The Horseman, Part Five

Warning: this piece has graphic violence and language

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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Part Five

Ana woke. For a moment she did not know what had awakened her. Confused images faded in her mind.

She sat up. The night was not far gone– it might even still be short of midnight. Her candle had burned low, but was not yet out; beside it lay the book she had been reading earlier this evening.  There was nothing else in the room, and no sound outside. Whatever had disturbed her, it was nothing dangerous.  At least, not right away.

Ana sighed.  It had been a long, long day.  Tipal had had her examining new fragments all morning, and then Tetanako had dragged her along to a conclave of fellow antiquarians.  That would not have been too bad, she supposed, except that she had had to sit out of sight and not speak.  The meeting itself was to very little purpose, as far as Ana could tell.  She did not know how listening to other people talk could be so exhausting, but it was.

Her mind cleared.  She understood what had awakened her.

It’s begun.

She did not know if she should rejoice or be afraid.  Perhaps both.  Perhaps this was what it was like to give birth, to be fearful, and yet hopeful at the same time.

We will give birth—or die trying.  

She drew her covers around herself more closely and tried to go back to sleep.

Sleep, however, had wandered off and was dawdling somewhere else.  Actually, she realized, she could not blame the vagrant; there was a daunting prospect before her.

She stretched out her mind, trying to See—or, if not, at least to gain a sense of things yet to be.  Nothing came.  That was not unusual; it was just she could surely use some clarity of understanding at this moment.

Her ability was becoming—well, not erratic, but it seemed as if it took more strength than before, and what she saw seemed more ambiguous, less clear-cut.  The future she saw now was a cacophony of possibilities, rather than the probability of a few discrete paths.  It was as if the present hosted a growing mass of conflicting fork-events, each leading off in wildly different directions, with each bifurcation causing ripples through the whole fabric of the future.

They call what I have a gift.  Not for the first time, Ana wished she could share enough of her ‘gift’ for people to understand how wrong they were.

It had been her brother’s fault, of course.

The harvest was in; she and her brother had had a moment away from chores. Corm was four years older, bigger and so much stronger than she. He had insisted on exploring back up into the high barrens behind the family stead, careless of the tales that said they were haunted. Ana had followed him, mostly to show she wasn’t scared, although she was. They had climbed and climbed, until they reached a fold in the hills neither of them recognized. There, beneath twining vines, they’d found what looked at first like the foundations of an old homestead; but when Ana had pulled the vines away, she’d realized that the jagged outline in the ground was not stone. It was some strange material, gray and smoothly slick. It frightened her, and she’d begged her brother to go home. But then Corm discovered the cavern in the slope above the strange foundations.

Ana had cried, but Corm pushed aside a disk of the same gray material that partly closed off the cave entrance, and crawled in. Ana followed, not because she wanted to, but because she didn’t want to be separated from her brother.

They’d crawled only a few yards when they entered a large chamber and stood up. Somehow, they had no trouble seeing the hulking mass in front of them. The child Ana had been could make no sense of the thing; only later, with the memory burned into her brain, did Ana see it as a great, crystalline mechanism of panels and spheres. Once all of its parts must have been clear, but time and dripping water had dimmed and clouded much of it. She could see the interlocking parts, although its purpose she could not guess. It seemed to have been there a long time.

“Come away, brother,” she’d cried; but Corm had stepped forward, fascinated. Ana had reached and tugged on his arm.

Light engulfed them; Ana could see nothing, but she heard much– voices, the roaring of water, the songs of the stars and the whispering of time. It all crashed in upon her, flooding her, drowning her. She would have screamed, but she could make no sound of her own– she was filled up with other voices, other heartbeats.

When next she knew herself, she lay out on the slope of the hill, under the open sky. Her brother lay beside her; he appeared to be unconscious. She quickly found she could not move, nor speak. How long they lay there she was not sure, but the sun was low in the sky when her brother stirred. He woke; Ana would have cried with happiness, but she still could not move. Her brother, bewildered and unsteady, panicked when he could not get any response from her. He picked her up and carried her back, weeping the whole way, back to their village. When they arrived the place was in an uproar, looking for them.

Ana lay paralyzed in her father’s house for three days. She obviously lived, but her father and aunt despaired of her, believing she was dying. Her brother seemed unharmed, but he professed to remember nothing of what had happened, despite their father’s threats of heavy-handed punishment. Ana tried to tell her father not to blame Corm, but she couldn’t speak.

