Note from the Author: In the interest of expanding the universe in which my Opus is based, I’ve tried to take some snapshots of important moments in history, whether that’s the history of the characters, or the world. In this extract, you meet Raston and Braen, the former being a pre-metamorphosis form of the intended antagonist in my grand works, the latter being the intended main character’s father. Yeah, this is a multi-generational clusterfuck, try to keep up! The two characters have been caught up in a city under siege and fight for their survival (rather than representing any nation) against the last great horde of marauding bandits. I got bored with using standard ‘bandit’ words, so decided to broaden my language by using the Italian forms, at least I didn’t go with Swahili which was the other option!
It was chaos that afternoon.
Throughout the streets, iron-clad guardsmen trooped with their bristling arms arrayed in haphazard fashion, pumping full of the energy provided by fear and panic. Drums echoed at fevered pitch from outside the high walls and from within the inner ring of the city, bells rung out from the highest tower of Meadowhall’s citadel.
Braen could scarcely make sense of the madness. Stringing his hunting bow as he went, he sidestepped one platoon after another as the soldiers went with their visors down to their varied positions throughout the city, harassed by captains shouting orders at the top of their lungs.
‘I told you we should have made for the port,’ said Raston, clad in dull, light steel armour beside him.
‘I agreed with you, asshole,’ replied Braen, frustratedly, ‘it’s not my fault the banditi stole a march.’
‘I heard a guard say they mean us all for the mines.’
‘I thought you enjoyed life underground.’
‘I was speaking metaphorically and you know it.’
The high, sandstone walls of the city rang with the clamour of war and beyond their crenellations, rank after rank of motley-clad bandits paraded, yelling curses and whoops at the prospect of the bounty within the city. Meadowhall’s walls were thick, her gates were strong. But the militia-men who manned her walls were scarcely more than farmhands, rallied by the precious few veterans who were their captains. Those young men and green warriors knew the barbaric tales of the bandits outside their curtain wall well, they had grown up in the shadow of Ikesnesse’s lawlessness. Too long had the nation been without a strong leader. So long that the bandits, gangs and robbers made their own justice, and the commonfolk paid its price.
‘Best we can do is help these green-sleeves some and hope that enough of them hold out till Arnmire sends in the phalanxes,’ said Raston, who had drawn his longsword and was checking its edge.
‘That’s if the old Dame sent any carrier pigeons.’
‘Gods, don’t tempt fate,’ said Raston exasperatedly, ‘she might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but surely she’s no idiot.’
Braen was silent, even as they came to a throng of armoured men, waving their spears and lances, as they gathered at one of the gates to the outer rings.
‘They’re through the eastgate,’ cried an archer from above, and was met by a cry of dismay from the crowd assembled.
‘You won’t do much good down here with that,’ said Raston of Braen’s bow, and the young archer nodded. His friend was right. In such a crush of men, he was more likely to hit friend than foe.
‘Head up to the battlements,’ said his bearded friend, with a thin-lipped smile which betrayed his nerves. Neither of them had been caught in a siege before, ‘I’ll find you when the fighting’s done.’
‘I’ll see you at the Merry Plough,’ Braen nodded with a forced smile and gripped his friend’s offered arm, ‘first round’s on you.’
‘Believe it… don’t die up there.’
‘Same to you.’
The two parted and Braen felt the steely grip of fear churn his stomach like butter. He had always hated his father’s iron-hard sternness, but now wished he had some of the old man’s mettle. It was all he could do not to tremble in his boots. Barely a lick of fluff upon his chin and here he was facing a thousand, thousand bloodcurdling reavers and rapers. This was not the life he’d chosen. Perhaps he should have stayed in the relative safety of Kaston Keep, enduring his father’s scorn and drunken beatings. His life was not so readily on the line there.
The battlements were crowded with fumbling stablehands and ploughsmen in ill-fitting armour with fresh-strung bows. One man, with a helmet which slipped regularly over his eyes, tried to holler something at Braen.
‘What?!’ shouted back the tracker, reaching for one of his goose-fletched arrows even as a volley of mongrel shafts flew over their heads, buzzing like angry wasps.
‘I said,’ yelled the captain, ‘get back to the streets, civilian.’
‘Theres nothing to be-‘ Braen began saying, but the words choked in his throat as the man shifted his helmet up above his brow with one hand, and straight away took an arrow through the eye.
Blood and clear liquid sprayed everywhere, the man fell, and Braen felt something collide hard with his shoulder. Only after he took a beat to gather himself did he realise he’d thrown himself against the relative safety of the crenellations.
Men screamed and below them on the field, horses took up the cry as they fell wounded or bolted in panic.
Steel yourself, Braen told himself with force, he’d killed men before, when they’d tried to kill him. This was no different. There were only a lot more of them now. Now he’d have to drop that many more and hope that his quaking allies here did the same.
