When Hugh awoke, the door to his room was closed. He slowly got up and stretched, feeling unusually sore. He pushed open the door and walked into the hallway, feeling very groggy, as if he had drank the night before. He saw Henry, whose back was turned to him, hunched over a desk, writing.
“Good morning,” said Hugh.
Henry spun around with a look of surprise. “Hugh! You’re finally awake!”
“Can I get some breakfast?”
Henry blinked a few times. “It’s almost noon.”
“So… did I miss breakfast?”
“Breakfast?” asked Henry. “You missed almost two months.”
“Oh, sorry,” said Hugh. “Sometimes… well, my race is known for our proclivity to sleep, especially after excitement. I guess I was pretty tired.”
Henry shook his head. “You missed the sea burial,” he said.
“Did the twins see it?”
“Um, yes, I believe they did.”
“Good enough.” Hugh rubbed his stomach. “I’m starving, can I get something to eat?”
Hugh had a dozen fried eggs with a dozen pieces of bacon, which he ate in the courtyard, occasionally throwing crispy bits of each to the tibear.
“I know you just… woke up from your… hibernation,” Henry said, standing over Hugh as he ate. “But the Chancellor needs your assistance. The Otros are nearly at the gates of the city, and our wall isn’t complete. Our armies will need to face them in the field.”
Hugh chewed the yolk of his last egg and thought for a bit while swallowing. “What does he need from me?”
“We want you to fight, of course,” Henry said. “Every able-bodied man in the city is expected to take up arms, and many women are volunteering as well.”
“Are the twins involved?”
“They’ve already been given militia units to command,” said Henry, walking around in front of Hugh to face him. “Edward and Herbert both want you to command the city’s war engineers.”
“I don’t know what that means,” said Hugh.
“We have a vast arsenal of craftsmen who have been working on constructing weapons to use against the coming siege.”
Hugh nodded. “Okay, well… I guess.”
“I’ll send word to Edward and Herbert, but I suggest you work on the Vulcan steel until then. I’ll send a page for you at your workshop.”
Hugh met up with the twins at the forge, which now had a small shed nearby for the tools and a lean-to for the charcoal and wood. The dwarf and giant explained everything he had missed, how they had watched a mummified man’s body put onto a boat and lit ablaze at night, how construction of the wall had begun in earnest and nearly reached their location (in fact, they could see and hear the workers further downstream making progress towards them as they spoke).
“I figured you were fine, the giant said eventually. “Since you once slept for over a year that one time, but with the attack coming…”
“It gets worse for my kind as we get older,” said Hugh. “My father was said to have slept for over a century once. He may be asleep right now.”
“What’s the point of living to be 900 years old if you sleep for a century at a time?” asked the dwarf.
“Everyone sleeps away about a third of their life,” said Hugh, “I sleep less on a daily basis than both of you, I guess my body just has to make up for that. I would like to take a crack at that Vulcan steel, but I don’t think I have enough time.”
Hugh spent a while oiling his tools until a young boy came running up. He led Hugh to the barracks, where he was met by Herbert and a group of men, many of whom wore bright, polished armor of bronze and steel.
“I’m glad you’re back in the waking world,” said Herbert, walking up to Hugh. “You seem taller.”
“Yeah, my kind tends to grow when we sleep like that.”
Herbert nodded. “We could go outside, if you would rather not hunch over.”
“I’ll just have a seat here,” he said, sitting down cross-legged on the floor.
“We’ve been bolstering our defenses these last few weeks,” said Herbert. “Since we got the license from the King to crenellate, we assigned thousands of workers to build the wall, and we expect it to extend well beyond the city limits before the Otros arrive, though it won’t be enough. There is too much of the river exposed, and while we can prevent them from crossing, we can force them to return home after a short time if we cut them off from fresh water.
“If they reach the limits of our wall and make camp, they can launch a siege on the city for weeks before turning back, all the while plundering our land south of the river, which accounts for about forty percent of our farms. We’ll go into the winter with slightly more than half of our normal stores, and they’ll return next year when we’re at our weakest.”
Herbert leaned over a map, looking down at it.
“Our best bet is to cut them off from the river, which means engaging them in pitched battle. Their commanders are very intelligent, and their scouts are renowned. They say even the trees and the grass are spies for the Otros. We can assume they will accurately know what the situation is long before they arrive.”
Herbert pointed to the map, specifically at a location labeled “Sparx Farm.”
“This is where we want the battle to be, and this would be the most likely location they would choose, as it is well outside of the range of our archers on the wall. Any further upstream and they will have to camp and fight in marshlands, where their horses are far less effective and they’re liable to be hindered by disease and fatigue.
