The Horseman, Part Two

Note to the reader: this story contains military violence, sexual situations and coarse language.

Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel

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They went up to the eastern wall.  The gunnery division had set up one of their bigger telescopes there, and some of the men from Bastion Three were clustered around, staring through it.  They hastily stood aside as Mankin and the others came up the stairs.

“You can see them, Cap’n,” Sergeant Denetoi said.

Mankin bent to look through the eyepiece.  With the sun up the land was warming rapidly, and the image in the lens wavered in the heat, but Mankin could still see the columns of infantry, with bright colored ensigns and battle-standards at the head of each cohort, coming down the roads from the eastern heights.  There were Okharian troops on the Cactus Road and the Scorpion Track, with a mile between them.  Sunlight glinted on spear-points, burnished helmets and armor.  Mankin knew Okharians were used to the heat, but he still imagined scale armor had to be torment.  Most Khetuni soldiers favored lighter leather and quilted armor, which were stifling enough.

Mankin counted the standards of twelve cohorts before giving up.  He stood back from the telescope and studied the horizon.  Yet more dust-clouds marred the eastern sky, many which seemed to angle off toward the northwest.  Fort Hope— and probably Fror-manu, as well.  If the Okharians took the city, they would cut off half the Khetuni Division of the Gar.  Holding Senso-marta would make little sense then, but it wasn’t a decision Mankin could make.

“There’s a deal of them, no doubt about it,” Master Sergeant Goma said.

Mankin turned to face the officers and the senior sergeants.  The two junior officers looked scared, the old sergeants resigned.  “They’ll be here in four to five hours,” he said.  “Cavalry sooner.  Artillery, if they have any, will be following behind.”  When the war had started the Okharians had barely any guns at all, but they had quickly caught up.  “If they’re anxious to take us they may try an infantry assault.  Otherwise it will be a waiting game.  The longer we hold them, the closer the relief column will get.”

“If there’s enough of them,” Goma said, “they might just swarm us.”

Lieutenant Ganer looked green; Hass looked as if he were about to cry.  “Maybe,” Mankin said.  “But they’ll pay a price getting across the fort’s killing ground, if we work the guns right.  Too high and we might just hold them off.”

Until their guns come up.  Mankin put the thought away.

This was the moment, he supposed, when he should something inspiring.  Nothing came.  Finally he said, “Everybody just do your job.  That’s the only way to hold this fort– and holding out for the relief force is our main hope right now.”  He paused, resisting the urge to wipe his hands on his trousers.  “Let’s get ready.”

 

He wrote out a report and had the signal team send it.  While he did the senior sergeants rearranged the guard on the wall, sending half down to rest in the barracks, and making sure fresh water was brought up the bastions. Mankin took a turn of the bastions, inspecting the guns one more time.  Then there was nothing to do but wait.

Mankin took himself to the hold-fast.  He sat down in the commandant’s office, in one of the messenger chairs, but not at the commandant’s desk.  He sat, soaking up the cool of the room, and tried to think.

Okharian cavalry, when they appeared, would not worry Mankin.  The fort’s guns would decimate any force attempting to approach the crossing, and cavalry could not assault a fortified position.  It was the infantry following on that were the first danger to the outpost.

Would they come prepared for an assault, with scaling ladders and petards?  Mankin had to assume they would– what was coming down from those eastern heights was no mere raiding party, but a coordinated offensive, obviously aimed at pushing the Khetuni right out of this province.  They would come fully prepared to scale the walls and blow in the gates.

There was a killing ground four hundred yards wide around the fort, except on the river side, where the trees lining the waterway came within two hundred yards.  Mankin was still confident that the bastions on that side would riddle any force taking shelter the woods, especially if the mortars lobbed bombs into the trees.  On the other side, the guns utterly dominated the open ground.  Even at a dead run enemy infantry would take two minutes to cross that space, and heavily armored Okharian regulars were not fast runners.

Mankin closed his eyes and pictured the assault from the viewpoint of a foot-soldier crossing that ground from the east.  Three bastions could bear on that ground.  With four guns a piece, each of which could land aimed shots on targets up to half-a-mile away, each firing three rounds a minute…the image didn’t bear thinking on.  From the limit of the guns’ range to the open ground, the Khetuni could rain down round shot and maybe a few mortar bombs at will.  The enemy’s formations would suffer cruel punishment before they even got close to the fort– but when they emerged out on the killing ground the guns would switch to grape, and the real slaughter would begin.  Any attack that tried to press to the walls of the fort would be bled white.

