THE SIEGE, THE GUMS, AND THE BLUE– by Adrian Simmons
As the riders crested the hill, the line of fleeing refugees and farmers let out moans of terror, fearing them to be the vanguard of the Kimar army. Izydor Kiel heard the cry, and didn’t look back to see the horsemen, to confirm that this long grisly flight was going to end with him and his entire family on the ends of spears. Nor did he look to the side, where he had seen the aged, the infirm, anyone who couldn’t keep up, abandoned.
Fear kept him looking ahead, fear that he would be separated from his family, fear that his old grandmother would falter, fears that they would lose more than their home and their stock and their pride before this horrid day ended. He saw people crane their necks to look back, he heard the shuddering cries, followed by the crash and thump as people threw down what possessions they carried and began to run.
Something, a hand-cart overturned and broken, slowed the line. He lost sight of his family, could hear his father’s voice, bellowing for his grandmother to go one way; his uncle’s voice bellowing for her to go the other. He pushed through neighbors and strangers, found his mother and younger brother in time to see them being pulled away from him by the crowd. A quick look, just one, behind.
Already the horizon to the west was stained with the smoke of fires of the outlying villages as the Kimar made their bloody way toward the city of Oskzeyn. Over the noise of voices and shuddering footsteps came the thudding of hooves.
Even as a young panicked boy from a small village, Izydor could see that the riders were not the Kimar. Instead of the short steppe horses these men rode great tall beasts, and they were tall themselves, and armor of chain gleamed from beneath their cloaks. On any other day, he would know who they were. He wasn’t so up-country that he didn’t know one group of mercenaries or pilgrims or travelers from another. From the people around him he heard the name: Volelek. But the presence of allies across the plains brought no relief, not when they were, just like Izydor and his family and everyone he knew, were fleeing the Kimar as well. Fleeing, one and all to the great walled city of Oskzeyn.
Oskzeyn, Oskzeyn, Oskzeyn. The word, the place, it echoed in Izydor’s brain with each step. Safety. He’d carry his mother there, drag his grandmother if he had to. He could see the refugees swelled in the town outside the walled city, and streaming into the north gate like a tide. The ragged line of Volelek riders began two wheel to the east gate- where soldiers of the city and fighting men of any stripe were rushed into the walls.
The riders slowed, then several veered off from the rest and approached the line, calling to the wretched people there that if any wanted their older children to be spared the coming Kimar that they hand them over now. Ahead of him, Izydor saw Papa slow and then turn. His father lunged at him, like they were wrestling in the yard, and scooped him up with a grip stronger than any he had known. So hard he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t ask why or what. He could just watch as Uncle Estek held his wailing mother back.
The stuttering press through the line and the rough hands of a Volelek pulled him up and sat him on the hard saddle behind before turning the horse away. Away from his father and mother and uncle, away from the refugees that had swallowed his grandmother.
“Pit it on, boy,” the Volelek rider growled in a thick accent, shoving a dented helmet back to him. “The soldiers of Oskzeyn will only let in fyting men. Try to look lyke one.”
The day’s long nightmare flight from the farm and the eternity of being stuck in the winding line of refugees turned then to a new grisly reality. He would have wept if he had possessed the energy. Instead all he could do was hold to his savior and gawk as they came to the east gate. There he found another waking nightmare.
Soldiers of the city fought against a mob of civilians keeping the way open for men like the Voleleks. The riders split the mob and so Izydor passed through the east gate. Beyond it the noise did not relent and the soldiers and people of Oskzeyn turned from chaos to a sloppy purposefulness.
“Where are the bravest needed?” the leader of the Voleleks demanded, shouting above the voices.
“The west wall is the thinnest and shortest,” bellowed a captain of the city.
“Then the Kimar will find the Volelek ready and wish they had never crossed the Rynia River!”
The other Volelek gave a series of hoarse cries, marshalling what little strength they had, then turning their mounts to the west and pushing through the crowd there.
As they passed the captain Izydor’s rider signaled the man, “Thys one,” he shouted indicating Izydor, “he is brave but small, put him where he is needed.”
The rider’s rough hands pushed him down with an inexorable force, and Izydor found himself looking up at the captain.
The Voleleks pushed on and the rider gave one last call “I vill want hym back vhen we are done!”
The captain barely gave him a glance before bellowing, “Get this one a spear!”
The rough wooden haft of a spear was thrust into his hand by a rough looking soldier. It was no hunting weapon but a deadly bladed spike with a cross-guard. The cross-guard, Izydor knew, was to keep it from sinking too deep into a man, so it could be more easily freed to kill again.
The purposefulness within the walls of Oskzeyn was directed as well as such a thing could be by King Alojzy the Elder. The patriarch’s strength was sapped by the years, by the losses of his sons, and by the news that Emperor Sed Al Aqueel, his feet firmly on the road to empire and conquest to the south, had deemed that the troublesome city-states to the north be destroyed—each a prize for some bloodthirsty prince or landless brigand chieftain hoping to prove his mettle.
