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THIRTY-THREE: Itaskia

"When?" Ragnarson asked Visigodred. He and the lean Itaskian watched Badalamen's army from the Southtown wall. Southtown, a fortified bridgehead of Itaskia the City, stood on the south bank of the Silverbind. It was the last western bastion below the river, excepting Hellin Daimiel and High Crag. Simballawein, Dunno Scuttari, Libiannin, and even Itaskian Portsmouth, had fallen during the winter.

The wizard shrugged. "When they're ready."

For months the armies had stared at one another, waiting. Bragi didn't like it. If Badalamen didn't move soon, Ragnarson's last hope of victory would perish. Each day the opening of the Savernake Gap drew closer. Marco said hordes of reinforce-ments were gathering at Gog-Ahlan. Shinsan's new masters were stripping their vastly expanded empire of every soldier.

Ragnarson also feared an early thrust through Hammad al Nakir. There were good passes near Throyes. The route was but a few hundred miles longer, though through desert. Megelin couldn't thwart the maneuver.

Megelin had taken Al Rhemish and declared himself King. But El Murid had escaped to the south desert, round Sebil el Sebil, where his movement had originated. He would keep making mischief. Yasmid remained in his hands.

"We've got to get him going," Ragnarson growled, kicking a merlon.

Visigodred laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Easy, my friend. You're killing yourself with caring. And the augeries. Consider the augeries."

The wizards spent hours over divinations and could produce nothing definite. Their predictions sounded like the child's game of knife, paper, and rock. Knife cuts paper, paper wraps rock,rock beats knife. Every interpretation caused heated, inconclu-sive arguments among the diviners. Identical arguments raged amongst the Tervola.

Factions in each command insisted any attack would, like rock, knife, or paper, encounter its overpowering counter.

Drums throbbed. Their basso profundo was so old it bothered no one any longer. Several legions left Badalamen's encampment, making their daily maneuver toward Scjuthtown.

It had been the coldest and snowiest winter in memory. Neither side had accomplished much. Each had weathered it. Shinsan had the force to seize supplies from the conquered peoples. Ragnarson's army had Itaskia's wealth and food reserves behind it. Badalamen had tried two desultory thrusts up the Silverbind, toward fords which would permit him to cross and attack toward Itaskia the City from the northeast. Lord Harteobben, his knights, and the armies of Prost Kamenets, Dvar, and Iwa Skolovda, had crushed those threats.

Itaskia's fate would be decided before her capital, by whether or not Badalamen could seize the Great Bridge.

The structure was one of the architectural wonders of the world. It spanned three hundred yards of deep river, arching to permit passage of ships to Itaskia's naval yards, established upriver long before bridge construction began. Construction had taken eighty-eight years, and had cost eleven hundred lives, mostly workmen drowned in collapsed caissons. Engineers and architects had declared the task impossible beforehand. Only the obsession of Mad King Lynntel, who had ruled Itaskia during the first fifty-three construction years, had kept the project going till it had looked computable.

Despite a barbarian upbringing, Ragnarson cringed when he thought he might have to destroy the wonder.

The possibility had stirred bitter arguments for months, dwarfing the debate over supreme command. That had ceased when Varthlokkur had declared Ragnarson generalissimo. Nobody had argued with the slayer of Ilkazar.

The Great Bridge touched every Itaskian's life. Its economic value was incalculable.

Economics weren't Bragi's forte. He admired the bridge for its grandeur, beauty, and because it represented the concretiza-tion of the dream of The Mad Builder and his generation.

There were few sins in Bragi's world-view. He felt destroying the Great Bridge would be one.

H is had been a lonely winter. He had seen little of his friends. Even Ragnar had been away most of the time, dogging, hero-worshiping, Hakes Blittschau. Haaken Bragi seldom saw, though his brother roomed just two blocks away. Gjerdrum came more than most, often slighting his duties. Michael, Aral, Valther, and Mist had disappeared, pursuing some mysterious mission at Varthlokkur's behest. Few others had survived.

Bragi spent his time with the Itaskian General Staff, aristocrats who considered him down a yard of nose. They acquiesced to his command only because it was King Tennys' will.

They were above petty obstructionism, for which Bragi was grateful. They were professionals meeting a crisis. They devoted their energies to overcoming it. Their cooperation, though grudging, was worth battalions.

Varthlokkur sensed Bragi's alienation. A wizard, usually Visigodred, accompanied him everywhere, always providing a sympathetic ear. Ragnarson and Visigodred grew closer. Even pyrotechnic Marco acknowledged their relationship by accord-ing Bragi a grudging respect.

