A kingdom besieged, p.21
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       A Kingdom Besieged, p.21

           Raymond E. Feist
 

  She struck back without looking, ripping a gash across his face. ‘Speak only when I tell you,’ she commanded. Of all her companions, Belog was the only one she allowed any discretion when it came to addressing her.

  She walked down the path and was accosted by alien scents and odd sounds. A faint vibration, too quiet to make out, emanated from the portal. It was a tall rectangle of grey with a scintillating sheen of colours playing across the surface like an oily rainbow on water.

  ‘It is calling,’ said Child.

  ‘I sense a desire to enter,’ agreed Belog. ‘But we know not what is on the other side.’

  ‘Yet it calls.’

  The tug of desire was mounting by the moment.

  ‘Perhaps safety is on the other side,’ ventured one of the females who then cringed in anticipation of Child’s wrath.

  But Child was unmindful of this second breach and simply said, ‘No, we do not know what is beyond.’ When she turned it was with a grin, but there was no humour in it.

  Her features were changing and Belog was most aware of that since he had seen her in her childhood. She now had high cheekbones and piercing black eyes, a regal nose and a high forehead that swept back to a crest that fanned out behind her head like a crown. Her body was lithe and powerful, but hips and breasts were full like those of a succubus. Her teeth were gleaming white instead of yellow or black, with only her eyeteeth pointed, the rest being as flat as those of a lesser being.

  She was changing and into what he had no idea, but he said nothing as she finished her thought.

  ‘But we do know what is behind us, and if it takes a lifetime or ten lifetimes, eventually the Darkness will reach this place.’ She glanced from face to face. ‘And I will not be here when it comes. Choose as you wish.’

  She stepped into the portal.

  A moment later, Belog followed.

  Chapter Fourteen

  Flight

  MARTIN RAN UP THE STEPS.

  Barely dressed as the sun rose, he had been summoned by an urgent call from the sentry atop the highest tower in the castle. When he reached the apex of the tower the sentry cried, ‘Sir, the Keshians are moving their trebuchets!’

  ‘Sergeant Ruther!’ shouted Martin and within a minute the old veteran was at his side. ‘It looks as if the Keshians have grown tired of waiting for us to walk away,’ Martin told him. Then he added calmly, ‘Sound the alarm.’

  With a wave the sergeant ordered a trumpeter to sound the call to battle and a moment later every soldier and those men of fighting age who had been armed took up their positions.

  ‘I wonder if they’re going to ask us to leave again?’ asked Sergeant Ruther, his chin jutting as if he was ready for a bar fight.

  Suddenly a massive stone came arcing out from the heart of town and smashed into the stonework to the right of the gate. Shards of masonry exploded and two men fell from the wall nearby, while everyone else ducked for cover. Those townsfolk who were not bearing arms and hadn’t yet fled to the rear of the castle were now leaving the front bailey yard at a run. Their screams of terror filled the air, but through it Sergeant Ruther’s voice cut: ‘Steady!’ Looking at Martin, he said, ‘I guess that means not.’

  The Keshians had been content to sit in the town for five days, sending a message every day, asking for the inhabitants’ surrender. They never threatened; but the threat was implicit as more and more soldiers disembarked from the ships now in Crydee harbour. Already the keep was nearly fully surrounded. Only the heavily-forested area a half mile from the rear wall seemed not yet to be closed off.

  Martin watched as a second stone crashed nearer to the gate. ‘They mean to have that gate down before they attack,’ suggested Martin.

  ‘That’s how I see it, sir. Scaling walls is a messy business and the gate’s the easy way in. Usually we wait until we have to pull back into the keep, and then it gets messy for them.’

  Martin understood. The outer wall was a late addition to the original keep which had a classic murder room behind the outer portcullis. While it was easy enough to lift those two gates, they were extremely difficult to breach without a lot of men dying under a hail of arrows from above. ‘You see any turtles?’

  ‘No, but we can be sure they have them or are building them somewhere in town.’ The turtles would be covered rams of heavy wooden construction that would be used to smash in the port-cullises. The defenders would make the attackers pay a heavy toll to breach the keep, but with enough men and material, eventually the Keshians would break through. Martin’s sole hope was to hold them at bay until his father and the rest of Crydee’s muster returned.