He nocked an arrow to his bow and took in a breath. He tasted the iron-smell on the air, of metal and blood, of piss and shit, of smoke from the farmhouses burning beyond the relative safety of the wall. In the lull between the drumbeats, he gathered himself to the balls of his feet, drew back the string as he rose and loosed the shaft as soon as he found a target.
Straight away he ducked again, unsure if he’d hit anything, drew another arrow and repeated. With every fletching his fingers brushed, every time he felt that raw pluck of the bowstring against his fingers, he built his mettle. Before long his chest heaved up and down and he cried out a defiant sound with every shot. No words emerged, but it felt better to shout something than stay silent in the face of such odds.
The men around him fared worse. One had knocked down his quiver and scrambled over the stones to recover the free-rolling arrows. Another trembled and cried as he cradled his bow to his chest, crouching in a puddle of his own making. Only a veteran on the walkway above the gate, who hurled bucket after bucket of loose rock and shale over the hoardings upon the rabble who beset the gate, seemed to have any semblance of wits about him.
‘Have at ‘em, boys,’ roared the old warrior through a beard flecked with spittle and blood, ‘give em your worst. Show these goat-fuckers the way to hell. We’ll sing em songs from the gates. Fucking fight!’
Braen popped up once more and loosed a shaft, this time spotting it bury itself so deep in a leather-clad bandit that it threw the man clean off his feet. One fewer, at least, he thought to himself.
The battlements shook as something slammed into the wall beyond them. Stone chippings and rubble exploded from the impact point and Braen barely kept his feet as men closer to the point fell, clutching their faces and exposed skin in agony. There was a giant chunk missing from the battlements now, like some giant creature had taken a bite through stone and flesh alike. There was another detonation, this time from a building inside the walls and Braen was alerted to the veteran above the gates calling down to a counterpart on the ground.
‘They’ve mangonels set up behind their siege lines.’
‘How’d they-‘ came the reply, mingled and muffled by the screams of wounded and dying men.
‘I don’t know how, damn it!’ Do something!’
Braen popped up and loosed a shaft at the siege lines once more. He hit another man, and stayed up to survey the land quickly. Men ran in disarray, but he could see a focussed group, sure enough, gathered around a great wooden construction which looked like a giant arm with a weight on one end and a sling on the other. Even as he watched it dipped ponderously and lifted the sling end with great force, flinging a chunk of masonry in a gigantic arc towards the city.
There was another explosion and Braen threw himself to the ground, covering his head and face as he was showered in splinters and shards of stone. When he uncurled, he realised he was bleeding from several tiny cuts. Impatiently, he brushed away the blood and pulled a few splinters from his skin.
‘You there,’ Braen found himself grabbed by the scruff and pulled upright to face the veteran he’d seen by the hoarding over the gate, ‘you still in your right mind, boy?’
‘Better than some,’ Braen shouted back, chest heaving as his heart thundered a hundred times a minute in his ears.
‘We need to clear a hole,’ yelled the old warrior over the clamour of battle. He waved to the gate. ‘Make space so that our boys can lead a sortie and clear out the siege engines. Can you do that boy?’
‘I’ve only got one bow,’ Braen tried to reply but the black bearded captain was distracted by shouts from the other side of the walkway.
‘Make way!’ hollered two men with a cauldron hanging from a spear between the two of them, ‘pitch coming through, watch your backs if you like them unburned. Make space there!’
It smelled strong and soupy, overpowering even the blood and smoke with the acrid stench of tar. Black and thick, it bubbled like a thing alive and let off a shimmering haze above it which confused the eyes.
‘Mount it over the murder holes. You, boy,’ said the bearded captain, ‘ try to drop the men shielding the ram.’
Braen nodded, sucking breath through his teeth. Either side of the gateway, around the hoardings, twin towers rose to afford the defenders a view of the gate and the approach. The ground down there was littered with bodies clad in ununiform garb, all different colours and cuts to show the motley assortment of gangs and crews which had come together to mount this offensive. Trampling the bodies of their fallen comrades, a mad or brave few maintained a strong shield wall with hefty tower shields around a battering ram which hammered on the gates in time with the drumbeats. Splinters flew as it slammed again and again into the softening wood of the eastgate.
The towers attracted their own danger though. Volley upon volley splintered against the stone or found home in the flesh of the thinning ranks of archers who mustered at the tower’s arrow loops. The danger there was doubled, but they had to stop that ram.
Braen ignored the confusion of the veteran captain and made his way back to the archer who cowered in his own piss.
‘You there,’ he yelled in the young man’s ear, ‘you, what’s your-‘
‘No more…no more…no more…’ the youth was muttering with eyes so wide and unseeing he might as well be blind in his panic.
Braen struck the man with the back of his hand, surprised at his own strength as he knocked the coward down onto the stone of the battlements. When the man arose, there was blood above his eye. It had stopped his rambling though.
