07 December 2014

The Fulcrum of Dreams -- Chapter 1.3

Three days later Hansarad led a ragged column of Rangers clad in black towards the Mountain Gate. By his side rode Baran, bearing the black and scarlet banner of the red dragon. Behind them marched seventy Rangers looking for all the world like the remnants of the two companies which had left Prisca two days earlier. But this was no ruse to gain entrance to the City. Without the passwords, he knew they could never get past the Captain of the Gate. If they tried to do so, they would reveal themselves for who they truly were beneath the cloaks of so many dead soldiers. Nor were they enough to storm the gate. A generation ago, thousands of the dragon’s men had succeeded only because their masters had broken the way open before them.
This morning all they needed was for their raiment to allow them near enough for the Captain of the Gate to come out to meet them and ask for the password. As soon as he did, the rebels would attack the enemy from behind, and the Rangers would rush the gates from without. To this end a dozen Rangers accompanied by Garalf, who was younger and more fit than Imlan, had scaled the walls last night, so Garalf could bring word of this plan to the leaders of the rebellion. Two of Berandan’s best had watched them go up and over the battlements. Almost at once they had heard the sounds of a brief combat, then nothing. Some minutes later the alarm was raised, but by then Garalf and the Rangers with him were gone from the walls. When Hansarad and the other captains heard the report of Berandan’s Rangers, it was clear that now all depended on whether the leaders of the rebellion were still alive. Imlan had no doubt they would be. Hansarad hoped he was right.
Yet even as his horse slowly paced off the distance to the Gate and as his Rangers marched in order behind him, Hansarad’s heart ached within him. It was not only that yesterday’s victory at the crossroads had come at a cost. For Hansarad had long been aware that some Rangers never came home again. It was a lesson he first learned as a boy, on the day word came to the Valley that the camp at Skia, where his father was second in command, had been overrun. Weeks dragged by before it was possible to begin to sort out who had survived. For him they were weeks of terror. Every report that arrived, every inquiry his mother made of the Masters, affirmed that his father was one of those who stayed behind to defend the camp, so that the rest could escape.
But even when he learned that his father and Jalonn had managed to cut their way out, still there were so many others, Rangers he knew by face or by name, who never came back.
In the years since then Hansarad had become accustomed to saying farewell to the dead and the lost. As a simple Ranger he had found it difficult enough. Once he became a captain, whose every order sent Rangers into peril, he soon decided that the honor was not equal to the burden. Friends and comrades, commanders and those under his command – he had spoken over their graves, jested in their memory, brought loathsome word to their families.
But yesterday at the crossroads – As Baran had warned, the dragon had bowmen of his own, and the last of them shot Elénna from her saddle when she was so nearly out of bowshot. Friends since childhood, lovers since youth, many long years beloved, she and Hansarad had never married. No child would bear her name and likeness as he had hoped. To his shame he had to force himself to think of the other Rangers who fell, but for him her loss had no equal. No words could voice it. For all the years of their love he had trembled to think of this day. Now that it had come the pain of it was beyond his every fear.
He urged his horse onward. There was nothing else to do. Elénna would have done the same.
The Gate was close now. He could see the faces of the troopers looking down from the battlements above. It had been many years since so many Rangers had approached the City, and never in their long history had they done so with hostile intent. When they were twenty five yards away, a commanding voice rang out from the walls, bidding them halt. Hansarad raised his hand and nodded to Baran. The column stopped and Baran lowered the standard in respect to the Captain of the Gate.
At first nothing happened. The silence from the walls began to worry him. They were being assessed, he knew, by the officers up there who gave long consideration to the sight before them: a ragged, muddy band not half the size of what they had been expecting. Without turning, Hansarad signaled the men directly behind him to set down the half dozen litters they were carrying on which rested those feigning serious wounds. The urge to glance at Baran beside him was strong. This was a show of patience he did not feel.
At length a series of commands were barked down from the tower, as one soldier after another passed the word for the gates to be opened. The ironbound timbers which barred the gates were drawn noisily back, and after a pause of a few heartbeats the doors pivoted smoothly towards him, each of them pushed by three troopers who took up positions on either side of the gateway as soon as they were done.
