Author’s Note: So, this ‘grand idea’ of mine… I’ve written a lot of background for my anticipated first novel/series, including the following excerpt which began as a way to imagine a pivotal moment in the history for this fictional world I’ve spent so long creating. We open on a city under siege, several hundred years before the start of my characters’ adventures, told from the perspective of a soldier on the losing side of the war. I wanted to immerse the reader in the chaos and violence of a siege, and project a vivid, out of control scene. It will contribute towards my larger body of work, but is unrelated enough that I feel comfortable making it public. Bon appetit…
In the depth of winter, many years ago, fire licked at the icy walls of Andalia’s most northern citadel.
Clouds, like anvils, hung above the wide peninsula from which Snowholde rose from barren rock as a mob, many thousands strong, threw themselves against the bulwarks of the city. Upon a snowclad hill, a little way south of the city (which sprawled over miles on the wide swathe of land which stretched out from the central continent towards the frozen north) the leaders of the assembled rabble stood on foot or mounted and surveyed the works of their ambition.
Upon the towering walls, which so long stood as obelisk and monument to the works of the mighty Beorgkyn magisters, men screamed and bled and burned in defence of their city.
Sigrid awoke in a daze.
His helm was ripped clean off and he could not see from one eye. The vision in his other was badly blurred and as he tried to stand up, the world pitched and churned beneath him. The din of battle melded into a muted racket in his shocked ears, as he leant more heavily on his spear and struggled to find his feet.
The wall before him had crumbled beneath the pounding of siege weapons. He could not fathom how the barbarian tribes had amassed such a collection of instruments of war, but now they stood before the meandering walls of the city which stretched the bredth of the neck of their mighty peninsula.
Sigrid scrubbed at his eyes with his sleeve, feeling the crust of dried blood upon them as his hand trembled from the effort. His fur collar was matted with dark crimson. There was a cry from one of the towers, and for a beat the wall was silent. Then a deep crack and a groan as something collided with the great wall, somewhere lower down from the ramparts, and the walkway some few feet from him began to crumble away into the abyss.
Sigrid threw himself back on his trembling limbs, crawling awkwardly backwards with frantic speed mustered only by the closeness of the spectre of death. He caught his wrist on a fallen comrade and scarcely had pulled himself over the corpse as the gaping chasm slowed its expansion, but not before swallowing the body he’d crawled over.
Chest rising and falling in frantic breaths, Sigrid’s wild eyes darted up and down. He pressed his back against the ramparts and fought to regain control over his quaking body. He felt a hand on his shoulder, a guard captain whose silent mouth yelled unheard words which were drowned by the din. Sigrid was pulled to his feet and shoved towards the crenellations, before an arrow fletched with swallow feathers took the captain through the cheek and dropped him faster than a clap of thunder which rolled overhead.
Sigrid hid beneath the battlements once more, his spear falling from his nerveless fingers. He thought of his young wife, who most likely huddled in one of the holdfasts in the belly of the city. He thought of the touch of her skin, the warmth of her breath and imagined sight of the child clutched to her breast. His child. His daughter. His infant who might never know the image of him, like a wounded dove awaiting the hunter’s wringing fingers. But for all his thoughts of family, the mob outside their gates petrified him to the spot. As rooted as a tree, he could not move but to tremble at the awaited doom.
At last, somehow, he came to be upon his feet, staring down at the great waves of unwashed tribesmen who poured through the breach upon which he had been stood. Terror gripped him, same as the other defenders who stood empty of courage, when suddenly there came a waft of warm air, a blessing in the chill, and the clouds above them opened to allow a shaft of brilliant sunlight through.
Great shapes pitched through the gap in the gloom. Winged and shining brightly from the sunlight which glittered off their scales, they dived down towards the chaos below. One came east, towards the fighting at the Siren’s Sound. Another flew west, towards the mountains the western bulwark which suffered under naval assault, while two more pitched down towards the stretch of wall where Sigrid stood.
