65. Shadow War
The day preceding the nightly assault, a blackboot returned to the city from patrol. He brought a prisoner with him, captured and brought back for questioning. The guards merely waved them through, one district gate after another; it was commonplace for the blackboots to move between highest and lowest circle and beyond. Furthermore, each gate was undermanned, and the soldiers that were present seemed preoccupied with keeping their heads up and the food in their stomachs down.
Once inside the first circle, Kamran steered towards the dungeon. Thanks to the dedication of the flame priestess, they were no longer as crowded as before, though they were by no means empty. Kamran led his captive through corridors and down stairways until he reached a room containing a few guards. They all seemed in good health, drinking water from the supply kept separate inside the palace.
“I need to stash this prisoner for a day until he is to be questioned tomorrow,” Kamran explained.
One of the soldiers got up, eyeing Godfrey. “Why not ask your questions now? He’s right there.”
“That is not your concern,” the blackboot replied brusquely. “Put him somewhere isolated and leave him there. I do not want him talking to anyone, whether they are drylanders or faithful.”
“All good, all good,” the guard grunted, getting manacles to slap around Godfrey’s leg. Kamran glanced at Godfrey, standing idle for a moment, which attracted a few curious stares from the remaining soldiers. Clearing his throat, the blackboot left.
“Isolated,” one of the seated guards scoffed. “Sarvar take him! What does he expect?”
“Careful,” cautioned the one slapping chains on Godfrey. “The sāyag has not only the soft tread of a cat, but its ears too.”
“He is just a man,” his companion spoke with disdain. “He is not of the fravashi.”
“Still, you want to go against his orders?”
“He does not command me,” came the dismissive answer, though spoken by a voice growing less certain of itself.
“Throw the dust-eater in the storage room, the one by the end of the hall,” a third guard suddenly interjected. “It won’t matter what he says in there.”
The guard by Godfrey’s side lit up in a grin and began walking, pulling the prisoner with him.
They walked for a while, passing cell doors through which the occasional moan or pained sigh could be heard. The guard showed no interest in those, instead leading Godfrey to a small door, which opened to a likewise tiny room. Provisions had at one time been stored here. Now it was empty except for hay strewn on the floor and a wooden beam supporting the ceiling; iron rings had been attached to the wood, transforming it into a primitive cell. The guard quickly fastened Godfrey and left, closing the door without a second glance. It left the room in complete darkness.
Godfrey raised his hands in front of him, still bound by rope. “Not much hospitality here,” he said at the closed door in Mearcspeech.
“No room at the inn,” a voice called out somewhere in the darkness.
Godfrey started, staring in the direction of the sound to no avail. “I did not realise I had company.”
“No room, so they stuff us in here,” the speaker explained.
“He could have untied my hands, at least,” Godfrey mentioned.
“I miss my barrel.”
Godfrey gave a frown. “We have met before.”
“No,” the other voice spoke contemplatively. “No, this is the first time you are in here.”
“You are the mad prophet from the street. The one who awaited the return of the god in the mountain.”
“You know of him? Have you seen him?” The eagerness was unmistakeable.
“Not since we last met, which must have been some months ago,” Godfrey explained in a kind voice. “So this is where you ended. They sent you as their thrall to make the land fertile, and for your reward, you languish in here.”
“I tried to sow,” the madman replied. “I ploughed and tiled the earth, I sowed my seeds, but none would take.”
“They did,” Godfrey argued. “Some listened, and others watched to find conscripts for their cause. The poor and downtrodden, ripe to be recruited. You were merely the scare doll on the field, attracting attention. And now they have placed you in here, in case they will need you again.”
“You think so?” The eagerness returned to his voice. “I will be called upon again?”
“I wonder how long you have been a prisoner in both body and mind,” Godfrey mumbled. “You are beyond my help.”
“He has not forgotten me.” One could hear the smile as the madman spoke. “He will return and see how I have served him. He shall call me faithful.”
“Do you think the sun has set yet?” Godfrey abruptly asked.
“The sun will only rise with his coming,” his companion rambled.
“I have places to be, you see,” came the explanation, “and I should neither be too early nor too late.”
“All things happen according to the time he has set,” the prophet spoke blissfully.
