The battle for Solay

This ends on a cliffhanger; not of our choice –all of us much prefer closure– but the last train waits for no man, and it doesn’t care that the man happens to be a prince and an admiral and in the middle of a battle.

Where do I start? I’m alive. Aidan is alive, which is a miracle, and mostly the result of Raith staring Naigha down. Raith is alive and so is her apprentice, and I think her apprentice’s man too. Attima is alive but wounded. As far as I know Beguyan is alive. I don’t know anything about Ferin, who was on the northwest side with the bulk of the Valdyan army last I heard of him.

Dhamir is dead. Aidan slipped on his guts and fell onto someone’s sword.

That I am alive and practically whole –there’s a scratch on my shoulder that marks an attempt to cut off my arm in the exact spot where three years ago another Khas made a much better effort to cut off my arm in Jomhur; a painful reminder that I ought to have worked more on the defence on my left side– I have my company to thank for. They were defending me all the time, and half of them fell doing it.

We started out making plans and more plans: a sham attack in the north-west, done by Bebakshi and a crew of gifted people –hand-picked by her and Raith and, on Raith’s recommendation, Attima’s Síthi wife– who could make it look much closer to the city than it really was; a raid on the citadel; but first a real attack on one of the forts, which I would have to do more or less single-handedly because I was the only one between here and Turenay with such command over earth. (And even in Turenay I don’t think there is one. Why is this gift of mine so rare? The only one I know of who has it, though in a slightly different form, is Rikhi.)

I’d already looked at the fort with my mind and found that it stood on clay, already soft and turned to slippery mud by more than a day of relentless rain. Also, there were three narrow tunnels running from the base of the fort to– nowhere, it seemed. Beguyan got Sashila, his personal dandar, after warning me that she was not a nice woman (which didn’t bother me much, as long as I could work with her), and I showed her the tunnels that I couldn’t make head or tail of; she said they were likely to have been made by earlier attackers in hopes of undermining the fort. Good: they would give me something to pull at.

The following morning we went to the fort to do it for real. I had quite an audience: I think everybody was there who was on this side of the city. I had my personal guard with me, all semti, most of whom I’d already worked with in Jomhur and Albetire. First I tried the same thing as in Erday, to burrow like a mole, but it was too muddy for that, even when I tried as a badger. Pull the earth out from under the fort, then, to let the water in so the fort would have nowhere to go except down.

On the first try it shook a little, earning me applause from our side and confusing Khas on the ramparts of the fort. I worried at it like a badger indeed, making more room for the water, and still more, until the fort shook and the earth moved in waves so that we had to retreat to higher ground. Another push, and the whole fort sank into the mud, much like a ship, with a squelchy sucking sound. Soldiers came running out and got stuck in marshy ground –Beguyan worried that our side might not be able to enter the city because the ground had gone back to the swamp it was before the city was built– but at least those who tried were easily shot down with crossbows.

“I could do that again to the other fort,” I told Beguyan, “but not today.” “Let’s stick to our plans,” he said, “when something happens that makes our plans not viable we’ll change them. As long as they work we’ll let them work.” The next part of the plan was to block the Khas from leaving their safe harbour, and to take the citadel from the sea. Bebakshi left with her troop, Beguyan sent Arni away to lay the blockade. She swapped ships with Attima: his was a lot faster and more maneuverable, and we wouldn’t need such fast ships anyway. “If anything wants to come through we’ll catch it,” she said confidently.

We’d need a really large ship to make the first attempt on the citadel, “the one you came in would be suitable,” Beguyan said, “that’s too big to sink easily, and too high to shoot their arrows over when it’s at the quay. It won’t stay whole, of course.” I could see what he meant, but I couldn’t promise it without consulting Aidan. “It belongs to my brother, we have to ask him,” I said, and just at that moment Aidan himself rushed in, presented himself to Beguyan with almost Iss-Peranian propriety, and reported that there had been a sortie about ten thousand strong at the breach in the wall on the north-west side.

