The Falcons Saga, Book 4 (Spoiler Warning)
Ruthan walked the walls of Tírandon to observe the nightmare of the siege. From atop the windswept Bastion that bore her mother’s name, she listened to snarls and roars rising up the towers. A perfumed kerchief guarded her nose against the stench of rot thickening the wind. Though the air still carried the chill of spring, the wide green stretches of the plain appeared to quiver with heat waves. At times, Ruthan felt that her eyes were on the verge of piercing the shimmering barrier that hid her enemy from view. Shifting shapes, trodden earth, the outline of a tent, the light of a campfire, then nothing.
A rhythmic hammering, as maddening as dripping water, pounded against the raised drawbridge. At times, the battering ram was visible to Ruthan, hunching like a sleeping beast beside the moat, and at times she could see the earth that someone had used to fill in the inner moat, along with the rows of planks laid across the land-bridge to accommodate the ram’s wheels. But while the ram was shouting at the gate, it could only be heard, never seen. So too the arms that drove it.
From the walls arrows whistled. They fell like black rain. The castellan bellowed orders at the two hundred men and women of Tírandon’s garrison. Captain Reynal seemed to be in a particularly foul mood today. The siege was wearing him thin. He noticed Ruthan’s arrival upon the battlements and rounded on her. “What are we shooting at?”
At least he believed her now. Perhaps it was the cacophony of horns, the soul-deep thud of drums that had convinced him at last. Perhaps it was the hammering of the ram. Mattresses, sewn from thick leather hides and stuffed with hay and feathers, pillows and sand, anything that provided a cushion, had been lowered between the ram and the gate. How stubborn, this enemy, that they persisted after three weeks of fruitless bashing. On the other hand, the padding had to burst sooner or later.
“Just keep the arrows flowing, Captain,” Ruthan said. “Aim anywhere. Don’t let the archers stop. How is our supply?”
Reynal was a big man, dark and brusque and moody. He liked things his way. Ruthan interfered with that. He still managed to regard her as if she was insane, as if this whole mess was a nightmare born of her insanity. But if that was the case, then he had to be insane, too, so he refrained from stating it.
“Not good,” he replied. “Our fletchers and smiths can barely keep up. We barely have enough timber in storage to finish our catapults or arm our ballistae.” Atop the Bastion’s towers, great frames languished in various stages of completion. Workmen hammered iron spikes into place; others twisted mounds of hempen rope into thick cables. It would be days yet before the engines were in working order. “How can we know our efforts aren’t being wasted?”
“There’s blood on the dike.” Ruthan pointed at the grassy mound that divided the inner and outer moats. “I know I’ve heard bodies falling into the water. And yesterday, for an instant, I saw a body floating. But then it disappeared.” Speaking it aloud only seemed to reinforce the castellan’s impression of her, but when Ruthan met his eye, she was surprised to find little skepticism on his face. Instead, she found something akin to fear.
“It wasn’t human, was it.” He almost whispered.
“You saw it, too?”
She smiled and laid a hand to his gauntleted forearm. “Don’t lose faith. My brother rebuilt Tírandon to withstand anything. They won’t break in. Go encourage the garrison.”
Reynal snapped a salute and strode off to make his rounds of the stations. He had divided the archers between Andett’s Bastion and the seven massive towers interspersed along the outer wall. So far, only the Bastion had seen action, so the archers had no trouble focusing their attention.
An additional blessing, casualties were few. A couple of archers were struck when stones came lobbing over the wall. One was killed when he ran too fast down the tower and fell. Most of Tírandon’s losses were in her people who dwelled outside the walls, in her villages and farms. When Ruthan had sounded the bell, sending the alarm out over the countryside, few cottars had responded. Maybe they hadn’t believed the bell’s pronouncement of danger, and surely they had not understood the danger’s magnitude. This was no mere Fieran raiding party seeking spoils in cattle and sheep.
The cottars who reached the gate were cut down within arm’s reach of safety. Their bodies had lain in the sun and rain for several days before vanishing.
