Siege of tilpur, p.3
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       Siege of Tilpur, p.3

           Brian McClellan
 
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  Tamas turned as the fourth guard brought the stock of his musket to bear, slamming it across Tamas’s jaw with enough force to drop a camel. Tamas staggered back, his head ringing from the blow, grateful for the powder trance that kept him coherent. He caught the next swing of the musket and jerked it out of the guard’s hands, jamming the stock into the man’s throat. The Gurlish collapsed, gasping and gurgling.

  Tamas’s hands shook from the speed of the fight, his chest heaving. His head pounded, and there was a slash across his thigh—a distant burn from within the powder trance. It was hard to think through the fog, and his preternatural sight seemed adversely affected by the blow to his head. More powder did nothing to help.

  The temptation to retreat back up the tower and follow the squad back over the wall was strong. Surely they’d spiked enough of the cannons? Would destroying their munitions really make a difference?

  Of course it would. Spiking the cannon would hobble the garrison. Destroying the munitions would destroy their spirit and perhaps even force a surrender without the need for any more Adran blood. Tamas couldn’t stop here. He was too close. His men needed him.

  He could sense a large concentration of powder down below the next tower. But he had to move fast.

  He dashed to the next guardhouse without incident, looking up through the rain to check on the squad’s progress. He could see dark figures hunched over the cannons, moving along the wall slowly. No alarm.

  Yet.

  He broke the chain to the grated door of the munitions dump with a few sturdy blows of the butt of his knife, then crept down the stairs in complete darkness where even the vision from his powder trance, impaired as it was, only gave him the slightest impression of stairs and walls.

  The stairwell became cool and quiet, the sound of the rain gone, thunder muffled above him as he descended. The stairs led down into an open room where he could sense the barrels heavy with gunpowder. using the knife, feeling his way, Tamas went about prying the lids off several before upending them, kicking them haphazardly across the room. He could taste the dust from the black powder on his lips.

  He snatched up one powder keg and left a line of powder from the center of the room to the edge of the stairs, where drew a demolition cord from his pocket and unraveled it up the first few steps. He pressed pinch of black powder against the tip of the cord and then concentrated, focusing on the powder with his sorcery.

  The cord flared to life, illuminating the munitions room, throwing shadows on the walls. Tamas watched it burn for several moments, finding himself enraptured by the flickering ember as it hissed toward the black powder.

  Until something caught his ear.

  The shout was distant, muffled, but it had him on his feet in a fraction of a second, sprinting up the stairs to the courtyard. He burst out of the munitions room and into the chaos of men shouting in Gurlish. Half a dozen soldiers poured out into the rain from the barracks, their muskets raised at the four figures racing across the top of the walls. Tamas reached out with his senses, lighting their powder with his mind. The explosions blew apart the muskets, searing Gurlish faces. One unlucky man with a powder horn hanging around his waist was ripped clear in half by its detonation.

  Three men emerged from the nearest guardhouse. Tamas threw himself forward, knife drawn, making short, bloody work of the soldiers before dashing inside. He drew his pistol as he mounted the stairs, listening to the shouts of the Gurlish as soldiers swarmed the courtyard. He reached out with his senses, detonating all the powder he could reach.

  It wasn’t enough. By the time he gained the top of the wall, the courtyard below was swarming with figures, muskets raised, shooting blindly up at the parapets. Tamas risked a glance out of the guardhouse and his heart fell.

  He’d gotten turned around down in the courtyard and gone up the wrong staircase. The ropes were on the opposite side of the fort. His squad was gone, whether captured or already over the edge he did not know, but he was alone in a hornet’s nest of Gurlish soldiers with no way to get off the walls. A thirty-five foot fall would at least break his legs, even with the powder trance.

  He’d have to make a run for the ropes.

  Only a sixth sense, a tingling at the base of his spine, made him throw himself backward into the guardhouse as fire swept across the parapet, nearly blinding him with its brilliance. His mouth turned went dry.

  The Gurlish Privileged sorcerer had joined the hunt.

