel, there would be no way to discern there was a passageway into the city here at all.

The soldier-guides peered out, cautiously, then turned to the scouts.  “No one in sight,” their corporal whispered, “but that proves nothing.  Be careful.  Once you leave, this exit will be sealed.  You can’t come back this way, even if you stand here begging to be let in.”

“We understand,” Iunio said.  Somehow Galen was unsurprised that he, and not Alterus, was taking the lead.        

“The Highest and Greatest favor you,” the corporal said. 

The scouts stepped out into the cool evening air, which was heavy with the scent of myrtle and pine.  The corporal and his men went back into the tunnel.  The panel slid back into place, and in a moment Galen truly was not sure where it was.  

“Come on,” Iunio whispered.  

They moved deeper into the trees, following a path just this side of faint.  August, Galen and Eaman went with bows at the ready; Corosa and Sinacus carried their long knives in their hands.  Iunio, who seemed to know where he was going, carried a short sword of Carhalan make, a wicked curved blade that looked as if it could part a gnat from its soul.  Alterus carried a standard Kuiritan infantry glade; Galen hoped he would know who to use it on if the need arose. 

They saw and heard nothing in the wood, although noise and light from outside the forest reached them.  Apparently Tou-tani camps lay just beyond its margins, but as far as Galen could tell none of the easterners had pitched their tents here.  He had to wonder why; the wood reminded him of home.  

They jogged up a rise.  Iunio, near its crest, went down on one knee and held up a fist.  The rest of the men went to ground, the foresters silently and quickly, Alterus with more noise than seemed necessary.  Galen waited for a challenge from some Tou-tani sentry, but none came. 

Iunio signaled for the rest of the party to move up, keeping low.  Galen slithered up the slope and plopped down beside the lieutenant.  Alterus went to ground on Iunio’s other side, still making too much noise.  

Galen peeked over the very crest of the rise, as Iunio was doing.  Below them was a wide, open dell.  There were bonfires here, and enemy soldiers moving about.  Galen glimpsed great copper kettles on fires, with men stirred with great, long-handled ladles.  The men doing so wore masks, apparently against the vapors.     

“What in the name of the lower fires are they doing?” Alterus whispered.  

“They’re rendering something down,” Iunio whispered back.  “Something nasty, by the look of it.  We can’t linger to find out what, though.”  He signalled for the group to move off to the right, below the crest.

The rise ended just about the same moment the wood gave out.  The party found itself facing a field of barley, just coming to head, which rustled and swayed in the night breeze.  “Damn it, they missed burning this,” Iunio said, as they paused on the verge of the field, hunkered down in a drainage ditch.

“Probably too close to the forest,” Corosa said.  “You Venians love your sacred groves.”

“But now the Tou-tani get to harvest it,” Sinacus said.  

“Nothing to be done about it now,” Iunio said.  “Come.”

They followed the drainage ditch, crouching as they moved.  Beyond the field, to the west, more campfires illuminated the sky.  Galen would have guessed there were a couple of regiments camped in that direction, but wondered why they weren’t working their way over that way to make sure. 

The answer came as they left the ditch, and Iunio led them up a fold in a ridge that was nearly directly athwart their path.  It took Galen a moment to recognize, with a start, that they were on the western extremity of the Hill of Souls.  The ridge stretched off into the darkness to the east, its top barely outlined by the fires of sentry posts along its length.  

Iunio, with the certainty of someone who knew this ground well, even in the dark, led the party up to an outcrop of boulders on the western flank of the hill.  In the cover of the rocks the men stopped and caught their breath.  “Rest for a bit,” Iunio said, “while we see what can be seen.”  

He and Alterus crept up to a ledge on one side of the boulders.  Without being invited, Galen followed.  Making sure to stay in the shadows, he peered out over their heads.  

At once Galen understood why Iunio had brought them here.  From this vantage point they could look out over a huge swath of ground to the west of the grove and across the river.  And what was plain was that the ground out there was covered by enemy camps.  Thousands of campfires dotted the countryside, bright, reddish sparks that seemed to twinkle in the distance as if they were stars.  Tents could be seen by that firelight, and rough stockades that divided unit cantonments one from another.  In the further distance Galen thought he glimpsed earthworks.  For a moment he wondered why the Tou-tani had erected fortifications out there, until he realized those were to protect the easterners’ own encampment from any Kuiritan force coming to the relief of the city.  They were that far into the Tou-tani lines.  It gave Galen the shivers.  

“That’s no motley of Tou-tani,” Alterus said. 

“No, it’s not,” Iunio said.  “I count…ten or so regimental cantonments.  Baggage park to the north,” Iunio gestured in that direction, but Galen could not see what he pointed to in the firelight glare, “perhaps some horse-corrals that way, too.  Hard to tell.”  He studied the enemy camp for another moment, then nodded.   “Right.  Time to move.”

He led them around the shoulder of the hill, staying in the tall grass on the slope, and brought them to the northern face of the Hill of Souls.  He signaled for them to move quiet and keep silent, and Galen understood the warning.  There were no Tou-tani on the slope that he could see; but a few yards above them on their right were Tou-tani watch-posts, positioned along the ridgetop at intervals.  He could actually hear the enemy soldiers in the nearest post, talking idly to one another.  He knew enough Tou-tani to catch the drift of the bored conversations, which seemed to mostly revolve around how dull this business was and how long it might be until their relief.    

What made him feel truly naked, though, were the fires that dotted the flat ground north of the ridge.  More tents covered the ground, including one very large pavilion that had ‘general’ stamped all over it, as far as Galen was concerned, with enough cookfires to cast a steady copper glow over the face of the ridge.  Despite their darkened clothing and the height of the grass Galen was sure they would be seen.  

Iunio led them in a steady trot for about a mile, but then held up a hand.  They all went to ground.  Galen wondered if Iunio had spied an enemy patrol, but when he peeked out he saw Iunio and Alterus hunkered down together, looking downslope and holding a whispered conference.  He looked where they looked, and saw what had caught their eye.  

Well back from the foot of the ridge, far enough away that Galen could only get glimpses from the scattered bonfires that dotted the area, was a flat stretch of ground.  It seemed to cover several acres.  It looked as if the natural grass covering it had been cut short, and the ground itself leveled.  

On that level ground were cannons, lined up in neat rows.  It was hard to tell in the uncertain light, but Galen guessed there were at least eighty or ninety guns, of different calibers.  Most appeared to be heavy guns, perhaps thirty-six pounders and more.  Galen was familiar with cannon, had seen them in action in different battles, had even served as a replacement gun-layer at Morsonto for a few days– but these were more guns than he had ever seen in one place at one time. In the uncertain light he glimpsed guards, a goodly number of them, pacing their watches on the perimeter of the park. 

He crawled closer to Iunio and Alterus, trying to overhear them.  “Where are their mortars?” Alterus was saying.

“I don’t know, sir,” Iunio said.  “It does seem a strange absence.  Maybe they have them in a central location somewhere.”  He sounded as if he doubted his own words.

Galen doubted his words, too.  It made more sense to him to disperse a number of guns to cover each section of the city wall.  Especially mortars.  The siege would get really interesting when those came into play.  

Alterus said nothing for a moment.  Finally he said, “Even without them, this is a deal of guns.”

“My scouts and I counted three hundred unloaded before the Tou-tani spotted us, and we had to run for it,” Iunio said.  “If it were me, sir, and I was besieging Venia, I would bring every gun I could jam into a ship’s hold.  Personally speaking, sir.”

Alterus made a sound deep in his throat, as if in lieu of admitting the truth of what Iunio was saying.  “Let’s move on.”

They left the Hill of Souls behind, and crossed the flat ground that lay between it and the eastern escarpment.  This had been orchard and vineyard country, which the Tou-tani had burned almost as soon as they had invested the city.  They jogged between charred stumps of trees and vines, with the smell of ashes in their nostrils.  As a forester, Galen knew something of arboriculture, and these sights and smells enraged him.  Hundreds of years of husbandry, destroyed in a day– the stupid Tou-tani had not even cared to appropriate the vineyards for themselves, which was a shortsightedness that utterly flummoxed Galen.  Of course if the Tou-tani had seized the vineyards, then the Venians might have felt obliged to destroy them themselves, anyway.  War was nothing if not ironic. 

They were still well within the foremost enemy lines, and the party had to cross a number of communication trenches.  They did so carefully, making sure no one was in sight or hearing.  Still, more than once they had to lay low to let groups of Tou-tani pass.  Here and there they swung wide to avoid enemy bonfires, keeping to the darkness.  Galen was glad the Tou-tani did not use war hounds the way Kuiritans did– any number of times they were close enough to Tou-tani pickets or redoubts that a dog surely would have picked up their scent.     

They followed a shepherd’s path up onto the escarpment itself.  This tableland, which extended twenty leagues to the valley of the Ro River, had more extensive fields and pasturelands.  Now, at least in the near distance, it was a mosaic of enemy cantonments, camps and corrals for cavalry horses and beef cattle.  If they had had to go carefully before, now they had to make themselves one with the shadows between battalion and regimental campfires.  There were pickets at the edge of each enemy cantonment, and at one point they had to hide in another unburnt stand of corn while a cavalry detail trotted past.      

Galen did not try to keep a count of the Tou-tani cantonments they passed, figuring that was the officers’ job, but even so he was first impressed, then alarmed, at how many and extensive the encampments were.  He had known, in his head, the Tou-tani host was huge, but this brought it home in a way that made him grip his bow tighter.  

The group paused now and then when the officers spied something of particular interest.  They counted horse corrals, and made note of more artillery parks.  The number of guns the Tou-tani had on hand began to reach alarming levels, and Galen listened as Iunio and Alterus compared counts in ever more worried tones.  

At last, sweating and weary, they reached the southern edge of the escarpment.  Here the ground fell away in two directions, on the west toward Venia and its wall, and on the south, toward the seashore.  They were beyond Venia’s bay at this point, and as the clouds parted they could make out the long curve of the further shore in the starlight, stretching away to the north and east.  Before them was the open ocean.  From this height, on such a clear, still night, Galen was not surprised to see the masthead lights of ships, here and there in the distance, standing well offshore.  It was with a lurch in his gut when he realized that those were, most likely, Tou-tani warships.  Since Ox Island, the Empire had very few of their own in the Inner Sea.  

The group rested for a few minutes in the lee of a huge outcrop of boulders, not far from the western edge of the high ground.  They drank water and waited for the clouds to cover the stars again.  Galen was surprised to see, from the stars, that it was well into the fourth hour of the morning.  They had spent hours traipsing around two-thirds of the Tou-tani lines encircling the city– which probably explained why, now that they had stopped moving, Galen noticed how footsore and tired he was.  Twilight would be coming soon, given the short summer night, and full day not long after that.  The fact that they would have the escarpment behind them would buy them some extra time, but they were still miles from Venia.  Galen would prefer not to get caught outside the walls with dawn coming on.  

Iunio, at least, was thinking along the same lines.  After he and Alterus consulted for a few minutes, he had everyone huddle close.  “Look,” he told them.  “We’ve taken longer than we planned.  We have to move fast.  If the sand lice catch sight of us outside of cannon range of the city wall, we’re dead. So while it’s still dark we’ll come down off this high ground, slip into their communication trenches, and use them as cover.”

“That increases our chances of running into the enemy,” August said.  

“We have to cross their main trench-line, anyway,” Iunio said.  “We’re liable to get spotted sooner or later.  I’d rather it be later, and as close to the city wall as possible.”

“I’d rather we stop talking, sir,” Galen said, “and get moving.  We’re wasting darkness.”   

That put an end the discussion.  The group set out, single file, down another shepherd’s path that descended the escarpment.  Soon enough they were on flat ground, with the city wall looming in the starlit distance.  Galen noted, unhappily, how many lights shone along it.  Guards not minding light discipline, uncurtainted arrow-loops in bastions or gunports uncovered– they were all potential aiming points for the Tou-tani.  He reflected that, unfortunately, the garrison would learn what showing uncovered lights on the wall meant; but the price for the lesson would be high.  It always was.

Galen also noted something else, with more interest than concern.  Before the siege there had been three main roads that led away from Venia’s eastern gates.  The Tou-tani, in their need to move troops, supplies and guns, had begun to cut several more.  The party crossed one of these, freshly graveled and well-banked.  The difficulty was that all of these roads were visible for a couple of miles to any observer on  the city’s eastern wall.  It was that far from the foot of the escarpment to the first of the communication trenches.  There was  no way to hide movement down the face of the height to the far end of the trenches.  The city’s defenders should be able to observe everything that moved out here.  That, Galen knew, could be a boon.

They jogged steadily for a quarter-hour or so, only going flat on their bellies once to let a Tou-tani patrol go past them in the darkness.  Galen willed himself to look like a stone in the grass, and it seemed to work– the Tou-tani passed by, chatting amiably among themselves, but never appearing to guess they were mere feet from Kuiritans.  

This part of the city’s hinterland had been in fallow when the year began, so mostly it was tall grass, and did not have the burnt-over aspect of other areas.  Galen smelled it while he was hiding in it.  It seemed like it would be good fodder for the enemy’s horses.  He wondered how the Kuiritans might burn it themselves to keep it from the bellies of Tou-tani animals. 

At last Iunio, in the lead again, held up a hand to halt everyone and send them all to one knee.  He pointed; the sloped entrance of a trench lay mere yards before them.

“Single file,” he whispered to them all.  “Say nothing– one word of Kuiritan and we’ll have the whole garrison of the line on us.  Any of you speak Tou-tani?”

“I do, a little,” Galen said.

“If it’s a little, make it none,” Iunio said.  “There’s nothing more distinct to a Tou-tani than Tou-tani spoken badly, and with a Kuiritan accent.  If there’s any talking to be done, let me do it.”  He looked around at them all.  “If I call for you to run, do it, and every man for himself, because that’s what the situation will require.  Are you all clear on that?” 

“Yes, sir,” the men murmured.

“All right,” Iunio said.  “Let’s go.”

Galen, oddly enough, felt better once they were in the trench.  They risked running into Tou-tani; but they were no longer exposed and in the open, clothed only in darkness.  With a little luck, any sentry hearing them would assume they were friendly reinforcements, since they were moving forward from the Tou-tani rear.  It gave Galen a little more confidence; for which, when he realized that’s how he felt, he chided himself.  Confidence in a situation like this could get you killed very quickly.  

They made their way along the trench, and Galen noticed it was well-made.  It zig-zagged, to prevent the Kuiritan gunners on the walls from getting a good firing angle anywhere, but each section ran straight and true, as if dug out between two chalked lines on the earth.  The sides were shored up with timber, and wooden boards served as a floor.  Those might sink when the rains came, but perhaps not too badly– the earth here was a heavy clay, not the watery mud or seeping sand Galen had seen in so many entrenchments.  This would hold together very nicely for the Tou-tani, however long the siege.  

