THE SIEGE, THE GUMS, AND THE BLUE– Part II



THE SIEGE, THE GUMS, AND THE BLUE- Part II, by Adrian Simmons

By a whim of fate, young Izydor escaped the tide of the invading Kimar army, only to find himself pressed into service as a soldier of the besieged city of Oskzeyn. With his family presumed murdered outside the walls, Izydor has survived and fought over the long cruel winter. Meanwhile, Old King Alojzy grows weaker each day, and more responsibility for the defense of the city falls to his young daughter Gizela. She fears that she will never be strong or clever enough to hold together the ragged defenders, soldiers, mercenaries, caravan guards, and up-country boys pressed into service, long enough for the siege to break.

With the discovery that the Kimar are trying to tunnel beneath the walls of the city, she puts into a play a daring plan based on the off-handed comment of one of the soldiers—a daring plan that soon runs afoul of bad luck and the pettiness that both princess and soldier fear will be the true enemy of the city of Oskzeyn.

 

The Blue. That’s how Gizela had come to be known. Other names: Gizela the Cruel, The Decisive. The Chooser.   At each decision she had feared unrest, or rebellion, but her father was wise in the world, in the ways of people, even the ways they wouldn’t admit to themselves.

They loved her. She had closed the gate. She had set the stores. She had ordered the archers on the east gate to unleash all they had on attacker and defender, buying time until the riders came back. With each hard decision those left loved her the more. But today, out in the cold wind at Temple Square, her influence had reached its limit.

“You would stoop to such blasphemies!” Nejman, High Priest of Oklich the Harvester, shouted at her in the street. About him, between her and the temple, the faithful and lesser priests and a few temple guards grumbled assent.

“In this dark winter,” he continued, “when the people of Oskzeyn need the love of the gods the most, you come not to defend our temples, but to destroy them! Plunderers! Within our own walls!”

A large crowd was gathered around them, and for all their love of the Blue, none raised their voices against Nejman.

“The gods have given us this great gift,” she answered, “that the Kimars should come within our walls at such a propitious place.”

At this some of the people watching began to mutter in her favor.

“You!” he shouted, pointing at her, “You should be defending the temples, not destroying them. You will bring doom down upon this city!” The faithful of Oklich, who had murmured before, begat to shout and stamp in agreement.

“Doom is already upon this city!” she yelled, and a number of the crowd yelled with her. “You would have the temples look down upon a massacre of their people? Will the gods be pleased with a city of ghosts?”

“You ask too much!”

She didn’t ask at the gate, she didn’t ask along the wall or during the slaughter of the animals. “I asked you before. Now, Nejman, now I am telling you!”

There was screaming from both sides, and in the middle of it all Nejman answered her, and his answer was something other than ‘yes’ and with a sharp motion she waved to Captain Eustachy. “Move them!”

The city guard began to push into the crowd forcing their way to the temple. Clubs and spear-butts drove back the faithful.

Suddenly her personal guards drew about her; a living walls of muscle and metal as the temple guards rushed at her.

The riot began in an instant; people howling and fighting, soldiers and guards swinging.

***

Izydor’s right hand’s knuckles were swollen from a hard afternoon of punching priests and their folk. Oklich the Harvester was one of his favorite gods, too! He himself had made offerings in the temple on both occasions he had come to the city.

The crowd had gotten ahold of poor High Priest Nejman and beaten him so badly he couldn’t speak. But there had been worse than beatings in the melee; weapons had been drawn, the temple guards had been fierce, he had heard, fierce enough to make some think the power of Oklich flowed through them, but the Blue’s personal guards had torn into them. Riot and battle had met, and the horrible slaughter of the temple guards took place upon the very steps of Oklich’s house.

Izydor had switched from the club to his ax when another priest, Tencza – whose voice had always been sweetest in song—had finally brought his people under control and surrendered.

Again, like the horrible day at the gate, Izydor had moved the wounded and the dead, then been put to work helping the remaining priests and faithful, and even a couple of guards, move the treasures of the temple out. Hard work, especially with his swollen hand, but not quite so dangerous as what the masons and carpenters did next.

And now, long hours later, he waited along with the rest, in the alleyway looking into Temple Square. He shivered in the cold; cold which burned his nose and fingers but did nothing to stop the throbbing in his hand.

“Wish they’d get through already,” Mularz grumbled through chattering teeth.

“They’ll freeze us to death one by one at this rate,” Izydor answered. “But it beats being up on the gums.”

“That it does,” Mularz answered.

They were silent. It was dark in the alley, and Izydor could no longer see the huge black eye Mularz had been carrying all day—a gift from one of the more stubborn faithful.

“I’ve heard,” Izydor said, to pass the time, “that if you’re down in the basement you can hear them digging.”

“I heard you can’t hear it, but you feel it through the soles of your feet.”

“Maddening,” someone else, Izydor couldn’t tell who in the dark, said. “That’s what I heard. Just you and the quiet and that pea dancing on the drumhead.”