  How many Privileged did the garrison have? One? Two? He couldn’t remember. He did know he wouldn’t last thirty seconds against a Privileged. Show his face, and he would be incinerated instantly. Stay here and he would be incinerated when they found him. A pair of broken legs was beginning to look like a good option.

  He reached out with his powder-enhanced senses, searching for the Privileged. He could sense one nearby, down in the courtyard and a second one not much farther . . . reaching the top of the wall where Farthing’s ropes marked their escape.

  The Privileged was going after Tamas’s fleeing quad. He would kill all four of them down on the desert floor with only the snap of his fingers. They’d be dead before they had a chance to scream.

  Tamas lifted his pistol, praying to Kresimir that the first Privileged, down in the courtyard, was not looking his direction.

  He leaned out of the gatehouse and found the second Privileged, pinpointing him in the gloom by his aura of sorcery and the white gloves raised above his head. It wasn’t a long shot, perhaps fifty yards at most, but it would be near impossible with a pistol in these conditions.

  For anyone but a powder mage.

  Tamas let his breath out slowly, forcing his hand steady as he pulled the trigger. He willed the bullet forward, drawing power from a powder charge in his other hand, nudging the bullet’s trajectory with his mind as he adjusted for rain and wind. It flew for what felt like an eternity—yet couldn’t have been more than a fraction of a second—and blew the side of the Privileged’s head clean off.

  Tamas discarded the pistol and leaped back into the guardhouse as flames slammed into the wall just to his left. He waited, heart pounding, and thought about the drop.

  He could hear the sound of boots on the on the stairs below him, and the whispering of orders. He reached out, touching off powder, and flinched away from the explosion. Sooner or later they’d figure out who he was—what he was—and the Privileged would fill the tower with flame from top to bottom.

  He felt the bit of leather in his pocket, remembering Farthing’s words; bite this between your teeth. If you fall, bite harder and hope the ground is soft. He put it between his teeth.

  That’s when he remembered something he’d seen in the courtyard, not more than a dozen feet from where he could sense the Privileged—the dark, stone pit of the fort well. He pictured Lillen’s drawing in his head, considering the fifty foot drop into the cold water below. It might just be more survivable than the drop from the walls and they wouldn’t be likely to chase him.

  Tamas reached out with his senses, getting a good feel for where the Privileged was in relation to himself—twelve feet along the wall, eight feet from it, and about thirty feet down.

  “I hope,” Tamas said to himself as he climbed to his feet, “that he’s a fat son of a bitch.”

  Tamas raced out of the guardhouse, a dozen paces down the parapet, and then leaped into the courtyard, pushing off with every bit of power the powder would give him. His arms cartwheeled as he soared through the air, his bowels turning to jelly as he fell, the dark ground, crawling with Gurlish infantry, coming up to meet him.

  The last thing he saw before impact was white gloves reaching upward. Then he slammed into a body, the Privileged crumpling beneath him with a scream. Tamas rolled out of the fall and managed to come up on his feet, stumbling on a turned ankle. The bullet from a hastily fired musket tore through his shoulder. He grit his teeth against the pain
and detonated all the powder within reach. The blast deafened him, and he hoped it sowed enough confusion as he limped toward the well.

  Another bullet ripped through the arm of his jacket, and the whistle of another buzzed past his ear. Smoke from the detonated powder hung in the damp air, filling his nostrils, urging him on. He reached the lip of the well and threw himself over the edge, knowing that the fall itself would likely kill him.

  It didn’t matter, he just had to get away.

  He crashed into something solid—a moment of confusion overwhelmed him before he realized why he wasn’t falling. An iron grate covered the well, preventing his descent. He gasped, staring up into the rain, and felt his heart sink. Here he was, in the middle of the Gurlish fort, and now cornered like a rat in a cage.

  He was going to die the same way he lived: arrogant, desper­ate, and still a goddamned sergeant.

  A Gurlish infantryman loomed over him. Hands grabbed him by the ankle and arms, trying to pull him up. Tamas reached for Farthing’s knife, only to find it gone from its sheath. Helplessly, he watched as the infantryman raised the butt of his rifle and brought it down on his head. Tamas raised one hand to ward off the blow, feeling the sharp pain as his wrist broke.