One of the great shapes alighted upon the tower which stood high above Sigrid’s head and their he saw it, majestic as the first time he’d sighted them flying overhead. The ensign of the Beorgkyn, the source of all their power, the winged terror which had for so long kept the rabble in their place. The dragons.
A new wave of courage came for the defenders. Around him, Sigrid saw men wipe tears from their eyes, and piss from their breeches, grasp their bows and rain shafts down on the army below with renewed vigour.
Rumbled words from the figure on the tower, whose shape resolved now into that of a man in shining armour, metal glinting in the shaft of sunlight, cut through the fog of war which clouded Sigrid’s hearing.
‘Take heart, friends,’ came the sweet voice carried on the wind, ‘take heart! This is not our time to join our ancestors. Nor yet the time this wondrous city falls to ruin! Take heart and take arms and fight for your lives. Fight for your families and for our glorious dead. These wolves have come to thin the herd, to rip it limb from bleeding limb! But we are not the sheep. We are the shepherd standing guard. Not the helpless lamb, we are the sheepdog’s snarling teeth. Not yet the mutton, ripe for the cookpot, but we are the ripping claws of the hound which will chase the wolves from the fold. And when we bear down upon those mangy dogs, we’ll tear the meat from their bones! For Snowholde!’
The cheer went up, a great defiant cry which rippled infectiously along the wall. The mighty figure on the tower, resplendent in its raiment, raised a sword as large and long as any man standing, and leapt from its perch. Its fluttering cape became four wings of silver feathers upon its back and down it swooped towards the breach in the wall, below Sigrid’s view.
The cry still went up.
For Snowholde. But Sigrid’s mind went not to Snowholde when he thought of life.
He stumbled towards the stairs, out of view of those remaining soldiers who took up bloodcurdling screams and death-cries. Leaning on the doorpost, Sigrid took one further look at his kinsmen who held their post before, with shame burning in his cheeks, he ducked into the stairwell.
At the foot of the walls, three hundred feet below or more, Sigrid emerged to a mist of brick-dust and debris. He stumbled into the white-clad streets and slipped in a pool of blood, landing in a snowdrift. He pushed himself to his feet. There was a murderous cry and a woad-daubed savage came bursting from the fog.
An axe haft caught Sigrid dead in the centre of his hauberk, knocking him back. He tripped on a corpse, responsible for the pool of crimson, and ended once more in the snowdrift of before. The barbarian fell upon him in frothing fury, pressing down with the axehaft upon Sigrid’s neck, but Sigrid was quicker, and buried a dagger in the man’s gut, tearing him open from naval to breastbone and throwing the man off to die bleeding in the street.
Sigrid stumbled against a wall. He was yet blinded by the dust and particles in the air. Tripping and dragging his feet like a drunk, he pressed his hand to the wall and felt his way along the streets he knew so well in the daylight. Taking the narrow ways which wound like writhing snakes into the city, he found himself emerging into a market square, ordinarily bedecked in flowers and spices and bright silks, shipped in by waggon train from the southernmost reaches of the Beorgkyn’s Kingdom. Now, the market was coloured white and red, from the dust and the snow and the blood and the cloth strips which fluttered weakly from the bodies of the barbarian warriors.
Men flew at one another in a pitched scuffle between the abandoned stalls, trashing the delicate pottery which decorated a raised central stage, and smashing the flower-decked trellising to cinders. The soldiers fought with sword and spear and bow and arrow and tooth and nail and whatever else came to hand as with single-minded fury each side tried to grind the other into submission.
Screaming warriors leapt from steps upon their enemies. Several women who ignored the call to safety hung from windows and balconies with bows trained on their invaders, grim expressions of defiance upon their faces until answering shafts closed their eyes one by one. He could see a child or two lifting infant rocks in their tiny hands to hurl down on their attackers’ heads. One or two missed and poleaxed a guard on their own side, who was promptly gored by the spears, swords or axes of their enemy.
