Ean stood on one of the kringwood-faced stone parapets in the gray light of dawn and stared out at the unending horde filling the valley leading up to Jone’s Shield, more like a sea of segmented steel plate, red tunics, muskets, rockets, bows, cannons, and pikes poured out between the hills than an army. It was more people than Ean had ever seen in one place before, and what he could see was only a third of the forces present. Most of them were waiting outside the valley, preparing to cycle in as reinforcements.
Kai, how could such a force exist? And the Empire had millions more in reserve across their territories if they needed them.
And they had been worried about one woman and a rebellion she might start. Worried enough to come to his country and start a war. Though, obviously, it was Salshira’s wealth they had stayed for.
It had been well over a month since Ember was captured and their agents confirmed that the Empire was still preparing for war, but now the day had finally come. Ean thought of Vagan HarBrathan’s words when Ean’s father had presented the news to the council.
“Why are they still coming? They have the Garagran!”
For a moment he had wished Salshira had kept the dueling traditions of Dahnkahr that ancient texts talked about. He would have killed the man.
Later he had decided it was best they hadn’t. But he still wasn’t sure he wanted to defend men like Vagan.
“Your people need you, your highness.”
Ean turned and looked at General Ezkil VirLakken, commander of the permanent defenses at Jone’s shield, two-hundred years old and one of the few generals in Salshira with actual combat experience.
“You said something?” Ean asked, looking at him sideways.
The General stared right back at him without flinching. Ean felt the disapproval in those eyes and turned to look at the older man directly.
“You had a distant look in your eyes and you looked very angry, your highness,” the General said. “You’ve had the same look many times over the past week. You’ve also had the same anger on your face every time you reviewed your men. Some might almost think you are angry at them for some reason. My commanders have heard whispers. It is affecting morale. We already have enough problems as it is with the night terrors plaguing the camps. We’ve had four suicides this week already.”
Ean flinched at the mention of the suicides. He had heard about them, and heard soldiers screaming across the camp in the night as evil prowled through their dreams.
But Ean wasn’t going to give up his anger that easily.
“Do you know why we’re here?” he said.
“Because the Empire decided to invade.”
“The deeper reasons. We chose, as a nation, to send one of our sisters to her death. If you actually pay attention to the scriptures and the stories of nations that fell, you’ll know exactly what Aihay does to countries that act that way. Especially those filled with people that claim his name.”
The General didn’t wince. Or turn away. Instead he stared back, solid and steady.
“Even so, your highness, that’s no reason to be angry at your men. Even if they drove your betrothed to death themselves, you have a duty to serve them as their leader, and Aihay still calls you to love them. And I happen to know that most of the men here in Jone’s shield were willing to fight to keep anyone in our borders safe from the Empire, no matter who. Those men need you right now. They are frightened and discouraged, and they need you to be their prince.”
Ean felt the sharp stab in his heart of a chastening blow that had landed. He started to go with it but something fought back.
“They killed her,” it whispered in his mind. “They betrayed her. They deserve to die.”
Ean wanted to.
He turned away from General VirLakken, growled, and drove his fist into the top of the map table. It made a satisfying thump and the drax-plate knuckles left marks in the wood.
Aihay! I want Ember back!
He trembled with the thought for a moment.
Yahsaw, bring her home, and help me to lead these men.
The voice continued to fight. Ean turned and looked at his soldiers again, his people, hidden behind the walls of Jone’s Shield and in blinds throughout the forested cliffs overlooking the pass.
Scared. Frightened. Human, like himself. No excuse for all their foibles, but Yahsaw hadn’t needed one to love them and save them.
So Ean would love them as well.
“Yahsaw, I surrender,” he said, and gave up his anger. The voice shrieked and a weight uncoiled from around his heart and fled. Ean thought of Ember again for a moment. Trin would bring her back, or she wouldn’t. Aihay would answer weeks of prayers with a yes, or he wouldn’t.
Right now, Ean’s men needed him here.
He turned back to the General.
“All right. I’ll speak to them again. One last speech before the Empire comes.”
The speech was short.
The Empire began its advance on the walls shortly after Ean and the General’s conversation, and the first volley of cannon fire came a mark after sunrise.
It wasn’t a surprise, but it was stunning. Ean watched white smoke blossom along the rows of thousands of iron cannons in one instant. A tikkit passed, and then the sound and destruction arrived in the same moment, a great rolling boom accompanied by explosions of splinters from stone and wood and the screams of men as they were torn apart. Ean crouched low behind a parapet, but the first wave was already past. He looked out over the wall and saw that the destruction was relatively light.
Then the cannon balls exploded. More stone and wood splinters, joined by shards of metal, sprayed through the air. One shard caught a man next to Ean in the throat, between where his cuirass and helmet guarded, and he went down in a spray of red. Ean felt something bounce off his own armor without effect.
He ignored it and clamped his hand on the man’s throat, trying to stem the pulse of bright blood. It continued to flow out and he knew it would not be enough, even as he yelled for a medic. Feet slapped on stone, more hands joined his.
But the life faded from the soldier’s eyes, even as Ean looked into them and they looked back.
“Do not be afraid,” Ean said, the words whispered to many dying relatives and hospital patients coming to him in that moment. “Rest with Yahsaw. To be away from the Akhallis is to be with him.”
The man blinked. Ean thought he saw gratitude.
Then all expression was gone from his face, and his eyes looked at nothing.
The second assessment of the volley that Ean made a kella later was grimmer. A few hundred men killed. A thousand or so injured. In one attack.
Ean felt back to the day the Garagran had burned the city, fifty years before.