They went silently, not a word exchanged between them.  Their breathing– Galen’s own, in particular– was the loudest sound between the trench walls, save perhaps the sound of their boots on the boards. Galen tried to tread lightly.

They passed transverse trenches, but saw no one. Galen felt a tension building in him, as if a great spring was being slowly wound tighter and tighter in his chest.  They had to be getting close to the main enemy trench.  Any second could bring a challenge in Tou-tani, a shout of alarm.  Any second….

The silhouette that was Iunio held up a hand, and they all went down on one knee, dispersing themselves on either side of the trench.  Galen blinked; he could see well enough to discern the figure of Iunio peering southward over the top of the trench.  He looked up; the sky was no longer absolute black, but was lightening.  Day was coming.  

“What is it?” Alterus hissed to Iunio, too loudly.  Galen had to restrain an impulse to knock the officer out.  

Iunio held up a hand for silence, then cupped his hand against his ear.  Galen took this as a sign to listen, and he did.  

Away to the south, perhaps two hundred yards, two or three Tou-tani were talking, in ordinary tones.  Galen lifted his head and looked.  The men appeared to be sitting in an earthen redoubt connected to the main trench line, apparently around a fire.  Galen could hear them but could only glimpse the tops of their heads.  What he could hear of their conversation sounded utterly mundane. 

Iunio waved them forward. They all stood and moved.  If Galen had been nervous before, now he was in a state of vigilant awareness.  This was the moment they would encounter Tou-tani, or not– the moment when they get away clean, or find trouble. His ears seemed to ache from listening extra hard.  His bow was slung across his back, and he had his knife out, ready. 

They exited the communication trench, and all at once they were in another trench, deeper, well-shored with timber, perpendicular to the trench they had been in.  Just about the tallest person in the group, Galen could just glimpse the open ground that lay before the trench, all the way to the city wall.  He was gratified that there was only one trench here; the Tou-tani had not had time yet to elaborate their siege lines.  He had not fancied having to traverse three or four more of these things. 

“We have to go up a bit,” Iunio whispered to Alterus in a whisper that was barely there at all, but which Galen heard because, where he huddled beside Iunio, his head was practically on the lieutenant’s shoulder.  “There appears to be a bay up to the north– we can probably get out there.”

They all moved northward along the trench.  Galen thought that perhaps the Tou-tani had sited their redoubts too far apart; they were about where the next one should be, in relation to the one that they had seen, but there was no sign of it.  There should have been a guard pacing the trench, even as there were guards on the city wall; but they had seen no one.

They reached the bay.  Several things happened at once.  Iunio found a set of crude steps that led up and out of the trench; he turned to whisper to the rest of the team; Galen let go of a sigh of relief; and Alterus stepped on one of the Tou-tani sleeping under blankets around the edges of the bay.  The enemy soldier squalled in alarm and sat up.  Alterus, recoiling, shouted several Venian oaths of particular vehemence, and fell on his backside in the trench bottom. 

There followed a frantic scrimmage in the bay, Tou-tani shouting and thrashing to get out from under their blankets, and the Kuiritans cursing and employing their weapons.  There were four or five Tou-tani in the bay, and none of them had a chance.  In seconds they were all dead.

Killing them, however, had been a noisy business, on top of Alterus’ oaths.  From somewhere nearby someone shouted a question in Tou-tani.  Torches flared on both sides of the bay, and then a Tou-tani battle-horn sounded.       

“Run!” Iunio shouted, the need for silence gone.  

They all scrambled out of the trench, some of them ignoring the steps and pulling themselves straight up the wall of the bay, and ran.  The Tou-tani had cut the grass down for yards and yards in front of their trench, so they had to run in the open.  Galen felt naked; it spurred him to greater speed.  The tall grass ahead was not much, but it was better than nothing.  

Shouts and curses in Tou-tani followed them.  Galen guessed from the sound that they had left a right confused mess behind them.  He hoped it was enough to keep the Tou-tani guessing as to what was going on.  

The Kuiritans ran.  Galen was sure he had never run this hard before in his life.  All he wanted to do now was reach the glacis and the covering fire of the city’s guns.  He hoped the garrison was paying attention.

More quickly than Galen expected they reached the tall grass.  This slowed them down, but not by much.  Corosa tripped on some tangled root or another, but August and Galen hauled him to his feet at once.  Corosa cursed and spat out grass stems, but ran.      

A thrumming sound from above– something thudded into the ground next to Galen.  Belatedly, he realized the Tou-tani behind them were shooting.  Arrows dropped all around the running men.  Galen spent one moment appreciating the irony, and then ran harder. 

He ran straight ahead, not attempting to dodge.  In this half-light, at this range with the Kuiritans now in the tall grass, the Tou-tani could not possibly be aiming their shots.  They were shooting in high arcs, raining the arrows down on them; as such, the Kuiritans were as likely to get hit dodging as running straight.  The only safety was to get out of arrow range as fast as possible.

“Just keep going!” he yelled to the others.  “Straight ahead!  Those Tou-tani short bows don’t have much range, keep going!”

The other archers understood the problem as well, and seemed to need no instruction.  Alterus was far out in front of the group, and pulling away– whatever else the man was, he was a damn good runner.  Iunio, on the other hand, apparently was no sprinter at all.  He lagged behind the rest of the party by several yards, even though he looked to be making a concerted effort to keep up. 

Arrows came down, all around them, whispering in the grass before thudding into the ground.  Galen had been shot at by other archers before.  Running like this, though, with your back to the enemy and no chance of answering them, was unnerving.

More arrows came down.  A sharp cry of pain from behind; Galen turned to see Iunio on his hands and knees, cursing.  An arrow stood in the back of his right thigh.

“Damn it!” Galen said, and he stopped and turned back.  August and Corosa came with him.

Facing the arrows as they came in wasn’t much better than presenting his back to them, but Galen managed to get through the next flight and reach Iunio.  The lieutenant was trying to get up on his own, and failing.      

“Go!” he yelled, waving for the archers to go back.  “Leave me!”

“Like hell,” Galen said, grabbing the lieutenant’s arm.

Shouting from the east– Galen saw Tou-tani foot-soldiers running toward them.  He couldn’t tell how many in this light.  Those he could see were closing fast.  

“Shit” Galen said, letting go of Iunio.  “Get him up!” he yelled at August and Corosa.  He unlimbered his bow, pulled an arrow from his quiver.

“What about you?” August said.

“Get him up and go, damn it!” Galen snapped over his shoulder.

The two Angreans picked the still-protesting lieutenant up.  They got him up on his feet– or rather, his one good foot– and the three men, on five feet, retreated, with Iunio’s arms over their shoulders.  Galen turned to face the Tou-tani.  

He knelt in the grass, nocked his arrow and watched the Tou-tani come on.  They had been too eager, he saw; they were strung-out, with yards between each man.  Good.  Their approach also meant that their own archers had stopped shooting, for fear of hitting their own men.  Even better.

Still kneeling, Galen lifted his bow, drew and shot, almost in one motion.  Either the leading Tou-tani did not see the motion, or he was over-confident of his ability to avoid the shaft.  If the latter, his confidence betrayed him, because the arrow flew true and took him in the chest.  He went down, instantly limp, and skidded in the grass before coming to a halt.

Galen already had another arrow nocked, and he shot this one before the first soldier had come to a stop.  It took the next Tou-tani in the belly; this soldier flopped backwards, clutching the shaft and screaming.  It was a startling sound in the morning air; the brightening morning air, Galen saw, with an unhappy twist in his chest. 

The next several Tou-tani, paying better attention, all went to ground.  Galen, a third arrow ready, took the opportunity to retreat himself, sidling backwards so as to maintain the threat of another shaft. None of the pursuers seemed particularly eager to give Galen another target.  He danced backwards a little further, then ran. 

He quickly caught up with August, Corosa, and Iunio.  The three men appeared to be making the best time they could.  Iunio had stopped importuning the other men to leave him, and seemed to be making his best effort to keep moving.  He was pale under his dark skin, but not, Galen judged, in the way men were when they were bleeding out.  This looked to be the natural consequence of hobbling along on a wounded leg.  Galen looked; there seemed to be little blood around the shaft itself. 

The fact that he could make that determination made him look up.  The sky was quickly growing light.  And they were out of the tall grass again, into the zone the Kuiritans themselves had cleared.  He felt naked.  

“Not to be insensitive to your pain, lieutenant,” Galen said, “but we really need to move it along.”

“You’d think,” Iunio, through clenched teeth, “an archer…would understand…exactly…how much….this…hurts.”

Galen said nothing.  He was taken aback by the thought that he had never been shot with an arrow.  It suddenly seemed a gap in his education. 

The wall was looming ever closer.  It was just a few hundred yards now to the foot of the glacis.  With a flash of anger Galen saw Alterus was already at the glacis’ top.  He wasted no time.  He seemed to be yelling something– to whom, Galen could not tell.  Of Sinacus and Eamen Galen could see nothing.  

A cry from Galen’s right– a group of Tou-tani burst from the grass and charged them.  They were very close.  

Galen went to one knee, aimed, shot.  The arrow took the lead Tou-tani in the chest and bowled him over, but the others were too close.  Galen dropped his bow and drew his knife.  

The Tou-tani– five or six of them– obviously assembled in haste to pursue the Kuiritans, wore no armor and carried no shields.  They carried the long Tou-tani gladius, at least a foot longer than the Angrean knife.  Galen knew that; instead of trying to fence, he parried the thrust of the closest Tou-tani on the foible, grabbed the man’s wrist, stepped in and drove the point of his knife into the Tou-tani’s chest.  The man grunted in surprise, his last breath puffing out in Galen’s face.

Things began to happen very quickly.  Corosa had let go of Iunio’s arm and drawn his own blade.  He feinted toward one Tou-tani, and, turning, slashed the unarmored arm of another.  Galen shoved the dying Tou-tani off his knife and into the back of a fourth soldier trying to get behind Corosa.  August dropped Iunio and scrabbled for his own knife, but two Tou-tani were closing in.  Galen knew he’d never reach his friend in time.  

One of the Tou-tani jerked, as if shocked by a sudden bolt of lightning.  An arrow-point stood a foot out of his chest.  He looked down at it in disbelief.

His knees had just begun to buckle when an arrow took the man fencing with Corosa in the back.  He toppled forward.  Beyond him and August Galen glimpsed Sinacus and Eamen, standing in the tall grass fifty feet away, each already pulling out another arrow.

As quickly as that, the tide had turned.  Only one Tou-tani remained on his feet; the wounded one had run away.  The last Tou-tani, spinning, trying to face all three Kuiritans at once, shouted, “Hail the Thousand!” in his own tongue.  Then August stabbed him in the back, and he fell, writhing.  

Galen scrambled back, grabbed up his bow.  “Come on!” he shouted, but Corosa and August were already picking Iunio up by his arms.  The Carhalian cursed and called them names, but got up on his one good foot, put his arms around August and Corosa’s shoulders, and resumed his painful progress. 

They hobbled along, with Galen watching their rear and flanks with an arrow nocked.  The sky was getting lighter by the moment, but the glacis was close now.  Alterus was still at its top; Galen wondered what the man was doing.  Past him and the top of the glacis Galen could glimpse the top of the Key Fort.  It seemed very close. 

The ground seemed to rumble.  Galen looked back.  Horsemen were coming, ten or more, yelling to one another.  Galloping, they were covering the ground behind them at a frightening speed. 

“That’s all that was needed,” Galen muttered.  He stopped; running made no sense now.  “Keep going!” he shouted to the others.

“Galen…,” August began.

“Just go!” Galen snapped.  

The three of them hobbled onward.  Galen turned to face the riders.  They were at full gallop, closing fast.  Galen could see their curved swords, unsheathed and ready.  He heard the high-pitched, “Yehi! Yehi!” he had heard a half-dozen battlefields.  All those other times, however, he had faced the Tou-tani amid a company of fellow archers, usually behind a line of pikemen.  This was a different business.

Maybe today I’ll figure out if there really is an afterlife.     

He nocked his arrow and drew, calmly and deliberately, to his ear.  He put his arrow point on the lead horseman, so close now.  If he could tumble him, or knock the horse down….

A boom from behind him, and a moan overhead.  Right in front of the leading rider a column of earth spouted skywards.  Galen could not see if the cannonball actually hit the rider, or if his horse had thrown him.  All Galen could see as the column of dirt fell was the horse, its saddle empty, bolting back toward the Tou-tani lines.  

Other cannon shots came overhead, and the Tou-tani all at once were pulling rein amid erupting splashes of dirt and grass.  Galen did see one cannonball take a bounce and knock a rider clean off his animal in a spray of blood.  Riders pulled their horses up sharply and wheeled them about, aiming to escape.

“Ha!” Galen said, with the joy of a man reprieved.  He turned and ran.  

They had difficulty getting Iunio up the glacis slope.  Halfway up the man passed out from the pain.  August shouldered him like a bag of feed, and carried him the rest of the way.    

They all tried to work together lower him down the scarp, with Sinacus and Eamen having jumped down and waiting at the bottom; but just as things were getting truly awkward some of the Key Fort troopers emerged from the lower sally port with ladders and a leather sling that seemed designed for this very purpose.  They got Iunio down and on a stretcher, and together they all entered the fort.

In a lantern-lit lower landing a medicus was waiting to examine Iunio.  As the troopers set down the stretcher Galen saw the lieutenant had recovered from his swoon.  The officer, face down on the stretcher, beckoned for Galen to come closer.  He knelt down beside the stretcher.  

“Didn’t I tell you,” Iunio panted, as the medicus slit his pants to examine the wound, “that it would be every man for himself if we had to leg it?”

“You did,” Galen said, “but it seemed like a bad idea.  Sir.”

Iunio closed his eyes, shook his head.  “Hire-blades.  I swear.”  He opened his eyes.  “Thank you.”

“You men did well not pulling this arrow out,” the medico said, “but we need to remove it now, and we’ll need to put the lieutenant under for that.  Pick him up.”

The stretcher-bearers obeyed, lifting Iunio.  The lieutenant winced, then settled down with a sigh.  “Get better, sir,” Galen said. 

“Oh, I will,” Iunio said, smiling.  “You haven’t seen the last of me, Decitus Galen.”  The stretcher-bears picked him up and carried him off, the medicus following. 

Galen watched them go, feeling his exhaustion and hunger.  “I hope not,” he whispered. 