But if they come in enough numbers….  The Okharians had never been shy about using numbers to overcome Khetuni firepower.  If more than a few of those legions Mankin had glimpsed coming down from the eastern heights were sent against the outpost, they might just soak up everything the fort’s guns could hand out.  They might just be able to clamber over the dead and reach the outpost’s walls.  If that happened Mankin did not know if the garrison could repulse them.

But if the Okharians had guns, all his calculations might be amiss.  The Okharians were still integrating guns into their army.  Not all units could call upon artillery for support, and the quality of Okharian guns and the skill of their gunners varied greatly– Mankin had seen Okharian guns blow up and kill more Okharian soldiers than Khetuni.  But if enemy guns appeared outside the outpost, and if they were wielded with any amount of skill, they might well silence the fort’s own guns, knock the walls down and allow their infantry in.

It all depended, Mankin reasoned, on how badly the Okharians wanted this crossing.  The next crossing to the south was fifty miles away, and there the western side of the river was all difficult badlands.  Taking the Senso-marta crossing would allow the Okharians to move troops quickly up the Gar’s left bank and invest Khetuni positions on that side of the river, as well as cutting supply routes to the desert outposts.  Without it, they would have to fight their way past Fort Hope and Fror-manu, which were much tougher propositions than Senso-marta.  Mankin rather hoped the Okharians did not know that.  It wasn’t that he wished the Khetuni soldiers stationed there ill– far from it.  But being the target of too many Okharians at once was a fate Mankin fervently hoped to avoid.

The sound of guns interrupted his thoughts.  He grabbed his sword and ran for the door.

 

Bastions One and Three were firing as Mankin took the steps up the north wall three at a time.  He got to the top of the wall just in time to see Okharian cavalry, three hundred or so yards away, wheel away amid clouds of dust raised by the roundshot falling among them to ride back off to the northeast.  One, two more guns fired; the shot dropped among the horsemen.  Mankin saw one man and his mount go down in a spray of blood and torn flesh.

Then the horsemen were spurring hard away.  One more gun fired, but the shot tore the ground short of the enemy.  The Okharians sped away, raising a screen of dust behind them.

“Cease fire!” Mankin shouted, just as the crew of the third gun in Bastion Three cleared to fire.  “Cease fire!  They’re going.”

A moment’s silence fell over the north wall, and the gun crews were cheering.  Men thumped each other on the back and shook fists at the retreating Okharians.  “We sent ‘em packing!” someone shouted.

“How’d you like the taste of Khetuni iron, you bastards?” a private shouted after the riders.

“At ease!” Mankin shouted.  “They were just seeing if there was anyone at home.  They’ll be back soon enough, with infantry.  Reload and prepare the guns for the next round.”

The men stopped cheering and fell to work.  Ita came up to the top of the wall and urged his crews to their work with words far more emphatic and pungent than Mankin’s.  Mankin left the work in his hands, and watched the horsemen dwindle in the distance.  Just the opening act.  He went back down.

 

An hour later they saw the dust of marching men on the flat ground to their east.

Mankin used the telescope to study the approaching infantry.  He counted at least four cohort standards– a minimum of three thousand men, all aimed at the outpost.  As bad as that was, there was the possibility that the dust obscured yet more cohorts behind the lead units.  Worst case, Mankin reasoned, there was perhaps a half legion headed his way.  Despite the growing heat, it was as if he carried a lump of ice in his gut.

Goma rotated the men on the walls.  Mankin took one last turn around the bastions.  The men were solemn, quietly watching, speaking in low voices and only about the business at hand.  Goma went around the bastions on his own, briefing each gun crew on what to expect, how to wait the order to fire, telling them to work their guns steadily, by the count, and to stay focused on what they were doing and disregard any distractions.  Mankin hoped that last piece of advice wasn’t just wishful thinking; not all the men here were veterans who understood that the best chance anyone had to make it through a fight was to keep doing what needed to be done.

Soon enough they caught the notes of Okharian pipes and drums.  The steady beat of the drums particularly grew louder and louder, a rising throb of sound that seemed to hover over the fort like an ominous cloud.  The men listened, and Mankin thought that they steadied down even more.

“Rider!  There’s a rider coming!”

Mankin looked up at the shout, which came from Bastion One.  He ran up to the eastern wall close by the main gate and looked.  Yes, a small plume of dust, well ahead of the enemy infantry, marked a rider coming fast.  A larger cloud of dust followed the first.