In youthful years Alojzny had crossed such men, stamping out fires on the borders. He had stood with other city states in an army that blunted Sed’s father’s dreams of empire. The current situation summoned a bit of the fire of his youth, but it was not enough to overcome the pain that sliced through his bowels- for that he chewed nagga root which dulled the pain and dulled what fire he had as well.
About him were his tools: a half-dozen captains, men of quality and wealth, and sons of men of quality and wealth, and over them all Eustachy the high-captain. There were gathered two mercenary forces, Rhotkhos from the lands south that had already fallen to Sed Al Aqueel, the Fharkiv who had traveled from the east—likely to sell themselves to Sed. A handful of pale Behost knights—guards of a pilgrim train—and perhaps forty swarthy Kamjusné who had left the caravan they guarded. And small and ever so valuable to him, his daughter Gizela.
He motioned to his steward, who pounded the floor with his staff of office and demanded silence. Three times Old Alojzy had sent out orders, and now with the Kimar in sight of the walls, he had to give a fourth. What defenses they could muster were in place, and yet one other thing remained, and that thing was to tie together this rabble of men in a knot.
“Captain Eustachy,” he said, “you are to go to the north gate, take soldiers, take these with you,” he indicated three each of the Rhotkosk and Fharkiv mercenaries, Behost knights, and Kamjusné caravan guards.
The leaders of the companies did not argue with him, merely nodding to their men as they were selected.
“You will also take Gizela,” he put his hand on her shoulder, “when she gives you the order, the gate is to be closed, whatever the costs. You will return to me here, to the high tower when this is done, and we will watch the siege and take in the measure of our enemies.”
Gizela paled, ever so slightly, at the responsibility and she said nothing; the better to hide the shaking in her voice. She walked to stand by Eustachy as if such madness were the first moves of a palace dance.
Izydor, with his dented helmet and rusty spear, followed his captain. He followed instead of thinking of his family. Instead of thinking of anything. The man shouted orders, pushing aside any who did not move fast enough. Izydor had only been in Oskzeyn twice before, and he truly had no idea where he was, or where the captain was leading him.
As they forced their way into a larger thoroughfare , a second contingent of soldiers and fighting men met them. A young woman in a heavy blue cloak strode in the center of the group and with her was another captain, older and more well-kept than the man Izydor followed. There were words exchanged between the three.
“Back!” his captain yelled to them. “Back to the Hestorn Way, and then to the wall. To the north gate!”
The second group, soldiers of the city mixed with strange foreigners joined theirs. They backtracked to the Hestorn Way, turned, and before long the great wall of the city loomed into view. The surging crowd grew thick and Izydor began to join the other fighters in shouting at them to move, to clear a path. Then he joined them in pushing and then, because his captain ordered him to, he began to hit people with the butt of his spear.
A punch landed square in his back.
“Watch the spear point, boy!” one of the city soldiers growled before shoving a short club into his hand. “Use this!”
And, because a girl not much older than himself didn’t get out of the way when he shouted at her, he swung the club and thumped her hard in the shoulder.
The time and the distance and brutality and the yelling and dust and hair and sweat and a turn to the left and forcing through the crowd they came to the great north gate, into which flowed the refugees from the countryside. Izydor didn’t see his family, or anyone that he recognized. Were they already inside? Were they still trying to get through the gate?
Gizela stood on an old barrel that her soldiers had taken from one of the wine merchants. Her nails dug into the material of her blue cloak and she watched the people she was to doom.
She was in the middle of a great wedge of armed men and Captain Eustachy stood ready at her right hand. To the left of the gate a knot of soldiers waited, under Captain Nacek, and another group—a thoroughly ragged corps, more of a gang pressed into service than regular soldiers of the city—waited at the right side of the gate.
But when? When to give the order. Who should be the last in? The people of the countryside still spilled in; a flood of desperation and fear and hope. Over the noise of it all a kind of low wail of despair drifted in through the gates with them, and the watchers along the wall began to yell that the Kimar were coming, a vast wave of them sweeping down from the hills.
Amid the flood of people she spied a man, interchangeable with any of the others save that he wore a red-dyed mantle about his shoulders. She watched red-mantle jostle and be jostled and finally pass through the opening in the wall.
“Captain Eustachy,” she said, because it had to be sometime, it had to be someone, it had to be her that said it. “Close them.”
“Close the gates!” he yelled, and the yell was taken up by the soldiers and mercenaries around them and they began to advance down the lane. And the order was taken up by the two groups on either side of the gate and they pressed.
In moments the waves of soldiers and refuges pushed against each other, then swords were drawn and spears were leveled and just inside the courtyard a great red slaughter grew. For a while she watched it, shovels and staffs and fists against swords and spear and ax, and desperation wresting against determination. The soldiers pushed back the wall of panicking people, brutally pushing them outside to their doom. The great portcullis fell smashing spears and limbs and hope. Captain shouted and the soldiers began dragging away the dead and wounded, opening a space for the gates to close.
