31. Days of the Raven
Days of the Raven
Each morning after Leander had departed to take up position at the walls, Theodora moved to the council chamber. On the tenth day of the siege, she was barely out of the royal wing when her steward approached her. “Philon,” she greeted him with a nod. “You are eager to see me this morning.”
“Your Majesty,” he answered with a bow and fell into pace next to her. “Count Argolis told me last night, but I did not wish to disturb you. He intends to proceed with laying claim to Sithonia on behalf of his eldest son.”
“He knows I am opposed to it,” Theodora said, her voice reverberating between anger and weariness. “I will not allow his son to rule two counties.”
“Alas, we have not been able to find any stronger chain of inheritance,” the steward said with regret. “If you forbid this, you cannot do so founded in law.”
“And Lykia will have another discontent nobleman on his side,” Theodora sighed. “Though if I forced my will, what could they do in retaliation? If they think Leander will take their side, they are sorely mistaken.”
“You are the queen,” Philon agreed, though he spoke hesitantly. “Still, it is unwise to antagonise your vassals, Your Majesty. Especially with the enemy at our doors.”
“Very well,” Theodora conceded, “we will work out a compromise. Suggest to the count Argolis that his second son is given the county, but on the condition that he forfeits all rights to his father’s lands instead.”
“I will convey your wishes,” Philon promised. “Though Count Leukas may consider it a breach of your promise to secure his sister’s son a landed title,” the steward pointed out.
“Maybe I will consider giving up Lakonia,” Theodora said contemplatively and stopped walking as the sound of low, mumbling voices reached them.
“Your Majesty?” Philon said questioningly.
“I will not have time to administrate the fief regardless,” Theodora continued to say, her voice trailing off. “Do you hear somebody speaking?” she asked, glancing towards some of the open doors in the corridor.
“The sisters moved several soldiers here yesterday,” the steward explained to her. “In the king’s former chambers from the sounds of it.”
“Go on ahead without me,” Theodora told Philon. “Have my secretary draft the documents for Argolis should he agree.”
“As you command,” Philon said with a bow and left her alone in the corridor.
Theodora in turn entered the chamber that had once served as her husband’s personal quarters. None of his possessions remained except for the bed; instead, the room had been filled with many other beds of various materials. All of them were occupied by men in bandages; their wounds all seemed of such severe nature, they were not able to stand. One of them was whispering, which was among the sounds that Theodora had heard before. “Water,” he whispered. “Water. Water.” Over and over again. Turning towards him, Theodora saw that his eyes had been bandaged. Looking around, the queen saw a pitcher of water. She filled a tin cup and approached the man.
“I have water,” she said to alert him, and he turned his blindfolded face towards her. She placed one hand on his cheek to steady him and brought the cup to his lips, letting him drink.
“Thank you,” he said hoarsely, sinking back into his bed.
“You are welcome,” Theodora replied, looking around at the other injured men. One of them lay with his head wrapped in red-stained cloth. His eyes were open, but they stared with a glassy look into the empty air. “Are you thirsty?” Theodora asked, trying to gain his attention. He did not respond or even acknowledge that she had spoken to him. He simply lay, gazing into nothingness.
A noise at the entrance made Theodora turn, and she saw a young priestess enter carrying bundles of fabric. Placing them on the table where the pitcher of water was, the norn noticed the other woman. “Oh,” she exclaimed and began straightening the folds of her red robe. “Your Majesty,” she quickly added, bowing deeply.
“Are you their caretaker?” Theodora asked. “He was thirsty. I gave him water,” she said with a gesture towards the blindfolded soldier.
“I am sorry, Your Majesty,” the priestess stuttered. “I had to tend to the others first, and then get cloth to change their bandages, and –”
Theodora raised a hand to silence the flow of words. “No need to explain, I was only wondering. Do you have many soldiers in your care?”
“About fifty or so,” was the reply. “It was ten only three days ago, but they keep bringing more.”
“What is your name?” Theodora asked kindly.
“I am Sister Zoe,” the norn said blushing, bowing slightly again.
“What were you coming here to do?”
“Here to check their dressings and replace them if necessary. Keep the wounds clean.”
“You do this every morning?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“It sounds like you could use a hand,” Theodora said, pulling her sleeves back.
The young norn starred at the queen in disbelief. “Your Majesty?”
“You will have to show me how it is done. We better be quick, I think my steward and scribe are waiting for me.”
“But,” Zoe stammered, “this is not suitable work for royal hands,” she claimed.
“Maybe not,” Theodora acknowledged, glancing down at her bare arms and hands. “But since they are the only pair I possess, they will have to do. Make haste.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Zoe swallowed, preparing the water and the cloth.
When Leander returned to the palace in the evening, he found it more occupied than usual. Every room seemed full to the brim with the wounded, and people in robes were everywhere, tending to them. Even the royal wing was thus in use, and he breathed a sigh of relief as he entered the bedchamber he shared with Theodora. As the door closed, the sounds of people moving, the whimpers of pain from the wounded, and the constant chatter taking place, all was dampened. Removing his helmet, it was only then that Leander glanced around and saw the room was empty.
