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TWENTY-SIX: Battle for the Fadem

Reskird had an overachievement problem. "Bragi, I've got them whipped. I could clean up on them. Only I can't get to them. Damned fire...."

A curtain of flame thwarted Kildragon's advance. It spanned the base of an acute isosceles triangle. Whole blocks were infernos, drawing a strong breeze. Neither side could get close enough to combat the blaze.

"I can't leave you here while it burns itself out. Might be days."

The devastation was stunning. Even during the El Murid Wars Ragnarson had seen nothing to equal it. "Jarl and Haaken need help."

"Those damned Necremnens took off like rabbits afraid of a fox."

"You taken that causeway there yet?"

"The gatehouse guards won't give up. But we'll get it. It's all we've got to work on anymore."

"Michael. Does it hook up to the same island as the one by the Fadem?"

"I think so."

"You see?" Bragi asked Kildragon.

Reskird's sandy hair flew as he nodded.

Bragi laughed.

"What?"

"Look at us. Me, you, Haaken. We've gotten civilized. We never cut our hair short before we came to Kavelin. And we didn't shave, except you."

"It's a strange country. I'd better go get things moving before it's light enough for them to see what we're up to."

They didn't join Haaken before dawn. The causeways didn'tconnect to the same island. They had to cross three. There were skirmishes. And then the right causeway turned out to still be in Argonese hands.

Haaken hadn't had a chance to grab it. The garrison had counterattacked.

Bragi's old veterans carried the bridge in a short, brisk battle, only to find Argonese troops forming up beyond. The melee lasted several hours. Haaken's bowmen, when they could, plinked from the Fadem. Ragnarson advanced till he screened the Fadem's main gate, which remained in enemy hands.

"Who's got who trapped?" he wondered aloud. "How long before the whole city turns on us?"

Tactically, it was going magnificently. Yet the strategic situation looked worse and worse.

Kildragon considered the houses and shops facing the fortress-palace. "A lot of wood in those places. Maybe another fire...."

"Go to it."

Kildragon's fire masked their flank. Bragi had men climb the wall where Blackfang and Ahring were already established. They took the main gate from behind.

Weary, he joined Haaken at another merlon. The map now showed only a few white islands.

"The gate completes the circuit," said Blackfang. "The whole wall is ours."

"Think that's smart?" Ragnarson asked. "They'll fight harder if they can't get away."

"If they could, the Fadema might get out. Shouldn't we get a hold of her?"

"She'd be a good bargaining counter if things got hairy. You found Ethrian yet?"

"No. Else I'd say let's get out now."

"Another reason to get our hands on the lady. They'll chase us all the way home if we don't."

"Those wizards want to see you."

"They come up with something?"

"I don't know. They've been everywhere, getting in the way."

"How are the men? Any problems?"

"Not yet. Still think they can lick the world as long as you're in charge. But it's daytime now. They've seen how big the place is. I'm scared they'll start thinking about it."

The western soldier was flighty, and totally unpredictable. One day he might, if inspired, stand against impossible odds and fight to the death. Another day some trivial occurrence might spook an entire army.

"Keep them too busy to think. These pockets. What are they?"

"Citadels within the citadel. They've locked themselves in. Don't look like it'll be easy digging them out."

"Where's the Queen? Keep the others from sallying. Go after her. On the cheap."

"Been doing that. Lying about Pthothor's intentions. Got more prisoners than I can handle. Reskird showed up just in time. We'll need men on the wall."

"Keep the fires going. What about casualties?"

"Not bad. Mostly new men, the way you'd expect. Enough to be a problem if we have to fight our way out."

"Where're those wizards?"

Haaken was skirting the question of leaving the wounded. Ragnarson didn't want to think about it, let alone verbalize it. It always gnawed at his guts, but sometimes it had to be done.

"Wherever you find them. Just prowl around till one bites your ankle."

He did. Trebilcock and Dantice followed, playing their bodyguard role to the hilt.

Ragnarson found a courtyard where a thousand prisoners sat in tight ranks on the cobblestones, heads bowed, thoroughly whipped. I n a second courtyard he found his dead and wounded, in neat rows on mattresses looted from a barracks room. The dead and mortally wounded were pleasingly few.

On one mattress lay the innkeeper met during the ride to Baxendala.

"Hey, old man, what're you doing here? You should be home minding the tavern."

"Old? I'm younger than ye are, sir."

"My job. I get paid for being here."

"My job, too, sir. It's my country, ye see. My sons, Robbie and Tal, have ye seen them, sir? Are they all right, do you think?"

"Of course. And heroes, too. Be taking home a double share of loot." He hadn't the faintest idea where they were. But the innkeeper hadn't many hours left. "When it lets up a little, I'll send them down."

"Good, sir. Thank ye, sir."

"Get better, innkeeper. We'll need you again before this's done."

"Be up and around in a day or two, sir. These Argonese can't cut ye bad when they're showing their backs."