“What does that fool think he’s doing, riding right at us?” one of the soldiers nearby said.

Mankin turned away from the parapet.  “Open the main gate!  It’s one of our scouts.”

Soldiers in the yard sprang to the gate.  They got it open just as Chure emerged from the scrub.  He flogged his horse without mercy across the open ground and stormed through the gate.  “Shut it!” he yelled.  “They’re close on my ass!”

Soldiers strained and shoved the gate shut, even as enemy horsemen appeared out of the scrub.  The Khetuni shoved the bars closed as a gun in Bastion Two fired.

Mankin didn’t wait to see if the shot scored any hits; he was dashing down the steps to the yard.  He reached the ground as Chure flung himself off his horse.  It was dismount, or have the horse roll on him, because the animal staggered and collapsed in utter exhaustion.

Chure staggered himself; Mankin caught him by the shoulders.  Chure was covered in dust, his aspect wild-eyed.  “Water, water, for the love of the gods,” he croaked.  His legs buckled and he sat down unceremoniously in the sand.

“Get him water!” Mankin ordered, as more guns fired.  A soldier ran and got a dipperful from the nearest barrel.  Chure drained it very nearly in one swallow, and another after that.

“Ease up,” Mankin said, “you’ll make yourself sick.”

“I’m all right now,” Chure said.  “It was just that last sprint– I had the entire Okharian army around me, and I don’t really know how I made it through.”  He coughed, wiped his blood-shot eyes with his hand.  “Pretty sure they caught Deman.”

“Tell me everything,” Mankin said.  “But make it quick.”

Chure shuddered, with exhaustion or fear or both.  “I made it up on the plateau before midnight.  That’s when my troubles started.  I dodged Okharian cavalry all night, and then I had to stay ahead of their infantry.  There’s a half-legion coming against us here, captain, I counted, but that’s just patch on what’s out there.  Full legions, Guards brigades, thousands and thousands of infantry, battalions of cavalry, batteries of guns.  Most are aimed right at Fror-manu, captain, they obviously mean to take the city.”

“I understand,” Mankin said.  “Does this half-legion have guns?”

“I didn’t see any, captain,” Chure said, “but that don’t prove nothing….”

Horns blared outside the fort’s walls.  The sound shivered down Mankin’s spine– it was the Okharian call to the attack.  It’s started.

Mankin stood.  “Sound stand-to!  Everyone to the walls!”

He went up the steps to the eastern wall, Chure forgotten.  Goma was there with Ganer and Hass.  The kids looked green, Goma grim.  “They’re deploying out in the scrub,” the master sergeant said. “Five hundred yards.  Looks like they’re going to try this side first.”

He spoke over the bugle call.  Troopers boiled out of the barracks below and up to the walls.  Swordsmen found their positions at the battlements, bowmen in the corners of the bastions, ready to enfilade advancing infantry with a cross-fire.  We’re as ready as we can be.  There was little comfort in the thought.

“Hass,” Mankin said, “go to each bastion, remind everyone to mind their sectors, no matter what happens over here.  This could be a feint, or they could be getting ready to hit us from two directions at the same time.  Go!”

The boy took off, dodging soldiers.  “Ganer,” Mankin said.  “You take command of the gate-houses.  Keep the bastards away from the gate.”

“Sir,” Ganer said.  He remembered to salute before sprinting away.

“Hold this section of the wall, Master Sergeant,” Mankin said.  “I will be in Bastion Three.”

“Sir,” Goma said.

Mankin dashed the thirty yards to the bastion.  Within it the gunners stood by their guns, ready; one additional gun was being run forward to the bastion’s front angle, to bolster the fire that would directly oppose the Okharian advance.  Ita, cussing and chiding, was directing the work.  Mankin stood on the battlement as the gunners levered the cannon into position and peered toward the Okharian formations, out in the scrub.  As Mankin watched the standards of four cohorts appeared above the brush, in a line that spanned two hundred feet.  The scrub was high enough that at this distance Mankin could only glimpse occasional flashes of sun off helmets and spear points.  It didn’t matter; he could see enough.  It’s a column assault.

“I need two runners!” he yelled.  He jumped down from the battlement, nearly stepping on the two junior privates who came running.  “You,” he said, pointing at one, “go to Bastion Two.  You,” he pointed to the other, “go to Bastion Four.  Tell the bastion captains to open fire on the Okharians at four hundred yards with round shot.  Aim for the standards– that will be the center of their formations.  When they reach the open ground switch to grape.  Spread the word along the walls– archers find and take out section and half-cohort commanders.  Everyone to stand by for an assault on the walls.  Go!”

