The Seventh Siege
It was Rantal's turn to stand guard. When he arrived at the city gates, Orshim greeted him with a warm smile.
"They have been quiet all morning," said Orshim, his spear resting in the crook of his arm, "Not a yip or a snarl."
"I don't want quiet," said Rantal, "I would rather have a Kanen pelt."
"You will get your trophy in time. Patience. Enjoy the day."
Rantal nodded dismissively and moved past him, through the large stone gates. He didn't bother arguing with the elder Wall. Orshim was a distinguished veteran. One should revere a Leoss of such prestige
Orshim wouldn't understand his troubles. The old Leoss had plenty of trophies: a cloak of Kanen pelts, the jaw of an Alpha, the skull of a Cultist, to name a few. He was a member of the Walls of Ailur, with many battles notched on his shield. Rantal had nothing. No pelts, no battles, no prestige. The argument would be the same as the one with Kashra and Tushir: Rantal needed patience, his time would come, he needed to enjoy these moments of peace. If Rantal was going to be a veteran, then he would need to kill many Kanen and take many trophies of his own. The more trophies he took, the better his reputation; that was how it worked for the warrior castes. What better time to start than now?
Rantal made his way across the Reflecting Pools, to his post along the edge of the Snarling Tangle.� When he arrived at the small dwarf-stone fortification, he found the Protectorate guards. Two dwarves paced back and forth, while an elf in metal armor ran a stone across the edge of her sword. The dwarves wore the same set of armor, large metal plates covering their small bodies. They were equals in every way, except for their beards; one had auburn-red and the other sported wiry black. They moved with the same rhythm, their feet hitting the ground at the same time. The sound of the metal boots hitting the ground, and the elf's grinding stone, were the only sounds in the jungle. There were no odd movements in the brush or the glint of maddened eyes. It was serene, just as Orshim said. Just as Rantal feared.
"Pacing won't bring the Kanen," said the elf.
The two dwarves stopped mid-step, each turning to her with a matching grimace.
"We're standing guard, miss," said the red beard.
"Then try standing in one place, like your friend," she said, motioning to Rantal with her sharpening stone.
"We're casing the perimeter," replied his fellow, "Keeping a vigilant watch. Not piddling with our blades."
"And if they do come? You'll be too tired from all your marching around," she said, "And I'll have a sharper sword."
The dwarves continued their march, stomping the ground and occasionally glaring at the elf. She returned the blade to its scabbard. The jungle was undisturbed. The sun reached its zenith when the elf spoke again.
"Do you have a name?"
Rantal looked to her. He wasn't sure if she was talking to him. The elf looked up from her sword for a moment.
"Your friend had a name," she said.
"Rantal," he replied.
There was a pause and then the elf returned to her sword. He assumed this meant the conversation was over. He returned his gaze to the jungle. Light filtered through the foliage, casting faint beams on the ground. The tangle of vines cast odd, faded shadows as the sun rose higher in the sky. These were shapes even Rantal found interesting. After a lifetime of watching their tangled shapes, he still couldn't unwind them. The faint cawing of a Mandril roused Rantal from his haze. The sound was distant, perhaps several hundred paces away. And as quickly as it had broken their silence, the cawing ceased. Rantal froze, his shield pressed out in front of him. His eyes darted from one side of the forest to the other, watching for the creature. It would have a Draksar nearby, or a Kanen. The trained ones always stayed close to their masters and always attacked in groups of four or five. But, the jungle was still. Only the elf was mildly attentive to the sound. Time passed and eventually L'era spoke again.
"Another wild one. They've kept us on our toes all morning."
Rantal kept his shield readied, watching the brush carefully. Nothing stirred.
"You're not as talkative as your friend," said L'era.
"Leoss aren't much for banter," said the black beard.
"Poor fool," said the red beard, "He'll have his ear chewed off by a chatty elf."
L'era said something Rantal didn't understand. It sent the black beard into a frenzy.
"Say that again! I dare you!"
The dwarf's head came to her waist. The butt of his axe was poised for her knee.
"Settle down, Garim! It's not worth it!"
"Didn't think I knew Elvish, did you? Thought you were clever?"
Maybe it was her grin that did it, or perhaps it was the next thing she said. Again, Rantal didn't understand it. But, it must have been the last straw. Garim, the black beard, drove the butt of his axe into L'era's greave. There was a clang and then L'era jumped away, nursing her leg. Garim advanced. She yelped and then pushed the dwarf away. Garim fell on his back, returned to his feet, and charged L'era with a murderous yell. The fight was odd, Rantal thought. The elf was hunched over the dwarf, trying to push him away, as small, heavily-armored punches rained down on her arms. The red beard, Samor, eventually pried Garim away. Garim began shouting at L'era, in a different language as equally incomprehensible as hers. L'era returned with a volley of foreign syllables. Samor glared at her.
"Hey, she's my mother too!"
The three argued in their respective languages. Rantal didn't understand them and didn't bother to translate any meaning. He returned his attention to the jungle. The movement startled him. The brush was shaking and, beneath the incomprehensible shouts, the sound of paws against leaves. A moment passed and a chirai exploded from the brush. He scrambled for their post, his eyes wide with fear.