Ragnarson moved on before his tears broke loose. Again and again he saw familiar faces, men who had followed him so long they were almost family. The same men were always at the forefront, always where the killing was worst.

He couldn't help himself. More than once he shed a tear for an old comrade.

Three wizards handled the doctoring. The Thing With Many Eyes, strange though he appeared, was a sympathetic, empathetic soul. He hated watching pain. He, Kierle the Ancient, and Stojan Dusan, were performing surgery on an assembly line. With the Power they would have defeated Death and pain more often.

"Michael, our species is a paradox," Ragnarson observed as they departed. "All sentience is paradoxical."

"Sir?" The hospital court hadn't fazed Trebilcock. Dantice, though, had grown pale.

"Those wizards. They get mad, they can rip up a city, wipe out twenty thousand people, and never bat an eye. But look at them now. They're killing themselves for men they don't even know."

"That's part of being human. We're all that way, a little. I saw you weep in there. Yet you'd destroy Shinsan to the last babe in arms. Or reduce Argon to ashes."

"Yes. Is a conundrum, as my fat brown friend would say. What's the difference between the innkeeper and the man I killed last night? Each did his duty.... No. Enough. Let's find Varthlokkur."

The downhill side of, and aftermath of, battles always pushed him into these moods. If he didn't catch himself, didn't become otherwise preoccupied, he would plunge into a nihilism from which he wouldn't recover for days.

Night threatened before they tracked Varthlokkur down. He and Visigodred were in a library, searching old books. Zindahjira was there too, though Ragnarson never saw him. From back in the stacks he fussed and cursed and tried to get Visigodred's goat.

"What's that all about?" Trebilcock asked.

"I don't know," Ragnarson replied. "It's been going on as long as I've known them."

Ragnar materialized from the stacks. "Dad!"

After hugging him, Bragi held him at arms' length. The boy was festooned with loot. "Somebody been breaking plunder discipline?"

"Aw, Dad, I just picked up a couple things for Gundar and the kids."

"What if everybody did that? Who'd do the fighting?"

Ragnar posed cockily. "Varthlokkur's still alive."

To keep him out of trouble Ragnarson had convinced him the wizard needed a bodyguard. An amusing notion. Varth-lokkur, Visigodred, and Zindahjira all were damned formidable even without the Power.

"He's been invaluable," said Varthlokkur. "How goes the fighting?"

"So-so. We're on top. But we've got to lay hands on the Fadema. Haaken said you wanted to talk to me. Problems?"

"Not sure," Visigodred said. "I heard from Marco this morning. He visited Hamrnad al Nakir."

"So?"

"El Murid hasn't collapsed. For a while Haroun's boy won everywhere but at Al Rhemish. He had help from the tribes. After that last surge of the Power, though, things turned around."

"How?"

"Rumor says El Murid appealed to the angels. Because he claims a direct commission from heaven, I guess. The angels apparently responded. They sent him a general. The Royalist offensive bogged down."

"Only a matter of time before weight of numbers tells."

Varthlokkur took it up. "Megelin learned from the best. But he's losing. Three battles last week, all to inferior forces. This angelic general is superhuman."

"And?"

"Two points. What happens if Megelin loses? Another round of El Murid wars? The man is old and fat and crazier than ever. He'll want to get even with everybody who helped Haroun. Second point. The general calls himself Badalamen."

"Badalamen? Never heard of him."

"You have. In a divination, remember? So cloudy, but the name came through as dangerous...."

"Yeah. Now I remember."

"We've reasoned thus: Badalamen was furnished by O Shing, to reverse El Murid's fortunes because Shinsan isn't ready to move. This business with Argon was probably geared to an attack next summer. But we've wrecked that.

"Oh. I heard about your fight with the Tervola. He's still here. With the Fadema. Haaken gave me the mask. I didn't recognize it. It does look a lot like Chin's. He might have changed it after Baxendala. If it is Chin, he's as dangerous as Tervola come. We'd save a lot of grief by killing him. But to the matter in Hammad al Nakir.

"It's my guess that your reaction has been more effective than O Shing expected. And there's Radeachar. So he's put this Badalamen in to threaten your flank."

"He another Tervola?"

"No. Marco says he's pretty ordinary. You've seen the eastern martial arts artists? The way they use an opponent's strengths against him? That's the way Badalamen operates.

"I don't think he's human at all. Nu Li Hsi and Yo Hsi both tried to breed superhuman soldiers. O Shing was the result of one experiment. I'd guess Radeachar is another. I doubt the work stopped with the passing of the Princes Thaumaturge."

Ragnarson pursed his lips, sucked air across his teeth. "There's not a lot we can do about it, is there?"

"No. I just wanted you to know. I'd say it makes it imperative that we kill the Tervola here. He's bound to be one of O Shing's top men."

"And the Fadema," Ragnarson added. "Whoever takes over might think twice about being Shinsan's stalking horse."