On the third morning, it was as if a constraining cord was suddenly cut from her throat and her body. She sat up in her bed and asked her aunt for a drink of water. Her aunt ran screaming from the room, to bring back her father. In the celebration that followed it was a little while before Ana got that drink.

Whereas her brother could not remember anything about the cave or the machine, Ana could remember everything. But when she tried to speak of it, her throat constricted and the power of speech left her until she spoke of something else. It frustrated her father and aunt, but in the end they stopped asking. The haunted reputation of the barrens, however, was enhanced.

It was three weeks later when she had her first vision.

It came to her as a dream, from which she awoke crying. Her father had passed it off as a nightmare, but it was far more vivid than any mere dream Ana had ever known. She told him of it, but he didn’t believe her. Then, two days later, their neighbor Pasdan lost his leg when the cart ran over him, just as Ana had foreseen. Her father had been disturbed, but tried to explain it away.

Too soon, though, Ana was warning of things to come nearly every day, the visions coming to her in her waking hours. When the swans came to the lake, when Gerta’s baby would come, when the hailstorm would strike. By that time the whole village was listening to her; the village ate swan for a week, the midwife was called in time, and the barley was brought in and stored safe before the storm descended from the mountains.

She became famous, at least as famous as a young girl in a remote village in the Kyr back-country could be. Elders from other villages came to see her, and the local Protector sent scribes to write about her in the canton chronicles. One of the gethwyn even came from Kyrtelam– a severe woman with hard features, who spoke to her and asked her questions she either couldn’t answer, either because she couldn’t get the words past the constriction of her throat, or because she truly didn’t know the answer.

In the end the gethwyn had ridden away from the village, convinced she had been sent on a fool’s errand.  Every village, she’d told the headmen, had its pet seeress, and there was nothing special about Ana.  Ana made no efforts to change the gethwyn‘s mind.  She had not lied; she had just not told her everything there was to be told — including how the gethwyn herself would die in two months’ time on the knife-points of assassins in the capitol.

Village life had settled back into something resembling its old routine—at least for the next eight summers.  In the ninth summer, Ana discovered that her gift was not perfect. A feverish flux struck the village, weeks before the harvest. Ana had no inkling of it. In a matter of days, it took her father and her aunt both, and dozens of their neighbors. For many days the hale worked to bury the dead; the countryside was dotted with plumes of smoke, as the Protector sent men to burn the steads of those who had died, in an effort to control the plague.

In the end, Ana and Corm were left in the care of their uncle, Rou. He was an angry, heavy-handed man, frequently befuddled with wine– but not befuddled enough to keep him from selling Ana to a man from Okhar, who came and laid more gold before him than anyone in the village had ever seen. Very early one morning the man took her away, before she could even say goodbye to Corm. She had not seen him since.

That was how Ana came to the household of Gonatani.  Which, she thought with a sigh, was another thing unseen, but altogether better than plague or slavery.  Here she had learned what her gift was, and what it portended.  And every day since she had known fear, and hope.

It was like that, she supposed, on the verge of the world’s destruction—or its rebirth.

*****

Mankin went to the office and laid down, but he did not sleep well.  Odd dreams disturbed him, and noises woke him at intervals.  He would listen for a moment, but they were always just the wind, or one of guard posts calling the hour.  Then he would try to get back to sleep, but it wasn’t easy.

He woke finally and for sure well before dawn.  His back ached and his mouth tasted like moldy parchment.  He had not bathed or changed his uniform; his sweat-caked clothes were stiff with salt, and stank.  Just another wonderful day in the Army.

He went out into the yard.  There was only a bare hint of light in the east, beyond the bluffs.  The cold morning air was clear.  Many, many stars dusted the dome of the sky over Mankin’s head.

The fort was quiet; the fires in the yard had been abandoned, left to die to embers, and on the walls Mankin glimpsed only a few guards moving about.  He was not surprised.  He knew from a hundred early morning guard mounts that this was the ebb-tide of the day, when a man’s energy stood at its lowest level.  In these hours just before dawn the body’s craving for sleep was at its most powerful, and stood its best chance at catching a weary young soldier standing at his guard post unawares.  There was no wondering at why the Okharians favored surprise dawn attacks.

Mankin hurried up to Bastion Three with that thought nipping at his heels.  He was pleased to see that one man from each gun crew was alert and standing watch at the parapet, while the rest of the crews slept at the feet of their guns, wrapped in blankets.  Mankin stepped around the recumbent men to the edge of the bastion.

His pleasure was redoubled when he found Goma there.  A number of junior sergeants stood with him, among them Denetoi.  They were peering out into the eastward darkness.  Goma looked up at Mankin’s approach, and threw him a salute.  “Good to see you, sir– I was about to send a runner to get you.”

