Siege of tilpur, p.1
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       Siege of Tilpur, p.1

           Brian McClellan
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Siege of Tilpur

  The Siege of Tilpur

  Brian McClellan

  All material contained within copyright © Brian McClellan, 2015.

  All rights reserved.

  First published in the UNBOUND Anthology December 1, 2015.

  This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and scenarios are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. All resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  Typesetting by Looseleaf Editorial & Production, LLC.

  Sergeant Tamas closed his eyes and listened to orders being called back and forth across the front lines, voices punctuated by the report of artillery blasting away from the next hill over. Captains shouted at their lieutenants, lieutenants shouted at their sergeants, sergeants at their infantry. It was only a matter of time before some poor infantryman snapped and started screaming at the drummer boys for the simple release of having someone of his own to bark orders at.

  It was all nonsense, of course. “Hold steady, boys,” or “keep your heads up,” or “first man over the top gets a hundred krana.” Everyone was in line, bayonets set, flintlocks primed, ladders to shoulders, tensed and just waiting for the signal. The only thing the shouting accomplished, as far as he was concerned, was to allow the officers to unleash their own damned uncertainty in as manly a fashion as possible.

  Meanwhile the infantry baked in their uniforms, jackets and pants already soaked with sweat. If General Seske waited another half hour to give the order to charge, the desert sun might just reduce the entire Adran army to withered husks.

  “This is bullshit,” a voice said behind him.

  “Quiet down, Farthing,” Private Lillen responded in her lazy drawl. “I’m trying to get in a nap before this things starts.”

  “I’m not joking,” Farthing said. “This is utter bullshit. We’re charging the broad face of a bloody fort in full daylight with nothing but ladders and light artillery. It’s not going to work, just like it didn’t work last time or the time before that. We’re all about to be buggered by grapeshot and sorcery. Might as well call us ‘his royal majesty’s Adran bullet-absorbers.’”

  “You’d think you’d have gotten used to it by now,” Lillen said.

  “Used to it? Explain to me how one gets used to a fireball to the face? The same way you get used to napping on your feet? Because I can’t figure that one out either.”

  “You want to desert?” Lillen’s pleasant tone turned mocking. “Because you’ve been telling us you’re going to desert for almost three years now and it hasn’t happened yet. I’m beginning to think I’ll be long dead by the time you finally do it, which is a shame because I want to be there when they haul you back into camp and put you in front of a firing squad.”

  “You bitch. I’ll cut you for that.”

  “Shut up, Farthing,” Tamas said. “And take your damned nap, Lillen. You’ve got about eighty seconds left. If anyone can do it, you can.”

  “Yes Sarge,” both soldiers said, subdued. There were a handful of snickers from the other nine members of Tamas’s squad but he didn’t look back. Let them have their bitching and their petty squabbles. It was their only outlet right before a charge of this importance and Tamas’s squad, unlike plenty others, weren’t lacking in courage and loyalty. They’d be on his heels from here to the fort and straight to the pit.

  Tamas kept his eyes on the fort. Over a mile away, thick puffs of smoke rose from Gurlish cannons as they returned fire at the Adran artillery. Gurlish cannons weren’t as good as the Adrans’—they lacked the range and the punch needed to clear the distance, but occasionally one would get lucky and an eight-pound ball would ricochet off the ground and knock out an Adran field gun or plow through the ranks to a chorus of screams.

  On the other hand, the sorcery protecting the Gurlish fort was as potent as any, and had shrugged off almost two years of shelling. The Adran artillery blasted against the walls to no visible effect. He wondered why either side even bothered.

  The only conceivable way of taking the fort of Tilpur would be up and over those walls into the teeth of Gurlish bayonets and pikes.

  The fort itself was no great marvel of military engineering. It had six thirty-five-foot walls and six onion-domed towers, with broad space on the parapets that would allow the Gurlish to bring no less than twelve cannons to bear on any approach. The garrison was supposedly two thousand men, but his own estimates put it at half that number. Not that it mattered. A fort like that could be effectively defended by a few hundred.

