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THIRTY-ONE: Baxendala Redux

"Man, I don't know," said Trebilcock. He surveyed Ragnarson's captains.

"What's that?" Kildragon asked. Reskird was still grey around the gills from wounds he had received at Norbury. His left arm hung in a sling. Badalamen had overcome a dozen champions in fighting free.

"Might as well wait for everybody. Save telling it twice." Trebilcock approached Ragnarson.

"Where's your shadow, Michael?"

"At his father's. Learning bookkeeping."

"Last summer took the vinegar out of him, eh?"

"His father claims it gave him perspective. What I wanted to say.... I should tell everybody. Old friend of Aral's dad showed up while I was there. First man through the Savernake Gap this year."

"Oh? News?"

Ragnarson didn't ask if it was bad. There wasn't any other kind these days.

"Go ahead. Latecomers can hear it from somebody else." He pounded his table. "Michael has got some news."

Trebilcock faced the captains, stammered.

"I'll be damned," Bragi muttered. "Stage fright."

"I just talked to a man from Necremnos." Michael eyed his audience. Half he didn't know. Many were foreign military officers. Most of his acquaintances were recovering from wounds. Gjerdrum still couldn't walk without help. He'd had a savage campaign of his own.

"He says Argon is kicking Necremnos all over the Roe basin. The Fadema reappeared with a general named Badalamen and a wizard named Norath. Since then everything's gone her way."

A murmur answered him.

"Yes. The same Badalamen we whipped a couple months ago. But Norath, even without the Power, was the real difference." He glanced into the shadows where the Egg of God lurked. It seemed excited. Did it know Norath?

"Magden Norath?" Valther asked.

"Yes."

"I heard about him in Escalon. The Monitor exiled him for undertaking forbidden research. Everybody thought he was dead."

"He's running some nasty creatures ahead of the Argonese army," Trebilcock continued. "The worst is called a savan dalage."

"Means 'beasts of the night' in Escalonian." Valther interjected.

"They're supposedly invulnerable. They prowl at night, killing everything. Aristithorn has only found one way to control them. He lures one into a cave or tomb and buries it."

"I hope our friends from the Brotherhood can find a better solution," said Ragnarson. "I expect we'll get a look at them ourselves. Anything else, Michael?"

"Necremnos probably won't last through spring."

"Anything about our friend in the mask?"

"No. But the man said there's been a palace revolution in Shinsan. O Shing was killed. The Tervola are feuding."

"Varthlokkur. That good or bad?"

The wizard stepped up behind Ragnarson. "I don't know enough about what's happening to guess."

"Mist?"

The woman sat in an out-of-the-way seat. When she rose, the foreigners gawked. Few had encountered a beauty approaching hers.

"It's bad. They'd overthrow him only if he were too timid. The Tervola have grown anxious to grab Destiny. They're tired of waiting. As soon as they've decided who'll take over, they'll be here. The shame of Baxendala."

"Michael, bring this Necremnen to Varthlokkur. Varthlokkur, if you can get in touch with Visigodred.ask him to send Marco to see what's going on around Necremnos."

Visigodred had returned home after Badalamen's defeat in Moerschel. He was a genuine Itaskian count and couldn't abandon his feudal duties forever.

"I'll have Radeachar tell him." The wizard left with

Trebilcock. Varthlokkur was developing a liking for Michael simply because the man wasn't afraid of him.

Varthlokkur had lived for centuries in a world where mere mention of his name inspired terror. He was a lonely man, desperate for companionship.

Ragnarson peered after them, frowning. An hour earlier Varthlokkur had asked him to be best man at his wedding.

The pain hadn't yet eased. Thoughts of Mocker made him ache to the roots of his soul. And in the wounds his friend had inflicted.

Wachtel insisted he had healed perfectly, yet he often wakened in the night suffering such agony that he couldn't get back to sleep.

The temptation to drink, to turn to opiates, was maddening, yet he stubbornly endured the pain. Other voices whispered of his mission.

