DargonZine 3, Issue 10

Campaign for the Laraka Part 2: The Juggernaught Unleashed

Yule 6, 1014 - Yule 12, 1014


This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Laraka

Port Sevlyn, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur

6 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Lord Morion leaned against the hearth, every muscle in his weary body crying out for rest. When he was first ushered into the Lord Mayor’s study, he’d been offered wine and a chair by a very industrious servant. Morion declined rather harshly (the poor servant had yet to recover from his fright) for he knew that if he stopped for so much as a few minutes, he would succumb to sleep.

 

“Where is that man?” Morion said aloud. He adjusted his armour for the tenth time in as many minutes in a vain attempt to stop its chafing. He’d been wearing it ever since the battle on the beach north of Shark’s Cove on the last day of Melrin that saw Sir Ailean of Bivar, Knight Captain of the Northern Marches, and two thousand Baranurian soldiers die with another seven hundred wounded in a futile effort to repel the Beinison Empire’s amphibious landing there. Morion was now in command of the twenty-eight hundred survivors he’d led away from the battle at Ailean’s order. Morion had been ruthlessly driving his men and women towards Gateway Keep in the Royal Duchy. It was there he intended to make a final stand. Being outnumbered nine-to-one, all he could hope to do was delay the enemy long enough for Sir Edward Sothos, the Knight Commander, to gather what forces he could and prepare Magnus for a siege. Morion knew his chances of substantially hampering the enemy’s progress were slim, but he must try. Magnus lies one hundred twenty-six leagues beyond Gateway Keep, less than a three-day forced march. If Morion failed, Baranur was lost.

 

The door to the study opened and the Lord Mayor of Port Sevlyn stepped through to greet his guest. “I apologize for keeping you waiting so long, Lord Morion. Urgent matters required my attention.”

 

“What matters?” Morion snapped.

 

“I hardly think that tone is warranted, my Lord. I was seeing to the Militia’s organization.”

 

“I’m sorry, Lord Mayor. It’s been a long and disappointing week.”

 

“So your messenger told us,” the Lord Mayor said as he crossed the room to his desk. “Won’t you be seated, my Lord?”

 

“Not to seem ungrateful, but no. I fear if I sat in that chair I would be asleep in moments. Sleep is a luxury I can’t afford.”

 

The Lord Mayor nodded in sympathy. “I understand.” He paused for a moment, clearly reluctant to bring up the next point of discussion. “When will they arrive?” ‘They’ referring to the Beinisonian army coming up the Laraka.

 

“My scouts say three days,” Morion said tonelessly. “Perhaps more, perhaps less.”

 

“Three–but we can’t be ready that soon! I’ll have to order the gates shut now! We won’t be able to bring in the food or livestock from the surrounding farms! Those supplies were necessary to feed your men.

 

Still, better to have the sheep in the house causing a stink than outside feeding the wolves, as they say. We’ll just have to tighten our belts more than anticipated. I suppose we could try getting supplies in by riverboat at night. What do you think, my Lord?”

 

Morion had crossed to the study’s only window. He stood there with his back to the Lord Mayor, looking down on the plaza. There was much activity, none of it to do with buying and selling goods. People were running this way and that with no apparent purpose other than panic. There were a few who did not panic. The soldiers of the Militia were one group. Morion saw a squad from the Regiment based in Port Sevlyn tramp hurriedly past on their way to the town’s walls, hands clutching tightly at longswords or busy adjusting straps on their leather armour. The other group that was immediately visible was a group of perhaps twenty people energetically loading supplies onto carts. Morion could see a grey-haired merchant, and a wealthy one at that, directing the chaos with grim efficiency. A man who knows the storm is coming and is trying to get what he can to safety, Morion thought.

 

Morion had become so lost in his own thoughts that he failed to notice the Lord Mayor speaking to him. “What was that, Lord Mayor? I’m afraid I’ve got a great many things on my mind.”

 

“Perfectly understandable. I asked your Lordship’s opinion on bringing supplies in by riverboat at night.”

 

“I don’t think you will be needing extra supplies.”

 

“Not need extra–? We must have more supplies, my Lord. There simply isn’t enough to feed the population and the increased garrison.”

 

Morion turned from the window to face the Lord Mayor. “There will be no increased garrison, Lord Mayor,” Morion said, the fatigue and stress of the past six days evident in his voice. “I only stopped here as long as I have to ask you to order the Militia to come with me.”

 

The Lord Mayor’s face went grim. “You mean to abandon us to the enemy?” he asked with barely suppressed anger.

 

“You forget who you speak to.”

 

“Forgive me, my Lord,” the Lord Mayor said with great sarcasm. “It was my understanding the Royal Army existed to protect Baranur’s citizens from harm.”

 

“There are reasons for my actions. Not that I am accountable to you or anyone save myself. But I do not want it said that I callously left the people of Port Sevlyn to the mercy of the Beinisonians.

 

You will listen to my reasons, Lord Mayor, in silence.” Morion explained the situation to the Lord Mayor. Port Sevlyn was simply too large for Morion to adequately defend with the force under his command. There was nothing else to do but retreat to Gateway Keep.

 

“You give us to the enemy as you would meat to a pack of wolves!” the Lord Mayor shouted.

 

“Yes!” Morion shouted back. “I need time and I’m willing to sacrifice Port Sevlyn to get it!”

 

“How dare you!” the Lord Mayor practically screamed. “The King will hear of your actions. Then let us see how long you keep your head on your shoulders!”

 

“If I can’t delay that army long enough there will BE no King!”

 

Morion forcibly quieted himself. “All of Baranur is at stake, Lord Mayor,” he said in a normal tone of voice. “What happens in the next few days will mean the difference between a chance for survival and no chance at all. I don’t expect unquestioning obedience from you. You’re not a soldier and I know such a sacrifice is alien to you. Give me the Militia and surrender the city. The Beinisonians might be delayed half a day figuring out what to do with you. At least it will be something.”

 

The Lord Mayor of Port Sevlyn looked down at his hands for long moments. When he spoke, he did so quietly and Morion was forced to strain to hear him. “You are right when you say I am not a soldier. From the time of my youth I was being prepared for the day when I would assume the title of Lord Mayor. For most of my adult life, Port Sevlyn has been my world. Now it is threatened and I can do nothing about it and that makes me angry. You have reminded me of my higher duty to my sovereign. It has been too long since I lived up to that obligation.”

 

“I am considered an honourable and just man by most,” he said and then added with a smile: “Even if I drive a hard bargain at times.” He looked up at Morion. The look in his eyes was one of resignation. “I will do what you ask of me. The Militia will stay here. We shall hold the enemy as long as we can. And now, if you will excuse me, my Lord, I have preparations to make.” So saying, the Lord Mayor rose and left the study.

 

Morion turned back to the window and gazed out upon the doomed city. The merchant was still there, over-seeing his own preparations. He’d been joined by two women, one of the same age as he with a regal beauty that went beyond physical appearance, the other a much younger vision of the elder. Morion watched the man as he pleaded with his wife and daughter. He won’t leave until his life’s work is safe and they won’t leave without him, Morion thought. Finally, after many minutes of sometimes heated discussion, mother and daughter left for the docks after tearfully embracing husband and father. The man looked after them until they were out of sight and then threw himself into his preparations once more.

 

“I hope you succeed. I wish you luck.” Morion put his helm on, adjusted his sword and again unsuccessfully tried to relieve the chafing his armour was giving him. “You knew this was coming, Sir Edward. You sent too few men to Ailean. The responsibility for this death and suffering is yours. When next we meet, there will be a reckoning.” Morion turned from the window and stalked out of the study.

 

Crown Castle, Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur

6 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Sir Edward Sothos was having a most peculiar dream. He dreamed he was in a castle in a kingdom called Baranur and that a very annoying person was pounding on his door. Wait a moment, he thought, that’s no dream. “Come!”

 

The door opened and torch-light streamed in, silhouetting a tall slender figure. “Edward,” the figure said, “a messenger has arrived from Lord Morion.”

 

“All well and good, Jan,” Edward said, forgetting in his half-awake state to address his friend by her nickname, “but is that any reason to wake me from the first sound sleep I’ve had in two weeks?”

 

“Sir, I assure you this is important.”

 

Edward sighed. Another night’s sleep ruined. “Well come in then. And light a lamp, will you?” Jan closed the door and stumbled over to the table near Edward’s bed. After a few minutes of fumbling, she managed to light the small battered lamp Edward kept as a momento of his days as a wandering knight.

 

Edward squinted slightly, his eyes not yet adjusted to the light. What he saw made his eyes open wide. Jan was dressed in a nightgown that did a barely adequate job of concealing her.

 

“What’s the emergency?” Edward asked.

 

“A messenger has just arrived from Lord Morion, sir,” Jan said tightly.

 

“Lord Morion?” Edward repeated, a sense of dread coming over him.

 

“Sir Ailean is dead, sir,” she said in a subdued voice.

 

“Dead?”

 

“Yes, sir. Lord Morion reports that the Beinisonians landed approximately twenty thousand men. Ailean stayed behind with a rear-guard to give Morion time to extricate the bulk of Ailean’s force. His Lordship also informs you that both Regiments of the Pyridain Borderers are no more.” Jan paused for a moment, reading the last of the message. “Sixteen thousand Beinisonians are marching down the Laraka. Heading for Magnus.”

 

“What!?” Edward flung the bedclothes off him and just as quickly reclaimed them. The shock of hearing of his former squire’s death made him forget he wasn’t wearing anything. Jan, blushing furiously, quickly turned around.