Gizela turned away from the horror, from her perfect view of it from the top of the barrel. Her work here was not done, she still had to get the order to the archers to burn the town outside the walls to the ground.
“Not the club, boy!” the older veteran shouted beside him. “The spear! The spear or you’ll doom us all!”
Then the man drew back his ax and buried it into the head of an old woman, felling her to the ground.
Izydor had moved forward with the rest at the hollering of their captain, but there at the gate, so close to the safety of the city, no one was willing to step back, to turn aside, to go back out into the jaws of the Kimar wolves. Men, women, children even, flung themselves at them and soldiers dashed them to the ground. And he took half a step back, lowered his spear, and plunged it into the belly of a boy half his age.
The boy struggled, and the people behind him pushed and Izydor began to slip backward in the dusty street. He staggered back, the boy fell and two men crowded to take his place. His spear rose, dripping red and he stabbed hard into the chest of one of them. It was like stabbing into a tree; the man’s hands gripped the haft and pushed back. Then the older veteran stepped out, swinging his ax, hewing through the second man’s upraised arms, then his skull, and then did the same thing to the poor farmer stuck on the end of Izydor’s spear.
The three forces of soldiers formed a rough wall, driving forward, forcing people back, cutting them down. The very street welled with blood, and Izydor had to step atop the dead and dying, pressing with the rest, a mad desperate animalistic purpose forcing his limbs and mind. The gate. They had to close the gate. While his mouth howled as he thrust with his spear, his mind repeated- the gate, the gate, the gate.
They pushed back people, rank up on rank, wild-eyed and howling, and behind them a sea of faces drawn and desperate. Then screams and a grinding like the a steel-wheeled cart and the great wooden and iron-bound portcullis of the gate fell like thunder, breaking his spear as it sought the body of woman his mother’s age. Soldiers behind were still pushing him forward and in those few moments when he was pressed against the portcullis and desperate hands grabbed at him, clawlike and clutching.
Then the men behind stopped pushing and instead pulled him back; the line of soldiers melted away from the gate.
“Move these bodies!” shouted a captain. “Clear the way!”
And Izydor did. He dragged the dead, and—thank all the gods—the living and wounded away. Those wretched souls just outside, he couldn’t look up at them as he went about his grisly work in the blood-slick streets of Oskzeyn. Finally, after the path was clear, the two great gates of the city creaked closed and the huge bar dropped across it, finally blocking out the faces of the doomed.
He watched as many of those who had made it into the city searched among the dead and wounded for relatives, wailing when they found them and wailing when they did not.
Then the woman in blue and her guards came out of one of the guard towers that bracketed the gate. She stood and looked about.
“Get them to the walls,” she said to no one in particular, but the captains and soldiers all began yelling and moving like they knew what was expected.
Izydor considered dropping his dented helmet and fleeing into the streets of Oskzeyn. Though he had beaten, stabbed, and maybe killed his own countrymen, he had yet to scrap with the Kimar. Through his exhaustion he felt that he owed them, the people at the gate, that at least.
Another spear was thrust into his hands; in the dirt he found a hand-ax— not made for war, but the kind a farmer’s family like his would use to cut small limbs from a tree. Sliding the ax into his belt he followed his nameless captain.
The princess and her guards swept down the street away from the wailing and crying, and sometimes after they disappeared from sight and word that the gate had been closed spread a great raw cheer sounded from within the city.
Old King Alojzy stood with Gizela and others atop the tower, watching through the smoke and the fire as the assault upon Oskyezn’s walls proceeded. Winter’s chill could be felt this high and they stood in great fur-lined cloaks and their gloves and a chill beyond the wind bore down on them both.
Old Alojzy’s eyes were weak. Before the fires he had seen the Kimar sweep into the plain, a wave of black and tan, upon their steppe ponies. But now beyond walls of Oskzeyn all was a smoky haze. He watched his messengers as they came and went, and he watched Grizela as she took in the nature of their enemies.
“What do you see, daughter?”
She pointed. “The winds come from the north, and the north part of the town outside the wall is the only one not deeply affected by the fires. Fires grow in strength to the south, but already in places it has burned itself low and there the Kimar rush through. It is the west wall they put their forces into the most. They’ve raised a web of grapples and a forest of ladders against it. There the fighting is thickest. But all along the walls of Oskzeyn they come.”
“Can you see a king, or a chieftain, or even a captain?”
She shook her head. “They bear no standards, they have no encampment, one of them looks much like another.”
“If there was but one leader,” Old Alojzy mused, “if he were to be killed their will would be broken. If there were two or three, we could perhaps manage to pit them against each other. But that is rarely the way of Kimar. Ours shall be the harder path, then.”
“What else did you see from atop the wall?” he asked.