He turned to the Nordmen baron who was the Thing's observer here. "Baron Krilian, haven't you people found a candidate yet?"

Ragnarson hadn't visited the Thing since his eastern expedition. There hadn't been time. Derel Prataxis handled all his business with the parliament now.

"No, Regent. We've gotten refusals from everyone we've contacted. Quite offensive, some of them. I don't understand."

Ragnarson grinned. Men like Baron Krilian were why. "Anybody interested?"

"The Kings of Altea, Tamerice, Anstokin, and Volstokin have all hinted. Volstokin even tried to bribe old Waverly to push him in committee."

"Good to hear you and the old man agree on something." Waverly, a Sedlmayr Wesson, was the Regency's whip in the Thing.

"We're all Kaveliners, Marshall."

That truism had faltered during the civil war. Previously, the tradition had been to close ranks against outsiders. The Siluro minority had plotted with El Murid and Volstokin. The Nordmen had been in contact with Volstokin and Shinsan.

The Queen's side hadn't been above it either. Fiana had received aid from Haroun, Altea, Kendel, and Ruderin. Ragnarson himself had come south partly at the urging of the Itaskian War Ministry.

Itaskia wanted a strong, sympathetic government controllingthe Savernake Gap and lying on the flank of Hammad al Nakir. The then War Minister had been paranoid about El Murid.

Ragnarson turned to the agenda, finally got his neighbors to lend him token forces. As the group dispersed, he asked, "Derel, what'd we get?"

"Not much. Fifteen thousand between them." Prataxis leaned closer. "Liakopulos said the Guild will contribute. If you're interested. He says Hawkwind and Lauder are still angry about Dainiel and Balfour,"

"I'll take whatever help I can get."

He didn't expect to best Shinsan this time. Not without a hell of a lot more help than he was getting.

That evening he visited his home in Lieneke Lane, where Ragnar and his new wife were staying with Gundar and Ragnarson's other children. The real ruler of the household was a dragoness named Gerda Haas, widow of a soldier who had followed him for decades, and mother of Haaken's aide. Bragi didn't visit his children much, though he loved them. The little ones exploded all over him, ignoring his guilt-presents to sit in his lap. Seeing them growing, seeing them become, like Ragnar, more than children, was too depressing. They stirred too many memories. Maybe once the pain of Elana's loss finally faded....

Marco arrived two weeks later. He had overflown the middle east. He brought no good news.

Necremnos had fallen. The RoeIbasin was black with Shinsan's legions. Tervola had allied with Argon and Throyes. The Throyens were camped at Gog-Ahlan.

O Shing was dead. And, apparently. Chin as well. The latest master of the Dread Empire was a Ko Feng. Varthlokkur spoke no good of him. Mist called him a spider.

"How did they get out?" Bragi demanded. "Marco says the Lao-Pa Sing is still snowed in."

"Transfers," Varthlokkur replied. "The Power has been coming and going, oscillating wildly, for months. They must be sending people through with every oscillation. They seem random, but maybe Feng can predict them."

"They'll come early, then. Damn. We might not get the crops planted."

He planned to meet Shinsan as he had before, at the most defensible point in the Savernake Gap west of fortress Maisak. Baxendala.

Work there had been going forward all winter, when weatherpermitted. Civilians had been removed to Vorgreberg. Karak Strabger was being strengthened. New fortifications were being erected. Earthen dams were being constructed to deepen the marshes and swamps which formed a barrier across part of the Gap. A major effort was being made to construct traps and small defensive works which would hold the enemy while bowmen showered them with arrows, and siege engines bombarded them from their flanks.

Farther east, at Maisak-unreachable now-the garrison were striving to make the Gap impassable there. The fortress had fallen but once in its history, to Haroun, who had grabbed it by surprise while it was virtually ungarrisoned.

Ragnarson didn't expect it to survive this time. He did hope it would hold a long time.

Every minute of delay would work to Ravelin's advantage. Every day gained meant a better chance for getting help.

Wishing and hoping....

