Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Several Adventures of Hugh, Part 38

Hugh spent the final days before the assault learning from the Northerners how to work with a crucible. It made working with certain metals very easy, and he began mastering the pouring of molten metal into molds made of clay that were broken apart when the metal cooled. He was also shown how to turn low quality wrought iron into steel by throwing in raw plant matter with the iron and folding it over repeatedly.

After five days, the order came for Hugh and half the troops at the cliff camp to man the walls. As they made their short trek into the city, Hugh watched the rushing waters of the river. He saw a clump of clay dislodge and fall into the water. He stopped and stared as soldiers passed him by.

Once at the wall, Hugh put out a call for Nikomedes. He was summoned and Hugh talked with him a bit. Nikomedes became giddy with excitement and went off to find laborers.

“What was that about?” asked Herbert.

“I’ll tell you… if it works,” said Hugh.

Hugh peered over the wall and saw little shacks in the ditches, each lined up with one of the towers.

“Under those shacks, they have leveled the ground. When the towers roll forward, the shacks will be picked up and moved out of the way, and each tower will have a straight, flat path to the wall,” said Herbert.

“Can’t you set fire to the shacks?” asked Hugh.

“They’re covered in animal skins, as are their towers,” said Herbert. “We are going to hold our artillery for the actual assault. When they come pouring out onto the wall, they’ll also send those.” He motioned off in the distance.

Hugh squinted and tried to make out what he was looking at.

“It’s a covered battering ram,” said Herbert. “Also on wheels, it will be rolled forward and operated by a team of men. They’ll pound the gate until it gives way, unless we can repel them. I think we can handle the ram. The gate isn’t likely to break unless they can sustain an attack for days.”

Hugh looked at Herbert. “I need a way of signaling Nikomedes from here,” he said.

“I’ll have a rider on stand-by for you. Anything in particular you’re signaling?”

“I need to let him known when the siege begins,” said Hugh.

“Okay, I’ll make the arrangements.”

Hugh slept at his home for the first time in a while that night. He saw the twins as well, each with their new spouse. The twins each had command of a small militia unit tasked with defending a few blocks of the city behind the wall, in case any Otros troops were to break through the defenses and go beyond the wall. It would also be their responsibility to help put out any fires. Hugh was relieved they would not see front-line action, like he would.

Hugh was woken up early by the giant, and once they were all outfitted, they headed to their assigned locations. Hugh oversaw 15,000 Northerners, who stood three men deep atop the wall, with most of the troops at ground level behind the wall, waiting to be called up as needed. The Northerners quarreled over who would be the first to engage the enemy, and spots in front of the sapper sheds were taken by the highest ranking and most veteran warriors.

Without a little more than an eerie creaking, the Otros towers moved in unison. Hugh was able to make out flag bearers signaling behind their line. The sheds moved to the side, revealing flat ground for the towers. Hugh waved his arms and signaled the rider to alert Nikomedes.

The towers moved forward at a sickeningly slow crawl. Hugh felt nauseous with anticipation. He thought for sure he would throw-up a few times, but he held it together. As they got closer, archers from their towers fired out of narrow slits at the defenders atop the wall. Those with shields raised them, those without crouched low if they were in the open crenels.

Politian officers on the wall kept yelling “Hold,” discouraging anyone from unleashing any attack until the towers lowered their bridges, exposing the soldiers inside. Finally, the bridge of one of the towers lowered. Then another, and another… and no one came out.

Archers fired from the wall into the towers, hitting nothing. Battle cries among the defenders died down. After an initial salvo of arrows, javelins, darts, slung shot, axes, and hammers, there were several moments of silence, and those on the wall began to look at each other, confused. Troops then began silently pouring out of the towers. The first ones to exit near Hugh were met with large, leaden throwing hammers launched by the Northerners.

The next troops out of the tower kicked the bodies of the injured out of their way, from the bridge to the ground below. They came running out, spears lowered, shields up. Hugh gripped the spear just behind the point of the nearest charging Otros, and swung him up and over the defenders onto the ground behind the wall. The Northerners back there made short work of him.

Hugh noticed some of the defenders making such good progress, they were climbing onto the bridges to negate the Otros height advantage. Hugh kept yelling to all those around him not to get on the bridge, but he was sure not even his boomed voice was being heard over the din of battle. He saw Herbert far down the line on one of the bridges. He turned to look in the direction of the cliffs.

Hugh pushed his way through the thick of the defenders on the wall towards Herbert. Just as he got there, a great roar filled the air. Hugh grabbed Herbert by the shoulder and pulled him back just as the tower began to lurch, then fall away. Herbert looked back at Hugh, his eyes wide, then down at the trench. Water rushed by, sweeping towers away along with it.

The defenders watched as, one by one, the ground under the towers crumbled away and the towers fell over. The water grew more rapid, and before long it was dragging the towers along with it.

Herbert finally looked back at Hugh. “This is your doing?”

Hugh nodded. “And Nikomedes, he made it happen.”

Herbert almost managed to smile, yet he still managed to make it look like a grimace. All around them, soldiers cheered. Hugh slowly made his way through the throng of celebration, down off the wall, then he ran the whole length of the river. It was low and had slowed to a slight trickle of water.