Out of the tunnel came a party of five horsemen, the captain, the standard bearer, and three others. They stopped halfway between them and the gates, so the standard bearer could dip his standard in return for the respect shown his captain. Beyond them Hansarad could see through the tunnel, across the bailey and into the street beyond. As the Captain of the Gate and his standard bearer nudged their horses forward again, Hansarad saw armed men begin streaming around the corners of the first cross street beyond the bailey. At the head of each line, hugging the walls as they ran, were Rangers in gray or green. It would take only seconds for them to begin their assault.
He and Baran needed to hold the attention of the captain and his men only a little longer. They advanced to meet them. In Hansarad’s hand were the orders he had taken from the body of the officer commanding the two companies summoned back from Prisca. He held it out to the Captain of the Gate, who nodded and thanked him. As he did so, Hansarad could see the man searching his memory for his face.
“You don’t know me, sir,” Hansarad said quickly and respectfully, laying one hand on his chest and bowing his head. “Sergeant Raynall, sir. The officers are dead.”
The captain was about to reply when hundreds of voices suddenly cried aloud behind him. He spun around to stare back down the tunnel and into the street beyond. A glance told almost everything. Hundreds of men were pouring into the bailey. The guards stationed at the entrance to the street had been overwhelmed, and the sounds of combat atop the walls and tower were already beginning. The Mountain Gate, his gate, was being taken from within. He swung back to glare at Hansarad, who did not move when the arrow hummed past his head and took the captain in the throat. Other bows sang. The rest of the captain’s party and the men posted outside the gates fell dead.
Led by Hansarad and Baran, who hurled down the dragon’s standard, the Rangers charged towards the Mountain Gate. In an instant they were there, within the tunnel, casting off their black cloaks and drawing their swords as they ran for the bailey. Suddenly, with a clatter of chains over spinning gears the portcullis plummeted downwards. Baran and Hansarad cried out in frustration, to come so close and be denied. Then just as suddenly it stopped not three feet above the pavement. Leaping from their horses, they dove beneath the portcullis and jumped up again, inside the City. The Rangers swarmed through behind them, splitting at once into smaller bands, some to rush into the tower, some to climb up to the walls to aid the rebels fighting there, some to cross into the street beyond and await the response that would surely come from Machlor.
After fifteen minutes of hard fighting the Mountain Gate belonged to the rebels. Unskilled in war, they had hurled themselves upon the dragon’s men with a ferocity that even six days into the rebellion astonished their enemy. On every floor of the tower, in every room and corridor, the evidence was plain to see. Rebels had died by the score, and there were no prisoners. Blood painted the walls, blood dripped from the ceiling, here where it had sprayed from a severed limb, there where the mortally wounded had lurched back into a wall and sunk inch by inch to the floor. Crimson tracks crossed and re-crossed the pools which mingled the gore of both sides. And everywhere the rebels stalked the halls, wild eyed with the lust of death.
At the threshold of the chamber which housed the machinery of the portcullis Hansarad had to step high to cross over the bodies. Alone in the center of the room sat Dara, with a sword resting on her knees. Her face was a mask of red. Her broken spear was jammed deep into the gears of the mechanism.
“You owe me a new spear, captain,” she said when their eyes met.
“Are you unhurt, Dara?” he asked.
“Yes, captain.”
“Hansarad, Dara. Call me Hansarad. You are a captain now yourself.”
She nodded quickly, regretting the death that had made a place for her.
“Hansarad, then” she said decisively and stood up, wiping her blade on a dead man’s cloak. “You owe me a new spear.”
“You shall have the finest in the armory, Dara,” he smiled in spite of himself, “but first we must move out before more dragon’s men arrive and pin us down here. How many of them were here, do you think?”
“A company or a little more,” she replied as they left the room and headed for the stairs.
“So, about a company at each gate. That leaves two or three others held in reserve somewhere, probably near the square.”
“Yes, the rebel leaders told me as much last night.”
“Good to know. Some of those troops will be coming to try to retake the Gate.”
“Well, captain,” she said out of long habit, “there’s more to be told about that. You see, the rebels are going to attack the other Gates as well, to draw off some of those reinforcements, or immobilize them completely.”
“They have enough men for that?”