‘Do you want to die, mate?!’ yelled Braen.
The youth shook his head, eyes still wide in terror.
‘I don’t want to die either. You’re going to do us both a favour and pick up this shield and cover us both with it, while I do your job for you. Sound good?’
With that, he thrust a shield into the man’s hands, relieved from the corpse of a soldier who’d mounted the stairs with some message which would go forever unheard. The two of them ran, low and quick, to the tower and once there, Braen forcibly put the man in position.
‘Just hold there. Nice and high. Drop it and we’re both done for, you hear me?’
The man trembled.
‘You hear me?!’
Braen leaned over the side and pulled back as a shaft pinged away from the wall, inches from his head. He’d caught a quick glance at the shield formation though, and spotted the small gaps between the shields.
‘Lean with me now. I need time to make the shot.’
He drew back an arrow, white goose-fletchings shimmering in the half light of the sunset and the rising moon, took a breath, and leaned out over the battlements while the youthful recruit leaned with him, covering him with the shield which yet shook in his hand. Braen sighted along the shaft, holding his breath and found one of the chinks in the shield wall. For a beat, he watched it move with the shifting ram beneath, then loosed.
He was rewarded with a scream of pain and one of the shields dropped for a moment. He nocked, drew and fired in the next moment, not seeing his target so much as hoping there was one in the gap. Another scream, then he had to pull back as he drew more attention from the enemy and shafts buried themselves in his shield-bearer’s defence. Other archers in the towers had followed his lead, however, and now filled the weakness with missiles from their bows until the gap grew bigger and Braen could see the trunk of the ram, feathered with so many arrows that it looked like a long, low-slung hedgehog.
‘Now! Now! Now!,’ he yelled with urgency to the captain above the gate, who was already heaving the cauldron of pitch over, even as the words left Braen’s mouth. Men screamed and boiled in their armour below. Bloodcurdling bellows of pain and injury rose from the gate approach. Braen crouched below the parapet and felt his stomach turn over once more. Bile rose in his throat and he quelled it with focus, reminding himself that these men would do all this and more if given the chance.
The captain took a torch, lit and burning, from the battlements and tossed it over the edge. There was a whoosh as the flames caught on the pitch and all a sudden the approach was ablaze and the flames lit up the horrific details of the men beneath them.
His arms felt numb and it was a struggle to keep his brain from fogging in the shock, but the fight was far from over.
Rubble scattered down into the street as they heard another impact above. Raston hugged the wall as the armoured men around him threw up their shields and blocked hunks of masonry which came crashing down on them. It was too much for one man, whose arm buckled under the weight and fell, bleeding heavy from a big gash on his forehead.
Men shouted orders to the terrified troops as down the street a wall crumbled to dust, pulverised by the missiles that came flying overhead.
‘Where did the fucking banditi get siege engines from?’ asked Raston to a soldier with a long, livid scar across his chin.
‘How the fuck should I know?’ came the reply as ahead of them, by the tall painted gate a marshal of the city watch started waving for attention from the assembled warriors.
‘Ready yourselves, men! Prepare to sally forth,’ the marshal roared over the clamour, ‘we must push back the scum from the approach and harry the siege weapons while sappers shore up the gate.’
A wavering response rose but the marshal was not to be denied, ‘those twats out there want to rape your wives and loot your corpses. They want to burn your farms and steal your hard-earned bounty. They’ll pull down our good works and salt the ground and tear out our way of life by the root. We’re going to stop them, men of the meadows. Put your swords to them before they try to do the same to you. Do not fear their painted faces. These are savages, and we stand for mighty civilisation.’
There was a loud crack and a scream from the walls above. The drums were getting louder.
‘On my command,’ roared the marshal, directing lines of men to sally ports on either side of the gate. Raston joined the throng, feeling blood rise in his ears as he held his longsword close and tried not to stick his own comrades with it. Beneath their cuirasses, faulds and pauldrons, the grey, cotton coats of the meadowhall militia looked uncomfortably hot in the summer evening. Raston was glad of his cotton undershirt, cool and light, and his light armour, padded leather with steel plates and gorget, though he envied the militia their wide brimmed barbutes. Too much shit was falling from high up. He worried for his skull.
‘Sally! Men! Go, go, go!’
There was a stumbling, fumbling lurch as, like an uncurling beast, the columns of men poured into the narrow openings. Darkness enveloped Raston and all he could see was the dim glint of the armour of the man ahead of him, all he could hear was the clattering, clanking of armour and weaponry, and the musty smell of stale sweat and piss choked him. Then they burst forth, out of the tiny sally gate, and were all of a sudden dazzled by the burning pitch on the battering ram.