The argument ended. The only sound came from the chirai's frantic charge.
The chirai skidded to a halt before Rantal's shield.
"Come again?" asked Garim, in a tone of disbelief.
"Kanen!" the Chirai panted, "Stitched!"
"Kanen," repeated Rantal, "And Stitched."
"They are in the Tangle! An hour's march away!"
"Impossible," said Garim, "We would have heard them!"
The chirai pushed past them and continued his run. As he ran, he shouted his warning. Kanen and Stitched an hour's march away. The four guards stared as the figure ran for the gates of Ailur. His voice had faded moments ago, but its echo screamed in their ears. Rantal grinned. His chance was approaching.
Minutes passed without a word. The two dwarves, the elf, and Rantal were standing where the chirai had left them. They were staring into the jungle. The silent growth was made all the more menacing by whatever stood waiting within it. Rantal pictured a hundred Kanen, each with an array of Stitched marching at their knees. If he survived, then he would have his glory.���� "They want Ailur," said Rantal, "More than ever."
"All or nothing," said Garim.
"Kanen and Stitched? Together?" said Samor.
"We don't have a chance in Sheoul."
"We need to go to Gharivol,"said L'era
The two dwarves looked to her. She continued without pause.
"We're outnumbered now. But, if we could warn Gharivol, then we would have a chance."
Garim stepped forward. He nodded.
"You aren't leaving without me," said Samor, stepping beside him.
"And leave two guards here? No."
"I'm not leaving," said Rantal, "I'll stand my ground."
"Well," said L'era, "You might be the best choice."
Rantal glared at her.
"If a Wall of Ailur runs into the middle of Gharivol and yells �siege,' then more would listen to him."
"I am sworn to protect the city," Rantal roared, "I will not run away."
"This isn't about cowardice! We need help!"
"I stay here!"
"Then let the elf go! Al'Mara guide us," said Samor.
"Someone make up your poxxing mind! We'll be wading through Kanen soon enough!"
Rantal stood his ground. The other three were looking to him, not glaring, but expectant. They had already decided that he would go.
"I am not a coward! I will stand my ground!"
"If it were the Stronghold," said Samor, "I would run to J'thir for help, if I had to."
"I will stand here and fight the Kanen. That is honorable thing."
"Pox you cats and your honor," said Garim, "You won't have a bloody city if you keep on like this."
"There will be plenty of Kanen when you get back," said L'era, "Go."
The moment he had waited for, the chance to prove himself as warrior, had come. And then, as he turned and ran, the chance was gone. He would not be the first stand against the Kanen legion and he would not deal the first killing blow to the invaders. But that wasn't important. The dwarves were right. L'era was right. He would have no place for his trophies and no Leoss would survive to tell his tale. If Ailur fell, there would be no honor for Rantal or for any Wall of Ailur. There would be nothing left. They needed the Tortuns.
Rantal was running through the Gunpowder Glade. The taste of soot was heavy on his tongue. But Gharivol was close. He could see the taverns and the shops in the distance. He let go of his shield and cast his spear aside. He was running faster; probably, he thought, as fast as a chirai or pantier. He would make it to the city within a couple of minutes. From there, he would tell anyone in the street. He would shake up Tortun merchants and yell in their faces. He would grab Slamhammers, Groundpounders, any Tortun in armor, and he would demand to see the admiral. His city depended on Rantal. He would do whatever he needed.
When Rantal returned to Ailur, he was followed by an army. Admiral Redjaw made sure he sent his personal fleet to aid the Leoss. Captain Craghide was at Rantal's side, followed by his finest infantrytorts and grenadiers. Elves followed them, some in robes and others in chainmail. Dwarves in plate armor and Jakei, atop white wolves, were the next to join. And behind them was a wave of Tortalleons, some carried more troops and others wore massive gun-batteries on their backs. The soldiers carried swords and shields, staves, bows, guns, and some with hefty axes and halberds. The Kanen would not take Ailur from the Leoss, Admiral Redjaw proclaimed to his torts. Not with the Protectorate at their sides.
Their forces hit the Kanen forces at their southern flank, heading straight through the Gunpowder Glade and meeting them at the Reflecting Pools. The Kanen were engaged by the remaining defenders in the pool. Rantal didn't see any Stitched among them; the Kanen that did fight were scrawny, their Alpha lean. In the ensuing conflict, Rantal felled two Kanen with a single stroke and ran their Alpha through with his spear. As the Alpha sputtered, he collapsed in the crystalline waters. The remaining Kanen retreated into the Tangle, some falling to pistol shots and stray arrows. The first wave of Kanen had been obliterated. The second was only moments away. Rantal took this time to look for L'era.
Did she make it? Rantal shook away images of the elf facing down the Kanen hordes, of the waves of snarling maws enveloping her. Could she have fallen after she told him to run, told him to abandon his post to save them? She couldn't have. Rantal called to a gathering of elves, some wearing the same plate armor she did. They looked to him. Some wore scowls from the fight, still glaring at enemies felled moments ago. Some were pensive; possibly, Rantal thought, reflecting on a wounded comrade or a lost friend. None of them replied.
