Irtain could smell burning, and hear the rumble of a crowd at war. It wasn’t so much the clash of arms, although there was that as well, muted and intermittent, but the sound of many voices; he had survived enough battles to know the difference between the note of a market, or an angry mob, or an arena audience, and that of many soldiers, shouting and acknowledging orders, calling for supplies, asking for intelligence, bellowing in pain. It was not the voice of a victorious army, but of one recently defeated, in fear of more bad fortune. He overtook a unit of pikemen, marching in weary good order, and rode into the broad market square in front of Dorna’s city gate. His black Herekhi snickered as they drew near the fighting, and shook her head, but she stayed calm.
The inner gate was shored up with heavy boards and timbers, and he knew from his last sight of the barbican that the outer portal was similarly braced. He took in the situation methodically, silently mouthing the terms in which he would report. Around four score heavy foot mustered by the gate, apparently as a final reserve, looking fresh, helmets off; behind them, around two score medium horse, some injured, but not recently, also battle ready; six or seven score medium foot to the left near a postern, looking tired and afraid, with many injuries. Irtain supposed it was a contingent of these last troops that he could hear in combat beyond the wall.
The reed thatch roofs of three houses near the wall were alight, but bow-shot from beyond it was occasional at worst; to the west of the gate, on Irtain’s left, there were a number of men, nearly a score, lying dead before the wall; it was impossible to distinguish defenders from attackers by their gear, but he guessed it was a mix of both, and some appeared to have died from falling rather than weapons. Near them three sets of wooden steps climbed to the parapet, guarded by frightened peasants in leather with makeshift spears; the parapet was manned by archers, who were shooting regularly, and further to the west was a tower, at the top of which more armoured foot were mustered, ready to defend the wall in either direction; to the east of the gate the defences were similarly arranged.
Irtain had kept his horse walking as he observed the scene, and he turned to the left, towards the horse pens that held a score of the Blackswords’ destriers as well as the city’s herd; he guessed that Dorna had more cavalry left than the forty odd he could see mustered here. The pens seemed intact and well tended, and there was nothing he could do there; he could see plenty of feed, and a groom. The horse he rode, and those his company had with them at the Water Tower, were fresh; those they had managed to save from the battle yesterday were in the pen, and there they would have to remain, for the moment at least. If the city fell, they’d be well treated he supposed; this was horse country, and the Suluf mercenaries the pretender had employed were said to love horses better than women. He didn’t like to think of the gold they would cost to replace if they were forced to abandon them; that would be Captain Ukhand’s worry, but he had more urgent concerns.
The square was a chaos of messengers and deliveries, small units continually arriving and being despatched to other parts of the city; Irtain could see that the inn on the south side of the square was the epicentre of the traffic, and supposed that was where he’d go to request orders. First though, he needed a look at the battle.
As he turned his attention back to the parapet, the top of a ladder appeared between two crenels, and then another a little nearer to the barbican. An archer shoved ineffectually at the ladder nearest him, then leaned over to shoot down, but withdrew hastily as arrows clattered around him. Irtain spurred his horse across the square, letting messengers and water carriers scatter as they could, dismounting at a leap and handing his reins to one of the peasants that guarded the stairs. Another had already lit a torch from the brazier that stood nearby: Irtain dashed it from his hand.
‘You’ll know in plenty of time if you need to fire the steps,’ he snapped, ‘and you’ll do it when someone gives you an order to fire them! Understand?’
The young man nodded, terrified. Irtain drew his sword, brightly polished edge outlining dull black flat, and ran up the steps as fast as his mail would let him, leaving his shield hanging from his saddle.
The first man up a ladder took an arrow in the throat and fell forward onto the parapet with a gargling roar, blood spraying like a fountain. Archers below focussed their attacks on those above, and two fell from the wall, one screaming, one in silence. Then more men topped the ladders, and Irtain was on them before the troops at the tower could reach the position.
He cut one man’s legs from under him, sending him windmilling to the market square, and drove the next back into the wall with a mailed fist to his unarmoured face; standing too close to swing his sword or draw his knife he grappled the man and smashed his head against the stonework until he bled from the eyes. As he released him, he saw that the troops from the tower were held back by two archers, who were swinging their shortswords wildly to fend off the jabbing spear of another attacker who had climbed the further ladder. Not wishing to waste his edge on the man’s mail he swung the flat of his blade against the side of his head, striking heavily with the forte and sending him crashing to his death below.