They stumbled around the flames and at once set upon the attacking bandits. Raston hugged the wall around the ram and found himself pushed and battered aside by men in the grips of the kind of bravery inspired by sheer panic, like cornered animals, wild eyed and frothing at the mouth beneath their iron helms. The young man stumbled, off-balance, and looked up to see the screaming painted face of some hairy savage swinging a bearded axe at his head.
More by luck than judgement, Raston ducked and fell to a knee, while the axe clanged against the sandstone above him, showering him with stone chips. With a grunt, he flung out his hand to push the man away, forgetting that he held a sword in it, and gained himself space. The second time he remembered what he was doing, and the sword point buried itself in the man’s belly.
Men fell screaming around him, the smell of blood and smoke was enough to choke him, but Raston kept his strength and sense about him and wrenched his sword from the savage who crumpled and curled up like a dying spider.
They pushed forward as a rag-tag unit, past the ram until they held the approach and Raston stepped uneasily over twisted bodies which lay upon the ground. He ducked a spear which rattled off the wall and punched upwards with the hilt of his sword, feeling a jaw break, and headbutted until his face was covered in blood. One man went down, then another, then another, and in the frenzy there was barely time to think except; duck, parry, push, stamp, stab, block, swing.
The sloping, curved path of the approach ran red with blood and gore. Raston felt the squelch of something beneath his boot and looked down to see a length of bowel trailing away from the trunk of a man who somehow was crawling into the ditch, with the movements of a drunk or drowning man. Feeling bile rise in his throat, he retched and rallied, then pushed onwards, following the hollering madness of the militia.
Spinning his blade in a flourish, with gritted teeth, Raston deflected a spear thrust to one side dispatched its owner with such a slice to the throat that he felt his blade bury itself in the bones of the spine. The man with his plaited brown hair fell, twitching, to his knees and dragged Raston’s sword with him. A screaming, bare-chested woman, daubed in war paint from head to sandal-clad foot charged at him with a lance covered in the blood and brain of one of his armoured comrades. Some good that helmet had done. Raston flopped gracelessly on top of his previous victim, scrambling and wrenching at his sword but it refused to come unstuck.
The woman bore down with her lance, and he shimmied out of the way so that it buried itself in the chest of the plaited man. Abandoning his sword, Raston rolled away and she followed, a bloodcurdling noise ripping from her throat. He dodged once, knocked the vicious tip away with his vambrace, then ducked and grabbed the haft behind the blade. He stepped in close, took a headbutt to the face. Pain exploded in his nose like a white-hot light, and he tasted blood upon his lips. The mad-woman screeched, spit flying in his face, and Raston returned the favour, spitting a wad of thick saliva and blood into her eyes. She pulled back and he rallied through streaming eyes to drive a gauntleted fist into her face. She dropped the lance and he fell upon her, not realising that he was screaming too now, landing punch after punch with a sickening sound. Her face felt soft beneath his knuckles but he didn’t stop until she lay twitching beneath him. Chest heaving in effort, he put a hand to his nose. It felt broken.
Looking up, he saw he had a moment to breathe. The band of militia men were expanding out from the gate’s approach, fighting in a growing perimeter, but they were spreading thin. From behind them, someone was roaring orders over the clamour;
‘The engines…. Sally to… attack!’ some words were lost in the undulating cacophony.
Raston felt tired. Exhausted to the bone. He didn’t remember how they’d come so far from the gate where now panicked masons were nailing boards across the damaged wood. Bending down to catch his breath, he rested his hands on his sword for a moment, the blade slick with crimson blood, dripping gore and strands of hair. He wrenched up and down and pried the blade out of the bandit’s neck. Now onward to the siege engines.
Through the smoke and gathering darkness, he thought he caught sight of someone waving from the walls. Was that Braen? Any words were lost in the din but as he turned, a wild-eyed charger, its black mane wild in the wind, burst through the militia lines. Upon its back, saddleless and bare-chested, rode a giant of a man. Beetling eyes beneath bushy, brown brows locked their gaze on Raston even as with a swing of one arm, corded with hulking muscle, the huge man brought a great, heavy maul down upon the helmeted head of one of the militiamen. His helmet crumpled like reeds beneath a boot and blood and brain spurted from the eye and mouth slit.
The charger reared up and its iron-shod hooves split open the cheek of a soldier who had lost his helmet. The giant astride it swung out left and right with his maul and his every blow laid another man low. Cries of ‘FALL BACK’ echoed across the field as the defenders sortie buckled and broke in the centre. Meanwhile the bandits were roaring their support.
‘ANZO, ANZO,’ they cried in time with the drumbeat, ‘ANZO!’
A soldier clattered into Raston in his haste to return to the gate. Then another knocked him off-balance. His breath caught. This would turn into a rout very soon if something wasn’t done. Raston never considered himself a warrior. He was a gambler, a thief, a fast-talking smuggler, and here he was trapped in the madness of combat and staring death in the face. But if he ran now with the rest of these frightened rabbits then there’d be no saving the city from the onslaught of the reaving bandits.