"She took a Kanen claw," replied a gruff voice from beneath him.
There was a black-bearded suit of armor standing at Rantal's shin. Garim raised his visor and winked.
"She's going to be okay. The Priests are looking her over. She might not jump back into the fight right away, but she's all right."
They were joined by a red-bearded suit of armor.
"You Leoss are full of surprises. I've never seen someone take on ten snarling dogs and win. And these were standing on their hind legs."
"They can afford to lose ten," replied Rantal.
"What happens next?" asked Garim, "We gave them what for, butthey've probably got another army waiting in the brush."
"And two more waiting behind them," added Samor.
The two dwarves looked to Rantal, as if waiting for their orders.
"We keep fighting Kanen," said Rantal, "They will send Stitched with their next attack."
"Ugly little devils," said Samor, "But, they'll break with a good chop to the head."
"And they might have their own reinforcements too. Armies of Wrath. Draksar, demons, undead."
"Pox all, mate!" said Garim, "We've killed Draksar before. And demons. Undead hordes."
"Voil," added Samor, "Cyclops, Hyaenids, Skeezick, Nefari, and even the screaming kind. What are they- Griefers?"
"My axe has seen the skull of any creature they'll throw at us," said Garim, "If they want a poxxing war, then we'll give them one. And we'll give it to them right here."
Rantal turned to see Orshim. The Wall was talking to a larger Leoss, one with a braided mane and adorned in heavy, obsidian armor. The elder Leoss carried a heavy obsidian shield and a spear like a mace head, the end sharpened to a fine point. They both glanced at Rantal. Orshim whispered something and it made the elder Leoss smile.
"They won't take Ailur," said Rantal, "But, they will make legends out of all of us."
When the second Kanen wave descended on Ailur, they were accompanied by Stitched. Their attacking force was met by blades, guns, shields, magic spells, and the war cries of a thousand proud warriors. And these were warriors bound by a single idea; the Protectorate would keep Maljara. The Kanen didn't stand a yeti's chance in Sheoul.
When Isran awoke, she saw Korin and Zeventrech standing beside a man in white robes. The man was youthful, maybe younger than Magnus, with short silver hair and warm smile. The moment she realized her surroundings, the man looked to her and smiled.
His voice was calm, subtly cheerful. It reminded Isran of a violin, a chord that sang in a low, soft, even tone. She got to her feet and looked around. The Crown of Kiergana had changed. There was no more lava scarring the ground or dead grass in the stone. It was as if someone had swept it away and left a meadow in its wake. Or maybe, Isran thought, that the lava and the charred remains were a dream. She saw Magnus lying on the ground, his eyes fluttering beneath his lids; he was still asleep.
"Is gone," said the gray-haired man, "And she won't be back for a long time."
"The Stitched are still around," said Korin, "But that can't be helped."
"They're hers," sighed Zeventrech, "And she won't take responsibility for them."
"It's not easy," said the man, "A fact she ignored."
The man paused, rubbing his chin.
"Not ignored. She ran away from it. She thought so highly of herself, and so lowly of us, that she thought she could handle it. But I think she knew, in the end, that she couldn't."
And then he smiled and chuckled.
"We could barely handle it ourselves."
"What happens now?"
The question fell from Isran, like a fumbled goblet. She was curious, but afraid to ask. And when she did, she was terrified of the answer. The man stared at her. She noticed something in his eyes, indescribable warmth. It was intense, beneficent, and it filled Isran with an immense comfort. For a brief moment, she was little Issie wrapped in a wolf-skin blanket and resting comfortably in her father's arms. And there was her father's kiss on her forehead and the warm embrace. She was the absolute center of love and kindness, the epitome of both. And then she was Isran again, in her plate armor and battle helm with her long sword tied to her arms. But the warmth was still there, still strong. For the first time since she could remember, Isran gave a sigh of relief. The man spoke.
"That's entirely up to you. It always has been," he said, "There's a scuffle over in Ailur and it looks like your side is winning. I'm sure a couple of Inquisitors could really make a difference for morale, especially the High Inquisitor. There's also a ship in Gharivol, waiting to take civilians back to Poxanthuru. You'll meet an interesting Salaman named Berkchani, who would gladly turn the other cheek if soldiers climbed aboard."
"But, aren't you coming with us?" Isran said to Korin.
Korin turned away.
"They're coming with me," said the man, "If we're going to fix everything Sarinda's broken, then we'll need all the help we can get."
"Where are you going?"
"To the very end," replied Zeventrech, "and past it."
"And we can't come?"
"You can," said the man, "If you choose to."
Isran nodded.� She understood how she could help them.
"We'll stay here," she said.
The man nodded.
"It's your decision," he said, "I always made sure of it."
"I'm sorry about this mess."
"It wasn't your fault," he said, smiling, "It was bound to happen eventually. But it's nothing we can't fix."
He turned away and the three walked through the meadow, down a rocky path, and out of sight.