Note: this story contains military violence, sexual situations and coarse language.
Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel
Mankin took a few moments to drink deep from the hold-fast well, then did a turn around the walls and the bastions. All the guns were primed and ready, the bowmen resupplied with arrows, the culverin-men loaded and standing by their loops, swordsmen in their positions, despite the heat. The men were all quiet, waiting, but they greeted Mankin with cheer and smiles. “We served them up good, didn’t we, captain?” one private in Bastion Five said.
“We sure did,” Mankin said. He knew the soldier’s whole gun crew was listening. “All we have to do is hold them off like that for a while longer, and the relief column will get here and send them packing.”
He walked on, hoping he hadn’t lied to the boy.
After his inspection he went down to the infirmary. In the moments right after the assault this had been a scene of frantic activity, but now there was something approaching calm. Medical aides knelt beside the pallets where wounded men lay, wrapped in bandages. The worst cases had been given poppy-seed and were silent; the less-severely wounded seemed to endure their injuries with a good deal of aplomb. There was a smell of drying blood and tincture of mercury in the air, but that was how a hospital was supposed to smell. It was almost reassuring.
Mankin knelt down beside Corporal Karu, whose arm was in a sling, and who sported a nasty abrasion on his forehead. “Did you lead with your head again, Karu?”
“Ah, captain, it ain’t fair,” Karu said. “Right after they get over the wall one of the bastards nicks my arm, and I stumble right off the wall and land on the stable roof. Had two or three of them lined up, too, could have really quick-marched them to hell, but I had to come over all clumsy.”
“Well, that was just lucky for the Okharians,” Mankin said. “But don’t fret about it. We cleaned them out pretty good, and we’ll do it again if they come back.”
“I don’t suppose you could talk to the medicus, could you, captain?” Karu said, hopefully.
“No, no,” Mankin said. “This is your duty station for the moment. You rest. That’s an order.”
“Yes, sir,” Karu said, glum.
The medicus was washing blood from his hands as Mankin entered the back room. “How are we doing?” he asked.
The medicus, a lean man named Otho, shook his head. “Lost one of the amputees– Sergeant Tor. Loss of blood, most likely. Private Sereno is not likely to live out the night. All the others should pull through.” Otho rubbed his eyes. “Of course, the best prescription is to drive those sand-rats off for good, but that depends on the relief column, doesn’t it?”
“They’re coming,” Mankin said. “Don’t worry about that.”
There was one more room Mankin visited in the barracks– a darkened cubicle that had been Sergeant Tor’s space, as a matter of fact. As he would not be needing it, this was where the Khetuni had laid the one living Okharian still in the fort.
Here there was a stink of blood and bowels; the man on the pallet breathed heavily, slowly, struggling with his pain. Otho had dosed him with poppy, but the man’s wounds were so severe that the drug could not mute their agony. Mankin looked them over, but even he, who was no medicus, could tell there was nothing to be done.
He knelt down beside the man. The Okharian looked up at him, defiant despite his pain.
“What is your name, soldier?” Mankin asked in Okharian.
The man sucked in a shaking breath. “What is it to you, Khetuna?”
“I want to know who I’m talking to,” Mankin said. “Who is not a soldier anymore. Your war is over, friend. You’ll not see the sunset. I’m sorry.”
“I know it,” the Okharian said. “It is the will of Hasor and Faror. They weave the fate of each man and woman. It is well. My life is only one spark among millions. Together, though, we will set a fire that will drive you invaders back into the sea and cleanse the land.”
“Perhaps,” Mankin said. “But that’s a question I’m not asking at the moment. Is there anything you want?”
The man hesitated. “Some water?” he said, warily.
Mankin stood and poked his head out the cubicle’s door. “Hey! Some water here.”
One of the aides brought a jug. Mankin knelt again by the Okharian. He helped the man lift his head. The Okharian drank deep. Mankin would not have normally given so much water to a man with a belly wound, but in this case there was no point in refusing it.
“I never thought to owe a Khetuna anything,” the Okharian said, settling back.
“Well,” Mankin said, “I’m only half Khetuni. Maybe that makes a difference.” He set the jug down by the Okahrian’s head. “We could give you more poppy, if you want it.”
“No,” the Okharian said. “It is my fate to endure with courage whatever the gods ordain.” He grimaced. “Also, if I were drugged I might talk too freely.”