  The instructions had been simple. If Lord Henry appeared, the garrison would sally forth in support of his attack on the Keshians besieging the keep. With a strong enough attack, they could roll them up and push them through the town until they found themselves fighting with the bay at their back. Unless they could swim to their ships wearing armour, they would be forced to surrender or be killed to the last man on the docks. Martin chose to worry about the Keshian townspeople after the battle was won. Right now he was focusing on defending this keep.

  He looked around and realized that his ancestors had either been geniuses or very lucky. When the original keep had been established by the first Duke of Crydee, this had been a small Keshian garrison, used primarily to keep goblins and the Brotherhood of the Dark Path out of northern Bosania, as this province had been called. The current Free Cities had been their main concern, and the Far Coast had been occupied only as a way to protect their ‘back doors’, as there were two major passes over the mountains. The road east past the Jonril garrison split north-east and south-east, and led to the passes, one of which skirted the southern boundary of the Elven Forest, and eventually would clear the Grey Towers at the Northern Pass before descending towards Yabon.

  The southern route passed close to the boundaries of the dwarves and the Star Elves, eventually descending towards the Free City of Natal and the Kingdom Port of Ylith. It was infrequently travelled, and only utilized if heavy snow blocked off the Northern Pass.

  Yet while the Crydee garrison had never been more than a Keshian watch-post, it had this bloody marvellous keep: one storey, square and ugly, with a small barbican over the entrance. Martin’s ancestor, the first Duke of Crydee, had build a second storey above it, extended it on three sides and erected towers at the front two corners, then built a huge wall around it, creating a massive bailey in the front and a less spacious marshalling yard behind. On the north side the stables had been tucked against the wall, while barracks were constructed against the south wall.

  The outer wall had two entrances: the main gates and a postern gate in the rear. That was heavily guarded, but the terrain behind the keep made attack from that direction difficult: thick woodlands made marshalling horse and infantry impossible unless they came into the clearing behind and attacked uphill while in range of the bowmen and two ancient ballistas mounted on the towers at the corners. The ancient Keshians knew one thing that every Duke of Crydee had also known: the only way to take the keep was a steep climb uphill and a full-frontal assault.

  More boulders came hurtling through the air and more masonry exploded. Shards of stone and choking dust filled the air.

  Silently, Martin prayed his father wasn’t too long in coming to his aid.

  Lord Henry chafed at every moment he was forced to tarry. He paced without let every time they had to stop to rest the horses. Two hundred cavalry had to tend to their mounts while the infantrymen struggled to keep up, lagging perhaps a half-day’s march behind.

  Brendan watched his father and was hard pressed to know what to say. He was just as desperate to return as the Duke, but he knew that it was futile to push out too far ahead of the heavy foot. Two hundred mounted soldiers might break a siege, but they would need the support of the twelve hundred men behind them. At last he said, ‘Father, you taught Martin well. Of the three of us he was always your best student.’
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br />   Lord Henry turned. He looked as if he was about to lose his temper at his son’s words, but just managed to pull himself back from an outburst. After a moment he said, ‘You’re right. I have always known that you and your brothers might be tested in battle some day. I just thought you’d be older and I’d be there with you.’ Then his voice lowered. ‘And your mother is there.’

  Brendan moved to his father’s side. Putting a hand on his shoulder he repeated, ‘Martin was your best student. And he has Ruther with him. He may be a boastful drunk on Banapis, but the rest of the year he’s a seasoned soldier.’

  ‘Against bands of goblins and roving outlaws, yes,’ said Duke Henry, his dark eyes narrow and his face pinched with worry. ‘But against Keshian Dog Soldiers?’

  ‘Crydee Keep is battle-tested, Father. If the Tsurani couldn’t bring it down after months of siege, I doubt Kesh can in a matter of days.’

  ‘The Tsurani didn’t have Keshian engineers,’ said Duke Henry. ‘Even if we arrive the day before the infantry we may be able to raid from behind and burn their engines, cause confusion and maybe even scatter them.’