The privates sprinted away.  Mankin found Ita at his elbow.  “Any better suggestions, Master Gunner?”

“No, sir,” the older man said, grinning, “I couldn’t have laid it out better myself.  Gunnery is really a simple business, sir– the enemy shows themselves, we blow them to pieces.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Mankin said.

The horns stopped.  Into the moment of ringing silence that followed flooded in the sound of hundreds of men’s voices crying “Okhar!”  Then the enemy drums thundered again, and the standards advanced.

“Here they come!” Ita shouted.  “Stand ready, wait the word!”

Mankin stepped back, out of the way of the guns and their crews, but still watching.  The gun crews were silent, waiting, tense.  The gunners’ matches on their linstocks smouldered; the rising smoke was nearly the only motion in the bastion.  The fort was a pool of silence compared to the noisy attack.

Mankin did numbers in his head.  At a steady walk it would take the Okharians more than a minute to cross one hundred yards.  In the thick scrub the enemy would be even slower.  Once they reached the open ground they would doubtless break into a run, but they would still be long seconds crossing those three hundred yards.  Once they reached the fort they would have to cross the outer ditch– not as deep as Mankin had wanted it to be– and then face the glacis– not as complete as Mankin would have liked.  Still, the enemy who reached the wall would have twenty-five feet of glacis and wall to ascend, with enfilading fire coming down on them.  Mankin sent a prayer to the Unchanging that it would be enough.

“Ready!” Ita cried, raising his arm, as the standards came on.  Mankin could see the brush being trampled down by hundreds of marching feet, a steady line trampling through the scrub.  He began to discern the forms of hundreds of individual men coming toward him, melded into a glinting line of iron.

“FIRE!” Ita shouted.

The first gun, Death’s Handmaiden, fired, a harsh crack! that compressed the air around Mankin and set his ears to ringing.  Serpent’s Kiss and Iron Reaper followed, each gun speaking with authority.  The wind bore the smoke to one side and Mankin saw the balls as they arced outward.  Handmaiden’s ball shot across the open ground and dived into the scrub, short of the enemy.  For a sliver of a heartbeat Mankin thought it was a miss; but the ball skipped off the ground, tore through the brush, and struck the enemy formation.  One of the standards wavered and fell; Mankin was sure he saw a man flung skyward.  Screams echoed across the ground.

Bastions Two and Four were firing, as well.  Shot tore into the enemy along their front.  Another standard toppled; a third was tossed in pieces into the air.  Dust and pieces of brush hurtled through the air; here and there bodies in armor followed.  Cries of agony and fear echoed between the roar of the cannon.

Ita was already lashing his crews with curses, urging them to greater speed as they swabbed out the guns, reloaded, and levered them back into firing position.  Mankin spared a second to admire that first shot– no miss at all, but skillful gunnery that maximized the damage to the enemy– before jumping in and helping haul Handmaiden back into position.

When he stepped back, he saw the enemy still coming on, closing the gaps in their ranks.  He had no trouble seeing the enemy formations now, despite the dust the shots had raised.  The two fallen standards had been once more lifted up, and for just a moment Mankin had to admire the courage of the men who had done so.  They knew full well that picking up the standards would make them targets of the Khetuni guns, but they did it anyway.

The gun captains spun the elevating screws of their weapons, depressing the barrels to track the closing enemy.  The captains each sighted along the barrels, raised a hand to indicate they were ready.

“Fire!” Ita yelled.

The guns fired again; with the other bastions firing there was a ragged rhythm to the speech of the cannons.  Shot fell now on the enemy without pause, and Mankin could see the shots tearing holes in the enemy lines, knocking men over or tearing them to pieces.  Screams of agony mingled with screams of “Okhar!” and still the Okharians came on.

“Load grape!” Ita yelled, and Mankin realized the Okharians would surely reach the open killing ground in the next few seconds.  He stepped to a fenestration to watch.  The enemy line, coalescing around the three remaining standards, came on with the steady pace that told Mankin they were regulars and veterans.  The enemy chanted as they came, “Okhar gershan!”– Okhar Victorious.  Mankin regretted what was about to happen.

“Ready!” the gun-captains yelled, in sequence.

“Stand by!” Ita said, his hand raised.  He watched the enemy advance, waiting for the precise moment.  His hand came down.  “Fire!”