“I suppose I will take my chances now,” Godfrey decided, speaking to himself. “I would have preferred solitude, but you are hardly a reliable witness to anything.”
“I am a witness! That is my purpose, to bear witness.” The exclamation had come forcefully, but the madman’s strength seemed sapped already, and his voice became a whisper.
“Stay here and wait,” Godfrey told him. “If my suspicions are correct, you will not be a prisoner much longer.” With those words, he pulled his hands apart until the rope broke. Wasting no time, he grabbed the iron ring around his leg that kept him chained. As if it were brittle glass, Godfrey broke the ring apart with little visible effort exerted. Standing up, he left the room.
The sun had set more than an hour ago when Rostam, commander of the city, entered the royal chambers that now served him. The shadow warrior followed him all the way to the doorstep, staring into the room with yellow eyes. A moment passed, Rostam standing restless until the shadow seemed satisfied and allowed the commander to close the door. With footsteps that barely made sound, the shadow began patrolling down the corridor.
Rostam exhaled, removing some of his garbs and making himself more comfortable. He poured a generous helping of wine into a goblet, immediately taking a deep draught.
“Pour me a cup. I am parched.”
Rostam almost dropped the wine as he pivoted on one foot, his sword halfway out of the sheath.
“Rostam, it is me.”
“Javed!” he hissed. “Are you mad? What if I had stabbed you or alerted the guards?”
“Forgive me,” Godfrey said, though there was nothing apologetic about his voice. “I am exceedingly weary.” He took the goblet from the outlander’s hands and emptied it.
“How did you get here?” Rostam asked, glancing around.
“What matters is why I am here. I have come to warn you,” the traveller explained.
“Tonight, if my count is correct, the drylanders will attack Tothmor.”
Rostam’s eyes widened. “How is that possible?”
“They marched out of their camp some days ago.”
“But what chance do they have to take the city?”
“How many of your soldiers are in any condition to fight?” Godfrey asked. Rostam’s lips parted, but no answer issued. “As I suspected. Nothing is certain, but I expect their assault will succeed.”
“There is a chance still,” Rostam spoke, eyes darting towards the door. “If I act now, perhaps I can marshal the defences –”
“How will you explain your prescient knowledge? Besides, I do not think we want you to defend the city.”
“You do not want me to defend the city,” Rostam spoke accusingly. “These are my men about to be slaughtered, men who trust me!”
“Speak quietly,” Godfrey admonished him. “Yes, that is to be endured. You are a traitor, Rostam, which brings a bitter price to pay at times.”
“My men are not traitors, they do not deserve this!” Rostam argued fiercely.
“No, they do not,” Godfrey assented with a calm demeanour in stark contrast. “Neither do the Order soldiers who will die tonight. None of us deserve any of this, but it cannot be any other way.”
Silence followed. “What must I do?” Rostam asked at length.
“Go to sleep.”
“At some point, they will come to wake you with news of the assault. Lead the defence, but find some reason to slip back here alone. I will show you a hidden way out of the city.”
“My shadow,” Rostam remarked, biting his lip. “If he notices my flight and brings word back, it could be my head.”
“I will ensure that does not happen,” Godfrey promised. “Return to Sikandar, make up some story about escaping, and return to his services.”
“If he will trust me,” Rostam argued. “I will be the man who lost this city. He might prefer to make an example of me, or worse, I will be sent to Shahriyar’s mercy.” He swallowed, fingering his neck.
“Sikandar knows your value. I feel confident he will prefer to make use of you.”
“You feel confident,” Rostam muttered.
“Would you rather stay and become a prisoner of the Order? Imagine your fate in this city after what the Servants of the Flame have done to it.”
“Good point,” the commander mumbled. He began undressing himself, followed by his usual routine before going to sleep; Godfrey retreated to a dark corner, allowing the shadows to swallow him.
At midnight, nearly two thousand soldiers crossed the plain before Tothmor. Soon, their approach could not be concealed any longer, but it did not cause the attackers any hesitation. They spread out, carrying storm ladders to assault the walls far apart. The outlanders scrambled to alert every available defender and bring them to the fortifications. While few in number, most of them were Anausa, trained with the bow and well suited for this task. They filled up every tower, raining down arrows. The rest stood with spears, swords, and shields upon the walls, waiting as the ladders were raised and Order soldiers began ascending.