“What’s afoot?” Mankin asked, leaning a hand against the cold stone of the nearest battlement.  He looked eastward, but could see nothing.  The eastern light was still growing, the Bone Moon was down, and the Blood moon not yet up.  Darkest dark— almost every nation on Ohon dreaded those nights when neither moon shone in the sky, when calamities were supposed to cluster.  Mankin shivered

“We’re not sure,” Goma said.  “Some of the guards are sure they’ve heard movement out there, and to the north.  But its blacker than pitch right now.  The fire finally died out a couple of hours ago.”

Mankin had surmised that much.  “It served us well while it burned.  What kind of movement did it sound like?”

“Infantry, to the east,” Denetoi said.  “To the north, though, some of the lads swore they heard wheels.”

Mankin faced north.  It was black as an unopened cave.  The dead ground….  “Where’s Ita?”

“He’s gone over to Bastion Seven, sir, to see to the mortar section,” Goma said.

His instincts are good.  “Get him back here.  Get everybody awake, put the whole fort on alert, but no bugle calls.”

“Sir?” Goma said.

“I think we’re about to….” was as far as Mankin got.  Off to the north flashes of light broke the darkness– one, three, five, seven, perhaps more.  From each flash rose an ascending spark of fire, some steady, some winking off and on.

“Mortars!” Mankin yelled.

“By the Three!” Goma said, watching the sparks with dismay.

“TAKE COVER!” Mankin cried.  The sleeping figures around the bastion were galvanized into wakefulness.  Men scrambled, blankets flying, an instant scrum of confusion.

Mankin found himself huddled with Goma and Denetoi in an angle of the bastion wall.  Mankin realized that, as protection, it was pathetic, with no overhead cover and open on the fort-facing side.  It was all there was time to find, however, as the sparks– the burning fuses of mortar-bombs– stopped their ascent and fell.  Mankin thought, uselessly, they’ve improved their mortars.

The bombs whispered like death itself as they descended.  The first exploded in the yard, to the north of the hold-fast, fountaining sand high into the air.  Mankin felt the explosion on his skin and eardrums.

Another bomb detonated over the north wall, spraying the parapet between Bastions One and Two with shrapnel; Mankin heard screams mingle with the explosion’s echo.

One bomb landed outside the fort’s western wall, sending smoke and broken stones up over the parapet.  The next came down, and for a moment Mankin glimpsed the spherical body of the bomb in the light of its own fuse.  Then it exploded, right over Bastion Seven.

Mankin had started to get up, despite the afterimages clouding his vision.  In that next instant a bright fireball erupted from the top of Bastion Seven.  A shockwave slammed Mankin right back on top of Goma and Denetoi.  In the brilliance of the fireball he glimpsed the barrel of a mortar go tumbling upward.

Mankin was so stunned that the detonation of the remaining mortar bombs only registered as vague impacts.  He shook his head, trying to rid himself of the ringing in his ears.  He untangled himself from Denetoi and Goma and stood.

The top of Bastion Seven– the broken, jagged top of Bastion Seven– was on fire.  The blaze, punctuated by lesser explosions of gunpowder, lit the interior of the fort as if it were day.  There was another fire on the north wall, and something burned down in the southern end of the yard, but that fire in what had been Bastion Seven outshone them all.  They’re not going to need daylight.

Goma got to his feet and stood beside Mankin.  Men picked themselves up around them.  Guns in Bastions One and Two began firing, out toward the north, apparently trying to reach the ravine. Mankin knew it was futile; only the luckiest of shots from those flat trajectory weapons would reach those mortars.

“Sound the alert, Master Sergeant,” he said.  His own voice sounded muffled in his own ears.

He had no trouble, though, hearing the Okharian horns that erupted out there in the east, nor the drums that followed them.  In the growing light Mankin glimpsed banners and standards coming forward across the burnt-over ground.

He saw it; the enemy mortars would fire and fire, keeping the fort pinned down so that it could not send out a sortie to silence them, while the infantry advanced into assault range.  Only then would the mortars go silent, out of fear of hitting their own troops.  That would leave the Khetuni only a small window to hurt the attack sufficiently to force it back.  But it’s the only chance we have.

“Master Sergeant,” Mankin said, “I want a minimum watch on the walls.  Get everyone not fighting the fires down into the barracks basements.  When the mortars cease their fire, send the men back up to the walls.  Then we’ll face their assault.”