A garrison trooper led the Angreans up into the fort’s courtyard.  Emerging into the morning light, they were met by a gaggle of officers coming out the lower port of the nearest tower.  Alterus was among them, and they were led by a brigadier.  This was an officer Galen did not know– a tall, grey-haired, distinguished looking soldier whose uniform was precise and very clean.  At the moment, however, he did not look to be a very happy brigadier.  “You Angrean fools!” the man snapped.  “Stand to attention!”

The five of them did so, bows in hand or at their sides.  The brigadier strode up and down in front of them, scowling.  Galen braced himself.

“I am told,” the brigadier said, “that you scrap bastards bungled this scout, and because of that an officer was wounded, not to mention giving away the secrecy of the reconnaissance.  You may have ruined everything by your incompetence!”

Galen had no doubt told who had told the brigadier this particular tale.  He managed to restrain the surge of anger boiling up from his gut to a single twitch of his mouth.  “Permission to speak freely, sir?” he said. 

“No,” the brigadier snapped, “the only permission you have is to keep your mouth shut.  I’m going to be reporting this sorry business to your commanders, and to the city commander.  This is what comes of involving mercenaries.  Now, get your wormy-eaten asses out of my fort, and out of my sight.”

He stalked off, trailing the other officers.  Galen glimpsed a half-smirk on Alterus’ face as he turned away.  Just wait, asshole, Galen told him silently.  

The five of them straggled wearily out the city-side main gate of the fort.  From this vantage point they could look down on the easternmost branch of the De, and all the houses, tenements, warehouses and lesser temples that clustered along its banks.  To their left was the bay, its waters just beginning to reflect the morning light.  The breeze that was just starting carried with it the scent of the sea, which seemed to enliven Galen’s weary brain. 

For a moment, breathing the salt air, he was able to appreciate not being dead.  Breathing sea air and feeling the rumble in his stomach from hunger, and the weariness of his body, all that was good.  He wanted to appreciate it all while he had the chance. 

His good feeling was at once dented as Eamen said, “Um, fellows, we’re on the other side of the city from our billet.  How are we getting home?”

“Shit,” Galen muttered.  Close to the bay like this, the city was five miles across.  Cutting across the city diagonally made it even further.  He unstrung his bow, and laid it across his shoulder.  “On our feet, of course,” he told the others.  “Come on.  There’s nothing for it.  At least we should be able to get breakfast on the way.”

“Did any of us bring any money?” Corosa asked, wide-eyed.

“Shit,” Galen said.  

Siege– a draft map

To go along with my posts of the novel Siege, here is a draft map of the Kuiritan Empire, Tou-tan, the Inner Sea and other locations.  This is a work in progress, but it should give you an idea of the geographic locations mentioned in the story.  I created this in Wonderdraft 1.1.6, a program with which I have had a great deal of fun. 

Having said that, I have not been satisfied with the assets available in Wonderdraft for creating cities, and I am in search of a city map-making program that will allow me to properly portray Venia close up in all its glory.  Recommendations are welcome.  

Siege, Part Three

The Thirteenth Day – Morning

General Nicranus Justus braced himself as he climbed the hill to the New Citadel.  He did not look forward to this meeting.  

At least, he reflected, by now the Venians had all had a chance to recover from their Lady’s Day celebrations.  His own celebration had been a quiet dinner with his staff, more of a chance to get to know his officers than to tie one on.  Nicranus was from Gesana, where the Lady’s Day was a more somber– and sober– celebration.  He had drank lightly and gone to bed early.  Some of his staff, on the other hand, had gone on to more lubricated parties, and they had shown the effects the next morning.  Now, they were closer to their usually well-turned-out selves as they followed him up the hill.  

The Citadel guard let them in via a lower sally port, and they all plodded up back stairs into the high keep.  Guards passed them through to the great chamber, with its vast paned windows.  Scribes and clerks bustled about, bringing and taking away papers, all around the long table in the middle of the room.  Other members of the city’s War Council were already here, talking to one another or reading reports– but not all, and not the highest.  Nicranus counted the councilmen and noted who was here and who was not.  He did not like the answer he got.  There was work to be done.  

Slowly, tardily, however, more council members trickled in.  Soon enough Nicranus saw there was a solid quorum for what they had to do.  Mollified, he sat himself down and began to examine the papers laid out.   

At last, a half-hour late, Sinnaticus Secundus appeared.  The city legate moved slowly, tentatively, as if he were still feeling the effects of the festival.  However, it was more likely, Nicranus thought, the aftermath of more recent entertainments.  He exercised patience.     

Everyone in the room rose.  Some experienced difficulty out of age– the city council was, to Nicranus’ eyes, an overly superannuated lot.  That would not have been a bad thing if the years had brought with them wisdom.  From what Nicranus had seen so far, they hadn’t.

Sinnaticus shuffled to the head of the table, and collapsed into his seat.  “My lords, gentlemen, officers,” he wheezed, “please be seated.”

Everyone settled back down, with more than one groan of relief.  Sinnaticus waved a hand at one of his clerks.  “Casca, if you please, the minutes of the last meeting, and any bulletins you have.”

The clerk stood and read the minutes.  Nicranus did not really listen; he was busy formulating what he needed to say.  It was for the best; the clerk had a droning tone that might put a man to sleep, even if he wasn’t still half drunk.

In fact, the only piece of business the clerk presented in the next half hour that really caught Nicranus’ attention was a report by the city censor, a narrow man named Vetius, which told of the receipt of a coded message via homing pigeon.  The message was an update on the muster of an army of relief– it said that fifty thousand Kuiritans under Marshal Hastatus Morius had assembled at Kassim, halfway between Gesana and Venia.  Nicranus waited, but he heard nothing about when this army would start south, or if it would wait for further reinforcement, or how they intended to negotiate the three hundred miles to Venia, and what their plan to break through the enemy lines might be.  There was, he supposed, only so much you could cram onto a scrap of paper carried by a bird.  He tried to assuage his frustration with the thought that at least that army had a good commander.  Nicranus knew Hastatus, and he was as competent a general as you could want. 

When the clerk was done and seated once more, Sinnaticus appeared to rouse himself with an effort.  “My lords, are there any additional matters to be brought before this council?” he asked, with the obvious tone of a man who hoped there wasn’t so he could go lie down.  

Nicranus rose.  “Lord Legate,” he said.

Sinnaticus gave him a look of naked resentment.  “High General Nicranus, I am in no mood right now to listen to your tedious trivialities.”

“These are not trivialities, my lord,” Nicranus said.  “They are vital questions about our defenses.” 

Sinnaticus scowled, then winced as if even that hurt.  “This is, what?  Your third council meeting?  But you’ve already belabored your points to the point of boredom, general.”

“Because they have still not been dealt with,” Nicranus said.  “But to save the council’s time, I will remind you all of only the most pressing.”

Sinnaticus glared at him, then waved a hand.  “Go ahead then, damn you.”  He sat back, as if to endure torture.

“Thank you, my lord,” Nicranus said.  To the council he said, “My lords, gentlemen– it should be clear to everyone the enemy will shortly begin their active bombardment of the city.  Their artillery saps are advancing on all sides.”  Of the city officials in the council, Cruces saw much indifference or incomprehension.  But among the soldiers, many nodded at his words or wore looks of silent thought.  “It’s true, I have only been here a short time,” indeed, Nicranus had barely made it in the Northern River Gate before it had to be slammed in the faces of advancing Tou-tani dragoons, “but I have made a survey of the various weak points in the city’s defenses.  These include the Gesana Gate, the Forest Bastion, and others– but so far I have seen little effort to strengthen them.”

“General,” one of the city aediles said, “it is all in hand.  We have designated city work crews to go out as needed….”

“And what have they accomplished, Martius Fortunatus?” Senator Tortatus Crixus said.  He was a former soldier, and not, as far as Nicranus could tell, one of Sinnaticus’ creatures.  “I also toured each of the major danger spots two days ago, and the only work I saw was a few rather unimpressive trenches.  We need bomb-proofs, we need counter-walls, we need a half dozen other improvements.  I have nothing against the civil work gangs, but they are not soldiers, and they do not understand the urgency.”

“It’s still very early,” Martius said, sounding nettled.  

“Even if that is true,” Nicranus said, “we have no time to lose.  I propose that the urgent work be taken over by the garrison, militia as well as regular units and free companies, under the supervision of my staff.  The men of the garrison are soldiers, and soldiers– good soldiers– know how to dig.  I believe this is the best way to accomplish what needs to be done in the shortest time.”

Martius flushed.  “City buildings and works are the province of the aediles!” 

“In normal times,” Nicranus said.  “These are not normal times.  In the present case, the decision is not yours to make.  The Army will do what it needs to.”

“General,” Sinnaticus snapped, “I cannot allow the usual channels of authority in this city to be bypassed!”

“Lord Legate,” Nicranus said, “the aediles can continue their duties with regard to the city itself.  But fortifications– those are now the province of the Army, because we are the ones who will have to fight and die in them.  My orders are perfectly clear on that matter– or do you need to review them?”

Sinnaticus glared at Nicranus, but said nothing.  Everyone at the table knew the broad scope of Nicranus’ orders, handed down directly from the chief marshals of the Empire.  Nicranus would have smiled, but he did not want to throw fuel on this particular fire.  “Next– the problem of the central grain store.”

“What can possibly be wrong with that?” Martius said. 

“Nothing– except that three-quarters of the grain supply for this city is in that one location.  One accident, or one act of sabotage, and suddenly this city will be short-rations.  We need to disperse the grain to multiple locations to reduce the risk.”    

“But that will increase the opportunities for theft,” another of the aediles said.  This was Aurelis Mattias, a well-fed fellow of about forty.  Nicranus was still sorting out who was who in the city, but he already understood Aurelis was another of Sinnaticus’ lackeys.  

“You solve that by guarding the grain, wherever it is,” Nicranus said.  “The city militia should be good for that, if nothing else.”

“We will take it under advisement,” Sinnaticus said.

“Speaking of the city militia,” Nicranus said, with the sense of harrying a fleeing enemy, “what of my recommendation that it be expanded?  Certainly, their duties have already grown, and are likely to grow even more in the near future, even if we don’t take sensible measures with our food supply.”                 

“On that point, general,” one of the militia officers said, “we have already made it clear that such an expansion would be ill-advised.”  The speaker was Commodus Virtus, a tribune. “We don’t need untrained civilians making a mockery of the militia.”

“So train them,” Nicranus said.  “It doesn’t take much training to man a wall, in the first place, and in the second, this business is liable to go on quite long enough to put any number of citizens through a course of instruction.  Or are you worried an expansion would cut into your source of patronage?”

Commodus glared at Nicranus.  “General,” Sinnaticus snapped, “don’t be disrespectful!”

“I have not been disrespectful,” Nicranus said.  “I am merely questioning the tribune’s motives.”

Commodus snarled, and started to rise.  Nicranus braced himself.  One of Commodus’ aides, however, grabbed his arm and whispered in his ear.  Commodus glared but settled back down.  

Too bad, Nicranus thought.  He might be getting old, but he was pretty sure he could still take the likes of Commodus Virtus.

“If nothing else,” Nicranus said, “you should prepare for losses.  The militia will be taking its turns on the walls; when the bombardment begins you will lose men.  More if the sand-lice manage to break into the city itself.  There may come a time when you will sincerely wish you had those extra men, tribune.”

“Enough,” Sinnaticus said.  “There is no need for bickering.  We have taken this matter under study.”  

“Have you?” Nicranus said.  “Perhaps it is time to get past studies, my lord, to actual action.”

Sinnaticus sputtered, but Nicranus went on, ignoring him.  “My lords and officers, I will not keep us much longer.  There is only one other matter of supreme urgency at this moment.  We must immediately evacuate the Outer Town.”

Protests erupted from a number of the council members, all on the order of no, we can’t and it would be chaos.  This went on for a minute or two before Martius Fortunatus managed to raise his voice over the hubbub.  

“General,” Martius said, “why do you insist such a course of action?  We’ve already discussed how bringing the residents of the Outer Town into the city proper will strain our resources.”

“There are, at most, five thousand people in the Outer Town,” Nicranus said.  “That’s one-thirtieth of the people now inside the main city walls.  We are feeding them, anyway, so that will make no difference, and I cannot conceive that you wouldn’t be able to find lodging for them, too.  The real problem, as I have told you, is that the Outer Town is the single greatest weakness in the city’s defenses.  Its own wall is half the height of the city wall, and it has no glacis, ditch or scarp at all.  If the Tou-tani want to, they can probably break the wall in three or four places with a few hours bombardment.  When they do, we will not be able to keep them from  overrunning it.  The Outer Town’s buildings will provide them cover right up to the main walls.  More than that, when the Tou-tani take the Outer Town they will then be able to look right down on the Marsh Fort, and I don’t think I have to explain why we want to keep that fort safe.”

Even Commodus looked solemn.  The Marsh Fort was not just the southwestern cornerstone of the city’s walls, it was the terminus of the one remaining supply-line into the city, through the Black Marsh.  Nicranus saw some of council members beginning to ponder that possibility, and not liking it. 

“All the more reason to retain the Outer Town,” Sinnaticus said, his words breaking into everyone’s reverie. “We will not simply abandon an entire burrough of the city to the enemy.  If the defenses are weak, general, we will add men to the garrison.”

“If you do, take them from the militia or the city garrison,” Nicranus said sharply.  “I won’t throw men from my regular units, nor the free companies, into a losing proposition.  My military judgment remains same– evacuate the Outer Town, and burn it to the ground, before the Tou-tani take it and use it against us.  That would include blowing down the southern walls, which will reduce the threat to the Marsh Fort. My engineers can do the job in a couple of days.”

Sinnaticus scowled at Nicranus.  “No.  I absolutely forbid such a course of action.”               

Nicranus said, “Is that your final word, my lord?”

“It is,” Sinnaticus snapped. 

Nicranus looked around the council.   We will see about this.  Fools.  “I have said my piece,” he said, and sat down. 

After that, the meeting quickly adjourned.  Nicranus could feel Sinnaticus’ eyes on him as he rose and left the chamber.  He didn’t care; Nicranus had learned years and years before that looks really could not kill. Incompetence and malfeasance, though, were different matters.    

With his officers Nicranus went back down Citadel Hill, toward the Army cantonment at its foot.  One of his first surprises when he arrived in Venia was that the regular Army garrison, and the regiments that arrived to reinforce them, were not headquartered in the citadel, but far down the hill, on flat ground by the river that Nicranus suspected was prone to flooding when the De was high.  Somehow, however, that made sense in one respect– the garrison battalions in Venia were obviously a neglected bunch.  Nicranus was sure he had never seen Kuiritan troops as slack and out-of-shape as the garrison.

