A kingdom besieged, p.27
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       A Kingdom Besieged, p.27

           Raymond E. Feist
 

  Sensing the young man’s mood, the sergeant leaned forward and spoke so as not to be overheard despite the clamour all around. ‘You’ve done well, Martin. Given what you had to work with, your father couldn’t have done better. No man could.’

  Martin was silent for a moment, knowing that Ruther wasn’t just being kind. This was his first conflict against an organized force, but he had been a student of the Kingdom’s military history as well as much of Kesh’s, and he had known from the outset the best he could do was hold out for relief.

  And that relief would not arrive in time. Should his father come riding up at this moment, the best result the defenders could hope for would be a momentary withdrawal by the attackers, before a resumed offensive would once again jeopardize the keep. The simple truth was the battle was lost.

  He took another deep breath and said, ‘Sergeant, we cannot hold this position, as you well know. Father told me if victory eludes you, the next best choice is determining how you endure defeat.’

  ‘Sir?’

  ‘Let’s get organized. We’re taking this garrison out from under their noses tonight.’

  The old sergeant smiled. ‘We go into the forests, hit them from there?’

  ‘No, this coast is lost,’ said Martin. ‘We have no reason to think that Robert has held Carse or Morris has held Tulan. Even if they still hold them now, they’ll be starved out within two months. They were no more prepared for this than we were.’ He let out a long breath. ‘I’m sure Prince Edward will have more to worry about than relieving the Far Coast any time soon.’

  ‘Where to then, sir?’

  He put his hand on Ruther’s shoulder. ‘I want the wounded and escorts out tonight, first, and send them east, up into the mountains, towards the south-east fork road to the Free Cities.’ The main road, a continuation of the King’s Highway, ran due east to Ylith, but there was a traders’ road that ran down to the nearest outpost of the Free Cities. ‘They’ll shelter the wounded. And the rest of us will hold for a while longer, then we’ll follow. Once away from here, we’ll take the straight road to Ylith.’

  ‘A desperate plan, sir,’ said Ruther.

  ‘Is there any other kind in these circumstances?’ asked Martin with a faint smile. Then he asked, ‘Lady Bethany?’

  ‘With the wounded, as always.’

  Martin shook his head at her stubborn defiance of his order to leave. He had only discovered she was still in the keep half a day after all the other women and children and the gravely wounded had departed.

  Down below, the battle was going exactly as he had expected with the Keshians setting up firing positions, their shields forming turtles, turned up towards the archers in the keep, preventing arrows from penetrating, though occasionally a shaft would find an exposed leg or foot and a man would go down, but for the most part the positions remained impervious to Crydee’s archers. Soon they’d have teams of two and four men working their way up the steps leading to the walls where more archers would start clearing the keep’s windows as best they could in anticipation of the assault on the entrance.

  ‘Stay here and maintain discipline,’ said Martin. ‘I know the men are tired. If they move on the portcullis, send someone to get me.’

  ‘Sir,’ said Ruther with a slight smile. The Duke’s second son had initially been overwhelmed by the responsibility of commanding the scant garrison but he had grown into the role by the day.

  He hurried downstairs and found Bethany boiling bandages in the kitchen. It was a time-honoured tradition that if bandages were boiled and left to air dry, wounds bound with them were less likely to fester and require a healing priest. The keep at Crydee had a chapel in which any member of the household could pray to any deity but there was no resident prelate. Old Father Taylor had died two years before and Martin’s father had been remiss in petitioning the Temple of Astalon in Krondor to send out another priest. There were shrines in the town, and travelling priests of several Orders visited, but healing by magic means was no closer than Carse under normal circumstances.

  Martin paused for a moment and watched Bethany. He had lost all anger at her defying his order to leave with their mothers and instead savoured both her beauty and her industry.

  Finally he took a breath and came over behind her. She sensed him and turned. ‘Could you grab that bundle of rags over there, for me, please?’

  He complied and when they were dumped into the pot he said, ‘How many of the wounded can travel without help?’

  ‘Not many. Those who can stand are still on the walls, some doing nothing more than showing the Keshians a face so they’ll think there are more defenders than there are.’