He drenched a cloth in a bowl of water and wiped it across his face, removing dirt, sweat, and dried blood. He was unbuckling his sword belt when Theodora entered the room and found him in that position. “You are home,” she smiled. “Still in one piece, it seems.”
“Indeed I am,” Leander said, returning her smile. “I think this is the first time I return before you do.”
“So much to do,” Theodora admitted with a shrug. “Not enough hours in the day. I may have to spend a few nights as well if this continues.”
“You have blood on your hands,” Leander interrupted with a frown. “Are you hurt?”
“It is not mine,” Theodora quickly explained. “It is from the soldiers.”
“The soldiers?” Leander exclaimed.
“I am helping the sibyls and lay brothers with the wounded,” Theodora elaborated. “There are too many for them to take care of on their own. I have assigned some of the palace servants as well, but it is still not enough,” she said and took Leander’s place by the washing bowl to clean her hands.
“Only more will come, I fear,” Leander muttered darkly. “The enemy has intensified their efforts. They are not giving us a moment’s respite.”
“My brave king,” Theodora smiled, moving to embrace him. “It cannot last forever. Sooner or later, the realms will relieve us,” she said as her arms wrapped around him.
“Indeed they will,” Leander smiled, returning the embrace. He disentangled himself from her, turned around, and began removing his armour before she could see his smile become hollow.
Eleven days after the siege began, the outlanders still had no intentions of lessening the intensity of their assaults. They attempted again and again to scale the walls, and the defenders were running out of reserves. Every man capable of bearing arms, even some who were still wounded, was on the battlements, towers, or in the yard behind the gatehouse. Leander was constantly moving up and down the walls, followed by Hubert. Neither of them sheathed their swords while there was still daylight; they were in constant use, and both their shields were bent and battered. The blue flower upon Leander’s could no longer be recognised and was little more than scratches.
Leander was leaning against one of the crenellations, catching his breath while crouching behind the stonework with his shield raised in case of arrows; then he heard the too familiar sound of a siege ladder being raised and the iron hooks on its top piece sinking into place. Standing up and gathering his resolve, Leander glanced around and saw Hubert materialising by his side. The outlanders came jumping over the wall, quickly spilling into the gap left by the outnumbered heathmen. Leander defended himself while the count of Esmarch aggressively pushed forward, trying to reach the ladder and stem the tide of red-robed soldiers. One of these slipped past Hubert, and he was in turn engaged by Leander.
The outlander had their peculiar headgear draped around his face, leaving only his eyes visible; Leander focused on the sword on his hand, and they exchanged blows. Leander’s enemy attempted a clumsy thrust forward, and the king easily turned the outlander’s blade aside with his shield, retaliating and sinking his sword deep into his foe. The outlander stumbled backwards and fell to the side, crushing his head against the crenellations before falling to the ground. It made the cloth around his head come loose and fall apart, revealing his face to be smooth and youthful.
Only then could Leander see that his attire was not the same as that worn by the Anausa; he was not one of their trained company, but simply a conscript of some sort and much younger than the king who had slain him. Further deliberations were disrupted as more outlanders climbed the wall, and Leander quickly raised his head to assess the situation. Hubert seemed to have it under control, however, pushing the Anausa back from one end; several Mearcians were cutting their way forward from the other end of the incursion.
As the two sides met, closing the gap where the outlanders had spilled onto the wall, Leander saw that the Mearcian soldiers were led by a warrior in a ragged Order surcoat. Although his looks heralded him to be from northern Adalmearc, dirt and grime made it less obvious, and his age appeared to be the same as the outlander whom Leander had slain. The king looked down upon the body of his fallen enemy and glanced up again; whoever the young Order warrior was, he was already gone. Hubert took position by the king once more, directing his attention to another section of the wall about to be assaulted; wiping his brow with the cool metal of his bracer, Leander nodded, and they moved towards the next point of engagement.
On the morning of the twelfth day, Theodora woke as dawn’s first light entered the room. She rose from the bed, beginning to dress herself; her handmaiden had long since been dismissed to work with the norns instead. She had started to brush her hair when she realised that Leander was still sitting on the edge of the bed rather than putting on his armour. “Leander?” she said softly, walking around the bed to approach him. He was sitting with his hands on either side of his face, holding it up or covering it; only when she came close did Theodora see that Leander sat with his eyes wide open. It was as if he stared at some unseen horror rather than the blank wall. “Leander?” she repeated, cautiously extending a hand to touch his shoulder.
“I cannot go,” he whispered hoarsely. “No more. I am spent.”
She sat down next to him. “What is wrong?” she asked concerned, letting her hand slide over his back.