  Tamas pried the paper end off one of his powder charges with a grimy thumbnail. He touched the loose black powder to his tongue, shivering at the sulfuric taste. His resolve tightened instantly, his senses sharpened. Sorcery lit his veins, giving him the strength of four men and speed that would let him run the distance to the fort in less than three minutes. Not for the first time he wondered how regular soldiers tolerated the stress of battle without a powder trance.

  Strength and speed and sorcerous courage were wasted in the infantry line where battle was about mass rather than individual prowess, but his betters had decided to put him here regardless. All he could do was wait, hoping he survived long enough to make it over those walls. He emptied the rest of the powder charge into his mouth.

  The euphoria of a powder trance took a hold of him, removing what little fear he had.

  Behind the artillery, a man on horseback approached General Seske. Salutes were exchanged, the general nodded, and an order was given. “It’s time,” Tamas said over his shoulder.

  Somewhere, a boy rattled out a single pair of beats on his side drum. Along the lines, men fell silent.

  “Advance!” came the long-anticipated order.

  The next five minutes were a maelstrom of blood and horror straight from the pit. At three-quarters of a mile the Gurlish Privileged opened up with their elemental sorcery. Fire and ice rained down on the Adran infantry from the fortress walls. Some of it was blocked by the Adran Privileged marching in the rear, but far too much of it pierced their protection to leave charred bodies in the wake of the army.

  At five hundred yards the cadence of the drums doubled and Tamas broke into a run, musket gripped in both hands, teeth clenched against what would come next. Behind him his squad spat defiance and curses at the bombardment.

  Whole platoons were leveled in a torrent of grapeshot. The Gurlish managed two salvos before the front lines, Tamas and his men included, were beneath their line of fire.

  “Ladders!” Tamas yelled as he reached the rocky base of the fort. Ladder teams rushed forward and raised their long ladders against the walls as musket balls and stones hailed down from above.

  Tamas took stock of the Adran infantry, assessing the situation in a heartbeat. Hundreds lay dead and wounded on the field behind them, but an equal number had managed to reach the relative safety found at the base of the walls, and more still advanced across the rocky, barren ground of the desert floor. He hoped it enough to scale the walls and take the fort.

  Just get me over the top, he prayed to no god in particular, shouldering his musket and readying to throw himself on to the first steady ladder. The sorcery raining down from above intensified, blasting scorch marks into the earth. The rear lines began to waver. Tamas cursed them silently, urging them to steady.

  Somewhere back by the Adran artillery a bugle let out a long, mournful note. “No, damn it,” Tamas swore. “We can do this.” He looked up at the top of the fort wall. “We have enough men, we can do this!”

  All around him, men broke off the assault and fled toward the Adran lines, abandoning ladders, kit, and muskets.

  “Sarge, that’s the retreat,” Lillen said, grabbing Tamas by the arm. He shook her off. “I know, damn it! Why are we retreating? This is as close as we’ve ever gotten. Bloody fools!”


  “I know, I’m coming.” Tamas cast one more look toward the top of the walls. All he needed to do was get inside.

  We could have made it over those walls, sir.” Tamas paced back and forth in the small space of his captain’s tent. The dry desert air tasted of defeat, the whole camp brooding, sullen, and quiet this evening save for the cries of the wounded in the surgeons’ tents.

  Captain Pereg sat with his boots up on his cot, leaning back in his chair while he stared, perplexed, at the layout of playing cards sorted face up on his bedside table. The jacket of his dark-blue uniform lay on his bed. The buttons of his white undershirt were undone, the collar wilted and damp with sweat. He scratched at one brown muttonchop, picked a card up, paused, then returned it to its place.

  “Captain!” Tamas said, jerking Pereg’s attention away from him game. “We could have made it.”