“Just waiting, hoping to hear the final scrape of metal on stone,” Mularz said. “I’d hate it.”

Izydor stretched, trying to work out the kinks in his back. “Sure am glad we aren’t stuck waiting around with nothing to occupy ourselves.”

The stranger in the dark laughed, and after a few seconds Mularz got it, too.

***

Gizela had lost three of her guardsmen that day. Old King Alojzy had sent her to the Temple of Rzupka to command from there.

Braid them together, that’s what her father had said, so she had the Rhotkosk and the Fharkiv mercenaries here, bulking up what few of the city’s soldiers could be spared from manning the walls. But uniting the mercenaries were like braiding serpents. Especially the Fharkiv, and especially Mykola their leader.

Her lovemaking with Bohuslav in the temple was fierce and brief. Bohuslav was one of Mykola’s lieutenants, one of the four who enforced his will. Mykola she feared, she didn’t like the way the Fharkiv looked at her, at her father, at her city. She and her father had agreed that there should be some way to split them. That balance between the two mercenary forces, the pilgrim guards, the merchant guards, and the city guards had to be maintained. But the city guard suffered the most; almost every day at the wall men were lost.

Bohuslav, broader and shorter and older than his master, was her method. In her small room in the temple, with the small time they had, they embraced hard, she riding atop him while his great hands held her breasts and his arms would crush her to his great broad chest. She surprised herself with her own fury, with her body’s own swelling desire. She whispered her lies: of land, of the city’s need for men to rebuild, of a life free of wandering and slaughter, and almost she believed them.

Mykola’s ambition burned far brighter than Bohuslav’s, but Bohuslav did not want to be ruler of the city, or ruler of much of anything.

He left her through the small secret path. She cleaned herself, awakening the sensations of moments before. She waited a bit longer, then drifted out into the antechamber, collecting her two guards who waited faithfully outside the door.

Inside the temple she found the other captains, Mykola, Eustachy, and the Rhotkosk. The Rhotkosk mercenaries wanted their old land back, not new ones. They were safe enough.

The three men were awake, their cots and guardsmen nearby. They played dhart, betting trinkets and rolling the bones to pass the time. The high priest of Rzupka, who had clearly been drinking, was with them.

Whatever discussions they had stopped as she swept in. Here it was cold, almost as cold as outside. She threw a few bones, betting some of her many bangles.

Well through the night but still before dawn, the guards at the temple doors stirred and the soldiers hidden around the square let out a low rumble.

Moments later the watcher from the basement of the temple of Oklich ran in, boots in one hand, a torch in the other.

“They have reached the wall!” he reported to them all.

The captains called for shields, she called for her guards and her heavy blue cloak.

Out into the cold night they surged, and at a few barked orders from the three captains, all the chatter in the darkness stopped.

She waited, wrapped in her cloak and worry and hope.

Finally the Kimar came, bearing no torches, no lanterns; dark shapes growing in the darkness around the temple’s feet.

They spread like a wave, until they could no longer avoid the moonlight. How many of them were out there?

She waited, breath freezing in the wind. There were so many of them… filling the square, and with an equal number in the temple.

“Now,” she ordered.

“Now!” boomed Eustachy.

The cry was taken up around the square; torches by the dozens blazed to life on rooftops and alleyways and windows. The Kimars in the square charged out, grotesque leaping figures in the hellish orange light. Gizela saw the fur-clad wry invaders falling, shot through by the archers atop the buildings, the fallen being trampled by their fellows.

The small shields came up then and the square echoed with the thud of arrows on leather and into wood.

The Kimars let loose such a blood-chilling series of war-cries that it drowned out all other sounds, and when the bestial echoing faded it was replaced by the thunder of running feet as the Kimars rallied and tried to burst from the square.

The strange “tam-tam-tak!” cry of the Fharkiv went up from the darkness of the alley east of Temple Way, and the cries of “For Oskzeyn!” rose from the Alley of the Faithful, and the odd chanting of the Rhotkosk from the Pilgrim alley. The three forces swarmed into the glowing square, invaders and defenders crashing together, and for long moments the invaders pressed and pressed, cutting and breaking through the wall of spears and cutting down the men who wielded them before slowing.

More Kimars charged out the side doors of the temples, and the last trap was sprung.

The motley irregulars of the city guard strained in their hiding places on the streets and in the other temples, and ropes pulled taught above the hellish scene. Then a grinding and the top two levels of the temple seemed to shrug, then with crash upon crash they fell inward upon themselves and the temple of Oklich, strong for two hundred years, tumbled down.

A cloud of dust sprang into the air like a living thing, growing and seeking out the sky and street and alley. In moments all in the square was veiled behind it and the sounds of horrible slaughter were all that could be heard. But then a gasping moan went up from the Kimars as they realized the nature of the trap that held them.

***

Izydor was closer to the Blue in the morning than even he had been at the gate.

Dawn rose but the square seemed to suck away the light, pulling it through the haze that still remained. Dust coated everything. No mail gleamed, Gizela’s great blue cloak was covered, obscured. Not even the blood of the dead had its usual cold luster.

