Friday, January 4, 2013

The Several Adventures of Hugh, Part 37

The morning after the arrival of the Otros, Herbert ordered men to the wall, where they stood almost shoulder to shoulder. Lined up this way, soldiers lined the entire length, which stretched for a few miles from the sea to the cliffs. There were tens of thousands of men not even on the wall itself, who had made camp not far from Hugh’s home on the outskirts of the city.

Hugh was assigned to be a liaison officer for the Northern armies. His job was to relay orders directly from Herbert and his commanders to the Northern troops. Conversely, he would also inform the Politian officials of the status and needs of the Northerners.

Hugh was informed that the Northerners were the most experienced troops on the Kolish side, and they should present no problems, as they were battle hardened and capable of incredible autonomy. They were the only army that refused to accept rations and supplies, instead surviving solely by foraging in the forest. They spoke a language unfamiliar to Hugh, but the officers spoke the common language fluently. It didn’t matter much, though, since they seemed to rarely speak… except at night, when they sang loudly while drinking.

Just as last time, Hugh was summoned to join Herbert and his commanders to meet the Otros emissaries. Just as last time, Jengo spoke first to Hugh.

“I’m glad to see you again, Hugh,” he said.

“I wish it was under better circumstances,” Hugh replied.

Jengo smiled. “No one has to die here.”

“I agree,” said Hugh. “You could go home.”

“Or you could let us pass through. Your city would go untouched, and I would be happy to sign a treaty with you to ensure generations of peace between our peoples.”

Hugh looked to Herbert. “We will not become your puppet,” Herbert said firmly.

“This is the last time I make this offer,” said Jengo. “When I return next year, and I will return next year, I will have with me the men who will be the new inhabitants of this city.”

“So you already admit defeat for this year?” asked Herbert, smirking.

“I am never defeated,” said Jengo. “What I promise you this year is a victory from which you will never recover.”

Herbert chuckled. “You’re outnumbered. You acknowledge you cannot possibly take the city… why not just turn around and go back the way you came?”

“I respect you, Herbert. I know all about your military career, and it is impressive. I know all about the greatness and wealth of this city. And I know this: I have razed cities twice as great as this one, cities which were defended by military leaders twice as skilled as you. During the siege, your people will know true suffering. When I leave this fall, they will pray for death. When I return next year, I will answer their prayers.”

Jengo turned to Hugh. “I suggest you talk some sense into these fools. If you ever wish to call council with me, raise a white flag in your right arm and a red flag in your left, and I will meet with you, and only you, at this spot.”

The Otros rode back to their camp, and the Politians returned through the city gates, which were promptly lowered and barricaded.

“What now?” Hugh asked Herbert.

“Now we see how well the wall holds.”

A large number of the forces remained camped near the cliffs at the end of the way, since this was identified as a weak point in the city’s defenses. The wall had been finished in an odd manner, as the steepest point of a nearby cliff was on the north side of the river. Because of this, the wall was built to cross the river, with several wooden pillars sunken into the river bed supporting the wall where it crossed. The end was flush against a steep bluff on the north side of the river.

A gate was also constructed here, near where the wall crossed to the northern side, with a large draw bridge allowing access over the river. Here, the walls were manned day and night to defend against any attempt to access or poison the river water. A makeshift wooden palisade was constructed in a wide arc around the gap on the southern side, creating a sort of small fortress in which the Northern armies camped.

This was where Hugh was stationed. He saw little of the progress of the siege, except the daily Otros horseman who ran his steed the whole length of the wall, all the way to the cliffs, then returned the way he came.

The Northerners were an interesting lot. Besides drinking an awful lot of beer, they were fond of settling their disputes with violence. They had a particular way of dueling in which each man held a short rope (about the length of a man’s arm) with his weak hand, while his opponent did the same. They often wrapped it around their wrist once to help them grip it, since letting go meant defeat. In this way, each man was unable to move too far away from the other, and it was common to pull the opponent closer using the rope in order to set up a blow.

Nearly all such duels were bare knuckle fights, but Hugh saw at least once where each man wielded a knife, and the fight ended with one man on the verge of bleeding to death. Hugh was certain he would die, his skin was so pale. He lay in bed for days, at times breathing so shallowly that Hugh was certain he was doomed, but eventually he recovered, though a wound on his side continued to fester for months afterward.

Of all of the armies on the Politian side, Hugh was most intrigued by the weapons of the Northerners. Each man was responsible for his own equipment, so each man had a unique set of weapons and armor. Many of the officers carried the most elaborate weapons Hugh had ever seen, with handles intricately adorned with silver and gold, with geometric designs and recognizable figures of people, animals and plants. They were as much works of art as weapons of war.

One commander’s axe even had a haft which illustrated a story, which was told to him as he looked over the images.

There was an evil giantess who had three evil children. When the Divas heard of this, they consulted the Fates, who informed them that the children would one day grow to destroy them. The Divas convened and decided to act.

The youngest was a girl, who was a beautiful woman from the waist up, but who was decaying flesh and exposed bone from the waist down. She was sent to a cold realm where she would hold the souls of people who died of old age, illness, and all those who perished in their beds.

The middle child was a giant serpent, who was thrown into the sea. He grew so large that he encircled the world and bit his own tail.