The guns fired, one after the other.  The blasts, hurling hundreds of pebble-sized iron balls, struck the enemy line as it emerged from the brush.  In an instant the grapeshot ripped swaths in the enemy formations, tearing men apart by the dozens, wounding and kill many more.  The balls threw dust and blood both into the air.  It was shocking, even though Mankin had known what was coming, to see men converted into torn meat in a moment.  More screams, agonized, despairing.

Over the din Mankin heard a command shouted among the Okharians.  With wild yells, shrieking rage and bloodlust, the Okharians still on their feet all broke into a run.  In a moment the formations dissolved into a rushing mass of humanity, all seemingly aimed directly for Mankin.  He glimpsed one man, in the midst of the press, trying to get to his feet to follow, but falling over because his legs were gone from the knees down.

Other guns fired, tearing more gaps in the enemy mass.  The gun crews around Mankin worked to reload.  They’ll only get one more volley off— after that the Okharians would be too close.  The guns’ could not be depressed far enough to hit anything closer than seventy or so yards from the wall.

Then Mankin saw, in the midst of the crowd of running men, teams of soldiers carrying scaling ladders.

“Master Gunner!” Mankin called.  “I’m going down to the wall to make sure we’re ready to receive them properly.  Enfilade the bastards as best you can.”

“Take care, Captain!” Ita said.  To his men he bellowed, “Come on, you whoresons, get those guns into position.  You bastards got nothing but weak piss in your veins.  Pull so your grandchildren feel it!”

Mankin drew his sword.  He ran out of the bastion and down steps to the wall.  He passed bowmen shooting, taking aim and loosing, calling out targets to one another.  Swordsmen, huddled behind the palisade, waiting, got out of his way.

The guns behind him fired.  Mankin glimpsed fresh destruction among the Okharians, but already many of the enemy were at the counterscarp and scrambling down into the defensive ditch.  Their battle-cries, cursing and screams mingled and rose up to make his ears ring.

He’d thought to join Ganer in the near-gatehouse, but a knot of soldiers on the parapet blocked his way.  Sergeant Denetoi was among them, leaning over the inner edge of the wall, shouting, “Get those poles up here, now!”  Straightening up, he nodded to Mankin.  “How do, Cap’n!  Busy enough for you?”

“We’re about get even busier,” Mankin said.  Two privates came running up the near steps, carrying between them a long bundle wrapped in canvas.  They dropped it at Denetoi’s feet, and it clattered on the stone.  The sergeant whipped the canvas away and out rolled a bundle of long poles with metal forks on one end.

“Good!” Mankin said.  “Get these passed out along the wall.”

“Such was my thinking, Cap’n,” Denetoi said.  He flashed a crooked-toothed grin at Mankin.  “Think that’s worth a bump in pay?”

“Talk to me after we get through this.”  Mankin stepped to the battlement, peeked his head out a crenel and looked down.

Below him was a milling mass of Okharian soldiers, many pressed hard against the foot of the glacis.  Some were trying to scramble up it.  Many more enemy were still clambering over the counterscarp and trying to get through the ditch.  Teams carrying ladders struggled to bring them forward through the press.

A sharp crack— a steel-tipped arrow struck the stone by Mankin’s head and ricocheted into the air.  He hastily pulled his head back in, his skin tingling.  “Get ready, sergeant,” he told Denetoi.  “I need to get to the gatehouse.”

“Way for the cap’n!” Denetoi bellowed.  “Way, there!”

Mankin sidled past the troopers, ran up the steps of the near gate-house.  Inside the first level archers plied their trade through the narrow arrow-loops.  Mankin ran past them and up the circular steps to the upper level.

As he reached it there was a sharp bang that made his ears ring.  Ganer and a trooper pulled a smoking culverin back an open window.  The trooper swabbed it out with a wet rag and proceeded to reload it with powder and a odd assortment of junk– nails, pebbles, scraps of metal.  Ganer looked up at Mankin’s approach, grinning.  “Captain!  We’re killing them in bunches!”  The youngster wasn’t green anymore.  Another culverin went off, firing from a window in the front of the tower.  The men on this level seemed to be either handling culverins or shooting down on the enemy with bows.

“Keep it up,” Mankin said.  “Especially deal with the ladders.  They’ll be going up any second.  Have we cut the outer bridge?”

“Come see, sir.”  Ganer pointed to a window at the corner of the tower, overlooking the gate itself.  Mankin edged up to it and looked down.  The wooden bridge spanning the defensive ditch and leading to the outer gate lay in splintered ruins, with Okharians struggling amid the broken timbers.  Without that bridge it was an eight foot climb up to the outer gate, and at the moment Mankin couldn’t see anyone attempting it.  He looked out cautiously.  The enemy was now all along the eastern wall, with still more men coming, a great, crowded mass of men.