An arrow glanced off his capeline, and he ducked behind a crenel, but by then the archery sargeant on the barbican had directed his men to suppress the bowshot from below. The tower troops used long poles to push the ladders away, and Irtain realised the attack was no more than a distraction, to keep the defenders on the walls, rather than sallying out to disrupt the preparations outside. One of the archers, a very young man, was shaking too violently to resheath his sword; he’d shat himself, and the stink of it filled Irtain’s nostrils as he leaned in to help him. He patted his shoulder and gave him a grin.
‘Well done, lad; you’re doing fine. Keep those arrows flying now. And mind your footing.’
The stones were slippery with blood, but Irtain didn’t see any sawdust to scatter, so he squatted down and peered over the nearest merlon as he cleaned his sword, after a glance below to check his mare was still secure.
The defending archers were covering the last of the foot’s hasty retreat to the barbican’s sally port, although it looked as though they’d left a lot of their number on the ground behind them. It was hard to tell, since both attackers and defenders were from Dorna, and their insignia was well bloodied. He could gather a good impression of the order of battle from where he was, though.
The pretender had taken heavy losses to his own cavalry the day before, due in part to the Blackswords’ flanking charge that had prevented the retreat from turning into a complete rout; the horse around his banner didn’t seem to outnumber those mustered in the square behind Irtain, and he knew those weren’t all of the city’s reserves. The foot were the main issue: Irtain guessed he could see about a thousand heavy and medium infantry deployed around the field, and five hundred archers. Camped beside the pretender’s position, and seemingly uninterested in the siege, were the four hundred-odd Suluf horse that had carried the previous day’s battle. Beyond them, the company of Kherevekhi engineers appeared to be packing up and leaving; this suggested at least that the pretender had lacked the gold to entice them under the wall to mine it, but they had left him with some imposing siege engines. There was a well protected ram, near the centre of the line, on the fringes of bowshot, and two assault towers on either side. Looking closely, he could see rams in their bases as well. Behind them the foot were doing something with long wooden beams; assembling trebuchets, he feared. He’d seen enough.
As he led his heavy Herekhi mare across the square, several men recognised his insignia and saluted him informally, or said the name of his company. He guessed the Blackswords were thought to have acquitted themselves well the previous day; presumably in turning the pretender’s cavalry charge, an action he’d not been involved in, though he saw no reason to tell them so.
The inn was a prosperous building with a slate roof, and a new facade in the austere style the wealthy seemed to favour now. The door was guarded by two men in decorated armour with Lord Lusino’s badge, bearing three-bladed spetums, who exchanged a glance and waved him through. The common room was a bustle of officers and scribes, some sat at tables eating, others gathered around maps. Irtain was approached by a tall, pale looking young man, dressed as a noble, and armed with a sword, but unarmoured, and missing his right arm.
‘Good day, Lancer,’ he said. ‘I am assisting the Lord Gate Commander: he has ordered that any messenger from your company be shown through to his office.’
The Commander’s office was a private dining room: the large table was strewn with papers, and there were several officers and scribes in the room with him. They appeared to be packing the room’s contents away, rolling maps onto wooden spindles, stacking silverware in an open crate and stuffing brocaded clothing into a large sack. The Commander looked up as Irtain entered.
‘Good!’ he said loudly, pointing a finger at him. ‘I’ll speak with you shortly.’ He returned to the urgent discussion he was having with his staff officers, all of whom looked exhausted, and showed signs of having seen combat recently. He concluded his conversation in a few minutes, and sent the other men from the room, shooing out the scribes that were packing his belongings as well.
‘Would you like to sit , lancer?’ he asked.
‘I’d prefer to stand, sir.’
‘As you wish. Drink?’
He splashed wine from a cheap clay bottle into a silver goblet. Irtain accepted. It was rough, acid wine, well watered, but it was welcome.
‘The Blackswords are the only mercenary company in the city… what’s your name, soldier?’
‘Irtain Rakhil, sir.’
‘Well, Irtain, your company’s given us good service, and lost some good men. Every other soldier in the city is here because they have to be, but you boys have chosen to fight for us, and you’ve done it bravely, paid or not.’
‘Thank you.’ Irtain did not appreciate the compliment. He waited to hear the Commander’s point, thinking of the eight good friends that had lost their lives, out of twenty that come to Dorna, along with every last man of the two-hundred foot they’d hired.
‘So what can I do for you, Lancer Irtain?’