The great rubble pile that was once the Temple of Oklich stood with a tide of bodies broken against it. He could make out the line, the dense dash of bodies that marked where the defenders turned back the Kimars, then the oddly steady numbers of the dead throughout the square, and then the great heap of them upon the edge of the rubble.

He himself had not been in the fighting, his task had been to pull on the ropes, and then to press in with the rest when the order came, but within that cloud he was at the back and was happy to the let the fierce Fharkiv and the well-armored Rhotkosk do the work.

It was a great victory, yet word had come that the Kimars outside had made a charge at the west gate and again there was fighting there even now.

As yet the fighters of Temple Square were not needed at the walls, so they rested and were held in reserve. His group moved bodies, the honorable defenders of the city first. And as they approached the mound in their gory task a new horror came upon them.

Moans and the delirious screams of the maimed and trapped Kimars worked through the rubble.

The Blue herself came out of the temple of Rzupka to witness it. She just stood, not speaking for what seemed like an hour.

Izydor had work to do and together with Mularz they took those first few steps onto the teetering corpse of the temple. Soon they gave it little mind; walking upon the living and the dead, hauling off their allies.

“Should we do something?” Mularz asked suddenly, nodding to the wretched voices below.

Izydor wiped the sweat from his brow and tightened his gloves. “I won’t give them a prayer or a thought. Let them prepare for the hell that awaits them.”

It was a few minutes later when Izydor stopped and barked out a laugh. Then: “I recall the advice of an old veteran. I do have a gift for the Kimar after all!” He then jogged up the to the very top of the rubble. “For my fallen foes!”

His cold-numb fingers struggled with his trews and his woven cloth belt, and as the winter air bit at his cock, he urinated into one of the crevices in the rubble.

The townie guardsmen clapped and Mularz laughed that gulping laugh of his. “Blessed are the generous!” he shouted jumping up to join Izydor in the sport.

And, as soldiers do, they streamed past, eager to partake until one of the captains broke them up and put them back to work.

The Blue watched the whole thing, one side of her mouth turned up in a delicate sneer.   At last she spoke. “I have three gaps in my personal guards that I must fill. You, you,” she pointed to two veterans of the temple battle.

“And you,” she pointed at Izydor.

***

That the massacre at the temple had not broken the resolve of the Kimars was a blow that crumpled her father.

Old-Alojzy was past the point of nagga root. His breathing came in short quick gasps. His attendants had told her that he bled when he moved his bowels; that he bled a lot.

The plague had long since swept through all of the city; its toll grew every day. Now even some of the soldiers of the city fell victim to it. The priests of Oklich claimed it was in punishment for the defiling of their temple. Although, those same priests also swore it was the will of their god that brought down the stones.

The winter had become the enemy of both camps, taking its victims where it could. Although suffering was great within the city, they were more prepared for the long dark months than their atackers. They had wood and charcoal stored. They had shelters better than tents. They pulled down other wood from the growing number of abandoned houses.

The Kimars had none of these advantages. All the wood in the town had been burned by her order early in the siege, and what little remained had either alredy been kindled, or was tied up in the siege engines. The invaders sent forays into the forest; a journey that the riders of Oskzeyn made as dangerous as they possibly dared.   It was an insane game, the few woodcutters being guarded by a knot of ponies and the riders. Even then, the knights of Oskzeyn harried the camps of the Kimars.

The Kimars had gathered what fuel they could into a great pile, augmenting it, as did the people of Oskzeyn, with animal dung.

She had, she thought, managed to keep the people tied together. Replacing her guard with guardsmen of the city, common soldiers, had been one such move. And one of those from up-country even.

But the guards and the soldiers of the city were one thing. Still the mercenary captain Mykola had come out unscathed from the battle of Temple Square. And, due to the dust, the archers she had sworn to secrecy had not been able to take advantage of their position and fletch him with Kimar arrows during the fighting.

To the people, Temple Battle was a great victory, and in many ways it was, but for Mykola’s continued ambitious life, she herself kept it on the list of her defeats.

There had also been no prisoners, at least none that were not so wounded that they could extract useful information from them. And, while Mykola had survived, Bohuslav, after all her time and work, had not. She missed him, like she missed a favored hunting hound.

It took another two weeks of hunger and cold and the plague finally affecting the Kamjusné caravan before the Kamjusné finally relented that all their guards and their fine horses would ride with the city and the mercenaries.

With that she could tie them all together.

***

Life in the palace was one thing, but still it was a city in siege. The halls were big, and cold, unlike the cozy house of the Wegzyn family. But that place had become painful for him since little Nikodem had been taken by the plague.

Izydor stole things from the palace, small things, to give to Mularz and thus to the Wegzyns.   But what they wanted was food, and that the palace guarded more than fancy spoons. They ate horse stew, same as everyone else.