It wasn't the season of the west. Already Feng's Throyen allies were at the drudgery of opening the Gap road. They brought Feng to Maisak a week early.

Ragnarson stood in the parapet from which he had directed the first battle of Baxendala. His foster brother leaned on the battlements. General Liakopulos snored behind them. Varth-lokkur paced, muttering. Below Karak Strabger soldiers worked on the defenses. Fifty thousand men, half Kaveliners. Five thousand Mercenaries, Hawkwind himself commanding. Nineteen thousand from Altea, Anstokin, Volstokin, and Tamerice, the second-line states. The remainder were Itaskian bowmen, a surprise loan. They would make themselves felt.

Wagons swarmed behind the ranked earthworks, palisades, traps, incomplete fortifications. Long trains labored up from the lowlands. Baxendala had been converted to a nest of warehouses.

Bragi meant to compel Feng to overcome an endless series of redoubts in close fighting, under a continuous arrowstorm. Attrition was his game.

Marco said there would be twenty-eight legions supported by a hundred thousand auxiliaries from Argon, Throyes, and the steppe tribes. Ragnarson couldn't hope to turn such a horde. He aimed only to cut them up so badly they would have bitter going after they broke through.

Bragi wasn't watching the work. He stared eastward, over the peaks, at a pale streamer of smoke.

It was a signal from Maisak. While it persisted the fortress held.

Ragnarson used mirror telegraphy and carrier pigeons too.

Shinsan had learned. The Tervola brought dismantled siege engines. For a week they pounded Maisak. The Marena Dimura reported encounters with battered patrols which had forced the Maisak gauntlet. They finished those patrols.

Those little victories hardly mattered. The patrols were forerunner driblets of the deluge.

"Smoke's gone!" Liakopulos ejaculated.

The mirror telegraph went wild.

"Damn! Damn-damn-damn! So soon." Ragnarson turned his back, waited for the telegraphists to interpret.

It was a brief, unhappy message. Maisak betrayed, Tenn Horst.

The last pigeon bore a note almost as terse. Enemy led over mountains into caverns. ims! message. Good luck. Adam TennHorst.

It spoke volumes. Treachery again. Radeachar hadn't rooted it all out.

"Varthlokkur, have Radeachar check everybody out again. A traitor in the right place here would be worth a legion to them."

The weather was no ally either. A warm front accelerated the snow melt. Bragi's patrols reported increasingly savage skirmishes.

Then Ko Feng attacked.

Two things were immediately apparent. Shinsan had indeed noted the lessons of the previous battle. And the Tervola hadn't understood them.

Cavalry had ruined O Shing. So cavalry came down the Gap, steppe riders who had come for the plunder of the west.

Ragnarson countered with knights. Though grossly outnum-bered, they sent the nomads flying, amazed at the invincibility of western riders.

Three days later it was an infantry assault by the undisciplined hordes of Argon and Throyes, Again the knights carried the day. The slaughter was terrible. Hakes Blittschau, an Altean commanding Ragnarson's horse, finally broke off the pursuit in sheer exhaustion.

Feng tried again with every horseman he could muster. Then he used his auxiliary infantry again. Neither attack passed Blittschau. The troops in the redoubts grumbled that they would never see the enemy.

When knights fought men untrained and unequipped to meet them, casualty ratios favored the armored men ridiculously. In five actions Blittschau killed more than fifty thousand of the enemy.

Ravens darkened the skies over the Gap. When the wind blew from the east the stench was enough to gag a maggot. After each engagement the Ebeler ran red.

Blittschau lost fewer than a thousand men. Many of those would recover from their wounds. Armor and training made the difference.

"Feng must be cra/y," Ragnarson mused. "Or wants to rid himself of his allies."

Liakopulos replied, "He's just stupid. He hasn't got one notion how to run an army."

"A Tervola?"

"Put it this way. He's not flexible. The pretty woman. Mist. Says they call him The Hammer. Just keeps pounding till something gives. If it doesn't, he gets a bigger hammer. He's been holding that back."

