Sunday, August 22, 2004

The First Wave

Jossalla was motionless as she watched the army approach from her place on the ramparts. Only the slight breeze tugging at the wisps of hair that escaped from her braid moved. Otherwise she might have been carved from stone.
The fires from the city walls and gates reflected in her eyes but they were burning down, going out. There hadn’t been enough of the Dwarven clear ale to keep the fires going for very long. Well, there had been but the defenders hadn’t been willing to use it all at once. Not when it might be needed later. Now the attackers were moving forward with ladders, peering up at the defenders from behind their shields. They seemed perplexed by the lack of response from atop the walls.
“Gods.” Breathed the man on her left she didn’t remember his name. “There must be thousands of them.”
“More like a hundred thousand.” She said calmly. “But this is only the vanguard, maybe ten thousand. The rest will be spreading out to surround the castle.”
“What are we going to do?” He didn’t whimper, but the fear was there, under his words.
“We make a stand.” She replied, then, to the man on her right she said, “You know Daryl, I hope you still have all that brass under your belt that you were bragging about back at the inn.”
“Why’s that?” He asked, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye.
“Because we’re going to need it.” As the archers on the castle’s eleven towers nocked arrows and drew their bowstrings back, Jossalla’s hand drifted down to the hilt of her sword. No magic blade this one. No runes of strength and power etched into the blade. Just a simple meter of castle forged steel, oiled and sharpened every day.
“Well, as to that, “ Daryl replied as the two of them, and every other soldier on the wall drew their weapons, “I wasn’t talking about myself that night.”
“Really?” she said slowly as the arrows hissed overhead.
The scaling ladders were raising, some slowly, other fast.
“No,” he replied, “I was telling them about you.”
Then the enemy was upon them, the rush of battle taking over, changing the men storming the walls into so many swords, axes, maces and other weapons to be beaten back. Training and muscle memory took over and Jossalla found her mind wandering as it always did during battle. There was no elegance to this kind of fight, very little technique required. Memories served to shield her from the horror of slaughtering her own people.

The sun was sliding between the clouds as Jossalla and Daryl guided their horses down the road. The South Tradeway was quiet for once, the songbirds filling their air with their calls. Jossalla’s hand drifted over her weapons, checking to be sure the sword and knives were secure in their sheaths and bowstring in good condition.
“You’re a strange creature Jos.” Daryl said.
“Oh?” she said, raising an eyebrow and looking over at him.
“Yes. That’s the second time in an hour that you’ve checked your, armament, and there isn’t an enemy in sight.”
“It’s a reflex.” She said, “One that’s kept me healthy for a number of years.”
“The daughter of a noble house and one of the King’s Hands. Certainly not what comes to mind when one thinks of a typical noble lady.”
“You’re one to talk.” She said. “The bastard of Dragon’s Keep, a King’s Hand himself. Anyone would be surprised to find you out here, if your brother continues on the way he has he’ll be disinherited and you’ll be acknowledged and made heir.”
“Half brother.” He rolled his eyes, “And the last place I want to end up is back there. When did you learn the Old Toung anyway?”
“Don’t try to change the subject.” She grinned at him.

She climbed the stairs to wall, looking out over the assembled soldiers and letting her voice carry to the farthest man, “My father once told my brothers that one man on a wall is worth ten beneath it. They no longer have the advantage of surprise but they do have the advantage if numbers. They have come here because we support the king, because they are rebels and while we live they cannot take the throne. They will try to kill us; they will try to sweep us away to make room for their new order. We will outlast them.” She reached the top of the wall, “We have enough food and water to last years. We have enough swords, axes and bows for every one of us; we have enough oil and arrows for every one of them. But that does not mean we can afford to use them carelessly, it does not mean we can spend our own lives casually. I will not send you needlessly to your deaths but you must not waste your arrows. Do not shoot until you cannot miss. Any man wastes an arrow has to go out and get it back.”

She sat in a shadowy corner of the inn’s common room and watched as Daryl told a group of other men some story of his great accomplishments. She was too far away to make out the words but he spoke as much with his hands and body as he did with his words. She listened as his voce rose and fell and then the audience bellowed with laughter. He thought she had gone to bed an hour ago but she had crept back down the stairs to watch. No doubt he was telling them about the time he had won a wrestling match with a half crazed troll hermit.

She looked up in time to catch the drunk as he staggered out of the taproom and into the street. He shouted hoarsely as she kept him from falling in the mud, “What do I look like? I’m not telling your future!”
“I wasn’t going to ask you to.” She said, gently pushing him back until he was leaning against a hitching post.
“I’m not so dumb!” he slurred, “I’m a wizard damn it all, not a country fair magician!”
“I believe you.” She said, trying to ease her elbow out of his grasp. At some point he had latched on to her
“You don’t believe me! Nobody believes me! I’ll prove it damn you. I’ll turn this mud to gold!” He raised his free hand and started trying to chant a spell. Unfortunately not only was he still slurring his words, he still hadn’t let go of Jossalla’s elbow. Soon enough he finished chanting, paused and pointed a finger at the ground. Jossalla flinched in anticipation of a horribly botched spell and was relieved when all that was produced were a few sparks and pops. A few horses tethered nearby jerked back, eyes rolling but otherwise there was no effect. “Ask me what your future is!” he shouted at her now, apparently not noticing that his spell had failed.
“I don’t want to know what my future is.” She replied, scowling at him
“Ask me dammit!” he gripped her elbow harder.
“Fine,” she gave in, “what is my future?”
“I’m not a seer!” he shouted, “How the fuck should I know?” He let her go, laughing almost uncontrollably and staggered off down the street.

Jossalla slowly lowered her sword and tried to wipe the blood off her face. She quickly gave it up as a bad job; her hands had more blood on them than her face did. She looked down at the gore-covered sword and then out over the battlements at the retreating soldiers. Suddenly the sword seemed to weight more than a horse, more than a castle and she wanted to drop it, needed to drop it. But she couldn’t make her hand let go of the hilt.
“So what now?” Daryl asked, his voice seemed to come from far away.
“They’ll be back.” She said. “This castle was made for a siege. We’ll just have to outlast them.”