“I saw the riders of the Kimar fall upon those trapped outside of the gates.” She said no more.
“And what did you see?” he prompted
“I saw many of them taken captive, and many killed outright, and…”
“And while the fires burned they drug some of them behind their horses and their archers practiced their craft upon them.”
“It is a horrible thing,” Alojzy said with a nod, for he knew the Kimar of old. “And do not think that if they could get a noose around the wrist of the entire city they would drag everyone in it through the plains until there was not a palm’s-width of hide left on their bodies.”
They stood, the sounds of fighting drifting up to them upon the winds with the smoke.
“We have ruled this city for four generations,” he said. “And should it fall, we shall be ruling it then, either you or I. The people must know that they have rulers strong and true. I heard the cheering when the gates closed. I heard your name in that cheering. It is a hard and cruel thing to do, but it must be known both within the walls and without that the rulers of Oskzeyn are not weak or hesitant.”
“Inside the gate it is now known,” she said, then looked to the western wall. “For now let the Kimar worry about the men on the walls.”
Her mouth was a straight line, and he was reminded of her as a small child, concentrating intently over the chessboard. She had always been horrible at chess.
He gave a quick prayer of thanks that war was nothing like a game of ivory and jet.
Izydor hugged up against the man next to him—Nacek, a townie just barely come into full manhood. Nacek also had a full shield, and with his free hand Izydor helped hold it up over their heads. They stood about halfway up the great stone steps that led up one of the walls. Screams and the ring of steel on same and the sickening sound of steel on flesh sounded from above them.
Ahead of them the line moved up one step. “Take a peek,” Nacek said.
Arrows flitted down in a steady spitting rain, at least four had struck their shield already, and they had heard bodies crash to the ground from above. Still, Izydor poked his head past the iron rim.
A line, orderly and straight, two-men wide, waited on the remaining ten steps. Toward its head the order was shattered by the fighting along the wall. Really, he couldn’t see much beyond that. Directly above them on the wall he could catch glimpses of the fighting, and a ragged line of hooks dug into the base of the walkway. Clouds of dark grey lifted over it all, and from outside the city a glow of fires still swelled.
He spared a glance to the city itself. Inside there were fires as well. He looked back up-
“Grapple!” he shouted, ducking back under the shield as one of the hooks, cut from its rope thumped hard into them.
“Grapples,” Nacek said, “spears, axes, swords, hands. No tale ever tells of this horrible rain upon the defenders of a city!”
Izydor had spoken little since the gate. They had gone to the west wall, at least at first. Then they had changed direction and threaded back through the city. He had no idea where he was. The walls of the city angled and curved, and Nacek swore this was part of the north wall, and since he was a townie Izydor hadn’t argued.
“There are a lot of things the tales don’t say,” Izydor answered. “Waiting at the base of a wall and on the stairs is two of them.”
“And that I really have to piss, but I’d also trade my boots for a sip of water.”
“Didn’t you piss at the base of the wall?” That much the older veterans had been blunt about, never pass up an opportunity to urinate or empty your bowels. That the heroes of tales fought down their trews and armor and shit in the streets like beggers or dogs was something the tales did not mention.
“I did, but that seems like forever-“
Somewhere ahead of them a great crash resounded. “Kimar!” someone yelled, and then they caught sight of a man in furs falling down the side of the stairs. The line surged up three steps, then back one, and then forward again, step after step. The defenders rallied and drove along the wall in both directions.
In the moments it took Izydor to realize that his townie had gone north (or was it, as some had said, east?) he was too far along the other direction with too many soldiers pressing behind him to bother getting back to him.
The line pressed forward, four-men wide, along the wall, perhaps eight men deep ahead the forces of the city met a knot of Kimars. Eight deep was two more than Izydor’s new spear could reach. A clatter rang out from the crenellation beside him and then a storm of arrows whipped over. A man in front faltered, a dart sticking out of his neck.
The storm of fletching lessened and for a moment he thought it might falter, but in stark terror he realized that now the darts were arcing high into the air in an attempt to strike the mass of defenders from straight above. Screams sounded around him as the Kimar archers, through luck and numbers, found their marks. He waited, expecting at any moment to be pinned through the shoulder, but luck held and with a start he realized that ahead of him defenders of the city had faltered and the Kimar pressed.
He lifted his spear to jab it over the shoulders of his folk and into the face of an invader when a blur of iron and hemp surged in from over the wall and great hooked grapple caught the haft of his spear and pulled it tight to the top of a crenellation.
All about him the clank of iron and the thud of wood sounded as the attackers threw ropes and rose ladders.
“At them!” someone cried behind him. “Cut the ropes!”
He drew his wood ax and with a leap upward he struck it against the taught rope at the end of the grapple. It cut with a snap and his spear and the cruel hook both fell at his feet. In that leap he had taken his first look out of the walls into a sea of dun foreigners washing around the still-burning buildings of the town, and wheeling about in the plain beyond were uncountable riders on their ponies.