"I know." Twenty-eight legions. One hundred seventy thousand or more of the best soldiers in the world.

When Feng swung that hammer, things would break.

The legions came.

The drums began long before dawn, beating a cadence which shuddered the mountains, which throbbed like the heartbeat of the world.

The soldiers in the works knew. They would meet the real enemy now, dread fighters who had been defeated but once since the founding of the legions.

Ragnarson gave Blittschau every man and horse available.

The sun rose, and the sun set.

Hakes Blittschau returned to Karak Strabger shortly before midnight, on a stretcher. His condition reflected that of his command.

"Wouldn't believe it if I didn't see it," Blittschau croaked as Wachtel cleansed his wounds. "They wouldn't give an inch. Let us hit them, then went after the horses till they got us on the ground." He rolled his head in a negative. "We must've killedtwenty.... No, thirty, maybe even forty thousand. They wouldn't budge."

"I know. You can't panic them. You have to panic the Tervola." Ragnarson was depressed. Feng had broken his most valuable weapon. Blittschau had salvaged but five hundred men.

The drums throbbed on. The hammer was about to fall again.

It struck at dawn, from one wall of the canyon to the other. Stubbornly, systematically, the soldiers in black neutralized the traps and redoubts, filled the trenches, demolished the barriers, breached the palisades and earthworks. They didn't finesse it. They simply kept attacking, kept killing.

Ragnarson's archers kept the skies dark. His swordsmen and spearmen fought till they were ready to drop. Feng allowed them respites only when he rotated fresh legions into the cauldron.

The sun dropped behind the Kapenrungs. Bragi sighed. Though the drums sobbed on, the fighting died. His captains began arriving with damage reports.

Tomorrow, he judged, would be the last day.

The archers had been the stopper. Corpses feathered with shafts littered the canyon floor. But the arrows were nearly gone. The easterners allowed no recovery of spent shafts.

Mist was optimistic, though. "Feng has gone his limit," she said. "He can't waste men like this. The Tervola won't tolerate it. Soldiers are priceless, unlike auxiliaries."

She was correct. The Tervola rebelled. But when they confronted Feng they found....

He had yielded command to a maskless man named Badalamen. With Badalamen were two old-timers: a bent one in a towering rage, and another with dull eyes. And with them, the Escalonian sorcerer, Magden Norath.

The bent man was more angry with himself than with Feng. His tardiness had given Feng time to decimate Shinsan's matchless army.

Feng grudgingly yielded to the Pracchia. The transition was smooth. Most Tervola chosen to come west were pledged to the Hidden Kingdom.

At midnight the voice of the drums changed.

Ragnarson exploded from a restless sleep, rushed to his parapet. Shinsan was moving. No precautions could completely squelch the clatter.

Reports arrived. His staff, his wizards, his advisors crowdedonto the parapet. No one could guess why, but Shinsan was abandoning positions they had spent all day taking. Sir Tury Hawkwind and Haaken attacked on their own initiative.

"Mist. Varthlokkur. Give me a hint," Ragnarson demanded.

"Feng's been replaced," Mist said.

"Yeah? Okay. But why back down?"

"Oh!" Varthlokkur said softly.

Mist sighed. "The Power...."

"Oh, Hell!"

It was returning. Ragnarson decided he was done for.

The Unborn streaked across the night. Beneath it dangled Visigodred. After delivering the shaken wizard, it communed with Varthlokkur. "Gather the Circle!" Varthlokkur thundered. "Now! Now! Hurry!"

The monster whipped away too swiftly for the eye to follow.

Visigodred said, "Something is coming down the Gap. Creatures this world has never before seen. The ones Marco said turned Argon's war around. We can't stop them."

"We will!" Varthlokkur snapped. "The Unborn will! We have to." He, Visigodred, and Mist staggered. "The Power!" they gasped.

"Clear the parapet," Varthlokkur groaned, handling it more easily than the others. "We need it."

Kierle the Ancient arrived, followed by the Thingand Stojan Dusan. Radeachar rocketed in with The Egg of God. Ragnarson hustled his people downstairs.

