The Beroan family kept the matriarchal Roganid Custom in their domestic arrangements; Feldua sat on his wife’s right hand, and Ukhand faced him across the table, sitting, as the most honoured male guest, on her left. Shenailo directed the meal from the head of the table, beautiful, pale, and very young, her courage fragile as she feigned normality, and cast continual anxious glances at her husband. The fare was good, wrasse in a green sauce, roasted tomatoes, rice with pumpkin seeds and dried apricots; Dorna’s port remained open, the pretender having no ships.
‘With food like this on the table, we must assume the pretender intends to assault the walls,’ observed Ukhand. ‘He has no way to lay an effective siege.’
Feldua nudged his fish anticlockwise around the plate with his knife. His drooping moustache lent experience to his face, but his large, dark, long-lashed eyes betrayed his fear. Ukhand knew the young hipparch had courage: he had seen him at the forefront of a charge against very stiff odds, and he hadn’t flinched from the fight, even when more than half his own men had met their death or were begging for it. The fear he felt now was for others, Ukhand could tell; those child’s eyes, incapable of dissembling, lingered with anguish on his wife, on each of his children.
‘The walls are strong,’ said Feldua. ‘They are not the most modern design, or the tallest, but they are sturdy, and easily defended. We may have taken heavy losses yesterday, but there are still hundreds of men to hold the parapets.’
The children had been dismissed from the table some time before, and were playing nearby; Shenailo sent them to the far side of the round hall, the ground floor of the Water Tower at which the city wall terminated, built on jagged rocks overlooking the sea. This had been the Beroan family home since Dorna’s succession dispute had become heated; they could only assume that the family estate had long since been plundered by the pretender’s forces. The room was well lit by a large window, far above ground level on the city side of the tower.
Maghîllin flicked a plump green olive into the air and caught it in his mouth.
‘I seen walls defended good,’ he said, in his curious accent; ‘but I never see a wall that couldn’t be breach. City wall not the same as a fortress.’
He shrugged, smiling. Beside him, his sister nodded in agreement, her copper skin showing a faint bloom of sweat from the raw chillies she had eaten with her meal, as well as the opium she had smoked before it.
Shenailo put her hand on Ukhand’s and leaned close, lowering her voice. ‘I would ask you to tell us honestly, sir: could they breach the wall? And if so, how long might we have?’
She looked towards her children, tumbling obliviously in a patch of dusty sunlight by the open door. Her husband was a commander, and a seasoned one now, by most measures, but she had seen how he looked to his hireling Ukhand for advice.
‘Until Lancer Irtain returns from the gate, madam, it is very hard to be certain. It is certainly not unrealistic to expect the assault might fail; but you have asked for honesty, so I will say clearly that the numbers do not favour us. If I were your husband, I would place you and the children on a ship to take lodgings at Tortenos, simply from prudence.’
Shenailo set her jaw and creased her brow in a determined frown. ‘I will not leave the city while my husband remains here.’
Ukhand put his other hand on Shenailo’s and squeezed it reassuringly, nodding to acknowledge her courage. His archer Umbaral spoke up from his left.
‘Rest assured, madam, we’ll not stint from defending you and your family while there is breath in our bodies.’
His words dripped insincerity like unction, but Ukhand supposed that someone who didn’t know him would take them at face value. Shenailo smiled gratefully, then directed the servant to refill their cups. The young woman was pale with fear, but her skin was olive and her eyes dark like her husband’s; she reminded him a little of the girl he’d been betrothed to before he was stripped of his hipparchy and his inheritance, but perhaps it was just that she was young and pretty. It was Feldua who truly reminded him of his past, of the future that had been laid before him and denied him. He hoped this brave, honest, noble youth would fare better.
There was a jingling of chainmail as the guard admitted one of his lancers, a young Maiagefid, who crossed the floor quickly and whispered in his ear that Irtain had returned, and wished to speak to him secretly. He excused himself discretely, and followed the man outside.
He led him through the Blackswords’ horsefold to the large tent the junior lancers slept in. He could see Irtain’s shock of prematurely white, wiry hair from outside, even with the sun in his face; the Chokhali was standing just inside the flap, his flat, tanned face downcast.
‘Lancer? I expected you back an hour ago.’
‘Yes, sir. I went to the port, sir… the Yellowbird is making ready to sail, sir, and I think they’ve put off some of our supplies.’
‘The port? On whose instructions?’ Irtain seemed uncharacteristically reticent.