“That could be,” Mankin said. He smiled. “I will tell you what– I will start. I am Captain Mankin Tannersson, of Brema, commander of this post.”
The Okharian looked him up and down. “I am Gerutana Keruhar, of Mira-teno, decarion of the Seventh Cohort of the Legion of Mira-teno.”
“Well, we knew we faced at least a half-legion,” Mankin said. “It helps to put a name to it. Is Mira-teno far away?”
Gerutana closed his eyes. “It is in the foothills of the Crystal Mountains. A valley, up in the folds of the hills.” Gerutana opened his eyes. Mankin saw regret. “That’s home.”
“It sounds beautiful,” Mankin said. “I wish we were both home.”
Gerutana looked at Mankin in suspicion. “You say this?”
“Yes,” Mankin said. “I’m not here by my own will.”
“Yet you are here, and killing us.”
“True enough,” Mankin said. “War is a strange business.” He hesitated. “I have to ask– is there more than one legion coming against us?”
Gerutana shook his head. “I will not tell you anything about that.”
“I really didn’t expect you to,” Mankin said. “It’s just my job to ask. Just as it’s my job to ask if there are there guns coming here.”
“I know nothing of that,” Gerutana said.
“All right,” Mankin said. “I’ll leave it be.”
Gerutana peered at Mankin. “You just ask, and do not try to compel an answer?”
“What, from a man who is dying anyway? I doubt it would work, and I’d have to live with it afterwards.” Mankin sighed. “I’ll leave you in peace.”
Suddenly Gerutana grabbed Mankin’s sleeve. Mankin was surprised at the man’s strength. “What is it?” he asked.
“Captain,” Gerutana said, “I ask a favor. From one soldier to another.”
Mankin hid his surprise. “If it’s within my power. What is it?”
“If…if you live,” Gerutana said, “I ask…I have a woman, back in Mira-teno. Mara. Mara’s her name. We have a son. If you live, could you get word to her?”
“If I can, I will,” Mankin said. He was surprised all over again– since the Okharians traced their inheritance through the mother’s line, fathers often did not have very close relationships with their own children. “What should I tell her?”
“That I died bravely,” Gerutana said. “It’s not much to ask, captain. It will be something for my son to hold on to.”
“If I live,” Mankin said, “I will do it.” He smiled and shrugged. “Whether I live is, of course, in the hands of the Unchanging.”
“In that, captain,” Gerutana said, “there is no difference between us.”
When he came out of the barracks Mankin found a runner from the Signals section waiting for him. The private held out a scrap of scribbled-over paper. “Message from Division, sir, relayed by Fort Hope.”
Mankin took the scrap of paper–
To: Commander, First Senso-marta Outpost
From: Division Headquarters, Fifth Division of Enum
Relief column consisting of three brigades of Tenth Inan enroute. Cavalry from Corps reserve screening ahead of column. Report all further enemy action and movements. Hold outpost at all costs—repeat, at all costs.
“That’s encouraging,” he murmured. He crumpled the paper in his hand. Now they just need to get here.
Mankin found Goma and the officers and shared the message. Ganer said, “How long will it take them to get to us?”
“There’s no way of knowing, lieutenant,” Mankin said. “We do not know when they left, or from where, or what they might meet on the way.”
Ganer looked disappointed. “You’d think they’d have given us more information.”
Mankin’s eyebrows went up; from the obliging Lieutenant Ganer, this speech very nearly amounted to open rebellion. Mankin was spared from having to say anything, however, as Goma said, “When you’ve been in the army a bit longer, sir, you’ll learn that details are reserved to higher echelons. Down here we have to make do.”
They fed the troops a late midday meal of cold meat and hardtack. Mankin went up to the roof of the hold-fast again, this time carrying one of the spotting telescopes. The signal telescope was more powerful, but it was reserved for watching Fort Hope for signals. Mankin set up the spotting telescope and scanned the whole circle of the horizon around the outpost.
Yes, the dust-clouds and flash of light on armor and spear-points were still out there, but despite the added height he could still not make much sense of what the Okharians were doing. There were formations still to the immediate east of the fort, moving about as if reordering their ranks, but other enemy units were now both to the north and south. Mankin could not tell if they were merely moving to cut off the outpost, or marching away to easier targets.