 

“Commander,” Edward said with embarrassment, “perhaps you should return to your own quarters so that both of us might more appropriately attire ourselves.”

 

Jan blushed even more furiously than before as she realized what she was wearing. “Yes, sir,” she said and then fled the room, her face the colour of her hair.

 

Several minutes later, Edward had just put on his robe when a nock sounded at his door. “Come!” The door opened and Jan entered the room, this time attired in a heavy gown she had picked up years ago during her first and last visit to Dargon City.

 

“Much less distracting, Coury,” he commented, causing Jan to blush slightly. Edward frowned. Jan’s been acting strange lately. We’ll have to talk later. Edward retrieved Morion’s message from the table and sat in a chair while quickly scanning it.

 

“Nehru’s Blood,” he cursed softly. “What have I done?”

 

“Sir?” Jan asked, confused. She sat next to Edward. “Have I missed something?”

 

Edward smiled ruefully, the expression softening his scar’s effect. “When Marcellon and I ‘found’ Luthias in Pyridain, Luthias told us that he was tortured for information regarding the Laraka’s defenses. He said Beinison was planning a large invasion of the Laraka. Just how large he wasn’t sure. I notified Sir Ailean, may he know The Reaper’s Acceptance, and instructed him to prepare a reception for the Beinisonians.”

 

“I never thought they would attack so soon. I was certain they would wait until the storm season was safely past. Just as I thought they wouldn’t attack until spring.”

 

“Surely you can’t mean you blame yourself?”

 

“I am the Knight Commander. Ultimately, EVERY act the Royal Army undertakes is my responsibility. But in this case…in this case, I waited too long before ordering the Militia to join Ailean. And now we face the greatest crisis of the war thus far.”

 

Jan didn’t argue with Edward’s answer; it was in accordance with everything her instructors taught her at the Royal Academy. “What are your orders, sir?”

 

“Send a messenger after Luthias,” Edward said after only a moment’s pause. “Order the General to turn ’round and make for Magnus with all haste.” Edward stood and walked over to a cabinet. He opened it and sorted through the various maps until he found the one he wanted.

 

“Here, Coury. Hold this up against the wall, would you?” Stretching her arms wide, Jan held the map up while Edward poured over it. Lost in thought, Edward did not become aware of the intimate nature of their stance for several minutes. When he did, he quickly disengaged himself and put the map away.

 

“Hmmm. Yes. Well. Send a runner to General Wainwright are you getting all this?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Jan replied. “Sorry, sir.”

 

“Send a runner to General Wainwright. Have him put the garrison on alert. And wake the King.”

 

“Now?”

 

“Yes. Now. If the situation becomes any worse, I may have to ask for the Edict. Go. We don’t have much time.”

 

“At once, Your Excellency.”

 

Gateway Keep, Royal Duchy, Baranur

9 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Lord Morion galloped to the front of the column stalled before the entrance to Gateway Keep. He’d given instructions for his force to enter the small fortification situated on the fork of the Laraka where its mountain tributary joined the larger body of water while he scouted the surrounding terrain. He’d just finished the two-hour-long reconnaisance and was looking forward to a hot meal and a warm bed for the first time in many days. The sight that greeted him now was not one to gladden his heart or soften his anger.

 

“What’s the delay, Commander?” Morion called as he reigned sharply in.

 

“The Castellan refuses to open the gate, my Lord,” the senior Regimental Commander replied.

 

“Refuses to–have you told him who we are?”

 

“Yes, my Lord. He says he has orders from the Lord Keeper not to let us in.”

 

“Ho, Castellan!” Morion shouted up at the wall. “Open this gate!”

 

“Who’s that?” a man called from the battlements.

 

“Lord Morion of Pentamorlo. Now open this damned gate before I break it down!”

 

“I cannot, my Lord. The Lord Keeper has decreed you are not to be allowed admittance.”

 

“In the name of His Royal Majesty,” Morion said through clenched teeth, “I ORDER you! OPEN THE GATE!” Morion could see indecision on the Castellan’s face. The man turned and sent a runner off to the gods knew where. After several increasingly tense and angry minutes of waiting, a young man dressed in robes appeared on the wall next to the Castellan.

 

“What seems to be the problem, Lord Morion?” the green-eyed man asked in a neutral tone.

 

“My men and I require entrance and this fool won’t open the gate!”

 

“Then what is the problem? Castellan Ridgewater is following my orders. I do not want you inside Gateway’s walls nor on my lands. Take your force and leave.”

 

“Perhaps you do not understand the gravity of the situation,” Morion said, trying hard to remain calm. “There is a large Beinisonian force headed upriver and they shall surely attack Gateway. Let us in and perhaps we can hold out long enough for reinforcements to arrive.”

 

“Gateway has no need of your assistance, Lord Morion, we are quite capable of defending ourselves. If His Majesty scolds you for not being here, feel free to inform him I acted on my own authority.”

 

Morion straightened somewhat in his saddle. “Lord Keeper, you are defying the King’s order! If you force me to, I will storm the gate.”

 

“I highly doubt that, my Lord. I believe your force would be more concerned with their own safety,” Ne’on said. His nostrils flared and he seemed to swell with power. In an instant, the ground under Morion’s men turned to molten lava and men and women screamed as the searing-hot liquid ate at armour and flesh. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the lava ceased to exist. “Don’t you agree?” Ne’on added, as the panic among the assembled Regiments subsided. The white-robed Keeper with the ghostly appearance spoke inaudibly to the Castellan, and left the wall for his own quarters.

 

Morion cursed in rage. He could not fight magic as powerful as this. Nine days he had driven the two thousand eight hundred men and women under his command at a brutal pace in order to reach Gateway Keep ahead of the enemy. And now, all that effort, all that hardship was for naught. Not knowing what else to do, Morion ordered the senior Commander to turn the men around and make camp on the south bank by the ford they’d crossed over the Laraka’s tributary.

 

The Beinisonian juggernaught was coming and Morion’s last hope had been snatched away. When the enemy arrived, he and the men and women who followed him would die.

 

“I wish you were here, Kimme. Just to see your face once more.”

 

Port Sevlyn, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur

9 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

The Main Body of the Beinisonian Expeditionary Force flowed over the fields and meadows towards its destination: Port Sevlyn. The Lord Mayor stood on the battlements and watched them come, rank after rank after endless rank, the morning sun glinting off weapons and armour. An unstoppable juggernaught that wanted Port Sevlyn for its own. “But I shall deny you this city for as long as I am able,” the Lord Mayor said aloud. “You will find us an expensive morsel.”

 

The men and women of the Militia Regiment head-quartered in Port Sevlyn watched the enemy come as well. All were frightened. Most had never even trained together, at least not in Regimental strength. They were light infantry, their armour and weapons their own. Their tunics were the only pieces of equipment the Royal Army supplied. They faced an enemy who outnumbered them thirteen-to-one and far out-classed them in terms of armour. An enemy who knew war because it was their profession. For all their shortcomings, for all their lack of professionalism, one very important thing could be said of the Militia. They didn’t run. That said something about the depth of feeling each had for their homes and family.

 

***

 

Joachim Vasquez lowered the spyglass. They can’t have more than one thousand men, he thought. And light infantry, to boot. This should be easy. “So why do I have this feeling?”

 

“Sir?” Colonel Conti asked.

 

“Nothing, Colonel. Merely thinking out loud.” Vasquez sat his horse for several moments more, staring at Port Sevlyn’s walls. Perhaps they’ll listen to reason. “Colonel Conti, get us two shields. We’re going to parley with them.”

 

***

 

“My Lord Mayor!” the Commander of the Militia called out. “Two riders approach under shield of truce!”

 

The Lord Mayor hurried back up to the walls he had so recently left. The Beinisonian army had halted it’s advance half a league from the city. Detachments were making their way around Port Sevlyn to the north. The city would be completely surrounded in an hour.

 

Two riders bearing white-painted shields rode unhurriedly toward the walls. The rider on the left wore a scarlet cape. That and the gilding on his breastplate suggested he was a high-ranking officer. The second rider, from his appearance, was only slightly inferior to the first.

 

The two stopped just inside earshot. The higher-ranking of the two shouted in barely adequate Baranurian, “I am Field Marshal Joachim Vasquez, commander of this army. Who commands Port Sevlyn?”

 

“I do. Lord Mayor of Port Sevlyn.”

 

“Your Worship, will you surrender the city to me?”

 

“I think not.”

 

“Many will die needlessly. I greatly outnumber you. Should you force me to attack, I will still take Port Sevlyn. The only difference will be the number of young men on both sides who will perish.”

 

“If you want my city, Field Marshal, you must pay the price. I assure you it will not be cheap!”

 

“You will not reconsider?”

 

“I had thought my meaning plain. Or are you hard of hearing?”

 

“So be it!” Vasquez wrenched his horse’s reins around and rode back to his troops. Within minutes, the enemy were on the move. Vasquez had committed perhaps the most grievous sin an officer could make; he let his emotions get the better of him.

 

Western wall, Port Sevlyn, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur

9 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Conn Alrod stepped back from the wall as the grappling hook sailed over the battlements and securely lodged itself. The rope went taught with tension. Conn stepped forward and looked down. Two soldiers were climbing up the rope. Conn shook his head in wonder at their state of mind. He allowed them to get halfway to the top before cutting the rope free of the grappling hook. The two tumbled to their deaths.

 

A ladder clattered against the wall not two feet from where Conn stood. He ran to the nearest basket of rocks and man-handled it over to the ladder. Grunting with the effort, he strained and pushed, finally managing to wrestle it to the top of the battlement. With one last push, he sent sent it over. He was rewarded by the screams of the Beinisonians climbing the ladder.