‘May I make my report please, Captain Ukhand? I think you’ll see why…’
‘Why here? I take it the situation must be grave, if you think it best to keep it from our commander.’
‘The Gate Commander told me to, sir.’
Ukhand raised an eyebrow at that. ‘Well and good, then. Make your report.’
When Irtain had finished Ukhand knew his lancer’s downcast, sullen look for shame. He considered how many of his men would have come back to report under the same circumstances; his brother Rajir certainly, but few others.
‘And so, after you left the gate, you went to the port to check on the disposition of our transport.’
Even in the shade of the tent he could see that Irtain had reddened to the roots of his hair.
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ he blurted, ‘I wasn’t thinking, I would never… I owe everything I am to you, sir, I will accept my punishment without complaint.’
Ukhand had to smile. ‘If I were a lord, Irtain, I would make you my hipparch.’ He gripped Irtain’s shoulder. ‘You’ve scouted the harbour, and you’ve brought me a chest full of treasure, in addition to discharging the duty you were commissioned to perform. I have no cause to reprimand you that I can think of.’
‘Shut up, Lancer. I’m interested in what you did, not in what you thought of doing. Come and make your report to Commander Feldua; you can describe the dispositions exactly as you just have, but leave out the message that was sent to me. When we took this city’s coin we became its soldiers, and to go aboard ship now would be desertion.’
He put the chest’s key in the pocket at his boot top, without inspecting its contents.
When Irtain had repeated his report, Shenailo was white and trembling, unable to speak. She went to her children and gathered them in her arms, although they would plainly have preferred to continue playing. The blood had also drained from Feldua’s face, but he maintained his composure.
‘Then the time to debate is over,’ he said, mastering himself to keep his voice steady. ‘Order your men to arm, Captain Ukhand. I shall see that my household troops are ready.’
‘Before we arm, Commander,’ said Ukhand, ‘it is my duty to point out the alternative course. We have chartered the Minessorid caravel Yellowbird to take twenty men and forty horses to Tua at the conclusion of our engagement; it is at the wharf here, and with our reduced numbers there is easily room aboard for your household.’
Irtain looked anxious at this, but remained silent.
Feldua looked taken aback. ‘No,’ he said, ‘my duty is here, to my city…’
Umbaral rolled his eyes scornfully. The twins, Maghîllin and Ashurra had locked forearms, and were staring into each others’ eyes, as they always did before battle, whispering in their own language.
‘Consider your family. It seems unlikely they could make their way to the port unescorted, and the Yellowbird’s captain will certainly not board them if I am not present.’
‘We will not leave him!’ gasped Shenailo, sobbing. She repeated her words, and again, more quietly, like a mantra, rocking herself and her children.
‘Then we will arm immediately,’ said Ukhand reluctantly, ‘but may I make one suggestion?’
‘What is that?’
‘Leave your household guards here with your family.’ All but three of Feldua’s own troops had been killed in the charge the previous day, and one of those three was developing a fever from the wound he had taken. ‘Let them barricade the door and retire to the top floor. If the Suluf come plundering they won’t be looking to storm a small fortress like this, and you are well provisioned.’
Feldua nodded. ‘Thank you for your concern, Captain. I will feel much happier leaving them if they’re guarded.’
Ukhand beckoned Maghîllin, who served as cornet over the lancers, and muttered into his ear. ‘Get the men ready. Bring nothing big, but small or valuable effects in saddlebags. Fully armed.’
Maghîllin nodded his understanding and went outside, followed by his sister.
Feldua’s farewell to his wife and children was tearful, on all sides; his three well armoured soldiers looked on stoically, standing to attention with their halberds presented in salute. Irtain brought up the rear of the column so that Feldua would not notice the small chest strapped to his harness. Ukhand took no pleasure in the task that lay before him, and it pained him to see the small size of the company he now led, but it was still good to see his troops turned out in good order, marching willingly into danger with quiet discipline.
The Blackswords rode tall destriers, the same heavy horses that cataphracts would ride, either Herekhis or the shaggy Suluf breed, the Morfeld that was traded at the Saramet horse fair to the north of Dorna. They wore thick leather leggings and boots, mail hauberks and open faced capelines on their heads; their armour was fire blackened and their black surcoats bore the outline of a sword in white. Their shields carried the same device, as did the pennant flying from Maghîllin’s lance. Each man carried a sabre or backsword with a blackened blade, except Irtain who preferred a double edged longsword; their lances were three yards long with narrow pointed blades designed to impale through armour. Black had seemed the right colour when the time came to set a uniform for his band: fire blackened their blades, as the executioner’s fire had taken his father’s life for his treason, and would have taken his own if he had remained in Jeikhaf.