Sigrid took a side street. He climbed the stairs on his hands and knees and scrambled where a volley from mangonels had smashed the streets to pieces. He went up the hill and down, and stumbled into a wave of reinforcements, men rushing to fill the gap in the wall.
He found himself grabbed by the collar.
‘Yellowbelly, back to the fight with you!’
Spittle flecked his cheek as the officer in untouched armour screamed in his face. Wordlessly he tried to break free but the man held him and pushed him back towards the way he’d come. Sigrid fell to his knees, the trembling had started again, and he looked up at the man, who had paused to raise his spear-haft, ready to strike.
But a bloodthirsty yell came from back down the street and from the white smog emerged a troop of fur-clad savages, moving at a shuffling run towards the reinforcements. In a rush, the two armies met, clashing in the street and from his knees Sigrid was knocked back and forth by soldiers rushing heedlessly past him.
He somehow got off the thoroughfare, crawling through an abandoned house where he pulled himself from the floor and took flight, knocking aside chairs and pots and pans in his struggle for safety. He burst from the house into a small orchard behind, where the frost could not choke the life from the apples that bloomed there, by blessing of the magisters. Beneath the apple tree, crowned in a light dusting of snow, a mother and child sat. The child looked to be sleeping, cuddled in its mother’s arms, holding a half-eaten apple which yet looked red and juicy but for the black seeds which poked unbidden from the core. The mother’s tongue lolled out, her eyes wide and unseeing, blood still weakly seeping from a long wound in her forearm.
Sigrid pushed his way from the orchard of death.
Around him, the city he had grown to know and love crumbled at the seams from the onslaught of those who had once provided the food for their tables. The many assembled tribes who had once individually worked as the agricultural backbone for the united kingdoms of the Beorgkyn. Those who had mined and farmed and fished and logged and sewed for the good of the empire now bayed for the blood of those who had lived a life of luxury behind the high walls of their cities.
Stumbling through the ashen mist, like a blind man, he became aware of raised voices around him. They shouted and called and screamed and all at once were upon him. A falling body knocked him off balance, then another bulled into him. He was scarcely able to look up and cry;
A soldier of the city, wearing the same bloodstained armour as his own, loomed above him with a crazed look in his eyes and spittle frothing from his lips. The man was mid-swing with a sword so red it might well have been made of rubies, when an axe came spinning through the mist and caught the man in the neck.
His assailant tumbled sideways with a gurgle and Sigrid picked himself up into a scrambling run, only just drawing his sword with one shaking hand when suddenly he collided with another man. This braided savage crumpled beneath him and in a frenzied panic, Sigrid stabbed and stabbed and stabbed and rolled off, breathing heavily while his foe twitched around in her death throes.
It was a her, he noticed with another flip of his stomach. A young, red haired girl who clutched at her stomach as blood ran down her chin.
With a gurgle, Sigrid picked himself up once more and stumbled from the mist, leaving the blade where it was buried in the young woman’s heart.
The Temple was burning.
Sigrid saw it as he came to the end of the Street of Saints.
The great domed roof was burning and through the columns of fire and smoke a dragon wheeled in pitched battle, harried at turns by a swarm of buzzing shafts. The sight was awing, and Sigrid felt compelled to stop still to stare at the blaze. His mouth aghast he stood there, hands trembling at his sides.
Sigrid didn’t know how long he stood there in awe and terror, but he started awake and set off down the city street, skirting the rubble for cover if he ever heard voices.
The fire was spreading. To the timber houses and even some of the stone, so hot that it seemed a thing alive, dancing with crackling laughter from rooftop to rooftop. The air was thick with falling cinders, like glittering rain, and Sigrid swatted at them like flies lest they set his tunic ablaze. From one side of the street, an alchemist’s, there was a whoosh. Like the intake of a diver, so strong that Sigrid actually stumbled toward it.