 

Conn heard a scrabbling sound to his right. A Beinisonian appeared, gripping the rope of another grappling hook. Conn couldn’t deal with the enemy soldier because more were approaching the top of the ladder. Cursing in frustration, Conn heaved with all his might, trying to push the ladder away. No success. The first Beinisonian was almost to the top.

 

A soldier of Conn’s Company had engaged the Beinisonian on the rope, who by this time had gained the battlements. A second enemy soldier had already appeared. The first Beinisonian cut down his opponent with ease. Conn suppressed an oath. The dead soldier had celebrated her nineteenth birthday only days before.

 

A third Beinisonian appeared on the rope. Conn glanced to his left and saw the first of the enemy soldiers on the ladder reach the top. Conn did the only thing he could. He ran.

 

***

 

“There! We’ve gained a foothold!” Field Marshal Vasquez exclaimed. “Attacking prematurely has caught them off-guard.”

 

“I hope so, sir,” Colonel Conti replied. “I hope so.”

 

***

 

The Beinisonian wedge was growing alarmingly. Unless it was contained, and soon, the siege of Port Sevlyn would end very quickly. Conn shouted frantically for his Senior Sergeant to gather every available man. “Hurry, Patrick!” Five Baranurians were trying and failing to hold the wedge.

 

The Sergeant came running with a squad at his back. He’d had to seriously deplete the number of men defending the rest of the Company’s frontage to gather this many. Conn drew his sword. “Musn’t keep them waiting, eh, Patrick?”

 

“No, sir,” the big Sergeant agreed, a wide grin on his face.

 

Conn turned to his men. Filling his lungs with air, he shouted, “At them, lads! Charge!” Conn threw his band at the wedge with a fury born of desperation. He lost his sense of time. Everything seemed covered in a red haze. All Conn knew was that he had to reach the ladder and push it away. He hacked and stabbed blindly into the struggling mass of Beinisonians, Patrick Havercamp beside him, grinning fiercely all the while.

 

A sword was thrust at Conn’s face. He beat it aside and struck at his attacker. He felt the blade bite but could not take the time to see if his opponent was dead or merely wounded. A body fell at his feet. He stepped over it, concerned only with reaching his goal. A Beinisonian appeared in front of him. Conn thrust his sword into his enemy’s abdomen, twisting his wrist to turn the stroke into a killing one.

 

Conn ripped his sword free and suddenly, he was at the ladder. A Beinisonian reached the top of the ladder and stopped, surprised, when he saw not a friend waiting but a foe. He died, Conn’s blood-smeared blade in his throat.

 

Confronted with his goal, Conn came back to himself. He sheathed his sword and bent to the task of pushing the ladder away from the wall. His back was wide open to attack, but he trusted Patrick to ward him as he had done in the past.

 

Conn summoned all his strength and still the ladder wouldn’t budge. He pushed until his face went red and the veins stood out on his neck and still nothing. He was about to give up and look for an alternate method when suddenly the ladder moved, seemingly on its own. It was then Conn became aware that Patrick was beside him helping to push the ladder away. Conn also noticed the sounds of battle had diminished somewhat.

 

“We did it, sir.”

 

Conn sat against the battlements, chest heaving as he took much needed air into his lungs. “Yes we did,” Conn gasped out. When his breathing was under better control, he heaved himself to his feet. “What’s the bill, Patrick?”

 

“Ten, sir.”

 

“Damn! Damn damn damn!”

 

“Captain Alrod!” a voice called from the right. “They’re on the wall again!” Cursing fate, the Commander, the gods, Conn gathered the ten survivors and led them against the new Beinisonian wedge. It was going to be a long day.

 

Port Sevlyn, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur

9 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Lord Quillien Thorne sat heavily in his favorite chair. He said nothing for several minutes, causing his family to worry. “We won’t be leaving,” he announced to startled gasps. “The Beinisonians control the river. Any attempt to leave by ship would be suicide. We’ll just have to wait out the storm.”

 

There was a long moment of silence. The concern on the faces of his wife Rolanda and his daughter Jannis was plain to see.

 

“Quillien,” Rolanda asked softly, “will the city hold?”

 

Lord Thorne shook his head gravely. “There’s not much chance of a successful resistance. The enemy is too strong; it’s only a matter of time.”

 

“But we can’t just stay here,” Jannis said. “What will we do?”

 

“The only thing we can do,” Lord Thorne replied. “Hide in the vault until this is over.”

 

“And pray that it will be over soon,” Rolanda said.

 

***

 

“It’s only a matter of time,” Commander Karellan said to his assembled Company commanders. The six Captains and four Senior Sergeants took the news calmly. They had known what the Commander had told them since before the battle began. “We lost two hundred men today. Among them four Captains and six Sergeants. And that was against perhaps a third of the enemy’s force. We’ll lose a great many more tomorrow.

 

I know the situation is hopeless, but you must impress upon the men the importance of continued resistance. It is vital we give Lord Morion the time he needs to prepare at Gateway. Nothing else matters.” Karellan sat. “Dismissed.”

 

Main Body camp outside Port Sevlyn, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur

9 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Joachim Vasquez was not a happy man. He had lost eight hundred men dead or wounded in the day’s fighting. And the worst of it, he thought bitterly, is that my stupidity is to blame. “I should have waited until the city was surrounded before I attacked.” Colonel Conti refrained from commenting.

 

“The scouts report no sign of enemy activity in the countryside, sir. They don’t even seem to be making an attempt to relieve the garrison.”

 

“These Baranurians are more ruthless than I thought. They know we must take Port Sevlyn. We can’t afford to leave a threat to our supply line unmolested.”

 

“Then why didn’t they reinforce the garrison?”

 

“Simple, Colonel. They’re setting up defenses further along our route of march. They need time. And they are quite willing to sacrifice one of their cities to do it.” Vasquez looked Conti full in the face. “We may be in for a longer war than we expected.”

 

Vasquez stood and began pacing back and forth in the small confines of his tent. He had a most difficult decision to make. The strain was evident on his face. Finally, after many minutes of agonized indecision, Vasquez had reconciled his warring emotions.

 

“Colonel,” he said, voice grim, “we must make an example of Port Sevlyn. As much as I detest this order, I must give it to you. The Baranurians must be shown the price of resisting us.”

 

“What do you mean, sir?” Conti asked, a cold sensation creeping up his spine.

 

“When the city falls, the survivors of the garrison and half the populace are to be put to the sword.”

 

Conti closed his eyes.

 

“May Sanar forgive us,” Vasquez whispered.

 

Crown Castle, Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur

9 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

“With all due respect, Sire, this is not the time for this discussion.”

 

“It is the only time for this discussion, Edward. If Lord Morion’s report is accurate, the Beinisonians will have reached Port Sevlyn by now. For all we know, the city may be in enemy hands as we speak.”

 

“Exactly my point! If Port Sevlyn has fallen, Connall won’t be able to reach Gateway in time to prevent it falling as well. And if Gateway goes, the enemy will be knocking at Magnus’ gates next.”

 

“Yes. Which is why we will discuss this now. While we still have time.”

 

“Yes, Sire.” Edward took a seat in the War Room, formerly used to house last Nober’s Council sessions.

 

Haralan occupied the seat next to Edward, his long-time friend and advisor. “Edward,” Haralan began, “this is personal. That’s why I wanted us to be alone. You and Commander Courymwen have been seeing quite a lot of each other lately, haven’t you?”

 

“What do you mean?” Edward asked even though he had a fair idea of what Haralan was getting at.

 

“People–important people–have taken notice of you and Commander Courymwen’s `visits’ to some of the taverns and inns in Magnus. There has been talk. I see you understand the situation. These people have suggested that your mind isn’t on the war.”

 

“That’s absurd! Have I not embraced Baranur as my homeland? Did I not reject my birthright in Galicia? What more must I do to prove I am no outsider?”

 

“Easy, Edward. This is me. I know you are loyal to Baranur. But there are powerful nobles who would like to see you gone and their candidate in your place. Edward, they may be able to turn your friendship with your aide into the kind of rumors that destroyed my niece’s marriage. If they succeed, you could well lose all respectability as Knight Commander. When that happens, you cease to become an asset. Indeed, you become a liability.”

 

“Is Your Royal Majesty ordering me to terminate my friendship with Commander Courymwen?” Edward asked formally.

 

“That would be my last resort. But I will so order if I am forced to,” Haralan said with regret.

 

“May I be dismissed, Your Royal Majesty?”

 

Haralan sighed. “Yes. You may” –the sound of a door slamming interrupted Haralan in mid-sentence– “go.” Haralan sighed once more. “This is a problem I can do without.”

 

Western wall, Port Sevlyn, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur

10 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Conn woke to a perfectly sunny day. He’d had a difficult time sleeping. Lying on hard stone, in leather armour, was not terribly conducive to a good night’s rest. He groaned and wearily hauled himself to his feet. He turned to look out over the battlements. The camp fires of the enemy ringed Port Sevlyn. Just over twelve thousand men were stirring, preparing to once again throw themselves at the hopelessly outnumbered defenders.

 

Patrick came over and silently offered his commander and friend some cheese and half a loaf of bread. Conn ate his breakfast in silence, staring at the bodies piled up at the base of the wall.

 

“Today or tomorrow, Patrick.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“I wish I knew if Fayonna was safe.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

Suddenly, Conn stiffened. He turned to order the stand to, but Patrick was already off. He’d seen Conn’s reaction and had guessed its cause. The Beinisonians had finished breakfast and now they wanted to play.