This morning the riders gathered at the north gate. The remaining great sons of the city, the hard-bitten common soldier riders, squires and attendants raised to the levels of their dead masters. To these was added the mounted men of the Fharkiv, and the Rhotkosk, and even the Kamjusné caravan guards. They were split into two groups, one that made a feint to the west, the other would drive north to, of all things, burn the wretched woodpile that the Kimars had gathered.

Of course, they would not do it alone, there were foot soldiers that would go to secure and hold the way back, and among those were yet others who would press toward the camp of the Kimars. The Blue had wanted to braid it all together—a term she was very fond of—and some of her personal guard would go as well. One of the old-hands named and – because he drew short straw again—Izydor.

The memories of the north gate stirred absolutely nothing in him as he mustered there. Nothing of the past, at least. Always the vague worry that this time luck and fury and his little skill would not be enough. The gods? He had stopped relying on them a long time ago.

The dim rolling call of the charge of the west gate drifted to them on the cold wind. It was answered by the sounds of the Kimars riding and running to meet them, forcing battle cries out of raw exhausted throats answered.

Izydor had become skilled in allowing time to pass, to not think about the near future, or the cold, or the wealth of wheat the Kimars had left on the stalk.

The gate opened and the pride of the city and its allies rode out- a mass of men and horse surging with a volcanic power. Then he was running out with his fellows. Out into the ruins of the town and through the great wide lane.

Ahead came the creak and thunk of the Wild Boar and the screams of men and horses.

Still he ran, jumping over the frozen bodies of the fallen Kimars within bowshot of the wall. He had drawn the short straw twice: his place was not within that shelter of archers, it was to run and fight as far as he could.

The Kimar horsemen rode to his left, a gale of gaunt men atop ragged ponies; they rode while bending bows back and firing arrows into the flanks of the footmen.

Today he had one of the great roundshields of the Blue’s Guard and it kicked against him three times as arrows found a home in it. A fourth slipped between his pumping shins. The man in front of him went down with a cry and he leapt over him.

The Kimar footmen were unorganized, some scrambling up, some urging their comrades on. The bulk of them ran to the woodpile, where the riders of the city swarmed and circled, hurling burning oil and pitch in wild mad arcs. Another group of Oskzeyn’s riders was amassed against the Wild Boar.

Izydor owed the Wild Boar for months of terror, but he found himself shouting. “On! On! To the fire!”

The Kimars rushing to defend the woodpile faltered, then with an equal resolve rushed on.

He hurled his javelin on the run, having little hope that it would do much and even less time to see if it did. In moments he ground to a halt, readying his heavier spear against the charge of the horsemen. Some had traded bows for spears and lances, and as they crashed into the footmen all was lost in the haze of combat.

The spear bucked in his hand, its tip pushing through layers of leather to stab into the hard bone of a pony’s chest before breaking. As the spear snapped, the pony crashed into the Kamjusné guard next to him. The rider’s lance struck Izydor’s shield with more force than he could ever resist punching through the metal leather and wood, emerging to slide just past his ear.

He let the shield go and joined a handful of men who struggled and clawed over the dying pony to drag the rider down. Someone got a spear up into the man’s ribs and he faltered.

It was a mad swirling storm of steel and panic. The two sides clutched and hewed back and forth as another of the dry February snows began to blow about them.   The white flakes lit up with a dull orange and plumes of dirty black smoke lofted to the stone-grey sky.

“Away!” someone cried. “Away! The fires are lit!”

Their rough line of defense twisted in on itself as they began to push back toward the city. Their Kimar foes let out hate-filled screams—some pursuing them, some falling back to the fires, and some unlucky few caught between the fleeing footmen and the charge of the returning riders.

All order was lost, and the riders of the Kimars pursued, their arrows slithering like living things into the shields and bodies of men, of horses, of even some of their own kinsmen trapped in the confusion.

Some of the city riders led extra horses and running footmen scrambled to get to them, as other riders hauled up their comrades. Yet others, a great broadhead of them in the rear charged heedless, with the bulk of the riders of Kimars hot on their heels. Of these the Fharkiv made up the majority and in their flight they offered no help to anyone afoot, and Izydor saw them cut a few of the defenders of Oskzeyn out of their way.

And he saw they were coming right at him.

Mykola, the fierce captain of the Fharkiv, spurred his horse, bearing down on him, leaning over to strike at him with his great ax. But the man kept leaning and tumbled from the saddle, three arrows sticking from his back and one from his neck.

Izydor reversed his flight, again, and caught the horn of the saddle. After being near-dragged for a dozen yards and nearly putting out his own eye with the jagged edge of his shield, he managed to haul himself up.

He knew very little about riding horses, and holding mane and reigns with one hand, he heaved his shield over his back with the other. Arrows thumped into him, into the horse’s rump, and one—shot from a Kimar riding beside him, struck him in the arm, its point tearing through the muscle of his forearm, grating against the bone, and pushing through to the other side.

