They travelled for two days and arrived on the southern outskirts of the Otros encampment. Zeke and Theoson were given a large tent to share. There were no tents big enough for Hugh, so they began construction of one, which meant sewing the felt of several tents together in order to accommodate the size. With Hugh’s help, they managed to construct it by nightfall, with a center pole that consisted of an entire felled tree stripped of its branches.
As Hugh lay down inside to sleep, he couldn’t shake the feeling of knowing he was so close to Polity, and yet he couldn’t reach it. He tossed and turned all night, finally getting to sleep after many hours.
Hugh woke up to a dozen or more spears pointed at him.
“Up,” said one of the Otros.
“How am I supposed to stand with spears in my face?” asked Hugh.
The Otros lifted their weapons and he got to his feet. They promptly lowered the points back towards him.
“Come,” said the Otros, pulling back the flap on his tent and motioning him outside. Hugh tentatively walked through the throng of spears and made his way into the morning sun.
Hugh was seated on the ground alongside Theoson and Zeke. Before long, they were given cups with a thick white liquid inside. The man who gave it to them watched as they stared into it. He said something in a language Hugh had never heard, then pantomimed bringing a glass up to his lips and drinking, then nodded and walked away.
“They’re either feeding us or poisoning us,” said Zeke.
Theoson gulped down the entire cupful. “Sounds good to me,” he said. “Tastes awful.”
“It’s fermented horse milk,” said a voice behind them. It was Jengo. “We called it ‘urag.’”
“Horse milk?” asked Zeke. “I didn’t know you could milk a horse.”
“There’s a trick to it,” said Jengo. “A horse will not give milk, except to its foal. So, what you do is, bring the foal up to the mare, then have it take a few drinks. Then you pull the foal away and take over from there, always keeping the foal by its mother’s side.”
“Brilliant,” said Zeke. He took a sip and winced.
Hugh gulped it down. It was sour, frothy, and had a slight taste of alcohol. It wasn’t particularly good.
“Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?” asked Jengo.
“Maybe some water,” said Zeke.
Jengo laughed and nodded to someone near him, saying something in a foreign language. “Our horses drink water, but you’re welcome to have some, if you’d like.”
“I think this,” Zeke said, shaking the cup a bit, “Is an acquired taste.”
“Perhaps it is,” said Jengo. “I’ve been drinking it since I was a child, and I’ve only drank water when I was a prisoner of war, when I was young. I remember it tasted awful.”
“Water doesn’t taste like anything,” said Zeke.
“Exactly,” said Jengo. Zeke exchanged his cup for one with water in it.
“So what now?” asked Hugh.
“I’m glad you asked,” said Jengo. He took a rolled up rug out from under his arm and laid it on the ground, sitting on it in front of them. “Now, we wait for the city to surrender. Word of your capture has already been sent. Sadly, the emissaries bearing the message were beheaded. Your people have grown increasingly desperate and rash. Don’t worry, though. As long as you’re my guests, you are safe here.”
“What makes you think they’ll surrender?” asked Zeke.
“They’re starving behind those walls, for one thing,” said Jengo. “We also sent thousands of horsemen ahead of our arrival through the mountains to plunder the farms north of the city, as well. My informants tell me there has been a food shortage for over a week. But you know this, so why bother asking?”
Zeke nodded. “True, but supplies are being shipped in.”
“They can’t ship all the food they need forever. They’re already low on money, and the purchase of Hugh here depleted the treasury. People have been fleeing the city, and it’s been happening at a particularly accelerated pace since word of Hugh’s capture got out.”
“I don’t get it,” said Hugh. “You claim you only want to be allowed to pass, but you can just send your forces through the mountains to get to Kole.”
“There’s so many problems with that idea,” said Jengo. “For one, it’s been an insult how the Politians have treated us. We’ve invested too much in the battle already to ever stop now. But even if we were willing to give up the plunder that is now our right, there’s no way I’m going to move my entire Kolish invasion force through those mountains. It’s hard terrain, especially for our horses, which are best in warm weather and bred for speed, not heartiness. We lose about one horse for every ten we have sent through, and another one in ten on the return. I cannot afford to be losing 20% of my horses just travelling to Kole. And most importantly, I cannot maintain a reliable supply line for the invasion of Kole through those mountains. Polity had their chance to be our ally and aid us in our fight against an unjust kingdom.”
“And you’re just?” asked Zeke.
“I am commanded by the one God to punish the evil in this land.”
Zeke chuckled. “One god, huh?”
“I serve the one to whom your Divas bow,” said Jengo.
“And who is that?” asked Zeke.
“It would do no good to explain,” said Jengo. “Instead, tonight I can show you, if you have the heart for it.”
“By all means,” said Zeke. “I’m not going anywhere, it seems.”
