TWENTY-FIVE: The Assault on Argon
Aristithorn did better than Ragnarson expected. His reputation locally was as nasty as Varthlokkur's worldwide. Boat owners, merchant captains, no one refused him more than once. No one quibbled over the vow of silence he extracted. Boats and ships departed, fully crewed, without question of payment being raised, though Ragnarson promised owners and crews a portion of the loot of Argon.
Aristithorn claimed that didn't matter. This was war. If Ragnarson failed, Pthothor would take over. There were old grievances between Necremnos and Argon. The cities were overdue for one of their periodic scrimmages.
So Ragnarson led an armada down the Roe and met Haaken. Three thousand men boarded the vessels, more than he had hoped. His spirits rose. If he remained unnoticed he had a chance.
Aristithorn virtually guaranteed that the Necremnen army would be right behind him. Ragnarson soon hoped so. Argon was huge. A million people lived in its immediate environs. Six thousand men could disappear quickly if the populace fought back.
As Argon drew closer, Bragi found ever more reasons for forgetting the whole thing. But he went on. Worrying was his nature. Haaken had chided him for it since childhood. Sometimes you had to ignore potential difficulties and forge ahead. Otherwise nothing got done.
The first wave consisted of the smallest boats, carrying Marena Dimura mountaineers, attacking at two points. One group drifted down to where the walls of the Fadem rose from the river. The other remained at the apex of the island.
The Marena Dimura scaled the rough walls and established bridgeheads. Their boats returned upriver to Haaken, whosemen, weary from slogging through marshes and swimming delta channels, awaited their turns to ride. One battle of the Queen's Own had taken the horses and train back into the plains, to erect a fortified camp a few miles above the Argon-Throyes road.
Ragnarson traveled aboard a galley which served Necrem-nos's trade in the Sea of Kotsum. He had filled a dozen such with Haaken's Vorgrebergers, Reskird's Damhorsters, and bowmen. The assault captains were ex-mercenaries who had come to Ravelin with him years ago. They were the shock troops who would expand the bridgeheads.
It went so smoothly he suspected he had a friendly god perched on his shoulder. The Argonese were expecting nothing. As always, when the evening rains came, the wall sentries had scurried for cover. Argon lay as defenseless as a virgin thrown by her protectors to barbarian raiders. Two thousand men were over the walls before they attracted any attention.
The fighting broke out, as Ragnarson had hoped, at the apex of the island. Kildragon, in charge there, immediately began raising the biggest fuss possible.
Ragnarson took his party into the second bridgehead.
There the troops were lying low. The Fadema maintained a personal guard of a thousand, and had regular army units quartered in the Fadem too. Ragnarson wanted to be as strong as possible before the Argonese counterattacked.
He cleared the top of the wall, scuttled out of the way, gasped, "Didn't think I'd make it. Getting old for this. Jarl? How's it going? You spreading out yet?"
Here the Marena Dimura were doing what they did best, skulking, stabbing in the dark, occupying strongpoints by stealth.
"We've taken everything you can see from here. This's the sloppiest defense I ever saw. We haven't found anybody awake yet. It's too bad Reskird's raising hell up there. We might've grabbed the whole damned place before anybody knew we were here."
"Uhm. Keep moving. Grab what you can while you can. Gods, it's big."
The Fadem alone seemed as big as Vorgreberg. Trebilcock said it had thirty thousand permanent residents.
"Michael. Aral," Bragi whispered. "Where's this tower?"
"The squarish one yonder, with the spire sticking up from the corner," Dantice replied.
"Let's see if she's still there."
They descended to street level and slipped through narrow passages between buildings, making of a two-hundred-yard crow flight a quarter mile walk. They won the distinction of being first to face wakened opponents.
It was over before Ragnarson realized what had happened. The parties stumbled into one another at a sharp turn. Trebilcock disposed of the Argonese in an eye's blink.
Ragnarson's eyebrows rose. Michael could handle a blade damned well.
"It's sixty feet to the first ledge," Trebilcock whispered. "And twenty more to the one by her window. I'll drop a line from the first one...."
"Kid, if you and Aral can make it, so can I." Bragi sheathed his sword, felt for hand and toeholds.
He quickly regretted his bravado.
Trebilcock and Dantice went up like rock apes. Ragnarson had thirty feet to go when they reached the first ledge. His muscles threatened cramps. His fingers were raw when he heaved himself onto the ledge. Looking down, he muttered, "Bragi, you're a fool. You've got men who get paid to do this."
A clash of arms sounded here and there. The defenders still weren't reacting except locally.
Reskird had a good fight going. The uproar reached the Fadem, and the bellies of the rain clouds glowed with firelight.
The last twenty feet were worse. Now he was conscious of how far he could fall. And of his age. And his sword kept beating the backs of his legs.
"We're going down by the stair," he muttered when he rolled onto the upper ledge.
Trebilcock smiled, a thin, humorless thing in the reflected firelight. "Would've been easier if we'd gotten here before the rain."
