The Dead of Night
It would take several days for the Order army to reach Middanhal from its current location. Although Brand desired to put the soldiers through a forced march, he had to accept that it was not possible after their ordeal in the mountains. The two commanders used the time to discuss the impending assault. The reason why Middanhal was so difficult to take by direct assault, especially without a preceding siege to soften the defenders, were its daunting fortifications.
While some castles might be more difficult to conquer due to being built in remote locations and upon mountain peaks, Middanhal was the largest city in the known world. The other great cities of Adalmearc, such as Herbergja and Fontaine, had often fallen to attackers due to their extensive requirements for fortifications, which always inevitably contained weaknesses of some sort. Fontaine, situated on a flat plain, simply had no natural terrain to augment its defences aside the river Mihtea and thus required a garrison of many thousands to be properly defended, and eventually, its attackers would manage to cause a breach. Herbergja, with its enormous natural harbour, was vulnerable from the seaside.
Middanhal was another story entirely. The Mihtea had its source nearby and flowed straight through the city before disappearing underground beneath the Weolcan Mountains and emerging many miles south; this meant the city had an endless supply of fresh water. Along with its vast stores of food, this made the capital near invulnerable to being starved out by sieges. An attacker would have to take the city by storm, which was an equally daunting prospect.
Situated between two great mountains, Wyrmpeak to the east and Valmark to the west, Middanhal was unassailable from those fronts. This meant that despite the size of the capital of the realms, its fortifications needed only to run a limited distance in order to completely enclose the city; in turn, this allowed even a small garrison to fully man its walls.
Lastly, the walls themselves were unique. After establishing his dominion over all the realms, Arn had initiated the building programme that saw the construction of the great Temple, the Arnsweg, the Arnsbridge, and the Langstan among other projects. The master builder for much of this was a riverman called Renaud, whose boldness and vision led him to suggest the great dome for the Temple in Middanhal and thereby impress Arn. Once the Temple stood finished, the king gave Renaud the task of completely rebuilding the city walls to make them unconquerable. Renaud, who had been a siege engineer before he became a builder, undertook the project with great enthusiasm. In fact, he completed his task with such success that Arn forbade him from ever constructing fortifications elsewhere; the king did not want any of his subjects possessing similarly unconquerable strongholds.
Renaud’s solution incorporated a system of double walls running the entire length of both the northern and southern gaps between the mountains. The inner walls were tallest, up towards forty feet, providing cover for archers. Directly in front were the outer walls, slightly lower with a height of about thirty feet. The small space between the outer and inner walls was filled with earth. While peculiar, and requiring twice as much stone and work to complete, Renaud’s unique fortifications held several advantages.
The earthen layer in between gave the outer walls support to absorb the shock from rams or stones flung from catapults; combined with the underground being pure rock and thus making mining impossible, the walls were considered invulnerable. The gate, often the weakest point in any line of defence, was made from the strongest Nordsteel and situated deep inside the gatehouse with obstacles placed to prevent a ram from rolling close enough to strike it; should the gate somehow be destroyed, two portcullises lay behind it. All in all, the fortifications of the city were known to be impregnable. The only option for taking Middanhal was to scale them, which was complicated by the double walls.
Normally, siege towers, storm ladders, or similar would be employed to allow attackers to reach the top of the walls. Such could only be used to scale the outer walls, however, since their presence would keep the enemy from pushing their towers all the way to the inner walls or placing their ladders against them. Conventional siege machinery would only allow the attackers to take the outer walls; once they got that far, they would be completely exposed to the arrows of the defending archers positioned upon the inner walls and their towers.
Only way to gain access from the outer to the inner walls was through the gatehouse, which had narrow, winding corridors that were easily defensible and with heavy steel doors; all the while the attackers were forced to find some way past those doors, arrows would still be raining down on them from the higher floors through arrow slits.
“You are saying it will not be easy,” Brand remarked casually. It was the first evening after they had left the mountains, and the two commanders were sharing their last meal for the day.