This would be a thousand times worse.
Especially when the Garagrans arrived. But where were they?
“Do we reply?” Ean asked.
General VirLakken shook his head, keeping his eyes on the signals flashing from the hills as his command team coordinated the ballista and mortar teams hidden all throughout the area.
“Not until we have a good idea where their commanders are. The Garagrans are up there, high and camouflaged. They’re waiting for us to fire our ballistae. They won’t be able to spot them all, they aren’t obvious like cannons, but they’ll attack the ones they can. Our best chance is to make sure our first shots throw their army into complete disarray. We’ll have to take a few hits to do that.”
The General nodded, just as a triple volley of arrows went out from the walls of Jone’s Shield.
A massive volley of the same rose in reply from the enemy, though the enemy’s flight had more arc to its path. Ean looked before the vast flight arrived and saw a significant number of enemy soldiers down with Salshiran arrows in them. They had misjudged the range a Salshiran wheelbow could reach with accuracy and paid for it. He ducked back down as the enemy arrows rattled weakly off the walls. Only a few made it onto the parapets and walkways, almost entirely handled there by shields and armor.
They would have to come in closer to use their bows, at which point the Salshiran archers would be able to wipe them out easily. That meant they would have to stand off and hammer with cannons. Ean waited for the spotters to find the enemy commanders and select their targets, tension singing along his body. Another volley arrived, but this time the men took precautions against the exploding munitions, hiding against walls and under shields until the explosions came.
But the volleys became more staggered, which meant there was no time to relax. A shot might come at any moment.
Ean watched General VirLakken observing the enemy through his binoculars and give orders.
The moment came. The general turned to give the orders.
“We’ve been flanked!”
A soldier came running up the stairs. His half-uniform showed he was actually one of the town militia. His youth and rank marks put him at the lowest tier. Probably one of the men set to guarding the lower wall on the Salshiran side of the pass.
“Spill it out, soldier!” the General ordered.
“There’s an army coming up the road from inside Salshira,” the soldier said. “They got close enough to pick off the gate guards and took the wall. We need more men!”
Ean looked over the town, mostly shorter than the outer walls, and saw signs of fighting, smoke, from the inner wall.
How had they gotten an army inside?
The same way as the prikenskrins. They had never found that.
Ean saw the thoughts running across the General’s face. Ean opened his mouth to offer to go with the team to defend the inner wall.
A cannonball took the General off the wall.
Ean stared. The command team stared.
Ean had no idea what to do. He felt the battle falling apart in that moment.
From somewhere he heard the cry that Garagrans were descending.
“Yahsaw…” he whispered.
Attack. They needed to attack.
“Tell the ballistae, mortars and hill archers to launch on the selected targets. NOW. And then set the ballistae to the Garagrans. And tell the mirrors they are free to go after the powder stores as soon as the mortars have a few volleys out.”
The command team looked at him, then nodded. The command went out as the blowing of a horn.
A thousand bolts of lightning cracked as one, followed by the mighty cough of a thousand mortars and the twang of a hundred-thousand bows.
Pinpoint destruction blossomed in the enemy forces an instant later, cannon teams and artillery commanders wiped out in sudden explosions delivered faster than sound. What looked like the enemy field commander’s team, two ten-felds out on horseback with hand telescopes, vanished in three pulses of shattered air that shook the hills.
A moment of stillness followed.
Then the mortars landed.
And popped. Like a great crackle across the field. The only soldiers injured were those directly hit by a mortar round.
Thundercracks started up again a moment later as the ballistae tracked and launched on the descending Garagrans. Ean watched as one Garagran took four separate hits and lost control, tumbling out of the sky and landing on a building, caving in the roof.
It didn’t look dead.
Ean turned back to the field, where the mortars continued to land. Three volleys. Then four. Slightly staggered now, but still moving at almost the same rate.
A whiff of refined petroleum came to Ean’s nose. For a moment he regretted what was about to happen. At the same time he also regretted that the forces in the valley only represented a third of what the Empire had brought.
This would not stop them.
But it would slow them down.
The mortars stagger-coughed a seventh time. Ean was certain there was a hesitation in the battle this time.
Probably just his imagination.
He dropped down behind the parapet at the same time that the Salshiran commanders yelled for all their men to do the same.
He did not see the flash as a thousand incendiary rounds hit the valley floor and ignited the clouds of vapor the previous mortars rounds had sprayed into the air.
But he did feel the impossible explosion, the roar that blew out, flexing the stone wall under him, and then blew back in. The thunder that went on and on and on in one moment, that seemed so great it should bring down the mountains. Ean hoped in that instant that he and his engineers hadn’t killed his own people with the power of their weapon.
Then it was over and Ean peaked over the parapet.
The valley floor was a smoking ruin of blackened bodies and armor, most of it thrown in every direction, most of the detritus made of bits and pieces of things that had been torn apart. The mortars had been targeting the closer infantry, and not the more distant cannons, so those were still intact, but they were the only thing.
Ean looked at one cannon team as the powder keg next to them lit up and began to smoke like the sun had turned its direct attention on that object.
A moment later it exploded in a fireball.
The same began to happen to other powder kegs across the line of cannons. And then the mortars coughed again.
They could win this. They could hold. The other generals and commanders had sent at team to retake the inner wall. The Garagrans were rampaging through the town, but several were also down from the ballistae.
More forces began to pour into the valley. More cannons rolled in. More Garagrans filled the skies.
Ean stood up to get a better view of the field.
He saw and registered the puff of smoke as something important.
A cannon, firing far out in the valley.
He never saw the cannon ball that arrived a moment later.