The enemy movements to the north worried Mankin. About eight hundred yards north of the fort there was a long ravine running from the southeast to the northwest. It was dead ground to anyone in the fort. At that range it was difficult to hit with the fort’s main guns; only the mortar section, in Bastion Seven, could hope to drop shells into it with any accuracy. Mankin took a little comfort in the thought that the Okharians did not themselves possess reliable mortars that could cover that range. But it was still a concern.
He checked with the Signals section. No further messages had been received from Fort Hope. Mankin studied the distant fortress; as far as he could tell the fort was not under attack, and the large marker flag still fluttered over it. That was as reassuring as the fort’s silence was frustrating.
Mankin went down again. He would take another turn around the bastions, and then check with Goma about the rotation of the men on the walls. He wondered if the Okharians would hold off making another attack until dark.
The blare of Okharian horns assaulted his ears as he stepped out of the hold-fast’s main door. At first he could not tell their direction; the walls seemed to reflect and diffuse the sound, so that it seemed to becoming from every direction. Then a bugle sounded– enemy to the northwest.
Bastion Eight— the closest to the crossing, and the woods along the river. Mankin ran for the bastion.
The screams of the Okharians reverberated in Mankin’s ears as he raced up the stairs to the bastion. Its guns began to fire, and then the guns the other bastions on the western wall that could bear opened up. Mankin reached the gun deck of the bastion just in time for the concussion of Man Reaper firing to slap him in the face and flatten his uniform against his body.
He jumped up on the battlement beside the gun as its crew jumped to reload. A mass of Okharians was boiling up out of the woodland, a crowd without any discernible formation. The enemy screamed and ran hard toward the northwest corner of the fort. The faster soldiers had already covered half the distance to the fort.
We missed them. Mankin cursed himself. The Okharians had done exactly what he had feared they would do, used the woods as cover to close on the fort.
As he watched, though, he could not see how it had advantaged them. The open ground on the west side of the fort was still a killing ground, and the guns were cutting great, bloody swaths through the charging enemy. The defensive ditch was not as deep on this side of the fort, but the Okharians still faced the glacis and the wall. Bowmen on the wall and the lower level of the bastion were exacting a price, as well, picking off men in full stride.
“Get ready for scaling ladders!” Mankin called. He saw Okharian teams carrying the ladders forward. Soldiers carried repelling poles up to the parapet and began to hand them out.
Mankin jumped down as Man Reaper’s crew hauled her back into position. He ran out on to the wall just as the first Okharians reached the ditch and began to cross it. Mankin dared to peek out a crenel and saw men climb up to the glacis and stop, panting, now out of reach of the guns, but not the rain of arrows from above.
The first of the scaling ladders reached the ditch, and the Khetuni archers played havoc with the teams carrying them as they slowed to cross the ditch. As many as the bowmen dropped, however, twice as many crowded in to pick the ladders up and carry them forward.
Something’s not right. Mankin could count only four or five ladders in the mass of men below. That seemed far too few. And yet the Okharians came on and kept crowding in against the wall; within a minute or so there were a hundred or more men milling at the base of the glacis, with yet more coming in.
Mankin pulled his head in as the ladders reached the base of the wall. “Get ready to receive visitors!” he called out. The men along the wall cheered and waved their poles.
Mankin moved to one side, to get another vantage point from the far crenel that abutted Bastion Eight. From here he could look down on the enemy without presenting himself as an easy target of Okharian bowmen. He saw the ladders going up. Men fell at their foot as Khetuni archers shot them, but others leapt to replace them. The tops of the ladders fell against the top of the walls– and nothing else happened. Mankin watched one, two, three heartbeats, and not a single Okharian started up any of the ladders.
“What the hell?” he said.
He dared lean out further, risking enemy arrows, desperate to comprehend what was going on. He saw, amid the surging crowd of infantrymen below, a line of soldiers threading their way through. They seemed focused and determined, and each of them carried a large backpack. They appeared to be working their way around the Bastion Eight, headed for the northern wall of the fort.
“Dammit!” Mankin cried. He pulled his head in just in time, as enemy arrows clattered off the stones around him. “It’s a feint!” he shouted to the men on the wall. “Those bastards have found the postern gate. They’ve got petards, they’re going to blow it in!”