“Sir!” Goma said.  “You whoresons heard him, get under cover!”

The gunners scrambled to obey.  Mankin heard the order being passed along the wall in both directions.  He stared out at the advancing enemy for another moment, calculating distances.  The enemy would take eight or ten minutes to reach the killing ground.  Not much time.

“Sir,” Goma said, “you should get under cover, too.”

Mankin shook his head.  There was just enough light.  “I have to send a message.”

He went down from the wall and ran for the hold-fast, threading his way through men streaming to the barracks.  The sky was growing brighter by the minute.  He could get one more message off to Fort Hope.  Somebody needed to know what was happening.

He reached the hold-fast as another bomb shrieked downward.  He threw himself inside as it landed on the lower stables; the screams of horses tore Mankin’s heart as he raced up the keep’s interior stairs, three steps at a time.

He was panting hard as he reached the hold-fast’s top floor, with the door to the roof open in the far corner.  He had his foot on the first step of the ladder up to it when he heard a colossal whistle, and an invisible hand knocked him backwards.

He slowly picked himself up, shaking his head to clear it.  He quickly searched himself, but found no injuries other than a bloody nose.  Through the roof-door he glimpsed smoke and flame.  Shakily, he climbed up the ladder and poked his head out.

The telegraph was a splintered wreck.  A mortar-bomb had exploded directly over it.  Some of its timbers were on fire.  The message shack was smashed flat, and the stone of the roof scored by shrapnel.  Mankin saw nothing of the signal team, at least at first.  It was only after a moment of staring through the smoke that he recognized the odd lumps scattered across the roof for what they were.

The outpost would send no more messages.

Mankin went back down.  As he emerged from the holdfast a bomb came down and hit the top of Bastion One; guns toppled, with one tube being flung right over the edge of the bastion to land in the yard.  Mankin ignored it; instead he raced back to the eastern wall, and Bastion Three.

A handful of gunners were there, huddled against the wall.  Denetoi was in charge; he looked up in relief as Mankin approached.  “Thank the Powers!  We saw the telegraph get hit; we figured it had got you, too.”

“Pretty close, but not yet.”  Mankin looked out of the nearest gun embrasure.  He could see the advancing Okharians clearly now; the mass of men coming toward the fort was a legion, or more.  They came on steadily, moving confidently under the protection of the bombardment.  Maybe three minutes.

And there it was.  There was nothing more to be done.  Goma had been right.

Mankin, feeling strangely calm, turned to Denetoi and said, “Call the men back up, sergeant.  Stand to.”

A private sped off.  Mankin helped the gunners lever Death’s Handmaiden into position.  Another mortar-bomb came down and exploded in the yard.  Shrapnel sang off the stones of the bastion.

Then troopers and gunners were boiling up the steps to the walls.  Gunners began to ready the other guns of the bastion.  Mankin glimpsed Ganer and a group of archers and culverin-men come up the steps and run for the nearest gate-house.

Goma joined him.  “Are you hurt, sir?” the master sergeant asked.

Mankin wiped his nose, got a smear of red on the back of his hand.  “Nothing serious.  The telegraph’s gone.”

“I saw,” Goma said.

The enemy formations were close now.  Mankin could hear them yelling Okhar, Okhar.  “It’s been an honor to serve with you, master sergeant.”

“As it has been to serve with you, sir,” Goma said.  He held out his hand.

Mankin took it.  Then he jumped up on the carriage of Fire Talker, where he could be seen and heard over the growing din.  “Fire as they come into range!” he yelled to the gunners.  “Take as many out as you can!  They’re packed so tight, even you nearsighted bastards can’t miss them!”

That brought forth the cheer Mankin had hoped for.  He jumped down and the gun crew dragged Fire Talker forward.

Goma stepped to the edge of the bastion, between the guns.  “Ready!” he shouted.  “FIRE!”

The guns spoke, one after the other.  The enemy had not quite reached the killing ground, but there was no point in waiting now.  The round-shot tore ragged holes in the enemy formations, but the Okharians pressed forward, closing their ranks.

Another shriek; Mankin looked up in time to see a hissing bomb descend.  It passed over his head and hit the catwalk over the main gate.  The bomb went right through the wood, splintering it; an instant later it exploded.

A gout of smoke and flame shot upward and out, ripping the inner and outer gates off their hinges.  The inner gates flew in splinters across the yard.  The catwalk collapsed into the space between the gatehouses.

Mankin watched in horror as the near gate-house trembled, and then slowly, so very slowly cracked and tumbled over.  He heard the screams of the men inside over the sound of breaking stone.  The gatehouse toppled into a cloud of dust and smoke, sending up a crash that shook the parapet under Mankin’s feet.