Other worries weighed upon Ruthan as well. The attack had come weeks before the summer harvest. Was anyone left beyond the walls to tend the fields, to guard the flocks? Tírandon’s granaries and ice houses would soon run low. How was she to feed her soldiers, her household, the citizens of the town tucked against the inner wall? The keep gardens hardly grew enough to provide for the three thousand people who lived in North Town and South Town. Leshan may have built a strong refuge, but none had had the sagacity to prepare for a lengthy siege. Not even Ruthan with her special Sight.
She laid her face in her hand and swallowed the urge to sob. What good would tears do anyone now? Keep it together, she scolded herself. Father wouldn’t have cried. He would’ve found a solution.
Archers huddling nearby whispered. They kneeled over their dwindling supply of arrows but looked up at her.
“Need help, Your Ladyship?” one of them asked. All they needed was one excuse to doubt her, one excuse to panic.
Ruthan drew back her shoulders. “I miss my father. His advice would be welcome right now.” She laughed, a harsh sound tossed into the damp, reeking wind. “I never thought I’d say that.”
The soldiers understood her meaning well and chuckled with her. Lord Lander had been a stubborn, contentious son of a bitch, but no one was glad he’d been murdered by his own king.
And the rest of Ruthan’s family? Was Laral dead, too? His children? Not knowing made her sick to her stomach. She possessed the means to find out, but she was afraid to use it. Better not to See and press on with the task at hand rather than to learn they were dead and despair. The box of secrets in her head remained tightly locked.
A sharp, distant whump startled her. Limp shapes rose out of the strange heat waves and flew toward the Bastion. Ruthan ducked. Archers raised shields. But the objects weren’t stones. Bodies hurtled over the crenels. Some appeared to be sheep; others, human. A nauseating stink trailed after them like noxious banners as they descended into the bailey. Rotten flesh burst on the cobblestones like overripe melons. Seasoned soldiers vomited. Civilians from the town and orderlies from the infirmary screamed and fled. Ruthan swallowed her breakfast and grit her teeth. “Cover the well!” she shouted into the bailey. If dead bodies poisoned their water supply, they might as well surrender now instead of waiting to die of thirst or disease.
Farther along the wall, a young archer began shrieking and seemed unable to stop. “Why is this happening? What did we do?” He flung his longbow with all his might. It sailed over the crenels, lost to the enemy. The soldiers at his station pounced him before he could throw anything else.
Ruthan ran to him. So did Captain Reynal. He doubled a fist and cuffed the boy in the helmet. “Dolt! You just earned kitchen duty for the rest of your life.”
The youth curled up against the wall and sobbed.
“We all want answers,” Ruthan said, putting herself between him and the castellan.
Reynal grabbed the nearest soldier and ordered, “Form a detail. Shovels, brooms, and buckets of water. And get the burning yard going.” This veteran who had survived the razing of Tírandon twenty years before gulped as if trying to suppress his own bout of nausea.
“A pyre is costly,” Ruthan argued.
“You mean to leave the mess down there to the ravens, then, m’ lady?”
For once, Ruthan decided Reynal was right. “Don’t let the detail use the cooking firewood. Break up things that aren’t necessary.”
“We’ll start in South Town. That shithole is made of matchsticks as it is. It could use a good cleaning.” Reynal aimed a scoffing snort at the quivering youth, then descended the tower.
Ruthan watched him go, watched him and the wall tip precariously sideways. She swayed, reached out to catch herself. A hand caught her by the elbow.
“How long since you’ve rested, m’ lady?” asked an archer. Long ago a blade had scarred the woman’s face and blinded her eye. “You’ve been up here with us all day.”
“Longer than that,” said another. “I arrived at my station at dawn, and Your Ladyship was already here.”