“I am saying that if we accomplish this, to Hel with the Weolcans,” Richard grinned. “People may not know whether to be more impressed by us crossing the mountains or immediately retaking Middanhal afterwards, but I lend my voice to the latter.”
“We face two difficulties,” Brand continued. “We have no engineers in the army to construct any kind of siege engines. Secondly, our assault must be done swiftly and deftly to maintain complete surprise. We cannot afford a lengthy siege, we cannot even afford that our first assault is repelled. We will not be given a second chance.”
“So, we have neither engineers nor time for a proper siege,” Richard shrugged before stuffing bread into his mouth. “Let us just condense that to one difficulty and move on.”
“That sounds reasonable enough,” Brand acknowledged, giving a slight laugh.
“I prefer it that way, at any rate,” the impetuous knight added. “I hate long sieges, all that waiting. Just give me the enemy and a straight line to him, no obstacles.”
Brand’s cool voice interrupted him. “Regardless, we need to find some means of scaling the walls.”
Richard scratched his head. “The only method I can think of, given our limitations, is grappling hooks. We find a village during our march, get the local smith to make some. They are fairly simple, after all, even a village hammer should be able to handle that.”
“I thought that would require a machine,” Brand frowned. “Something with the strength to hurl the hooks onto the walls.”
“A ballista,” Richard acknowledged. “But I know the islanders use hooks aboard their ships to grab the railing of the enemy ship and pull it close so it can be boarded. They practice throwing the hooks by hand. There are islanders among our soldiers.”
“Have your sergeant find some for us tomorrow,” Brand agreed, taking a swipe from his water flask. “That gets us on the walls. We still need to achieve doing it in secrecy so that they have a chance to take the gatehouse and let the rest of the army inside. If the defenders become aware too soon, they will reinforce the walls and stop us.”
“We will need a few archers to silence the guard,” Richard considered. “All those we bring along for the initial assault should be men used to climbing, able to do it fast, and who are also strong fighters. I reckon if we take more than twenty, we will make too much noise.”
“Taking the walls of Middanhal with twenty men,” Brand said with raised eyebrows. “You are right, that is quite the feat.”
“We are betting on them having light defences, are we not?” Richard shrugged. “A couple of peasants from Isarn should not be much hindrance.”
“Indeed. I only hope we are not too late,” Brand admitted. “A few days may make the difference of whether they have received reinforcements or not. By the way,” he continued slowly, “one of us should lead the assault on the walls while the other remains with the rest of the army. Ordinarily, the first lieutenant would have the task of leading the initial charge while the captain stays behind to command the remainder…”
Richard leaned his head back to howl a coarse laugh. “Never mind that, lad. I would fight the Black Snake itself and any man that would take my place leading that charge. If anybody is going to be first on the walls for the first time that Middanhal is taken by assault in eight hundred years,” the knight declared, “that anybody will be Sir Richard of Alwood.”
“Very well,” Brand smiled. “I do advise caution, however. The walls that you will assault do not have their fearsome reputation without good cause,” the squire added with a touch of concern.
Richard was still for a moment before he shrugged. “Neither do I,” he grinned.
Elsewhere in the primitive camp, Nicholas and Quentin were carrying on a discussion of their own. “You wanted to wait until we left the mountains,” Quentin stated. “Well, we’re out. Why you want to wait now?”
“You don’t want to make that crossing again, do you?” Nicholas asked rhetorically. “The only way we get back to Hæthiod is by getting to Middanhal.”
“So?” Quentin asked with a dismissive voice. “Then we go to Middanhal. Once we’re out of here, we can go any direction we want.”
“Except for the fact,” Nicholas said, accidentally raising his voice and quickly glancing around as he realised. “We’re already moving west. We don’t want to leave in the same direction of the army and get caught. Once we split, we need the army moving the opposite direction of us.”
“And what happens when we reach Middanhal?” Quentin questioned and gave the answer himself. “They realise there’s an enemy army on the loose, and the city will be sealed up tighter than a salted arse.”