A bowman beside him loosed, and Mankin saw his target, a section-leader, sprawl backward, dead.

“Good shot!” Mankin said, and the bowman grinned.  To Ganer Mankin said, “Keep at it, lieutenant.  Tear those ladders apart!  I’m going to the other side of the gate.”

“Yes, sir!” Ganer said.  “Good luck.”

Mankin hurried through the tower and out on to the walkway that ran over the gate complex and connected with the south tower.  He had to steel himself to cross over it; the walkway was wooden, with only a shoulder-high parapet, so that Mankin had to run crouched over.  Arrows thudded into the boards beneath his feet as he ran, with others whistling overhead.

He reached the south tower and, entering, very nearly blundered into Sergeant Ven.  “Easy, sir, easy!” the sergeant said, almost laughing.

“Sorry, sergeant,” Mankin said.  “How are you faring?”

“We’re dealing out some hurt, sir,” Ven said.

The scene in the south tower was much the same as in the north; as Mankin turned away from Ven a trooper fired a culverin out a window, while other men loaded other guns, or shot arrows down at the enemy.  But here one bowman lay on the wooden floor, a pool of blood around him, the shaft of an arrow protruding from his eye.

Ven saw the direction of Mankin’s gaze.  “Yeah, Private Keru,” the sergeant said.  “Poor bastard always did have the worst luck.”

“Here come the ladders!” someone yelled.

“Keep your fire on them,” Mankin said.  He ran down the stairs to the lower level and out on to the wall south of the gate.

Emerging from the tower the noise of the assault stunned him; the cacophony of men screaming, yelling in rage, the banging of culverins from the gatehouse, the guns in the outlying bastions still firing, all combined into a din that was almost a physical thing.  As he dashed out on the parapet he saw troopers standing ready with forked poles.  Mankin stopped and risked another peek out a crenel.  He pulled his head back at once; there were Okharian archers, behind wicker shields, positioned on the far side of the ditch, and the brief appearance of his head drew a half dozen arrows that clattered and broke against the stones.  It had been enough, though; among the mass of men crammed up against the fort’s glacis, four or five ladders were in place, each being raised by dozens of hands.

“Here they come!” he said.

“We’re ready for them, sir,” the nearest sergeant said.  He and three other men hefted one of the forked poles.  Mankin sheathed his sword and joined them; the shaft of the pole was smooth and cool in his hands.

The top of a ladder appeared before them.  It wavered, as if the men raising it staggered under its weight, and then it came down against the open crenel with a sharp sound.  Mankin thought it strange that such an ordinary object should be so threatenting.

The soldiers holding the forked pole started to move forward with it, but the sergeant said, “No, no!  Wait until the bastards are on it!”

They all paused, with the sound of the battle washing over them.  Mankin had never waited for anything in greater agony.  It was worse because he could see the ladder flexing as it took the weight of the men climbing it.  He liked his lips and gripped the pole harder.

The ladder flexed once more, and then Mankin saw the burnished dome of an Okharian helmet coming into view.  It came up the ladder, and below it followed a brown, bearded face.  The Okharian looked right at Mankin, blinking in surprise.

“Now!” the sergeant yelled.  The Khetuni all pushed forward; the fork caught the ladder’s top rung, right below the Okharian’s chin.  They all shoved hard, and the ladder went back and back and back.  The Okharian made one, scrabbling grab at the stone of the crenel, and then he disappeared.  Screams, from dozen men falling backward, cut above the din.

Cheers erupted all along the wall; Mankin looked down its length and saw only Khetuni soldiers.  He puffed out a breath in relief; not a single Okharian had gotten over the wall.

“Well done!” Mankin told the men with him.

A bugle call.  It took Mankin a moment to recognize it– enemy within the walls.  “Dammit!”  It had to be on the northern side of the gate.  He turned and ran.

He tore up through the south tower, crossed the walkway as arrows flew, and practically flew down the steps of the north tower.  The bowmen and culverin-men there were shooting like mad as he passed them; Ganer didn’t look up from the window through which he was firing to even acknowledge Mankin’s passage.

Mankin came out on the wall and was confronted with chaos.  Khetuni and Okharians struggled and stabbed at one another at close quarters on the parapet, literally hand-to-hand and face-to-face.  Some grappled as if wrestling for a prize, rather than their lives.  More Okharians were coming up two ladders, close together in the middle of the section of wall.