“I cannot anymore,” he simply repeated. When Theodora did not speak, he eventually continued. “The noise, smoke, screams, arrows and stones and swords. One man, his head was bashed in by a rock, sprayed blood all over me. Tasted like metal,” Leander explained, moving one hand to brush over his mouth as if the taste was still present. “And this soldier, he came running past me. Just as he did, an arrow struck his face. If he had been a moment sooner or a moment later, it would have struck me.”
“Oh, dearest,” Theodora said softly, soothingly, stroking his temple, but Leander continued as if she had not interrupted.
“I killed this boy yesterday. I have fought before, of course, but this – this was the first time that it was my sword that really sank deep. It was easy even for me. He knew nothing of fighting. It could very well have been me, cut down without hesitation by someone more skilled.” Theodora did not interrupt again but simply continued stroking his head as Leander spoke. “It seems like the flip of a coin each day whether I live or die. Who becomes another body on the pyre, and who gets to walk home. Like the gods are playing dice. You would think I was getting used to it, but I am not. Each day is more horrid than the last. If this continues,” Leander swallowed, “I will dissolve. Like ice under the sun, melting. Every part of me has melted away, Theodora,” he continued, finally turning to look at her. “I am just a walking suit of armour. Hollow, empty.”
“Hush now, dearest,” Theodora shushed him, placing one hand against the chest of his nightshirt. “Can you feel? Your heart is still beating. You are still alive,” she told him, her other hand caressing his cheek.
“It does not feel that way anymore,” he confessed.
“Leander, you have to go,” Theodora said softly while biting her lip. “The men know your coat of arms. If it is not seen, they will know and lose their courage.”
“The same way that I have lost mine?” he asked with a bitter tone of voice.
“Find it,” Theodora told him. “Or pretend. Whatever is necessary to do your duty. You must not disappoint the men.”
Hearing this, Leander was silent at first. “I know,” he answered at length. “If a soldier did not appear for duty, he would hang for desertion. I must go,” he said and took a deep breath. “I must go,” he repeated, standing up.
Leander walked over to his armour rack. Even from a distance, the smell of battle emanating from it permeated the room as a constant reminder of the siege. He put on the various pieces while Theodora watched him silently. Finally, only his helmet remained, which she stood with in her hands. Mustering a smile, he moved over to her and bowed his head down; she placed the helmet on his head and let her hands slide down to frame his face. She moved forward slightly and kissed him; he gave her a resigned look and left.
Theodora stood indecisively for a moment after Leander was gone before she composed herself and left. She went to one of the rooms filled with patients and found Zoe already busy tending to them. “I was briefly delayed,” Theodora remarked as she began undressing bandages from one of the wounded.
“It is not my place to make such judgements,” the norn said anxiously.
“It is mine, however,” Theodora said with a faint attempt of smiling that had little success. She was with the soldier whose eyes were bandaged; cleaning and drying the wounded area, she placed a new bandage around his head.
“Is it true,” the man suddenly croaked in his strained voice, “what the sister tells me? She claims you are the queen.”
“She is right,” Theodora confirmed as she finished tending to him. “Though it is of a little consequence. Anybody in the palace could tend to your wounds.”
“Never thought I would feel a queen’s touch,” the man mumbled as he leaned back to rest.
Moving to the next, Theodora glanced at Zoe. She was feeding soup to the soldier with the head wound, whose eyes were always open with a glassy stare. He made no motion and did not stir but simply swallowed the liquid as it entered his mouth. “What has happened to him?”
“The elder sibyls say his mind has been hurt. It is sleeping even if his body is awake,” Zoe explained as she filled the spoon.
“Can nothing be done?” Theodora asked, turning her attention back towards the soldier presently in her care.
“Not unless he wakes by himself, no,” the acolyte replied. “But only the Weavers know the strands of his fate and if he ever will.”
“But still you care for him, you keep him alive,” Theodora pondered.
“Such is our tenet,” Zoe explained. “Only the Raven Lady knows when life is at its end. Until then, it is our duty to preserve it by any means.” She continued on to the next patient.
“Your Majesty,” Philon suddenly appeared.
“I have told you that I will be with you as soon as I am done,” Theodora declared.
“I understand,” the steward replied, bowing his head, “but this should not be delayed. Count Larisa has discovered your intentions towards granting Lakonia to Count Leukas’ nephew. This has made Count Larisa furious, and he awaits your personal explanation as to why his shared ancestry towards Lakonia will thus be overlooked.”
“These men are badly hurt,” Theodora said sharply. “While defending this city, including the count Larisa. Do they not deserve I tend to their needs first?”
“Your Majesty,” the steward said patiently. “It is not I that you must convince but the count. I must caution you against letting your individual subjects take precedence over the realm as a whole.”
Eventually Theodora let out a sigh. “Sister Zoe, I must ask you to finish for me,” she told the acolyte. “Tell Count Larisa I shall be with him momentarily,” she instructed Philon and began drying herself clean of blood.