Beguyan promptly started giving orders, several officers left, and I held Aidan back for a moment. “We’re going to need a large ship to take the citadel,” I said, “and the only one we have ready that’s suitable is yours.” “Can I talk to you in private?” he asked, and we went out for a moment. “You see, Cora doesn’t really want to be rich, it makes her very uncomfortable, but from what she’s written it seems that she’s already been spending the money.” “Just the money from the cargo, or taking advances on the future?” “I don’t know,” he said, “but she’s been making investments, promising things. You see, we can live on the proceeds from the weavery, but I’m not so sure of the rest.”

“If we win this war we’ll all be rich,” I said, “and if we lose it doesn’t matter anyway. And I’ve got Koll Neveshtan’s legacy– I can always compensate you from that, don’t worry.” He still worried, about Cora more than about himself, but he did assent. “But you’ll need another crew, mine are free men, neither slaves nor soldiers, they shouldn’t be forced to die because they just happen to be there.” That turned out not to be a problem: Attima could provide a crew more used to fighting than Aidan’s peaceful trade sailors.

There was talking, eating and drinking, and very early in the morning we went to the makeshift harbour to board the ships. Attima –without his wives, who he’d left in the camp under Tashili’s guard– and Raith were on the White Whale with part of the troops, and I was on Arni’s flagship under the command of one of Attima’s captains with Aidan and Dhamir, the latter painted like one of the actors in the Iss-Peranian world play. “Clear target,” I’d heard Attima mutter earlier. It was a very short voyage, close enough to shore that my gifts didn’t leave me: useful as I could stay in contact with Arni and Raith all the time.

There was a slim little marble tower at the mouth of the harbour –it looked like a lookout– and Raith hit it with lightning because she didn’t trust it. After that, people in the other harbour watchtowers shot at us, but we were well out of range. We couldn’t take the route we’d planned on the map because Attima’s captain spotted a shoal in the way; we had to sail very close to the stronghold and were promptly pelted with arrows and boulders. We saw the White Whale keel over and lose speed, and even overtook her; they cut down the masts and used the oars, and we arrived at the quay together. Now it was evident that Attima had been right about using as large a ship as possible. Even on her side she was high enough to serve as a protective wall against the Khas who were coming down the steps.

Attima’s troops were already fighting their way upstairs when we disembarked. Aidan and Dhamir were in front of me, fighting side by side. It was very chaotic for a while– Raith was still high up on the White Whale, throwing lightning into the Khas ranks, and I briefly pondered making the ground shake but it was limestone covered in marble and we were on it as well as the Khas: not a good idea. I lost part of my protection when a short arrow hit the man next to me’s shield arm, going clean through his shoulder and falling to the ground. I picked it up: it was made of lead. Later I heard that that was one of the standard anti-siege weapons, because you could pelt the enemy with them without aiming much and be assured that they’d go through anything they hit.

Eventually we were at the top, quite close to a large white house that looked as if we could take it. I hesitated, because I had no military command here, but a voice in my head –Anshen?– said “of course you have command, you’re a king!” so I shouted to my guard “To the house! Take the house!” and the fighting went that way.

In my mind I felt Aidan fall. I pushed through to him and found him lying prone in a pool of blood, fallen across Dhamir’s body. He was bleeding like a stuck pig from somewhere under his cuirass. I took him under the arms, motioned to the nearest soldier to take his legs, and we got him to the house –it was mostly ours by then– and laid him in the porch. “Someone who knows more first aid than me please help!” I cried, and Dushtan appeared at my side. Bless Raisse who must have told her never to let me out of her sight! Aidan’s mind was far away, very weak, and while Dushtan took care of his body –looking quite desperate– I did my best to keep him with me, praying to Anshen all the time. Suddenly Raith was there too, and as I looked her in the eyes I saw Naigha. The size of a woman, and at the same time the size of the whole world. “You can’t have him yet,” I kept saying, while Raith put herself squarely in front of the goddess, arms crossed, glaring at her. As she and Raith were trying to face one another down she became more Iss-Peranian, then fierce and barbaric, as I’d never seen her before.

Presently Naigha became her familiar self again and went on her way– she must have plenty to do on the battlefield. I looked at Raith incredulously, not daring to be relieved yet. Raith shrugged. “She owed me one,” she said. Then I prayed to Naigha, a prayer of thanks.