Jengo smirked. “Indeed.”
Four servants approached carrying large plates of meat, with one being set down in front of Jengo, Zeke, Hugh, and Theoson. They continued to talk as they ate.
“So assuming the city falls,” Zeke began, “What are you plans?”
Jengo laughed and slapped his knee. “Oh, now that is amusing.”
“What?” asked Zeke. “Who am I going to tell?”
“They say that Hugh can save the city single-handedly,” said Jengo. “While I don’t believe this to be true, I’m certainly not going to arm him with the knowledge he could use to save Kole. Suffice to say… once Polity is ours, we will be quickly moving on. I have already tapped the individuals I plan to put into power in Polity, one of the many peoples without a home who have aided me in my conquests. They will act as administrators to rule the survivors.”
“So you won’t just slaughter everyone who remains?” asked Zeke.
“I didn’t say that,” said Jengo.
“But you mentioned survivors.”
“It will be up to the Politians who lives and who dies,” Jengo said.
“You should let me decide,” said Theoson.
Jengo blinked a few times, looking confused. “And why is that?”
“I could tell you which of them are worth living and which of them are better off dead.”
“And what would be your criteria?” Jengo asked.
“If they’re a Politian,” said Theoson, “They would be better off dead.”
Jengo smirked and continued chewing on his meat. “If you’re trying to impress me with your ruthlessness, it won’t work. I value justice. I only want what is fair and right.”
“Oh, I would be fair,” said Theoson. “I could tell you which of them deserved a quick death and which of them deserve a long, drawn out demise.”
Jengo shook his head. “Why the hostility?”
“You try living among them.”
“I’ve fought against them,” said Jengo. “They don’t seem to be any different than any other people I have encountered.”
“That is a fair assessment of how evil they are,” said Theoson.
“At least you’re consistent, then,” Jengo said.
“What kind of meat is this?” asked Hugh.
“Horse,” Jengo replied.
“It’s pretty good, for horse meat,” said Hugh.
“It’s one of the better cuts. Most of the meat is heavy on muscle and it’s like chewing wet tree bark.”
“I can’t say I’ve ever had horse before,” said Zeke. “Or tree bark, for that matter. It’s not bad, I would have guessed this was goat.”
“We get nearly everything we need from horses,” said Jengo. “It’s the only animals we bring with us besides a few oxen, which we don’t slaughter anyway because they do the heavy pulling.”
“About the weapons you’ve deployed,” said Zeke. “I believe Hugh would be interested in seeing them in action. He asked me about them, and… well, as I’m sure you can imagine, I am at a loss for words.”
“Thunder-crash jars,” said Jengo, nodding. “I can’t show you what they are, but I can bring you to the front lines and let you see them being hurled.”
They finished eating and Jengo called for several heavily armed troops to accompany them, all armored and carrying spears on horseback. They formed a rectangle around them as they made their way through the camp. As they approached the front, the walls of Polity came into view, and it was mostly crumbling stones. Smoke rose up from the city in dozens of locations.
There was the sound of catapult going off: a clank, then a whoosh. The projectile travelled in a tall arc through the air and hit the wall. There was a bright flash which was visible even in the light of day, then a puff of dust and stone thrown into the air, causing a part of the wall to collapse forward into rubble. A split-second later, a loud clap rang out, like that caused by lightning. There was a blue flame on the wall for a few seconds, then it burned out.
“What is this?” asked Hugh.
“Like I said, thunder-crash jars,” said Jengo.
Hugh blinked and watched another jar being flung, this one sailed well past the wall into the city. “But… what… how?”
“I can’t go too far into detail, of course,” said Jengo. “They are jars full of a special material. Obviously the results speak for themselves.”
“There is no honor in it,” said Zeke.
“Oh?” Jengo said, turning to him. “And there’s honor in hiding behind a large fortification?”
Zeke shrugged. “Fair enough.”
“War is a messy thing,” said Jengo. “I had to allow you a victory in our final battle last season, for example, so that enough of my men would die that my army would feel compelled to return with anger in their hearts. We do things we aren’t necessarily proud of simply because the result is what we seek. It’s not enough to act with honor in war. One must act with an eye for victory and how to snatch it from the enemy.”
“Couldn’t you have done this from the start?” asked Hugh.
“You mean use thunder-crash jars?”
“I could have,” said Jengo. “But it wouldn’t have been as effective. To maximize the invasion, I had to wear the city down. Part of a successful siege is breaking the will of the defenders. That takes years. Sometimes the most dangerous thing an invader can do is score a quick victory, because the citizens will flee and retain their fighting spirit. Polity will fall, and when it does, few will ever return to challenge our rule of it.”
“How do you know?” Zeke asked.
“Because few will be left alive.”
To be continued…