When Theodora had finished her meetings in the council chamber, she began walking back to her quarters. Before she reached her destination, Irene came from the opposite direction. Masking any emotions, Theodora simply continued, giving her aunt a brief nod and faint smile as they passed. “Theodora,” Irene said just as the queen passed by, making the young woman stop and turn to look at her. “I have heard a rumour you are personally aiding the norns in tending to the wounded.”
“For once rumour has it true,” Theodora said, raising an eyebrow. “Do you wish to tell me you disapprove?”
“It is your decision,” Irene spoke casually. “It will make your courtiers think less of you, but the people will esteem you more highly. If you consider that a valuable trade, your decision has merit.”
“I had not thought along those lines,” Theodora replied politely, though she made a small step to increase the distance between them. “I weigh my decisions on a different scale.”
“Perhaps you should,” Irene retorted. “Others certainly will.”
“I am not in the same position as you, dear aunt,” Theodora countered. “I need not rule as you have.”
Irene stepped closer. “You may think so. Yet your husband was the son of mine,” the dowager queen pointed out. “Is it not amusing how fate seems to repeat itself? The same strands woven together, a wheel that turns and turns until it reaches its beginning.”
“Leander is not his father,” Theodora said defiantly. “I may not have known my uncle well, but all I am told confirms this.”
“I used to think so as well,” Irene told her niece. “Or rather, I hoped as much. You see, when a queen bears no children after many years of marriage, she is not thought well of. In fact she is the subject of scorn at court,” Irene said, contempt audible in her own voice. “But at least I could cling to the doubt as to who could not have children. Was it I or Everard?”
“Then Leander was born,” Theodora said quietly.
“Then Leander was born,” Irene smiled sardonically. “For the first few years I sowed doubt about his parentage. I investigated any possibility that somebody else was his father.” When Theodora did not speak, Irene continued. “And then a moment I will never forget. He was two or three years old and came walking down the hallway. He stopped as he saw me and cocked his head exactly like his father did when confronted with something confounding. And I could no longer pretend,” Irene said bitterly. “His eyes, his nose, his mannerisms. All of it exactly like Everard yet none of his vitality, his courage, his stature.”
“You forget yourself,” Theodora interrupted sharply, “and of whom you speak, and to whom you speak.”
“Of course,” Irene said, but she did not seem chastised; she merely gave another of her disdainful smiles. “Leander may be nothing like his father. I only wonder if that is for the best or for the worst.” Theodora did not answer but simply left without further words.
With another day spent divided between tending to the injured and ruling the realm, Theodora returned to her bedchamber and prepared for the night; Leander was not there despite the hour. The sun was soon gone, and only candles lit up the room. As they slowly burned away, Theodora sat on the edge of her bed and waited. There were still no footsteps made by armoured boots to announce Leander’s return. She climbed into bed but could not sleep, and in the end, she got up again. She took a sheet of paper upon which was written an inheritance agreement for Count Argolis and read it in the dim candlelight. Halfway through, she stopped and walked to the door. She opened it and peered into the darkness, but all was quiet in the corridor beyond. Closing the door again, the queen returned and continued reading the rest of the document.
She was almost done, the candle nearly at the end of its life, when heavy steps were finally heard. She stood up with a jolt, glancing towards the door; before she could move, it was opened, and Leander stepped through. He was in his usual worn condition with a weary look, but otherwise he appeared unharmed. “There was a nightly assault,” Leander explained, removing his helmet and gloves. “The marshal guessed it. They left some of their screens close to the walls to hide their approach.”
“All is well now?” Theodora asked in a neutral voice, to which Leander made a reassuring gesture.
“Waited until they were almost under the walls and then threw torches down on the ground. Our archers had free range,” he told her, pulling his surcoat over his head. Theodora nodded as he explained and bit her lip; finally, she quickly closed the distance between them and hugged him through his armour.
“I thought something had happened,” she whispered. “I know they would inform me if that were the case, but even so. I kept thinking…” She did not elaborate further. Leander did not reply but simply returned her embrace. “It does not seem just that all I can do is wait.”
“Trust me, you would not wish to be down there. Nor would I wish you to be,” Leander assured her.
“I understand that,” Theodora told him. “But I am queen, and yet there is nothing I can do to protect you.”
“Let us not speak further on this,” Leander requested. “We should both rest.” They spent the remaining hours of the night chasing sleep.
On the fifteenth day of the siege, Leander stood as usual with the marshal and the count by his side atop the gatehouse. The outlanders were pushing their catapults out to get in range, and their Anausa infantry were separating along the archery screens, pushing them forward in preparation for new assaults. “Get ready for trouble,” Hubert muttered, checking the straps on his shield.
“They are not bringing one of the screens,” Leander said frowning. In the distance, they saw one of the tall wicker constructions remain immobile while the rest were pushed forward.
“It cannot be the same trick as last night,” Hubert replied. “Too far away to be of any use.”
“Maybe it covers something else,” the marshal mumbled, mostly to himself. His eyes traced a line from the screen towards the city fortifications. “The tower,” he added. “They are mining the tower to our right.”