“No,” Mankin said, disbelieving.  In an instant, a fifty foot gap had appeared in his wall– in large measure filled, to be sure, with flaming debris, but nothing a thousand men could not clear in a few minutes.  The last bomb, ironically, had been the most consequential.

Okharians swarmed toward the shattered gap, jumping down into the defensive ditch and clambering up the other side.  They shouted in triumph.

“Keep firing!” Mankin shouted to Goma.  “Bugler!”  A bugler came running up.  “Sound every third man assemble in the yard.  Now!”

The bugler lifted his bugle and blew the call.  Mankin charged down the steps to the yard.  As he did the sound of the onrushing Okharians mingled with the concussion of the guns into a cacophony that threatened to split his head open.

He reached ground level as troopers poured down off the walls and ran to join him.  Swordsmen and archers were all mixed together, but there was no time to sort them out.  “Follow me!” Mankin cried.  He ran for the gap, and the men followed him.

The broken timbers and stones of the gate-house and the gates themselves lay scattered in a broad fan across the sand of the yard.  Mankin and his men clambered and scrambled over them.  It was an ugly place– the bodies of the men who had been in the gate-house were scattered among the debris, crushed and broken.  Mankin glimpsed Ganer’s body amid the wreckage; the boy’s face was smashed in, with the rest of his body crumpled beneath stones.  Mankin saw it and then forgot it, pressed by more immediate matters.

He reached what had been the gate, and through a gap in the wreckage an Okharian lunged at him.  Mankin barely parried the man’s attack in time.  He body-blocked him and shoved him into a patch of burning timber.  The man shrieked, but others came behind him.  Khetuni troopers closed in around Mankin as well.

There was a confused scrimmage amid the wreckage, Okharians shoving forward, shouting, Khetuni pushing them backwards at the point of their swords.  Swords clashed, men cursed and screamed.  Mankin killed a Okharian, dodged a spear-thrust, and found himself back-to-back with Denetoi, who seemed to have come out of nowhere.  For a frantic minute or two the pair of them parried and cut, Denetoi shouting obscene maledictions in Attau that made up in ferocity what they lacked in comprehension, Mankin just saving his breath, trying to stay alive.

An Okharian centurion charged him; the man swung his barkossa and clipped Mankin’s right cheek.  Searing fire shot down Mankin’s face; he staggered backwards, grunting in pain.  The centurion lifted his sword again, grinning, to split Mankin’s head wide-open.  The grin froze, turned perplexed, as Denetoi drove his sword-point into the man’s side.  He crumpled and fell backwards off the sergeant’s blade.

“Get back, Cap’n!” Denetoi said.

Half-stunned, Mankin stumbled away, clutching his face.  He went to one knee, trying to make his brain work.  Denetoi and another trooper, a corporal named Yaro, stood over him.

“We’re forcing them back, Cap’n!” Denetoi said.

Another bugle call– enemy within the walls.  Mankin shook his head and forced himself to stand, despite the blood streaming down his face.  He looked up at the walls.

The top of the eastern wall between Bastion Three and what had been the northern gatehouse was a solid melee, Okharians and Khetuni stabbing each other  and grappling hand-to-hand.  As Mankin watched more Okharians came up ladders and over the top of the parapet to drop down into the fight.

The bugler kept up the call, though.  Mankin, turning, saw that the western wall between the burning wreck of Bastion Seven and Bastion Eight was also a melee, with more Okharians scaling ladders and jumping down.  Double attack— and Mankin’s order for every third man to go down into the yard had weakened the defense of the wall at just the wrong moment.  The thought was bitter.

Here came running Hass, his cap gone, his hair plastered with sweat and blood.  “Sir!  We can’t stop them, they’re over the wall in three places!”

A sharp crack— the top of Bastion One exploded in fire and smoke.  Men and parts of men flew through the air.  Mankin didn’t know if a mortar-bomb had hit it, or if some Khetuni gunner had accidentally detonated their own ammunition, and he realized it really didn’t matter.

He stood straight.  The Okharians owned the eastern wall; some were forcing themselves down the stairs to the yard.  At the same time Mankin could see men fighting in Bastions Two and Three– he glimpsed a gunner swinging a rammer at Okharians, then falling.  The Okharians on the western wall shouted in triumph as they pushed toward the stairs on that side.  An arrow whistled past Mankin; Okharian archers were on the parapet, shooting down at the Khetuni.