Ruthan couldn’t tell them the truth. If she slept, she might See. Her control over the locked box in her head weakened when she slept. Visions sometimes came bursting out. But how could she encourage her people if she collapsed? “I’ll be back tonight,” she told them and took the long way back to the keep, along the outer wall and across the skybridge to the inner wall, both to avoid the gore in the bailey and to delay sleep.
Neglected household duties and panicking staff provided more excuses to stay awake. She made sure everyone, even the children, had a task. If the people felt they contributed something important to their defense, they remained calmer. Deft-fingered youths applied fletching to arrow shafts; women cut fabric for bandaging; children kept lambs and geese in crowded corrals; old men counted rations, then counted them again. While Ruthan grabbed a bite to eat, she went over the numbers with her steward. “You’re saying our granaries will be empty in two months?” she asked.
“At our current rate of consumption, yes,” the steward said.
The bread and apple preserves lost their flavor. Better save the rest for later; Ruthan pushed the plate away. Surely the siege wouldn’t last so long as that. Help had to come from somewhere. Unless … no, unless didn’t bear thinking about. She rose, and the room whirled. The floor caught her with a bruising slap.
“My lady!” The steward plucked her off the floor.
“I just need sleep,” she admitted, embarrassment heating her face. Servants offered to help her up the stairs, but she refused. She wasn’t a child, despite their suspicions of her mental state, and their fussing irritated her.
The climb to her room was as long and grueling as a sleepless night. Murky sunlight drooped through the window and wilted across the down comforters and clouds of pillows. Ruthan resented the sight of her bed. Deceitfully inviting, it was. “Just a few minutes,” she told herself. She wouldn’t give the box in her head time to open.
Distance and the thick walls of the keep muffled the beating of the ram. The rhythm registered more in the bones than on the ear, like the pulse of blood. Her people needed her out there. Just a few minutes. Once she kicked off her shoes and laid her head upon her pillow, her fight didn’t last long.
She smelled the vision first. The cloying stink of decay rustled in the hems of her garments. Don’t breathe it. It’s death. If you breathe it, you’ll die, she warned herself, but she couldn’t help it. The stench was everywhere, trickling from the stones, rising from the shadows. A long line of torches led her down a corridor chiseled from stone. She walked deep beneath the earth, she knew that, and the vision nudged her deeper. No, I want out. I don’t want to see. The corridor opened on a vast cavern. Smooth walls glistened with wet and stink and chains. The shiny, silvery chains were familiar. She had seen them in another vision, a vision with a girl, a stubborn-eyed girl whose wrists were bruised and bloodied by those manacles.
Ruthan looked for the girl. Defiant blue eyes. No, no, she wasn’t here, not yet. But others … so many others. Screams tore at her ears. A man in a far corner cried, “Please!” But no one listened to him. He’d worn his chains so long that white scars lurked under manacles growing too large. Long black hair, matted with filth, tangled around eyes desperate with madness. “Pleeeeease!” The cry echoed under a ceiling so high that nothing but darkness filled it. At the man’s feet, skulls circled a deep hole in the ground. Human skulls, elegant and obscene in the trembling torchlight. The rest of the bones filled the hole in the middle of the floor. Scraps of flesh clung to ribs and spines and femurs.
I want out. Let me out.
“Pleeeease!” screamed the man.
Wake up, Ruthie, she told herself but knew the vision would continue even if she forced her eyes open. The Seeing didn’t stop until the Seeing was finished. Then it spat her out and left her curled in a cold sweat on the floor.
She backed away from the shrieking madman, brushed against a pair of empty chains. They clinked at her passing. So shiny. Spotless, untainted, this pair hadn’t been used. Waiting. Waiting for whom? For the girl with defiant blue eyes?
The shadows at her feet uncurled. Skinny limbs straightened inside tentacles of shiny links, and a small face turned up into the light. Large gray eyes blinked at her, seeing her. “Aunt Ruthie?”
What was her nephew doing in this horrifying place?
She reached for him, but the cavern lengthened between them as if it were a throat. It vomited Ruthan out. She woke screaming.
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copyright 2016 Court Ellyn
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