“Mining?” Leander said, his frown deepening.
“Tunnelling,” the marshal explained. “Rather than start from within their stockade, they leave that screen in place to hide their work. Saves them a week of digging with that as their starting point.”
“A bit of guesswork, is it not,” the count of Esmarch muttered in his growling voice.
“If they consistently leave it in place for the next days, I would say that supports my suspicion,” Leonard answered.
“But should we not do something,” asked their king, “if they are digging a tunnel into the city?”
“Not into,” the marshal corrected him. “They will dig below the tower. There is more pressure on the foundation, and it is less uniform than the wall around. Once they have undermined the ground underneath the tower, they collapse their tunnel and the tower falls as well.”
“All the more reason we must do something!” Leander exclaimed.
“This city is built on hard rock,” Hubert smiled. “If they think digging through the heath is tough, wait until they get close to the mountain. They will have to carve through solid stone.”
“Quite,” the marshal agreed. “The last hundred feet could take them weeks or months to get through. I would say we are quite safe from their mining attempts,” he explained with a satisfied smile.
“Oh,” Leander said relieved. “So we can ignore it?”
“We can,” the marshal said, “but I think in a week or two we will try and sabotage their efforts. Destroy it if possible.”
“But if it poses no threat…” Leander said confused.
“Exactly. The longer they spend digging those mines, trusting in that, the longer we will be safe. If we attack, regardless of whether we succeed, that will reinforce their belief that mining our walls is the best strategy,” Leonard told the young king.
“Subterfuge,” Hubert grinned. “Literally.”
“Such a wit you are, Count Esmarch,” the marshal muttered.
Regardless of whether the outlanders planned to tunnel below the walls, they did not abandon their direct assaults. There was constant fighting, and whenever the besiegers retreated from an area, they bombarded it with arrows as well as stones from the catapults. Leander sat crouched behind his shield, enduring the hailstorm of missiles on the easternmost part of the outer wall. As it ended, he looked up along with the other Mearcians on the parapet in realisation of what this meant. Within moments, the dreaded Anausa came leaping over the wall in several places. Leander was pushed back and separated from Hubert; quickly he retreated further steps, waiting for other defenders to reinforce him rather than face the enemy alone.
He did not have to wait long; a shape moved past him with effortless speed and dove into the outlanders. One by one, they fell to the precision of the newcomer’s blows, unable to retaliate. Leander watched with shock as the defender wove through his enemies and cut them down. It was exactly like seeing the count of Esmarch fight except Leander was looking at a young man wearing a ragged Order surcoat. With him pushing from one side and Hubert from the other as well as the remaining Mearcians on the wall, they quickly repelled the assault.
“I have seen you before,” Leander shouted over the noise of battle to the young Order soldier. “I did not realise the Order recruited their soldiers so young.”
“I am Baldwin of Hareik,” stated the young warrior, “squire to Sir William of Tothmor.”
“That certainly illuminates your prowess,” Leander replied, and they both knelt down behind the crenellations with their shields raised as the outlanders began shooting volleys of arrows at them. “You have my sympathies for your loss.”
“I have lost none,” Baldwin shook his head. “It is but a temporary separation.”
“I see,” Leander said hesitantly. “I was not aware it was considered likely that any of the knights escaped the battle.”
“My lord is Sir William,” Baldwin stated while an arrow embedded itself in his shield. “No man born in these times can defeat him.”
“Your confidence is inspiring if nothing else,” Leander acknowledged. “Has the marshal given you a specific posting?”
“He had more pressing matters weighing on him, I wager,” Baldwin replied. “I simply go where I might be of most use.”
“In that case, I suggest you stay by my side,” Leander grinned. “I would be glad of your company. You will fit perfectly alongside my other protector, Count Esmarch.” The boy’s eyes widened at hearing the name, and he nodded in acceptance of his new position.
On the morning of the seventeenth day, Theodora stopped before she reached the chambers where she tended to the wounded. Two servants were carrying a body between them out of the chamber that had once belonged to Leander. Even from a distance, Theodora could recognise the man as the one with the head wound whose mind would not wake. As they carried him away for the pyres, Theodora walked forward once again and entered the chamber. “What happened?” she asked of Zoe.
“He was not breathing. When I came in this morning, I mean,” Zoe said. “He was cold. I think he simply stopped breathing sometime during the night.”
“I do not know why I kept thinking he would wake,” Theodora said with a weak voice. “For some reason, all the care you gave him, I thought he would wake.”
“The raven came for his spirit,” Zoe said in a resigned voice. “He could do naught but obey.”
“But that is so unreasonable,” Theodora tried to argue. “We do all we can and for nothing? Are the gods so capricious?”
“Your Majesty,” Zoe said shocked with a voice torn between admonishing a heretic statement and avoiding giving offence to the queen. “It is not our place to ask such questions.”