Passing through the layers of guards at the headquarters, Nicranus and his officers made their way inside the central cantonment, out of the increasingly warm sun, to a mustering hall deep inside the central headquarters.  Within, officers saluted as he entered.  “Stand easy, all of you,” Nicranus said.  A chair had been placed at one end of the chamber.  Around it curved several rows of chairs.  

“Be seated, gentlemen, please,” Nicranus told the assembly.  The officers, murmuring among themselves, found their seats.  Senior officers, of course, placed themselves to the front, the junior officers trailing off behind them.  Nicranus supposed it was only to be expected; habits were a hard thing to break.  

For the moment Nicranus remained standing.  He faced his officers, his hands clasped behind him.  “Gentlemen,” he began, “doubtless by now many of you– most of you– are aware of the words exchanged at the council meeting this morning.  The upshot is that we can expect little help from the civil authorities for the military necessities.  I am therefore invoking my authority, outlined in my orders from the Council of Marshals, to take in hand all military matters within the city and without, concerning its defense, as I feel the need, for the preservation of this great city and its people.”

Many of the close-cropped heads in front of him nodded.  Someone murmured, “Hear, hear!”  Some of the soldiers, though, appeared to be unmoved by his oratory, expressionless, or with their arms crossed.  They tended to be from the city garrison. 

“We must make a genuine start on improving the city’s defenses,” Nicranus said, “particularly the several positions that are obviously weak.  I told the city legate that good soldiers know how to dig; to that we will add bricklaying and carpentry.”

The officers laughed.  “We will have to do what the aediles and the city fathers refuse to do– dig, build and prepare.  Brigadier Prosonius Geta,” the officer stood up from his seat, “you and I need to have some serious discussions about counter-mines and the detection of tunneling,” and not just about that, “because, gentlemen, sure as rain falls downward, the Tou-tani have already begun their tunneling.”  

Prosonius, brigadier-in-chief of the reserve, and commander of the counter-sappers and engineers, saluted Nicranus.  “I await your orders, sir,” he said, and sat down again. 

“You wall commanders,” Nicranus said.  Brigadiers Saricus, Antinus, and Kallius stood.  “I want reports on each of your sectors within five days, detailing weaknesses and vulnerabilities– although some of those hardly need to be pointed out.”

“Yes, sir,” the three said, and they resumed their seats.         

“The same goes for you, Albanus Geta,” Nicranus told the last brigadier.  A thin, hawk-like man, Albanus stood and looked at Nicranus nervously.  “I want an early report, but your task is much more difficult, since you’re covering the entire bay, the barrier islands and the various fortifications at different points.  Try to be thorough as possible, but I want to see your report with the others.”

“Sir,” Geta acknowledged, and he sat directly back down.

“Claudus Scentius,” Nicranus said, and he smiled as he spoke the name.  The blunt old master gunner stood, smiling himself.  “Old friend, I want a complete report on the gunnery situation, city-wide.  How much powder and shot, and estimates on how long it will last.”

“Yes, sir.” Claudus said.        

“Brigadier Tiberias,” and the overall commander of the city’s static garrison stood, “since the city’s guns fall under your command, work with Master Gunner Claudus, please.  Not just for the accounting, but for re-deploying the guns and their crews for better coverage.”

“Yes, sir,” Tiberias said, with ill-concealed resentment. 

Have to deal with that soon.  But not today.  Nicranus addressed all the officers together.  “I know I’ve been here only long enough to actually learn where the public toilets are,” another laugh, “but neither you nor I have time to waste.  Gentlemen, the truth is, if the Tou-tani hit us today, in our present state we’d be hard pressed to contain them.  Fortunately, they are still pushing their saps forward.  I don’t anticipate a serious attack until their guns have had a chance to work us over.  That gives us a few more days, but we must not squander them.  I will also be speaking to you commanders about re-assigning different units to different sectors– frankly, right now the deployment looks to be somewhat haphazard.  That’s not a criticism, gentlemen– just an acknowledgement of how hastily this defense has been clapped together.  We must do what we can to straighten it out before the real fun begins.  Are there any questions?”

There appeared to be none.  After a moment, Nicranus said, “Very well– each of you to your duties.  If Brigadiers Saricus, Antinus, and Kallius would remain behind for a moment, I would be obliged.”

The officers stood, saluted, and left, talking among themselves.  The brigadiers came forward and waited for the mass of officers to clear the room.  When they were all alone, Nicranus said, “Gentlemen, what of my request?  For reconnaissance outside the walls?”

“We have the first in hand,” Saricus said at once, “planned for tonight.  One to the north and east, another to the west.”

“Why north and east?” Niicranus asked.

“My best exits come out in the Sacred Wood,” Antinus said.  “Poor Kallius here, though, he’s practically hemmed in.  The damn sand-lice burned the orchards that covered many of his exits in the east.  He’s had to block most of them up, and those that are left are in the open– if he cracks the cover on them they’ll be spotted in a moment.  So my scouts….”

“Your scouts will have to cover more than their share of ground, because we need as complete a picture of the enemy dispositions as we can get,” Nicranus said, disappointed.  “I understand.  I’m sorry to say, it’s needful.  Thirteen days is enough time for the Tou-tani to get themselves well established.  If we can comprehend their concentrations, it will help us predict where they intend to strike first.”

“Of course, general,” Antinus said.  

Nicranus looked at all three of them.  “I will be depending on you gentlemen, and the men under you,” he said.  “I don’t need to tell you that this siege is shaping up as the climactic battle of the war.  Venia must be held– but if the Tou-tani breach the walls, it will be very hard to push them out.  They have perhaps three times the men we do.  We have to hold the walls.  Have to.  If there is anything you need to do to strengthen your position, do it.  And if the civil government kicks up a fuss, refer them to me.  I will deal with them.”

“Yes, sir,” the brigadiers said, together.  

Nicranus went up to the command offices.  His lieutenants, Aurelis Secundus and Horatius Gnetius, were waiting for him, the day’s items of business in their hands and on the tips of their tongues.  Horatius had been one of the few aides Nicranus had brought with him to Venia; Aurelis, on the other hand, was a native Venian recommended to him by Marshal Lanius.  The youngster seemed bright, efficient and very ambitious, but that was not necessarily a mark against him.  He had certainly been helpful so far in orienting Nicranus to the city.  The general just quietly resolved to keep an eye on him. 

Instead of usual issues such the commissary or the powder stores, however, this morning Aurelis saluted Nicranus and told him, “Sir– the Over-Priest Scena awaits a word with you.”

Nicranus blinked.  “Indeed?  Did you tell him I was detained with other meetings?”

“I did, sir,” Aurelis said.  “He insisted on waiting.”    

“Ah, well,” Nicranus said, wondering what could be that urgent.  “Send him up to my study in a moment, if you please.”

Nicranus’ ‘study’ was a solarium high up on the central barracks’ eastern side.  He had claimed it for himself as his personal space very soon after arriving in the city.  Tall windows, expensively paned in clear glass, on the one wall let in ample light, morning or afternoon.  A trestle table in the middle of the room was covered in maps of the city and its surroundings; a small writing desk, set to one side, was already covered with papers.  Nicranus wondered how deep the pile would get before the siege was over. 

The only other furniture in the room were two straight-backed chairs.  The space was otherwise almost painfully bare, including the bookshelves along the walls.  Nicranus had not been able to bring any significant portion of his library with him, as he and his party had had to travel light and fast.  Acquiring volumes locally was proving difficult, and not just because Nicranus had been frantically busy.  There seemed to be very few booksellers in the city, and none of them particularly well stocked.  He had begun to wonder if Venians read at all.     

He had only a moment before Aurelis, at the door, announced, “Over-Priest Scena, general.”

Over-Priest Scena was a spare man of about fifty, with a lined face pierced by sharp eyes.  The long robes of a priest of the Greatest and Highest hung loose on him.  He did not wear the customary skull-cap– he was bare-headed, his thinning gray hair closely cropped, startlingly like a soldier’s. 

Nicranus stepped forward to greet him, bowing.  “Eminence, you honor me,” he said.

“No, no– it is I who am honored,” Scena said.  “I am sorry to intrude upon your time….”

“Not at all.  Would you care for some refreshment?”

“There is no need,” Scena said, waving a hand.  “I don’t intend to detain you long, general.”

“Would you care to be seated?” Nicranus said.

“Thank you,” Scena said. 

The two of them sat in the straight-back chairs.  Aurelis, Nicranus noted, had discreetly closed the study door.  He wondered if he knew something Nicranus didn’t.

“How may I be of service, Eminence?” Nicranus asked. 

“There is a small, but important, matter I wanted to bring to your attention,” Scena said, “and then another, rather larger issue I need to privately discuss with you, as well.”

“Indeed?  I am all attention, Eminence.”

Scena smiled.  “As to the first matter, possibly you have heard that the religious orders in this city, as in most cities in Kuirita, are not only charged with the spiritual welfare of the people, but their physical welfare, as well.  It is our religious orders that run our hospitals and monitor the health of the city’s inhabitants.”

“Of course I know of the healing orders,” Nicranus said.  “Venia, in particular, is renowned for its healers.”

Scena smiled.  “Then you will understand that we possess a resource that I believe will be quite useful to you in the current situation.  At this time, general, the priestly orders of this city are prepared to reorient our work so as to provide aid and care for your soldiers.  Which aid, unfortunately, you are likely to need in the coming days.”

“Oh, yes, indeed,” Nicranus said.  He hoped he was keeping a handle on his delight.  Since arriving in the city he had been thinking of engaging the local priesthood for this very task, but in the press of everything he had not had the opportunity to bring it up.  Now, here it was, delivered to his door.  “What, uh, what did you have in mind?”

“At this time, we have two operational hospitals,” Scena said, “one at the Great Temple, and the other near the Western Processional.  We have enough physics and chirurgeons to open two more, one in the north of the city and the other in the east.  In addition, we have enough trained medici and medicae to man a number forward aid stations, which we can set up at intervals behind the walls.  In this war, we learned a long time ago that the sooner a wounded man receives aid, the better his chances.”

“Absolutely,” Nicranus said.  “I’ve seen this myself.  I was at Moetan, and the medici there saved any number of lives.  This would be a tremendous help.”

Scena inclined his head in acknowledgment.  “Then I will send some of my staff to coordinate with yours.  The regular religious orders can proceed with a reduced retinue for the current crisis.  The gods,” Scena smiled, “will understand.”

“I’m sure,” Nicranus said.  “Thank you.”

“It is the least we could do,” Scena said.  “I am a native Venian, and I naturally want to do all I can to save the city I love.  Which rather brings me to that second matter I mentioned, General Nicranus.”

“And that would be?” Nicranus said.  

“Well, not mince words…general, you are surrounded by enemies.”

Nicranus sat very still for a moment.  “I take it we’re not referring to the Tou-tani.”

“No,” Scena said.  “The enemies I refer to are within the city.  If you give me your assurance of confidentiality, general, I will elaborate.”

“Of course,” Nicranus said.

Scena paused.  “This city,” he said, “is the jewel of the Empire.  It is the source of much that makes the Empire great.  I love my city, but I hope I am not just speaking out of that love when I declare that Venia is an indispensable part of the Empire.”

“I think your pride is quite justified,” Nicranus said, diplomatically, while wondering where this was going.

“Having said that,” Scena went on, “it is simple truth that this great and glorious city is currently ruled by extraordinarily stupid and corrupt men.”

Nicranus blinked.  “Your candor…your candor is a little breathtaking, Eminence,” he said.

“I speak as I feel I need to speak,” Scena said.  “Sinnaticus– I have known him his entire life, general, and he has only grown worse as he has grown older.  He has gathered about him a coterie of like-minded fools, all of whom have been busy enriching themselves, with the acquiescence of the regius, at the city’s expense for years.  The regius has ignored all protests at their mismanagement– and now, the Tou-tani are at our doorstep.  It is an answer to prayer that you were assigned to command the defense of the city– but I have to tell you that, as far as I can tell from prior experience, you can expect no help from the city Legate and his court.”

Nicrabus took that in.  “I have…already experienced Sinnaticus’…inertia.”

“I’m afraid that is just a taste of what Sinnaticus is capable of,” Scena said.  “His inertia, as you put it, will likely become a snake constricting our efforts to defend the city.”  

Nicranus’ sense of bewilderment only grew.  “You…you’re not suggesting Sinnaticus is actually working against us, are you?”

Scena smiled.  “That would be giving him too much credit.  No, he’s just someone who will think of his position and comfort before he thinks of anything like providing for this city’s defense.  And he is always thinking of his position and comfort.  It leaves very little room for anything else.”

Nicranus grimaced.  “I see.  If that’s the case, what do you suggest I do, Eminence?”

“Supersede the civil government now, at once,” Scena said immediately. “Place Sinnaticus and his cronies under house arrest, and do everything needed to put the city in order for the siege by your own authority.”

Nicranus gasped.  “Eminence, I cannot do that!”

“Your authority from the council of Marshals reaches that far,” Scena said.  “I have read your orders.”

“Only if absolutely necessary,” Nicranus said.  “To do so when I’ve effectively just arrived….it could tear the city apart.”

“Do not underestimate this city,” Scena said.  “It has a strength Sinnaticus and his ilk do not understand.”

“As may be,” Nicranus said.  “But…Eminence, even if what you say is true, at this point I can’t even be sure all of the garrison would follow me if I displaced the government they’re used to.  No– I can’t do this.  Not yet.  Not until it is proven that Sinnaticus is an active impediment.”

Scena sighed.  “I was afraid this is what you would say.  No matter– I have said what I had to say.  Please remember my words when the time comes, general.”

“I will pray,” Nicranus said, “that that time never comes, Eminence.”

“As will I, general,” Scena said.                                       

Siege, Part Two

The Eleventh Day

Chon studied the city.  

Not the city itself, of course.  To do that Chon would have had to ascend the high ground that loomed between his pavilion and Venia.  The Kuiritans called the eminence the Hill of Souls, which seemed wrong.  It was not so much a hill as a ridge, more than a mile long, running west to east about a mile’s distance from the northern apex of Venia’s walls.  His own artillerymen assured him its ridgeline was out of range of Kuiritan guns, but Chon had seen the barbarians surprise Tou-tani again and again with their artillery skills, and was unwilling to take the chance.  A brief look, days before, had been enough, for now.  Safer for him, and the heads of his artillerymen, to study, in the security of his pavilion, the scale model his artificers had crafted.

Your own head depends on taking this city, he reminded himself.  

Being the brother of the Highest did come with responsibilities, however, and this one had come straight from Tian’s hand.  “We take the city,” his brother had told him, “and the Kuiritans will have to treat with us—and maybe we can end this gods-cursed war.”