“At them!” someone ahead shouted. “Cut them down!”
Like two hounds the knot of defenders and the knot of invaders struggled against each other on the wall. Izydor stuck his ax back into his belt, threw the grapple up and over the heads of his people and amid the Kimar, then with a scream lifted his spear and thrust it forward, harrying the Kimars closest to him, and avoiding being harried by the spearmen behind them.
For long minutes it remained so. The cross guard on his spear managed to tangle in the fur of a Kimar helm and tear it from the owner’s head. A cunning thrust from a wide-bladed spear nearly caught him the face, but instead a quick duck added another dent to his helm.
Then someone in front gave and they massed forward, hewing into the invaders and finally reached the four ladders that supplied the stream of attackers. Two ladders they pushed away, the third they pulled up and over the wall before dropping it down on their own side.
But by then more Kimar had placed ladders and climbed the ropes on the section of wall behind, and he drove his spear into the side of a man as he leapt from a ladder.
Even as he struggled to free the spear another killer rushed up the ladder, and another grapple clanked home not an arm’s-length away.
Old Alojzy had long ago left the top of the tower and within the main hall he held his war councils, as best as he could and for as much good as they did. News came and went. The numbness of the nagga root fought with the pain of his guts.
The west wall had been pulled down. The west wall was whole. The east gate was nearly broken. The fires were spreading. The west wall had a great gap pulled out of it. The east gate’s mechanism had been destroyed by a captain to ensure it could not be opened. The fires were spreading.
Such conflicting news pounded upon his ears; rarely from tongues he entirely trusted.
Somehow the Kimar had not gained a true foothold. Always the men of Oskzeyn had managed to plug every leak. It was those leaks he feared. That as they fought for a gate, or a tower, some unknown band of brigands would managed to get atop the wall unopposed. But he only had so many scouts, only so many captains.
But there was only so much daylight, and nightfall would blunt the attack.
Izydor’s nameless captain was named Szczepan, and now he watched the man take in the situation.
The Kimar had managed to get another two dozen men on the wall. In one of the older parts of the city, where the buildings crowded to the very wall and stairs were not frequent, the Kimars had gained the wall above a building. It was too far for them to jump down, but it had blocked the fierce steppe archers from raining arrows down at the city soldiers below. Finally, Captain Szczepan had led a force of Oskzeyn’s defenders out on to the roof, and behind their thick shields they weathered the storm of arrows until their own archers joined them. But by then the Kimar had linked their small round shields three high and now more of their comrades pushed in over the wall behind them.
Szczepan had brought perhaps fifteen men, including Izydor, and there were maybe a dozen archers of the city already there along with perhaps ten regular soldiers. There were four of the Behost pilgrim guards, too, dressed in gleaming mail from head to foot.
Izydor’s own gear now included one of the small round shields of the invaders, a small sword, his knife, and a spear. His hand-ax he had lost long ago. He also wore one of the thick leather vests of the city guard—the smallest he could find and cinched down as tight as he could but it still hung off him.
A mad kind of reverse-siege began, with the city archers harrying the shield-wall of the Kimar, while ladders (some those even of the invaders themselves) were brought.
Izydor was in the process of hauling one such ladder up the side of the building when a roar sounded from above and the shield-wall opened for a moment. Invader spears hurled down and defender arrows flitted up; men screamed and the ladders faltered and fell aside.
“Get that one up, you!” Captain Szczepan shouted at him, pointing to one of the fallen ladders.
Izydor left his task, stepped over the writhing form of a guard with a spear sticking out of his hip. He couched his small shield as best he could and they turned the ladder again and lifted it to the wall.
“Up! Up! At them!” Szczepan shouted. And since Izydor already had his hands on the ladder, there he remained as more armored men rushed up.
The spears again pelted down and the arrows answered. The soldiers managed to get to the top and there they fought hard with the Kimar for the last few rungs.
Somehow the Kimar had gotten a ladder-fork and began to push the ladders down. Izydor’s own was hooked, and guardsmen leapt from it as it shifted then teetered. One of the great mailed Behost knights was stuck at the top and held on for his holy foreign life as the ladder swayed and Izydor and his comrades struggled to keep it from tipping full off the roof.
Arrows slithered up into the Behost-sized gap amid the Kimar ranks, and two of the invaders collapsed. Then the pole-fork fell away and the ladder tipped back toward the wall. The Behost knight gave a great cry—the names of his god or the name of his mother Izydor could not tell, and leapt from the ladder amid the fence of spears and upraised shields. The mad foreigner’s weight and his sword crashing a ragged hole in the defenders while on the roof cheers rose.
Night came early with the smoke. In the great hall, Old Alojzy and his daughter Gizela both sat at a meal that celebrated the victories of the day. Already the city had heroes, the Voleleks who had died keeping the west wall from being pulled apart. The three captains who had died holding the east gate and the long bloody stretch of the south wall, the Behost who had stemmed the flood of Kimars on the old south wall.