We can’t hold.  The Khetuni trying to block the gate would be outflanked in moments.  “Bugler!”

A boy ran up, clutching his instrument.  “Sir!”

“Sound fall back to the hold-fast.  Now!”

The boy looked frightened, but raised his bugler and blew the call.  “Back to the hold-fast!” Mankin yelled, shouting as loud as he could over the din, despite how badly it made his head hurt.  “Fall back!”

The soldiers around Mankin hesitated, as if reluctant to change directions; then men stumbled backwards.  Some of them faced the enemy as they went, for the Okharians saw the change in their enemy and pressed their attack.

Mankin shook off his pain.  He faced the Okharians and fended off spear-thrusts.  He killed one enemy soldier who rushed him, swinging a broadsword.  Mankin retreated, and Denetoi and Hass flanked him.  The Okharians around them held back, with newfound caution.

The whistle of more arrows– Mankin heard one go right past his ear.  Hass made a queer kind of grunt, spun around with the fletching of an arrow sticking out of his eye, and crumpled to the ground.

“Get back, get back!” Mankin bellowed again, for the Khetuni retreat was ragged.  One, then two troopers were cut off and hacked down by the Okharians swarming around them.  There was no time to form any sort of battle-line, though, for the Okharians coming off the eastern wall were forcing their way across the yard, intermingled with fleeing Khetuni.  More arrows rained down, the archers apparently too eager to kill Khetuni to be bothered with not endangering their comrades– Mankin saw one Okharian soldier take an Okharian arrow in the back and drop, blood gushing out of his mouth.

Mankin retreated, his men around him, and the retreat slowed as men behind him crammed into the main door of the hold-fast.  Only so many could fit through it at once, and Mankin found his men coalescing around him as they crowded backwards, entangled with Okharians.  The melee intensified; for a moment Mankin and Denetoi were back-to-back once more, fending off attacks that seemed to come from every direction.

Someone– Sergeant Kass– drove a spear past Mankin’s head and skewered an Okharian coming up on Mankin’s flank.  “Come on, sir!” he shouted.  Mankin realized the hold-fast door was right behind him.  He grabbed Denetoi by the collar of his leather curaiss and dragged him through the door with him.  The scrum just inside was so heavy that Mankin tripped and fell to the floor.  Several troopers piled in on top of him, and then someone shoved the doors closed.  The doors resounded with the impacts of Okharian swords, as if the enemy meant to chop their way through.  Then Mankin heard the boom of a culverin, and Okharian screams.  The pounding stopped.

“No offense, Cap’n,” Denetoi said from underneath Mankin, “but even at my age I still have some use for my nuts, and your elbow is real uncomfortable down there…”

“Let us up,” Mankin said.  He, Denetoi and the soldiers on top of them untangled themselves.  Mankin stood, catching his breath.

This room of the hold-fast was a mustering space, with arched roof-beams and arrow-loops high on the walls.  As Mankin watched a culverin-man fired down through one of them, further discouraging the Okharians approaching the main doors.  A door in the back of the chamber led to the well room, the interior offices, and the ready room on the other side of the hold-fast.  A spiral staircase led up to the keep’s upper floors.

At the moment every arrow-loop in the chamber had an archer or a culverin-man stationed at it.  The rest of the room was packed with gasping, stunned men, some bleeding, some crying.  Mankin’s own wound ached, but he ignored it.

“Is the other door secure?” he called.  The ready-room’s door was the only other ground-floor entrance to the hold-fast.

“Yes, sir,” Kass said.  “I sent a detail through to cover it.  We should be tight on this level.”

All the arrow-loops on this level had platforms that allowed soldiers to use them, despite how high they were on the wall.  Mankin climbed up the nearest, momentarily crowding aside the archer stationed at it.  He glanced through the loop, but beyond the pile of bodies in front of the door the only impression he got was of men in Okharian armor milling about in the fort’s yard.  He could hear more than he could see– a general roar of men engaged in destruction, screams of agony, the crackle of flames.

Mankin jumped down from the platform.  To Sergeant Kass he said, “I’m going up higher to get a better view, to see what’s happening.  Keep them away from the walls as best you can.  Get me a head count of who made it.  Have you seen the master-sergeant?”

Kass leaned in close.  “Goma was still in Bastion Three,” he said in a low voice.  “I don’t think anyone there made it out.  The bastards swarmed them.”

Mankin swallowed.  “We have to get men up in the upper levels….”

“Sir!” one of the culverin-men called.  “They’re pulling back from the keep!”