The words had been spoken in private, where ears that should not be privy to the great secret of Tou-tan could not hear them.  Tian and Chon barely spoke of it to each other; they knew if it became common knowledge the whole Holy Union might totter and fall. 

“We have to win this war, and soon,” Tian told him.  They had spoken on the day before the expedition had sailed, sitting close together in the Garden of Orchids, in Chiren.  “You haven’t seen the latest tax receipts, brother—last year’s harvest was a disaster, and this one promises to be no better.  Our gold reserves are low, and the Denesi will extend us no more credit.”  Tian had shifted uneasily on his pillowed stool.  “Much more of this sort of thing and there will be riots.  Maybe even rebellion.”

Chon felt sympathy for his brother.  They had inherited this war with the Kuiritans from their father.  There had been intermittent and desultory war between the Empire and the Holy Union for generations, as well as trade and intermingling of blood along their mutual margins.  Eleven years ago, though, when the Kuiritan regius had declared that the Strait of Breda was closed to anyone who did not pay them scot, Sung, the Serene and Merciful, the Overlord of all Cities, Steward of the Great River, Father of all Tou-tani, had declared all-out war. It was that or be reduced to a dependent power, asking another nation’s leave simply to breathe in the wider world.  Over ten years the war had surged back and forth across the islands of the Inner Sea and its coasts; ancient ports burned, and pleasant isles stank with unburied dead.  

In the last year the initiative had shifted.  The Imperial Inner Fleet had been destroyed in a whirlwind of a battle in which Chon had participated, and which still gave him bad dreams.  After that the lordlings of the southern coasts beyond Rohara, from Suran to Tanbula, had all bent the knee and sent tribute to the Holy Union, and suddenly Tou-tan was able to reduce most of the Kuiritan strongholds in the middle of the Inner Sea, and bring their legions to the lynchpin of the Empire.  

“Venia is the key,” Tian had said.  “Venia is the choke-point.  If we take the city, it opens once again the gate to the Outer Sea and the Western Ocean for our ships.  We can harry the further coasts of the Empire at will, and the Kuiritans will have a damn hard time maintaining their hold on their western client states.  Not to mention that the eastern half of the Empire will be ours for the taking.  If we can take Venia, the Imperials will have to negotiate.  Have to.  We could end the war on something like honorable terms.”

Chon had not shared with his brother his own thought at that moment—that too many men had died already in the quest for ‘honorable terms’.  That was a thought, however, that could not be spoken when the Father-Overlord was giving orders.   

“But you cannot take too long,” Tian had said.  “A year—a year may be too long.  We are stretched to the breaking point everywhere, while the Kuiritans can draw on the strength of their mainland territories to sustain them.  It’s their incompetence that has given us the advantage of the moment, not a failure of their strength.  Land the expedition, invest the city, and take it, brother.  By whatever means necessary.”

Take it, brother.  So easy to say; but sitting here, now, it did not seem a particularly easy thing to accomplish.  

The huge model replicated the high and thick walls studded with bastions and fortified gates, within which the city was an irregular polygon sitting astride the delta of the river De, a fast-flowing stream with deep channels.  The channels divided rocky islands, and fed into a deep, if not very wide, bay.  People throughout the Great Land called Venia ‘the city of bridges’ and from the model Chon could see it was true.  Each of the four great channels of the De were bridged by spans great and small, linking island precincts to each other and the city’s mainland quarters.  Across the easternmost channel stood the High Bridge, an arched span that carried the King’s Road from where it passed through the Capitol Gate and made it into the Avenue of the Fathers, leading to Venia’s citadel.  Oceangoing ships could pass right under its arches, no matter how tall.  Further south was the Chain Bridge, one of the wonders of the world, linking the Temple of the Earth and the Sun on its island to the Great Temple of the Highest on its island.  He would say it to no one, but that sight he wanted to see up close, for its own sake.  

Within the walls the precincts of the city were tightly packed with human habitation.  Sanctuaries, tenements, market squares, and the walled compounds of the wealthy all seemed to jostle with each other for elbow room.  There was very little green-space within the walls, and very little of the city outside them—a few lesser temples, a poor quarter bordering the marsh to the southwest, horse stables with paddocks, and the cottages of those who tended the orchards and vineyards that grew right to the city walls themselves.  Had grown, Chon reminded himself—almost all had been stripped and burned in the first days after his army had invested the city.  A pity—those trees and vines had represented centuries of carefully husbandry, gone in an afternoon of smoke and flame.  But, Chon reminded himself, this was war.

The model did not try to replicate the Bay of Venia, but Chon remembered, from his own brief viewing, how the sun glinted on calm water spotted with islands.  Further out, nearly lost in the morning haze, had been barrier islands of sand and sawgrass, on which the Kuiritans had built forts to dominate the passes from the open ocean into the bay.  Those forts were why the Tou-tani fleet had to stand well out to sea, and why the forces under Chon’s command had been forced to march overland from their landing place to the east of the city.  The remote location of their landing area multiplied the difficulty of supplying the army, but there was nothing to be done about it.

Or nothing yet.  Reducing those forts and getting Tou-tani battleships into the bay would obviously be a priority.  Getting to the forts should have been straightforward, but the more Chon thought on the problem, the greater the murk in which its solution hid.  Most of the forts out there were strong, well-supplied with shot and shell, and many housed the anchor-points of great chains that sealed the passes they guarded.  Worse, most were positioned so as to be mutually supporting—a landing force assaulting one would face a withering cross-fire from at least two other forts; Chon foresaw landing parties melting away like snow under a spring sun before they even got to the walls of their objective.

But that was not the worst of it.  It was a bitter pill to swallow, but so far the Tou-tani army, for all its strength, despite the fact that their fleet owned—at least for the time being—the open water to the south, had not truly been able to seal Venia off from the rest of the Empire.  Nor were they likely to in the near future.  

To the east of Venia, the coastline was flat and open, with a few inlets and protected areas.  In one of these bays the Tou-tani had set up their base, and the Holy Union’s fleet could patrol to the shore itself.  To the west of the city, however, the coast was a tangled maze of barrier islands, wide sounds, estuaries and deltas, canebrakes and wetland grass plains that stretched for leagues, and shadowed cypress swamps that seemed to be just the sort of place in which a general could lose an entire army.  More to the point, every inch of it, for twenty leagues, was controlled by Kuiritan forts and patrolled by Kuiritan shallow-draft gunboats, whose crews seemed to love nothing better than to catch a party of Tou-tani floundering in waist-deep water and butcher them.  Through this water-logged warren the Kuiritans could keep a steady, if not lavish, stream of supplies flowing into the city.  Sealing off this back-door of support for Venia was as great a problem for Chon as taking the bay forts, or breaching the city walls themselves. 

By themselves, the city walls were intimidating.  Thirty feet high, forty in some places, their ancient lines had been enhanced in the last two generations by the addition of bastions for guns, and glacis, counterscarp, ditch and scarp to impede assaults.  Not perfectly—there were several locations where the new fortifications were not complete, with the old curtain wall still standing tall, a perfect target for his guns.  In other places the new bastions were imperfectly laid, with dead-zones that might shelter attacking troops.  All of these vulnerabilities would bear investigation in the days to come.  

His own army—and the forces of the allies of the Great League—were in place around the city, battalions and regiments and divisions, in camps with multi-colored tents and raw earthworks thrown up to protect them.  Thirty days from the landing had sufficed to encircle the city with trenches, at least on the landward sides.  From those trenches saps had begun to extend toward the walls.  In time these would bring the guns of the Tou-tani into range close enough to pound selected sections of the wall to powder.  The drawback of this, of course, is that the Tou-tani guns would be within range of the Kuiritan cannons in those bastions.  The coming conversations between opposing batteries promised to be loud, and costly.

We must start the work, Chon told himself.  And every city has its weaknesses.

He raised a hand and snapped his fingers.  “Ansan.”

One of his aides appeared through the tent’s entrance, and bowed.  “Speak, great master, and it shall be done,” Ansan intoned.  

“Bring me the Kuiritan,” Chon said.  

“Instantly, Overlord,” Ansan said, and he scurried out of sight.  

It wasn’t instantly, but in short order Ansan re-entered the pavilion with a young man in tow.  The fellow wore no uniform, mark of rank nor house sigil, and his face was masked, but he was clearly Kuiritan, and a Kuiritan of some rank.  Something in the walk, Chon thought.  Arrogance was not quite right, but there was something of entitlement and a confidence beyond that of common men in the fellow’s stride. 

“Leave us,” Chon told Ansan.  “And make sure all my retinue stays out while I speak with this man.”

In other circumstances Ansan might have dared to protest against leaving his overlord with a foreigner; but Chon knew that the Kuiritan would already have been searched to the skin for anything that might harm anyone.  Besides, Chon was not truly alone—two of his Silent stood close by in the tent, ready to protect him.  The hulking slaves might have been tongue-gelded, but there was nothing wrong with their sight, hearing or reflexes.  And they could betray nothing of what they were about to witness.

“As you wish, Overlord.”  Ansan bowed and withdrew once more through the tent flaps.  

Chon turned his attention to the Kuiritan, across the width of the model.  “Remove your mask, barbarian.”

The Kuiritan seemed to take no offense at Chon’s words.  Instead he simply took off the cloth shielding his face. 

Even younger than I thought.  The Kuiritan was hardly more than a youth to Chon’s eyes.  “You are the man who promises to deliver Venia into the hands of the Highest?” Chon said, unable to keep disbelief out of his tone. 

The Kuiritan shook his head.  “Great lord, I cannot promise such a thing.  No man can.”

Chon’s eyebrows went up.  “So?  That’s refreshing.  Your average traitor usually promises more than they can deliver.”  He leaned closer.  “What do you promise?”

“Dread lord,” the Kuiritan said, “I promise to do what I can to deliver the city of Venia into your hands, as soon as possible, with the least possible loss of life.  On both sides.”

“And what can you do toward that goal?” Chon asked. 

“Lord,” the young man said, “I am in a position to move in and out of the city with comparative freedom, by way of the supply lines through the western swamps.  As a result, I can convey messages in and out of Venia with ease.  I can also relay information about the arrangement of the city’s defenses and the deployment of her defenders, and have the information in your hands within a day or two.  I can also inform you of the dispositions and strengths of the Kuiritan forces in the Black Marsh.  I may be able, in time, to inform you of weaknesses in the seaward forts.  Lastly, I can work from within to…redirect the thinking of the people, to make them understand that opening their gates to you is preferable to suffering in the name of the current king of Kuirita.”

Chon peered at the man.  All of his uncertainties about this Kuiritan, he realized, boiled down to one question.  “Why?”

The young man drew in a breath.  “There are many of us, dread lord, both common and noble, who see Gratias Aquila for what he is—a corrupt old man grown fat on the gold and blood of his subjects.  He has ruled too long, he has trampled underfoot the ancient rights of the Kuiritan people, and his cronies and sycophants infest the Army and the Hierarchy.  He started this war by sealing the Strait of Breda– then, against our law he has levied free Kuiritans into his army, to fight a war which he could have settled on terms favorable to both sides years ago.  Instead he sits in the capitol, hundreds of leagues to the north, far from the fighting, and leaves the management—the mismanagement—of the war to incompetents who lick his ass.  Many of us stand ready to pull him down and give the Empire a new birth.”

Chon was impressed, in spite of himself, by the young man’s speech, even though he thought there was a certain practiced quality to it.  “And how will giving Venia over to the Holy Union accomplish this?”

“It will prove to the Empire that Gratias is no longer master of the realm,” the young man said.  “If he cannot save the second city of the Empire, he is no king.”  The Kuiritan hesitated, and his implacable look softened into something more worried, more pain-filled.  “And in truth, dread lord, I am a Venian, born and bred, and I want to spare my city as much suffering as I can.”

Chon wondered what twisted chain of logic had brought a native of a city to the point of being willing to hand it over to a sworn enemy.  Of course, any sane man would want to spare his city the tribulations of a siege, if he could.  Could love of place and hatred of a king produce such a strong and unusual alloy?  If it could, Chon would test it. 

“Well and good,” he said.  “So, what reward will you want for these services to the Holy Union?”

Instantly Chon sensed that he had offended the Kuiritan, although the young man hid his anger well.  “Nothing,” he said.  “I do not do this for gain or rank.  I do it for the people.”

Then you are either a pompous fool, Chon thought, or a very dangerous man.  But fools and dangerous men had their uses, and Chon was in no position to be choosy about his tools.  “Very well,” he said aloud.  “I will see if you produce results, young lordling.  I do not tolerate deceit or failure, but if you do aid us, it will not only count in your favor, but the favor of the people of Venia, whom you profess to love.”  Chon hesitated.  “You have not told me your name, Venian.”

The young man hesitated a fraction of a heartbeat, and then he spoke.  

Chon stepped back, surprised.  “I see.  I see indeed.  That explains much.”  He made a gesture, dismissing the Kuiritan.  “Go, and begin your work.  I will judge its worth.”

The Kuiritan met his eyes, then gave him a precise bow.  He resumed his mask.  Chon summoned Ansan with a call.

“Ansan,” Chon said, when the man had come in, “see to it this man has safe passage through our lines, and arrange his future contacts with us.  I do not want to lose touch with him”

Ansan bowed.  “It shall be as you say, great lord.”  

“We will talk again, and soon,” Chon told the Kuiritan.

“Yes, overlord,” the young man said.  He and Ansan bowed together and left. 

Chon stepped back, and sat in his high-backed chair.  There was no certainty the Kuiritan would be able to aid him—even if he were wholly sincere, the Empire was very adept at uncovering the Holy Union’s spies, wherever they might be, and there was every possibility the tasks the youth set himself were beyond anyone’s strength and skill.  But Chon had a feeling this young lord would prove very useful in the days ahead– especially now that he knew who he was. 

*****

By the middle morning the workshop was running smoothly, although Nathalia detected a distinctly slow and deliberate atmosphere around its forges and workbenches.  Everyone seemed to be moving at half speed.  All the apprentices looked puffy-faced, and walked like old men; Declitus and Idomo, the two journeymen, hardly moved at all.    

She was so absorbed in the work that she didn’t notice the noon hour approaching.  Prodimiri had to call her away from the workbench to come share lunch with the other workers. She washed her hands and went out into the yard behind the foundry building.   

The master’s servants had prepared a simple noon-day meal, as was usual– today, nan with pickled cucumbers, hot sauce and beans.  Nathalia noted that, apart from Prodimiri and his wife, no one else besides her seemed to have much of an appetite.  It was too bad, really– Prodimiri’s cook had outdone herself with the beans and sauce, sweet and savory together. 