It was a daunting task to climb up the ladders, getting onto the walls without being run through, but the Order commanders had sent their knights to be the first wave of assault. While some fell, most were able to get a foothold and begin pushing the outlanders back. Once the knights were on the walls, the circumstances changed to combat in which they excelled. The outlanders were too few to hope to hold them back; within an hour, the knights swept down the defences and conquered the gatehouse.
Once the gate was opened, a force of fifty mounted knights rode through, having been kept in reserve for this purpose. Their horses thundered up the main street of the city, achieving their goal due to surprise and speed. The outlanders were still sending reinforcements to the fifth district, and the gate between the fifth and fourth was open; before they realised that the enemy was already inside the city, the knights and their companions seized this gate as well. Battle erupted on the open square as the knights pressed forward towards the third district while the outlanders were finally arriving in numbers, pushing back.
At first, the skirmish was even. The knights were superior when counted one for one, but the outlanders soon greatly outnumbered them, and the open area allowed them to fight with closed ranks, assaulting the Order force from several sides. Constantly, the Anausa soldiers pushed forward, their discipline asserting itself to allow them to gain ground; the knights, trained to fight until death, fought with such ferocity that every gain made by the outlanders was swiftly lost moments after.
The stalemate was only broken by the appearance of a shadow warrior. In the dark of night, he was barely visible in his blackened clothes and armour; his weapons shone coldly in the moonlight however, and his yellow eyes surveyed the fighting. Leading the Anausa forward, the shadow hurled himself into battle. Armed with a sword and long dagger, he found weaknesses in the knights’ armour and struck them down. One by one they fell, disrupting their ranks and turning their victory to defeat.
By the outer gate and flanked by Baldwin, William stood assessing the situation. He had been fighting to capture the gatehouse, and blood was upon his sword and armour. He had assumed the role as captain again, though, directing his men. The outlanders were still arriving from every direction inside the district, not knowing the outer walls were already lost or perhaps hoping to retake them. In response, William was directing his troops as new enemies appeared, ensuring the gate remained on Order hands and allowing his army to enter the city.
His attention was caught by a sergeant running down the hill, coming from the gate to the fourth district. “What are you running from, man?” William yelled at him, stepping forward. “The battle is that way!”
“The outlanders are retaking the upper gate,” the sergeant gasped. “Our men are being massacred!”
“With me!” William shouted at the score of soldiers surrounding him, running with no sign of weariness into the city.
The knights had been pushed into the very gatehouse they had conquered, desperately holding onto it. The difficulties in assaulting the inner walls protecting each circle in the city meant that victory would be extremely costly; the price would also increase over time as it allowed the outlanders to better prepare their defence. For now, the close fighting conditions caused by the narrow gatehouse aided the knights with their inferior number; rather than attempting to win the skirmish, they defended themselves as best they could.
Against them, the shadow warrior stood with not a single cut or wound upon him despite the fact that he fought without shield; both his blades dripped with blood. He stood a daunting figure, striking fear into even the battle-hardened knights as they could do naught but defend themselves with increasing despair. Just as they were hardest pressed, just as the gate was nearly lost, the elated cry went up from the men in the back. “He’s here! The Unyielding is here!”
Without hesitation, William flung himself into the fray. Several outlanders fell before his blade before he stood face to face with the shadow warrior. Each paused, measuring their foe; then their fight began.
At first, soldiers from either side continued to fight around them, trying to intervene; whenever someone did, they fell swiftly as if a minor inconvenience to either of the combatants. Under the arch of the gatehouse, there was little room for others regardless. Soon, the soldiers were reduced to spectators, watching tensely and ready to spring into action as soon as their champion claimed victory.
William fought true to his name, refusing to yield ground and allow the gatehouse to be taken. He used his shield in an offensive manner as expertly as was possible while making full use of its defensive capabilities. The shadow warrior with his two blades, lacking the same protection, was forced to constantly defend himself with hardly any chance to strike back.
First blood was drawn by the knight. The shadow warrior did not wear greaves, only leather to protect his lower legs; William’s blade cut a gash across the shin. His opponent snarled and drew back defensively, but a moment later used his leg as before with no visible consternation.
