"It seems they've decided."
Brandark's tone was dust-dry, and Bahzell nodded grimly as he peered up the Gullet. There was little to see as yet, but the Sothoii were making no effort to disguise their intentions. Horses could make their way through this boulder-strewn stretch of the Gullet only two or three abreast, and the footing was treacherous at the best of times. That meant any sort of cavalry attack was out of the question, but the narrow cleft's steep walls acted like a funnel, bringing them the sounds of booted feet fumbling across rocky, uneven ground and the jingling sound of weapons harnesses or the occasional scrape and ring of steel on stone.
"Aye, but they'll be coming in afoot, not mounted, and they've lost some sun," the Horse Stealer said after a moment, turning to look back over his shoulder. The Gullet bent sharply south to the west of Charhan's Despair, and its walls rose high; now the sun lay directly atop the western edge. The rude fort sat atop a low rise in the Gullet's stony floor which had once formed the waterfall lip of a broad pool when the Hangnysti ran through it, and the late afternoon sunlight spilled heavily down over it. But east and west of it, darkness was claiming the Gullet quickly.
"They've no more than an hour or so of daylight left," he went on. "Once it's gone, they'll not be able to use their bows so well."
"Oh, only an hour? Well that's a relief!" Brandark replied. "All we have to do is hold several thousand Sothoii warriors off for an hour-an hour while they do have the light for arrow fire, mind you-and everything will be fine. I'm so glad you told me!"
Bahzell grinned at him, then turned to check the rest of his men. All the hradani had brought shields, and now all those not directly behind the front wall of Charhan's Despair were crouched with those shields raised above them. Not all of the shields were the same size and shape, which prevented them from building one of the tortoises an Axeman army might have erected against plunging arrows, but most were large enough to offer at least the men who bore them fairly good cover. Kaeritha hadn't brought one, but Hurthang crouched beside her, and the oversized shield he held was big enough to protect them both. As Bahzell looked at him, his cousin glanced up from some unheard conversation with Kaeritha, grinned at him, and raised his axe in a one-handed salute.
"All right, then, lads," Bahzell said quietly, speaking to the Horse Stealers who waited on their knees, arbalests ready, behind the fort's front wall. There were eighty-two of them, as many as he could cram into the dead ground behind the wall, in two ranks, with the first on the firing step. They looked back at him, and their eyes were as calm as his own-calm with the serenity of hradani who had summoned the Rage-as he showed his teeth. "You'll be after shooting uphill and into shadow if you fire the instant you're seeing a target," he reminded them. "So just you be patient, and wait for the word. We'll be letting them reach the flat, where you'll have good light, and start up to us. Right?"
Heads nodded, and he checked the quarrel on the string of his own arbalest. Unlike most of their companions, he and Vaijon stood upright, gazing out over the wall. As the defenders' commander, Bahzell needed to see what was happening, and he and Vaijon had the best armor of anyone in the fort. Even a wind rider's great bow would have a difficult time driving a shaft through it, and the wall itself offered them fair protection. Chest-high on Bahzell, it was tall enough that only Vaijon's plumed helm showed above it, and the human cocked his head as bugles began to sound.
Sir Festian swore a long and bitter oath in the privacy of his own mind as he followed Mathian and Haladhan down the shadow-choked Gullet. For a moment, he'd thought Sir Kelthys' defiance might actually stop the Lord Warden, but it was clear now that nothing short of armed force could have deterred Mathian. And even if Kelthys had shaken half of Mathian's adherents into holding their own men back, there'd never been any hope he could convince them actually to turn upon the Lord Warden of Glanharrow.
And if the young bastard is determined to do this gods-damned, stupid thing, then I have no choice but to follow him, Phrobus fly away with him! Whatever else he may be, he is my sworn liege.
"All right," Mathian snapped to the men about him. They looked uncomfortable dismounted, as if they didn't know quite how infantry formations were put together. Most had left their lances behind, but a few souls, more inventive than others, had cut their lance shafts short to make them into light spears, which at least gave them a bit more reach than their sabres would.