As everyone ate– or nibbled, or stared at their food with reluctance– Prodimiri took it upon himself to address his workers.  “I’m happy to see you have all celebrated well,” he said. The sarcasm seemed to be lost on most everyone, except possibly old Actilimus, who managed a sour smile.  “You will have gotten this all out of your system, I will hope, for now our work will be increasing from here on.  The officers tell me the Tou-tani,” Prodimiri turned and spat upon the ground, “may the Presence make them eat dust and drink salt, will be attacking the walls soon.  The new weapons the Army has devised need to be built, and quickly.  We will be hiring more workers,” the present workers received this news with glum resignation– “so we can handle the increased demand.  I expect everyone of you to guide the new workers, for you know what I, Master Massana Prodimiri, expect.  We will work as we have never worked before.  And none of you will be forgotten, I promise.”

Nathalia thought it a rather effective speech.  She wasn’t sure her fellow workers shared her opinion, but no one raised any objections or questions, and everyone finished their lunch in silence.  She was surprised when Prodimiri drew her aside, as everyone else returned to their tasks.  

“Come, walk with me, Nathalia, daughter of the honored Tynicus,” he told her.       

Bemused, Nathalia followed Prodimiri.  To her further surprise, he led her out into the household’s personal garden, behind a stout wall and heavy door that separated it from the foundry.  It was an incongruous little patch of tulips and bumblebees in the midst of the quarter, and Prodimiri hardly ever let anyone other than family in here.

“Come, sit, Nathalia Benicusi,” Prodimiri said, addressing her in the Roharan fashion.  A stone bench was sited amid the tulip beds, and on this both of them sat.  Nathalia’s curiosity was now tinged with a certain anxiety.  Could it possibly be that the master was going to dismiss her?  Nathalia could think of nothing would give him cause, but her father said that men were too-often blind to their own faults.  She supposed that went for women, too.

“Nathalia,” Prodimiri said, “you are my most precise and intelligent, and therefore, most cherished, of my workers.  I have often praised your skill to my fellow masters.”

“I…thank you, master,” Nathalia said, more than a little taken aback.

“Because I have praised you so,” Prodimiri went on, “you have come to the attention of certain masters working on…important projects.  They have made discrete inquiries about you with me.  I have answered them as best I could; and now, those certain masters have asked for your skills and services.”

Nathalia had to digest that for a moment.  “My skills and services?” she echoed.

“Yes, Nathalia Benicusi,” Prodimiri said.  “These certain masters– I cannot yet speak their names to you– are gathering together as many as they can of the most skilled mechanics in Venia.  There are important projects for which much help is needed.  They have asked for you to join them.”

Nathalia had to take a moment to find her voice.  “Join them?  Master…are you not pleased with my work?”

Prodimiri waved his hands.  “No, no, did I not just say how you are cherished?  No, it is troublesome and sorrowful if I must send you elsewhere, but these masters have impressed upon me their need for help, help they can rely on.  And if it helps defeat the Tou-tani– may the Presence rot their bones and make their sons eunuchs– then I am content.  The only question is, are you content?”

“You cannot tell me what this work is?” Nathalia said. 

“No– and even if I knew, I could not, because secrecy is great and needful.  But I would not bring this matter to you, if I had not been convinced the work was important, eh?  And we must all do what we can to keep the sons of the river-mud out of our beautiful city.  What do you say?”

Nathalia hesitated.  “Can I…can I think about it, master?”

“Of course, Nathalia Benicusi,” Prodimiri said.  “But I must give the certain masters an answer soon, for their projects are urgent.  And the enemy,”  and the older man’s eyes flared with hatred, “accursed as they are, will not wait.”      

*****

“Ho, you slugs!” old Woi called.  “You slugs of the Fifth of Gera!  Come on, the stew is ready.”

Men emerged from tents and rose from where they had been resting on the ground, and filtered toward the regiment’s cook-fires.  They talked among themselves in the low voices of men who had worked hard all day and just wanted to eat and sleep.  The sun was setting, and they had no guard duty tonight, so most of them looked forward to a night’s rest.  But first, there was food.  

The soldiers lined up, taking wooden bowls from a pile of them on the ground, and shuffled forward as Woi and two other camp-followers ladled stew out to them as they passed.  Another woman handed over hunks of bread.  The men jostled each other, hungry and ready to be fed, but they joked as they did, and laughed with each other. 

“Hey, grandmother,” Poan said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder, “give the little lamb behind me something extra, will you?  He needs beefing up.”

Korisu, the object of Poan’s humor, felt himself flush, as the other men close by in the line laughed.  “Yeah, feed him well,” Ling said, from behind Korisu.  “He’s so small, it’s like there’s a gap in the line when we assemble.”

“You hush up,” Woi said.  “Leave the poor….”

Don’t say lamb, Korisu thought.

“…lad be, like you were never young,” Woi said.

“Ling?” Poan said.  “Naw, can’t you tell, grandmother?  Ling was born six foot tall and just as ugly as he is now.”

“Look who’s talking!” Ling exclaimed. 

“Move on, you louts!” Woi snapped, waving a hand.  “Other men, and better, are waiting to be fed.”

As it happened, it was one of the younger camp-followers who ladled out the stew for Korisu.  She smiled at him, which nearly made him drop the bowl.  He got his bread and stumbled away from the line.  

Perhaps he was still blushing when he made it back to the tents, for his tent-mate, a corporal named Han, from Tierena, grinned as he sat down on the grass.  “They hoorahing you again, lad?”

“It’s not important,” Korisu said, bending over his bowl.

“If it’s not important, why are you so red?” Han said.  He smiled, though, in friendly-wise.  “It’s just their way.  They mean nothing by it.”

“If you say so,” Korisu said.  He began eating.  

Across the path between the tent rows, Garsa spoke up.  He was an old veteran from Keri, just up-river from Korisu’s village. “Don’t feel picked on, Korisu.  This is the way it’s been in every army since Dukusunku the Founder.  The youngsters are the butt of everyone’s jokes, until they’re veterans and they hoorah the newcomers.  You’ll get your turn.”

“As you say,” Korisu said.  He tried to focus on his food. 

When he was done he threw his bowl on the pile for the mess-slaves to clean, and then wandered off, away from his battalion’s cantonment.  He had no duties tonight, his kit was taken care of and evening inspection over and done.  He just felt the need to get away from everyone else for a little while.  

He found a rock on the western flank of the long ridge north of the city.  He had heard the Venians called it the Hill of Souls.  He hoped it wasn’t haunted. 

Haunted or not, the high ground afforded the most splendid view of the city, the river, the sea, and the ground on either side of the river.  The Fifth of Gera had arrived here only two weeks before, one of the last units of the army to arrive.  Korisu had been so relieved to get off the ship– sea sickness had nearly killed him, he reckoned– and then so busy working to lay out the battalion’s camp and help dig siege traverses that he had hardly had time to look up.  When he finally did, the strangeness of this place had smote him, as if between the eyes. 

Looking down at the city in the last light of day, it looked wrong.  The shapes of the houses, the massive bluntness of the great buildings, the bridges that spanned the branches, all were alien to him.  Even the temples were different– great pyramids and towers, not the courts-within-courts mysteries of a proper Tou-tani temple.  If Korisu needed proof he was in a strange and foreign land, he need do no more than look.  

He hugged his knees to himself, a child’s gesture, without thinking.  He had known he was far from home, had felt it in the very earth he had been digging into for the last two weeks.  Somehow the fact struck him harder now than it had before.  He hugged his knees and resisted the urge to cry.

Of course, when the levy officers had come around, it was the useless youngsters the village session had put forward.  With the planting done Korisu and the other seven boys chosen were very nearly surplus mouths.  Of course, the village would miss their strength come harvest, but the elders had to weigh that future difficulty versus the demands of the Father-Overlord, which were immediate, and backed by a platoon of Royal Swords.  The levy officers had given them all cursory examinations, and then accepted them all, even Harma, who coughed all the time.  Korisu supposed the officers didn’t care– they had their own quotas to fill, and so what if one or two of the conscripts never actually made it to the Kuiritan lands?  It was no skin off their backside, once they delivered their warm bodies to the training camps.

In fact, three of the lads had died before they finished training.  Harma’s cough got so bad that one night he couldn’t catch his breath at all, and he died.  Junnu had caught the black-spotted flux, and he died, shivering with fever and shitting himself.  Sors was trampled by a runaway team of mules, and he died with his head crushed in by a hoof.  Even so, by the time the Fifth of Gera mustered to board the transports at Heru-ala, they had lost only a couple dozen men to disease or accidents, and Korisu had heard the regimental officers had been pleased at the small number of deaths.  He supposed it mattered from where you sat– to an officer, two dozen men were a small number.  To Korisu, Harma, Junnu and Sors were far too many.  

He wondered how Mother and Gtera were doing, right now.  He had heard one of the officers say that when it was noon-time here, it was already closing in on sunset in Tou-tan.  Korisu didn’t see how that could be, but if an officer said it, it had to be so.  If it was true, then surely his mother and little brother were already in bed, maybe asleep, maybe listening to the evening jabhoon whispering in the thatch overhead.  Here there didn’t seem to be a morning and an evening wind; sometimes the wind blew, sometimes it didn’t, and Korisu could make out no pattern to it.  He wondered how the Kuiritans told the time of day.

Four months it had been since Korisu had seen his family.  He had hoped the ache he felt when he thought of them would subside, but it hadn’t.  It was not something you said out loud, not to your file mates in the battalion, and never to an officer– but Korisu wanted to go home.  He’d had enough of the Army, a bellyful, as well as with all this digging that had nothing to do with planting or shoring up an irrigation dike.    

And that was before the real fighting started.  Korisu tried to imagine what that was like.  The instructors in the training camp had not been much help; all they were concerned about was making sure a recruit could march, hold his place in formation, could use his sword well enough so that he didn’t cut himself or stab any of his fellow soldiers, and did what he was told he was told to do it.  

Some of the older soldiers– the regiment had its cadre of long-service men, despite the fact that so many of its soldiers still had irrigation mud between their toes– talked about it, but they were not much more help.  “Stick by your mates, heed the orders, close up the gaps,” was all Garisima would say about the business.  Simmama was a little more helpful, but not much– “When it gets going, children, you’ll be pissing yourself from the noise alone.  Things get so confused sometimes that you can’t hear yourself think.  So don’t think– obey orders and stick with the other men, no matter how much blood you see or who falls.”  Kavatu said, “Stick the enemy in front of you, stick ‘em good, and keep pushing forward.  Don’t let the blood and spilled innards stop you.” 

Korisu nearly wished the older men had said nothing at all.  Soon enough he’d find out for himself.  It might have been better to go in with no preconceptions. 

He wondered how all this got started, and how it had sustained itself to the point that now he was in it, and like to drown in it.  The war had been going on since he was five, but now everyone was saying that the expedition was the chance to end it for good– if they could take that city down there, of course.  Korisu wondered what might happen if they went down to knock on the city gates and asked to talk the business out.  He wondered if the Kuiritans might just surprise everyone by saying, “Sure– come on in!”

“Hey, you there!” someone called.  It was a serjeant, peering over the earthen wall surrounding the nearest observation post on the hill’s crest.  “This ain’t some damn tourist attraction!  Get up off your ass and back to your unit!”

Siege, Part One

THE LADY’S DAY

The 10th Day

On the tenth day of the siege the city of Venia celebrated the Festival of the Good Lady.  In most of the city’s boroughs the preparations took a full week, and on the day itself the streets in nearly every block were draped in yellow banners stitched with blessings from the Lady in gold thread.  Every city borough, both those on the islands and on the mainland, held processions through the day; then, as night fell, the magnates of the city feasted their neighbors and fellow citizens, serving beer and ale from huge kegs, and chicken and hot bread and spicy cheeses on great trestle tables set up in the borough squares.  Here and there stronger drink was available, and it was not long before some of the celebrants had to be helped home, or simply to sit up. 

Galen heard the celebrations—the several celebrations—in the blocks behind the western wall between the Harmony Gate and the Bastion of Joy.  It sounded as if a good time was being had by a large number of people.  It was just too bad none of them were him.

At least it was warm and quiet up here on the wall.  The heat of summer in Venia was often merciless, but the weather had been moderate for weeks, which meant that guard-mount had not been the endurance test it often was.  If the siege lasted into fall and then winter, though, the thought of standing guard in the chill winds and rains of those seasons was not so appealing.

His guard mount was from the Goat Stairs to the Bastion of Joy, a distance of a couple hundred feet or so.  He walked it slowly, his bow in hand.  Even in the darkest night he could see the stretch of wall and fighting platform clearly, a straight line with nowhere to hide.  If an attacker somehow managed to climb up the thirty foot wall and clamber over the battlements undetected, Galen would see him in a moment, and have an arrow on its way the next. 

At the top of the Goat Stairs Galen met the guard covering the stretch of the wall from there to the Gate of Harmony.  Some soldiers wanted to talk, briefly, as they both turned to walk back.  Tonight, though, Galen’s counterpart was a young soldier from the Twelfth Royal Guards.  Galen had signed papers with the Three Rivers Company before coming to Venia, and there was a tradition of bad blood between Royal Guards and members of mercenary companies.  This Guard would do no more than nod to Galen as they turned.  Galen took no offense; there were enough troubles in life without picking needless fights.

No, there’s a bigger fight in the offing.  The evidence of that was out there beyond the wall and the ditch and the glacis, where the darkness was broken by thousands of campfires.  In the daytime the city’s defenders could see the tents of the Tou-tani, the smoke of their cook-fires and the earthworks they had thrown up to protect their camps, all out of range of the city’s cannon.  They could also see the saps the Tou-tani had begun digging toward the walls.  They weren’t in cannon range yet, either, but that would come.  When they did, Galen knew the first really active part of the siege would begin.

He shifted his bow to his other hand and stretched his back as he walked.  So far the siege had been pretty dull business, mostly just the Tou-tani army moving in and investing the city.  The portion of their force to be seen from the western wall was a fraction of the host that now surrounded Venia.  There were a tremendous number of Tou-tani out there, together with guns and powder and shot.  The enemy was digging steadily forward, working to get those guns within range.  Galen thought about what would happen then, and shivered. 

The creak of a door, the scuff of boots on stone—three officers emerged from the Bastion of Joy and hurried along the fighting platform toward Galen.  Galen saluted as they approached, before he could recognize their ranks in the darkness.  Another moment, and he was glad he had.  One officer was an ensign Galen knew, named Victis Publius, who was part of the bastion’s garrison.  Another was a captain who was a stranger to him, but the third was a brigadier.  He was an older man, heavy-jowled but tough-looking, with big, blunt-fingered hands.

“What’s your name and unit, soldier?” the brigadier said, pointing at Galen.

“Decitus Galen, archer of the second rank, of the Three Rivers Company, sir,” Galen said at once, as he tried to keep his surprise off his face.  