He ignored it for a few moments, until the pain hit and overwhelmed him, and then he gnawed at the shaft behind the barbed head like a beast until it splintered in his teeth.   He rode, knees clasping the horse like a true Kimar, while he fumbled to pull the shaft out of his arm.   The horse, struggling, jumped over a dead man and Izydor nearly flew off; instead he pitched far back, his wounded arm grabbing wildly at the horn. Across the slate-grey sky with its filtering snows he swore he saw an arrow fly past his nose.

Wounded arm shrieking, he pulled himself back up to a sitting position just as the horse foundered and lurched forward upon its chest.   Reigns and mane and snow and mud all combined as he managed to vault off the dying horse and land on both feet, to run the rest of the way to the gate.

***

Princess Gizela, called the Blue, or simply Queen, toasted her luck with wine and a long chaw of nagga root as big as her thumb. It had worked! The Kimars’ woodpile had gone up in a glorious bonfire and now they had to wander far afield—easy prey for her riders and archers—and although they kept at the walls, their spirits were weakened. And best of all, Mykola had been killed in the skirmish! She had almost had that poor upcountry guard of hers shot before she had realized it was just Mykola’s horse and not the fierce captain of the mercenaries himself.

Without their captain the rest of the Fharkiv were all but unmanned. They were held as heroes, such as any of the people of Oskzeyn bothered to hold anyone or anything as a hero at this point, but they were now just soldiers, nothing so much as Kamjusné at this point, no longer looking for power or wealth as much as simply surviving the siege.

Hunger and cold had braided the people of the city better than any plan of hers could.

Yet there was a killer within the walls of Oskzeyn. The plague took a grisly toll on her subjects, the very young and the very old mostly.

She passed the long weeks, meeting with the captains to plan attacks on the Kimars, to hear the news of the repulsion of Kimar attacks. She passed the evening in the arms of a man maned Behrong, the sleepy eyed veteran and guardian of the Behost pilgrims.

One night her guards pounded on her door: the Kimars fought one another in their camp.

She flew through the still and cold city, her guards and advisors in train. Atop the walls she could hear it, shouting and wailing war-cries, and fires lit here and there in the ruin of the town.

“At last!” Behrang her knight said. “They finally turn upon each other!”

The wall was silent but for the wind and the shouting and clanging of weapons in the night. They were waiting for her to say something, to give an order. She let them wait a bit longer, savoring the moment.

“Bid all sound men to prepare,” she said at last, fighting back a wide grin. “Tomorrow we ride and march and put an end to them.”

***

“Why so glum, Mularz?” Izydor asked.

The big up-country soldier wiped a tear from his eye. “It’s little Ulanek,” he said. “She… she doesn’t do so well.”

“Plague?”

“Yes. Or maybe not. She just grows weaker and weaker. Her father, too. It is a cruel thing that my hosts should lose two children”

Izydor had gotten good at letting time pass, at letting misery and concern pass as well. “Heard tell that the siege itself can sap the will out of a man. Trapped like animals behind these walls. Today you’ll bring her news that she can walk out without fear, and she’ll feast on Kimar horse through the rest of the winter.”

Mularz nodded, but if he felt any better Izydor couldn’t really tell.

This time Izydor didn’t draw the short straw, this time he got to stay behind with The Blue and watch. A part of him wondered if he could still trade places with someone and go and settle this, but another part—mostly the dull throb in his forearm from the arrow— told him to take in the view from the wall.

It was rare that he had been upon the wall and not looked exclusively for Kimar archers among the ruins. Now he gave it all a good look. The dead invaders from past skirmishes lay where they always had, some with arrows or broken spears sticking from them, laying where they have fallen and frozen. The Wild Boar smashed amid the ruins. Ponies, forlorn and gaunt, stumbled about in the cold. Tracks of men and horses left dirty stains in the thin snow from where Kimars, alone or in groups, had fled from the violence of their fellows.

Hundreds of bodies were visible crowded around the rough huts of their main encampment—what was left of it. The huts were mostly gone. The central ring of the crude palisade was still intact, though even it seemed to lean drunkenly.

The riders and the footmen left the city in the quite of the morning, and soon an alarm went up among the remaining Kimars.

Izydor let the time pass. His soldier’s eye watched the weak defense of the palisade; ropes and hooks from the riders managed to catch and pull the walls even further down. His farmer’s mind, always with a thought on the weather and the date, began constructing a planting schedule. It was… February now, the coldest and hardest month, and March will be only a little better, and the end of April is the time to start to plant. But where could they find enough seed? Enough grain?

The footmen joined the riders of the city, and at that moment the trap was sprung. The palisade wall falls outward and the horses fall over themselves in the slack, and behind it is the Wild Boar, or another just like it. Two, and they launch and men and animals scream as they are pounded and broken.

The bodies of dead ponies in the ruins of the town begin to shudder and then lift and two or three Kimars began running out of each them. The crumpled ruins of tents suddenly lifted and the riders of the Kimars thundered up from small pits hidden there.

“They…” the Blue said in a whisper, “… they must have doubled back.” Then she shouted, almost screamed. “A ruse! A trap!”

For a few moments she seemed mad, utterly and completely mad, and Izydor took a step toward her, fearing she might jump from the wall. Instead she wheeled around, turning her back on the horrors of the plain.