Ukhand still conducted himself as a hipparch, and was at pains to behave with integrity and honour when circumstances would permit him, but for the dozen years of his exile he had been a stateless commoner, and as such he would attract no ransom. He had no illusions regarding his fate should he be captured, or that of his men.
He led the column out, riding abreast with the young hipparch, Feldua Beroan, who wore his family’s badge, a red curlew on a yellow field. It had felt better the day before, when the course of the hours to come had held uncertainty, and consequently hope. Any pride he felt riding beside this handsome and honourable man, this courageous paragon of hipparchy, was as bitter as earwax in his mouth today.
There was a spur of rock between them and the main part of the city; as soon as they rounded it they could hear the sounds of battle. The clamour increased dramatically as they made their way towards the gate. Ukhand signalled Maghîllin to halt the column, and walked on a few yards with Feldua before pulling up.
‘From the sound of it there’s a lot of men fighting on each side,’ he said.
‘Our side may have sallied out…’
‘The gate was barricaded, and you don’t get hundreds of men out through a sally port. Also, the sound is too clear: do you hear how crisply those swords ring out? They’ve breached the gate or the wall beside it.’
‘Really? Then we must press on!’
Feldua stood in his stirrups and raised his hand.
‘Commander! We will throw our lives away if we go charging straight into the unknown, and it seems unlikely we will get any orders when we reach the gate. We should consider how we can cost the enemy the most.’
The streets were deserted, and every building shuttered, but they were still on a broad, main thoroughfare; reinforcements might come marching past them at any moment, or a messenger might pass by. Ukhand looked at the narrower, twisting streets that approached the wall. Houses and small tenements built from yellow brick and thatched with reed crowded together, with little sense of order away from the main road.
‘We have little time to consider, Captain; the enemy is in my city now! What do you suggest?’
‘We should approach along the wall: that way we won’t be riding out into open space, and we won’t be anticipated. We may be able to charge the enemy’s flank as we did yesterday.’
That was an extremely slim chance in the melee Ukhand would expect to find around the gate, but Feldua seemed to find it plausible, and assented. Ukhand signalled to Maghîllin, and led off into the alleys toward the city wall. When they had turned a corner and left the larger street, he rode ahead of the hipparch and turned his horse to block the younger man’s way. Feldua’s face darkened in anger.
‘What is it now? The battle is not waiting for us, Captain!’
‘I must ask you again, Commander.’ Ukhand looked the hipparch directly in the eye, unflinching, holding his attention with a hard-earned air of authority. He spoke loudly and deliberately. ‘We are not yet far from your tower; your tower is not far from the port. There is a ship waiting. We could have your family aboard in half a watch.’
‘Gods take you!’ exclaimed Feldua angrily. ‘I cannot abandon my city in its gravest need! We have already wasted enough time on this: are you a coward?’
‘No, I am no coward.’ Ukhand lowered his voice, but pitched it to carry. ‘You must understand this, Commander Feldua: in this battle there is no chance of victory, and little hope of survival. What hope of survival there is will sooner or later lie only in retreat. You fight to save your city; we fight for coin, coin we cannot spend if we are dead.’
Ukhand met Maghîllin’s eye, and the Shallu grinned, taking his meaning immediately. He handed his lance to his sister, who rode beside him, and edged his horse closer.
The anger that had darkened his complexion now drove the blood from Feldua’s face, and he trembled with indignation.
‘This is the risk you are paid to take,’ he said, his voice tight with fury. ‘If you take our coin but will not take the risk you deserve the headsman’s axe for a deserter.’
‘I am no deserter, Commander.’ Ukhand held Feldua’s eye, speaking levelly but intensely. ‘I am a man of honour and a man of my word; I was raised to be a hipparch, though my family’s fortunes did not permit me to remain one. We will fight and die for you, but you must understand exactly what it is you ask of us.’
Feldua’s shoulders dropped; he relaxed, and nodded in understanding. Ukhand nodded to Maghîllin, who drew his knife hard across the young man’s throat, cutting cleanly through his windpipe, and then embraced him with both arms to stop him drawing his sword. It seemed a span of ages before blood welled from the ghastly injury, and Feldua emitted a wordless, gurgling gasp, his gaze still locked on Ukhand’s in an expression of pain, horror and accusation. Ukhand felt that he was staring into a pit; he could stand it only for a moment. He leaned forward, and drove his poniard through Feldua’s left eye; the light went out in his right.