“Maybe we’re not going to Middanhal,” Nicholas suggested. “The lands of Isarn lie west of here, I think. We could be marching there to attack them. Once that happens, we take off and go south. We stroll through the northern gate, out through the southern, and we’ll be back on the heath in weeks.”
“What if we are marching to the capital?” Quentin countered. “Once the siege begins, nobody’s getting in or out.”
“Then we have to be patient,” Nicholas acknowledged. “We let the blade boys storm the walls, hang back, and wait until the city is taken. We’re archers,” he added with a shrug. “It’s not us they’ll be sending in the first wave, we’re too valuable to waste like that.”
“Fine,” Quentin consented. “We wait. But not a day longer than we have to.”
“Agreed,” Nicholas nodded, and they went to sleep.
A few nights later, the Order army had reached its destination. They could have reached it during the day, but the commanders had halted their progress while they were still many miles from Middanhal. First, their scouts had cleared the area to ensure none would bring warning to the soldiers of Isarn that an enemy army was approaching. As it grew dark, they had made the final approach. The main part of the army stood arrayed under Brand’s command, now less than a mile away. Meanwhile, a small band of approximately twenty men was sneaking closer towards the walls.
It had been almost a month since Jarl Isarn’s uprising had begun. The moon was not quite dark; a sliver remained, casting what pale light it could summon onto the landscape. For this reason, none of the advance guard wore uncovered metal; their helmets, armour, weapons, and anything else with a reflective surface had been covered by fabric. A few of them had even exchanged their mail shirts for leather protection to help with the climb.
The group was led by Richard. His sergeant, Graulf, was by his side as were two islanders carrying rope and hooks. The rest of the soldiers were men-at-arms, proven veterans of the Order and strong with a blade. The only exception were the two men who came last, wearing light armour and carrying bows in their hands.
“Don’t be silly, Quentin,” the archer with that very name mumbled to himself. “We’re archers, not swordsmen. They’re not going to make us storm the walls, we’re too valuable for that.”
“Quentin, are you well?” Nicholas asked with a suspicious look.
“I’m just wondering how stupid I must be to find myself in this situation.”
“Look, I know this seems bad,” Nicholas began to say.
“Bad?” Quentin exclaimed. “There’s twenty of us, and we’re about to attack the one city known throughout the realms for its invincible walls. With twenty men!” he repeated. “Bad is the blister I found on my foot the other day. I know I’ve said you’d be the death of me, but I didn’t think you’d literally get me killed!”
“Look, we’re just here to take out the watchmen. Nobody said we had to climb the walls too. We’ll be fine,” Nicholas claimed.
“Why did you have to drag me into it?” Quentin continued, ignoring Nicholas’ assurances. “I get why they want you, you won the tournament. But when they asked you for another good archer, why in Hel’s frost-bitten arse did you say me?”
“Well, it’s true,” Nicholas defended himself weakly. “You’re the only other archer here who’s as good as me.”
It took a moment before Quentin spoke again, slightly mollified. “Well, that’s hard to argue with.”
“Quiet with those tongues!” Richard growled. “Or I’ll get out my knife and make you into women.” He turned towards the two islanders carrying a heap of rope. “How close do you need to go?” he asked them, glancing southwards. The great walls of Middanhal rose before them, appearing indomitable and unapproachable even as they were some hundred feet away.
“Pretty close,” one of the islanders answered. “Not directly underneath, but probably no further than twenty, thirty paces away.”
“Very well,” Richard nodded. He turned back towards the two longbowmen. “You spot any pair of guardsmen on the walls, you shoot them. At the same time, give them no time for warning. If you miss your arrows or time it poorly, I will strangle you with your own bowstrings. Understood?”
Swallowing, Nicholas nodded while Quentin did likewise. Each of them prepared a handful of arrows, sticking them into the ground. Richard, the two islanders, and a few others crept closer towards the walls while the rest remained behind with the archers. “What if they got torches?” Nicholas suddenly asked. Graulf, Richard’s sergeant, turned to look at him. “If the other guards see the torches fall, they might get suspicious.”