 

Main Body camp outside Port Sevlyn, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur

10 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Vasquez’s heavy infantry Regiments marched out one hour after dawn. Conti had passed on the order to make an example out of Port Sevlyn. The men of the Regiments that had suffered during the previous day’s unsuccessful attack were eager for revenge. The remainder of the soldiers accepted their orders because they had been trained to.

 

Western wall, Port Sevlyn, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur

10 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Conn delivered a backhand chop to the throat of his adversary that sent the Beinisonian staggering back, his life pouring out onto Port Sevlyn’s walls. The Beinisonians had attacked with their entire force, twelve thousand men. The eight hundred or so defenders were hard pressed to hold them. But by some miracle, hold them they did. It was already past noon and the third assault on the walls was well underway. Conn had been fighting for seven hours. To him, it seemed like an eternity.

 

The enemy had established fighting wedges at several points along the wall. Conn and the other Company commanders spent virtually all their time and energy leading their small reserves against a wedge whenever one was started. All Conn knew was what was in front of him. And that was the five or so survivors of the newest wedge on his Company’s section of wall.

 

“Forward!” Conn snarled and led his fifteen men and women against the five enemy. His blade seemed a part of him, an extension of his hand. He reached out towards an enemy soldier, felt resistance, and then his arm was red up to the elbow.

 

“Well struck!” Patrick said. Conn hadn’t even been fully aware of what he’d done. It was as if his body was on automatic. He looked around, leaning on the battlements to give his weary, aching body some kind of reprieve.

 

Through a strength born of sheer desperation, the men and women of the 2nd Quinnat Militia Regiment were keeping the Beinisonian invaders from gaining a lasting foothold on the walls. But at what great cost. Many a young Baranurian lay sprawled in death. Many more were grievously wounded.

 

Trumpets sounded to the north, east, and west; three notes rising in successive octaves. The Beinisonians withdrew from the walls, formed their Regiments into line-of-march, and slowly proceeded to their encampments surrounding Port Sevlyn, the setting sun casting shadows over the battlefield. Port Sevlyn had survived another day.

 

Gortholde’s Hall, East Quarter, Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur

10 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

A large group of soldiers from the Huscarl Regiment known as Magnus’ Maniacs had cleared a space in the centre of the common room and were heavily involved in a drinking contest that could only be described as monumental. Thunderous cheers issued from the group periodically as the contest neared its zenith. None of the other patrons of the tavern seemed to take notice; it was best not to attract the Maniacs’ attention unless you could fight well, drink large quantities of ale, and had a somewhat warped sense of humour. Even then it was usually better for all concerned if you were involved with them for as brief a time as possible.

 

Seated in a shadowy corner away from the rest of the patrons was a man wearing a black tunic over a battered suit of chainmail armour. A very expensive-looking amulet hung from a chain about his neck. A tankard sat untouched on the table in front of the dark-haired man. Incredibly, the man was asleep, completely oblivious to the noise surrounding him.

 

A tall, red-haired young woman wearing the blue-and-gold uniform of The King’s Own over a suit of chainmail entered the tavern. She nodded a greeting to the proprietor as she walked over to the bar to speak to him.

 

Gortholde was an aging, retired warrior who had gambled his life’s savings to buy the tavern. The gamble had paid off handsomely and now Gortholde was well-off, if not wealthy. Most of his customers were soldiers. Gortholde had a soft spot for those who served in the Royal Army. Any soldier who frequented his establishment could expect good drink for low prices. Gortholde’s Hall was thE spot for off-duty soldiers to relax and unwind after a day’s work.

 

Gortholde stiffened to almost-attention as he answered the red-haired woman’s questions; she wore a Commander’s uniform and old habits do die hard. He pointed in the direction of the black-clad man. The woman thanked him and proceeded to thread her way through the revelers, tankard of ale in hand.

 

She pulled up a chair and sat facing the dark-haired man. Only then did she realize he was asleep. Smiling and shaking her head, she rose and went around the table to waken him. “Edward,” she said shaking his shoulder, “wake up.”

 

Edward Sothos woke with a start. “What? Oh. Coury, it’s you,” he said with relief.

 

Jan laughed. “Of course it’s me.” She returned to her seat. “So. What do you need to say to me that can’t be said at the Castle?”

 

“Gods, I’m tired.”

 

“You look it. Why don’t we go back? You need sleep. This can wait ’till tomorrow, can’t it?”

 

“No. I have to check on the supply situation and brief the King and his advisors tomorrow. That will keep me busy all day and most of the night.”

 

“All right then. So?”

 

“We’ve known each other for…three years now?”

 

“Four last month.”

 

“Four years. You’re…twenty-four, aren’t you?”

 

“Last Janis,” Jan replied.

 

“Twenty-four and a Commander already. That is quite an accomplishment for one so young.”

 

“Edward, I’m only eight years younger than you are.”

 

“Not ’till Yule seventeen.”

 

“Okay, so you won’t turn thirty-one for another week. Edward, I don’t see where all this is going.”

 

“You are a good officer and I won’t–I can’t–do anything to harm your chance for success.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Jan, there’s been talk,” Edward said quietly.

 

“Talk?” Jan repeated, feeling wary. Edward called her Jan only when he was discussing something serious.

 

“About us. Certain people have noticed we’ve been spending time together recently. There has been gossip that…that we–”

 

“That we’ve been sleeping together???” she asked, astonished.

 

“Yes,” Edward said, face lowered. “I’m sorry, Jan. It seems that some nobles would prefer another Knight Commander and they are willing to go to great lengths to discredit me. You were caught in the middle. I am to blame.”

 

“But surely no one would believe these…rumors?”

 

“They have reached the King’s ears. He pointed out that truth has nothing to do with this situation. If this developes further, a scandal such as that surrounding Lysanda’s marriage could ensue.”

 

“You’d be stripped of your office!” Jan said hoarsely.

 

“That isn’t what I’m concerned about.”

 

“What then?”

 

“You. I won’t have your reputation sullied in this manner.”

 

“What will you do? What can you do?”

 

Edward stared at the cold fireplace. “If we were in Galicia, my course of action would be clear.”

 

“What?”

 

“It doesn’t matter. This is not Galicia.”

 

“I want to know. What would you do if this was Galicia?”

 

Edward turned his head to look his friend straight in the eyes. “Marry you.”

 

Jan nearly dropped her ale. She sat back, too dumbfounded to speak.

 

“As I said, this is not Galicia, so the whole idea is moot. I shall handle matters.” Edward rose. “We should go back now.”

 

“I think I’ll stay here a while,” she said slowly and carefully.

 

“Are you certain?”

 

“Yes,” she said looking up at Edward. “Go get some sleep.”

 

“Good night, Coury.”

 

“Good night.” Jan remained sitting in the dark corner long after Edward had left, her ale untouched. Edward’s statement left her with a great deal of confused emotions and thoughts to reconcile. Jan stayed until Gortholde locked up. She went to sleep hours later in her quarters, nothing resolved.

 

Crown Castle, Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur

11 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Edward stood in front of the wall-map of Baranur in the War Room. He faced the assembled nobles and began his briefing. “My lords, the situation in the south is grave. The line from the Westbrook-Pyridain border south to the sea has been completely shattered.” Edward paused as gasps of astonishment raced through the room. “The Beinisonians attacked with seventy thousand men, according to the reports. I must point out, however, that many of the despatches arriving from the field are confused. Any organization that once existed is now gone.

 

“Just how bad is it?” a minor scion of House Tallirhan asked.

 

“The only organized force in the Southern Marches is comprised of what little forces are in Duchy Westbrook. The remaining Royal Army forces are running north and west. Lord Kinsley has informed me of his intention to deny Pyridain City to the enemy to the last. He has the Duchy’s Household troops and the remnants of the Assault Brigade. The three Regiments fled to the city when the main line broke.

 

In addition, I have relieved King’s General Tegran of his command in Pyridain and placed all troops under Lord Kinsley’s orders.” Again Edward paused, waiting for the storm to break. His wait was a short one.

 

“How dare you!” Lord Ethros of House Northfield shouted at the scarred warrior. “General Tegran is one of the Kingdom’s best soldiers. You have not the right to relieve him! Just who do you think you are, outlander?”

 

“I,” Edward replied in a cold voice, “am Knight Commander of the Royal Armies. Tegran is a soldier of that Army and thus subject to my authority. He was a good warrior once and is now a good administrator. Administrators will not win this war. Any man who does not perform is useless to me and a boon to the enemy.”

 

“You are not a native of Baranur! A Baranurian would know how to honour brave soldiers. A Baranurian would–”

 

The King interrupted violently, slamming his hand on the table. “Enough! Sir Edward is not far enough below your station for you to speak to him so, Lord Ethros! Bickering such as this will get us nowhere and will only serve to aid the enemy. Sit down and be silent!” Haralan turned to Edward. “Continue, Sir Edward.”

 

Edward bowed slightly. “The major calamity occurred here,” Edward said, indicating a spot on the map eight leagues from the Baranur-Beinison border, “at Oron’s Crossroads. Best estimates indicate an enemy force twenty to thirty thousand strong engaged our main concentration north of the crossroads. Our forces numbered nineteen thousand five hundred; fifteen thousand Royal Army and Southern March Militia and four thousand five hundred House forces.”