  The captain let out a long sigh. “I don’t know what you expect me to say, Sergeant. General Seske did not agree, and he had a much better view of the battlefield than you.”

  “I was on the battlefield, sir.”

  “And he could see the big picture. There’s no need to second-guess the general. He’s been an officer for well over a decade.”

  “That somehow precludes him from making terrible decisions?”

  “Too many soldiers died before they could reach the walls. The attack could have lost us even more men.”

  “Or could have been a successful follow-through that ended the siege,” Tamas retorted.

  “Seske’s a general. Our general.”

  “Through no merit of his own,” Tamas grumbled.

  Pereg lifted a card, stabbing it in Tamas’s direction. “Now look here, Sergeant. I won’t have you disparaging the king’s officers, not even in private—especially my aunt’s husband, even if we don’t have the best of relationships. You’re a damned good soldier, and I’ll put up with you because you’re worth any three sergeants, but do not forget your place. You’re a commoner. Seske has noble blood.”

  “That’s the problem, I think.”

  Pereg shrugged. “And one we can’t do a thing about.”

  Easy for you to say, Tamas thought to himself. You’re the youngest son of a baron. You’ll be a general in twenty years yourself while I’ll be lucky to make captain in that time.

  “You only lost, what, one man from your squad today?” Pereg asked.

  “Gerdin’s wounded, but we don’t think he’ll make it through the night.”

  “See?” Pereg said, flicking a bit of sand out of his ear, “you should be ecstatic. You’ve lived to fight another day and brought most of your men through it with you. That’s a victory in my book.”

  I like you, Pereg, but you’re an idiot. “We were lucky. Nothing more. Captain, I need to get over that wall.”

  Pereg looked up from his cards sharply. “You’re not still going on about a promotion, are you?”

  “You said yourself, sir, I’m a commoner.” Tamas leaned over Pereg’s table. “The only way I can become a commissioned officer is through valor in combat.”

  “You’re a powder mage,” Pereg said. “A damned killing machine if I’ve ever seen one. In any other country you would have been hanged just for what you are. The Privileged,” he lowered his voice, looking over his shoulder as if a sorcerer might be hiding in the corner of his tent, “the Privileged do not like your kind having any power. You should be grateful you’ve made it to sergeant. Get to master sergeant one day and you’ve got yourself a career to be proud of. By Kresimir, you’re only nineteen and already a sergeant!”

  Pereg was right, of course. Never mind his common blood— powder mages were universally despised by the nobility and their pet sorcerers. They claimed it was a base magic, used only by the very dregs of humanity. Tamas knew the truth—he knew they were scared of what he could do. He tried to figure out how to express to Pereg the urgency of his situation, of the weight on his chest every morning that he didn’t make progress toward climbing the ranks. He couldn’t afford to relax for even a single campaigning season, because everything about his career was stacked against him.

  “I’ll clear the damned fort by myself if I have to, sir. I just need to get inside the walls and the garrison will fall. I guarantee it.”

  “And I,” Pereg said, scowling at his cards, “need to win this game or I’ll break a fantastic streak.”

  Tamas wanted to kick the chair out from under Pereg and watch him fall on his ass. “The queen of rooks,” he said.

  Pereg’s scowl deepened as he searched the cards, then his face brightened. “Ah, there we go. Thank you, Sergeant! Look, go give your men an extra ration of beer for work well done today.” He looked up, tapping the queen of rooks thoughtfully. “And take my advice—ambition is not becoming of a commoner. It’ll only get you killed.”

  How’s Gerdin?” Tamas asked when he returned to the small group of tents occupied by the twenty-second squad of His royal Majesty’s Ninth Infantry.

  Private Farthing looked up from poking a long bit of sagebrush into the dung fire. He was of medium height, with a pockmarked face burnt from years in the Gurlish sun. When Tamas met him he’d been a round little cuss, gasping with every step, but the campaigns had turned him into a battered strip of shoe leather. “Died thirty minutes ago,” he said.