  Something shifted beneath him. There was a grating of metal on metal as the grate collapsed. Tamas gasped, and then suddenly he was falling. The blackness of the well swallowing him, the vision of the Gurlish infantrymen zooming away. His legs hit the side of the well, sending him tumbling head over heels until he hit water far below.

  The breath was knocked out of him and he sank, stunned, into the dark. He felt his limbs scrape along mossy stone, the pain of his wounds overwhelming him to the point of numbness. He tried to scrabble for purchase and air, but found neither.

  He felt his limbs weakening, barely able to keep himself from gasping in a lungful of water.

  There was a sudden rumble through the water, and then a glow from somewhere ahead lent him one last burst of strength. He pushed himself forward and suddenly his head broke the water as he was swept along in the current of the river below Tilpur.

  Above him, flames licked the sky over the fort. He stared up, incredulous, able to think of nothing but the air in his lungs, before he realized that the munitions had gone up.

  With a laugh that came out as a choked sob, Tamas struggled toward the shore.

  Tamas walked through the main gate of Tilpur fortress three days after his nighttime raid. His arm hung at his side uselessly in a sling, wrist set and bandaged with his uniform jacket hanging off his shoulder. everything hurt—his head, his wrist, his ribs, his shoulder, his legs. A light powder trance held the pain at a low buzz in the back of his head. He felt naked without his musket hanging off his shoulder or a shako on his head, and seeing the courtyard in the daylight sent a shiver down his spine. He half expected a Gurlish soldier to lean out the window of the barracks and take a shot at him.

  But the fort had been emptied of Gurlish forces two days ago. Less than six hundred men, a good portion of those wounded, had survived the detonation of the fort’s munitions. The garrison commander had immediately called for a parlay and surrendered without condition. Their forces were now camped out on the plain, disarmed, while the Adran officers decided what to do with them.

  It was, without a doubt, the biggest turnaround of the season, if not the entire campaign. And General Seske had yet to call for Tamas.

  He paused inside the courtyard, watching as Adran soldiers made repairs. The munitions explosion had collapsed a large part of the courtyard and destroyed most of the barracks when the ground dropped a dozen feet beneath it. Bodies were still being hauled out of the rubble, while the sorcery-protected stones of the inner wall were being scrubbed clean of the soot and ash from the explosion.

  Overseeing the whole operation was General Seske, standing up on the walls near where Tamas and his squad had gone over the top. He was surrounded by aids, a broad smile on his face as he handed out orders and cracked jokes with his officers, standing with thumbs hooked through his belt, bicorn cocked forward like he’d conquered Tilpur himself.

  It did not, Tamas thought, bode well.

  Seske’s gaze swept past Tamas, pausing for just the slightest moment, his smile faltering, before moving on. Instead of a gesture or a grin or anything to acknowledge the man who’d just handed him an enemy fortress, he continued bantering with his officers.

  Tamas made a circuit around the fort, examining the repairs, taking a look down into the well and examining the ancient, rusted grate that had almost gotten him killed. He counted fifteen paces from the well and scuffed at the black, stained stone with one toe, chuckling to himself. The Privileged he’d landed on, he’d found out later, had died almost instantly, spine snapping like a twig at the impact. The stain under Tamas’s boot was likely his blood.

  “Sergeant,” a voice said.

  Tamas looked up to find one of Seske’s aids beside him. “Yes?”

  “The general would like to see you.”

  Tamas followed the aid to the nearest gatehouse and up the steep, narrow stairs, the pain in his side deepening with each step. By the time he reached the top of the wall he was covered in sweat and quite dizzy. He searched his pockets for a powder charge, only to come up empty.

  Seske was alone when he approached. The general gazed out over the camp of the Gurlish prisoners, a scowl on his face. He did not turn as Tamas approached.

  Tamas saluted with his left hand. “Sir,” he said.

  “I suppose,” Seske said, “that you think you’re getting a promotion for this?”

  Tamas let his salute fall, trying to fight the dizziness caused by the climb. His powder trance was almost gone. “I wouldn’t presume, sir.”