  Brendan didn’t answer, but he knew that was unlikely. They would be coming down from the foothills on the only major road west from Yabon to Crydee. They had been half-way to the Jonril garrison when the fast riders overtook them, warning of the Keshian invasion.

  Henry’s orders had been to take this command to Yabon, to bolster that garrison should the Keshians sail north or to stand in its stead if the Duke of Yabon was ordered to sail south from Ylith to Krondor. Until the riders came with word of the attack on Crydee, Henry assumed that the likelihood of an attack there was low. He had sent two fresh riders on to Jonril and then to Yabon, ordering the Jonril garrison stripped and force-marched to Crydee. He judged they’d arrive no more than three days later than Crydee’s own infantry. Yabon would be left to decide what aid they could bring if any. If the Keshians were not moving in the Bitter Sea, Henry was certain Duke Francis would send two or three companies of his own garrisons from LaMut, Zun and Yabon City to support Crydee. They should arrive within three weeks if Duke Francis moved swiftly.

  The Duke gestured his groomsman to saddle the horses but Brendan said, ‘Father, the horses do us no good if we ride them dead before we get there. Ten more minutes?’

  The Duke froze in place. He was wearing his armour and the ancient and honoured tabard of his ancestors, with a deep brown field upon which flew the golden seagull of Crydee. His helm rested on the ground near his feet and he glanced down at it. Then he said softly, ‘I wish Hal was there with Martin.’

  Brendan could only nod. Martin may have been their father’s best student when it came to strategy and theories of war, but Hal just knew how to do things right and men would follow him anywhere. All he could say was, ‘Martin will be fine, Father.’

  Martin walked through the great hall where casualties lay groaning. It had become a makeshift infirmary since the relentless bombardment on the gates had injured more than two dozen men. Most had been workers, attempting to shore up the gate with timbers and stone, delaying the inevitable, when the gate would come crashing down.

  He had ordered all the men off the wall two days earlier, having them retreat to the sides of the keep or into the main entrance, ready to man the walls should the need arise, but knowing full well the Keshians would not come within arrow range until the gate was down. He could not help but grudgingly admire the Keshian commander. What his approach lacked in creativity it made up for in effectiveness. His soldiers might be falling asleep in the town out of boredom, but no one inside Crydee had enjoyed a good night’s sleep in a week. The best anyone could manage would be to doze off for a few minutes, before being startled awake by the thundering crash of another stone against the wall around the gate.

  Martin saw Sergeant Ruther on the other side of the room and signalled for him to join him. The old fighter moved to a corner of the hall where they wouldn’t be overheard.

  ‘How are we doing, Sergeant?’

  Ruther stroked his chin. ‘Considering the pounding the gate’s taking, better than I expected. No one’s dead, just broken bones and cuts from flying stones.’

  ‘How long?’

  Ruther didn’t need to ask what he meant. ‘Three days at best, two more likely; if they get busy, less than that.’ He paused then added, ‘We need to think about getting the women and children out.’

  Martin sighed, near exhaustion. ‘I know. Is the tunnel ready?’

  After the Tsurani siege of the castle, Martin’s namesake, the first Duke Martin, had ordered an escape tunnel built deep under the keep, far below any that might be dug by incoming sappers. It ran far beyond the clearing to the east, into the heavy forest. The exit was fully disguised by carefully placed boulders surrounding a door-sized rock that had been artfully crafted to look like a solid boulder, but was hollow at the back.

  ‘I had the boys down there yesterday ensuring the timbers were still sound and the stone door that hides the entrance can be moved. It will take a couple of stout lads and a long piece of wood to move that door, but it’ll be ready when we need it.’

  ‘Good,’ said Martin. ‘I’m just not certain how we’ll get everyone out and when.’

  ‘The “how” is your burden, sir, but the “when” is soon.’ He looked at Martin, took in the dark shadow beneath his eyes. ‘You look all in, lad,’ he said, though he was in no better shape. ‘Why don’t you try to get some rest, at least an hour?’

  ‘Thank you, Sergeant,’ said Martin. He knew the old soldier was right. He was exhausted and not thinking clearly. He half-staggered to his room and fell across his bed without taking his boots off. In a few minutes he was asleep, unmindful of the dull thud of stones striking the gate outside.