He didn't want to stay either. There was little he dreaded so much as a wizard's war. But his pride wouldn't let him turtle himself.

Screams erupted from the canyon.

"They're here. The savan dalage" said Visigodred. "Varth-lokkur. Unleash the Unborn before they gut us." He threw his hands overhead, chanted. A light-spear stabbed from his cupped hands. He moved them as though he were directing a mirror telegrapher. The earth glowed where the light fell. "Too weak," he gasped.

Here, there, Ragnarson glimpsed the invaders. Some were tall, humanoid, fanged and clawed, like the trolls of Trolledyn-gian legends. Some were squat reptilian things that walked like men. Some slithered and crawled. Among them were a hundred or so tall men who bore ordinary weapons. They reminded him of Badalamen.

And there was something more. Something shapeless, something which avoided light like death itself.

Radeacher swooped and seized one, soared into the night. Ragnarson saw an ill-defined mass wriggling against the stars.

"Savan dalage," Visigodred repeated. "They can't be killed."

Radeachar departed at an incredible speed.

"He'll haul it so far away it'll take months to get back," Varthlokkur said.

"How many?" Ragnarson asked.

"Ten. Fifteen. Be quiet. It begins."

A golden glow began growing up the Gap.

All the Circle had arrived. They babbled softly, in their extremity even welcoming Mist to their all-male club. This was no time for masculine prerogatives. Their lives and souls were on the gaming table.

Radeachar reappeared, undertook another deportation.

Ragnarson briefly retreated to the floor below, where a half dozen messengers clamored for his attention.

His formations were shambled. His captains wanted orders. The troops were about to panic.

"Stand fast," he told them. "Just hang on. Our wizards are at work."

Back on the parapet he found the human sorcerers all imitating Visigodred, using light to herd the savan dalage.

The Egg, Thing, and Zindahjira concentrated on the remaining monsters.

"The men-things," Zindahjira boomed. "They're immune to the Power."

Ragnarson remembered Badalamen's indifference to Radea-char.

"They're human," he observed. "Sword and spear will stop them."

True. His men were doing so. But, like Badalamen, the creatures were incredible fighters, as far beyond the ordinary soldier of Shinsan as he was beyond most westerners.

"Arrows!" he thundered from the parapet. "Get the bowmen over there!" No one heard. He ducked downstairs to the messengers.

The struggle wore a new face when he returned. The Tervola had unleashed a sorcery of their own.

At first he believed it the monster O Shing had raised during

First Baxendala. The Gosik of Aubuchon. But this became a burning whirlwind with eyes.

Mist responded as she had then. A golden halo formed in the night. Within its confines an emerald sky appeared. From that a vast, hideous face leered. Talons gripped the insides of the circle.

The halo spun, descended. The ugly face opened a gross mouth, began biting.

The screams of the ensuing contest would haunt Bragi's dreams forever. Yet the struggle soon became a sideshow. Other Tervola-horrors rose. Ragnarson's sorcerers unleashed terrors in response.

Through it all the Unborn pursued its deportations in a workmanlike manner.

The whirlwind and halo rampaged up and down the Gap, destroying friend and foe. Once they crashed into Seidentop, the mountain opposite Karak Strabger. The face of the mountain slid into the canyon. In moments the defense suffered more than in all the previous fighting.

Shinsan tasted the bitterness of loss too. Stojan Dusan conjured a seven-headed demon bigger than a dozen elephants, with as many legs as a centipede. Each was a weapon.

"It's the battle for Tatarian all over again," someone murmured. Ragnarson turned. Valther had come up. He had served Escalon in its ill-fated war with Shinsan.

The mountains burned as forests died. Smoke made breathing difficult.

"Pull out while you can," Valther advised. "Use this to make your retreat."

"No."

"Dead men can't fight tomorrow. Every death is a brick in his house of victory." Valther stabbed a finger.

High above, barely discernible, a winged horse drifted on updrafts.