 

“The battle was an even struggle until Dame Martis ordered a withdrawal to a more defensible position. It was at that point that some nobles refused to comply. Their vainglory would not permit them to follow orders. The result was that the Royal Army units began a withdrawal while a significant portion of the House units did not. As Nehru would have it, the centre of the battle-line was composed largely of House units. The enemy seized upon our confusion and sent his cavalry into the breach. The centre disintegrated and the flanks were left isolated and exposed. Very few Regiments survived to conduct something even approximating an orderly retreat.”

 

“What’s the butcher’s bill, sir?” King’s General Wainwright asked.

 

Edward took a deep breath and spoke in a voice devoid of emotion. “The Combined Host of Baranur has suffered eleven thousand dead, wounded or captured. The 8th and 10th Baranurian Regulars, 16th and 19th Baranurian Archers, and 1st Pyridain Militia have been wiped out to the last man and their Colours taken. In addition, the forces of Houses Equiville, Bivar, Redcrosse, and Othuldane are gone.” Only two men remained unaffected during Edward’s recitation of the casualties suffered; General Wainwright because he was an old soldier and had seen much during his long and illustrious career, the Duke of Quinnat because his mind was on matters closer to home.

 

“Dame Martis gathered what she could and retreated into Duchy Westbrook. All told, seven Regiments moved into Westbrook. Most are well-off. The 4th Pyridain Militia is little better than an expanded Company and has been attached to the 3rd Pyridain Militia to make up for that Regiment’s losses. The 2nd Pyridain Militia has been destroyed. Their remnants have been attached to the 1st Baranurian Rangers.

 

The officers of the Regiments not involved in the battle seem, for the most part, unable or unwilling to halt their units and face the enemy. I trust in the ability of the various King’s Generals to bring such action to a halt, but the process will take some time. Rumors have spread word that the defeat was worse than the men are being told and the mens’ morale has fallen sharply. Rebuilding it will take some time.”

 

“Aside from the forces under Dame Martis and Duke Araesto’s son, what force have we to oppose the Beinisonians?” the King asked.

 

“The Equiville and Leftwich Militias and a very few Royal Army Regiments.”

 

“Good God!” Wainwright exclaimed.

 

“We may yet need the gods’ assistance before this war has run its course.” At that moment, the great double doors opened and a slightly nervous Daniel Moore entered and slammed to attention. “What is it, Captain?” Edward asked with a slight trace of concern in his voice.

 

“Sir, the sentries at Southgate report a sizeable force approaching the city.”

 

“How large?”

 

“Regimental strength, sir. Eight hundred to a thousand men, sir.”

 

“How could they have slipped so large a force this far north un-noticed?”

 

“It’s got to be the vanguard of a larger force, sir,” Wainwright commented, “otherwise the 6th would have dealt with them.”

 

“The 6th–Nehru’s Blood! That’s who they are! I must have forgotten to inform the garrison Commanders in the confusion over the landings on the Laraka.”

 

“Speaking of which,” Lord Ethros said, the scorn in his voice apparent, “what exactly IS the situation?”

 

Edward ignored Ethros’ tone. “Your Grace?” he inquired of Duke Quinnat. “Would it please Your Grace to make your report?”

 

Quinnat looked at Edward with tired eyes. When he spoke, his voice betrayed weary exhaustion overlying the pain of seeing his lands occupied. “No, Sir Edward, it would not please me.” He sighed. “But I shall do so. My Ducal Guard and I made a wide sweep to the north of Shark’s Cove. A Regiment garrisons the town and there are two more on the border with Kiliaen. The Beinisonians are using the town as a staging area for their Navy as well as the invasion. I had not the force to attempt an attack so I journeyed to Port Sevlyn. It is under siege. By how many men, I do not know; we ran into a Battalion of light infantry, skirmishers. We clashed briefly and I was forced to retreat further east before swinging south to Magnus. I lost one hundred and fifty good men that had been serving me for years. I could gain no other intelligence regarding the enemy.”

 

“Nor have I,” Edward commented, resuming control of the briefing. “The last report I have is from Lord Morion five days ago. He states that he expected sixteen thousand men to march on Magnus. Given Duke Quinnat’s observations, we can approximate the force besieging Port Sevlyn at thirteen-to-fourteen thousand. The garrison numbers one Militia Light Infantry Regiment. I believe we can assume that the city has fallen and that Gateway shall come under attack very soon.”

 

“Why would they not attack the Crown City directly?” the young lord of House Tallirhan asked.

 

“Because Gateway is too large a threat to leave in their rear, my Lord”, Wainwright responded. “Even were they to besiege it, Gateway’s catapults would make the river a death-trap for any ship trying to sail to Magnus. Indeed, that is the only reason Beinisonian warships are not anchored off Kheva’s Bridge.”

 

“What have we that could stop them?” Ethros asked.

 

“Lord Morion has taken the survivors Sir Ailean’s command to Gateway. He has the better part of three Regiments. I have ordered Count Connall to return to Magnus at once. Upon his arrival, he will be made Knight Captain of the Northern Marches and sent north with the Hussars.

 

The Huscarls, Militia, and Legion of Death shall remain in the city as a safeguard should the Beinisonians by-pass Gateway and attempt to take the city by storm. That concludes the briefing, my Lords.”

 

“Thank you, Knight Commander,” Haralan said.

 

“Sire,” Edward said, “the 6th Regulars shall arrive shortly. May I suggest a parade? The 6th have fought the Beinisonians well and I think they deserve the accolade.”

 

“Very well. We shall meet you at the Warrior’s Way in two hours?”

 

“That would be fine, Your Royal Majesty. Captain Moore?”

 

Moore, who had been standing unobtrusively behind his commander since bringing the news of the 6th’s arrival, snapped to attention. “Sir?”

 

“Have Commander Courymwen turn out the garrison for a formal parade to take place in two hours. I expect both of you to be present.”

 

“Sir!”

 

“Off with you, then.”

 

Moore saluted and left. Haralan stood and those assembled stood with him. “Good day, gentlemen,” he said and departed, the rest bowing to their sovereign. The nobles left to conduct their personal business leaving Edward and Wainwright alone.

 

“What, Artemus?”

 

“You’re pushing yourself too hard. I wasn’t going to say anything, but I must now. You’ve got to get some sleep.”

 

“Sleep? Sleep?! Artemus, how can I sleep?” Edward turned and pointed at the wall-map. “Look at it, Artemus! The Beinisonians are pouring across the southern frontier and I’ve got nothing to throw at them except some Militia units. And up north, they’ve landed twenty thousand men on the Laraka. For all intents and purposes, Duchy Quinnat is under Beinisonian rule. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Magnus is cut off from the sea. I don’t know how long the overland trade routes will be able to handle the city’s needs. And you tell me to sleep?”

 

“Edward, you must sleep. If you don’t, you won’t be much use to anyone. I’ve watched you since you assumed your post four years ago. You’re good. Very good. But I sometimes wonder if you were cut out for all this. It seems to me that you would much rather be a simple knight serving your lord than responsible for warding an entire Kingdom.”

 

“There is some truth to that,” Edward admitted. “There are times that I long for simpler duties and responsibilities. All my life, my only dream was to serve the Emperor as a Knight of the Imperium. I suppose that has something to do with it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want this as well. I’m not just serving my King, Artemus. Haralan is my closest and dearest friend. As long as he wants me as Knight Commander, I shall gladly fill that role.”

 

Edward paused for a moment and went to stand in front of the huge map. “Artemus,” he said, gazing intently at the huge depiction of Baranur, “the Kingdom is in grave danger and I don’t know that I can save it.” He turned. “I shall die, if need be, to save my friend’s lands, but just between the two of us…we’re going to lose this war.” Edward turned back to the map. “And there’s not a blessed thing I can do to stop it.”

 

***

 

Wainwright sat his horse, back ramrod straight, his eyes raking over the massed ranks of the 6th Baranurian Regulars as the grey-haired veterans paraded through Southgate. The Warrior’s Way was lined with troops. The King’s Own in their blue-and-gold dress uniforms; The Royal Horse Guard, their dark blue dress tunics giving them an arrogant air; the three Huscarl Regiments in their white tunics, battle-axes gleaming; the four Militia Regiments standing out in their scarlet uniforms. All stood rigidly to attention as the eight hundred and thirty-seven members of the 6th marched by.

 

The Regulars halted. Speeches were given. The Knight Commander spoke of the unmatched quality of the 6th and the often over-looked benefits experience can bring. King Haralan spoke of the admiration all Baranur had for the brave soldiers of the 6th who alone had fought the Beinisonians to a bloody stand-still before they were forced to withdraw.

 

Wainwright watched Edward all through the proceedings. Just before they had left the War Room, Wainwright had managed to persuade Edward to get some rest immediately after the parade. The knight’s revelation to Wainwright that he felt the war lost was probably just the result of a much delayed, much needed slumber. Wainwright prayed that was the cause. As a Baranurian, Wainwright refused to accept the notion that his Kingdom might be conquered. As a soldier, he was forced to admit the situation looked desperate. Everything hinged upon events taking place on the Laraka. If Gateway Keep fell, the Beinisonians could lay siege to Magnus, thus cutting the capital off from the rest of the Kingdom. And that would mean the death of Baranur.

 

The speeches were concluded. The 6th resumed its march, turning right and passing through the huge gate in the final wall barring access to the King’s Keep. As Wainwright passed through the massive gate, his thoughts drifted north.