Mankin turned and ran past startled faces, threw himself down the closest steps. “Bugler!” he shouted. Private Ren, the Fifth Section bugler, came running to meet him at the foot of the stairs. “Sound ‘assemble, every third’.”
Ren put his bugle to his lips and sounded the call. Swordsmen detached themselves from the walls, crowded down the stairs. Mankin drew his sword and ran for the north side of the fort.
He’d gone three yards when there came a harsh crack. Smoke and flame shot out of the inner gate, along with wooden fragments and pieces of stone. Mankin instinctively went to one knee, ducking his head as debris bounced and whistled around him. He lifted his eyes only when broken bits of the postern and the wall stopped flying.
There was a smoking hole where the entrance of the pastern had stood moments before; and out of that smoke surged Okharian soldiers screaming “Okhar gershan!” Mankin yelled himself and charged. From behind him a bugle called enemy within the walls.
The nearest Okharian thrust a spear at Mankin’s belly. Mankin parried the spear-point, spun and slashed the soldier with a sweeping cut. The man fell, blood spurting from his bisected throat. Another Okharian came at Mankin. Mankin parried the man’s sword-thrust, the swords ringing, beat his sword aside and thrust him through.
There were Okharians all around him. Mankin knew a moment’s doubt that perhaps he had killed himself by charging into the mass of them. He knocked another enemy soldier off his feet, turned and cut the sword-hand off another. The Okharian screamed and fell backward, but there were many, many Okharians behind him.
Then Khetuni troops were around Mankin, shouting “Khetun!” The collision of the two groups of soldiers was like two waves crashing into each other, some troopers running full-tilt into opponents. The Okharian war-cries turned to screams of pain and rage.
In the midst of the melee an Okharian officer appeared before Mankin. Mankin glimpsed a tabard of red, and gold braid– a half-cohort commander– before the man swung his sword. Mankin parried, counter-attacked, and was forced back by the man’s counter-parry. Their swords spoke loudly together amid the chaos and noise.
Within moments Mankin knew he faced a well-trained swordsman. The officer’s attacks were fast, precise and deceptive; Mankin barely countered two attacks that changed direction at the last moment. The Okharian seemed to have wrists of granite, and his blade, a double-edged krahjana, flashed and turned like a willow stick in his hand.
But this was no fencing floor, and Mankin had learned his swordsmanship in a very practical school. He parried, stepped in close and slammed the Okharian with his shoulder. The officer grunted and stumbled backwards. Mankin beat the krahjana aside and the point of his sword transfixed the Okharian through the heart. The Okharian looked surprised; then he crumbled, sliding off Mankin’s blade.
Just yards in front of Mankin another group of Okharians burst out of the open wound of the postern gate. A sharp report, then two more, and the Okharians went down in screaming heaps, suddenly bloodied and torn. On the wall behind them Ganer and several other Khetuni were firing down into the mass of Okharians with culverins. Ganer fired one of the hand-cannon into the crowd, snatched a newly loaded weapon from a soldier and fired again, all the while screaming curses Mankin could not hear over the din.
The blasts of scrap metal and stones tore the Okharians in front of Mankin apart, and the survivors wavered. “Push them back!” Mankin yelled. The Khetuni around him shouted and charged. The Okharians still within the walls went down under their rush, or turned and fled the way they came.
Someone grabbed Mankin’s arm. He turned, intending to kill them, but it was Master Sergeant Goma. “Sir! Don’t go out there!”
Mankin saw that the opening in the wall was clear of Okharians; he could look, over wreckage and piled bodies, right out into the defensive ditch. “I have no intention of being that stupid, master sergeant,” he said, gasping. “Get the men together, seal this hole up! Stone blocks, head high, three deep. Move fast, before they regroup!”
“You heard the captain– move!” Goma shouted to the men around them.
“Ganer!” Mankin shouted to the lieutenant. “Keep them away from the wall while we get it blocked up!”
“Yes, sir!” Ganer called down.
Mankin stood, panting, and looked around as the troopers in the yard worked to seal the breach, or dealt with scattered enemy soldiers trapped in the fort. Two or three Okharians threw down their weapons and surrendered; Mankin was pleased to see his men drag them away, disarmed but alive. Other troopers moved among the piled enemy bodies to dispatch the wounded.
Goma came back, as troopers relayed stone blocks and began to fill in the breach. “Sir,” he said, shaking his head, “I want you to understand I say this with all due respect, but you are flat crazy.”