This isn't their kind of fight, Mathian thought, but that hardly matters. Not with the numbers we've got. His lip curled as he looked once more at the hradani "fort." It's nothing but a heap of rocks, like something a gang of children might make playing at siege engineering! Let the bastards think it'll save them!
"They're only hradani, lads," he went on. "The archers'll keep their heads down till we reach their Phrobus-damned rock pile, and then we'll swarm 'em! The bastards may be big, but we outnumber them ten to one, so remember-don't go for one of them by yourself! Take 'em two or three to one, and we'll be done in time for dinner!"
A few cheers answered his ringing declaration, but only a few, and most of those from younger men who had never fought hradani. The others simply waited, expressions grim, determined enough, but also aware of what they faced, and Festian gritted his teeth with the rest of them.
Bad enough to fight the buggers from the back of a horse, but this-!
The thought was still flickering through his mind when the bugles sounded and the first flight of arrows hissed into the air.
"Heads down!" Bahzell shouted as a storm of arrows soared upward. They rose from the boulder field, now all but invisible in the shadows, but their lethal tips flashed golden as they arced into the sunlight and came driving down upon the fort like black death fletched in crimson and green. The sound of their flight was like nothing else on earth-a rustling, whistling hiss of a sound, like a million enraged serpents-and then they struck. Steel arrowheads rattled like driven sleet as they thudded home, burying themselves in shields or skipping off helmets or stone in showers of sparks. Here and there one of them licked past a shield and drove through chain or scale mail, and men cursed or shouted in pain. But only a very few of them actually struck flesh.
Four hit Bahzell, ricocheting from his breastplate and the fine-knit links of his dwarvish mail, and he bared his teeth in a hungry grin as the bugles sounded a second time. The deep-throated bellow of male voices rose like thunder in the confines of the Gullet, and the first Sothoii warriors charged out of the shadows behind their war cries. More arrows slashed down, deluging the fort to cover the charge, but the archers couldn't arc their fire steeply enough to drop it into the dead zone directly behind the wall, and he glanced one last time at the other crossbowmen.
"Ready, lads!" he bellowed, and leveled his arbalest across the uneven parapet as the others rose to their feet on the firing step with him.
Mathian of Glanharrow knew better than to lead the attack in person. That wasn't a commander in chief's task, and so he'd let Haladhan take the lead. But he had rejected the argument that he should stay in the rear. He'd let himself be talked into taking a place in the eighth rank, with Sir Festian at his right hand and his banner bearer at his left, but that was as far as he would go, for this was a battle he refused to be denied.
And so it was that he burst into the sunlight, screaming his own war cry and waving his sabre like a madman as the fourth arrow flight screamed overhead. He saw the shafts sleet down across the fort, and his heart rejoiced, for surely nothing could live under the merciless beating of that steel-pointed blizzard!
But something could, and his eyes went wide as two score and more of hradani rose behind the wall. They moved almost calmly, without hurry, ignoring the arrows screaming past them, and every one of them leveled a steel-bowed arbalest across the parapet. Mathian's front ranks were on the up-slope to the fort now, their charge slowing, and there was something dreadful about the deliberation with which the hradani took aim. He saw one of them go down, an arrow sticking out of what had been his right eye, but only their heads and shoulders were exposed to his own archers. Worse, the sunlight lanced directly into his men's eyes. They could see well enough for unaimed plunging fire, but picking out a specific target was all but impossible. And then a voice like thunder bellowed a command he heard clearly even through his warriors' battle cries.
Forty-two steel bow staves, the lightest of them easily a four hundred-pound pull, straightened as one. The heavy bolts were short and stubby compared to the arrows raining down on the fort from above, but they smashed out in flat, ruler-straight lines, and the range was barely fifty yards. They drove through cuirasses with contemptuous ease, and the light Sothoii shields were useless against them. Shrieks of agony broke the deep-sea surge of war cries, and men went down in heaps. Many simply fell over others who'd gone down in front of them, but at such short range a single quarrel could drive clean through two or even three men, and they wreaked terrible havoc.