  ‘We’ll be evacuating the entire garrison after sundown. If a man is wounded but can help, I’ll send him to you.’ His voice fell. ‘How many cannot be moved?’

  Grimly she said, ‘None. Those have already died. Some will have to be carried, but all can move.’

  Martin sighed. ‘I want you to leave with the wounded. The first group.’

  ‘Where are we bound?’

  ‘The Free Cities. The rest of us will go on to Yabon.’

  ‘You sent our mothers north to the elves.’

  ‘It is a safer destination . . . The elves would welcome our wounded and the woman and children, but as well as we’ve got on with them over the years, I have my doubts about them welcoming an army. Besides, I’ve got what’s left of Crydee’s garrison here, and most of us can still fight.’ His voice lowered. ‘We just can’t fight here.’

  ‘You did the best you could,’ she said and put her hand on his arm. Then she kissed him lightly. ‘You really did, Martin.’

  He tried to smile. ‘Still, it’s a bitter thing to lose your first battle.’

  She tried to look brave, but her eyes welled up with tears for his obvious pain. She grabbed him and hugged him. ‘You did do everything any man could do.’ Then she kissed him hard on the neck, then added, ‘And I do love you so very much even if you are a humourless fool at times.’

  Despite his fatigue and black mood, he was forced to chuckle. ‘Humourless fool? Faith, lady, I am injured.’

  ‘Just your vanity,’ she grinned. ‘I’ll start making the wounded ready.’

  ‘Good. If I can’t be back before the sergeant orders you out of the keep, stay well. I will find you when we are on the trail.’

  She nodded and went back to the boiling bandages. Using a large wooden spoon she began picking up the dripping linen and hanging it in front of the fire to dry.

  Martin did a quick inspection of the wounded himself, then hurried down to the basement and inspected the tunnel entrance. Two guards had been stationed in the sub-basement against the possibility of the Keshians finding the exit in the forest beyond and coming up through the tunnel. It was a faint chance if the entrance had been covered properly when the first group had left days earlier, but it was still a possibility.

  To one of the guards he said, ‘Go to the old tack room. You’ll find a dozen bales of straw. Get some men to carry them down here. And then find a pot in the kitchen. So big.’ He made a circle with his hands showing something that would hold five or six quarts. ‘Fill it with lamp oil and bring it here.’

  ‘Sir,’ said the guard and hurried off.

  Martin looked to the other guard and said, ‘How long have you been at this post?’

  ‘Can’t rightly say, sir.’ The guard was barely a boy, younger than Brendan from his appearance, and his uniform was ill-fitting.

  Martin smiled. ‘I know every man in the garrison by sight. You’re not from the garrison.’

  ‘No, sir. Name’s Wilk. I’m the cobbler’s son. The sergeant said it would look better should the Keshians come if those of us bearing arms had uniforms on. Something about rules of war and the like.’

  Martin nodded. It was a nice-sounding story, but not true. Civilian or soldier alike, he had no doubt what end would greet anyone found bearing arms when the Keshians finally broke into the castle. Though, gi
ven the reputation of Kesh’s Dog Soldiers, he doubted that bearing arms would make much difference. Those found within would either be put to the sword or sold into slavery.

  Martin said, ‘I’ll see if I can get someone down to release you, Wilk. You should get a little rest. It’s going to be a long night.’

  He hurried back to the topmost vantage point and found the Keshians had established two firing positions opposite the barbican and were trying to drive defenders off the roof. Sergeant Ruther was crouched down behind a merlon and Martin waved for him to approach. The sergeant ran in a crouch and when he was safely inside Martin said, ‘We can’t wait. Start the wounded on their way and then organize the men. When the time comes I want everyone but your ten best archers to leave on my command and run to the tunnel.’

  ‘When will that be, sir?’

  ‘When the Keshians get a ram through the outer portcullis, or I give the order, whichever is first.’

  ‘Sir.’

  ‘One more thing,’ said Martin. ‘Sir?’

  ‘If I don’t make it out, make sure you keep everyone together. Head east, and with fortune, you’ll encounter Father somewhere along the way. Report what was done here. If you don’t encounter him, send the wounded to the Free Cities with Lady Bethany, and take the garrison to Yabon.’