The oldest was a wolf, but the gods could see nothing wrong with him. So, the wolf lived with the Divas for a time, until he grew so large that the Divas realized he was quickly becoming more than any of them could handle.

The Fates warned that his death now would have a most dire outcome, and that his blood must not be spilled, for it will bring about the end of the world. Since they weren’t sure they could even kill him if they tried, the Divas decided unanimously to bind the wolf.

First, they had an iron chain made and challenged him to test his strength by escaping from it. The wolf agreed, and he easily broke the chain. Then, the Divas had a steel chain built, this one twice as big and four times as strong as the first. They told the wolf that if he could escape from this, the whole world would know of his great strength. The wolf agreed to be bound, and after just a few seconds of flexing, he snapped rings at several points on the chain and broke out.

The Divas now had no idea what to do. The giant who fathered the wolf, perhaps fearing retribution if he didn’t attempt to help, suggested that they consult the cyclopes. Calling in an old favor, the giant got one of them to construct a length of binding that looked like little more than a ribbon, but which was unbreakable.

When the giant turned it over in his hands, looking at it, he asked what it was made of. The cyclops who crafted it informed him that it was constructed from a four-sided triangle, the smell of moonlight, the sound of sunshine, the voice of a turnip, the sweat of a stone, the patience of a young boy, the beard of a young girl, the shape of water, and the color of air.

The giant brought it to the Divas, who looked at it with uncertainty. They decided to try it, despite their doubts. When they approached the wolf to challenge him to escape, the wolf scoffed, saying that the flimsy ball of string was no match for his great might. When they insisted, the wolf became suspicious. He agreed to be bound with it only if someone would agree to put their hand in his mouth as insurance against magical trickery.

An old Diva named Tues stepped forward, for he had always been the most brave among them. He placed his right hand in the wolf’s mouth as the others tethered him. Sure enough, the wolf was unable to escape, and the more he struggled in vain, the tighter he bit down on Tue’s hand. Before long, the wolf gnawed the hand off at the wrist as he continued to struggle to break free.

“What happened to Tue?” asked Hugh, since the story ended abruptly.

“He learned to use his sword in his left hand, and he had a special shield fashioned for use in his right hand,” said the commander.

Hugh nodded. “So, he lived, at least.”

“The Divas are Divas because they don’t die… not until the appointed time.”

“When is that?” asked Hugh.

“Only one of them knows, and he isn’t telling anyone.”

“What happens at the appointed time?”

The commander looked Hugh directly in the eye for the first time. “The world as we know it will end.”

Hugh handed the axe back.

After a few weeks at the cliffs, the morning messenger sent from the city requested that Hugh follow him back to meet with Herbert. Hugh jogged the winding length of the river into the city, following the horse messenger. Herbert was at the city gate.

“Come with me,” said Herbert. They climbed the stairs up to the top of the wall, and Hugh peered out at the Otros. They were mostly camped, sitting around fires some distance away, but large groups were working on tall structures.

“Those are siege towers,” said Herbert. “They roll on wheels up us, then bridges are lowered from their top level so that their soldiers can come pouring out onto the wall.”

Hugh looked all along the length of the Otros line. There were dozens upon dozens of towers.

“I will recall about half of your forces to help with the coming assault,” said Herbert. “We can’t be sure how close to finished they are, but… I suspect they could move the towers now. They appear to be working on a method of getting sappers into our ditch to fill it in.”

“Huh?”

“They have troops that are called sappers, who specialize in siege warfare. They will send sappers to the ditch, who will work on leveling the ground there so that the towers can roll right up to the wall. That was one of the purposes of the ditch; it should buy us some more time.”

Hugh continued to look out over the Otros army, unsure of what to say.

“I brought you here so you could see for yourself what we’ll be up against. I will send for you and some of the troops at the cliffs well before their assault begins, so you will have plenty of time to get here and rest before the fight.”

“Can we repel them?” Hugh asked.

“Yes, we should be able to, though… they will likely break through at some points. This type of fighting won’t be to our benefit, and we won’t know for certain where they are concentrating their forces. We won’t get to choose when it will begin. We have to remain ready day and night, while they will be able to rest. Have you seen any of these towers near where you are stationed?”

“No.”

“Okay,” said Herbert. “You’re dismissed. You can inform your troops that it will be a week at most, though three or four days is more likely.”

Hugh walked back to the cliffs, looking into the waters of the river as he went. When he reached the camp with the Northerners, he told them everything he had seen and been told.

“I love a good battle on the bulwark,” said Harl, one of the commanders, laughing and slapping Hugh on the knee as other officers relayed the information to the troops in their native tongue. After they heard the news, there were cheers and the sound of weapons being beaten against shields.

“You guys really love a fight,” said Hugh.

“Every battle is an opportunity,” said Harl. “If we win, we gain glory. If we die fighting, we go off to the Hall of the Slain, where we will battle every day to the death, only to come back to life in time for dinner. There we will stay, until we are called upon to fight against the forces of chaos at the appointed time.”

“I’m not ready to die,” said Hugh.

“Impossible,” said Harl, looking very serious. “I think your problem is that you aren’t ready to live.” He winked and handed Hugh a large horn full of ale.

To be continued…

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