Ursula was rather concerned. The palace was in an uproar. Indeed, all of Petronia was. Their nation was at war, and Ursula knew well where the blame lay. Her brother seemed to have lost his mind since their father's death, and his taking on the diadem. The 74th Petronus was cold and imperious to all but his queen, the obviously foreign Henai. This was nothing remarkable for Ursula, but the rest of the palace and the men at arms grumbled at the change, though they grumbled quietly.
Ursula was spending much of her time in Thyriel's tower, a high place in a nearly abandoned wing. He had given her full access to his library of the odd and old; texts she had not imagined existed. He had folios filled with botanical notes on plants that seemed too fanciful to exist. Ice Vine, which grows only in the Blue Wastes and is attracted to the heat of living things, can trap a sleeping man, or a whole camp, in a single night. The Amaranth, which grows only in the gardens of the Fae, is a cure to any mortal ailment, should one drink the dew that gathers in its petal cup before the sun has reached its full heat.
"What is all this," Ursula asked. "Why haven't I heard of these things?"
"Because your home has always been in Petronia, and the nations have closed their faces to each other, as have the races. Nihon is shut to outsiders, and none venture below the Keepholds or above Ashram in the Twisted lands. Why should you know these names, or speak of them, when they have long ago passed into legend. The Amaranth is something I wished to see."
Thyriel's expression fell into a shape of sorrows, and he turned away.
"What I found was no more than a graveyard. Men are more to blame than gods for what has been lost."
There were the same sort of collections for all manner of fabulous creatures, and for the works of artifice that had made Valanthia possible and phenomenon like the old roads common-place. There were sheaves of mechanical designs that made her own sketches seem childish.
In the first times, they had actually known siege.
A horn sounded, then another; great blasts that carried across the nine hills. Ursula shot to her feet, and Thyriel guided her to the window.
"The tocsin of Valinor," he said. "Do you recall the meaning?"
"Yes." Ursula stared hard over the landscape of roofs and ramparts, the slates and shingles and slabs, the gaps and canyons between the walls, the vales of the courtyards and paddocks. She saw that the trains of men were moving, and their pennons flying. She had not realized there were so many in the palace, for all that they had been gathering over the past fortnight, since word had come of the razing of Mondane.
"There must be thousands," she whispered.
"Less than three," Thyriel said, "even by the day they reach the enemy. But your brother is among them, and he has raised the Shield." Ursula gasped, and raised a hand to comfort the life in her swollen belly. The horn of Valinor had woken it.
War is an uncomplicated set of patterns, where human bodies act as vehicles for weaponry. On the front lines, if there are only swords and shields, a battle is mostly a pushing match where hardly anyone dies until one side breaks, at which point the killing becomes rapid and easy. This is how a general can walk his army halfway across a continent, facing foe after foe, and lose only a few hundred men. The enemy broke first.
There are mental barriers to murder in close proximity that can be trained out. Training, however, requires time and resources few lords will expend on mere footmen. Cheaper and more swift solutions abound.
Pikes, bows, crossbows, catapults, trebuchets and ballista are all excellent examples. These weapons provide an inestimable advantage; range. As it happens, most of the mortal resistance to indiscriminate murder has less to do with the actual killing than the fact of having to do it personally, of having to watch someone die. Distance obviates the issue entirely.
Once you have accounted for the weaponry, terrain is the major variable, and each side will attempt to possess the ground most amenable to itself. This comes into play as a major factor less often than you think, especially in a nation like Carrolan.
Petronia is a hillier country, and more bosky, so terrain is significant. Sadly, serious and major engagements had not been witnessed by the eyes of living men, not in this age so long without war. The often self-appointed House Generals were men vastly more experienced in the Tourney lists, or even the King's boards, than in actual battle. Sadder still, few of them were clever.
Mok took Mondane as his stronghold, cutting off its more far flung sectors, and establishing his base at its center. He set the populace to work, along with his army of near two thousand, at demolishing inconvenient structures and using the materials to erect barricades throughout and around the city.