But it wasn’t panic or madness in her face, instead she looked about the city, her eyes swimming madly in their sockets. “The sappers! Has there been any news of digging?”

Someone, Izydor isn’t even sure if it is the right man, answered, “No, nothing-“

“No… they can’t be digging. We’d know.   It must be already dug.” She licked her lips as she looked over the city.

“Oklich’s temple!” she yells. “That must be where they are coming through.”

It seems mad, utterly and completely mad, that anything could be done with that wretched pile of stones and rubble, but then the howling war-cries of the Kimars begin to sound from inside the city, from Temple Square.

***

It wasn’t a nightmare that Gizela had, not really. It was always the first image in her mind as she woke, from good dreams or ill:

Old Alojzy struggling with one of the young wild Kimars; grasping at each other, rolling like fighting hounds in the dirt.   Then they have knives and they stab and stab at each other, far beyond what any flesh and blood man could ever stand. Stab until the blades break off in their guts, then they drag themselves apart, crawling toward… toward… the Kimar crawls toward one of the curved swords of his kind, and her father… she can never tell what it is he is trying to reach.

They had come up through the ruins of the Oklich’s temple. Probing among the rubble, taking the bricks and debris and building a shaft to the surface, with stairs even. And perhaps it would have worked, save that the rubble was far from stable and was as treacherous getting down the outside of the pile as it was tunneling up through it. By the time she got to Temple Square the Kimars had pushed back the few defenders and perhaps would have held the opening for their companions.

The Blue. That’s what the people of the city called her. She had closed the gate. She had set alight the town. She had butchered the animals. She and her guard walked into Temple Square and hewed a bloody path to the very foot of the remnants of the temple. She herself had held a shield—a wealth of arrows had sprung from it before the end.

For all the desperation and fury the fighters on both sides had seemed to move with an exhausted slowness.   A terrible lethargy that the Kimars only shrugged off when they saw her. Such hatred, such almost mindless rage.   Somehow she expected to be as unknown to them as their brigand chiefs were to her, but it was not so. They knew her, knew her well. It was like a blow, a blow she parried and turned to her advantage.

But she was Queen Gizela, Old Alojzy’s last and best child. She had answered their hatred with mockery, luring them from their original and sensible plan of holding the way open for their fellows into trying to catch her. Those minutes had been enough for more men to come.

The rest of that day was a haze. They fought around the rubble of the temple of Oklich until well into the night, and hardly one in ten of the force she sent out returned, and the Kimars renewed assaults on the wall. After all the loss and struggle and chaos, sometime after dawn the next day the old west gate was taken and again she had to witness the panic of retreat as people fled into the citadel. A stream of ragged ghosts, her remaining subjects, and so few that the all got through the gate with time to spare. And a few poor souls who hadn’t made it? Spitted and cooked, or torn to pieces by the wild ponies of the Kimars, all against the hellish lights of her city burning.

That horrible day was lost in the haze of horrible days that followed. New engines were built from the ruins of the buildings to pound against the new walls. The fighting, like her dream, settled nothing, determined nothing. War and murder and cold and chaos was life, it was memory, it was the future.

Within the crowds plague grew. It stalked within Oskzeyn killing dozens, then hundreds. The old and the young first, and then the rest, even among the soldiers and the well-fed it found victims. March brought no end to the cold, to the dead grey sky. People whispered it was Oklich’s revenge. People whispered that they were already dead and this eternity of cold and killing was the punishment they suffered for the sins of life. People whispered, and prayed, and begged, and asked what should be done.

And, as March turned into April and Gizela knew that her soldiers mixed the flesh of the dead ponies with the flesh of their dead masters, and augmented this with their seed grain. On the 5th of April she told them what was to be done.

***

Izydor did not participate. He helped sharpen knives, dozens of them, grinding edges that a surgeon would be envious of. They were needed for only one cut, and he –like a good conscientious farmer—would make it as merciful as he could.

The citadel was quiet. Sometimes wailing drifted through the air, but it seemed distant, the very sound dying in the icy wind.

“Where is your big up-country friend?” asked one of the other guards, an old-hand from a good family who had been in service to the Blue for most of her life.

“Probably getting ready to kill a bunch of Kimars. That’s what I’m going to do.”

“Did you sharpen your sword same as those knives?”

“The sword is just for looks,” Izydor said, which was mostly true. “I do the real work with the short ax, and for the Kimars I rarely sharpen it.”

But where was Mularz? The Blue had given her personal guard a special potion made of nagga root. Izydor had given his potion to Mularz, as a gift of mercy to the Wegzyn family.

He went through the silent city to find the Wegzyn’s house. Old man Wegzyn sat at his door, stoop shouldered, still alive by the steaming of his breath.

“Where is Mularz?” Izydor asked. Best to be about it.

“Inside.”

He let himself in, squeezing past his former host. The interior was still, and a hair warmer than outside. Mularz lay at the pallet he had set up early on in their quartering. Izydor could tell he was dead. A quick walk about the interior and he found old Mrs. Wegzyn dead, too, the potion of nagga root still in her hand.