  Martin awoke to soft lips pressing against his. His eyes opened wide. ‘Huh?’

  He found Bethany leaning over him.

  ‘You are needed. I thought that was the best way to rouse you.’

  Flushing, Martin said, ‘I am roused. What is it?’

  ‘Your mother needs you.’ She turned towards the door. As she reached it, she glanced over her shoulder and added, ‘As do I,’ and left.

  Martin sat there half-asleep, slightly giddy, and confused. If he lived through the next few days he would wonder about how he had become the object of affection for the woman he adored.

  He had always felt there was something between them, but every time he had dared to imagine what it might be, he had pushed away the thoughts as the idle dreaming of a fool. Now he wondered how things could suddenly change so dramatically. Why did he feel like grinning like a loon when the world was crumbling around him?

  He straightened his tunic and hurried to his parents’ quarters which his mother was currently sharing with Bethany, her mother, and half a dozen ladies from the village and their dozen children. The room had always seemed capacious to Martin as a child, being the largest sleeping chamber in the keep with its huge bed, settee, large rugs and wall hangings, but now it seemed small and cramped.

  Duchess Caralin motioned for her son to come to her when he entered the room, and took his hands in hers. ‘How are you, Martin?’ Her face was a mask of concern. He knew that look. She worried about him more than his brothers, and had done ever since childhood. He was not as confident as Hal or as reckless as Brendan, and as the middle child had often been neglected while his father saw to the eldest and his mother cared for the youngest.

  He smiled, though he felt as if he could drop back to sleep just standing there. ‘I’m fine, Mother. What is it you need?’

  ‘We have people getting sick in the rear yard. It’s not bad now, but it will get worse.’ Collected together tightly as they were, the people of Crydee were ripe to be taken by disease, from something relatively mild like belly flux to something lethal like the red plague or spotted madness. Softly she added, ‘We must think about getting those who are the most sick away from here.’

  ‘Where
would we take them, and how would they get there?’

  ‘Elvandar,’ she suggested. ‘Your father will surely be coming quickly from Jonril, and the healers will be with him, but many of these people will be dying or dead if we don’t get them help soon.’ Suddenly, she shuddered.

  Martin stared at her, alarmed. ‘Mother, what is it?’

  She lowered her voice and whispered, ‘Ague.’

  Martin closed his eyes for a second. Several different things could be ague, but those who had it would have the same symptoms: fevers with sweats, then chills, a terrible thirst and if not treated, hallucinations. If these combined with other problems, death was possible. Usually if someone was struck down they went to bed for seven to ten days and were tended by their friends or family in the town. But here ague could leave the garrison incapacitated within days.

  ‘If we’re going to get them out, we must do so before they become too weak to travel. I’ll instruct Sergeant Ruther to get things organized. We’ll have them out at sunset.’ He paused, then added, ‘I would like you, Countess Marriann and Lady Bethany to go as well.’

  ‘No,’ said his mother flatly. ‘These are my people; this is my home. If you stay, I will stay.’

  He held up his hand. ‘Mother, please. Someone needs to take care of the sick and I can not imagine anyone better suited, and it would ease my mind if you and Earl Robert’s family were out of harm’s way.’

  His mother looked at him askance. ‘Is that so?’

  ‘Yes,’ he replied, not understanding her question. ‘Moreover, if you won’t go, I must send Ruther to lead the escape, and I need him here.

  ‘Very well,’ she said. ‘You’re enough like your grandfather when it comes to having your mind made up that I’ll not argue.’

  He kissed her on the cheek. ‘Father’s father or your father?’

  Frowning slightly she said, ‘Both.’

  That made him smile. He kissed her cheek again and departed.

  Exhaustion was taking its toll, yet whenever the young commander walked by people nodded in greeting and the soldiers saluted. Martin was uncertain what it was he had done to earn their regard, then as he was leaving the family’s wing of the keep and entering the main hall, he realized what it was; they wanted him to succeed. Because if he did so, they would survive. If he failed, they all failed.

 
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