Attau!” Mankin yelled, without thinking.  He parried an Okharian’s sword, beat it aside, killed the man.  Another Okharian had a Khetuni soldier down on the parapets stone, a dagger poised to stab.  Mankin kicked the Okharian in the side of the head, and the Khetuni private got his hand free and stabbed the fellow in the ribs.

For the next minute or so the world was nothing but a blur of faces, some friendly, some not, and the ring of steel on steel.  Mankin killed two more men before he reached the nearest ladder.  An Okharian decarion was coming up it, had his foot on the stone of the crenel.  Mankin stabbed him in the groin, and the man fell backward with a shriek and disappeared.

Attau!” Mankin yelled.  This time the cry was answered, “Tinu!” and there was Denetoi, bellowing, wielding a two-handed blade like a willow-wand, in a space Mankin would have sworn would not have let anyone get a good swing started.  An Okharian turned to face Mankin, and Denetoi took the man’s head off, the blade striking sparks on the battlement behind him.

“Help me!” Mankin said.  Together they used their swords, pushing at the ladder.  At first Mankin thought they didn’t have enough leverage, but then it started to move, and then it was falling backward.

“Look out!” Mankin yelled.  Denetoi ducked and Mankin reached over the sergeant’s head and stabbed the Okharian coming up behind him.

“Thankee, Cap’n!” Denetoi gasped.  He was blood-spattered but unhurt.

There was still one more ladder.  Mankin stepped past Denetoi, but from the other side of the parapet came Master Sergeant Goma.  He yelled, swinging one of the forked poles.  He brained one Okharian, pushed another off the parapet, and reached the ladder.  Mankin took two steps and grabbed the pole as well as Goma set the fork against the top rung.  The master sergeant was grinning, and that rendered his face wild and frightening, splashed as it was with blood.  “Always best to do it yourself, right, captain?”

“Push!” Mankin said, having no breath to spare for a clever rejoinder.  He and Goma pushed, grunting– Mankin wondered if the Okharians on this were particularly heavy– and then the ladder was going backward.  It teetered and disappeared.

There was cheering along the parapet, as Mankin leaned against a battlement to catch his breath.  Other Khetuni pressed in, and the few Okharians still on the wall were hemmed in and cut down, one after the other.  Khetuni swordsmen kicked the bodies off the wall, leaving only their bloodstains.

The roar of an explosion– for a moment Mankin thought the Okharians had exploded a petard on the base of the wall, for the blast seemed to go right past his face.  In the next moment, though, he realized it had come from Bastion Three.

“What the hell?” he said.

“Look, Cap’n!” Denetoi said.  He was leaning perilously out of one of the crenels, looking out and down.  “Old Ita’s served them up good!”

His stomach jumping, Mankin dared to do as much as Denetoi was doing.  As he did he suddenly understood what had happened.

The Okharians below were fleeing, with no hint of order or formation.  Men scrambled out of the ditch and ran away, some carrying wounded comrades, as Khetuni bowmen shot arrows and jeers after them.  At the foot of the wall lay a tangled mass of torn and broken bodies, along with the shattered remains of the scaling ladders.  The pile of bodies, lying all along the glacis, heaved and stirred as Mankin watched– wounded men trying to extricate themselves from the heap.  Other wounded crawled or dragged themselves out of the ditch to follow their retreating brothers, or tried to.  Mankin saw one Okharian drag himself out of the ditch, his back obviously broken, only to collapse in the dust and not move again.

As he watched the Okharians on the south side of the gate appeared as well, retreating in somewhat better order than those on the north side, but retreating nevertheless.  Arrows from the towers and the wall pursued them.  And all along the wall the Khetuni soldiers cheered.

Mankin looked to his left.  On the southern face of Bastion Three a gun’s muzzle smoked.  It was aimed sharply downward, pointing at the foot of the eastern wall.  Firing, it had raked the whole length of the glacis to the north gate tower, and broken the Okharians.

“I’ll be damned,” Mankin said.

 

“One of the lads had the idea,” Ita told Mankin.  They were both standing beside the gun, looking out over the slaughter below.  “It took us a while to horse Fire Talker around and get her arranged.  We had to cut out part of the lower gun carriage to allow her enough depression.”  The master gunner sighed.  “Altogether too long.”

“Don’t fault yourself,” Mankin said.  “If you hadn’t figured it out when you did, they might have tried their ladders again, or figured out how to blow in the main gate.”