 

Western wall, Port Sevlyn, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur

11 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Conn paced back and forth on Port Sevlyn’s western wall. He glanced for the fifth time at the little group huddled at the base of the wall near a small inn. Patrick saw his commander’s glance and gave him a gesture of reassurance. Conn waved back, secure in the knowledge that Patrick had Conn’s Company ready to move at a moment’s notice. My Company, he thought sadly. Conn’s Company had diminished frightfully since the siege began. There were scare one score left out of the hundred Conn had led into battle two days previously. Most of the 1st Quinnat Militia’s companies were in the same state.

 

Commander Karellan had placed Conn in command of the west wall and given him one third of the Regiment’s remaining strength to defend it. He’d done the same with the two other surviving Captains. All told, three hundred exhausted men and women warded Quinnat’s capital. They were pitifully few compared to the horde encamped on the plains before the city.

 

Port Sevlyn had been a city untouched by the ravages of the world. One might have said there was a slight touch of innocence to the place. No longer. War had come to Port Sevlyn and left its brutal mark. On the walls and the fields near the base of the walls lay one thousand three hundred corpses, Baranurian and Beinisonian. The blood of Port Sevlyn’s children stained her battlements and towers. The city, and its inhabitants, would never be the same again.

 

Conn was growing irritable. It was late afternoon and still the enemy had not come. He couldn’t understand why the Beinisonians had not attacked. Strangely, he felt himself growing angry that they did not come. The gut-wrenching fear as a grappling hook thudded home and the odd joy of battle seemed so much a part of him now that he almost wished the enemy would attack.

 

Conn caught a sign of movement from the enemy camp. The Beinisonian Regiments were on the move again. They marched slowly, almost sedately, toward the city. Each Regiment was drawn up in three tightly packed ranks. And waving from stout poles of polished oak flew each Regiments’ Colours, the very heart and soul of a Regiment. Guarding the Colours were each Regiments’ best warriors. Conn counted the Colours of four Regiments coming at his section of wall. The day’s work was about to begin.

 

***

 

Patrick Havercamp hacked and slashed at the enemy, his face a mixture of anger and worry. His friend, Conn Alrod, was somewhere ahead and in trouble. When the Beinisonians had gained the battlements in two places, Patrick had known it was time to commit the small reserve Conn had placed under the Sergeant’s command.

 

Now, Patrick and his men were attempting to push the second wedge back and link up with the small group of soldiers, led by Captain Alrod, who were valiantly struggling against twice their number some twenty yards distant.

 

A Beinisonian lunged at the Sergeant. Patrick side-stepped neatly and slammed his knee into the man’s groin. The Beinisonian doubled over more from surprise than real pain, but the result was the same. Patrick grabbed the Beinisonian’s chin-strap and roughly bent his head back. A quick jerk of Patrick’s sword and the man’s life poured out his severed jugular.

 

“Keep at the scum, lads!” Patrick shouted at his men as he tipped one enemy soldier over the battlements to fall screaming to the ground below. Patrick scanned the scene of battle and caught a brief glance of his friend. He was about to shout encouragement when he saw Conn go down.

 

Fear and rage chased each other across Patrick’s face. He and Conn had been friends since childhood. When Conn’s wife Fayonna gave birth, Patrick became the boy’s godfather. Patrick had always protected his friend from danger during their youth and the tendency naturally extended into adulthood.

 

Roaring like an enraged bear, the big Sergeant launched himself toward his friend. He hewed his way through the enemy ranks as a farmer harvests grain. Some few Beinisonians tried to stop him but he beat them down and ripped their life away as if they didn’t exist. Their comrades, terrified of this seemingly unstoppable gore-splattered apparition unleashed in their midst, broke and ran.

 

Those following behind the Sergeant raised a mighty cheer and surged forward. There was not a single Beinisonian left alive on the wall within the space of five minutes.

 

Patrick knelt beside his friend and gently, carefully removed Conn’s helmet. Patrick gave a heartfelt sigh. The wound that had felled his Captain was superficial. Patrick leaned over and ripped a strip of cloth off a dead Beinisonian’s tunic and used it to bind his friend’s wound. “Conn,” Patrick called. Nothing. “Conn,” he called more forcefully.

 

Conn groaned and stirred. “Who’s there?” he called in a voice groggy with pain.

 

“It’s me, sir. Patrick.”

 

“I can’t see,” he said. He reached for his eyes but the Sergeant restrained him.

 

“Nothing to worry about, sir. Just a little blood, is all. Be still and I’ll clean it off.” Patrick wiped the blood off his friend’s face, making Conn flinch when Patrick came too close to the cut on Conn’s scalp. “Sorry, sir.”

 

Conn waved Patrick’s apology aside. “Help me stand.” Patrick lifted Conn to his feet with a gentleness surprising for a man his size. “Thanks.”

 

“You all right, sir?” Patrick asked with concern.

 

“Just let me get my strength, Sergeant.” Conn rested against Patrick’s bulk, letting the throbbing of his head wound slowly lessen. After a minute or two, he pushed himself away from Patrick. “Okay, Patrick. Let’s get back to work.”

 

Patrick grinned. “Yes, sir!”

 

Port Sevlyn, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur

11 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

“Sit, Captain, sit,” Commander Karellan told Conn. “How’s the wound?” he asked not unkindly.

 

“Fine, sir,” Conn lied. He felt as if someone was taking a sledgehammer to his head.

 

“Good,” Karellan said then lapsed into silence.

 

That can’t be the only reason he called me here tonight, Conn thought. “Sir?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Was there something specific you wanted to speak to me about?”

 

Karellan sighed. “Yes, Captain, there is.” Karellan paused again. When next he spoke, he looked at a set of figures on a scrap of paper. “The casualty count’s just come in. One hundred twenty-three effectives including one Senior Sergeant, one Captain and myself.” He looked up at Conn. “Not a very formidable force, is it Alrod?”

 

“Enough to give those bastards something to remember, sir!”

 

“That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Make them pay in blood for this city.”

 

“It’s not going to be pretty when they take the city, is it, sir?”

 

“No, Captain, it’s not.” Karellan ran his fingers through his greying hair. “We can’t hold the walls any longer. Come daybreak, we’ll pull the men back and wait for the enemy to come.” The Commander rubbed his eyes in a vain attempt to banish some of his weariness. “Alrod, I’m charging you with holding the gate.”

 

“But if we abandon the walls–?”

 

“What use is there holding the gate? As long as we hold the gate, and the keep for that matter, we make it that much more difficult for the enemy to move through the city. They’ll be forced to spend the time to destroy us.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Conn replied without much enthusiasm.

 

“Take Sergeant Havercamp and forty good men and hold the gate, Conn. Hold it as long as you can and when you think you can’t hold any longer, hold some more.”

 

“Where will you be, sir?”

 

“The Lord Mayor and I and the rest of the garrison will barricade ourselves in the keep. We may not last long, but we cannot disgrace the Duke by giving his home to the invaders without a fight. That’s all,” he said, rising from his chair. He gripped Conn’s hand in a firm hold. “Good luck, Captain.”

 

“And to you, sir.”

 

***

 

Rolanda Thorne looked up as her husband came through the door. “Well, Quillien?”

 

“The news is not good,” he said, putting his cloak away. “As I expected. You’d best have Jannis come in and hear this.”

 

Lady Thorne went to get their daughter. The look on her husband’s face and the tone of his voice frightened her more than she cared to admit.

 

***

 

“Would it be all right if Tassy and Garrett stayed with us?” Jannis asked after her father had explained the situation as explained to him by the Lord Mayor.

 

“I thought they’d left town, but I heard from Rayna that they were still here.”

 

“Of course they can stay with us,” said Lady Thorne. “Rayna too, if she wants.”

 

“Okay. I’ll go over right now and tell them.”

 

“Be careful, Jannis,” Lord Thorne warned. “Take your dagger along.”

 

“But the invaders haven’t gotten into the city yet, Father,” Jannis replied.

 

“These are dangerous times,” said Lord Thorne. “Do it anyway.”

 

“Just a moment,” said Rolanda. She went over to a display cabinet and took an object off one of the shelves. “Take this.”

 

“Your sundagger?” Jannis asked, accepting the enchanted blade from her mother.

 

“When Brynna gave me this I never thought I’d need it,” said Lady Thorne. She instructed her daughter on how to invoke the magic of the dagger; Jannis listened carefully, then left. Lady Thorne watched her from the window, wishing that they all were someplace far away from the conflict.

 

Main Body camp outside Port Sevlyn, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur

12 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Vasquez stood outside his tent gazing at the pre-dawn sky. Storm clouds loomed and a chill wind was blowing from the north. A fitting omen for today’s work, Vasquez thought. Today would be the last day, of that he was certain. Vasquez had lost four hundred more men yesterday and he knew the defenders had paid dearly also. He expected no more than two hundred would face his Regiments when the attack went in. And then would the soldiers of the Beinisonian Emperor take their revenge on those sheltering behind Port Sevlyn’s walls.

 

The young Field Marshal splashed his face with cold water and returned to his tent to finish drafting the report he must send the Emperor on his reasons for giving the order to destroy Port Sevlyn. As he set pen to paper, he could hear the shouts of the Sergeants calling the men from their slumber. The final day of the siege had begun.

 

Main gate, north wall Port Sevlyn, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur

12 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

Patrick gently shook his Captain awake. “It’s morning, sir. Time for breakfast.”

 

Conn sat up slowly and carefully. The pain from his scalp wound had lessened only slightly during the night. “What’s the fare this morning?”

 

“Campaign rations, I’m afraid, sir.”

 

“Well, I suppose it’s better than nothing at all.”

 

“Only just, sir.”

 

Conn bit a chunk off the slab of thrice-baked bread and washed it down with a large mouthful of water. “Have you checked the men?” he asked his friend.

