18

Mar

by thefourpartland

“You mean, attempt to draw the strike in? It’s a valid tactic, but I don’t think we have the kind of reserves that would let us achieve something like that. Unless you’ve got another pile of troops hiding in that pouch of yours.”

There was a murmur from another corner of the room. “What happens if we replace the soldiers on the gate we’re not expecting to be attacked with twice the number of recruits? It’ll look stronger, even if it isn’t.”

That comment left Iaprem pondering matters for a moment. Finally, he sat up straight and began to speak. “Well, first off, why wouldn’t they come through the gates? Can we really defend them heavily enough to force the raiders to head over the walls? Especially in the poor shape they’re in at the moment?”

It was Dregnon who answered, appropriate since he had been the one in charge of maintenance and the like on the old palace. “Sadly, a decent battering will send the wood flying. They look impressive, but at least some of the support structure is rotten or falling apart, and we don’t have the tools to repair them. I’ve got peasants doing their best to just block up the entrances with rubble, but depending on how fast they attack, it’ll provide little more than a minor barrier.”

“How long do you need to get the rubble high enough the gates can’t be opened?”

“Until sunset, at least. Maybe longer.” Dregnon began counting on his fingers, a habit he had picked up from his father, rest his soul. “More like the witching hour, sadly.”

Iaprem turned his eyes across the whole of the group that sat before him. “I need information on the enemy. How likely are they to attack at night?”

One of the lieutenants piped up from the back of the room. He was a young fellow, but already scarred by life, as was everyone in the room. Cheeks thin and almost sunken, with a burn mark scorched down one arm. “If you’re asking how many of them can see at night, sadly the answer seems to be most. The humans with them can’t, but that’s honestly a small minority.  I’d say two thirds of their forces could hit us tonight.”

“Then that’s what they’re going to do. Swarm us once the evening sun has gone down. That means we’re going to have to defend furiously at that point, and have plenty of torches at the ready. I’m sure there’s enough dry timber in this rotten hulk of a fortress to provide thousands of those. Make sure to set up bonfires that can’t be easily scattered at the most important points, especially in the courtyards.  And see if we can set up any kind of obstacles that will channel them towards the narrow points.”

“I’ll work on that, and see if I can get people to safety in the old storerooms below the palace. There’s enough room down there to hide the elderly and the children, at least.” Dregnon departed, his threadbare robes of office flapping behind him.

“And you and I best get to the walls, watch our enemy. And the men will need a symbol too.” Yenque was smiling as he said this, envisioning the great battle that was to come. Much as he had long ago tried to shed his desires for glory, there was something inherently noble in the last stand against a foe greater than oneself. Perhaps there was a little bit of the fabled order of the Knights Paladin in his soul after all.

His commander, however, showed no such higher ideals. “Get rocks and sling stones up on the walls. We’re going to have to kill as many of them before they hit the walls and we’re actually vulnerable. I’m guessing they didn’t bring much in the way of archery?”

“Not that we saw, sir.” It was the same lieutenant as before.

“Good, that gives us something in the way of an advantage, but there’s only so much we can rely on.” Iaprem rose, dismissing the others with a wave of his hand. “If you need me, I’ll be in the armoury, wedging myself into that old metal casket. And then I’ll see you on the walls.” At last, he permitted himself a small smile, one that echoed around the room as much as possible, although in most cases it was little more than a grim rictus, a spectre of the death that waited for them all this night.

***

The afternoon and twilight hours, busy though they were, did little to either tire or calm Iaprem, so electric were his nerves. His body shook and twitched, little spasms running along one limb to another, the thrill of the upcoming battle overcoming his normally stoic demeanour.

As the last of the sun’s light swept over the old palace of Cynlyaa, its Warleader let his eyes roam across the preparations. They had managed to stack a five foot high pile of rubble against the base of the gate at this end of the old palace, but only three feet at the other, and were hoping that this was the point of concentration. To that end, he had reinforced the gate guards upon the southern entrance with twice their number in recruits, a show of force that Iaprem hoped would drive the enemy commander, whomever he might be, into charging straight at this gate in a simple frontal assault.

About him on the wall lay plenty of debris and old timber, to be used for levering those crumbled stones down onto the attackers below. Likewise, most of the men who were talented with slings were gathered here, in the hopes his ruse worked. If he could force the enemy to fight in the narrow confines of the gate house, with his blade to the forefront they should be able to hold the raiders at bay. It was a faint hope, but a hope nevertheless.

Of course, his enemy would be able to see far better than he, or his soldiers, and they almost certainly had characteristics that he had not foreseen. Indeed, even one petty hedge mage could turn the course of the battle with a few cheap glamours. But there was nothing for it, and so he waited at his post above the gate, a statue riddled with nervous energy, twitching and shaking back and forth.

***

At the other end of the palace, Yenque was going through a similar series of feelings, although in his case, the energy was not nerves, but the feeling of a higher calling sweeping over him. Here he was, no doubt at the end of days, preparing to defend the last citadel of civilization against the dreadful assaults of a barbarian horde. In his mind, he knew that more often than not, civilization had indeed fallen to the barbarians. His very people’s history was based upon that fact, for they had once been a horde sweeping out of the plains to conquer those around them. But in his heart, he knew that he was on the side of right, and thus there had to be a god from up above looking down upon him.

The feeling that knowledge gave him inspired his weapon arms, letting them flow fast and free as he warmed them, spinning through the training forms in a lazy yet skilful way that drew the eyes not only of the soldiers standing beside him on the battlements, but also that force that had gathered amongst the ruins outside of the south gate. Their leader, a petty chieftain called Ngaphasi, watched as the fading sunlight sparkled off this warrior atop the battlements, and felt his courage, his surety, drain away.

Before, whenever he had raided these people, they had offered him their goods almost at the first hint of a threat, and taking them captive had been so easy even his children had done so. But now they appeared determined, ready, and armed in greater numbers than he had ever seen before. He was unsure where they had discovered such numbers of trained soldiers, but discovered them they clearly had.

While Ngaphasi was no coward, and was prepared to go through with the attacks, those of his tribe around him were less solid of heart, and he could see those on the fringes slipping away into the night, no doubt to mark themselves with wounds and the detritus of battle, and wander into the main camp as the night turned to dawn, claiming to have been fighting, while they had done no such thing.

He turned and cursed at them, telling them to hold, to wait, and such was their fear of him, and of the wrath that he could bring down upon him, almost all held their ground, although their feet stamped about and they shifted with quick, furtive, actions, always wondering if they could indeed slip away.

But perhaps, he mused, it would be better if I waited until the other attack was well joined before I commit my tribe to the attack. After all, we are merely the surety for the great force attacking the north gate. Those thoughts safely ensconced within his head, Ngaphasi settled down to wait, and watch the battle unfold.

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