In her small bed Ulanek still breathed, her skin shiny with sweat of whatever foul spirit held her.

“Mularz told us of the Blue’s decision. He drank half of the potion.” Wegzyn said in a lifeless voice from the stoop. “He thought there would be enough for Morelia and Ulanek.”

Izydor looked down at Mularz’s thick-featured face, what little he could see under the ragged prisoner’s beard he had grown over these hellish months. “Up-country fool. Can’t do anything right can you?”

“Can you…” Wegzyn called from the door, “I can’t do it. Not to Ulanek.”

Izydor closed the door, not telling the old man that he hadn’t bothered to bring one of the sharp knives.

Ulanek had grown over the merciless winter, shooting up a hand’s width, a willow-wand thin, starving and sick youth.

“Up-country fool,” he said to himself drawing out his short sword. “It isn’t just for looks.” He had to sharpen it first, and because he didn’t have a spinning stone wheel, it took more time than he wanted. Time to consider that he should be upset, but there was nothing, nothing left within him to fuel such extravagant emotions.

He got the girl up in a sitting position and drew the edge along her neck just below the ear. She yelped, and flinched, and blood sprayed out.   He drew it across her neck on the other side, as he had heard it was done. Then he wrapped her back in her bedding.

“It is done,” he said back in the clean cold air outside. “Didn’t feel a thing.”

Old Wegzyn seemed not to hear, but then he nodded and rose to his feet. “To it, then?”

“To it.”

The muster was grim, hundreds of men like Wegzyn, some older, some younger than Izydor. There were women, too. For whatever good they might do. A funeral procession more than an army.

The Kimars were already trying the east wall and testing the barriers flung up in the streets of the craftsmen’s district. The sounds of fighting seemed to be the only thing with any life in it in the square. The Blue was there, tilting her head to listen to it.

“Their headquarters is Rzupka’s temple!” she shouted for those who didn’t know. Then she let out a scream, long and high and Izydor found his throat opening up to yell in response. Again and again they yelled, until on the third time they sounded like living men, and the fourth like fighters, and the fifth like vengeance.

On the sixth the gates of the citadel opened and the horsemen charged full into the Wild Ox and its twin, horses and men breaking under the hail of stones, and then those who remained surged out.

***

There was little room in the streets of Oskzeyn even for the compact ponies of the Kimars, and their fearsome mounted archers were the first to meet them. More of their bowmen fired at them from atop the roofs of two of the finer old houses near temple row.

After waiting for too long under the rain of arrows and stones, someone shouted that they break off from the main charge and take care of the archers on the roof.

Izydor and perhaps a dozen others split off, kicking down the crudely barricaded door and charging in. The Kimars met them with spears, and for a long while they crushed back and forth in the ruins of the building before the invaders faltered. Izydor caught a spear in his roundshield and eased it up and then slipped up the shaft to bring his ax down on the fingers that held it. Then down onto the arm, breaking it, and then the head, splitting it. A spear found his chest, grating against the breastplate and catching in the rings of his mail. An old tattered man, in all the screaming and chaos, walked up and stabbed the Kimar through the stomach with one of the Rhotkoskan longswords, and into those two cracks of the Kimar the small group of Oskzeyn’s avengers flowed.

“Up!   Up the stairs! To the roof and their archers!” someone screamed, and after a moment Izydor realized it was himself.

Midway up the broad stairs the archers unleashed and Izydor curled into a small ball, small enough to hide behind his roundshield. Barbs and shafts thumped and punched into the wood, some coming through and digging into the metal and leather of his greaves.

After a while of being stuck on the stairs he gave up sense and threw his hand-ax. It struck a Kimar in the head and he flopped down onto the stairs. Izydor half-sprang, but the sudden charge of his fellows from behind knocked him down. His countrymen and allies, wild with bloodlust and seeing an opening, stomped over him as they charged up the steps.

A few moments to catch his breath and he joined them, coming out onto the roof in time to push on the wave that cut the archers down or pushed them over the roof’s edge. The less experienced let out a cheer and then many of them were peppered with arrows from the roof of another building.

“Get the bows!” Izydor called, “Get the arrows! Get the archers up front!”

Had any of the soldier archers of Oszeyn even come into the building? He had no idea. They organized a disorganized line of archers and lobbed comically inaccurate arrows across the broad way at the Kimar on the other roof until finally more of the soldiers of Oskzeyn burst up behind the doomed archers.

They watched, for a bit, as the Kimar archers were slaughtered, then someone yelled about the temple, and a strange chant went up. “Temple! Temple!” over and over, louder and louder.

Down the stairs and out into the street and up finally into temple square.

Fires sprang from Rzupka’s house, great billowing black gouts of smoke and the Kimar archers fired a withering hail of arrows from atop it.

Izydor joined the throng pushing into the temple, battered shield up. The archers fired arrows, then threw stones, and then hurled themselves off the roof at their attackers.