 

“I have, sir. They’re scared, the lot of them, but they’ll do fine when the time comes, sir. They know this will be the end of it and there’s a few wondering what the enemy’s going to do once they’re over the walls.”

 

“Well, let’s hope that Vasquez character rides tight reign on his troops.”

 

“From your lips to God’s ears, sir.”

 

“Right, Patrick,” Conn said, getting to his feet. “Let’s see if we can get an inspection done before they hit us.”

 

Conn and Patrick walked throughout the barbican, talking to the men and women, reassuring them that they would fight bravely and well and reminding them that every second’s delay did harm to the enemy.

 

They were on the wall between the two towers of the barbican when the Beinisonians began to move. “Okay, Patrick,” Conn said turning to the Sergeant, “down you go.”

 

“But, sir! Don’t you think I should stay with you?”

 

“No, Sergeant. I need a good man to hold the gatehouse. That’s the weakest part of the barbican.”

 

“Yes, sir.” Patrick drew himself erect and threw his life-long friend a salute with parade-ground precision and then hurried down to the gatehouse.

 

Conn surveyed the enemy formations closing on the walls. From his observations, he guessed that no more than one Regiment would attack the gate. He laughed at the thought. He was so used to fighting off three and four Regiments at once that one Regiment of a thousand men hardly seemed worth noticing. War can be absurd at times, he thought.

 

Main gate, north wall Port Sevlyn, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur

12 Yule, 1014 B.Y.

 

“You five! Come with me!” Conn said, leading half the men he’d put on the wall between the two twenty-foot diameter round towers on either side of the gatehouse down to the gatehouse itself. With only forty men to defend two towers, a twenty-foot section of wall, and a thirty by twenty-foot gatehouse, all of which were collectively named a barbican, Conn could do nothing but divide his men evenly, ten men to each area. The towers were holding for the moment and no one as yet had thought to assault the wall, preferring to try and batter down the stout gate below the battlements. The gatehouse, on the other hand, was in serious trouble.

 

The enemy had scaled the walls in three score places and were pouring into the city. The Regiment assigned to wrest the gate away from its defenders had completely surrounded the barbican and was concentrating its efforts on the gatehouse. The eleven defenders were barely holding only because those clamoring to gain entrance outside the walls were being thwarted by the iron-reinforced oak gate, thus allowing the commander of the gatehouse to use his entire force against those Beinisonians who had scaled the wall and were slowly forcing the portcullis. Even allowing for the confined spaces of the gatehouse, eleven could not hold out long against one hundred.

 

Conn led his five into the gatehouse. The enemy had forced the portcullis halfway up and were getting through in larger and larger numbers. Four of the defenders were down. The remaining seven were being slowly pushed back towards the gate. “Follow me!” Conn shouted and led his men into the fray to bolster the defenders. “Patrick! To me!”

 

Patrick cut down his opponent and joined his Captain. “Nice of you to join us, sir!”

 

“Can’t let you have all the fun!” Conn shouted over the smithy’s din of combat. Conn’s head was pounding in time with the blows of the battering ram being used on the gate.

 

“What’s it like topside?”

 

“We’re holding. Barely, but holding.”

 

***

 

Commander Karellan backhanded one Beinisonian with his gauntlet, sending the man staggering with blood flowing from his broken nose. A second enemy soldier rushed the disarmed Militia Commander, hoping for a quick kill and the prestige of defeating the enemy leader.

 

Karellan backed up and quickly ripped his cloak from his plate armour and wrapped it around his right arm as a makeshift shield. The Beinisonian charged, his sword sweeping in a gleaming arc towards the ex-Royal Army officer. Karellan brought his cloak up to meet the attack. The Beinisonian’s sword cut into the thick cloth and Karellan quickly entangled his enemy’s sword in the now-useless cloak.

 

Before the Beinisonian could recover and free his sword, Karellan grabbed the man by the back of the neck and rammed his opponent’s face down into his knee. The enemy soldier fell, stunned. Karellan raised his foot and smashed his boot down on the unconscious man’s neck, killing him instantly.

 

He looked around and saw the man whose nose he’d broken coming after him. Karellan put his shoulder down and charged. He collided with the man’s chest, the momentum of the charge carrying both men to the edge of the keep’s battlements. The Beinisonian scrabbled at the stone trying to keep from falling. Karellan recovered first. He planted his hand on the man’s chest and shoved, sending him to his death below.

 

He stepped back from the battlements’ edge and picked up a sword discarded in the fighting. Not quite what he would have preferred, but it would serve. Karellan allowed himself a minute of rest before re-joining the fray. His vantage point afforded him an unobstructed view of the gate. From the keep, it looked as if the barbican was being buried in ants. “That’s it then,” he said to no one in particular.

 

***

 

“Get back, Patrick!” Conn shouted. Conn had been forced to pull his men out of the towers and off the wall in order to hold the gatehouse. Thirty-one men and women, most of them still in their teens, were formed into two fighting wedges, one wedge struggling against the Beinisonians forcing their way past the now-upraised portcullis, the other preparing to receive the enemy on the other side of the battered gate being held closed only by Patrick Havercamp’s strength and the gods’ help.

 

The Sergeant turned and ran to the dubious safety of the huddled group of defenders. Seconds later, the beam holding the gate shut gave way with a sharp crack and the enemy poured into the gatehouse shouting a victory paean. Patrick yelled defiance back at his enemy and led his group against the foe.

 

The Beinisonians far outnumbered the defenders, but in the confined space of the gatehouse, superiority of numbers meant nothing. For several moments, the Baranurians in their leather armour pushed the enemy steadily backward, the bodies piling up at their feet. But it could not last. The defenders took casualties as well, and the Beinisonians had many more men to lose. Weight of armour and years of experience soon began to take their toll. Now, more and more of those falling were Baranurian.

 

Finally, the enemy had compressed the defenders into a small circle in the centre of the gatehouse. Combat ceased as a figure in splendidly gilded armour and wearing a scarlet cape fastened by a platinum clasp strode through the gate. The man, only a few years older than Conn, made his way to the forefront of his troops.

 

He gazed for several seconds at the defiant group of Baranurians. His eyes locked with Conn’s and the expression in them was one of sincere regret and remorse. Slowly, silently, the man raised his sword in solemn salute and in that instant, Conn knew that no prisoners would be taken. Conn returned the salute and sent his Fayonna a silent farewell.

 

The man shouted a command in a foreign language and the packed mass of Beinisonians surged forward. One by one the defenders fell until only Conn Alrod and Patrick Havercamp still stood, fighting back-to-back as they had so often done during their shared childhood.

 

Conn hacked and chopped and lunged at the enemy. Facing such overwhelming numbers in such a small space, he could not help but connect. Two men fell dead at his feet and another reeled away clutching his arm before the first of the enemy blades struck. He felt a sharp stab of pain as an enemy sword bit at his leg. Conn delivered an attack that was parried and before he could recover, a second blade had lanced through the ribs on his right side. A third blade stabbed upward into his face and Conn fell to his knees, the pain unbearable. A fourth stroke severed his head from his body, ending his pain and his life.

 

Patrick felt his friend go down and knew his own time was at hand. Thus far, he was untouched, a pile of bodies strewn about him. With his friend gone, the enemy now came at him from all directions. The big Sergeant flailed about with his sword , but to no avail. He fell across Conn’s dead body, pierced in three places.

 

***

 

With the fall of the gate, the way was now open for the bulk of the enemy force to enter the city. Regiment after Regiment streamed through the bloody human wreckage of the gatehouse and fanned out throughout the city. No mercy would be shown to the inhabitants. Where initially this had been due to orders, now the cause was revenge. Men whose bloodlust had been fired by seeing their friends butchered and bleeding for three days were turned loose on an unsuspecting city. Their orders were to put half the populace to the sword; their officers would have a difficult time ensuring the blood-letting did not go further.

 

The Regiment battling for control of the keep in the city’s centre had cleared the battlements of the enemy and its soldiers were stalking the few remaining defenders through the keep’s corridors. Within the space of half an hour, the last defender had been dragged out kicking and screaming and then executed.

 

***

 

Quillien Thorne heard the screams issuing from the direction of the city’s gate and the realization of what was happening struck him like a thunderbolt. He ran throughout the house shouting for everyone to go immediately to the wine cellar. Once certain that everybody had gone down to the cellar, Lord Thorne followed.

 

“What is it Quillien?” Lady Thorne asked with some alarm. “What’s wrong?”

 

“A massacre! The Beinisonians have begun killing people!”

 

“Killing people?” Jannis gasped. “Why–what for?”

 

“Oh gods,” muttered Garrett, clenching his fists nervously. “Pack of animals, all of them. I should’ve been a warrior instead of a healer….” His wife Tassy drew close to him and laid her head against his chest. Rayna turned pale and brought her white lace fan up in front of her face, as if to shield herself from the horrors of the situation.

 

“We’ll be safe in the vault until the worst has passed,” Lord Thorne said. He crossed the room to a certain wine rack, reached up and removed the fifth bottle of Blue Royal from the left. He then pushed in on the section of wall revealed by removing the bottle. There was a click and Lord Thorne slid the panel upwards.

 

The wine rack moved aside to reveal a door on which was set a silver handle pointing up. Lord Thorne grasped the handle and turned it clockwise through 270 degrees. Next, he pushed in on the handle and the door slid silently back, allowing access to the extensive vaults in which Lord Thorne had hidden the possessions of his merchant house, the Lands’ Rim, when he first learned of the landing at Shark’s Cove twelve days’ previously.