“If they see them fall, they see them fall,” Graulf shrugged. “Can’t plan for everything. Just got to see whether the ship will sink or swim,” he added with a grin, using an old islander saying.
Ahead, the darkness had almost swallowed Richard and his men, but by straining his eyes, Nicholas could make them out. The islanders were coiling their ropes on the ground, making sure that once the hooks flew, the rope would easily fly along rather than knot itself. Once satisfied, the two men exchanged looks, nodded, and took hold of the grappling hooks. They swung them in the air, gaining momentum. Almost mesmerised, Nicholas watched the swing until each man let go and the hooks spun into the air. They shot up like fangs on a snake, embedding themselves onto the crenellations. There was noise as the metal struck stone, making Nicholas look around anxiously. The islanders made a few testing pulls, ensuring that the hooks were steady and had proper hold.
“Nicholas,” Quentin said lowly and nodded towards their right. Two soldiers were approaching on the wall. They did not carry torches, perhaps in order to hide themselves; however, the faint moonlight gleamed against their iron helmets, and it was caught by Quentin’s sharp eyes. Nodding slightly, Nicholas took one arrow and notched it, as did Quentin.
The two archers drew their bowstrings. It took considerable effort to hold their longbows drawn, but necessity dictated perfect shots so they endured the strain and aimed. “I got inner, you take nearest us,” Nicholas whispered. “Ready?”
“Ready,” Quentin grunted.
“Three,” Nicholas said quietly. “Two. One. Loose.”
As the last word was uttered, first Nicholas’ arrow was loosed and then Quentin’s. They struck, and the guards fell slowly to the ground. Even before seeing the arrows land, Nicholas had grabbed a second and begun drawing his bow; he relaxed when he saw it was unnecessary.
“A second arrow? Really? You thought I would miss,” Quentin said insulted.
“Just wanted to be sure,” Nicholas mumbled. “It was a difficult shot for both of us.”
“Sometimes I wonder why I remain your friend,” Quentin complained.
“Probably because I am your only friend,” Nicholas argued.
Quentin opened his mouth, but he was rendered speechless for a moment. “Aw, Hel, you’re right,” he admitted, and they exchanged quiet laughter, dispelling some of the tension that had lain thick on them.
“Eyes sharp,” Graulf barked at them, and they focused on their surroundings once more. Although they could not be certain at this distance, there was no need to doubt that Richard was the shape that now approached the top of the wall. A few more heaves and he was over the parapet, sharply followed by others. “Now, it’s our turn next,” the sergeant told the archers.
“You want us up there?” Nicholas asked hesitantly.
“Not going to be any good having you down here in the long run,” Graulf grinned. “The fun’s going to be on the wall, boys, not outside. Now hop to, sharp!” he added, using the same barking voice as before.
“If this gets me killed, I won’t forgive you,” Quentin mumbled to Nicholas, though there was little sting in his voice. Reaching the wall, both archers slung their bows across their backs and made ready to grab the rope and begin the climb.
Atop the outer walls, Richard stood impatiently. He had only his sword with him, but so far, it remained sheathed; as soon as the steel was drawn, it might draw notice. The others already up with him stood leaning over the parapet, helping their fellows make the final climb across the crenellations. About half of their small band was up when torches could be spotted in the distance, moving towards them.
“Hurry,” Richard hissed over the wall. Several anxious moments passed as the torches came closer. Finally, Quentin and Nicholas appeared by each rope. The islanders pulled them up, and they almost stumbled as their feet touched stone. Behind them, Graulf could be heard heaving for breath as he made the same trip.
“Bows out,” their captain commanded them. “We’re almost spotted. Kill them,” he urged.
Climbing walls of thirty feet with only a rope was no small exertion, but the longbowmen were helped by their light attire; there was also the fact that training with their great bows since childhood had left them both with strong, sinewy arms. Thus, they needed only a moment to compose themselves before they pulled their bows from their backs and readied arrows. With faint hisses, their arrows struck true. Out in the darkness, the torches could be seen dropped.