"Damn, I wish it would start," Bragi murmured. It was an oft-expressed sentiment. Even action leading to defeat seemed preferable to waiting. Plans and contingency plans had been carried to their limits. There was nothing more to occupy a lonely mind- except bitter memories.

His emotional lows outnumbered highs, and had since his return from Argon. Without Elana he couldn't be positive. Nothing could jack his spirits, get his emotions blazing.

Too, his children, and Ragnar's wife, were still in Kavelin. He couldn't stop brooding about that. They were hostages to Fate....

Badalamen he found puzzling. On the Scarlotti the man had kept several threats looming. Here he seemed to be doing nothing-and the Brotherhood watched closely.

"He's not loafing," Ragnarson declared. "But what's he up to?"

Again he wondered about his children. He had had no news. Were they alive? Had they been captured? Would they be used against him?

His Kaveliner soldiers had had no news either. They were a glum, brooding lot.

Radeachar and Marco seldom brought pleasant tidings fromthe south, save that Reskird and High Crag remained unvanquished. Reskird couldn't be reached because of patrol-ling dragons.

Winter had been hard in the occupied kingdoms....

A roar jerked his attention to the wall a quarter-mile eastward. "What the... ?" A huge cloud of dust reached for the sun.

Another roar rose behind him. He spun, saw a section of wall collapsing, flinging into shallow snow.

"Miners!" he gasped. "Trumpets! Alert! Visigodred...."

The thin old wizard was in full career already. Bragi's shouts were drowned by a change in the song of the drums. More sections collapsed. Friendly horns screamed, "To arms!"

There were no civilians in Southtown. Its quickly busy streets contained only soldiers.

The maneuvering legions rushed toward the fortress.

Ragnarson's face turned grim. Badalamen had surprised him again. But what sane man would have sapped tunnels that long? How could he believe it would go undetected? How had he managed it?

Sections of wall kept crumbling.

"Too many breeches," Bragi muttered. More legions double-timed toward Southtown. A glow grew over Shinsan's camp. Bragi smiled. Sorcery. He had a surprise for Badalamen too.

The first legionnaires hit the rubbled gaps. Arrows flew. The world's best soldiers were in for a fight this time. They were about to meet the soul of Itaskia's army, bowmen who bragged that they could nail gnats on the wing at two hundred yards. In the streets they would face the Iwa Skolovdan pikes who had dismayed El Murid's riders during those wars, and a host of crazy killers from Ragnarson's Trolledyngjan homeland, overpowering in their fearlessness and barbarian strength. They were Tennys's praetorians, selected for size, skill, and berserker battle style.

Bragi smiled tightly. His defense was reacting calmly and well. Rooftop bowmen made deathtraps of the gaps in the wall.

Yet he was about to be cut off.

A sound like the moan of a world dying rose from the enemy camp. The glow became blinding. Bragi ran.

Something whined overhead. He glimpsed the Unborn whipping southward.

He saw little after that. The invaders forced a band of defenders back upon him. He escaped that pocket only to become trapped in a bigger one.

Badalamen's sappers hadn't ended their tunnels at the wall. They had driven on into deep basements.

"Treason," Ragnarson muttered. "Can't ever root it out." Somebody had done the surveying....

Southtown decayed into chaos. Ragnarson just couldn't reach his headquarters. His rage grew. He knew his absence meant defeat.

The southern skyline flared, darkened. Thunders rolled. Things rocketed into view and away again. The Tervola were putting on one hell of a show. Varthlokkur's surprise must have fizzled.

He encountered Ragnar near the Barbican, the final fortification defending the Great Bridge.

"Father! You all right?"

"I'll make it." He was an ambulatory blood clot. A lot was his. "What's happening?"

"Covering the evacuation."

"What? Bring in...."

"Too late. Southtown's lost. You're about the last we'll save. They ran two tunnels under the river. They've closed the bridge twice. We reopened it, and closed one tunnel."

"Drown the sons of bitches." He turned. Southtown was burning. Fighting was waning. A ragged band of Trolledyngjans hurried their way, grim of visage. They had been stunned by their enemies. No soldiers should be that good.

"Save what you can. Don't let them take the Barbican." He started for the city. Two soldiers helped. He had lost a lot of blood.

He paused at the bridge's center. The Silverbind was alive with warships, each loaded with Marines. "What now?"

It was the first thing Haaken explained. "They've launched a fleet from Portsmouth, across the Estuary."

"Damn. That bastard don't miss a shot."

Ragnarson quickly counterattacked through the underriver tunnels. Zindahjira and Visigodred spearheaded. Badalamen's assault on the Barbican petered out.