 

Lord Thorne ushered the group into the entrance-room of the vaults and closed the door. In the cellar, the wine rack slid back into place. No indication remained that anyone had even been in the cellar.

 

Inside the vault, Lord Thorne organized the group and had them make the entrance-room ready for their stay. The room was thirty-feet square and had doors on three walls; the wall through which they had just entered the room and on the walls to the right and left of the exit door respectively. On the wall opposite the entrance to the cellar was a mosaic depicting a lone sailor about to cast a harpoon at an onrushing dragon whale. Mounted above the cellar door was a stuffed shark’s head. Lord Thorne glanced at the head and was satisfied; the eyes were glowing white, indicating the secondary magical defense was inactive and it was safe to leave the room at any time.

 

When the room was presentable, Lord Thorne spoke to his charges. “I know you are all frightened. We are safe here, they will not find us. We shall wait for a time and then leave Port Sevlyn.”

 

“Then where will we go?” asked Tassy.

 

“Magnus. The King must know of what has transpired here. Now get some rest, all of you. When we leave, we must move quickly.” As he himself made ready to rest, he considered just what burden Fate had given him; he and his wife had to shepherd this group of young–oh how young they were!–people through an occupied city and two hundred-plus leagues of possibly enemy-held and very hostile territory. He was glad that his son Brannon and his daughter- in-law Caramina had already left Port Sevlyn on the Sun Hawk, his fastest trading vessel. His other ship, the Royal Trader, was on a routine cargo run to Magnus; he was certain that when her captain heard the news of the invasion he would take the ship and its crew to safety. His thoughts then turned to his oldest daughter Brynna and his young niece Mandi, both of whom had left on an expedition to the south about a year ago. He hadn’t received word from Brynna in months; he prayed that her quest was successful, and that her ship wasn’t anywhere near Beinison waters.

 

He knew he could count on his wife and daughter during the rough times ahead, but of the others he wasn’t completely certain. Rayna was almost the complete opposite of Mandi–quiet, shy, and reserved, although she had begun to become more open ever since she met Cydric, a young man on Brynna’s crew. Of Tassy and her husband Garrett he had no idea how they would perform. There were so many details to worry about. One problem at a time, he thought. One problem at a time.

 

***

 

Several hours later, the group was well-rested and ready for the start of their long trek. Lord Thorne walked over to the mosaic of the sailor, reached out and pressed the thumbnail of the man’s left hand. The sound of stone grating on stone issued from the wall and a small section swung back to reveal a narrow passage leading to the stables.

 

Thorne lifted a torch from its sconce and proceeded down the passage, the rest of the group following behind. The passage sloped gradually upwards and after a short time, the group came to the entrance to the stables. Thorne opened the secret door and motioned the rest of his party out of the passage.

 

They were immediately assaulted by heat and smoke and the sounds of terrified screams. “It’s worse than I thought,” Lord Thorne said. “We’ll have to be very careful.” Cautiously, he opened the stable door. The scene before him was one of horror.

 

A vast column of thick black smoke rose from Port Sevlyn’s northern district. The invaders had fired the poorer section of the city and seemed to be driving the inhabitants before them. The screams and the fire were drawing ever closer. The stench of burning flesh filled the air.

 

“We’ll try and skirt the eastern edge of the fire,” Thorne told the group. “Perhaps in the confusion we can reach the gate unmolested.” The six quickly set off down the street, hoping to avoid a confrontation. They were remarkably successful, twice having avoided large groups of Beinisonians with bloodied swords. They had just turned north for the gate when disaster struck.

 

The group was proceeding up a narrow street when four soldiers appeared from an alley and quite literally almost ran into Lord Thorne and his party. From the look of their armour and weapons, it was obvious what the four Beinisonians had been doing in the alley.

 

One of the men said something Thorne couldn’t recognize. The tone, however, was quite clear: “Kill them.” Another objected, indicating Jannis, Tassy, and Rayna. The first seemed to consider his comrade’s comment and then said something that made all four laugh.

 

During all this, Lord Thorne had attempted to talk his way out of the predicament. “Good sirs,” he said, knowing they couldn’t understand his words but hoping his tone would make his meaning plain. “Perhaps we can come to an understanding? I have gold and will pay quite well were you to forget you saw us.”

 

The Beinisonians paid no attention, however. The prospect of having three young women outweighed any attempt to try and negotiate with the old man before them. The flash point occurred when a soldier grabbed Tassy.

 

Garrett saw the soldier grin wickedly at his wife and immediately threw aside everything his training as a healer had taught him about respecting human life. He launched himself at his wife’s assailant, and the two tumbled to the ground.

 

The other three soldiers were just as stunned as everyone else and they took a moment to recover from their disbelief and go to the aid of their comrade. A soldier was raising his sword to strike Garrett’s head from his shoulders when an intense flash of light sent all three soldiers staggering, their eyes blinded by the bright light. Lady Thorne put her sundagger away and stepped away from the still-struggling figures on the ground.

 

Despite the Beinisonian’s armour, or perhaps because of it, Garrett worked his way into an advantageous position and had gotten a strong hold on his adversary. The Beinisonian struggled, but to no avail. Garrett violently and repeatedly smashed the soldier’s head into the ground; the Beinisonian eventually stopped resisting and went limp.

 

“Run!” Lord Thorne shouted. “Quickly! Before they recover!” The group ran hard for several minutes then slowed to a quick jog. Before long, they came in sight of the gate. Soldiers formed a protective cordon that would prevent anyone from entering or leaving unless the commander at the gate wished it. Thorne brought the group to a halt and quickly moved them out of sight of the detachment at the gate.

 

“What do we do now, Father?” Jannis asked.

 

“Perhaps we can bluff our way through.”

 

“But how?” Lady Thorne asked.

 

Rayna spoke for the first time. “Why not pass ourselves off as pilgrims?”

 

Thorne looked at the young woman with admiration. “That just might work. We’ll do it. All right, everyone, pay attention. We’re going to follow Rayna’s suggestion. Let me do all the talking and don’t lose your heads.” The last comment had been directed at Garrett.

 

Lord Thorne calmly led the group out onto the street and proceeded toward the gate. They were stopped by the soldiers guarding the gate. One of them sent for his commander and made it clear to Thorne and his party they were to wait and not to do anything out of the ordinary.

 

Thorne waited with growing anxiety. Now was the moment of truth. An officer dressed in impressively gilded armour and wearing a scarlet cape walked over to the group flanked by two guards. He spoke briefly with the soldiers who stopped the group and then asked several questions of Lord Thorne in perfectly fluent Baranurian. Lord Thorne grew more and more worried, for it was evident that the officer either did not believe Thorne’s answers or took offense with followers of Stevene. The questions were becoming harder to deal with and Thorne knew his party was lost. Just then, the officer questioning the group was called away.

 

A second officer with gilding even more impressive than the first, and whose cape was fastened with a platinum clasp, had called the first officer to him and the two were now involved in a low discussion.

 

“What’s the problem, Colonel?” Vasquez asked.

 

“They say they are heretics, followers of Stevene on a holy pilgrimmage,” Conti replied.

 

“And?”

 

“And…they are heretics, sir. That alone condemns them.”

 

“Are you saying they should be killed?”

 

“No. sir. You know my feeling regarding that subject. But should we not refuse them permission to leave the city?”

 

“Are they who they claim?”

 

“Hard to tell, sir. It is possible they are who they say, but I find it too much of a coincidence they should be starting a pilgrimmage now.”

 

“Yes, Colonel. I agree.” Vasquez studied the group. From their look, he was quite sure they were lying. “I’ll handle this, Conti.” Vasquez turned and regarded the spectacle of the flaming city before him. “Colonel,” he said, “the killing has gone on long enough. Round up a Regiment or two and bring order to this madness.”

 

Gow be praised, Conti thought. “What of the fire?”

 

“Contain it and let it burn itself out. Have the Regiment assigned to the garrison handle that aspect, Colonel. I want to be organized and on the march by dawn tomorrow.”

 

“Yes, sir.” Conti saluted and departed to carry out his orders.

 

Vasquez walked over to the group waiting patiently beyond the cordon. He could see the nervousness on the old man’s face. “Go.” The old man’s eyes narrowed slightly; clearly he was suspicious of Vasquez’s intentions. “Go,” Vasquez said again, not unkindly.

 

“Thank you, Honored Sir,” Thorne said, carefully hiding his immense relief. “May Stevene smile upon you.”

 

Vasquez watched the group make their way through the blood-spattered gatehouse and out into the countryside. “Sanar walk with you,” he said quietly. He watched them for several more minutes and then turned to go about his business. Port Sevlyn had cost him one thousand nine hundred dead or seriously wounded. With the detachment of a Regiment to garrison the city, Vasquez would have just under eleven thousand men to complete the march on Magnus. There was much to be done by morning.

 

***

 

To the southeast of Port Sevlyn, the soldiers of the Light Regiments of the B.E.F. turned from their vigilant watch to the south to watch the black smoke from the dying city climb ever higher into the sky. The men stared at the marker of Port Sevlyn’s funeral pyre until the Sergeants rather harshly reminded the men of their duty. The men shrugged and turned to the south once more, keeping watch for the Regiments of the enemy that weren’t coming.

 

At least, not in their direction.

 

Not immediately.

 

***

 

Lord Thorne and party made their way east throughout the remainder of the day, the smoke behind them sending a clear and unmistakable message to all who could see it; the juggernaught was unleashed like a wolf among lambs and the wolf was hungry. The campaign for the Laraka was beginning to heat up.

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