There were stores aplently to satisfy his men, and the caravans that still arrived to supply Mondane with various goods were seized in his name. The outlying farms were quickly stripped. People remarked on his cruelty, on his coldness, and most of all upon his sword. In truth, he was gentler on the populace than most lords would have been in his place, but he never smiled. Somehow his refusal to feast and roister frightened both his men and the populace more than hundreds of deaths would have.
"Grimmer than an Ashite at an orgy," his men joked, and then looked about themselves worriedly. Most of them had seen him fight, and would have fled the field in number if he and that sword were on the other side. "It's the devil blade," they told each other. "It keeps the spark of those it kills, traps them for forever."
Mok heard these rumors and wondered at how close they came to the more horrible truth.
Once the city was fortified, Mok began taking half of his force out on raids of nearby towns, splitting it into five groups in order to cover more ground. Mallo led one group, and Godelae Questler another. He was one of the two wardens who had agreed to accompany him on this path, bringing with him hundreds of men that in a way had since become Mok's. The other warden was Bel el Allal, the Lord who had been Orming's toady. He was useless in a fight, and usually hung back to manage the city, or the supplies. He became a sort of head quartermaster, and was doubtlessly enriching himself busily.
Mok could not bring himself to care. Allal had brought five hundred footmen behind him, and nearly one hundred knights. That was enough to purchase lenience. Allal was also in charge of organizing the new recruits. Odd as it might seem, there were young men of the conquered city who wanted to join the invading army, who wanted to be a part of something.
There were hundreds of them.
Far away, though daily growing nearer, the king's army was on the move. It made no haste. The Shield was raised, and everywhere they went more Houses, great and small, were drawn to serve beneath its banner. Magal Fierceman road at the head of his host, with Henai at his side. He wore the armor of his forefathers, plaques painted with blue and green. His helmet was topped with the figure of a rampant Fenryth, roaring with raised claws. The Shield was strapped to his destrier's barding. He had found that it was heavy and preferred not to carry it on his back.
He knew that Mondane had fallen and it filled him with rage. It was an unprecedented, and to his eyes, unprovoked attack. It was Henai who restrained him from rushing headlong into battle, from charging with only his own House guard at his back to meet this villain they called Mok. ''Justice will toll in its proper turn,'' she told him. The Lords closest to the King were glad of her presence, whatever they had said of her in private. Foreign witch she may well be, but she appeared to use her hold on him for the good of all.
* * *
Two armies marched to meet each other, though one was standing still. As Magal drew near, Mok drew his forces within the town and redoubled the work on fortifications. There would be no more raids which was well enough, as all the settlements within a day's ride of the city had been visited.
As Magal drew within a few dozen leagues of the mountains, Mok began to feel a resonance in the sword, a faint vibration that he wordlessly understood to mark the approach of the Shield. He found a tor not far from the city that afforded him a view of the foothills as a whole. With a seeing glass, he could begin to make out the shape of his opponent, the cloud of their dust. They were more numerous than his own followers. Even if the other Wardens had been more generous with their token inclusions to his army, they would have been outnumbered.
Mok was fearless. The sword would not allow him to feel fear. Inside of him there was only need, a vast conflagration roaring.
Magal saw the city, the torched districts and the cleared trees. He saw the barriers erected out of wrecked stone and charred timber, high enough that his lancers could not bypass them with a jump.
"Send out the scouts to look for weak points."
"They are all weak," Henai whispered beside him. "Do you see the men on the roofs, behind the breastworks? They are afraid. Light arrows with pitch, and fire them to sow confusion. Fill a wagon, or a set of wagons, with stone and brick and soil. Use them to break through the initial walls and overrun the city from there."
Magal was silent for a time. "This is no place for a queen," he said. "I want you back in the train, where you will be safe."
"As you say, my King." Henai turned her mount around, and proceeded to go as she was ordered. A slight smile tugged at the corners of her lips, lighting an exquisite face.
Heartbeats after his wife had gone out of earshot Magal Fierceman set about ordering exactly what she had suggested. In a few hours, they would attack.
* * *
Mok still stood upon his tor, watching the enemy through his seeing-glass. Mallo was at his side.
"I want you with me for this fight. You are the only one I trust."