“Yes, to start with,” Dara said as she stepped over a tangle of bodies near the top of the stairs. “Machlor’s reprisals have been so severe that they have only driven more people to rise up against him. The people fear him, it’s true. He is cold and cruel and pitiless. But he is not the dragon, and neither are his men.
“And almost all of Machlor’s watchmen have been killed already. The few who haven’t been caught yet had better hope they’re not. Last night I saw two of them hunted through the streets like animals, then stoned to death when they were brought to bay. It’s as if the people’s hunger for their blood grows with every taste they get of it.”
She stopped and thought for a moment, looking at the slaughter all around them, then a Hansarad.
“So,” she went on, “it’s only the regular troops we have to contend with, and they hold only the square and the other gates securely. Whenever they try to go anywhere else, they have to go in force. Even then they are pelted from the upper windows and rooftops with stones and roof tiles, with buckets of hot water or night soil. Quite a few of them have been killed or wounded that way. It’s been pretty grim in here the last week.”
As they stepped back out into the sunlit bailey Hansarad gazed around him at further proof of her words.
“How many rebels will attack the other gates?” he asked a moment later.
“More than have done so here,” Dara answered. “And their leaders believe that many others will take the risk of joining them once they see what’s going on. That’s what’s been happening here so far, they tell me. Now they are hoping, what with the attacks on the Gates and the knowledge that the Rangers have come – news they have been whispering about since this morning by the way – that the rising will become general.”
“Imlan said they were organized,” Hansarad said.
“Again he spoke the truth.”
Outside in the courtyard, the Rangers and rebels were preparing to move again now that the Mountain Gate was theirs. Half of the rebels would stay to hold the Gate against any attempt to retake it. Someone was winching the portcullis slowly upward again. Presently Baran appeared from the tunnel with their horses. As Hansarad mounted, a loud roar came across the City. He looked to Imlan and Garalf who stood nearby.
“The attacks on the other Gates have begun,” Garalf said.
Hansarad nodded and gave the signal for them all to advance. As before, Baran rode with him. Berandan walked beside the middle of the column and Dara followed in the rear. Rangers were already scouting ahead of them. With a wave of their hands indicated that the first street they had to cross was clear. At each street along the route to the square, they found no sign of the dragon’s men, but the farther they went the more people of the City they saw. The scouts on the streets parallel to theirs reported that hundreds of men and women, armed with knives or rusty swords, hammers, bows, and staffs, were spilling from their houses onto the streets and moving along with the Rangers into the heart of the City.
At times in the distance several streets ahead they saw small groups of troopers watching them approach, but they always fell back before the Rangers and the rain of missiles from the houses and buildings around them. Hansarad ordered some of the scouts to the rooftops, to look across the City and make sure that Machlor had not concealed bowmen there to shoot down at them from above. Each time they reported that no soldiers were in sight. Along the way they could still hear the echo of the battles being fought at the other Gates, but as they neared the center of the City, the voices of the people flooding towards the square drowned out every other sound. They were shouting out their hatred and defiance or singing hymns of victory they had learned as children.
When at last they came to the square, Hansarad gazed around him in awe, not at the vast expanse of the space, but at the thousands of people filling it from end to end. In all his life Hansarad had never seen so many people gathered in one place, though he had been taught by the Masters about the magnificent assemblies and festivals once held here. And his father had told him that at such times a man could feel the emotions of the crowd flowing around him like the current of a river, that the very air seemed to vibrate with life. Hansarad learned now that all they had taught him was true and more than true. The recognition left him stunned.
But as he paused there upon his horse with Baran, Baran who breathed in the vibrancy of the many and threw back his head and laughed, the crowd saw him there beneath the arch. A hum began to run through the crowd as their heads turned towards him, and the light of the afternoon sun shone on their faces. Then he realized that they were calling his name – which the rebels had told them – and as it spread from mouth to mouth it became clearer and louder. Then they were shouting it, as if he were their deliverer. He looked over at Baran, who was beaming, his red hair and beard like flame and his eyes glittering. He glanced over his shoulder at Garalf with displeasure. The man grinned a bit and shrugged an insincere apology.
“They probably think you’re your father,” Baran said, choking on his mirth. “They probably didn’t tell them that.”