No, through the smoke and fire Izydor could see the grey-mailed soldiers of the city and the black-cloaked Kamjusnés atop the roof, driving the Kimars over the edge.

The resistance within the temple faltered and as he passed through the smashed doors he looked around for Kimars, any Kimars to fight, and saw none alive. His battered brain worked on it, chewing it like a tough bit of horse.

He began to laugh–mad howling laughter–the laughter that blamed fate and men and gods and bounced off the grey lifeless sky.

***

He carried the head of one of the Kimars by his long black braid as he ran back to the citadel. Somewhere, a part of his mind that could still reason told him he might need the grim trophy to prove what he said to those guardsmen unlucky enough to have drawn long straws.

He came into the palace. At the base of the stairs the Ten Bravest, the very last of the best of Gizela’s personal guard waited. Dead-faced men waiting for the final hours.

Izydor’s mouth worked slow, from the cold, from the howling pealing laughter, as if he had not spoken in weeks.

“We won,” he said, throwing the head to them.

They watched it tumble through the air and roll to their feet. One by one their faces went slack at it.

He pushed through—he had been one of her favorites, one who “braided it all together” and opened the unlocked door.

Queen Gizela hung from one of the great rafters, her handmaidens lying slit-throated about her twitching feet.

He ran, scooped up her legs and heaved her up. Again he recalled language. “Guardsmen! To me!”

First one, then two finally stumbled into the room. “Cut the rope!” Izydor bellowed to men much his senior and better, and like little Ulanek had, they obeyed almost without thinking.

The Blue tumbled down among her dead servants. “Blessed be the merciful,” one of her old guards said to Izydor.

Izydor clenched his jaw. Townie fool. What would ever make you think this is mercy?

***

Madness ruled the throne room of Oskzeyn, for hours, for days it seemed. Gizela sat upon her throne and with slow rasping words bestowed outrageous titles and gifts upon those that remained.

The unhinged revelry only paused when Oleksander, one of the last and fiercest of the Fharkiv mercenaries still living came stomping into the room, a stick-thin child on his shoulders.

“I found this one hiding!” he bellowed. “Hiding in one of the drums used to listen for digging!”

Izydor, mad as the rest, was silent as the rest. The remaining Fharkiv were not known for their kindness, and Oleksander especially was naught but a useful killer. He feared that the big man might hurt the child, might fan the embers of the morning’s hard mercies into outright murder.

“Do you not see?” Oleksander demanded. “Take courage!” He laughed, crazed. “Courage from cowardice! Cowardice and the good sense of children and beasts! The city is not yet dead!”

So began a strange new game, scouring the city for those craven enough to hide, for those too sick to have been found, for those too drunken on hoarded wine to have made either the muster or the killing. Six in all were found, and the boy and the girl they set on the thrones and as day turned into night they spitted two Kimar ponies and two Kimars and feasted before the shrieking children, piling them with gifts of weapons and teeth and gold looted by the invaders.

At last in the murky revelry, Izydor watched as Queen Gizela took the thin crown from her head and placed it on the nameless girl’s brow.

“I will not rule a city of ghosts,” she croaked to the assembly.   “Let us keep our silence of what deeds have been done here. Let Emperor Sed wonder what happened to his fierce Kimar allies. Let him wonder where and how our curses shall be brought home to him.”

And to Izydor, at that moment, after so much, it seemed close enough to wisdom.

***

It is remarked, among scholars who know where to find such things, that the road to empire and fame is littered with refugees. Among more official records, viewed by only a select few, was listed the great expense of the victories against the city-states of the north. And even in such dry documents was written a warning of the cursed city of Oskzeyn, of the still and lifeless ruins.

Emperor Sed Al Aqueel, having set his feet on the stairs to empire, had little use for such news. That the troublesome folk to his north were either brought into his empire or decimated so they could not fight against him, these things only mattered.

There were mentions, in the chronicles of shrines and temples and cities, of the roads swollen with refugees in those hard years. And among those refugees are made the occasional note of peoples strange and grim. Gaunt wanderers, grey-faced and straight-lipped, united more by demeanor than anything else. A people dressed in the finest Kamjusné dyed wools, and singing strangely altered hymns of Behost pilgrims. Weapons, some bore, a mix of civilized men and the savage Kimars.

A note could be found, in the records of the city of Balhyad, of a family of such outlanders: a large Behost veteran of many wars, his wife in a high-necked Kamjusné coat, their nearly-grown son who carried a foundling boy on his shoulders. For a time they sold dried meats in the bazaar. There were questions about how such a rabble had come to possess so much food in such hard times, but before any officials could investigate they were long gone.

It is also mentioned that, in the war-torn land of Alsgon a number of such strange people settled, some in the cities, some in the countryside. They dwelt, farmed, and did business there, and one note is made that they seemed to never suffer for want of money.

 

_______________________________________

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, Plasma Frequency, Outposts of Beyond, Strange Constellations, and the anthologies Apotheosis, and No Sh!t, There I Was.


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