After an entire day and night of heavy bombardment by the catapults, it stopped suddenly. A rider from the Otros side came out to the middle of the field, carrying a white and red flag. Hugh was summoned to accompany Herbert and a few others to meet him.
They approached the rider and he threw his weapons to the ground. “I come making an offer of mercy on behalf of Jengo. He is giving your city two days reprieve in order to gather and dispose of your dead.”
“How do we know this isn’t some sort of scheme?” one of Herbert’s commanders asked.
“I am to be held as your hostage in the meantime,” answered the rider.
“And who are you?” asked Herbert.
“I am Toloy, Jengo’s son and heir.”
Herbert nodded. “I appreciate this gesture. Come with us, you will be treated with the utmost hospitality.”
Toloy stayed with Hugh, whose home on the outskirts of Polity was deemed the safest place for him to stay, as it was more likely that Toloy would be attacked by angry Politians if he were in the heart of the city.
Carts were drawn by oxen through the streets, and they were piled high with the dead. Many bodies were burned, but many more were simply dumped into vast holes and covered with dirt. Priests sang songs over them, sprinkling water from the River Lys upon the pyres and graves.
Hugh was most moved by the orphans. He opened up his home to them, and they came by the score. So many arrived at his doorway, there was not enough room for all of them. Hugh convinced Walker to open up his estate to the overflow, and several other nobles in the city did the same.
Hugh spent most of his time those two days cooking meals and cleaning diapers. Zeke also showed up and helped as best he could, primarily entertaining the children with songs and stories. The twins were at Walker’s estate, doing the same. Theora also stopped in to help treat a few of the children who had been wounded and to try to calm the nearly non-stop chorus of crying babies. With the help of the older children and Walker’s gifts of food and clothing, they were able to get by without turning anyone away.
Toloy busied himself over the outdoor firepit, cooking birds he shot from the air with his bow. He was quiet, and Hugh got the impression he did not speak much Stelan, the native tongue of the Koles. For the most part, he kept to himself, except when offering his freshly cooked game to those under Hugh’s care.
On the morning Toloy was set to leave, he was mounted on his horse by dawn, eager to leave. Hugh walked him to the city gates and a ways out of the city, then turned back. Almost immediately, the catapults resumed their barrage.
The Politians waited another day, as word had arrived that more reinforcements were being sent from Kole and another ally, the Garim. Instead of attacking, they continued constructed wooden palisades around the northern borders of the city. The next day, the Kolish troops arrived around noon, accompanied by a few hundred cavalry. The Garim arrived in the late evening, wearing thick cloaks of animal hide. They wielded large, two-handed swords on their back, almost as long as they were tall, as well as ovular, thatchwork shields, which they also carried on their backs.
The next morning, most of the troops assembled outside the walls, while a modest force was stationed at the newly constructed fortification on the north side of Polity, in the event that the Otros still had horsemen ready for attack on their side of the river.
The attack went as usual, until all the Politian forces had overtaken the catapults. Again the cavalry support never arrived. Instead, a large force of Otros riders attacked from upstream. They were likely the very same forces who had attacked the city directly before; they had probably used the temporary ceasefire to quickly move back through the mountains to prepare for the ambush. The Politian militia who were most upstream were utterly obliterated, while those more downstream had warning enough to prepare their defenses.
The cavalry on the Politian side had been ordered by Herbert to flank the additional Otros once he got word of their approach. They slowed the progress of the ambushers enough to allow the Politian side time to shift their defenses. Politian riders were sent out to the troops dismantling catapults downstream to order their movement towards the fighting, and before long the largest battle of the war was raging.
For the first time, the Otros suffered severe losses in the thousands. For the first time, there was melee combat outside the walls, and the advantage gained by the hit-and-run tactics of the Otros was neutralized once large contingents of horsemen were surrounded by the Politian cavalry and were unable to maneuver freely.
The Nudari and Kolish cavalry in particular inflicted severe damage to the Otros, and towards the end of the battle, they turned their attention to the Otros camp. They set fire to several tents and rampaged through the encampment, until the entirety of the Otros forces turned back to defend their base of operations.
Through it all, Hugh and his group of skirmishers slowly made progress. Positioned in the middle of the Politian line, they pushed forward before dropping back behind the advancing infantry, sometimes even holding their ground against cavalry charges.
At some point, Hugh saw the giant, and he slowly made his way over to her. The two of them rained arrows upon the Otros, until they saw the dwarf’s unit off in the distance. The giant repositioned her unit next to the dwarf’s, and the three of them fought side-by-side for the remainder of the battle, well into the night.
Where at the beginning of the war, the Politians were easily dispersed when the Otros charged, they had grown stalwart and held their position behind sturdy shields. Finally, the Otros made one final retreat, and this time they did not turn back to re-engage, but instead returned to their camp to drive out the Politian cavalry.
There were cheers from the Politian line, even as word came that the encampment far upstream at the cliffs had been over run. Some troops were sent to regain that position, while the rest collected the dead and wounded, stripping the arms and armor of the fallen Otros. Over five hundred horses were also captured.