Pushing his way through the fleeing warriors, Raston scooped a ramshackle shield from the floor and advanced towards the giant who had dismounted now and flailed around with the huge maul. He felt fear clutch at his guts and tightened his hand around the hilt of his longsword to stop it trembling so much.
The giant caved in another breastplate, sending its senseless occupant flying and crushed the leg of a blubbering soldier who was crawling, scrambling over bodies to get away. All the while the huge man laughed, this mad booming laugh which seemed to cut through the air over all the noise and insanity. Without so much as a cursory look at Raston, the maul swung out in a blurring arc, far faster than any normal man would have been able to swing it. Somehow Raston ducked, and the maul kept travelling. Behind his great black beard, the huge man looked surprised, his eyes widened a touch but then the teeth bared in a wicked smile and his hulking body turned to face Raston. Bare to the chest and wider by half than Raston himself, the man was built of rippling muscle, course black body-hair (matted with blood from his victims) and livid scars which cris-crossed every inch of skin. A necklace of teeth hung from his neck and around his waist was a wide, steel-plated belt which suspended loose fitting leather breeches, strapped over with armour plating atop thick, black boots.
The maul swung out again, this time down at his head so Raston threw himself sideways. No sooner had he gathered himself than he had to raise the shield and block a shuddering blow, light though it might have seemed to the giant, which might have caved in his ribs.
The man’s lips moved but Raston couldn’t hear anything over the ringing in his ears and the dull thud-thud of his heart beating in his throat. Attack is the best form of defence. He could hear Braen’s words in his head, though they had been spoken about cards they might be equally helpful he-
He rolled beneath another swing which would’ve taken his head clean off and the giant man roared. Raston swung out with his longsword, forcing a parry. He took a big step forward, swinging again so that the man had to dodge. He probed with the point and weaved the blade around the man’s defence. Big men fall hard, he kept trying to tell himself, breathless as sweat dripped down his brow, mingling with the blood slowly oozing from his nose. Just keep moving, be faster.
His sword found its mark once, scraping past the man’s bicep as the giant blocked. Twice, he tagged a muscle on the man’s chest, nearly took his eye out too, but the huge man moved with such speed despite his size that Raston found it hard to keep up. There was a whinny from behind Raston and the black charger knocked into him, lashing out at militiamen around them. Suddenly he was within the man’s reach and without time to react, the giant gathered Raston up into his veiny arms and began to squeeze the blood and breath from the much smaller man.
Dropping his sword, Raston struggled for breath. He squirmed and wriggled and tried desperately to pry his arms free from the crushing embrace of the man-mountain. His ribs strained and he made gasping sounds as all the air was forced from his lungs. This is it, Raston thought, this is the end. He wondered what hells awaited him as his vision went spotty and dark, there was not yet enough goodness in his life to earn his way into whatever heaven might exist.
The giant roared with manic laughter as Raston hung there limp as a fileted fish, surrounded by advancing banditi. Very suddenly the laughter changed, the grip lessened and Raston made a whooping noise as he sucked air in greedily as a drowning man, fresh revived. His vision cleared and he saw the giant’s face twisted in pain. A long pale shaft of ash, fletched with goose feathers, stuck up from the giant’s collar, buried deep in the man’s muscular chest.
Raston landed heavily as the man dropped him and he rolled away, wheezing as he scrambled around looking for his sword. The giant roared something unintelligible and there was a surge of bodies as the banditi lurched forwards in a raucous charge. No sooner had Raston grabbed the hilt of his sword from where it had fallen, than he found feet kicking his sides as the bandit forces trampled towards the walls of the city. Cradling his blade to his body, wrung out and exhausted, Raston huddled in a hollow between the corpse of the great, black charger and three men piled atop each other.
Feeble and helpless he curled up as small as he could and waited. Unable to see anything save bodies shrouding the night sky above, lit by the flickering flames of fires burning near the city, and hearing only the cacophony of battle, Raston begged every god he could think of for some sort of reprieve. Caked in mud and muck and blood and gore, hair matted down and trembling now that the shock could catch up with him, he prayed for the first time in many years.
There was a crack in the bodies above him. Then a gap. Then a clear blanket of twinkling stars above him. A hand reached down and grabbed his shoulder. Raston found himself hauled upwards to his feet by a painted, leather garbed bandit. He stared at the man’s face, readying himself for death once more, until he realised that the man was talking.
‘…pick you up. Listen up scum. Not a fucking time to lie down on the job. Get your rotting testicles up that ladder. Break their lines.
Raston realised that the detonating siege attacks had stopped thundering through the night, ladders were now splayed up against the walls and streams of men were pouring up them. His comrades must have all retreated back through the sally ports, like rats back to their holes, but he was so garbed in filth, wearing his own armour rather than the militia uniform, that he must look to any just like the other bandits.