“There are many who would say it is not for a woman to rule,” Theodora said sharply. “I have long since abandoned such notions,” she exclaimed and stormed out of the room. A short while passed before she finally returned and began cleaning wounds and changing bandages; she did so in silence with angry, quick motions rather than her usual tender movements and words of encouragement to the injured.
When the day ended and she returned to her bedchamber, Theodora could not find rest long enough to sit down; she paced back and forth, looking at papers and documents before pushing them away, removing her diadem and carelessly flinging it onto the table by her vanity mirror. Her angry energy was in stark contrast to Leander’s entry, which was made with weary steps. As he found his wife pacing around the room restlessly, he simply stood and stared until she noticed and returned his gaze. They both breathed deeply and gave each other an embrace, but neither found much sleep that night.
The twentieth day of the siege came and went, but as night began to fall, the Mearcians did not retire from the walls as customary. Instead, a small band of them remained in the yard and made special preparations to their attire. Some of them exchanged their steel helmets for leather caps, while others covered theirs in cloth. Bracers, greaves, and other pieces of metal not hidden by their surcoat was likewise covered up. “What are they doing?” Leander asked quietly as he observed the men prepare thus.
“Making sure nothing is showing that might reflect light,” the marshal replied. Leander looked up at the moon, which was almost new and barely shone at all.
“They are not taking chances,” the king mumbled with raised eyebrows, watching as Hubert wound leather strips around the pommel of his sword. Neither Leander nor the marshal had even bothered trying to dissuade Hubert from leading the nightly raid.
“I should be going as well,” muttered Baldwin as he stood by Leander’s side.
“You have your task,” Hubert told the youth without looking up. “If I do not return, at least someone mildly skilled can protect that boy in my absence,” he said, gesturing in Leander’s direction. Several of the soldiers looked uneasy at witnessing their king being referred to in this manner, though Leander’s only reaction was a hopeless sigh.
“Perhaps you should restrict such terms to times of solitude,” the marshal said pointedly, although Hubert did not seem to listen.
Finally, the small group was prepared, and they all moved to the wall. A rope was tied around one of the crenellations, and one by one, the soldiers climbed down. Leander, Leonard, and Baldwin remained and walked up on the nearest tower, where several longbowmen also stood in reinforcement. They watched as best they could, but the lack of light and the meticulous preparations made it impossible to discern anything. As with the last sortie, the Mearcians left behind could do nothing but wait until something revealed itself.
When it finally did, the distance meant they could still not make much sense of it. “It seems to be in the right place,” the marshal mumbled, straining his old eyes. The sounds that reached them were too distant for their nature to be determined.
“In the event you were right about the mining and the location,” Leander said pointedly. “I am still doubtful this was the right move. What if they end up abandoning their tunnels altogether and simply continue their direct assault?”
“Then they will continue to suffer losses while knowing that we struck out and destroyed their tunnels. A blow to morale,” the aged knight replied.
“Wound the enemy’s morale, my lord king,” Baldwin nodded sagely, “and half the battle is won.”
“Kill them and the whole battle is won,” Leander said lightly, though neither the old nor the young Order warrior by his side found it amusing.
Things developed further beyond the walls. It was not far from the stockades erected by the outlanders, near where their archery screens had been left behind. Now, clashes of steel could clearly be heard along with a death scream or two, but nothing else could be deduced until a group of red-robed warriors was spotted, running from the outlander fortifications with torches in hand. “Finally,” the marshal growled. “About time they brought light.” As the new soldiers arrived with torches, the Mearcians watching from afar could begin to determine what had and what was happening. Sentries had been posted by the outlanders in various positions to watch the battlefield between the city walls and their palisades. Several of these watchmen lay dead around the wicker screens, and fighting continued in that area. Then was heard a loud rumble akin to thunder except it came from the earth and not the sky.
More fighting ensued. Occasionally a torch was dropped or extinguished, plunging its surroundings into darkness. Instead, the sound of horse hooves could be heard by those with the sharpest hearing. “Their riders,” the marshal said tight-lipped, “they are going to ride our men down. Archers, get ready.”
“Where are we shooting, my lord?” asked one of them. He did so with good reason since the entire area within their range was completely black and no movement could be detected.
“Wait,” Leonard ordered them, leaning forward as if the few inches recovered made him able to see his retreating men. He remained silent, however, simply watching with the others. Now and then screams could be heard as the Zhayedan riders impaled one of the heathmen on their spears.
Finally, the Mearcians could see their own men approaching the wall, running towards the rope that would allow them back to safety. “Now,” bellowed the marshal, and all the archers upon the tower let loose. While the riders were in motion and thus difficult to hit, at least they were easier to spot due to the sound of their horses galloping across the field, and the red robes worn by the Zhayedan riders could narrowly be glimpsed. Eventually the outlanders determined that the risk was not worth it and abandoned their pursuit, turning their horses around and out of range of the Hæthian longbowmen.