"Your spook-pushers are whipping theirs," observed Lord Hartteoben, recently appointed Itaskian Chief of Staff. "That Unborn.... It won't let the Tervola direct their legions."

"We've got to hurt them while we can," Ragnarson averred. His wounds were worse than he would admit. Willpower couldn't keep him going. He collapsed.

Blackfang took charge, stubbornly pursued prepared plans.

The woman wore black. He couldn't see her clearly. She seemed ill-defined, haloed.

"Death," he sighed as she bent. The Dark Lady bringing her fatal kiss.

Her lips moved. "Marshall?" It tumbled down a long, cold tunnel littered with the bones of heroes.

The equalizer, the great leveler, had turned her gaze his way at last. The last narrow escape lay behind him, not ahead....

She wiped his face with a cold, wet cloth.

He saw more clearly.

This was no Angel of Death. She wore the habit of a lay helper of the Sisters of Mercy. The halo came of window light teasing through wild golden hair.

She had to be the daughter of an Itaskian nobleman. No common woman had the resources to so faithfully maintain her youth, to dress richly even in nursing habit.

He guessed her to be thirty.... Then realized he was nude, and tendering a half-hearted male salute.

"The battle...." he babbled. "How long have I?"

"Four days." Her glance flicked downward, amused. "The fighting continues. Your Blackfang is too stubborn to lose." She bathed him, enjoying his embarrassment.

"The situation, woman, the situation," he demanded weakly.

She bubbled. "Admiral Stonecipher caught their fleet two days ago. They were seasick. He forced them onto the rocks at Cape Blood. The Coast Watch finished them. A historic victory, Father says. Greater than the Battle of the Isles."

"Ah." He smiled. "That'll warm Badalamen's heart." The fleet from Portsmouth had counted every seaworthy vessel captured along the western littoral. Tens of thousands of easterners must have drowned. "What about Southtown?"

She pushed him down. He was too weak to resist.

"The enemy who crossed over are cut off in Wharf Street South, west of the Bridge...."

"Crossed? To the city?" He tried to rise.

She pushed. "Father says it's still bloody in Southtown, but going our way. When Lord Harteobben attacked from the Fens...."

Bragi's head swam. He hadn't planned any operation from upriver.

"...and half the Tervola are dead. The Power went away for a while. It didn't save them." She made a sign against evil. "That thing.... The Unborn.... They say it melts their bones.... The Power is back. Really, I don't know who'll win. I just know I'm not getting much sleep. The wounded.... It's sickening. So many...."

"We're winning," he whispered, awed. "If Haaken's grabbed the initiative...."

Her fingertips brushed his stomach. Perhaps it was accidental. But Itaskian women, when their menfolks weren't looking, could be damned bold. And he was a celebrity. He had had some interesting offers, offers he wasn't emotionally ready to accept.

He was too weak this time. He drifted off cursing a missed opportunity.

There had been a change. A psyche as well as a body had begun healing.

Her name was Inger. He thought that a delicious irony. His first love had worn that name.

They had been pledged till Trolledyngjan politics had led to conflict between their parents. Inger's father had slain his. And now, so quickly, he was getting involved with a family he had fought from his arrival in Itaskia following the El Murid Wars.

She was a Greyfells, of a branch that had remained neutral in the Dukes of Greyfells's periodic assays at seizing the Itaskian throne. One of those Ragnarson himself had thwarted through the expedient of assassination. His arranging the murder had sent him flying to Kavelin....

That Duke had been Inger's father's eldest brother.

It's a bloody strange world, he thought, lying beside her, concern about the war briefly forgotten.

Possibly there was a more efficacious therapy, but neither Wachtel, Visigodred, nor Varthlokkur could name it. A week of Inger wrought miracles.

Ragnarson even stopped suffering from the wounds Mocker had dealt him. He left that hospital renewed, with plans, with a destination, a goal for after-the-war.

He had broken another resolve. Another woman had penetrated his soul.

Only Inger updated him during his convalescence. No onecame for his advice. His pride was bruised-till he heard that Varthlokkur had ordered his isolation. He had, like an athlete, been off his form. The wizard, selfishly, wanted to give him time to find himself.

Haaken managed well enough, both at battering Badalamen and cowing aspirants to supreme command. Adopting Haroun's style, he jabbed from every direction, avoiding haymakers, fading when the enemy turned to fight. In Southtown he succeeded on stubbornness, knowledge of his men, and devotion to Bragi's planning. He, like Bragi, respected the Itaskian bow. Plied from housetops, it gave him mastery of the streets. He used them as killing zones, letting Badalamen commit ever more men to Southtown's capture. He buried the pavement in corpses.

Now, Bragi saw from the Great Bridge, Southtown was so grim even the vultures shied away.