"That damned old man again," Bragi growled.

Visigodred's apprentice suddenly struck from even higher. The winged horse slipped aside at the last instant. Marco kept dropping till Bragi was sure he would smash into a flaming mountainside. But the roc whistled along Seidentop's slope, used its momentum to hurl itslef into the undraft over another fire.

Surprise gone, Marco tried maneuver. And proved he hadpaid attention to his necromantic studies. His sorceries scarred the night air. The winged horse weaved and dodged and fought for altitude.

Ragnarson asked Valther, "Who's winning? The battle."

"Us. Mist and Varthlokkur make the difference. Watch them."

Oh? Then why the admonition to get out?

They were holding the Tervola at bay and still grabbing moments for other work. Varthlokkur developed the Winter-storm construct. Mist opened and guided another, smaller halo. It cruised over the defensive works, snatching the creatures of Magden Norath. It even gobbled one savan dalage. Just one.

"Must have a bad taste," Ragnarson muttered sardonically.

Radeachar returned from a trip east and was unable to find another unkillable. He joined the assault on the Tervola.

"We've got them now," Valther crowed, and again Bragi wondered at his earlier pessimism.

The Tervola went to the defensive. Above, Marco harried the winged horse from the sky.

But, as Valther had meant, that old man always had another bolt in his quiver.

Fires floated majestically in from the eastern night, from beyond the Kapenrungs, like dozens of ragged-edged little moons.

Mist spied them first. "Dragons!" she gasped.

"So many," Valther whispered. "Must be all that're left."

Most dragons had perished in the forgotten Nawami Crusades.

Straight for the castle they came. The glow of their eyes crossed the night like racing binary stars. One went for Marco. He ran like hell.

The Unborn took over for him.

The leaders of those winged horrors were old and cunning. They remembered the Crusades. They remembered what sorcery had done to them then, when they had served both causes, fighting one another more often than warlocks and men. They remembered how to destroy creatures like those atop the castle.

"Get out of here!" Valther shouted. "You can't handle this."

Bragi agreed. But he dallied, watching the saurians spiral in, watching Radeachar drive the winged horse to earth behind Shinsan's lines.

The Unborn turned on its dragon harrier.

The beast's head exploded. Its flaming corpse careened down the sky, crashed, thrashing, into a blazing pine grove. Flaming trunks flung about. A terrible stench filled the Gap.

Varthlokkur completed his Winterstorm construct as a dragon reached the tower.

Ragnarson dove downstairs, collecting bruises and a scorching as dragon's breath pursued him.

"Messengers, Valther," he gasped. "You were right. It's time to cut our losses."

Ragnarson's army, covered by the witch-war, withdrew in good order. By dawn its entirety had evacuated Baxendala. Shinsan had redeemed its earlier defeat.

The wizard's war ended at sunrise, in a draw. Kierle the Ancient, Stojan Dusan, and the Egg had perished. The others scarcely retained the strength to drag themselves away.

Radeachar had salvaged them by driving the dragons from the sky.

The Tervola were hurt too. Though they tried, they hadn't the strength or will to follow up.

The bent old man ordered Badalamen to catch Ragnarson, but Badalamen couldn't break Bragi's rear guard.

Ragnarson had bought time. Yet he had erred in not trying to hold.

As he debouched from the Gap he encountered eastbound allies from Hellin Daimiel, Libiannin, Dunno Scuttari, the Guild, and several of the Lesser Kingdoms. Auric Lauder commanded about thirty thousand men. Ragnarson borrowed Lauder's knights to screen his retreat.

He didn't try correcting himself. Baxendala was irrevocably lost. Shinsan still outnumbered him three to one, with better troops.

Lauder followed the example of previous allies and accepted Bragi as commander.

In thought, Ragnarson began laying the groundwork for the next phase, Fabian, accepting battle only in favorable circumstances, playing for time, trying to wear the enemy down.


THIRTY: The Other Side | All Darkness Met | THIRTY-TWO: Defeat. Defeat. Defeat.



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