I was about to say that the house was an ideal place for a field hospital when I noticed that while I had been praying and fighting for Aidan, people had been making it into one. And being Iss-Peranians they were thorough about it, bringing in supplies and cots and more medics. Aidan didn’t need me for now; Dushtan had given him a sleeping draught. I offered to seal any place for Dushtan that she wanted sealed, but she said that people had to be able to go in and out, so Raith and I took ourselves out of the way into the still relentlessly falling rain. The marble pavement was slick with blood and there was fighting everywhere. And dead bodies everywhere. We met Attima, bloody and sweating, his side bandaged with a rag. “Good thing I didn’t take my wives,” he said, “no place for noncombatants here!” “Yes, glad I didn’t take mine either,” Raith said and I could only concur, however much good Raisse could have done here.

Attima’s dandar relayed news from the other fronts: Beguyan’s troops had built a walkway into the city across the marsh I’d dropped the fort in and were making good progress there; in the northwest troops had entered the city and penetrated almost to the main square, driving the enemy towards the citadel gates. And indeed, we could already see them. The gate was already closed, locked and barred; I put a seal on it with a vengeance. When Alysei Athal astin Velain closes a door, it stays closed. That much I can do, even if I can’t protect my little brother from harm.

Our side of the gate was now ours, except for the fortress itself, the almost-empty army camp (which Attima’s men were making short work of), the arcade of pillars leading to the gate, and a kind of pavilion in the middle. Raith threw a bolt of lightning at the pavilion, setting it on fire, and asked Attima to call his men back from the archway so she could do the same to it– not that it burned, being made of stone, but she did scatter the soldiers trying to hold it against us.

Finally we held everything within the walls, including the walls themselves. “Don’t attack the fortress yet,” Raith said, “there’s a problem with the walls, they’re… damn, what’s the word?” “Enchanted?” Attima asked. “Not quite– they’re made of, well, they’re reinforced with–” She turned to Attima, pointing at him, “What do you get strength from?” “My arms and legs,” Attima said. “And what do your arms and legs get strength from?” “From what I eat and drink, I suppose.” “Well, Khas mages get strength from dead people, people they kill. Children mostly, there’s a lot of strength from children. That’s what the walls are covered in. You have to tell your troops not to storm the fortress yet, every one of them who dies there makes the walls stronger.” I saw Attima blanch –he doesn’t like that kind of stuff at all– but he kept a straight face and did as she asked. “Can you do something about it?” “Yes, but I’ll need Bebakshi.” Attima got his dandar to relay that, and also called for more reinforcements. “They can be here in half an hour,” the dandar said, “and Lady Bebakshi in six hours.”

We all rested a little until Bebakshi arrived, breathless and flushed. The sham attack had been wildly successful, drawing thousands of Khas into the trap; that was why Ferin’s troops had been able to enter the city so easily. When Raith told Bebakshi what was going on, they decided to deal with it right away: night would probably be the best time for it. Several semti –some from my own elite guard– volunteered to help. I sat down with them, holding Raith by her left wrist and an adjutant of mine by his right, rooting myself to the ground to keep them anchored as they left their bodies.

Presently there was a great rushing noise that everybody could hear, gifted or not. Not only did the covering of souls leave the walls, but parts of the wall itself came down as well. Raith and the others came back, completely spent, Bebakshi in particular more dead than alive. People rushed in to take care of them. I could just about stand on my own feet, stiff and disoriented. “I can fight in an hour,” I told Attima and went to sit with Aidan, who was still asleep but looked a bit more alive, to get my bearings back.

When I felt like myself again, I first looked around to gauge the situation. The gate was still firmly closed, with frustrated Khas beating on it from the outside. There was –literally– a trail of blood up to the fortress, and I only had to follow it, beating off any stray Khas who got in my way. Everybody seemed to be getting out of my way, in fact, except the one who tried to cut off my arm but lost his footing with a little push from me and pitched down the stairs.

In the great hall of the fortress there were about eighty Khas left, and three hundred of us. The Khas seemed to be fighting to the last man, theirs or ours, it didn’t matter to them. Some of our semti were holding about a dozen Khas inside what looked like a seal. They were trying to get through and seemed to be succeeding. Raith had written something like that in a letter– I called her, and she was indignant, “Fighting? Without me?” but could tell me what she’d done: trap them in a seal that air couldn’t get through. That was easy enough, tired as I was, and when it was done I told the semti that they could let go.