And then the first batch of hradani stepped back and a second row took their place. Forty-one more arbalests came down, and Mathian heard the terror in his own voice as he screamed the Glanharrow war cry. But there was nowhere to go. The rush of his own men carried him forward, and he felt his testicles trying to crawl up into his body as he ran straight ahead.
At least two hundred men were down-dead, wounded, or simply fallen over someone who'd been hit in front of them-and their formation, loose to start with compared to the tight intervals they would have kept mounted, came apart. They were no longer an army; they were a mob, and their own archers had to cease fire as they neared the enemy. But they were still charging forward, and there were still almost two thousand of them, and the only obstacle in their path was that ragged heap of rocks across the Gullet.
The second group of crossbowmen stepped back, and Bahzell tossed his arbalest to one of them. His blade snapped out of its scabbard, and the first group of bowmen, arbalests exchanged for swords and axes, leapt back up onto the step their fellows had abandoned. The front of the Sothoii attack was barely thirty feet away, and he felt the exaltation of the Rage take him like a lover, dancing down his nerves like lightning.
"Tomanak ! Tomanak !"
He bellowed his war cry, and it came back like brazen thunder from six score throats.
Mathian's face went white as he heard the fierce, snarling rumble of the hradani's battle cries. Tomanak ! They were calling on Tomanak ! Was it possible they truly were-?
No! It was obscene even to think that, and he threw the thought aside as his men foamed up against the wall like the sea.
A Sothoii hurled himself at the wall, scrabbling up it on the run. The crude fort truly was little more than a heap of rocks, and its outer face was far from sheer. Men could scramble up it easily enough… but they were off-balance when they reached its top, and Bahzell Bahnakson's eyes were frozen brown flint as his huge blade hissed.
Despite the confusion, despite the noise, despite even his terror and excitement and need to concentrate on his footing, Sir Haladhan Deepcrag recognized the giant hradani from the parley. He saw the huge shape loom up, silhouetted against the sunset like a titan. Five feet of sword hissed in a sun-silvered flash, and then the first Sothoii to set foot on the wall flew backwards in an explosion of blood and viscera with his body cut cleanly in half.
It was impossible! It couldn't happen! Yet it had happened, and then Haladhan was stumbling up the wall himself while men shouted in rage and shrieked in pain and the ghastly, wet sounds of steel in flesh were all the world.
The first Sothoii rush slammed up the rock wall like storm-driven surf, but the Hurgrum Chapter of the Order of Tomanak met it with another, deadlier wall, this one of steel. Attackers shrieked and died, or fell writhing in agony, their bodies slithering back down to trip and encumber their fellows, and even over their own war cries, the hradani heard the thunderous voice of Bahzell Bahnakson.
He leapt upward, driving his feet into the rear face of the wall to get more height, and his sword hissed with dreadful, rhythmic precision. The Sothoii were like wheat before one of Dwarvenhame's horse-drawn reapers, spilling away from him in a writhing wedge of severed limbs and lopped-off heads, and despite Mathian's earlier exhortations, they were unable to use their numbers effectively. There was only so much frontage, and Bahzell and his men had axes and swords enough to cover it all. The Sothoii were forced to meet them at little better than one-to-one odds, and it seemed impossible that any of them could possibly break through.
But they could. Individually overmatched or no, they swarmed forward, and here and there a hradani went down. Other members of the Order stepped forward to take their places, but a few Sothoii managed to wedge into the openings they'd made. Most died seconds later, but before they did, their advance had cracked the defensive front enough for the men behind them to strike at the flanks of other defenders. A gap opened in the hradani's line at the extreme left of the wall, and a roar of triumph went up as still more Sothoii stormed forward to exploit it.