"What about Kevon?"
"He is needed elsewhere. I will be at the forefront, hunting for the Shield. I can't act the general from there. I never had much talent for it in any case."
"I will be with you."
* * *
The sunflower shut its face to the world. The days were shorter now, and the nights more cold. It would have been wrong to call these men soldiers, who waited behind the barricade for the battle to come. They were not professionals, as that nomination would imply, but in this realm and this age, a man was not a man who did not have at least a passing familiarity with the word. In a way they were conscripts who accepted their conscription gladly. They wanted to fight and the fighting had been easy thus far.
Tonight, it would not be.
A whistling sound and a rushing roar, and black lines began appearing in the road, sticking straight up; in the barricade and the wagons they went thump-thump-thump. A few people were stuck, not so many, yet those few screams were enough to fill the dark. Torches and fires were lit everywhere, and it wasn't enough to see the enemy as more than a vague shape at the edge of bow range.
"Archers! Archers!" someone was yelling. They weren't well organized for this sort of combat. When had they been on the defense? Only about a hundred bowmen answered the call, and by the time they were ready to return fire the enemy had revealed itself. Hundreds of points of light all in a line. Arrows raised, and suddenly the sky burned with falling stars hammering down.
Again, not many were killed. Mok's men were spread thin around the exposed rims of the city, and many of them were under cover. This attack was focused on the fore of Mondane, on the main road and the largest blockade. The intention was to sow confusion, and to set fires. The city, however, had been made fire resistant, in that all the most flammable buildings had already been burned.
Small fires broke here and there, as wagons and midden heaps went up. For the most part there was only smoke, trails and billows lost in the night. The starflowers were dim with the season, and so too the moon.
Mok was seen riding through the streets, the crystal sword a great and shining sapphire brand held above his head. His followers rallied, and more arrows were fired in small groups from the roofs as the footmen gathered around the main barricades. Their pikes waved, disembodied crescents in the firelight. They were ready to repel the inevitable cavalry charge.
It had been seen countless times; noblemen were convinced of their invincibility given horse and lance. Most of them had never had to face a square of mixed pikes and halbreds, and would be very surprised to learn of their effectiveness.
The men of the defense looked up. A deep rumbling called them from the earth. Hooves pounding, and something more. The barricade bristled with pikes as further volleys of flaming missiles came down behind, impacting harmlessly on overhangs and shields.
Mok's bowmen fired into the cavalry charge, causing a few men to fall, and horses to stumble. What did they think they could do? They would break upon the bulwarks as do waves upon the rocks.
The cavalry split, the two groups peeling to each side only moments from smashing into Mondane. In their wake was a train of reinforced wagons barreling down the road. The defenders didn't realize what was happening until the makeshift battering rams were nearly upon them.
The first wagon crashed into the barricade with a sound like the beginnings of an avalanche. The second was the cracking of trees in a storm. The third did little enough damage, its impact being mostly lost in the debris of the first two wagons. A flight of burning arrows was already soaring again, the great mass of them pounding down upon the wounded barricade and the surrounding buildings.
The wagons had carried more than rocks. Barrels of pitch, now shattered, had spilled their contents where they fell. In mere heartbeats the mostly wooden structure was engulfed in sheets of flame.
The closest defenders went into a panic as some of their friends and brothers were caught by the encroaching flames. At other points along the outskirts of the city small forces of only a few lances were prying through thin palisades and breaking open blocked windows and doors. A banner of sword and buckler skirmishers were attempting to push through the burning barricade. More and more of the defenders were being drawn to the conflagration, the apparent center of the fighting. Mok would have been among them, but he drew back. The sword hummed in his hand, and he saw that the king was still well clear of the fight, as was the bulk of his army.
He sent word to Kevon that this was likely a feint. He knew well enough that they weren't well fortified at every point along the line. This wasn't a real wall they had built, only a verisimilitude. Why choose to attack at the point where defense was fiercest, unless you had designs elsewhere as well.
A few images passed through his mind, areas he knew to be ill equipped to hold off any real assault, and others where small groups could doubtlessly sneak through.