The movement was noticed. Further away in the far distance, other torches could be seen moving about. “They know something is up, lads,” Richard said coolly. “It is a mile from here to the gatehouse, and I do not know how many swartlings stand between us. But I tell you this. We die or we become legends.” He paused before he spoke again briefly. “Probably both.” Having spoken thus, he finally unsheathed his sword and kissed the blade.
The full band of Order soldiers was ready to follow Richard as he began moving towards the gate; the islanders came last, pulling up the ropes and hooks. The darkness helped conceal their movements and presence a while longer; perhaps the sheer unexpectedness of their attack aided as well. Whatever the cause, the Order soldiers managed to kill the next guard patrol with ease. Only when they reached another pair of sentinels did their good fortune run dry, and cries of alarm were heard.
Activity could be seen through the dark, surrounding their destination; the torches by the gatehouse served as a beacon, drawing them close. More Isarn soldiers came rushing against them as Richard and his men swept down the walls. Against one of the best swordsmen in the realm, they stood little chance; although less equipped than them, the margrave of Alwood butchered his way forward. When any of the defenders survived his onslaught, the band that followed made quick work of them. The mile between their starting and end point was swiftly traversed; only as they reached the gatehouse did trouble commence.
The way forward from the outer walls was purposely difficult. First, one would have to pass through a narrow corridor that led onto the inner walls, and only then could access be gained to the inner top chamber of the gatehouse. Despite all his prowess, Richard found himself held at bay; the defenders had long spears and there was only room for one person in the passage that would take him from the outer to the inner walls. With only his sword, the knight found it exceedingly difficult to get close enough to his enemy; furthermore, he suffered extreme danger, sometimes manifesting into wounds, in order to reach striking distance. Whenever a defender fell, another immediately took up position in the corridor.
Graulf, his weatherworn sergeant, stood frustrated behind his lord. Increasingly, noise could be heard on the other side of the inner walls that rose to their left. More defenders were coming, shrinking their chances of opening the gates. Turning back, he snapped his fingers at the islanders. “We need to get around this,” he told them. “Throw your hooks up. We cross the inner wall same as the outer.” The other men nodded, quickly preparing the rope. Within moments, they were once again swinging the hooks and landing them on the upper parapet.
“You two, salt-lickers,” Graulf said gruffly to the Hæthian longbowmen, “you’re with me. And you lot,” he added, making a sweeping gesture that included six or seven of the soldiers. “Rest of you, support the captain,” he commanded and swiftly turned to grab one of the ropes, starting his ascent.
Swallowing, Nicholas slung his bow over his back once again and grabbed the other rope. He was less adept or perhaps less motivated than Graulf, who reached the top of the inner wall first. As Nicholas struggled to pull himself over the crenellations, he caught glimpse of the sergeant already engaged in combat. His opponent had the rich attire of a thane and handled his sword and shield skilfully. The shield especially gave him an edge against Graulf, who was having trouble standing his ground.
The thane found an opening, using his boot to kick Graulf backwards, causing him to fall on his back. Immediately the thane surged forward to plant his sword in the sergeant’s chest; however, with Graulf lying down, Nicholas had a clear line of sight. His arrow flew, striking the thane in the eye and killing him instantly. Further ahead, more Isarn soldiers were moving out of the gatehouse and onto the inner walls. Nicholas began shooting arrows as fast as he was able, hitting a few and forcing the defenders to approach more carefully with shields raised. The time bought allowed Graulf to gain his footing, and now other Order soldiers reached them as well. General combat ensued on the walls with the parties evenly matched.
The scales were tipped by Nicholas and Quentin; both of them eagle-eyed archers, they slowly but surely managed to thin the group of enemy soldiers until their comrades could push through. Exhausted for arrows, the two longbowmen quickly scavenged the dead before following the others.