"To me, lads! To me!" Hurthang bellowed to Bahzell's reserve, and went to meet the breakthrough. Kaeritha Seldansdaughter charged with him, and the two of them slammed through the confusion like a spearhead. They met the leading Sothoii warriors head-on, and Hurthang's axe struck like Bahzell's own sword. Dead men spilled away from him, and Kaeritha spun to her left, covering his flank as the Sothoii tried to flow around him. Their light armor and sabres were a better match for her shorter swords, but it didn't matter. She killed her first two opponents before they even realized she was there. Sheer weight of numbers pushed her and Hurthang back a stride then, but they wove a web of steel before them, no longer attacking but seeking only to hold, and then the reserve was there with Gharnal at its head, driving the breakthrough back.
Mathian of Glanharrow reeled, vision spangled by bursts of light, as the hradani broadsword smashed down on his helmet. His banner bearer was already down, hands clutching at the oozing hole where the spearhead of a daggered axe had punched clean through his cuirass, and Festian leapt desperately forward to cover his lord.
He lashed out at the hradani with his sabre and felt it bite on the other's thigh, but even as he struck, the hradani's sword smashed his light shield to splinters. He cried out as his arm broke under the blow, and the hradani struck again, as if he hadn't even felt the sword cut. Festian managed to get his sabre up to block the blow, but the hradani's heavier sword caught it right at the hilt and snapped it squarely in two.
The veteran hurled himself backward. It was all he could do, and he heard himself cry out again as his broken arm took the brunt of his fall. But at least he'd thrown himself out of the hradani's reach, and his desperate leap had knocked Mathian backward, as well. They slithered down the rough rock wall and the heaped bodies together, like a boy's sled on snow, and then Festian hit the bottom, stunned and barely half conscious from the pain in his arm, with Mathian beside him.
"Lord Glanharrow is down! They've killed the Lord Warden!"
The shouts went up from men who'd already seen Mathian's banner fall, and panic spread out from them like pestilence. Warriors who had surged forward into the slaughter atop the fort's walls felt the drive of those behind falter, and suddenly they were giving ground themselves, falling back and fighting only in self-defense as they retreated.
Festian saw it happening, as he'd seen it happen to one side or the other in too many battles, and knew it couldn't be stopped. Not, at any rate, by one middle-aged knight with a broken arm and no sword. He shoved himself back to his feet with a grunt of anguish and fastened the fingers of his good hand on Mathian's cuirass. Fresh agony lashed through his bad arm, but his heave brought the Lord Warden to his feet and got him staggering-still stunned by the blow his helmet had turned-away from the fort.
Bahzell saw the Sothoii break off, and a dozen of his own men started after them.
"Stop!" he bellowed. His deep voice cut through the bedlam, and they looked over their shoulders. "Back!" he shouted, pointing back down into Charhan's Despair with his gore-soaked blade. "Back into the fort, lads!"
For just a moment, he thought they were too carried away with battle fever to heed him, but then they obeyed. They scrambled back into the fort, and he heard Vaijon shouting for men to get their shields back up behind him.
But no fresh arrow storm came. The fight atop the wall had only seemed to last forever, but it had lasted long enough for the light to go. Even as the Sothoii fell back, the sun sank beyond the western cliffs at last, and darkness fell like an axe blow. The Sothoii archers no longer had light to shoot by, and Bahzell breathed a prayer of gratitude.
He looked out into the dimness, and a carpet of pain writhed before him. At least three hundred Sothoii lay out there, most dead but many wounded, and he bared his teeth. The Lord Warden of Glanharrow wouldn't be so quick to launch a second assault, he thought grimly.
But then he turned to survey the interior of the fort, and his jaw tightened. Twenty or thirty Sothoii had actually made it over the wall; all of them lay dead or wounded… but so did at least that many of his own. It looked as if half or more of the Order's casualties had been inflicted by the preliminary arrow fire, however. Now that darkness had taken the Sothoii's bows effectively out of play, their losses would be enormously higher than the Order's in any fresh attacks.
Which didn't mean they couldn't still take Charhan's Despair away from him in the end. But at least they'd wait until dawn to try if they had a shred of sense.
He drew a deep breath, then straightened his shoulders. Many of his men already knelt over the wounded, hradani and human alike, and he and Kaeritha and Vaijon would have plenty to keep them busy in the meantime.