The king, the marshal, and the squire hurried down from the tower towards the returning men. A score and a half as well as the count Esmarch had left, and nearly a score returned. “Dangerous work,” Hubert said with a satisfied look, “but rewarding. Those black-hearted, red-frilled bastards were digging a tunnel. We collapsed it as thoroughly as we could.”
“Good work, my lord,” the marshal said in approval. “This will set them back many days.”
“Damn, this is thirsty work, though,” the count said lamenting. “I could drink a barrel of ale.”
“No ale left in the city,” Leander said with a smile born of relief rather than jest. “And nothing new will be brewed until the siege ends. But maybe some wine can be dug up somewhere.”
“That would do,” Hubert nodded gravely as they descended down from the battlements. “That will do.”
Crossing the yard, the men dispersed each to their homes. Leander, Leonard, Hubert, and Baldwin walked together up the road, two of them headed for the palace, two of them headed for the Order tower. They had not left the yard before they were met by a youth wearing a red, feathered cap, rubbing his eyes. “Almost fell asleep,” Troy yawned.
“I told you to go on ahead without us,” Leander chastised him. “There was no need for you to wait up,” he said as Troy fell in place and walked with the group. They reached the gate separating the districts and had the guards open it for them.
“It didn’t feel right going home without you,” Troy shrugged. “And I suppose I was curious to see if this one finally met his match out there,” the troubadour added, motioning towards Hubert.
“No man is born who can best me in battle,” Hubert said triumphantly.
“Except –” Baldwin chirped, but he was quickly interrupted.
“Except Sir William, yes, yes, I know,” Hubert said sourly. “Hel’s arse, I trained that boy too well for my own good.” A few scattered laughs came in response as the king, the count, the marshal, the squire, and the bard walked up the mountain towards their beds.
If the outlanders repaired their tunnels or abandoned their designs, the defenders were not certain; regardless, they continued storming the walls. The twenty-first day of the siege was replaced by the twenty-second, which in turn was superseded by the twenty-third, which soon lost its place to the twenty-fourth. On each day, hundreds died on both sides to arrows, swords, axes, and many other inventive ways that men could devise for the killing of other men.
As the twenty-fifth day of the siege dawned, nothing gave away that it would not simply continue the rhythm. Catapults and bowmen rained missiles down upon the defenders; crouching behind crenellations, Leander hid underneath his shield and waited out the storm while keeping watch for where he and his two protectors should move to engage the enemy. “That was odd,” Baldwin said with a frown; unlike most others, he had no qualms about peering over the walls while they were being hit with volleys despite the risk of exposing his face to being impaled by an arrow.
“Something stranger than you not having an arrowhead embedded in your nose?” Hubert bellowed, having on numerous occasions reproached Baldwin for his recklessness.
“Some of the outlanders, I swear, it looks like they are armed with mining picks,” Baldwin said with uncertainty in his voice.
“What?” exclaimed the marshal, risking himself to look over the walls.
“Straight ahead of us,” Baldwin pointed out. “Heading our way.”
“Good luck hacking your way through the walls,” Hubert snored derisively.
“Not the walls,” the marshal mumbled, barely audible. “The gatehouse. The barricade,” it burst from him. “They want to pick through the barricade,” he yelled, suddenly standing up. “Prepare oil!” he shouted to the soldiers nearby.
“There is none left,” one of the soldiers stammered.
“Hel on a horse,” the marshal cursed, and he leapt down the stairs from the gatehouse, running down into the yard.
Bewildered and confused, Leander, Hubert, and Baldwin followed suit. “Sir Leonard, what is happening?” Leander asked.
“The mining picks, they are going to carve their way through the blockade!” the marshal explained, and he gestured towards the gatehouse. The opening where the gate had once stood was blocked by solid rocks, the materials used by defenders to fill up the breach in what seemed like an eternity ago.
“But that will take hours,” Leander argued.
“Still quicker than mining through underground,” the marshal argued as he ordered the nearby soldiers to assemble.
“Can we not replace it?” asked Hubert. “Drive them back, rebuild the barricade with more stone?”
“It is all spent in repairs,” Leonard said, shaking his head. “Quarry is outside the city, we cannot get any more.”
“Tear down some of the buildings,” Baldwin offered, motioning towards the nearby houses. “Use their materials.”
“They are made from timber and brick,” Hubert retorted. “Mining picks will tear through them quickly.”
“Another cavalry charge,” Leander suggested. “As before, drive them back as soon as they get through.”
“We ate the last horse three days ago,” the old knight said, emotion filtering through into his voice. “We are out of options.”
The marshal’s words hit like hammers as they sank in. “What do we do?” asked Leander, who was the first to recover.
“I and my men will hold them back as long as we can,” the marshal promised. “Lord Hubert, you have your duty to perform,” he told the count and walked over to the nearby group of Order soldiers. They were only a few scores, those who remained of the original city garrison past the battle of Sikyon. Their surcoats were little more than rags; the white, seven-pointed star was bloodied and grimed if not outright torn to pieces.