“We’ll muster here, granting them no access to the river. Our intelligence indicates they’re still a week or more away, so there’s still time for preparations to be made.
“We’re going to pull half our workers off the wall–”
“We can’t afford to do that,” said one of the armored men.
“We can’t afford not to,” Herbert said, looking up. “Even if we doubled our efforts, as if we could, we cannot hope to have the wall reach the Cliffs by the time they arrive. What we can do is construct towers at regular intervals on the north side of the river. We’ll be able to survey any of their movements upstream, and the towers will aid in communication if the conflict were to move west.”
Herbert looked up at Hugh. “I want you to oversee the Engineering Corps. You can familiarize yourself with them by helping them organize the construction of our towers. Do you feel comfortable managing 45,000 workers?”
“I guess,” said Hugh.
“Oh, so you’re going to try?” asked Herbert.
“Yes,” said Hugh.
“You’re gonna give it a go, huh?” Herbert asked, walking over to Hugh.
“This is our city,” said Herbert, standing over Hugh. “Our homes, our wives, our children are here. We’re trying to protect ourselves from utter destruction. The least I was hoping from you was a little fucking enthusiasm.”
“Sorry,” said Hugh.
“Don’t be sorry, just remember what’s at stake.”
“Herbert, I will build those towers for you,” said Hugh.
“That’s what I want to hear.” Herbert motioned for the page who had accompanied Hugh. “Give this to the foreman at the wall,” he said, handing him a letter sealed with wax. “And take Hugh with you.”
“Is there any way I can get something to eat?” Hugh asked.
Herbert stared at him for a second, then turned back to the page. “Take him to the mess hall first, I guess.”
Hugh quickly downed six bowls of vegetable soup while the page nibbled at a rice cake. Upon going for his seventh bowl, the chef came from the back room and have him a whole leg of lamb. “Here, save some soup for the officers.”
The page led the way to the wall as Hugh took large bites from the leg. He was picking the bone when they reached the worksite. The page handed the foreman the sealed letter while Hugh licked his fingers.
“What is this lunacy?” asked the foreman.
The foreman grumbled more complaints while the page stood like a statue, staring at him. When the foreman finished, he returned the page’s stare for a bit, and shouted, “Nikomedes!”
A man standing by a large crane came running over.
“Nikomedes, this is Hugh. He’s your new boss. How do you feel about that?”
Nikomedes stared at the ground. “Hi,” he said sheepishly, not looking Hugh in the face.
“Hello, my name is Hugh.”
“I’m…. I’m… I’m um, they call me Nikomedes.”
The foreman shook his head. “He’s all yours.”
The foreman walked through the camp tapping people on the shoulder, assigning Hugh his workforce. Each man the foreman tapped stopped work, as did several men near him. After a bit, the foreman shouted the instruction for them to follow Hugh, or rather, “the cyclops.”
After doubling back to cross the bridge, the page left and they walked up stream with Hugh walking side-by-side with Nikomedes ahead of the workers. Nikomedes stared intently at the letter, reading and rereading it, sometimes mouthing the words, sometimes saying and repeating words out loud.
As they passed Hugh’s forge, he waved to the twins, who waved back. The dwarf shouted, “Whip ’em into shape, Hugh!”
They continued up the river a ways and at some point Nikomedes yelled, “Stop!”
Nikomedes looked back and held his arm out in front of him, his thumb extended. He moved a bit, looked down at his shadow, spun around, looking in every direction, then kicked a divot in the grass. “Here.”
“Okay,” said Hugh. “I guess we start building here.”
“What are we building?” asked one of the workers. A few laughed.
“Towers,” said Hugh.
“Standard scout tower,” said Nikomedes. “Six meters tall.”
Nikomedes went around to each group and gave them instructions, or rather, provided an order for a specific material prepared in a specific way. Gradually, the din of wood being worked grew louder and louder, while hundreds were sent up stream to cut trees and send them down the river.
Before long, two cranes began to take shape. Hugh stood around awkwardly, not sure what to do until a log came down stream. As workers directed it to the bank with long hooked tools, at which point Hugh reached in and pulled it to shore.
As he lifted the first log out of the water, everyone turned to watch him. He stood there, holding the log, looking back at wide eyes, open jaws and gasps. Hugh waved to everyone with his free hand, then set the log down in front of Nikomedes.
“You,” said Nikomedes, “You… you are like a living crane.” He grabbed one of Hugh’s arms. He ran his hands down to Hugh’s wrist, turning it palm up, before bursting out into giggles. Nikomedes shook his head and muttered to himself. He looked back to Hugh and burst out giggling again.
To be continued…