His breath caught in his throat.
‘Draw steel! Prepare to repel climbers!’
Braen’s shield-bearer lay at his feet, slack-jawed in amazement at the blood that bubbled from his mouth and the arrow which had sprouted from his throat. The archer himself felt caught in an endless loop. Ducking behind the ramparts to nock, before drawing and loosing at the horde of banditi which now rushed at the walls of the city.
It came as a mild relief, to know that his tired arms didn’t have to draw his bowstring anymore, that he didn’t have to wrench barbed arrows from the corpses of men he’d stood beside on the battlements. His bow, lovingly made from yew and etched with his own designs, dropped to the stones as he pulled a sword from the sheath of the man beneath him, Braen felt a pang of regret that he had to be so rough. What had the man, younger still than himself, done to deserve this? But he didn’t fancy facing the screaming onslaught with nothing but his hunting knife. He drew that too and pressed his back against the ramparts even as all along this stretch of the wall, ladders began thudding home with a clatter of wood against stone. At least the bombardment had stopped.
There was a cry not far from him as a large woman, dressed in rags and furs and covered in blood or war paint, crested the battlements. She landed on the walkway and shoved defenders aside who rushed her. She swung two hand axes and was swiftly followed by more. Further along, more warriors alighted on the wall.
‘Push them back!’ hollered the captain from the gate, ‘spears, men, spears, push them back over the walls!’
There was a clatter and Braen turned to see a ladder burst into view beside him, followed swiftly by a snarling face. He put his sword through it without much thought, and nearly lost the blade as it tugged to follow the man who fell backwards with a gurgle. With a cry he launched his shoulder against the assault ladder and pushed, but it was yet too heavy. He had to leap back quickly, as well, since a blade came out of nowhere and crashed against the crenellations where he had been stood just moments before.
Braen hacked down blindly, feeling his sword shudder as it met a rung, when he was alerted to more madness by a scream from his right. The large woman had had little trouble with the greenhorns on the wall and now charged straight for him. She bulled into him and slammed the archer into the battlements behind him, beside the ladder. Winded and bruised, Braen pushed back with a croaking grunt, winning some space, enough to remember the knife in his left hand. As she swung an axe for his face, he slipped beneath her swing and buried the blade up to its hilt in the soft tissue beneath her chin.
She dropped, gurgling, and was replaced by a small man whirling a flail. It wrapped around Braen’s sword and he gripped hard to stop it being torn from his grip. He stood sideways and kicked out with the heel of his foot, burying it into the man’s stomach, between his leather armour’s padding, He knocked the bandit back, and the flail slipped from his blade, long enough for Braen to lift the sword high and bury it deep in the man’s skull. An arrow buzzed over his shoulder and knocked down the next painted warrior, and the gate captain pushed past him swinging a greatsword, which was tall as Braen himself.
Staying away from the huge weapon, Braen turned his attention to the ladder which threated to spew reavers onto his tower. With a burst of energy, he seized a spear from where it leant against the wall, and crested the ramparts, gripping the side of the ladder to steady himself. Standing tall over the bandits climbing towards him, Braen jabbed down with the tip. He caught the first man by surprise, spear-tip sinking into his shoulder and making the man lose his grip. The man below him was not so unawares and batted away the weapon as it came close. This next man was covered in mud and blood and filth from head to toe, and when he looked up at Braen there looked to be a spark of recognition in his eyes.
He shouted something but Braen couldn’t hear over the ringing in his ears and the banging drums and the clanging bells. He jabbed downwards again and this time the climber caught the spear and wrenched downwards (forcing Braen to drop it) so that the spear buried itself in the face of the man behind him. That seemed odd. The man climbed faster and Braen leapt back, reaching for the sword once more.
As the man came over the battlements, however, Braen recognised that scruffy beard and grey, almond-shaped eyes. He pulled up the sword blow which he’d been gathering and caught Raston as his exhausted friend slipped on the crenellations.
‘The gate wasn’t good enough for you?’ he asked, out of breath while his friend mustered the effort for a short laugh.
‘I fancied the climb.’
There was a roar of anger from the ladder and the men Raston preceded now arrived at the top. Together, the pair of them pushed and hacked and stabbed at their assailants, until they had cleared some space.
‘Take one side,’ Braen called out and together they grabbed the top of the ladder, able now to heave it backwards. Men screamed and wailed and with a loud crunch the assault ladder crushed any of the horde stupid enough to be beneath it as it toppled. Had the men of the wall been less occupied, they might have been encouraged enough to cheer. But there was yet too much sword-work to be done.