“You any good with that bow, hire-blade?” the brigadier said, pointing at the weapon.

“Pretty fair, sir,” Galen said. 

The captain gave him an odd look, as if he couldn’t believe someone would qualify their skills to a superior officer.  The brigadier, though, grinned.  “Good enough.  Stand ready, archer”

Galen pulled an arrow from his quiver.  He stood close by the nearest merlon and nocked the arrow, but did not draw.  “What’s afoot, sir?”

Now the captain looked at Galen as if he had lost his mind, posing a direct question to a brigadier.  But the brigadier smiled again as he positioned himself behind the next merlon.  “There’s something going on down in the ditch close by here.  The bastion is going to fire an illumination rocket.  If there are Tou-tani down there, I want you to kill them.”

“Yes, sir,” Galen said.  He braced himself.

A hiss that sounded like a giant snake, and then an ear-battering shriek.  The fiery trail of the rocket rose into the night sky from the top of the bastion.  It arced up and burst into a bright yellow spark.

Galen looked out the crenel.  Below and a little to the north, three Tou-tani stood at the top of the counter-scarp.  Galen saw their startled faces, looking up at the flare.  He glimpsed a rope dangling down the vertical face of the counter-scarp.

“There, soldier, there!” the brigadier cried.  “Kill them!”

Galen stepped into the crenel and drew full to his ear.  The point of his arrow came down and found the Tou-tani standing the furthest back from the edge of the ditch.  The man, wearing the colors of a Chosen, took his eyes off the flare and looked up at the wall.  Galen saw him begin to stumble backward.  Time stretched; Galen let go his breath and felt the rightness of the moment.  He loosed.

The arrow flew true.  It caught the Tou-tani in the throat before he completed a second step backward.  He dropped, suddenly loose-limbed.

Galen pulled out another arrow and drew.  The other two men were scrambling up and turning to run.  Galen shot; the arrow caught the second man in the side of his chest.  Galen saw the point come out the other side.  The Tou-tani dropped.

The flare was going out; the light flickered.  The third Tou-tani was running now, toward the top of the glacis and the safety of the darkness beyond.  Galen nocked and drew again.  He hesitated, tracking the glimpses he caught of the man in the dying light.  He shot.

The arrow hit the man low in the back.  He screamed and toppled forward down the front of the glacis.  He screamed and screamed, as the flare died for good, and then he stopped screaming.  

Galen nocked a fourth arrow, but the light was gone and nothing else moved in the darkness below.  “What were they doing?” he wondered aloud.

“Scouting, or perhaps looking to do some mischief in the ditch,” the brigadier said.  He looked at Galen appreciatively.  “So you’re just ‘pretty fair’?”

Galen shrugged and put the arrow back in the quiver.  “Don’t want to be bragging too much to officers, sir.  I do miss, now and then.”

The brigadier nodded.  “Seems like a sound policy.”  He turned to the captain.  “Who says inspection tours are always dull, heh?”

“As you say, sir,” the captain said.  “I suppose we should expect more little probes like that.”

“Yes,” the brigadier said.  He looked at Galen again.  “Good work.  Decitus Galen, eh?  I’ll remember your name.”

Galen refrained from frowning.  “As you wish, sir.”

“Come, Sandrel,” the brigadier said to the captain.  “Let’s finish this tour and get back down to the festival.  Carry on, ensign.”

“Sir,” Publius said, saluting.  The brigadier and the captain turned away and headed back to the bastion. 

“Who was that?” Galen asked Publius.  

The young officer gave him a contemptuous look.  “You don’t know?  That was Brigadier Saricus Cassius, commander of the whole western wall.  Wake up and pay attention.”

“And just how was I supposed to know that?  Sir?” Galen said.  

“Watch your mouth, hireling,” Publius said, and he stalked away.  

*****

Nathalia woke.  It was still before dawn; the day was a mere glow in the east, out over the city’s walls.  The Presence candle still burned in the niche in the common room, so she had a bare minimum of reflected light by which to rise and dress.  She moved as quietly as she could; being most probably the only sober person in the house imposed a responsibility on her, after all.

She went out into the room, the flagstones cold beneath her bare feet.  Sure enough, her brother Garricus was lying on a pallet against the far wall.  His snores were lusty.  Doubtless Father was upstairs.  Where brother Junius might be, Nathalia had no idea.  Doubtless time would reveal his whereabouts. 

She went to the niche.  She made the morning prayer in silence; then she took a pinch of incense for the bowl by the candle, and sprinkled it into the flame.  The sweet scent of the incense rose and spread around the room. 

She went into the kitchen.  There was no sign yet of Cook, nor did Nathalia expect to see her very soon.  Doubtless the older widow who cooked for the Benicusi household had celebrated the festival as heartily as anyone, and now slept as soundly. 

Nathalia shoveled ash out of the stove, finding two or three good embers.  So much the better—it saved her time starting the fire.  She laid kindling and wood in the stove, then slowly and patiently built the fire. 

Once it was burning strongly she put water on to boil, and brought out herbs and leaves from the pantry.  She doubted anyone in the household would have much of an appetite this morning, but tea, and plenty of it, would be wanted.  She set out cups on a platter, and put healthy portions of leaves in each. 

She herself felt a rumble in her belly.  She got a piece of yesterday’s bread from the safe, and ate it while she waited for the water to boil.  For her own reasons she doubted she could eat much more than that.  It was an important day, and in spite of herself she felt a quiver in her core.  She told her core to stop being silly, and went on with her work.

As she did she heard the soft pad of small feet on the flagstones of the kitchen.  Catcher, the family tabby, came in and sat beside the warm stove.  Nathalia saw that he had already lived up to his name this morning; a mouse, its tail still twitching, was clamped tight in the cat’s mouth.  “So someone has a taste for meat this morning,” Nathalia said softly to the cat, “but what have I told you about eating your kills in the kitchen?”  The cat, disregarding her entirely, sat on his haunches and proceeded with his own breakfast.

The tea made, she took one cup out to Garricus, who was showing some slight signs of life.  She set it to one side so that he could not knock the cup over.  She knew how clumsy he was sober, nevermind hung over.   

She took another cup upstairs, the astringent scent of the tea filling the stairs.  The dawn light was growing outside the upper story windows.  The far walls of the city were becoming less silhouettes and more human constructions.  In the near distance, to the north, the mass of the Arched Bridge was now clear; Nathalia could easily see the intricate but massive stones that made up the structure.  The crowded houses and workshops of the Craft District were emerging for twilight shadows, as well.  There seemed little traffic on the streets at the moment, which Nathalia supposed was to be expected.  

She gently rapped on the doorframe of her father’s bedroom.  She took the soft moan and cough she received in reply as sufficient permission.  She went in. 

Her father, thankfully, had laid down after the celebrations fully dressed, on top of his covers.  Nathalia felt no awkwardness as she sat down in the chair by his bed, holding the cup.  “Father,” she said softly, “tea.”

Another quiet moan.  

“Father,” Nathalia said, “would you prefer to sleep longer?”

There was a long silence.  Then Nathalia heard a weak and quavering voice say, “Tea?”

“Yes, father.”

Another long silence– then, slowly, Benicusi Tynicus stirred.  He levered himself up onto his elbows, then onto his hands, and then, with a moan, into a sitting position, with his back to the bedroom wall.  He moved as if each stage hurt him, which Nathalia did not doubt.  

Tynicus regarded his daughter with reddened eyes and a haggard face which had nothing to do with the pale light coming in the windows.  “It might have been better if I had just died, child,” he croaked.

“What, with ten orders in different stages of completion?” Nathalia said.  The corners of her mouth twitched with humor.  “Your own sense of duty would not let you pass from this world with them unfinished.”

“Uh…I suppose not,” Tynicus said.  He accepted the cup from his daughter.  He blew on the tea, and sipped it.  “Light above,” he said, his eyes going wide.  “That’s…that’s powerful enough to scour rust off a plate of armor.”

“Drink it all,” Nathalia said.  “And after that, copious water and and some broth….”

“Oh, no food, child,” Tynicus moaned.

“You need liquids,” Nathalia said.  “I want you to promise me to take care of yourself, on your word of honor, since I won’t be here.  In fact, I have to be off very soon.  Master Prodimiri does not tolerate tardiness.”

Tynicus reached over and took his daughter’s hand.  “I’m proud of you, Nathalia.  And we miss you in the shop.”

“I miss the shop, too,” Nathalia said, “but you know how important the work is.”

“Yes, daughter,” Tynicus said.  He sipped the tea again.  “You have my promise.  Water and broth.”

Nathalia stood.  “Thank you, father.”

A quick sponge bath, an even quicker change into working clothes, and Nathalia was on her way.  She was over the Arched Bridge before sunrise, and walking down toward the Artificer’s Quarter amid foot traffic that did not seem to be nearly as heavy as it usually was.  Bit and pieces of banners and streamers littered the streets, together with the occasionally still recumbent form of a reveler, lying to one side or the other.  It was like this after every Lady’s Day, and Nathalia never knew whether to be amused or annoyed.  

She entered the Quarter, and was soon surrounded by workshops, the sound of hammers and bellows, and the smell of coal smoke.  It was all comforting to Nathalia.  Since coming to work for Master Prodimiri she felt she had found a place where she belonged, even more than in the family silversmithy.  This was her space, where her efforts would make the difference, not whether she was related to the firm’s owner.   

She entered the foundry by the northern doors, which stood open at the moment.  It seemed unusually quiet in here this morning, which didn’t surprise Nathalia.  She spied Bartuci and Samon, working in rather desultory fashion on a heated piece of iron.  In another corner Actilimus was shaving down a wooden block with a plane, moving as if he were afraid his head might fall off with each stroke.

She heard a familiar, complaining voice, the sound of which led her to the back of the foundry.  Here Master Prodimiri stood berating Coscanius and Vertanius over a piece of metal that looked as if it had been handled wrong.  By the pained, hang-dog way the two journeymen received the master’s admonishment Nathalia was sure the volume of Prodimiri’s remonstrances was their chief punishment.     

“You blockheads,” Prodimiri ranted, waving the deformed metal at them.  He spoke with the distinct Roharan accent Nathalia remembered as her grandfather’s.  “You lumps.  You didn’t get the forge hot enough!  Do I have to instruct you on the simplest matters?  This must be redone.  Start now, and don’t stop until you have rectified your errors.”

He handed the scrap of metal over to the two journeymen.  They accepted it without a word, and moved with deliberate haste toward their forge.

Prodimiri turned and saw Nathalia.  Nathalia bowed.  “Happy morning, master,” she said.

“Ah, Nathalia, thank the Presence you are here,” Prodimiri exclaimed.  “These blunderers, they shall be the death of me, eh?  Come, come– there is much to be done with the clockworks.”

So it was that Nathalia started her morning filing and fitting pieces of clockwork mechanism together, checking their fit and tolerances.  Prodimiri’s foundry had been engaged by the over-commander of the Army in the city to work on secret projects for weapons.  Nathalia did not know exactly what all these pieces of mechanism were for, although she had some guesses.  All she knew for sure was that they had to all fit precisely together, and it was an exacting task filing, measuring, fitting, and testing each piece.  Exacting, but satisfying– she spent the morning employed in this manner, stopping only now and then to stretch her back and drink some tepid water from the foundry cistern.     

She had handled mechanisms like this since childhood, for the Benicusi were clockmakers as well as silversmiths.  The skill Nathalia had learned from her father had brought her to Master Prodimiri’s attention.  Their shared Roharan heritage had not hurt, either.  The work here gave Nathalia a sense of belonging and of contributing, all together.   

About one in ten of the machine parts could not be coaxed into the correct tolerances, no matter how much Nathalia filed away.  The casting process for these devices was new, and imprecise.  The rejects she put to one side, in a scrap pile to be taken away and recast.  Master Prodimiri wasted nothing. 

As she worked Nathalia remembered her grandfather.  Benicusi Harumaan– or Harumaan Benicusi, in the Roharan style– had never learned to speak Kuiritan without an accent, having fled the Tou-tani conquest of Rohara when he was sixteen.  Nevertheless, he married a Venian, and his children were all Venians, and that had been good enough for the old man in his last days.  Nathalia missed him.   

*****

When Galen was relieved at dawn, he went down to his billet in the Lesser Pool Barracks.  The remnants of the celebrations of the previous night were everywhere in the streets outside—paper streamers, cold paper lanterns, ripped banners, broken wine crocks and discarded ale bottles.  Here and there among the debris lay the recumbent forms of revelers who had not made it back to their lodgings.  Galen passed three fellows laying together in a tangled heap in a doorway, and wondered if he should envy them.  Probably not when they wake up.

The barracks was quiet when Galen let himself in; more than that, it was as somnolent as the hungover streets.  Many of the cots in the bay in which the Three Rivers Company of Archers was billeted were empty; in others men were passed out in various stages of full dress, undress, and no dress.  Galen moved carefully among the unconscious forms, avoiding more broken crockery and the occasional pool of vomit.  Must have been a wonderful party….

His own bunk, by some miracle, stood unmolested in the far corner of the bay.  Galen sat down on it, laid his bow and quiver down and tried not to think of anything for a few minutes.  He wanted to lie down and sleep, he wanted to eat breakfast, and he wanted a bath.  The only problem was that he couldn’t do all three at the same time.

A door screeched open at the other end of the barracks, a noise that elicited moans and bleary complaints from some of the recumbent figures on their cots.  Galen looked up to see Honorios come in, limping as usual, but no more than usual.  He wondered if they were the only two sober men in West Venia.

Honorios smiled and gimped over to Galen.  He sat down on the next cot over.  “Well, you made it off the wall,” Honorios said.  He did not speak loudly, but his words still brought more groans from the nearest semi-conscious soldiers.  “Heard you had a bit of excitement in the wee hours.”

“A bit,” Galen admitted.  “Pretty minor in the scale of things.”

“Minor?” Honorios repeated. 

Galen shook his head.  “How many sieges have you been in, Honorios?”

Honorios scowled.  “None.  You know I joined the company just before it signed with the city.”

“But you were with the Honored Company before that,” Galen said.  

“The Honored Company never stood a siege,” Honorios said.  “Not in the last twenty years, anyway.  In my time with them, they were contracted out the Domen of Harna, guarding his city and his grain stores.”

“Bet you wish you were back there,” Galen said.  

“Wishing won’t bring the Honored Company back,” Honorios said, more than a little bitter.  

“No, it won’t.  Sorry to pick at that scab, brother.”  Galen sighed.  “This is my third siege.  I was at Misha-shan and Baratha.”

“I remembered hearing about that,” Honorios said.  “But you’re awful young to have seen that much war.”