About half way to the camp, a messenger on horseback passed him. He yelled something that Hugh couldn’t quite make out. When Hugh got to the bridge, it was up. A nearby soldier walked up to Hugh.

“They attacked suddenly. They must have known we had reduced numbers.”

“How did they breach the palisades?” Hugh asked.

“They had elephants. Fucking elephants.”

“Lower the bridge,” Hugh said.

“Can’t, not until we confirm it’s clear. Those are our orders from the top.”

“Okay… lower it enough for me to run out, and keep it off the ground so the horses can’t cross. I’ll jump it.”

The soldier shrugged and found a second man. They got into a large wooden wheel and walked, turning it. The bridge slowly lowered. When it was a little past halfway down, Hugh yelled for them to stop. They locked the bridge in place and Hugh ran up the incline. At the end, he steadied himself on the edge and hopped to the ground.

Bodies were everywhere. The only sounds in the air were the crackle of fires and groans. There must have been at least 10,000 men on that side of the bridge when he left, and every single one of them appeared to be dead. He also recognized Politian laborers by their canvas tunics.

Hugh walked through the carnage for some time. Nearly everyone was feathered with arrows. During his search, having seen that the Otros had ridden off, some of the survivors struggled to their feet to help the badly wounded. The palisade was almost completely trampled. A few sections remained standing, but most of it lay in loose logs on the ground.

One missing section had the redirected river running through it to the trench running along the wall. Hugh looked along the ditch that was dug to move the river, and at the point where the river had run under the wall, it appeared that a series of wood planks were placed in order to block and divert the water.

In the thick of a large number of laborer bodies, Hugh spotted someone familiar. It was Nikomedes. Hugh lifted him up into his arms, but he was dead. A laborer lifted his arm and shouted to Hugh. He set Nikomedes down and went over to the survivor.

Hugh dug forty-two out from under bodies that day. In all, only just over five hundred survived, mostly laborers. The Northerners had fought to the death, many died on the ground screaming threats, with only a hundred and ten too incapacitated to have been thought alive by the Otros before retreating.

Armies were hastily marched to the cliffs from the city. Over 75,000 camped there that night to hold the position while new battlements were constructed through the night by thousands of workers. They were still built of wood, but were more heavily reinforced and had spikes built into their front to discourage large animal ramming.

The bodies of the Northerners were quickly collected up by their fellow troops and piled onto a vast pyre. Their army’s supreme commander sang a hymn in their language which Hugh could not understand, but it brought tears to his eyes. Their armor and weapons were also thrown in, so that they would be armed for eternity.

The pyre was now as wide as it was towering, and when the fire had spread the entire length of it, the flames leapt as high as the cliffs. As the pyre burned into the night, the supreme commander, Zigmund, approached Hugh and asked to walk with him, as was the custom of the Northerners when they talked together.

“We have asked for you to be removed from our ranks,” said Zigmund.

“I’m sorry,” said Hugh.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Zigmund said. “If it were up to me, you would stay with us until this war is over. My men cannot appreciate someone like you.”

“Why?”

“The men want nothing to do with a giant who resorts to trickery. Every story they ever heard growing up involves a sneaky but seemingly friendly colossus. Those who survived say you robbed them of a battle when you moved the river, and there is both mourning and jealousy for those who fell in battle here today.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I know,” said Zigmund. “But I simply must do what must be done.” Zigmund stopped walking and turned back to the camp. “I can’t guarantee your safety. This is where we part ways.”

Hugh reported back to Herbert the next morning, who he met with at his office in the barracks.

“I’m not surprised,” said Herbert. “They’ve been trying to get rid of you since I assigned you to them.”

“Then why did you do it?” asked Hugh.

“I was hoping you could learn how they make their weapons.” They looked at each other for a while before Herbert continued. “Well… did you?”

“I guess.”

“Right. I will find a new assignment for you. In the meantime, meet with the blacksmiths in the barracks to share what you learned.”

“I’m sorry about your son,” said Hugh.

“I’d rather not talk about it.”

“He was a brilliant man.”

Herbert began writing something. Without looking up, he finally said. “You’re dismissed.”

Hugh told the smiths about adding plant material, and they pushed to know what type of material. Hugh had seen them throw everything from grass clippings to dandelions into the red-hot metal. Hugh demonstrated, adding some browned lettuce from a nearby hog trough. Hugh folded the iron over a dozen or so times, and after a couple hours of work, he quenched it. The result was not ideal, but it was certainly steel, and it was derived from brittle iron.

“The more you fold it, the better steel you’ll supposedly get,” said Hugh.

While he was fashioning the steel into an axe head of the style Northerners tended to favor, a messenger arrived and handed Hugh his new assignment. He finished the axe head, which was a thin-bladed utility axe which had a long, extended beard, making the neck as narrow as a finger and a blade about as wide as a man’s palm.

Hugh made his way to the cliffs again. He would remain stationed there, while the Northerners had been moved to the beach. The refortified position at the cliff was now manned by 50,000 Kolish infantry and one thousand Nudari cavalry.

He spent the rest of the afternoon stitching up his tent, which had been badly torn during the attack.

He fell asleep watching firelight dance behind his tent canvas.

To be continued…

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