Visigodred's and Zindahjira's tunnel attacks had taken them to the heart of Shinsan's camp. They had started a few fires, then had withdrawn. The damage was more moral than physical.

'. Attacked from every direction, mundanely and magically, the Tervola were in disarray. Blittschau and Lord Harteobben harried all but the largest foraging parties. They made occasional forays against the main encampment.

The dismay of the Tervola communicated itself to the Pracchia. Badalamen argued that victory couldn't be attained in present circumstances. Soon his superior force would be leagued up in its own camp. Forcing the Great Bridge was plainly impossible. Attempts to outflank it had failed. He urged a staged retreat calculated to draw Ragnarson into the open. There, hopefully, he could be lured into pitched battle and obliterated. Magden Norath backed him.

The bent old man was impatient. He wanted the holocaust now. He demanded another try at the river. Or, if Badalamen had to move, he should take the entire army up the Silverbind, to Prost Kamenets, Dvar, and Iwa Skolovda, depriving Itaskia of her allies, returning south after fording the river's upper reaches.

The Tervola refused. They wanted to escape Varthlokkur's fury long enough to develop a counter to the Unborn. And Norath wanted to rearm with his own special weapons.

"It's good, Haaken," Ragnarson kept saying. "The only sane course."

"You'd think so. You did the planning."

"The trouble with nibbling is we have to finish before the Gap opens."

"How?" Ragnar demanded. "He'll treat us like a stepchild if we try to take him heads up."

Despite Badalamen's severe losses recently, that remained immutable. Shinsan couldn't be beaten on the battlefield.

Quiet, gentle, loving Visigodred offered an answer.

It was disgusting. It turned Bragi's stomach.

Visigodred said, "Remember when Duke Greyfells brought the plague from Hellin Daimiel? With the ships filled with rats?"

Ragnarson remembered. He, Haroun, and Mocker had foiled that cunning play for Itaskia's throne and had won the eternal gratitude and indulgence of the Itaskian War Ministry.

Volunteers returned to the fetor and horror of Southtown, trapping rats. Radeachar scattered them through the enemy camp.

The inconclusive fighting continued. Bragi applied more pressure, trying to keep the legions crowded so plague would spread swiftly if it got started.

Only sorcery could stop the disease.

Could Varthlokkur protect his allies? Plague ignored artificialities like national allegiance. Itaskia, packed with refugees and soldiers, made fertile disease ground.

The wizard didn't know.

Days passed. Then Badalamen suddenly came alive. He narrowly missed luring Lord Harteobben to his destruction near Driscol Fens. Later the same day Hakes Blittschau rode into an ambush Marco had missed seeing from above. While they licked their wounds, Badalamen moved.

Nighttime. Ragnarson galloped across the Great Bridge, answering Visigodred's summons. The wizard was directing the cleansing of Southtown.

He showed Bragi a southern horizon aflame.

Badalamen had won his argument with the bent man.

"What's happening?" Ragnarson demanded.

"They're pulling out. He summoned his dragons at dusk, fired everything."

"Marco. Radeachar. Where are they?"

"Staying alive."

The dragons had rehearsed handling the two. Marco was impotent against their ganging tactics. He remained grounded. The Unborn could go up, but under pressure could accomplish nothing.

Dawn came. Still the fires raged. Forests, fields, Shinsan's camp. The dragons kept them burning.

A lone masked horseman waited near the empty camp. The bones of burned corpses lay heaped behind him. He bore a herald's pennon.

"Looks like plague got some," Ragnarson observed. "Who is he?"

"Ko Feng," Varthlokkur replied. Jeweled eyes tracked them coldly. "Easy. He won't try anything under the pennon."

"A message?" Ragnarson asked.

"Doubtlessly."

Feng said nothing. He dipped his pennon staff till it pointed at Bragi's heart. Ragnarson removed the note. Feng rode stiffly into a narrow avenue through the flames.

"What is it, Father?" Ragnar asked.

"Personal message from Badalamen." Gaze distant, he tucked it inside his shirt.

Another meeting. A reckoning. An end. Softly, gentlemanly, dreadfully, Badalamen promised. Kings on the chessboard, Badalamen said. Played like pawns. Endgame approaching.

"Beyond the fire...." Ragnarson murmured, looking southward. Then he turned and hurried toward the city.

An army had to march.

Even in retreating Badalamen had surprised him. He would get a week's lead from this....

It would be a bittersweet week, he thought, filled with impassioned good-byes.

His thing with Inger was getting serious.


THIRTY-TWO: Defeat. Defeat. Defeat. | All Darkness Met | THIRTY-FOUR: Road to Palmisano



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