In some of these skirmishes the Kimars had suffered the greater loss, but in most of them it had been the men of Oskzeyn.
Still, spirits were high and wine flowed. Old Alojzy knew full well that if the initial assault had failed then the Kimars had little taste for the long work of siege. It was not their way to band together for very long, and they would take what plunder they could from the ruins of the town and the countryside and would take their unlucky captives and would depart.
But in the morning the Kimars were still there, camped in great numbers in the remnants of the squares of the town. There were among the squat hide tents a number of larger structures and over those flew the flags of the Emperor Sed Al Aqueel. The defenders could see that the Kimars were banded into three great groups and as the first light of day struck they were already beginning to rouse and begin the work of organizing themselves for siege.
Old Alojzy took the news silently, and for a time walked about the day without the aid of nagga root to dull the pain of his insides. He held council with his daughter first. He emphasized to her that it was crucial that the people know that their family held the city, tied together the city guard and the soldiers, and tied together the families of great wealth and the foreigners in the city and the mercenaries.
Together they made plans for what should be done, then they assembled the captains and gave their orders.
Izydor had been quartered with a family in Sabelk Square, the Wegzyns. Two other soldiers, Mularz and Jozwiak were quartered there as well. Jozwiak was a townie, but Mularz was from the countryside. The Wegzyns assumed that Izydor and Mularz knew each other as they were both “up-country”. Mularz, showing a humor that Izydor had lost somewhere outside the gate with his family, egged them on remaking that it was amazing that they had not met before, up-country being a small place after all.
The family treated them well, and the four children watched their every exhausted move as if they were ferocious hounds who might turn on them at any moment. Sometime in mid-morning, when Izydor had all-but determined he would leave his helmet and all his gear behind and abandon the life of a soldier, word came that they were to assemble in the square.
They were a rough looking bunch, the bulk of them city guards, but perhaps a quarter were country people and townies pressed or volunteered to be fighters. Theirs was a mix of gear: small round invader shields beside the great oval shields of the guards, curving Kimar swords and the straight blades of the soldiers of the city, and universal to all the ax. Izydor had stopped gathering gear into his own kit, having heard that the Kimars had slunk away in the night.
There was an order to the way soldiers were supposed to line up, and Izydor and the other irregulars shuffled in and followed along as best they could.
“I wish someone would have told us the fires were so close,” Mularz said from beside him, nodding to the east to where a curtain of grey smoke drifted up over the roofs of the square.
“Perhaps that will be our task today, cleaning up after-“
Princess Gizela, in the same blue cloak she had worn at the gate, swept into the square with her personal guards, Eustachy High Captain of the city, several of the foreign mercenaries, and a number of the other city captains. All conversation among the ragged lines of soldiers stopped. The Blue said something to the High Captain and moments later Izydor’s own captain Szczepan began to holler:
“The Kimars have made a strong camp outside the city. They will try our walls our gates and our wills again today. Again they will find all three unbreakable.”
A rough cheer went up from the square, mostly from the families watching from the windows.
Then Szczepan began to demand who knew how to ride horses, and who knew how to handle a bow and sword, and who was from up-country. At the last Mularz and Izydor stepped forward.
Preparations were to be made for siege, and as the animals brought in from the countryside would grow thinner and weaker and it made better sense to slaughter them now and with smoke and salts preserve the meat they had. Izydor, who knew how to slaughter animals, was happy to be about it and maybe get a chance to see what he could about his family.
Other squares of the city they found crowded with refugees, and at another order from Princess Gizela, Izydor was put to work—not slaughtering animals, but fighting those poor farmers and herdsmen who were not willing to part with their stock. It was grim work, just barely better than the deeds committed at the gate, but he and Mularz and the others went about it. Soon those squares were filled with rickety smokehouses and brine-pits and the word filtered in about the struggles currently going on at the gates and the walls.
Izydor sought for news of his family, or even those of the area of town of Doznan, but heard little. His family, almost everyone from Doznan, had been far down the line of refugees trying to get into the city. They were far down the line of refugees, but not far enough to flee to safety. The word was that those caught outside had made their ancestors and their gods proud, using wagons as shields against the withering clouds of arrows loosed by the riders until finally they fought with shovels and staffs and fists against swords and spear and ax.
The Voleleks who had plucked him from that doom had gone to the west wall and died there and held off an onslaught so great that the wall itself had cracked. Fighting was going on there now, as the Kimars picked at the one weak spot they had worked into the defenses of the city.
Of fighting, over the next three days, Izydor saw nothing; being involved in the slaughter of animals on the first day, stationed along the walls on day two, and spending most of the third day training with sword and bow.
Oskzeyn’s riders had charged from the east gate in an attempt to crush the invaders hammering on the north gate, but had been driven back by the furious archers of the Kimars. For all the slaughter the north gate remained closed. The west wall had nearly fallen again, but the Fharkiv mercenaries had rallied and held it.