Mok raised the crystal blade, and summoned a group of mounted fighters to him. "Follow me!" he commanded them, and spurred his mare into a gallop though the streets toward the northern segment of the palisade.
Many marked his passing, even as they made their way to the front where arrows still rained at will upon both sides. They came upon a group of a dozen lightly armored men busily making gaps in the wall of wooden stakes between the rows of buildings. They tried to scatter when they spotted the horsemen, and arrows flew from riding bows, stopping a few. Mok rode into the main cluster of them, dispatching the saboteurs to each side of him.
Half his men were ordered to fix the stakes, the rest he led to another weak point. The sword hummed gleefully when he passed a large dark house along the outer rim. He reigned in, dismounting. "Stay here," he told them.
His heavy marbled armor moved in silence, licked by firelight. The humming of his sword ceased when his hand touched the door. Mallo watched with the other men as their lord disappeared into the building. There was a blue light, showing steadily through the shutters as he moved through the rooms. A few voices sounded, disjointed shouts that died as soon as they began, or a dying cry that began halfway finished. A few of the men tried to move forward, and Mallow restrained them.
"He doesn't need us here. Do as you were commanded."
A few minutes more and Mok reappeared, his sword glowing darkly. Blood was on his armor but did not stain it. Even as they watched, red runnels slid cleanly away until they had colored the ground about his greaves. The oricalcum suit was immaculate again.
"We have more work to do."
They visited a half dozen more points of weakness, running them down in the open if they could. The hidden groups Mok dealt with alone, slipping into the buildings where they gathered and allowing the sword to feast.
He knew he could not be everywhere at once. He knew there would surely be groups he missed despite his knowledge of the city and his sword's hints. It did not matter. There was only one fight that counted in the entire battle, and it would come when the center fell. It was almost time.
Magal listened to the reports from around the beleaguered city. Their incursions along the more far flung edges were having little effect. No major fires had been started anywhere but the central barricade. Apparently, the small groups had met too much resistance to be effective. There may have been more defenders than was initially believed.
Magal grimaced deeply. This was not what battle should be. The enemy bottling itself in its own barrow, smothering them to death with greasy smoke. He despised it.
There was no glory here, and the only men killing and being killed were footsoldiers. The knights as a whole had been unable to join the fray. These barricades were frustrating, but the central block was being eaten away by the flames as well as the work of his footsoldiers. It wouldn't take much more to open the main road, and then his knights could flood the city along with their followers.
One more push.
Magal Feirceman unslung the Shield from his saddle. He strapped it to his arm, then raised it high. The men who saw exclaimed their wonder, and soon all the noblest of his followers had gathered close. The knights and lords were more than eager to add their own courage to the fire.
If Henai had been there, she might have prompted him into making a stirring speech, but she was far back with the other women and the servants. Magal, alone, would leave the generaling to the generals. He simply drew his family's ancestral sword, bellowed, and charged.
There was a great deal of shouting at this turn of events, and a disorganized attempt to follow. Banners turned about, and horns thundered above the sounds of battle. The knights would come, wise or unwise as such a course might be, and the lances were set in their rests. The fastest of these were twenty or thirty paces behind the king.
A storm was in Magal's ears, and lightning in his blood and flesh. This was battle. This was living. He had not yet reached the enemy.
An arrow impacted on the Shield, exploding in a shower of sparks. Magal laughed, exhilarated. This was his first understanding of the Shield's power. His own men heard his horse's gallop and made way. He rode to the breach that the wagons had made, and his horse slowed only a little threading its way through the wreckage. A few more arrows fell without touching him. Flames swayed, becoming a corridor for him to follow. Abruptly, he reached the final wall, bristling with pikes that bent down to meet him, to cripple his mount or cut him from it. They recognized the heraldry, this was no other than the king, or one of his royal siblings. They did not know the Shield.
Pikes bent upon themselves, wooden shafts shattering. Their heads seemed drawn to the image of the green tiger, the Fenryth at the heart of the Shield, and there were they broken. Magal's horse was not so fortunate. It's legs went away, and it fell, throwing its rider into the wall, Shield first.