Inside, the remaining defenders quickly fell; those who had been keeping Richard and his men at bay were slain from behind. Stepping out of the corridor, the knight quickly took survey; thirteen of his band remained. Without further delay, they entered the gatehouse and found a lone soldier; he was quickly surrounded and killed. “You two,” Richard said, looking at the archers, “get up top. Signal the army to advance and use your arrows as you can. You,” he nodded towards another, “get to the wheels. Open the gates, all of them. Rest of you with me.”
The group scattered towards each of their purposes. Nicholas and Quentin supplied themselves with the cache of arrows kept for the defence of the gatehouse and made for the roof. South of them, the whole of Middanhal stretched before their eyes, such as they could see in the dark; north, hidden, the Order army lay. Grabbing a torch, Nicholas waved it back and forth repeatedly in an effort to make as visible a sign as possible. “You think that’s enough?” he asked.
Quentin shrugged. “Done what we can. Let’s get ready.”
They moved to the southern edge of the roof. Just below them, Richard and his men were taking up position to defend the gatehouse and keep the gate open. Ahead of them, the Arnsweg lay wide and open, moving straight until it reached the Citadel and bent to follow the edge of the castle. From that direction, scores of Isarn soldiers were running towards the small band of Order soldiers, intent on retaking the gatehouse.
The archers did their best to aid those fighting on the ground, shooting every arrow within reach. Being only two, their impact was minimal. Fierce fighting erupted, pushing the soldiers under the arch of the gatehouse and out of view for the longbowmen. Leaning over the parapet, Nicholas tried to get a better glimpse, but all in vain; nothing could be deduced.
“They’re here!” Quentin yelled. He had meanwhile gone to the other side of the roof, not looking towards the city but out on the fields north. The darkness had concealed their approach for a long while, but now the Order army could no longer remain hidden; even with so little moonlight present, their weapons and armour shone like were they statues of steel. Forgoing the final pretence of stealth, the Order soldiers roared their battle cries as they surged forward and through the gate.
“We did it,” Nicholas exclaimed, taking deep breaths and exhaling. He and Quentin exchanged laughter, and they sank down onto the stones on the roof, resting their backs against the crenellations.
The Isarn soldiers who had fought to regain the gatehouse were now swept away by hundreds and hundreds of Order soldiers. In the midst of the chaos, Brand was able to spot Richard and move to his side. The latter had a few wounds and looked bloody, but he stood straight and appeared hale. Following the lieutenant was his sergeant, though Matthew kept a few paces back, hovering.
“You seem in good order,” Brand remarked. “I am glad to see you on your feet.”
“Becoming a legend suits me,” Richard laughed. “Theodoric not with you?”
“The jarl was ahead of me. He seemed quite eager to enter the city,” the squire explained.
“He ended his opposition to our plan, then,” the knight pondered.
“Apparently. The night is not over yet, however,” Brand said, his expression turning serious. “One of us should oversee the conquest of the southern gate. We do not want escape from the city to be possible. The other should assess the situation at the Citadel,” he continued, and the pair began walking down the Arnsweg towards the castle. “By now, they have long been alerted to our presence. We will not take it by stealth and hook as we did the walls.”
“I will see that Saltgate is ours,” Richard nodded. “You make sure the Citadel is enclosed, that we will not suffer a sortie when our backs are turned.”
“Agreed,” Brand said before he came to an abrupt halt and grabbed Richard by the arm. “Are those barricades ahead of us? They have hemmed in the northern gate of the Citadel, but…” He cut himself short and a smile began to spread across his face.
“Why would they enclose…” Richard likewise finished his sentence prematurely as the truth dawned on him. “Those slack-jawed swartlings,” he laughed loudly. “They have had a month, and they could not take the Citadel! Hel take me if that is not the banner of the Star flying on its towers still.”
“That solves our most pressing problem,” Brand said with a satisfied expression. “Let me go to Saltgate. You should bring the news to the defenders of the Citadel. They know your face and rank, they will trust you.” The knight and squire walked side by side until it was time to split; as Brand continued down the Arnsweg, he could still hear the rumblings of Richard’s laughter in his voice as he called for the Citadel garrison to fetch their captain, open their gates, and prepare to be reinforced.