“Aye,” was all Hansarad could get out.
“Well, let’s not disappoint them, captain,” said Baran.
“Aye,” Hansarad replied and spurred his horse forward. Across the square to his left, he finally saw the dragon’s men. In the open space before the Hall of Kings they stood drawn up in square. There looked to be about three companies of them. In the center of their square was the dragon’s standard and beneath it clustered a small group of horsemen. Machlor would be among them.
Hansarad turned his horse that way and the column moved behind him. Before him the crowd parted to allow them through, first watching them closely as they came, then reaching out their hands to them, then gazing after them when they had passed. But Hansarad and Baran never took their eyes from the troopers who awaited them at the Hall of Kings. For their part, despite the raging of the crowd, the soldiers did not move or waver. As Hansarad studied them, he never saw one look to either side or shift his feet nervously. Clearly Machlor had kept the best of his men here.
“They know all is lost,” Baran said to him as they halted some distance away, “and they mean to die like soldiers. This is their last stand.”
“Surely no better fate awaits them, not at their hands,” Hansarad said, nodding toward the crowd, “not after all these years of terror.”
With that Hansarad drew his sword and advanced. The Rangers and rebels spread out to either side of him and Baran. At his command a volley of arrows struck the enemy, then a second and a third. As the third was loosed, Hansarad cried aloud and they charged. The crowd surged forward with them, passing them by with a deafening roar. It struck the front ranks of the enemy, and swarmed against their two exposed flanks. For a few seconds the troopers held their ground, but the next moment the weight of the people’s wrath swept them away completely.
Hansarad and Baran burst through the disintegrating line of soldiers and sped towards the officers beneath the standard. One rode out to meet Hansarad, unsheathing his sword as he came. He sat upon his gray horse, tall and straight, a lean, elegant man who held his head high amidst this the downfall of all his ambitions. It was Machlor. Hansarad knew him from his description.
They met, swords clashing, passed each other and wheeled about to meet again. In the midst of the swirling, howling mob, they fought as if all alone. After a few passes Hansarad knew that his opponent was a worthy swordsman. They traded blows, and once only by suddenly jerking his head back and to one side did Hansarad survive a thrust which cut his cheek to the bone. But Hansarad had learned the sword from his father and Raynall and Jalonn, and his experience of single combat was more recent. In a few more passes the point of his sword slipped beneath Machlor’s guard, deeply piercing his ribs. The crowd rushed in from all sides. Dozens of hands reached up to seize him and pull him from his horse. Hansarad’s sword was nearly dragged from his grasp before he could pull it free.
The battle was over. For a time at least Narinen was theirs once again. The people in the square shifted and roared like the sea in a storm. Hansarad rode his horse up the marble steps of the Hall of Kings and turned to survey the thousands who stood before him, now cheering, now shouting their joy on this day long in coming. For a while he sat there and took in this vision of triumph after suffering. From the sea of people before him emerged Baran laughing, and Dara, and Berandan, then Imlan and Garalf, and so many of the rebels and Rangers with whom he had fought this day. They, too, mounted the palace steps and stood around him. In time the people grew quiet as they all looked at each other and knew they were free.
From the crowd stepped a young man, his hands and arms bloody to the elbows, his old clothing dirty and torn, but his eyes were bright with passion. In his hands he carried the banner of the dragon, equally torn, equally bloody. He climbed the steps to face Hansarad and held out the banner to him as a token of victory, but Hansarad would not accept it. He bade the young man turn and face the people. He told him to raise the standard above his head, and as he did so, Hansarad pointed to the banner and then to the people, to tell them that this victory was theirs, that the banner and the battle had been won by them.
In response several nearby cried out his name. The cry spread through the square until it seemed that everyone was calling his name again, shouting it as loud as they could. All the square echoed it back. Hansarad was abashed, and feeling his mood, his horse moved nervously beneath him. Not in all the centuries since Stochas, the last king, had summoned the people here to tell them that the days of the kings had ended and the days of the Republic had begun, had anyone stood in this place and heard thousands cry out his name. This knowledge and this tribute overwhelmed him. In his eyes he felt the sting of tears.
A dark shape passed between earth and sun.

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