"Marco went to Necremnos, too," Visigodred said. "Ptho-thor has gathered an army. But he's in no hurry to get here. Waiting to hear how we did. Doesn't want to throw live men after dead."

"Can't blame him. Well, I'd better tell Haaken we've got to get that tower."

Having admonished Ragnar again, Bragi departed. Zindah-jira resumed fulminating in the stacks. Bragi chuckled. Someday he'd have to find out what had started that.

The Fadema stubbornly refused to surrender. Days passed. The impasse persisted. Ragnarson worried.

The city garrisons recovered. Troops from out of townreinforced them. Ragnarson had to lock his force into the Fadem. His men stayed busy defending its walls. He expected a major assault.

There could be no escape, now, without victory. And that appeared to be slipping away -unless Necremnos came.

The first week ended. Except for the Queen's stronghold, the Fadem was his. Outside, the Argonese seemed content to wait, to starve him out. Their probes he beat back with heavy losses. Necremnos was moving, but slowly, willing to let Kavelin do the heavy dying.

The stalemate persisted, though Ragnarson didn't sit still. His engineers worked round the clock to tunnel into the Queen's tower. He battered its walls with captured engines. He tried sending Marena Dimura up its wall by night.

The sappers completed the tunnels the last day of the second week.

Ragnarson chose his assault teams carefully. Haaken and Reskird each led one, and he took the third. Ahring mounted a vicious diversion outside.

The bailey was a cylindrical tower with thick walls and little room inside. The easiest entry, once the single door had been sealed, was over the top-almost a hundred feet above the encircling street.

Unless one penetrated its basements. An obvious and antici-| pated tactic. The defenders would be waiting. It would be rough.

Bragi didn't doubt the outcome. His concern was keeping costs down.

His engineers tested to see if the basements had been flooded. They hadn't. Some other greeting waited.

Bragi expected fire.

It didn't materialize. Again, Argon's initial lack of readiness told.

It was a savage melee, fought through dim passages and narrow doors, Ragnarson's men advancing by sheer mass. The defenders remained stubborn despite the hopelessness of their situation.

It went floor by floor, hour by hour.

"Why the hell don't she give up?" Bragi asked Kildragon. "She's just wasting lives."

"Some people keep hoping."

"Marshall! We're at the top."

"Okay! Reskird, Haaken, this's it. Send for Varthlokkur."

The wizard appeared immediately. Ragnarson and his friends forced themselves into the Fadema's last redoubt.

She had but two soldiers left. Both were wounded, but remained feisty.

And the Tervola was there. Ethrian, bound and gagged, stood behind him.

"My Lord Chin," said Varthlokkur. "It's been a while."

Chin bowed slightly. "Welcome to Argon, old pupil. You learned well. Someday you'll have to teach me the secret of the Unborn."

"I have no taste for teaching. Is there anything you'd care to tell us, My Lord? So we can avoid the rough parts?"

"No. I think not." Chin glanced at an hourglass. He didn't seem worried.

Ragnarson grew wary. These people always had something up their sleeves....

He collected a fallen javelin, pretended to examine it. "Something's going to happen," he whispered to Reskird. "Start moving the men out."

Chin responded to the withdrawal with the slightest of frowns and a touch of nervousness.

"My Lord," said Ragnarson. "Could you tell me why you killed my people? My wife never did anything to you." Iron and pain tinged his voice.

Chin glanced at the hourglass, brought his sword to guard. "Nothing personal. You're in the way. But we'll correct that soon enough. The hour has come."

For an instant Ragnarson thought that the Tervola meant it was his moment to die. Then, when Varthlokkur gasped and staggered, he realized Chin had been warning his companions.

The Power had come alive. A portal had opened behind Chin and the Fadema.

The Tervola attacked. Haaken and Michael met him, prevented his blade from reaching the Marshall. The Fadema came at Bragi with a dagger identical to that he had taken off the leader of the assassins who had killed Elana. A trooper savaged her knife hand with a wild swing, kicking the dagger toward his commander. He tried to follow up. Bragi grabbed his arm, yanked him away from Chin's blade.

"Thanks." He slapped the dagger into the soldier's hand. It was rich booty, a spell-blade worth a fortune.

Chin hurled the two Argonese soldiers, the Fadema, and Ethrian into the portal's black maw, chanting a hasty spell. Varthlokkur responded with a warding spell.

Chin jumped for the portal. His magick roared through the chamber.

Bragi hurled the javelin, then dropped to the floor, rubbed his eyes. He couldn't see. His skin felt toasted.

He moaned.

"Easy," said Varthlokkur. "You'll be all right. I blocked most of it."

Ragnarson didn't believe him. "Did I get him?" he demanded. "Did I get him?" Chin's life almost seemed worth his eyes.

"I don't know. I'm sorry. I don't."


TWENTY-FIVE: The Assault on Argon | All Darkness Met | TWENTY-SEVEN: Mocker Returns



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