On the fourth day Gizela returned to her father from the top of the high tower with grim news.
Old Alojzy stood, one hand against his throne so that he barely looked like he leaned. The nagga had been augmented by a mouthful of fire water. She knew his habits and his affliction well by now. He took two slow breaths and told her to speak.
“The Kimars build siege engines, under the direction of Emperor Sed’s advisors.”
Two more breaths. “And no chieftain?”
“Of chieftains they have several, but if there is a true ruler none have seen him.”
Old Alojzy nodded. “We can withstand what weak tools they can manage. We shall see if they can withstand the coming winter.”
The west wall would be the death of them, everyone knew it. A great chunk had been pulled out of it in the initial assault, and it had been widened a bit in the second, and now the Great Arm hurled rocks the size of a man into it, cracking it even further. Meanwhile the Little Arm patiently broke all the crenellations that led to the wall gap from the east. Big Spitter and the Wild Boar (so named because it was built from the remaining timbers of the old Wild-Boar inn that once welcomed travelers to the town that had surrounded Oskzeyn) meanwhile hurled stones too small to damage the walls but more than adequate to kill men at any who ventured out along the wall.
And that was just to the west. The north gate was tested again, this time with battering rams encased in wooden frames and covered with hide and shields. Two of them had reached the gate and the hours of the day were counted by the booming of their rams and the prattle of stones and weighted javelins that the defenders hurled down at them. The east gate, from which help might issue, was encircled, just out of bow-shot, by a storm of riders. They waited, hunched dun shapes flitting among the ruins. Dozens, perhaps hundreds. And they had their stout little ponies with them as well.
Still it was the east gate where the city’s hope lay. The riders of Oskzeyn, the noble sons of the families, augmented by a few of the Rhotkosk who had skill at riding, prepared to go out, and Izydor prepared to follow them. Since the mechanism that opened it had been destroyed they used brute force to lift the portcullis and then pulled open the gates.
The riders roared forth with great yells and noise and dust, leaping over the bodies of the fallen that were piled outside the wall. Izydor could hear an answering yowl from the Kimars. Then the footmen began marching through the gate and as he drew closer to it he saw the archers along the top begin to loose shaft after shaft. For a few moments the line trickled to a halt at the opening, then it pressed forward.
He held his spear tight in two hands and his shield—one of the great oval ones this time—dug into his arm. Then he was outside- the footmen struggled to form and hold a semicircle line about the gate. The dust and ash from the passing of the horsemen stained the air to the south—they rode the treacherous length to the west wall.
The line of defenders about the gate was perhaps three deep, and against it rode a storm of the Kimars on their ponies, with their deadly arrows and their spears. The defenders held, even as they suffered wounds and losses. For a time Izydor was third in the wall of men, but an archer shot the first man through the eye, and Izydor moved into the middle.
He risked his life three times throwing spears from behind his shield and they struck neither horse nor rider, but a spear thrown in return struck the man in front of him in the shoulder, tearing through it so that the nicked head stuck out the other side. Screaming and flailing the man attracted the archers. Arrows prattled and thumped around him, and the line of defenders convulsed and absorbed him struggling back, and then Izydor was in front.
It was not like watching from the wall; all was chaos, the riders rode seemingly at random, and arrows lobbed from the walls landed between the line and the Kimars. There were wounded ponies struggling, and wounded men, and in minutes a dozen shafts stuck out from his shield.
Then the riders drew back, and Izydor was certain that the horsemen of Oskzeyn must have come back around the southern curve of the wall. Such hopes fell as a crumbling wall of one of the buildings of the town was pushed over and there waited another of the Kimar rock-throwers, its basket full of stones. The rope was cut and those stones soared through the air.
One stone—the size of two fists— struck the top of his shield harder than a mule-kick, and had he been taller it would have cracked into his head. Instead the metal buckled and the wood cracked, and the stone bounced up crunched into the man behind him.
Then the accursed riders thundered out, passing back and forth and harrying the defenders for long minutes. Minutes enough that the rock-thrower could be drawn back and reset. A second volley of stones thumped and crashed into them.
Again and again this happened, and by luck no other stones struck Izydor directly—although an arrow punched through his damaged shield and thumped into the hard leather of the armor at his side.
As the horse-archers sped back a third time someone began shouting: “At them! Destroy it!”
Down the line he saw Captain Szczepan charge forward and the line shuddered as some went with him and others struggled to fill the gap. The stone-thrower’s deadly load flew up and above the charging men, leaving them unscathed, and pounded into the chaotic line that tried to organize itself behind.
Cries sounded from the ruins of the town and Kimars rushed in on foot, just how many Izydor couldn’t tell. Some of them charged Szczepan’s van, some ran to the defenders of the gate.