The next morning, a few Otros horsemen were lingering about on the battlefield. One had a white flag and a red flag, so once more, Hugh, Herbert, and his retinue made their way out to meet them. Jengo was among those there.
“I have another offer for you, Hugh,” said Jengo.
“Oh?” Hugh asked.
“I have another champion for you to face. If you vow to fight them to the death, I will cease the invasion until next spring.”
“And if I lose?” asked Hugh.
“Like I said, if you vow to fight them to the death,” repeated Jengo, “I will cease the invasion until next spring. Win or lose.”
Hugh blinked and looked at Herbert, confused. Herbert just stared back at him.
“No magic,” said Hugh.
“No magic,” Jengo repeated back, nodding.
Hugh frowned and thought for a few moments. “Fine.”
“I’ll give you until this evening to prepare, then. When the sun begins its downward journey to the horizon, make your way here. I recommend you say your good-byes.”
Jengo and his horsemen rode off, while Hugh and the Politians returned to town. Hugh spent the morning patching his armor and sharpening his sword. Around midday, he took to the field wearing his full plate armor and equipped with a sword at his side, a shield in one hand, and a large iron club in the other.
He stood alone in the field for a bit, and then he saw someone off in the distance, far behind the Otros troops, towering over the camp. He moved slowly but deliberately towards Hugh. From a distance, Hugh could see it was another cyclops, much larger than himself. He carried a large tree trunk for a club, and wore no armor, only a simple doublet and pants made of linen. He approached Hugh, expressionless.
Without saying a word, he swung at Hugh’s head, who ducked and moved back. Hugh’s opponent stepped forward and made an overhead swing, which Hugh sidestepped. The club hit the ground with a booming thud, and the ground shook. Hugh made no attempt to attack.
“Fight me.” His opponent swung again, and Hugh once again stepped back.
Another wide, sweeping blow dodged, this time accompanied by a kick that caught Hugh in the sternum. Hugh then took an elbow to the top of his head and stumbled. A powerful upward swing of the club connected with Hugh’s chin, sending him sprawling to the ground, nearly lifting him into the air.
His opponent stood over him. “Get up.”
Hugh spit out blood and a piece of a tooth. He blinked repeatedly, seeing a checkered pattern of stars.
“Get up,” he repeated.
Hugh struggled to his feet, but made no motion to strike. His opponent continued to batter him for a bit, knocking him repeatedly to the ground.
“Fight back!” he screamed.
“Draw your sword!”
Hugh took his sword out of the scabbard and stabbed it into the ground. His opponent frowned, stepped forward, and grabbed the sword, feeling its weight in his hand. “Do you even know why I’m here?”
Hugh shook his head.
“I have lived over a thousand years. Everything I touch…” he dropped the sword, “Crumbles. It is my time.”
“But is it mine?”
His opponent shook his head. “I don’t know, Hugh. Is it?” He stepped forward and punched Hugh in the face. He hit Hugh again and again. “Fight me!”
Hugh looked down at the ground. His opponent grabbed him by the throat, his hand almost wrapped completely around his neck. He shook him until he looked up. “Listen to me: I wouldn’t be here if it would put you in danger. I didn’t come to end your life, I came to end mine.” He let go, reached down for the sword, and put it in his son’s hand. “My time is over. End it.”
Hugh stood there, holding the sword limply.
“End it!” His father lunged at Hugh and tackled him to the ground, falling on top of him. His eye opened wide, surprised. His father blinked a few times, swallowed, and rolled off of him. The sword was lodged in his gut. Hugh got up and stood over his oppoent.
“I’m sorry,” said Hugh.
“Don’t be,” said he said. “Someday, you will understand.” He looked up into the sky, and coughed up blood. “I wish… I wish there was something I could tell you.”
“What? You can say it.”
“There’s… there’s so much I wish I could say.”
“What do you want to say?” asked Hugh.
The dying cyclops smiled and shook his head. “Everything. But… it is better if you find out for yourself.”
He grimaced as he pulled the sword from his belly. “What is life without some mystery?” He smiled with his mouth, though the pained look lingered in his eye. He handed the bloody sword to Hugh. “Please… just end it. Don’t make me linger in pain for hours.”
Hugh took the sword, his hand shaking. He raised it high over his head and hesitated as he looked into his eye, until he closed it. Then, he swung down with all his strength, severing his head from the body. He sunk to his knees, crying for a bit before standing back up.
He screamed at the Otros line, where thousands were lined up on horses, watching. He beat his chest and yelled unintelligibly, lacking the words to express how much he wished for everything they held dear to be destroyed right in front of their eyes. He feel to his knees and threw his arms wide into the air, looking to the sky, shouting, enraged. He felt like he could take on the entire Otros army.
Tears rolled down his cheeks, stinging with anger, sadness, confusion. He pounded his fist into the ground repeatedly, tore grass and threw it into the air. He had never felt so unlike himself. He felt like he had reached out, grabbed the sun and swallowed it. His insides burned and he lost all sense of what was happening around him.
The Otros slowly packed up and left as Hugh languished in agony next to the corpse of his father.
To be continued…