The battle raged on by the light of the moon, and the fires which burned in braziers on the wall, but also in the streets and houses which had been worst hit by incoming siege fire. Braen and Raston pushed their wery bodies beyond any limit they knew they had and were gradually forced from the walls of the western ring of the city. In the small hours of the morning they abandoned the market and agriculture land, and rallied with the rest of the city’s troops on the walls of the inner curtain-wall. If this fell, they would only have the smaller walls of the Meadowhall Keep to hide behind, if those held out at all. For a half an hour or so, just before down, the pair of adventurers caught their breath in the square beside the gate while archers above launched volley after volley on the heads of the barbarians outside.
‘When you said yes to finding Laird Hedge’s son, did you fancy that you’d end up here?’ asked Raston as he sat exhausted on the steps of some noble’s townhouse, sword point down with blade against his shoulder.
‘I never imagined dying in a city at all,’ Braen replied, ‘not since I left my father’s keep. I always wanted grass beneath my feet and the stars above me.’
‘Maybe someday, eh? Once we’ve earned our fortune.’
‘What fortune do I need to sleep beneath the stars?’
‘Life is never so easy, there’s always a catch. Some high lord will ask you to pay taxes on your patch of grass. And then there’s the food to help you live from it. Chance’d be a fine thing to live off, but it doesn’t pay the tithes.’
‘Hmm,’ Braen was inclined to agree. Raston knew more of the world than he did, though he’d been wandering through it ever since he’d left his father’s walls.
There came a call from the ramparts.
‘Rally to the gates,’ they called, ‘prepare for sortie!’
The militia-men, in their simple, beaten cuirasses, mustered wearily while sell-swords and wanderers like Braen and his friend took a little longer. One soldier lingered to kiss his pregnant wife, who had escaped the confines of the womens’ quarters in the keep to come and hold her man one last time. She left in a flurry of skirts, tears fresh upon her face while her husband wedged his helmet down upon his head, to cover his own which cut lines through the grime of battle.
‘Think we’ll live long enough to procreate?’ Braen asked Raston as he pushed himself to his feet and swept lank strands of hair from his eyes.
‘What makes you think we haven’t already,’ Raston laughed curtly as he rose, ‘I’ve known a few willing women along the way here. Some less willing too.’
‘You’re right, maybe you do have teams of anklebiters running the streets of somewhere very far away,’ Braen entertained the notion for a moment, ‘I’ve made women of maybe two or three, but yet no missives of fatherhood.’
‘Perhaps they don’t want you to know.’
‘Maybe they don’t fancy a wanderer for a bedfellow, highborn as he might be.’
‘I wouldn’t be a good daddy, myself,’ continued Raston, with a face that turned dark even as the shadows crept shorter and they could see the barest hint of sunlight over the high walls of the bastion, ‘I like my drinking and dancing too much. But you, Braen, you always had that fatherly instinct.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, I dunno. It’s a feeling, you nonce. But I think you’ll be a great father. You’ll put down your sword and ne’er pick it up again. Swap it for wooden blades and dolls and spinning tops and whatever else kids these days are into.’
‘Mmm,’ Braen couldn’t picture it. But he was struggling to picture anything aside from what would happen once those gates opened and all the mingling hordes outside poured into the courtyard. He could picture the flagstones awash with blood and heads on spikes over the walls but he couldn’t picture beyond. Perhaps he would take his father’s keep back. Live like a lord and have a lady all his own. Perhaps not. Perhaps he’d while away his days somewhere in a tavern, drinking himself slowly to death until he finally passed in the shadow of its smokestacks.
There was a sound like a thunderclap as something rammed the gates. Once more it crashed against the oak and steel, and again whilst everyman in that cramped courtyard felt its blows. Braen and Raston brought up the rear of the vanguard, facing the gate. To the North-West, North-East, South-East of the great citadel’s tower, the last few warriors of the meadows drew up the last of their reserves of strength to hold off their assailants. The hammering of four rams on four gates seemed to blend with the drum beats which had been booming since early evening. Those drums would likely sing in Braen’s dreams forever after.
‘I lost my bow,’ the archer realised, having been blind to its absence in the fog of war. Now, while they waited for their doom, he suddenly realised that he missed the familiar weight upon his back.
‘Wouldn’t do us much good here, anyhow,’ muttered Raston, whose grey eyes were fixed on the gates which shook and rocked under the assault.
‘But… it’s my bow…’ Braen murmured sulkily, his friend was right, but he missed that aged piece of wood all the same. He would have wanted the last gift from his mother to be at hand… here at the end… were it possible.
With a crash and the sound of cracking wood, as splinters flew everywhere, the centre of the gate burst asunder and showed forth a pointed, jagged ram which ripped and tore at the wood around it like a saw. Someone gasped, another vomited in his helmet, Braen felt his stomach do a backflip and beneath the gore and grime, Raston turned a paler shade of white.
The ram withdrew and past the drums, near indistinguishable against the hollering and screeching of the horde beyond the gates, a long, low note rang out across the fields and meadows surrounding Meadowhall.