“I’m older than I look,” Galen said, “and I started young.”  Too young, but that was an old tale even Galen was weary of.  “The point is, this siege has barely begun.  Wait until the Tou-tani launch their first real assault.  When ten thousand of the bastards are crowding across the ditch and up the wall, believe me, you’ll get a different perspective on excitement.”

Honorios stared at him.  “I’ll take your word for it.  Didn’t come up here for a lesson in the military arts.  Captain Verion wants to see you.”

Galen cursed.  “I just got off guard mount,” he complained.

“He knows,” Honorios said.  “Pretty sure he doesn’t give a damn.”

“What’s he want?” Galen asked.

“Ask him,” Honorios said, sounding a little irritated.  “He’s waiting in the headquarters keep.”

Galen growled, but gave in.  He stowed his bow and quiver under his cot, and went to find his captain.  

Galen thought calling the building in which the Three Rivers kept its headquarters a ‘keep’ was stretching it more than little.  It was actually just a stubby tower stuck in a corner of the Protector’s Fort, which itself was a little more than a fortified bailey attached to the city’s western wall.  But it seemed the company’s commanders were always looking for ways to put on airs.  

He entered through the heavy doors at the tower’s ground floor, and walked up the spiral steps.  Halfway up he pressed himself against the wall to let a pair of pike-sergeants pass by him down the stairs.  The sergeants glanced his way, and sneered, but said nothing,  Galen took that as a sign that some men could, after all, learn their lessons.  

He climbed up to the third floor. The chamber here was suffused with filtered sunlight that shone through narrow windows; a rather dim illumination, but enough, apparently, for the scribes and money-counters whose tables and writing desks occupied most of the floor.  The space smelt of paper and ink and dust, and Galen had to suppress a sneeze as he passed among the scribblers and coin-pinchers.

The north end of this floor was curtained off as a space for the company’s junior officers.  Galen pulled the curtain aside and stepped through.

Captain Verion looked up from where he sat at the grimy table in the middle of the space.  A wine jug and cup were before him—Galen was unsurprised the man was starting his daily round of drinking early.  There was no one else in the space.

“About time, Decitus,” Verion said.  “Wha’dya do, break a leg?”

“Sorry, sir,” Galen said, restraining his sarcasm.  Mostly.  “Just got off guard mount, and I suppose I’m moving a little slow.”

“Huh,” Verion grunted.  “Slower than you slug-lazy archers are usually?  Pretty damn leisurely.”

And then some men never learn, Galen thought.  He personally was weary of the antagonism between the company’s pikemen, who had formed the bulk of the company in the old days, and the archers, who had been added to the company only in the last year.  At least the daily fist-fights between the two groups had died down.  But the antipathy lingered, and as far as Galen was concerned he had lost his tolerance for it long before.

He said nothing, though, and Verion went on.  “I’ll need you to move your ass better in two days, Decitus.”

“Two days, sir?” Galen said.  He kept his face bland to hide the sinking feeling in his gut.

“An order has come down from on high,” Verion said.  “They tell me from really far up the chain of command, although that’s not important.  Someone way up there has decided they want a scout outside the wall in two nights time, when the moon is dark.  Thirty days is plenty of time for the Tou-tani to set up their mischief, and the high command wants to know what that means.”

“Not sure what a scout would tell us that we can’t see from the walls,” Galen said.  The sinking sensation had transmogrified into leaden dismay. 

“We can’t see what the bastards are up to in the Sacred Wood of Datan,” Verion said.  “Stupid Venians—they should never have left a forest standing so close to the walls, sacred or not.  Nor can we see what’s going on on the other side of the Hill of Souls.  So somebody has to go and take a look.”

“Why us?”

“Luck of the draw,” Verion said.  “The Venians wanted somebody other than their precious city-guard for the task, although they would know the countryside around here best.  The regular Army commanders didn’t want to put their special little darlings in harm’s way, either.  In the end they called on the hired companies, and the commanders drew lots.  Guess who got the black stone?”

Galen had a sour taste in his mouth.  “You sure you want a bowman for this job?  Sir?”

Verion glared at him.  “Well, they’re not going to send pikemen out, are they?” he said grudgingly.  “You and the other four archers we picked—Eaman, Sinacus, August, and Corosa—you’re all Angreans, foresters to start with, and each of you dab hands with the Angrean long-knife.  Especially you, you impudent bastard—I’ve seen what you can do.  You’re light troops and you’ll scoot along in the dark handily.”

“Just the five of us?” Galen asked.

Verion waved a hand.  “Oh, you’ll have a couple of the city officers to guide you.  Don’t know who yet.  Hopefully they won’t be complete idiots.  You and the others are excused duty until sundown day after tomorrow.  Rest up, but be at the Forest Bastion at sunset.”

“So,” Galen said, resigning himself, “I should consider this an honor?”

“That’s about the best way  you can look at it,” Verion said.

Consequences

This is apropos of nothing. It just popped into my head. It is possible I’ve been watching too much anime.

************************************************

The battle over, Gregory faced the defeated demon queen, his sword-point at her throat.  She lay panting among the ruins of her army, beaten and despairing. The cheers of the human forces echoed in both their ears.

“You are my prisoner, Queen Alea,” Gregory said.  He tried to ignore how her already skimpy battle-garb now hung in tatters on her voluptuous frame.

“It is fate,” Alea said.  “We fought, and I lost, and now I must suffer the consequences.  I promise I will not whimper or cry as you ravage me.”

Gregory blinked and drew back.  “Wait, wait, who said I was going to ravage you?  We don’t do that with prisoners.”

“But that’s the fate of defeated queens,” Alea said, glaring at him.  “Don’t you know the rules of this business?”

Gregory snorted.  “Coming up with new rules was kind of the reason behind our whole disagreement.”

The queen peered at him, puzzled.  “Then, at least cut my throat quickly and have done with it.”  She stretched out her lovely neck so that it was wholly exposed to Gregory’s sword.

He took another step back.  “I’m not going to do that, either!  Geez-Lousie, lady, we’re the good guys!  If I’m not going to take you against your will, I’m surely not going to kill you out of hand.”

Alea stared at him, and then burst into tears.  “Oh, this is terrible!  You humans have no sense of propriety!  How am I to live with this dishonor?”

“It’s no dishonor to be beaten in battle,” Gregory said, feeling desperate.  “Really, please stop crying.”

“But you have to do something!” Alea said, sniffling.  “Take responsibility!  If you won’t ravage me and you won’t slit my throat, there’s only one other possibility!”

And that’s how Gregory of Talmont and Queen Alea of the Demon Kingdom got married, had three children, and established peace for a thousand years.

Moral: Don’t start something if you’re not willing to face the consequences.     

IN THE END*

And so, goodbye.
Well-deserved the shouted praises,
the rose petals strewn,
the bended knees,
the pledges of fealty.

You did it—
the Sacred Jewel reclaimed,
the land restored, hope reborn—
all by your hand.

And me…?
nobody.
As I knew
when I joined
your band of shining heroes.
A plow-horse among thoroughbreds.
A clod of dirt beside bright silver.

Through it all, I knew my place
to march,
to carry,
to sweat,
to fight,
to bleed,
to hope to see you lifted up,
glorious,
as now you are.

Goodbye
Rule well, as
I know you will.
It’s just…well,
The people look to you.
Time to go….

What…?
Why do you hold out your hand?
Small and fair, palm upturned,
waiting to clasp mine?

(*republished from a previous post)

LONG-TERM INVESTMENTS*

The sun sparkled beautifully off the waters of the bay.  Juarez took in the vista, with purple headlands shadowing the horizon across the water, and boats, pleasure craft and working vessels, dotting the blue of the water.  The sun was warm, but the breeze off the bay was cool and refreshing after days in a ship getting here.

“And this is the result of, what?” he asked Harkess.  “Two hundred years of terraforming?”

“To bring it to its current state of perfection, yes,” Harkess said.  “But Pequod was comfortably inhabitable within thirty years of our first landings.  And many of the prospects in our portfolio would require even less work than that– in fact, some are step off the ship, plant a seed, and you’re done.”

“Doubtless those go for a higher premium,” Juarez said.

Harkess conceded the point with a nod.  “Of course, as with any other piece of real estate, the asking price of any of our worlds is predicated on ‘move-in readiness’, among many other factors.”  He smiled. “To be honest, it is a balancing act most investors have to make. Savings in initial costs for a less human-friendly world will usually be invested in the subsequent terraforming as a matter-of-course.”

“Yes,” Juarez said, “The investors I represent have been studying the market for some time.  They understand the basic points of planetary investment.” He shifted in his seat. “But as a middle-rank association, we must be careful where we finally decide to put our money.  We’re not a conglomerate; still less are we Shareholders. One false step and we could all be penniless.”

“Of course,” Harkess said.  “And Advanced System Opportunities has assisted many groups in your situation, Citizen Juarez.  The New Way Chosen, for instance, came to us when they wanted to find a world for themselves. So did the Purified.  We have a great deal of experience helping investors of modest means become Proprietors on their own planet.”

A servant came out onto the terrace, bearing a tray with a bottle of wine and two glasses.  He placed the tray on the table between the two men, poured wine into the glasses, bowed and left.  Juarez thought the man bore unmistakable signs of being a mod, but said nothing.

“Please, Citizen Juarez,” Harkess said, indicating the glass before the representative.

Juarez lifted the glass, inhaled the bouquet, and then took a respectful sip.  “A local vintage?”

“Yes,” Harkess said.  “We’re quite proud of it.”

“It is truly excellent.”  Juarez took another sip. “I understand that ASO has a relationship with the Voronovs.”

Harkess nodded.  “Quite a long and fruitful one, to be honest.  Historically, and in the present, they have been a tremendous help.  And, of course, we keep all our licenses and permits with the Consortium itself in order.”  He paused. “May I ask what your investors’ intentions might be?”

Juarez looked at Harkess over the rim of his glass.  “My investors are committed to making whatever world we chose into a place fit for extensive human habitation– but precisely because our resources are not unlimited, we need to see some early profits.  To help us bear the cost of development.”

“Naturally,” Harkess said.  “That would mean some easily exploited mineral assets, or some of the higher yield cash crops, such as coca or makatinte.  Considering the resources of your group, I would assume that we are not talking about mining gas giants or any other such larger scale operations.”

“No, you’re quite correct,” Juarez said.  

“Yes– I think you will find, citizen, that we have several opportunities in our portfolio right now that might meet your specifications.”  Harkess smiled. “And if not, well, there’s hardly a week that passes without one of our survey ships jumping far beyond the Perimeter, discovering new worlds.  I am sure we will be able to find something that will please your investors.”

“That’s all very well and good, Citizen Harkess,” Juarez said, hesitating, “but I’m afraid I must ask about… infestations.”

“Ah,” Harkess said.  “You needn’t trouble yourself, Citizen Juarez.  ASO has extensive experience handling infestations.  In the five hundred standard years we have been in business, we have dealt with more than one hundred.”  He smiled. “In my operations days, I handled five myself.”

“Really?” Juarez said.  “Are they…difficult?”

“Generally, speaking, no,” Harkess said.  “Every world has its particular vulnerabilities.  Our techs and operations people are quite skilled at crafting solutions peculiar to each situation, one that is guaranteed to do no permanent harm to the planetary biosphere.  Naturally, we don’t beat our own drum about it, but we’ve never had a failure, nor a complaint.”

“I see,” Juarez said.  “Unfortunately, that’s not quite what I was asking.  Do you ever…face opposition?”

“Ah– no, we never have.  None of the species we’ve confronted have ever had a technology more sophisticated than bronze axes.   Primitives like that are quite easy to deal with– one tailored bio-plague, a couple of neutron weapons, and it’s generally over before they know it’s begun.”

“What about the Hegeri?” Juarez asked.

Harkess’ studied, pleasant facade seemed to harden a little.  “The Hegeri…the Hegeri are a unique case. They were taught their technology by a human renegade.  It is not…native to their culture.” He smiled again. “Besides, they are on the other side of the Volume.  The Consortium fleet has them well in hand. Nothing to concern us.”

“Well, that reassures me,” Juarez said.

“As it should, citizen,” Harkess said, beaming now.  “Besides, if it should turn out the planet you choose does have an infestation, it’s always possible that they will leave some picturesque ruins.  We’ve found that sort of thing is generally a boon to the tourist trade on any given world.”

Now Juarez smiled.  “Citizen Harkess,” he said, lifting his glass, “I think your firm and my investors are going to have a very profitable relationship.”

Harkess lifted his glass, too.  “I hope so, citizen,” he said, as they clinked glasses.  

(*republished from a previous post)

The Holy Mango*

2015-09-21-c2a9-2015-barbara-w-beacham
© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham

On March 11th, 2067, Daphne Coultier signed a contract with a construction firm in her hometown.  The owner of the firm gave her more than one sideways glance during the process, but said nothing.  He would put up with a lot for a contract as lucrative as the one she was signing.  Of course, the Coultiers had been known as oddballs in the county for a long time.

The very next day the construction firm began to build a tree in a mango tree Daphne had on her property. No one knew why she wanted a treehouse at all, since she had no sons or daughters, and she and her husband lived in a spacious five-bedroom, two-bath split-level on the very same property.  

When the tree house was finished, four weeks later, it instantly became the marvel of the neighborhood, if not the state.  It was spacious and warm and it had electricity and plumbing and all the other necessities of modern life.  Daphne moved in at once, carrying her essential supplies– particularly for her knitting– the short walk from her back door.  Thereafter she could often be seen sitting on the porch of the tree-house– yes, it was exactly that nice a tree-house– knitting away and humming show-tunes.

What was truly bizarre, however, was that Daphne hated mangoes.

“Daphne,” neighbors shouted up to her, “you hate mangoes.”

“I know,” Daphne said, knitting a sweater.

Her husband told Daphne he couldn’t live with pollination and fruit flies.  “Come back to the house, Daphne,” he said.

“I’m fine right here,” Daphne said, and she just went on knitting.

Her husband rented-out the main house and left town.  Local news profiled Daphne for a few days, then moved on to Justin Bieber look-alike contests.

Psychologists clustered around the foot of the tree, theorizing on her aversion adherence. Several published learned tracts on the phenomenon.

On May 11th, 2067, the Silubrian Horde invaded the Earth. They wiped out humanity in a day.

But not Daphne. Mangoes are sacred to the Silubrians. They elected Daphne Supreme Mango Goddess of the Horde. They brought her chocolate and strange alien liquors that gave her hiccups. In return, she knitted scarves and cardigans for them. These became holy relics for the Silubrians.

When Daphne died, the Silubrians cloned her. Since then, all of humanity have been women who knit.

Moral: As the mangoes, so Man goes.

(*republished from a previous post)

Pray and Write

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