And the defenders, after a few moments of hesitation, ran to meet them. Izydor, who was on the left hand of the arc, was unsure if this was a great moment of heroics, or the beginning of the end, but someone began yelling that they had to fall back, back to the gate. He fell back with the rest of those near him, making the Kimars run the extra yards to catch them, then the invadors fell on them like a ragged tide.
The two forces met, braiding to one another with spears, and Izydor, because he was not yet full into manhood, found himself shoved backward into his fellows.
His ruined shield took two blows from a wickedly curved Kimar blade before it split to the boss, and the third blow knocked the sword from his own hand. An arrow from the wall found his foes throat and the man toppled backward. Then arrows thumped and thudded all around them, finding flesh in the Kimars and many men of the city. Izydor’ helm rang like a bell as one struck a glancing blow and ricocheted out in front of him.
In front of him the riders of the Kimars charged. Some fired arrows and some threw spears, and some held swords and axes.
Shieldless, swordless, Izydor raised a spear with the rest to hold off the charge. The weapon’s iron head sunk into a pony’s side, while soldiers pressed in on the rider.
The line buckled back and Izydor, now without even a spear, looked into the eyes of a rider as he drew back his bow on him. Then the rider’s glace darted to the side and the arrow stayed on the bow. From the south on a cloud of dust and ash the riders of the city swarmed in a great arching curve and the riders and the footmen fell away before them.
The list of heroes had grown long with the addition of Captain Szczepan and the lost princes of Oskzeyn. The great catapult had been broken, as had the hidden stone-thrower. Yet others were made, smaller and weaker, but still they had them. And still the Little Arm existed, and for a time it broke crenellations like teeth. And Wild Boar still threw a storm of deadly stones at the walls. The Kimar had other engines, great bows that hurled spears or wooden timbers.
Gizela kept close to the reports of scouts and captains. As her father predicted, when the cold dry snows of winter truly set in, the Kimars lost their appetite for throwing perfectly good wood over the walls.
The winter was both ally and enemy to Oskzeyn. The cold dry snows blew in from the north burning noses and numbing fingers.
She kept close to Old Alojzy and the captains that hovered around him.
Still the Kimars kept up their siege, hoping to starve out the people of Oskzeyn. At first she congratulated herself on the slaughter and preservation of the animals that had been brought into the city. As the weeks drew on the people, even the soldiers, grew lean, then gaunt. Then came whispers of a wasting sickness, and soon the whispers became shouts and the wailing of surviving family.
Outside the walls, the Kimars who were already lean, remained so, and if they were affected by the sickness they didn’t show it. They made forays occasionally against the walls, against the gates. Feints, mostly. Both sides waited for time to do the job for them.
If Skura hadn’t snuck down to the basement of the fine house to lay with the fine daughter of Geleb the silk-merchant, the city likely would have fallen. It was they, trying to be so quiet in their loving, that noticed a rhythmic thumping and scraping from the wall. Skura tied up his trews and ran through the house, rousing the rest of the soldiers quartered there and from the house of the wine merchant the alarm went out to the rest of the city.
Salbek Square, where Izydor and Mularz were quartered, was deep within the city, but they were mustered and they were dispatched to go and listen at every basement along the walls. Three more tunnels were found, and because Izydor was small he was selected to be among the first to charge in when the Kimars finally broke through the wall of Tuleb the wine merchant.
By now he had his full kit: again the small shield of the Kimar, another hand-ax, greaves of metal and leather, and a chainmail shirt. When the bricks tumbled from the end of the basement he charged through the opening, falling upon the exhausted diggers and catching them at a lucky moment. For his lost family and those he had brutalized at the gate he lay about with his ax in the tight space, striking one Kimar in the head, and a second across the fingers as he lifted his pick to swing at him.
But then the real fighters came behind them and for long moments he fought, his small shield nicked and torn while a hedge of his allies’ spears sprang around his head and shoulders, holding the howling Kimar warriors in their cramped tunnel.
For hours they pressed in that horrid tunnel, driving back the wiry Kimars. Then they fell back themselves, pulling down the wooden supports of the tunnel, and Izydor narrowly escaped being buried alive for all his work.
Mularz, every bit as dumb as an up-country man was expected to be, helped clean him off and said. “Tulub’s basement is pretty small. Maybe we should have just let them come in and killed ‘em from the windows and as they tried to get out the door.”
“That’s a stupid idea!” Izydor snarled, rubbing at a knot above his eye where something, either an ax haft or the edge of his own shield, had caught him.
“You!” demanded their new captain, Kyrylo.
Both Izydor and Mularz stared blankly at him.
“What did you say?” the captain asked.
“… that’s a stupid-“ Izydor began.
“Not you, bumpkin! The other one.”
To be concluded in Part II.
Adrian Simmons’ genre nonfiction has appeared in Black Gate and Strange Horizons. His short fiction has popped up in James Gunn’s Ad Astra Magazine, Pseudopod, Outposts of Beyond, Strange Constellations, and the HP Lovecraft inspired Apotheosis Anthology.