Mok felt a surge of power in his weapon, in the same moment that he heard an explosion from the fore of the battle. It had the tone of sudden thunder, though there had been no lightning strike. The enemy had no siege weapons. This was something far more potent than the artifice of men.
"The King has arrived," Mok said, and kicked his mount into motion.
* * *
There was a wall, and then there wasn't a wall. Magal rolled over his shoulder and onto his back. He was less hurt than confused, though his ears were ringing. Debris rained around him, splinters of wood and hands of flame. He sat up, and hefted himself to his feet. He had lost his sword. Strapped to his arm, the Shield was no longer heavy, it was weightless.
So far, no one had tried attacking him. As his vision cleared, he could make out clumps of what must have been Mok's men. They were in the alleys and on the roofs. There was a group of a score or so on the road not one hundred paces ahead of him. They were simply watching him, some of them slack jawed.
I am Unstoppable. I broke the barricade. Magal began to laugh even as his knights poured through the gap, parting around him to overrun the men who did not scatter quickly enough. A few wedges of polearms attempted to stem the tide with small success, mere eddies in the flow soon born over. Arrows still flew, causing more casualties to the horses than the men. The knights that carried shortbows returned fire, while others stormed the houses that the bowmen stood atop. They overcame the resistance in this block with swiftness and ease. Magal was certain that they had already won. He exulted in their victory.
* * *
The horse was galloping toward him, its rider calling out his noble heritage, waving a well-oiled saddle sword. Mok had chosen to forsake his own mount, now that he was so near to where he needed to be. He preferred fighting on foot.
A single upstroke removed the man's hand from his wrist, which promptly gouted geysers of blood as he continued down the road, too in shock to respond in any manner but a scream.
Another rider still had his lance. Perhaps he had been saving it for this special occasion. Mok grabbed it just below the head and tore it free. The rider came free with it, and as he regrouped Mok casually punctured his breastplate and vitals.
The horse, more wise than its master, rode on.
With every man that Mok killed he felt himself grow stronger. The sword was truly glowing now, even when not in use. The crystal was radiant with floating sparks, casting blue lambency wherever Mok walked bright as a balefire.
He came across a clump of footsoldiers. They died. He was alone among the enemy, as he had sent Mallo to take command of the more important barricades. The city was a maze of redoubts, and the Petronian army would soon find this battle was far from finished. Mok had always expected them to break into the city. They had had no towers or walls of high stone. He was frankly bemused that it had taken them this long to do so.
He had been growing impatient. Now that most of the populace had been evacuated into the mountains, Mondane was his playground to do with as he willed. How would this army fare without its king?
* * *
Magal saw a figure part the smoke. His shadow in the flames was huge, belonging more to a Grotesque than to a man, and yet he was only a man. This must be Mok, who strode so fearless through the flames. The long main of his hair was singed, and wisps of gray arose from the seams of his immaculate armor. Was that oricalcum?
Surely not, but an impressive imitation. Even the royal armory possessed only a few pieces of that miraculous tallo, and there was not a full suit in all of Petronia. And that sword, crystal or glass, shining with azure witchlight. This was Mok, the betrayer, the head of all this treasonous evil. He had come to him alone. Magal's heart swelled. He would kill the man himself.
With the Shield of Petronus on his arm, not even the gods could harm him. That was, after all, why it had been made.
Men moved to intercept the man, an arrow flew by him close enough to clip his hair. Magal called for them all to stop.
"He is mine, he is mine alone. I am your king."
Reluctantly, the space between them cleared. Magal approached near enough to make out clearly the man's face. It was hard and vacant, like the statues of old kings. And his eyes were strange. They looked through him.
"Mok of Carrolan," Magal angrily proclaimed. "for your crimes against Petronia the punishment is death."
"Everything dies," Mok said. "Even worlds." And he struck. The move was blindingly fast; sheer luck and instinct saved Magal, who stepped just out of reach. A tiny nick had been taken out of his nose. Blood began to trickle on to his lips.
He was now less angry than afraid.
The shield will protect me. The shield will protect me.