Ragnarson's stomach flip-flopped as he realized how easily he could have slipped.
Dantice crept back from the window. "Can't tell if there's anybody inside."
A head popped out. Bragi recognized Nepanthe. She didn't see them. "Inside," he growled. "Quick."
Dantice went. They heard his sword clear its scabbard. Trebilcock and Ragnarson plunged after him.
Sounds of struggle, of steel against stone. Dantice cursed. "She bit me!"
"Nepanthe!" Bragi snapped. "Settle down!"
"She started to yell," Dantice said.
"Michael, find a lamp." Ragnarson moved the other way. "Damn!" He bruised his shin on something low.
Someone crashed to the floor. Metal skittered across stone. "Marshall, I'm going to clout her!"
"Easy, son. Nepanthe! It's me. Bragi. Behave yourself."
Cang-chang. Sparks flew. A weak light grew, illuminating Trebilcock's face. As the flame rose, it revealed Nepanthe and Dantice on the floor. Aral had one hand on her mouth, his legs scissored around her. He was fending a dagger with his free hand. Bragi kicked the weapon away.
He grabbed handfuls of Nepanthe's hair and forced her to look at him. "Nepanthe. It's me."
Her eyes widened. Her fear subsided. She relaxed.
"Can you keep quiet now?"
She nodded. He grinned as Dantice's hand bobbed with the motion. "Let her go, Aral. Michael, look at his hand."
Dantice winced when he put weight on that hand while rising. Ragnarson helped Nepanthe up.
"Take a minute," he said as she started babbling. "Get yourself together."
After she calmed down, she explained how the stranger had come to Valther's house and convinced her that Mocker had gone into hiding because Haroun had tried to murder him. He feared Bragi was in on it. The messenger had brought Mocker's dagger as a token. And she had always suspected Haroun of the worst.
"He could do it if he thought he needed to," Bragi observed. "But how would Mocker have been a threat to him?"
"I never thought about it. Not till I found out they tricked me." She started crying. "Look what I got you into. What're you doing here, anyway? Who's watching things at home? I heard about Fiana. They tell me all the bad news."
"I'm here because you are. Because Argon seems to be behind all our trouble."
"No. It's Shinsan. Bragi, there's a Tervola.... He controls the Fadema.... I think. Maybe they're partners."
"I mean to find out."
"But.... You're only one man. Three men." To Michael she said, "Thank you. Did you get the casket to Varthlokkur? And you. I'm sorry. I was scared."
Dantice smiled. "No matter, ma'am." He sucked his injured hand.
"He brought the Tear back, yes. Tell me about the Tervola. Does he wear a golden mask?"
"He keeps turning up. Must be O Shing's special bully boy. And I didn't come by myself. That's our army kicking ass out there."
"But.... Argon! They took me out once. I think the Fadema wanted to show me what a hick I was. Bragi, you can't get in a war with Argon. Not over me...."
"Too late to back off. The boys are probably too loaded with loot to run." He chuckled. "I don't want to take the city. Just the Fadem. Just to spoil whatever they're up to. I'm no conquerer."
"Bragi, you're making a mistake...."
"Somebody coming," Trebilcock said. He had one ear against the door. "Sounds like a mob."
"Get out of sight. Aral! Your sword."
Dantice scampered back for the weapon.
"Nepanthe, pretend we're not here. They must be coming for you. They'll want their prize counter safe. Get by the window. Make them come to you. Michael, Aral, we'll hit them from behind."
Dantice was a street fighter. He understood. But Michael protested.
"We're here to win, Michael, not get killed honorably."
Ragnarson concealed himself just in time. The door creaked inward. Six soldiers entered, followed by the Fadema.
"Well, Madam," said the woman, "your friends are more perceptive and less cautious than we anticipated. They're here."
"Who?" Nepanthe asked, cowering against the window frame.
"That bloody troublesome Marshall. He's attacked Argon. What gall!" She laughed. It was forced.
Things must be going good, Bragi thought.
"You stay away," Nepanthe told the soldiers. "I'll jump."
"Don't be a fool!" the Fadema snapped. "Come. We have to move you. The tower is threatened."
"I will jump."
Four soldiers advanced.
"Now," Ragnarson said. Leaping, he took out a man who had remained with the Fadema.
Dantice went for the man on her far side instead of the four. Trebilcock got another, but quickly found himself in trouble.
Ragnarson smacked the Queen to shut her up, turned to help Michael.
Somebody hit him from behind.
He turned as he fell, looked up into a golden mask.
The Tervola had hit him with a wooden statuary stand. "Finish them!" he ordered. "This's the man we want. The Marshall himself."
Trebilcock was fencing a man who was good. Dantice rolled across the floor with one of the others. The third soldier pranced around looking for a chance to strike a telling blow.
Ragnarson kicked the Tervola's legs from beneath him, dragged him nearer. The stand rolled away.