Mankin tried to laugh, but it just came out as a shaky gasp. “I won’t argue with you.”
The troopers sealed the breach much more quickly than Mankin would have thought possible. In minutes, while Ganer and his culverins kept the Okharians at bay, the soldiers had a solid wall across the gap, with just enough space at the top to shoot through. Mankin stationed culverin-men there– they could fire right down the passage and instantly turn it into an abattoir if the Okharians tried it again. Mankin found it ironic– the passageway was more strongly protected now than it had been before.
Perhaps a whole section of Okharians, a hundred fifty men or more, had made it inside the fort. Few had made it back out; a thick fan of dead and badly wounded Okharians covered the sand of the yard. The troopers took a few more of the lightly wounded prisoner, but most they dispatched. It was better that way, Mankin thought– most of the wounded had suffered ghastly injuries, particularly those hit by the culverins. With the sun beating down he detailed men to haul the bodies up to the wall and toss them over.
He went down to the basement of Barracks Three and interrogated the new prisoners. They were in the basement of Barracks Five, which was the fort’s brig in ordinary times and served well enough as a prisoner of war holding pen. The Okharians were mostly sullen, as if resenting the Khetuni for letting them live. Mankin tried to question them, particularly as to whether any guns were coming, but the prisoners either did not know anything about them or were supremely tight-lipped.
Leaving the prisoners, Mankin spoke with Otho. There were ten more wounded Khetuni, one or two just clinging to life. Six men had died outright pushing the Okharians out of the fort. Mankin chalked up the difference between the Okharian casualty total and the Khetuni to Ganer’s timely intervention with his hand-cannons. He made a note to mention the boy’s initiative in the fort’s battle-log; that sort of enterprise needed to be rewarded.
Mankin took a turn around the wall and inspected the bastions. The troopers had resupplied the guns and the bowmen; they sheltered as best they could from the sun but seemed pleased with how they had stood off the Okharians again. Mankin greeted the men, particularly complimenting the culverin-men who had stood by Ganer to break the attack, reassuring anyone who asked that the relief column was truly on its way.
In part to confirm that for himself Mankin went up to the telegraph and sent Fort Hope another message, updating them, and Division, about the latest attack. In minutes they got back a response that boiled down to relief enroute, hold at all costs. Mankin swallowed a growing frustration; he possessed no practical means of shaking the answers he wanted out of Division, so he had to settle for what he could get.
With the failure of their attempt against the postern gate, the Okharians had pulled back from the western and northern walls and returned to the shelter of the riverside woodland. A strange quiet fell over the fort, punctuated only by the screams and moaning of the enemy wounded outside the walls, and the sound of the of wind. It had picked up, and shifted direction; Mankin recognized the change as heralding the jabhoon, the hot, dry evening wind that came out of the Dune Kingdom, which blew every third night or so in this season, and which brought added misery in its wake. It would make the afternoon and night even more wretched, until it died away about midnight. Mankin filed it away as one more thing he could do nothing about.
With the Okharians’ retreat to the woodland, Mankin found himself once more guessing at their movements. More dust, and more glints of sun off of armor, but Mankin again couldn’t make much sense out of it all. It did seem that formations were reforming out there, particularly to the northeast of the fort, but Mankin could not tell how many or in what strength.
Further afield, more dust clouds continued to march toward Fort Hope and Fror. Mankin studied those clouds through a telescope set up in Bastion One. It seemed if the entire Okharian army was being concentrated in this one corner of the kingdom, to gain a local advantage. Logically, he doubted it, but looking at that dust it was hard to be logical.
He leaned against a crenel, trying to think. Sixteen men was a comparatively small price to pay to keep the fort from being overrun, but it still stung. It left two hundred and ninety-one men, and at least a third of those were gunners who would not leave their guns except in the last extremity. Mankin redid the numbers in his head and worried about holding the walls. Twice now Okharians had made it inside the fort, if only briefly. If they continued their assaults, if they kept whittling away at the garrison, sooner or later they would make a breach and Mankin would not have enough men to contain them.
Relief column, relief column…if Mankin made it into a chant and burned incense, would it make the column march faster? The faith Mankin had inherited from his mother had taught him to disdain outward rituals aimed at manipulating the divine, but, at the moment, he was willing to try anything.
To be continued…..