  “No. No you wouldn’t. I’ve spoken with Pereg. He was rather excited by the Gurlish surrender and let it slip that you’re a man of ambition. You want to be commissioned. Is that true?”

  Tamas’s mouth went dry. He took a deep breath to steady himself. “I would like to serve my king as an officer, sir.”

  “So that’s a yes?” Seske shook his head. “I won’t have it. Not in this army.”

  Tamas bit back an angry retort. Surely there would be a good reason? “I’m not sure I understand, sir.”

  “The king will likely grant me lands for this victory. Pereg himself will be made a major, which will please his aunt to no end, and for both those things you have my thanks. But an officer should be of noble blood. Nothing will convince me otherwise. Don’t be hard on yourself. I understand your birth is not your fault. But this is the way of the world and you need to get used to it.”

  I’ll have his thanks? Tamas looked at Seske, then looked at the perilous drop off the edge of the wall. One quick shove and . . . and what? He’d be trundled off to a court-martial and then shot? All to silence a single braggart?

  “You won’t get a promotion for this,” Seske said, “but you’ll be rewarded with a stipend. Your whole squad will receive medals from the king the next time you’re in Adopest. I’ve even recommended that your wounds be healed by a Privileged to shorten your convalescence. A man like you can be awfully useful, after all. Perhaps I’ll send you over to consult at the siege of Herone.” He paused. “Bah, don’t look so glum. You’ll make master sergeant within a few years. But as you said yourself . . . don’t presume. You’re dismissed, Sergeant.”

  Tamas stared at Seske for several moments, disbelieving. He didn’t want a stipend, or Seske’s thanks. He didn’t give a damn about any bloody medal. He wanted a commission—a commission he earned killing two Gurlish Privileged and taking the fort almost single-handedly. From the self-satisfied expression on Seske’s face, the general thought Tamas should be thanking him for not giving him a promotion. Tamas could practically hear what Seske was thinking: this is for your own good, you common upstart.

  “I said you were dismisse
d, Sergeant.”

  “Thank you, sir,” Tamas managed to grunt, throwing up a half-hearted salute. Seske didn’t seem to notice.

  He stumbled down the stairs, barely able to hold himself up, and stopped to rest in the main floor guardhouse of the tower. He leaned his head against the cool stone. Was this all that awaited him in his career? Did his superiors have any respect for the risk of an infantryman? Or was bravery just a word meant to spur him into the face of the grapeshot for the glory of others?

  “Sergeant.”

  Tamas looked up to find Captain Pereg had joined him in the guard room. He felt a spike of anger go through him even as he struggled to raise his arm in a salute.

  “No, don’t,” Pereg said, his forehead creased. “I came here to apologize. Seske told me he wasn’t going to give a promotion for this, and I can see from your face you’ve just had that discussion.” He grimaced. “I know it’s a disappointment and, though it’s not much of a consolation, I’ve written a letter of commendation to go in your file in Adopest. I’ll be sure a copy gets to someone other than General Seske.”

  “Thank you, sir,” Tamas said.

  “No, thank you. I wanted you to know that I’ll be turning down my promotion under the objection that you didn’t get one.”

  “That’s unnecessary, sir,” Tamas said.

  “It’s the least I could do. At least one officer in the Adran army should show appreciation for what you’ve done.”

  Tamas thanked Pereg once more and walked back into the heat of the desert sun. He paused, catching his breath, and looked down at his ragged hands. A cane may be a good idea, at least until Seske granted him access to a Privileged healer. He scowled, then looked up, aware of a sudden silence.

  Every soldier working on the repairs to the fort had stopped. They stood, looking toward him, squinting in the sunlight. One of them raised their hand in a salute. Slowly, the others joined him, until over a hundred infantrymen were saluting him in silence.

  Tamas wiped a tear out of his eye and stood up straight and returned the salute. He’d done this for a promotion, yes, he reminded himself. But he’d also done it for something more important—to save lives that would otherwise have been thrown away. And these infantry, these good men and women saluting him, knew.

 
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