A lengthy exchange of blows and parries ensued, culminating in the shadow slashing his sword across William’s chest. It tore his Order surcoat, cutting tips of the star, but the mail below held true. Having moved forward to strike William, the shadow had exposed himself, and the knight slammed his shield into his opponent’s face. The cloth wrapped around him fell loose, revealing the steel mask covering his face. The hideous sight carved into the mask did not cause William to hesitate, who followed up with a violent thrust of his sword forward.
The shadow evaded at the last moment, retaliating as William was now the one to leave himself exposed. The dagger came against William’s shield arm on the inside, cutting through the leather straps that held it bound to his limb.
With a blow aimed at the edge of the shield, the shadow shattered William’s tattered hold upon it, and it fell to the side. William quickly stepped aside, out of reach. Blood was tricking down his left arm; the shadow’s dagger had also found his flesh where the mail was weakened and where bracers did not protect.
Emboldened by his enemy’s vulnerability, the shadow renewed his assaults. William’s sword flashed in constant movements to protect him, though some blows had to be received by his bracers or chain shirt; the shadow knew how to use his sword to put William’s in check while his knife struck against the knight.
Finally, the fell warrior had luck. His dagger burst the rings of William’s mail, slicing through fabric and leather to bite into flesh. With a gasp, William glanced down to see the blade in his stomach. With his left hand, he grabbed the shadow’s wrist, preventing him from sliding the dagger out. This left both warriors in precarious situations; their left arms crossed in front of them and locked together, neither could defend against the other’s sword arm.
The shadow raised his weapon for a deadly strike, but William brought up the pommel of his sword, striking it against his enemy’s face. There was a clash of metal as it hit the mask. Before the shadow’s confusion lifted, William struck again, repeatedly smashing the pommel against his enemy’s jawbone or temple where the mask did not protect. With a yell born of pain and exertion, William finally hacked his sword into the shadow warrior’s neck. It took him another four blows to sever the head. It landed on the ground, as did the fallen creature’s sword, soon followed by his body. Blood pulsed upwards from the hole in the neck.
The Anausa watched the end of the fight with shock and horror; scarcely had the shadow’s head landed before they cried out in fear and fled. The Order soldiers for their part roared in battle lust and gave pursuit.
William sank to one knee, slowly pulling the knife out of his stomach. Baldwin rushed to his side to support him, two solitary figures standing under the shade of the gatehouse; a sudden eye in the storm that raged around them.
Outside the city, the remaining Order infantry not committed to the battle stood arrayed along with a mottled band on horseback. Chief among them was Brand, flanked on one side by his young sergeant and by his man-at-arms on the other. Besides them, a minstrel and a scribe were also present. The sight of Tothmor against the mountain was in front of them, though with the fighting ceased on the outer fortifications, they could not see any sign of battle. Even the sounds had trouble reaching them, muted by buildings and walls. To the ignorant observer, the city might seem peaceful as the sun slowly began to rise on the horizon.
A runner appeared from the city, moving from the gate up towards Brand’s location. “I come from the captain,” he panted.
“Fighting remains in the first district,” the soldier recited. “They are entrenched. Sir William has been wounded.” Looks and murmurs were exchanged among the listeners. “He does not consider it severe, but it leaves him unable to assess the situation or fight.”
Brand turned towards the reserves and the knight standing by them. “Take two companies with you all the way to the first district,” he commanded. “Order the rest to cleanse the lower districts.”
The knight nodded and barked some orders. The last five hundred Order soldiers set into motion. Some followed their knight lieutenant up the city to finish the assault, while the rest split into smaller forces to search through the streets of each circle and clear out pockets of resistance.
“Let us take a closer look at our victory,” Brand told his followers and was met by grinning faces from some, troubled looks from others. Spurring his horse forward, the first lieutenant rode into Tothmor. Despite the triumph of the moment, Brand’s face was passive as he entered, even when the Order soldiers at the gate greeted him with salute and words invoking Sigvard’s blood. His man-at-arms looked with dispassionate interest on the bodies that littered the streets and open square. His sergeant glanced in every direction with great curiosity. The scribe likewise had eyes darting everywhere, though his reaction was subdued. The bard, entering as the last, had sorrow chiselled into his features.