Then the shop face erupted outwards in gouts of flame and splinters. Sigrid was picked from the balls of his feet like a piece of dirty laundry and tossed bodily onto a pile of debris which had slipped sideways. He landed awkwardly on his armour against the stone and felt something bend out of shape.
Sigrid tried to draw breath and felt his chest press to his breastplate. It tightened and he couldn’t draw a full breath. Then he noticed the throbbing in his shoulder.
A splinter the size of his first and second finger was embedded just between the armour plates and as he moved, Sigrid gasped in the agony of it sawing into his flesh.
He reached up, blinded with pain as he touched it, and wrenched the wood from his shoulder with a gurgled whimper.
The buckles on his breastplate were harder to fiddle with one hand, but he was finally able to pry himself out from the armour which, like a python’s coils, threatened to choke the life from him. Half-falling from the rubble he pressed a hand to staunch the scarlet ribbons which ran from his injured shoulder, Sigrid continued down the street.
At last he came to the Holdout.
A low, stone building which stood out from the middle of the cobbled road like the tip of a grey thumb, emerging from the earth. A heavy, banded, oak door was sunk into the wall on the north side, which Sigrid hammered on frantically until the peephole cover was drawn back and he saw unfamiliar eyes behind it.
‘Where is everyone? What’s happening?’
Sigrid bent double, drained of all his strength as he held his hand to his shoulder. He demanded entry in a trembling voice, and the doorman denied him. Again, he asked. Again and again until he found himself upon his knees, beating on the motionless door with his fists.
Then the door swung inward and insistent hands hurried him inside.
Down the spiral staircase which wound down into the bedrock, where the tunnel seemed to have been shaped from the rock-turned-molten and then hardened again. He came out in a glittering cavern, many feet below the city, which buzzed with the low hubbub of frightened families, of woman, infirm men and children who could not grasp the gravity of these closing hours.
There was a cry from a stalagmite formation and Sigrid fell into the arms of his beloved, who leapt down to cradle him in her arms.
‘Siggy, Siggy, what happened? What’s going on?’ she asked as he leaned heavily upon her shoulder and they hobbled away from the gathering crowd who begged for news from the front.
‘The city is lost,’ he whispered weakly, once they were out of earshot, ‘the walls have fallen to seigefire and the savages are amongst the streets.’
‘Surely the magisters-‘
‘The magisters have sent their dragons, love, but they cannot halt this flood any more than a pair of hunting dogs can stop a tide of ants,’ Sigrid felt his heart still beating as if it were ready to part company from his chest.
‘We are finished, then?’ she asked as the colour drained from her face, pressing a poultice to his wound.
‘The head is dead; the body hasn’t realised.’
She was silent and Sigrid hung his head.
‘There’s no hope then?’
‘There’s no hope. Not since the fleet sailed south.’
She pressed her body close to his and wept, while the babe looked up at Sigrid with her big brown eyes. Sigrid looked down and stroked her downy hair, beside himself with despair.
‘They’ll rape us for sure,’ Cerys tremored.
‘Torture, then, I heard they torture.’
‘Military targets maybe,’ he said, ‘but who knows with those savages.’
‘Oh, Siggy,’ she fluttered and held him tighter.
‘I won’t,’ he started and choked up, ‘I won’t let it…’
He could feel the pulse beating beneath her skin, feeling so alive and so fragile all at the same time. Her silver hair fell loose around her shoulders, matted with a little sweat and dust from the ceiling above. Somewhere above that, even, the booming sounds of siege weapons crept ever closer and at once Sigrid knew what to do.
‘Hush now,’ he said in a still voice, ‘dry your tears.’
‘Do you have the vial of your sister’s?’
‘We were never going to mention that.’
‘Find it, bring it here.’
She rose and left, leaving Sigrid alone with his daughter. Easing himself down to lean against the stalagmite, he took her in his arms and cradled her tiny body against his own. Even as his shoulder wept scarlet tears which, pressed up against her temple, left a crimson impression on her cheek, she looked so pure and innocent as the driven snow.