‘Commander Feldua requests orders and intelligence sir, and my own Captain… asks the same.’
‘I… I understand. That’s not what I meant, but no matter. I assume you’ve had a look for yourself?’
‘Over the wall? That I have, sir.’
‘And what did you think?’
‘It will be a difficult defence, sir.’
‘A hard fight, sir.’
The Commander walked to the window and looked out into the inn’s yard. It was a large window, and its few large panes spoke of its owner’s wealth. The yard was full of horses, grooms and officers, milling around and shouting. He drove his right fist wearily into his left palm, once, twice, three times.
‘A hard fight, indeed.’ He turned back to face Irtain. ‘Yesterday, sixteen of your company and eight men of Dorna charged the flank of eighty cavalry, and thanks to that, I have an army left, of sorts. You lost five men in that charge, and how many foot on the field before?’
‘All of our foot, and three out of four sergeants. I’m the only survivor from that fight, sir.’
‘You’re a sergeant of foot?’
‘I serve as such when we hire foot, sir, but I’m a lancer. Captain Ukhand has my thanks for that, sir: I was born a peasant, and first fought as a levy.’
Irtain was unclear why he decided to share such details with the Commander, but he felt that for all his obvious distraction the man was a good officer, and he was curious as to why he was sparing him the time to speak to him alone.
‘He’s a good man, your captain, not like many mercenaries… I… today…’
The Commander choked on his words, turned, threw his goblet violently into the corner of the room.
‘Today, Lancer Irtain, I am going to die.’
Irtain said nothing, but straightened his posture a little, and met the Commander’s eye.
‘Me, all of my officers, most of my men. There’s no winning this fight now. You know that as well as I do. I expect the assault to come in the next watch or two. The pretender will wish to spare the city from plunder, but his Suluf mercenaries will want gold and women, and they will want to help themselves to them, not have them doled out; it’s doubtful he could stop them if he tried. They are coming in whether I like it or not, and all that remains to me is to charge them as much as I can for admission.’
‘With respect, sir, wouldn’t it be better to surrender?’
‘That’s not my decision. Lord Lusino is preparing the defence of the fortress, and he has ordered me to hold the gate. I’ll hold it until they spill my guts.’
A silence fell, and Irtain glanced towards the door. It was painted white, like the walls, edged with a honeysuckle motif in blue and gold. A man was weeping and cursing loudly in the inn’s common room.
‘So, your orders. It would not be usual to release your company before the battle is concluded, and Commander Feldua would not believe you if you told him that I had; so to him I say, the situation is grim and he is to come and assist the defence of the gate. To your Captain, you will report what you have seen of the enemy disposition, and if you can find a ship to take you out of here, you have my blessing. Wait…’
The Commander squatted and pulled a small chest from below the table, from a stack of several similar boxes. He placed it on the table, and tried several small keys from a large ring in it. When he found the one that fit, he removed it from the ring and handed it to Irtain.
‘I won’t need to pay my troops again,’ he said sadly, ‘and I’d sooner you took this than let those bastards at the gate have it. I doubt you’ll get all your horses out of here, if any of them, but this should more than pay for them.’
He thrust the small chest at him; it was very heavy, but Irtain found he could hold it against his body with his left arm.
‘Thank you, sir.’ He searched the Commander’s eyes for any sign of malice or duplicity, but there was none. ‘Sir, may I ask your name?’
Irtain saluted. Then he extended his hand; the commander clasped it.
‘I hope you make a good death, Commander Sesaro.’
Commander Sesaro met his gaze levelly, and nodded in acknowledgement.
Irtain turned and left the room. He crossed the common room, not looking right or left, tightly clasping the treasure chest under his arm. He was able to strap it to his saddle by the scabbard laces, and mounted. He hadn’t looked inside, but he could tell from the weight, even if it was silver, he could live well for the rest of his life back home in Chokhal, and the cost of passage to Alkhehir wouldn’t lighten it by much. The roof of one of the burning houses had collapsed, and no attempt was being made to extinguish any of them. There was shouting beyond the wall. There was fighting on the parapet, to the east of the barbican this time. He took a last look to remind himself of the disposition of forces in the square, but it seemed unlikely he’d need the information now. Eighty dead men here, well rested and uninjured, with heavy armour; forty dead men there, with horses and mail hauberks, tired but determined; a dozen dead men with longbows on the parapet. He turned his mare towards the docks.