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Brax climbed a broad, stone stair to the ramparts above. He had grown so accustomed to the constant din of battle that he could not sleep in the silence his palace chambers afforded him. He felt better used on the battle line than resting, and more often than not he preferred his sword to his pillow. There was, of course, another reason he could not sleep. Though he held it as a close secret, no one near to him doubted what it was.
He tapped a weary and bloodstained swordsman on the shoulder and relieved him of his duty for a well-earned respite. The man gratefully bowed in acknowledgment of the King of Tontha and wasted no time in retreating into the mighty stronghold of Mt. Dakka. Brax then turned and surveyed the scene outside the wall.
Ever since the battle had begun, the sky had grown increasingly gloomy, and now no one could remember the last time the sun had been seen. The Dairne-Reih covered every open spot of land and poured back down over the slopes, far out of sight. They covered the mountain face like a dark blanket of wrath, churning under a dark sky. The movement was very much like that of a wayward sea, undulating methodically, and then suddenly bursting forth with a spray of clattering weaponry hoisted skyward. The demons clicked and shrieked as they moved, each anticipating their ever-nearing turn of mounting the massive walls. Then a chance to spill blood.
Newly-constructed siege towers ambled up the mountain track and were pitted against the fortress. But each time they were pummeled by Mt. Dakka’s defenses, doused with tar, and then set ablaze by the archer’s arrows. Siege ladders rose up and slammed against the outer walls, ascended by any number of putrid demons hoping to surmount the ramparts and unleash their carnage. But the ladders were hacked down or pushed off. Any that remained allowed only a few Dairneags to leap onto the ramparts before meeting a numbing end, slashed to bits and tossed back over the wall like so much rubbage.
Brax walked down the line, encouraging his men and lending his hand in any number of duties. Buckets of tar were passed up from below to fill the cauldrons. Wood was continuously hoisted on lifts and stacked beside the heating fires. Additional lumber was carried up the towers that Luik had constructed, feeding fires in their peaks used for directing troops to the most needed points on the wall and alerting them to enemies.
Broken swords were discarded and replaced. Worn, shattered shields were constantly exchanged for new ones. And replenishing the ever-dwindling stockpiles of arrows was a thankless chore. Still others put their hands to the simple tasks of passing out water skins, a treasure that no man refused.
The occasional injured soldier was carried off the line and seamlessly replaced by two new ones. Other skilled men ran to tend the wounds of those in need, wrapping, cleansing, and cutting in order to preserve what might be saved. Prayers were offered up to the Great God, but rarely did they see them answered.
All in all, the battle seemed to fall into its own rhythm, as those who study warfare know. The ebb and flow of exchanges became patterned, almost predictable; it was the sudden, violent breaks of rhythm that inflicted the most damage and exacted the greatest toll.
A desperate command came ringing down from the nearest watchtower.
Brax turned and saw that the enemy had begun flinging the burning stones again with their fedchults. The bright balls of fire sailed elegantly against the dim sky, a long tail of flames and smoke trailing behind. Lulled by the gentle lob—a grand arch that stretched across the sky as any number of fiery orbs careened toward the city wall—soldiers held their breath in awe of the terrifying beauty that raced to meet them.
Whatever mesmerizing power befell the warriors in that moment, it was brought to a blistering end in the next as the devastating weight of the stones slammed into the granite underfoot. Men were rattled to their knees, many sent tumbling clear off the battlements to the courtyards and rooftops behind them.
But Brax seemed unaffected by the assault. He stood right where he was, almost oblivious to the violence bursting around him. A few thought it was because he had endured so many of these barrages over the last several days, and was now numb to their effects. But most knew differently. They had been there, too; they had seen it all.
“My King,” said an orderly, “word comes from the eastern wall. It has been breached.”
Brax was shaken from his stupor and looked at the warrior. “C’symia, soldier.” He turned and addressed another man beside him. “Commander, we’re going to need two ranks of men at that breach. Can you handle it?”
“Aye, my Lord. As it is ordered, so it is done.”
“Good. And if a porquill2 has not been erected already, prepare one as a first order.”
The commander nodded and departed, three more officers following close behind him with a wave of his arm.
The incoming fireballs were relentless now, hammering away at the outer wall, searching for weaknesses in the superstructure. Brax was confident that this first breach would be contained, but he knew it was only a matter of time before the gaps in the wall outnumbered the men to guard them.
He walked along the platforms encouraging his warband while more fiery projectiles battered the walls. The warriors did not know whether their King was simply fearless or just numb, but he made his way without wincing or bothering to avoid anything.
A massive boulder exploded against a nearby section of the structure and sent molten debris ripping past the crenellations. Brax didn’t seem to notice. He continued upright, pounding the shoulder plates of the warriors, continually exhorting them in battle.
• • •
“He is mad,” one man said to another, crouched behind a fold in the wall.
“Nay, he is King, and he knows it,” replied the other. “His time is not done until the Most High orders it.”
“So that’s why he flaunts his life before the enemy?”
The other man thought. “Well, maybe he is mad, as you say. So it is a mixture then, of both knowing his place in the Kingdom, and of careless abandonment to that position.”
• • •
Brax continued down the line and looked up to the watchtowers. High above, the flagmen waved torches, each signal ordering men to different sides of the city, indicating where the enemy was gathering for renewed assault. Brax thanked Luik in his heart for such foresight. Then he noticed a strange command from the nearest watchtower in the south: prepare the crossbows.
He looked back to the battlefield, stepped to the rail, and peered between the crenulations. Lumbering up the mountain track from the south were enormous timber cages, pulled by legions of Dairneags heaving heavy cords over their shoulders. The boxes rode on massive axles, large wheels affixed to either side, squealing loudly as they moved.
Brax realized the squealing was not from the wheels. He squinted at the first of five cages that lumbered up the lane. He peered into the darkness between the rungs, searching for what lurked inside.
He gazed more intently.
Suddenly a giant, yellow, bird-like eye appeared, darted around, and then fixed itself on the King.
An ear-piercing screech split the air.
“What in Dionia is—”
As if summoned to answer his question, a Dairneag lowered an ax.
A cable snapped.
The lid flew open.
2 Porquill (POOR-kwill): noun; a tactical maneuver in which long wooden spears are driven into the ground butt-first in rows, each series angled outward toward the advancing enemy.
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