  ‘We’ll find your father, sir. You’ll tell him yourself.’

  ‘If, Sergeant.’

  ‘Yes, sir.’

  ‘Now, form a flying company to gather in the great hall, twenty of your best men with short swords and knives, for close-in fighting.’

  ‘Yes, sir,’ said Ruther. ‘I’ll get twenty of my best brawlers and have them here straight away.’

  Martin glanced around as if looking for something to do and realized that for the moment his only choice was to get back on the roof of the barbican and possibly take an arrow for no good reason, or sit and wait until he got word that the Keshian ram was in place at the outer portcullis.

  He found an empty bench in a hall between the great hall and some guest quarters and sat down. He leaned against the wall and felt fatigue in his bones and wondered how he could be so wrung out when he’d barely lifted his sword save to command bow fire down on the Keshians. He supposed he could have taken a bow and stood in the crenels shooting down, exposing himself to enemy arrows, but given how bad he was as an archer, it would probably have been a waste of arrows. That they could not afford.

  He wished desperately his father or Hal or both were here. Even the sight of Brendan would have cheered him. He was not the man to be in command. He barely considered himself a man, despite having passed six summers since his ‘manhood’ day on his fourteenth Banapis Festival. Yes, he had drawn enemy blood before, but those were rabble: goblins and outlaws. This? This was war, and opposing him was a seasoned Keshian commander with battle-hardened soldiers at his disposal.

  When he thought of war he thought of the great battles told of in the archives. When Borric I had charged across the plains north-west of Salador, outnumbered by half again as many soldiers under Jon the Pretender. He had wondered more than once if he had been a member of the Congress of Lords which side he would have chosen. Borric had the claim, as eldest son of the King’s younger brother, but Jon had been Borric’s bastard cousin, and was immensely popular. History was written by the victors, his old teachers had told Martin, so the chronicles were canted in Borric’s favour, but there was enough to tell a careful reader that Jon’s claim was no less a claim.

  When he thought of warfare Martin remembered reading the various accounts of the siege of Crydee, during what was commonly known as the Riftwar, the Tsurani invasion. It was all the more vivid because he could walk the walls and visit each location recounted in the narrations. As a youngster he used to take the text and stand where Arutha was when Fannon was felled by an arrow and walk to where the Prince had stood rallying his soldiers to repulse wave after wave of attackers.

  Martin had always been Arutha in his imagination, despite his own many great-grandfather and namesake, later Duke Martin, being a significant figure of the battle.

  He couldn’t imagine how Arutha would have dealt with this situation, being forced to withdraw in the face of overwhelming odds. He closed his eyes for a moment.

  In what seemed to be a second later Bethany was shaking him awake. ‘It’s sundown and the Keshians haven’t come yet,’ she said, softly. ‘The wounded are ready to leave.’

  He blinked and shook his head, not entirely awake.

  She repeated herself and he stood. ‘Sorry, I fell asleep.’

  ‘Obviously.’ She slipped her arm through his. ‘You drive yourself too hard.’

  ‘I was wondering what Prince Arutha would have done in my place, just before I fell asleep.’

  ‘Exactly what you’re doing: trying to make the best of a terrible situation.’

  He smiled tiredly. ‘Let’s get started.’ He disentangled his arm from hers and led her down to the sub-basement, where six litters were being carried by a dozen men.

  Sergeant Ruther said, ‘Ready, sir.’

  ‘Begin,’ said Martin.

  The tunnel was low, so the litter-bearers had to bend forward a little, but they managed to get the six men too wounded to walk, through. Then those who could walk began to enter the dark maw of the tunnel.

  After the last of them had gone through, Martin turned to Bethany. ‘Now, I want you to round up the few remaining women and I want you out that tunnel within the half-hour.’ When she seemed ready to object he said, ‘It appears the Keshians may wait until first light to begin the assault on the keep itself, so we shall all be far from here when they do.’

  ‘You’re coming after us?’

  He nodded. ‘I will be the last to leave, but I will leave, that is a promise.’