“Lord Hubert, what does he mean?” Leander asked of him.
“I am your protector,” the count said. “We do not have long before they break through and storm into the city. The district walls are worth little defence, but they will buy us a few hours. It is time to retreat, boy.”
“Retreat where?” Leander said, still not understanding.
“The escape tunnels,” Hubert said quietly. “You have to get out of the city.”
“What?” exclaimed Leander. “I am to flee? Make a coward of myself?”
“At the first battle against the outlanders, the marshal signalled a retreat, and he saved what could be saved. It was the right choice, it allowed us to defend the city,” Hubert argued forcefully.
“Except all retreated,” Leander countered. “Not merely the marshal. All our men were brought back.”
“Not all,” Baldwin interceded. “The knights stayed and fought so the others could escape,” he pointed out while looking at Leander with his big eyes. “We must stay and fight so you can escape and fight another day,” he told the young king.
“If we are to continue the war,” Hubert insisted, “the king of Hæthiod must be free and not a prisoner.”
Leander let his eyes sweep over the area with the walls still being bombarded by the outlanders. Directly ahead was the gatehouse with the blocked entrance, which they were picking through. Priests and priestesses, lay brothers and volunteers, bringing wounded away to the upper district. “We fought so hard,” Leander mumbled. “How can we have lost?”
“Your Majesty,” Hubert said gravely, and Leander’s head turned sharply upon hearing the count’s unfamiliar use of the title. “The siege is lost. If you and the queen are taken prisoner, the whole realm is sure to follow. Do you believe the queen will flee the city while you remain here?”
“No,” Leander admitted hoarsely.
“You may flee for your own sake, for your people’s sake, or for the queen’s sake,” Hubert continued, speaking as quietly as he could while still being audible. “Regardless, it is the right thing to do. Should you feel the sting of cowardice, that is your burden to bear.”
“Find Troy,” Leander finally said. “I will not leave without him.”
“I cannot depart from your side, Your Majesty,” Hubert said in refusal.
“Baldwin,” Leander called out. The squire had left the king’s side to join the Order soldiers preparing for the inevitable breach and incursion of Anausa infantry; he returned, however, upon hearing Leander speak his name.
“Yes, my lord king?”
“Find Troy among the volunteers,” Leander instructed him, “and then I want both of you to make your way towards the palace immediately. No delay.”
“I shall convey your message,” Baldwin said with a nod. “As a soldier of the Order, my place is here when the enemy breaks through,” the squire argued, motioning towards where the other Order warriors had gathered under the marshal’s command.
“I will not see you dead,” Leander hissed. “If I cannot save any of them, I will save you! I am your king!”
“I am from Vidrevi,” Baldwin said with a joyless smile. “I am only beholden to the Order, my lord king. And it is not right that I should be spared whilst my brethren die in combat simply because I am acquainted with my lord king,” said the young warrior.
“Baldwin,” said the marshal, suddenly appearing. “As marshal of the Order, I command you to protect the king and ensure his safe departure from this city. Understood?”
“But my lord marshal –” Baldwin began to argue, but he was cut off.
“Understood?” Leonard roared.
“Yes, my lord,” Baldwin mumbled dissatisfied.
“The Order will need knights of your calibre,” the marshal said quietly, placing a hand on Baldwin’s shoulder in a final gesture as he walked past the boy. He returned to his men standing in front of the barricade, which was slowly being dismantled from the other side.
“Baldwin,” Leander said, repeating his order, “find Troy and meet us in the royal wing. Troy will know where to go.”
“Yes,” the squire muttered, quickly departing.
The king gave a last look at the fortifications that they had held for so long, a last look at the men about to defend the yard and be overrun by the enemy. “Let us go,” he said quietly to Hubert, and the two men departed from the lower circle.
The marshal watched them leave before he turned to face the fortifications. Where the gate had once stood was now but a mass of stones heaped together, filling out the gap underneath the gatehouse. Two score of men were gathered by the marshal’s side; all that remained of the Order forces in Tothmor. Some were young, some were old, but all of them were hardened veterans by now. On the walls and the closest towers were the last longbowmen still at the marshal’s disposal, ready to unleash their arrows and sell the city for the steepest price possible.
It lasted another half hour before they broke through. During this time, the outlanders still assaulted the walls as they had done nearly every day for twenty-five days, but it was half-hearted and mostly to draw defenders to the walls. It appeared that the outlanders knew as well what it would mean once they broke through the barricaded gate. Still there were thousands upon thousands of their red-attired soldiers waiting to storm into the city and sack it.
The marshal breathed heavily, holding his sword ready. He had been a knight for sixty-one years and a marshal in thirty of those. At last, the barricade began to crumble visibly. The remaining stones fell apart. It took another effort, and then the breach was wide enough for the Anausa to storm through. Raising his sword towards the enemy, Sir Leonard roared the battle cry of the Order and charged the enemy one last time.