  Tamas sank into a stool beside Farthing and rubbed his temples. Another man gone. Three dead from the previous failed charge at Tilpur’s walls, and two the time before that. He wondered if they’d bother to give him any new soldiers or if they just planned on waiting until he bit it so they could incorporate his squad under another sergeant.

  “And Mordecia’s arm?” Tamas asked.

  “Just a scratch. She’ll be good to go in a week as long as it doesn’t fester. Sarge, can I ask you a question?”

  “What is it?”

  “Rumor has it that another sergeant heard me complaining on the line today. They, uh, they won’t put me in front of a firing squad, will they? It was just a little moaning on my part. They know that, right?”

  Tamas stared into the low, flickering glow of the dung fire. “I’m not going to let them shoot you over a little bellyaching in the face of death, Farthing,” he said with a sigh. “Anyone asks tell ’em the sun was getting to you. Worst thing you’ll get is a week digging latrines.”

  Farthing breathed a relieved sigh. “Thanks, Sarge. You’re a decent fellow. Want to hear some good news?”


  “Remember my cousin? The maid in General Seske’s retinue?”


  “Saw her tonight. Said that she overheard that we’ve orders to pull out. Today’s attack was the last big push and the higher-ups don’t think Seske has the ability to take the fort before the end of the campaigning season.”

  Tamas let his face go slack, forcing a neutral expression. Inside, he felt like he’d been kicked in the gut. The end of the campaigning season, and he had yet to make master sergeant. If they pulled out without another fight he wouldn’t have a shot of promotion until next year. He couldn’t—wouldn’t—wait that long. “Good,” he said “That’s very good.”

  “Anyway,” Farthing continued, throwing another chip of dung on the fire. “How’d your talk with the captain go?”

  Tamas grunted a response. He already had a reputation as an upstart, but even he knew better than to bitch about superior officers to his men. Besides, he had more to worry about. Good news? This was horrible news. His career—his life—stalled for another season because Seske wasn’t more creative than tossing men at the enemy cannons and hoping the Gurlish ran out of grapeshot.

  They sat in silence for several minutes, listening to someone from a nearby squad sing a quiet drinking song, the tune slowed down to account for the mood of the camp.

  “Sarge, can I ask you something else?” Farthing said.

  Tamas nodded.

  Farthing scooted his stool a few inches closer to Tamas and looked around, then lowered his head. “This is bullshit, isn’t it? I mean, throwing us at that big damned fort thousands at a time when they know we won’t make it over the wall anyways. That’s bullshit. Right?”

  “Not our place to say,” Tamas said, feeling a knot in his belly. This was bullshit, all right. The orders to pull out likely hadn’t had a last assault written into them, which meant that Gerdin, and hundreds of other poor souls, had died on Seske’s wishes and optimism. It wasn’t any way to conduct a war. Tamas was a sergeant, a powder mage of low birth, and even he could see that. “But,” he added, “if you don’t shut your trap you will end up with more than latrine-digging duty.”

  “Yes, Sarge,” Farthing said, falling quiet.

  Tamas got up to walk through the orderly rows of tents, looking up at the desert sky. There was a certain rugged beauty in this place, thousands of miles away from home, but it was the stars that did it for him, shining bright without the interference of the street lamps of Adopest. He found a hill where he could see the stars above Tilpur, three miles away.

  From this distance the fort looked like an upturned footstool into the desert, with full command of the only freshwater spring for eighty miles in any direction. Rumors were that they had provisions enough for another two years, and being built directly on the spring meant they never had to worry for water.

  Tilpur had never once fallen out of Gurlish hands. The Kez had besieged it. The Brudanians. The Adran army had besieged it twice and, if General Seske’s maid was to be believed, this second attempt had fallen short. The finest minds of the Adran officer corps could not figure out how to crack it.

  It was too bad, Tamas thought bitterly, that the finest minds of the Adran officer corps were inbred dimwits from the least talented echelons of the nobility.

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