“Well, it’s not an experiment we can repeat,” Ita said, with obvious regret.  “She wasn’t meant to take the recoil that way; the mounts are busted at the trunnions.”  Indeed, the gun’s barrel was lying askew within the frame of its carriage.  Ita shook his head.  “We don’t have that many guns.”

One of the cannons in the bastion fired.  The shot whispered away and dropped six hundred yards out, kicking up a pall of dust.  It was harassing fire, designed to keep the Okharians at a distance, particularly their archers.  The battery commander, at that moment, was watching the fall of the shot and calling corrections to the next gun being prepared for firing.  A gun in bastion Four fired, added its endorsement to Bastion Three’s opinion.

“Well, the Okharians don’t know that,” Mankin said.  “They won’t risk being served up the same way again.  They’ll try something different next time.”

It was obvious that the Okharians had not left, despite the repulse of their first attack.  Men and formations were in movement out there, outside the effective range of the fort’s guns.  Mankin, even with a telescope, could not make much sense of it all through the dust and the shimmering heat, but it was plain that the Okharians were working on some other approach to the fort.

But still no guns.  Mankin took some comfort from that fact.

“As may be, captain,” Ita was saying.  “But, with all due respect, that’s your worry.  Me, I’ll make the rounds of the bastions and make sure the lads are all ready and watching.”

“Good,” Mankin said.  “I’ll be in the hold-fast.  Time to send some more telegraphs.”

Mankin went down into the yard.  The interior of the fort was as busy as for a general inspection.  Guns were reloaded and repositioned, powder resupplied, arrow supplies replenished.  Troopers worked to throw Okharian bodies within the fort out over the wall, and to carry away their own dead.  Fifteen Khetuni were dead, twice that number wounded.  The lower barracks had been made into the fort’s infirmary; the medicus and his assistants were there now, extracting arrowheads and suturing sword-cuts.

That number of casualties worried Mankin.  This morning there had been three hundred and fifty-two men ready for duty in the outpost, once Lyon and his minions had departed for regions unknown.  Forty-five dead and wounded was more than one in ten men out of action, at the very start.  The outpost could not sustain that rate of loss for very long.

At least Mankin could treat his wounded in the cool of the barracks.  Outside the eastern wall dozens of wounded and maimed Okharians lay out under the ferocious sun now scorching the sand and rock.  The injured men screamed, or begged for help.  It didn’t really make a difference that they cried in Okharian– you didn’t need a translation to understand what they were saying.  Some were still trying to crawl away; at intervals Khetuni bowmen keep watch on the wall and in the bastions would shoot them– now not out of cruelty or even cold military calculation, but out of mercy.

Some of the men had asked permission to go out and either put the enemy wounded out of their misery or to bring them in as prisoners.  Mankin had refused; he did not want to open the gates for even a moment as long as the Okharians lingered in the neighborhood, and he certainly didn’t want any of his men outside the protection of the walls.  He told himself it was the best decision he could make, but that self-assurance didn’t stop the cries from outside the walls.

The sun hammered Mankin as he walked to the hold-fast.  At least two of the wounded had been brought down, not by enemy action, but by the heat.  Mankin had made sure that the water points on the wall had been replenished, and that Goma was rotating a third of the men down out of the sun for a half-hour at a time.  That would end the moment the Okharians attacked again, but in the meantime it would help keep the men refreshed and ready.

He entered the hold-fast and went up to the telegraph.  He sat in the shade of the hut and composed a new message–

To: Division Headquarters, Fifth Division of Enum

From: First Officer, First Senso-marta Outpost

Besieged by at least one half-legion of enemy infantry.  First assault has been repulsed, garrison casualties one-in-ten at this hour.  Fort is unbreached but expect second assault at any time.  No enemy forces have yet crossed the Gar.  Report from scout indicates large enemy forces on the march toward Fort Hope and Faro-marsa.  Request information regarding relief column.  Please relay further orders as needed.

Mankin didn’t find the message very satisfying– it didn’t seem to adequately convey just how tight a crack the outpost was in.  On the other hand, it was strictly factual, and the Army frowned on hysterics in communications to higher command.  Mankin would have been willing to engage in hysterics if that would speed the relief column to them, but he doubted it would have made any difference.

The signal team wigwagged the message.  When they finished Sergeant Bors bent his eye to the telescope.  “Fort Hope acknowledges receipt, captain.”

Mankin sighed.  “Very well.”

 

To be continued….

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