“What?”  Mankin jumped back up on the platform.  Indeed, the Okharians in front of the hold-fast had retreated many yards, leaving open ground in front of the main, broken only by bodies and patches of bloody sand.  “What the hell?”

“Khetuna!”  The call came from outside, someone bellowing loudly enough to be heard within the hold-fast over the noise outside.  In the mustering chamber every face looked up, in surprise, or fear.  The voice was that of an Okharian speaking Khetuni.  “Khetuna!  We call parley!  Send out your commander to talk with ours, and we will give him safe-conduct.  The gods stand witness!”

Mankin looked at Kass.  “Well, that’s an interesting development,” he said.

“Sir,” Kass said, “you can’t go out there.  They’ll cut you down.”

“The Okharians never call the gods in as witnesses unless they mean it,” Mankin said.  “If nothing else, I can buy us some time.  And if they do kill me, you’ll be in no doubt as to their intentions.”

“Sir…,” Kass said, then stopped, as if he couldn’t think of a counter-argument.

“Khetuna!  Give us your answer!”

Mankin leaned close to the arrow-loop.  “We accept parley, with your gods as witnesses!” he called in Okharian.  “I’m coming out.”  To Kass he said, “Hold your fire, but shut the door behind me– and get those men up to the second floor.”

 

Mankin emerged from the hold-fast’s door.  The thick oak slammed closed behind him.  For a moment he stood there, taking everything in.

Okahrian soldiers thronged the tops of all the walls, and swarmed among the stables and barracks.  Here and there Okharians stripped dead Kehtuni troopers; Mankin saw one enemy soldier ripping the tunic off Hass’ body and lifting the bloodied garment over his head with an ululating cry.  Mankin heard doors shattering under axe-blows, and the scream of a frightened horse from the upper stable.  As he watched he saw Okharians throwing clothing and harness and ripped-open mattresses out the nearest barracks door.

Okharians still thronged through the shattered main gate.  Bastion Number Seven still burned, the flames pale in the sun but the smoke thick and rising in a great plume.  Mankin saw a human chain of Okharians pulling powder kegs from the bastion’s ground floor, passing them hand-to-hand to get them clear of the fire, stacking them in the middle of the yard.  It was the one thing Mankin could see at the moment that bespoke of thought and control.

Even as he watched, Okharians drove a group of Khetuni soldiers out of Barracks Five.  Some of them were wounded, supported by their comrades.  Ten or so, they stood for a moment, surrounded by Okharians.  Then the Okharians swarmed them, swords swinging, and Mankin could do nothing about it.

Before the holdfast door, though, there was a ring of calm and an open space of sand.  Mankin saw a semi-circle of Okharians before him, watching him emerge from the hold-fast.  Many were bowmen, with arrows nocked, but not yet drawn.  Dozens of dark eyes watched him, intense with hatred and blood-lust.  But none of the soldiers moved.

From their midst stepped an officer.  Mankin took in his braid and sash– a senior tribune, of a noble house, richly armored.  The nearest Khetuni equivalent would be a colonel.  Mankin realized he was almost certainly looking at the commander of this whole attack.

It took everything Mankin had to keep from rushing the man, to instead come to a brace and salute him.  It was strange, watching his men being butchered and then rendering the enemy honors, but there was nothing else Mankin’s could do.

“Mankin Tannersson, captain, commander of this outpost,” Mankin said, speaking Okharian, pitching his voice to be heard over the crackle of flames and the shouts of soldiers.  “May I ask who I have the honor of addressing?”

The Okharian stood straighter– whether at the honor rendered or at Okharian words from a Khetuni, Mankin could not tell.  Perhaps the former, for the officer ducked his head in acknowledgement.  “Tribune of the Realm Kunatara Maso, commander of the Fifth Legion of Mira-teno.”

“You called this parley, sir?” Mankin asked.

“I did,” Kunatara said.

“Sir, my men are still being slaughtered,” Mankin said, restraining the heat of his anger.  “If you honor your own parley, that must stop.”

Kunatara grimaced. “Orders have been given, captain, but it is difficult to stop men in the grip of battle-lust.  If you truly want to end the killing, then we must talk, here and now.”

“Very well, sir,” Mankin said.  “Here I am; what is your pleasure?”

“Your surrender,” Kunatara said.  “Captain, I congratulate you.  The defense you have made of this fort has been brave and skilled.  You have delayed us in this sector an entire day, which is far longer than we anticipated.  You fought honorably and with great courage against overwhelming odds.”