He attacked, thrusting with his ancient blade. His hand was jarred, the bones of his wrist strained. He saw his families sword was gone from his hand. No jewelled hilt, no ruby pommel, only an empty glove of mail. Mok laughed at him, and took his blade in two hands, swinging sideways with the full force of the torsion of his body.
He was going to chop the king in half.
Up came the Shield, as if of its own will, and the two forces met in absolute silence, in a frozen beat of time. The one a sword that could cut through any defense, the other a shield that would reflect back the power of any force. There was a moment of silence, which then ruptured, and on came the ringing of a gong that had been still for a very long while. If the whole disk of the wold had been the skin of a drum that was stuck, that was the sound. There was a flare of power, moving outward at the speed of a shout.
Then all was still.
* * *
Henai rode through the pickets and lines, ignoring all who called to her. The mask of a simpering courtier and queen slid fluidly off her exquisite face. That part of her task was done.
The Petronian force was in disarray, lacking any leadership. He army had immediately split along House lines that were now closer to being at each others throats than trying to take the city. Even well outside the blast field men and women had collapsed, clutching their ears. Others had died instantly, without any visible wounds, as if their sparks had instantly departed from the mortal frame.
Henai had not been trained in the arts of mancy, but she had been educated on them. She knew what was happening, and why. The ominous and eldritch cloudscape that so abruptly twisted into the sky, out of a clear night, did not surprise her. Nor did she take any care for the fact that the moon dragon shone brighter than in any age in living memory. In any memory save one.
Of all the being, only the blessed Emperor could never die.
Within three hundred paces of the center there was nothing but rubble and pieces. The ground was painted red, and spattered with gobbets of flesh. Bone dust hung in the air in placid clouds.
At the center lay three distinct sights.
A black hilt, and a crescent of sapphire shards.
The shield of Petronia, riven into its upper and lower halves.
And a third sight, unexpected, a suit of white armor veined with gold, a single scar across its chestpiece. This was none of her concern.
Smoke and ash swirled as if in the winds of an alien world. Henai dismounted.
A man appeared suddenly, an old man bent over a gnobbled cane.
No one in Mondane would have recognized Tyme Kent.
Quite by reflex, pins tipped with deadly poison flew unerringly from Henai's hands. They flew true, and then curved around their target, going harmlessly away.
The old man melted, and was replaced by another old man. This one taller, and more imposing, with pale blue eyes. He wore an ocher cloak, and his staff was grander than before.
"Tell me your name, child."
Something in his speech reminded her of the Emporer, and caused her to relax, though not completely. She palmed another pin as she said, "Henai."
"Henai? One of Mareus' flowers, it must be. I see his tastes have not changed much over the millenia. Well, girl, you are here for the Shield, are you not? We have been allies of a sort, and I will not gainsay your claim. Take your prize to Mareus, child, and I will take mine."
Henai wasted no time in gathering the pieces in her arms, and strapping what she could to her mount. only when she was ready to go did she broach the question.
"Who are you."
"Timothean." The old man's face creased with slight amusement, and Henai noticed that his skin had a quality not unlike the stiffness of the Emperor's own terra-cotta men. "Tell him that I await his next hand with relish."
Henai nodded. Who was this man, no, this thing, that spoke of the Emperor with such familiarity? Surely, it was better to remain in ignorance. She stopped all further questions, turned, and rode away, leaving Timothean alone.
The greatest of the Nine watched the Child depart, then allowed a portion of his power to burgeon around him, manifesting as tongues of violet light. They probed the shards in the soil.
Was the chantment truly broken? Had all of this been for naught? With sudden eagerness he collected the Shards, and lastly the hilt, of the shattered blade, cradling them in his arms like a newborn hope, and from those ancient, ageless eyes, tears began to seep, though none were there to see.
Not so far away, a skree with a secret name was waking in the nest of his new brothers.
Farther, a deathless warrior looked up from his journeying feet, and away from his thoughts of the young ones he had left behind, sensing the shifts in the flows of power.
In the Tower of Sorcery, on the Plains of Ragner Tang, the wizards were alarmed.
The moon shone brightly, and almost appeared to stir.
In his sleep, the dragon had begun to dream.
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
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