  She didn’t appear convinced, but nodded. ‘Just don’t do anything heroic and foolish so that someone writes some damned chronicle about you one day.’

  ‘That’s unlikely,’ said Martin with a fatigued smile. ‘Now, go.’

  She ran up the stairs, and the sergeant said, ‘Sir, if I may?’

  ‘Sergeant?’

  ‘Let me be the last to leave, sir.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Three reasons, sir, if you don’t mind the truth.’

  ‘I’ll probably mind, but say on anyway, Ruther.’

  ‘Thank you, sir. First of all, you’re tired beyond thinking, and men that tired do not have the wits the gods gave a turnip. You might make mistakes that will get men killed.

  ‘Second, you’re young and just might do what Lady Bethany said, try something heroic and get yourself killed, and I do not want to explain to your father how I managed to let that happen.

  ‘Third, if you’re going to marry that girl you should make sure you both stay alive.’

  ‘Marry—?’

  ‘Do you think no one else noticed how you are when she’s around all these years, Martin?’ Ruther gripped the young man’s shoulder. ‘Maybe your father was too busy being Duke to pay attention to his sons as close as he could – heavens know I think of him as a good man and wise ruler, but fathers sometimes miss things about their sons. But no one who’s seen you around Bethany since you were fifteen could mistake how you felt about her, and it seems she feels the same way about you.’

  ‘Well, her father and mine may have different plans,’ said Martin.

  ‘That may well be, but you will have no chance to discuss the matter with your father if you’re lying face down on the stones of this keep in a pool of your own blood, now will you?’

  Martin couldn’t think. ‘Very well, how will you proceed if I allow you to be last out?’

  ‘That flying squad you asked for, of brawlers and hooligans. Brilliant. We will hit hard any company that comes through this side of the barbican’s rear door: we’ll barricade the other side door so they will choose this one. We’ll fight as we retreat, and we’ll dump a few traps along the way so we can get to the basement. We’ll
fire the hay along the way, and if we’re lucky the tunnel will collapse on a host of them when we’re out the other end.’

  ‘Sounds like a wonderful plan, Sergeant,’ said Martin. ‘That’s exactly what I plan on doing. Now go get those twenty brawlers to rest a bit, organize some traps for me, and when you have finished, I want you personally to see that Bethany, the other women, and half the garrison leave. It’s your charge to see them safely to my father or Yabon. Understood?’

  ‘You’re not going to let me talk you out of this are you?’

  ‘Understood?’ repeated Martin, his eyes narrowing.

  ‘Understood, sir.’

  The sergeant led the way out of the sub-basement and Martin asked as they climbed the stairs, ‘How do you do it, Ruther?’

  ‘Do what, sir?’

  ‘Stay awake for four days.’

  ‘I don’t. You learn to grab sleep when you can, a few minutes here, a half-hour there, sitting in the corner, lying under a table, whenever you can.’

  ‘I have yet to learn the knack.’

  ‘Go to your room,’ said Ruther softly. ‘Take at least an hour. I’ll bid the Lady Bethany farewell for you; she’ll know better than anyone you need sleep more than a bittersweet goodbye. I’ll wake you before dawn. If you’re going to survive your delay, young prince, you’ll need your wits about you.’

  Martin said nothing, then nodded once and turned towards his room when they reached the top of the stairs. He half-staggered to his quarters, pushed open the door, and fell face first across the bed.

  He was deep in sleep when Bethany came in, saw him there, removed his boots for him without waking him, and covered him with a blanket. She bestowed a light kiss on his face, whispered goodbye, then closed the door behind her.

  Chapter Nineteen

  Retreat

  THE PORTCULLIS CRASHED LOUDLY TO THE STONE FLOOR.

  Martin was ready, his men arrayed outside the unblocked side door. He signalled for them to wait.

  The Keshians had brought up the first of two rams at dawn, and it had been a very well-built one. An enormous log suspended from heavy ropes and chains, and a massive iron boot covered the front end of the log. A wooden ‘tent’ roof protected the men pushing it, a dozen crouched over long wooden poles that ran though the frame of the massive war engine.

 
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