Without thinking, Mankin looked up at the walls, where the bodies of his men, many now stripped naked, lay on the battlements or sprawled on the stairs.  “I thank you for the compliment, sir,” he said, not feeling thankful at all, “but you have made us pay a high price for that defense.”

“And you exacted a high price from us for our victory,” Kunatara said.  “But now the battle is over.  I do not know how many men you have in your keep, captain, but there cannot be very many.  Further resistance is pointless.  To spare both sides needless casualties I call upon you and your men to surrender.  You will be treated as prisoners of war, and I personally guarantee that you will reach the prisoner pens in our rear alive.”  Kunatara shrugged.  “I cannot pretend that being a prisoner of war will be easy, captain, but it is a chance for life.  Continued resistance here, however, is sure death.”

Mankin hesitated.  “I have been ordered to hold this post at all costs.”

Kunatara raised his eyebrows at him.  “I would say you have fulfilled that order.  In your position now you can no longer interdict our use of this river crossing.”  The Okharian’s eyes narrowed.  “Or are you expecting relief?”

“Our forces are on the march,” Mankin said, not wanting to say more.

“That may be true,” Kunatara said, “but it will avail you nothing.  We have attacked along the whole length of the Gar, from here to Huso-mani.  I assure you, captain, whatever relief column you hoped for is by now fully distracted by its own problems.”

Mankin hid his dismay.  If what Kunatara said was true, then the Okharians were obviously making a bid to push the Khetuni occupiers away from the Gar, perhaps even to roll them back to the Beso.  And if they could do that, the core of the Khetuni conquest in Okhar would be in danger.

Seeing Mankin make no immediate answer, Kunatara stepped closer.  A murmur ran through his men, but the tribune held up a hand and the soldiers stilled.  He was now within sword-reach of Mankin, but apparently the Okharian sensed that this Khetuni officer would not break parley.

“Captain, if you try to continue the battle there will be no further quarter offered,” Kunatara said, speaking more lowly, just for Mankin’s ears.  “I told you just now how you made us pay a price for this fort.  My men lost many comrades before your walls.  I assure you, they are not in a forgiving mood.  I can control them– right now.  But when– and it is when, captain, not if– when they break into your keep, they will spare no one.  Anyone taken alive will be tortured, then flayed, and their skins used to decorate our standards.  And it will all be for nothing, for you are no longer in a position to effectively oppose us.”  Kunatara paused, and in pausing he glanced at Mankin’s cheek.  Mankin saw something change in the man’s eyes, some shadow of doubt or realization.  “You’re wounded,” Kunatara said.

“It’s of no consequence,” Mankin said.  Being reminded of the cut seemed to make it hurt worse, though.

Kunatara stared for another moment, then seemed to remember the business at hand.  “Captain,” he said, “I can understand how you wish to avoid the ignominy of surrender, but I assure you, it is your only hope.”  He paused again.  “I will give you half an hour to decide.  In that time, I suggest you go up to the roof of your keep.  We will not fire upon you, nor shoot.  You have one of your telescopes there?  I suggest you train it on the fort to your north.  See what has happened to it, and then make your decision.  But I warn you– if at the end of that half-hour you do not yield, we will blow in your keep doors and slaughter everyone inside.”

Mankin met the man’s gaze, and knew that the Okharian spoke only the truth.  “I understand.”  Mankin came to another brace, saluted again.  “I thank you for your courtesy, sir.”

“Be a wise commander, captain,” Kunatara said.  He saluted in return.  “Choose life.”

Mankin went straight up to the hold-fast’s roof, in the company of Kass and Denetoi.  The signal section’s telescope there had been shredded by the mortar-bomb, but there was a spare in the top floor storage, and they set it up.  Mankin trained it on Fort Hope.

He had trouble for a moment focusing the scope, and the billowing smoke from Bastion Seven kept blowing across his field of vision, but at last he saw the fort clearly. It took only a moment’s viewing for his heart to finally sink like a stone in a bottomless lake.

He stood and stepped back from the telescope.  “Fort Hope is burning.”

Kass and Denetoi both looked for themselves, but neither of them said anything.  Mankin supposed there was nothing to say.

They went back down.  In the main room men looked up as he came down the stairs.  Mankin stopped and met their eyes.  There was Private Clarn, and Private Justus.  Corporal Sandhall was in one corner, tightening a bandage around his own arm.  Sergeants Poloma and Dura sat together, heads hanging low with exhaustion, but they all still looked up at him, even the men at the arrow-loops.  No one spoke.  They waited.

For a moment Mankin could not get his mouth to work.  At last he said, “Open the door.”

 

To be continued….

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