The Tervola had the combat training of every soldier of Shinsan. And he had staying power, though Ragnarson was stronger. They rolled and kicked and gouged, and Bragi bit. He kept trying to yank the man's mask off so he could go for his eyes.
That usually put a superior opponent on the defensive. And this Tervola was a better fighter than he.
The extra soldier almost got Dantice. But Nepanthe stabbed him from behind, turned on Aral's antagonist, stabbed him too. Aral muttered, "We're even, lady," recovered his sword, took a wild chop at the head of Michael's opponent.
Meanwhile, the Fadema recovered and fled.
Ragnarson got a thumb under the golden mask. By then he was sure he was dead. The Tervola had a hold of his neck and he was losing consciousness.
Dantice and Trebilcock closed in. The Tervola saw them. The Power was dead. There was nothing he could do. He threw himself after the Fadema. His mask remained in Bragi's hand.
Dantice helped Ragnarson up. "That was close. Mike, better make sure of those guys."
"Never mind. I'll do it." While Nepanthe and Trebilcock supported Ragnarson, he cut throats. "I don't understand you, Mike. It ain't beer and skittles. It ain't no chess game. You want to come out alive, you got to be meaner than the other guy. And you don't leave him alive behind you."
Ragnarson groaned. Nepanthe massaged his neck. "See if any of our people are outside. We'll have half an army on us in a minute."
Dantice leaned out the window. "Nope. They're all down the street."
"You and Michael pile stuff in front of the door. No. Let me go! I'm okay. I'll make something to lower Nepanthe down."
"Wait!" she protested. "What about Ethrian?"
Bragi hurt. It made him cranky. "What do you want me to do? We've got to get out of here first. Then we'll worry about Ethrian."
She kept arguing. He ignored her. There was a racket in the hall already.
A party of Marena Dimura came up the street as he dropped his rope of torn blankets. "You men. Hold up. It's me. The Marshall. Aral, hand me that lamp." He illuminated his face. "Hang onto the end of that down there, and stand by."
Several Wesson bowmen joined the Marena Dimura. They stood around watching.
"Nepanthe, come here."
Still complaining, she obeyed. He turned his back. "Put your arms around my neck and hang on."
"You'd better let me do that," Dantice offered.
"I can handle it. I'm not all the way over the hill." He did leave his sword belt, though, remembering what a hazard it had been coming up.
Going down was a pain too. He hadn't made it halfway before he wished his pride had let him yield to Dantice.
"Hurry up," said Trebilcock. "The door's giving."
Dantice started down the instant Bragi's feet hit pavement. He came like a monkey.
"Boy, you'd make a good burglar."
"I am a good burglar." They watched Trebilcock lever himself over the window sill.
Someone yelled inside. Michael stared, then threw himself aside, barely managing to cling to the ledge.
Men appeared in the window.
"Bowmen," said Ragnarson. "Cover him."
Arrows streaked through the window. The Argonese withdrew, cursing. Ragnarson asked the Marena Dimura captain, "Where's Colonel Ahring?"
The man shrugged. "Around."
"Yeah. Michael, hurry up." Trebilcock had reached the lower ledge. Someone upstairs was throwing things out the window. A vase smashed at Bragi's feet.
Trebilcock kicked away from the wail and dropped the last fifteen feet, grunting as he hit cobblestones. "Damn. I twisted my ankle."
"Teach you to show off," Aral growled.
"Come on," said Ragnarson. "Back to the wall. You men. Go on wherever you were going."
Ahring had left. His men had penetrated the Fadem deeply in several directions. Runners said some defenders were fleeing the fortress for the city.
Haaken had arrived. He was directing operations now.
"What's happening?" Ragnarson asked.
"They're running. All our people are in now. But we've got a problem. Most of those Necremnens are heading out. We'll be in big trouble if we don't win this."
"Michael, where's the nearest causeway?"
Trebilcock leaned over the battlements. "Upriver a quarter-mile."
"Haaken, scare up some men and grab it. Michael. Is there a causeway Reskird could use?"
"Inside his area. Shouldn't be any problem."
Ragnarson stared northward. The entire apex of the island seemed to be burning. The rain had let up. Nothing held the flames in check.
"Getting bad up there," he observed. "Could be as rough for Reskird as the Argonese."
"Bragi." Haaken had unrolled a crude map atop a merlon. He shaded an area with charcoal. "This's what we've taken. Half." Dark salients stuck out like greedy fingers. There were white islands throughout the area already captured.
"How're they fighting?"
"Us or them?"
"Our guys are having fun. Theirs.... Depends on the unit. The officers, I guess. Some are tromping each other trying to get away. Some won't budge. I'd say our chances of carrying it are better than even. But then we'll have to hold off counterattacks while we mop up."
"Keep after them. Any Necremnens have balls enough to stick?" He leaned over the wall. A dozen smaller boats rocked against the base of the wall.
"I want to go get Reskird. Watch Nepanthe. And keep an eye out for Ethrian. They've got him here somewhere."