In the dim glow of the morning, by the light of the rising sun, the phalanxes of Arnmire came to Meadowhall. They fell upon the horde from behind first, emerging from the secret tunnels and sally-ways of the rock face beneath their clifftop fortress. Hundreds of men, marching in perfect unison with their dark steel plate armour, pointed and visored helms, wielding thick tower shields and long, razor-sharp pikes cut into the rabble of banditi like a hot knife through butter.
Mounted knights, on black-barded chargers, enveloped the city, two hundred strong or more, and slammed into the flanks of the horde like a host of vengeful demons. Bandits, in their furs and leather padding, fell in bushels like wheat before the reaper, and at the head of the arrowhead formation rode Black Bernd Longshanks, so-called for his tall build and obsidian-coloured armour, wielding his steel-tipped lance called Eisenende.
In the belltower of the keep, where longsighted archers nocked their arrows and fired upon the bandits from high above, one look-out caught sight of their salvation first.
‘The Blackshanks is come!’ he called out for all to hear, ‘the Blackshanks is here!’ and began joyfully clanging the bell with his helmet.
With renewed vigour the men of meadowhall, beneath their layers of sweat and dirt and blood, pushed back against the barbarians. Braen and Raston were caught in the middle of this, as they stood abreast at the western entrance to the keep’s courtyard, swinging their blades in unison. They bought time for the soldiers behind them to regroup and made the most of the small opening in the gate through which the banditi had to climb. So deep were they engrossed in the song of battle that at first they didn’t hear the cry that holdouts throughout the city took up.
‘The Blackshanks is come! The Blackshanks arrive!’
Bodies piled on either side of the gate as Braen parried a spear and riposted at full stretch to cut its owner on the knuckle. The man lost his finger with a shriek as Raston opened a woman who passed through the breach from hip to hip. They struggled to keep their footing but gave no ground and offered no quarter. When finally the tide abated, Braen sucked in air greedily as a drowning and realised that the men behind were cheering. Through their small viewhole he saw the ranks of the banditi thin, and then break, as the painted men scattered and ran with cries of fear and pain.
‘Did we do that?’ asked Raston once he’d caught his breath.
Braen could not reply at first but the soldiers behind them surged forwards, clapping them on the backs and clamouring all at once.
‘The Blackshanks…’ one said.
‘Arnmire has come to save our souls,’ said another.
‘Herr Braband heard our cries for help.’
‘Came down from the cliffs, so he did.’
‘You two fought like demons, like men possessed. Like Saint Cormoran come again.’
‘Heroes of the eastgate, both of you.’
‘Gratitude, herr strangers, gratitude.’
Braen waved them off so that he could slump in peace against a wall by the gate. His sword fell from his numb fingers and his head lolled back in exhaustion. The crowd kept on at Raston who wiped his sword on the back of a fallen bandit and sheathed it with the last of his strength.
‘Friends,’ he said wearily, leaning heavily against the wall, ‘there are yet bandits within your walls. Seek them out, while master Conghaile and I rest here.’
The captain of the gate had been calling for the same thing for a while now, but they heard Raston’s words and with renewed courage the blue-grey garbed militiamen of Meadowhall tore open the gate and streamed out into the city. They left Braen and Raston there, in the shadow of the Meadowhall Keep, that tall spire with its bulbous sides.
Raston flopped down beside his friend, laughing quietly.
‘What are you giggling about,’ asked Braen with more gruffness than he felt.
‘Well,’ replied Raston, ‘I never really expected to see this morning. A few times back there, I thought I was done for.’
‘You nearly were, weren’t you?’ asked Braen, ‘I feathered a giant of a man outside the walls who…’
‘That was you?’
‘Ok, well, I had him just where I wanted him.’
‘Sure you did, Rast.’
‘Thanks all the same.’
‘Don’t worry about it, just let’s rest a moment, while these chicken-shits do their jobs.’
They slumped backwards, leaning on each other as the sun rose over the buildings around the square. Gradually, their breathing slowed and they eyelids drooped and in the light of the morning sun, while in the city around them, men screamed as they met their end on lance or swordpoint. Dew collected on Raston’s chestplate but neither of them aware to it. In their exhaustion, they slept through the rest of the battle.
When they woke, word had carried to Black Bernd Longshanks of the two men who’d held the eastgate for hours against the horde. Braen woke with the greaves of his obsidian armour occupying all his field of vision. The Blackshanks lifted them up, and clapped them each on the shoulder. He asked them if his squire could fetch them anything, from whom Raston accepted wine and Braen; some water. They went and sat with the marsh lord (so called for the bogs and mires which surrounded Arnmire) in the shade of Meadowhall’s tower where Raston pulled off some of his armour as the heat picked up, and the Blackshanks asked if they’d seen Dame Althoff since the battle started. No, they both said, and in response the Blackshanks rose, drew his sword and insisted on knighting them both.