Time passed slowly in the castle following the assault. While the mood remained tense, it became less anxious when the jarl’s men did not renew their attacks, but seemed content to continue the siege. Severed from the city, the courtiers had to find other ways of passing the time. Some sought the library, but with candles and firewood being rationed, reading was only possible in the brief hours of the day.
Half of the complex lay burrowed inside the mountainside, providing shelter from the cold and unassailable safety, but it also prevented any kind of natural light to reach the inner halls and chambers. Thus, the courtiers crowded the meagre gardens with barren trees and worn grass, defying the cold to enjoy the pale sunlight. Others braved the courtyards for the same purpose, though with only a wall between them and the jarl’s rebels, few seemed to find any relaxation in those areas. Some of the carls trained weaponry, but only lightly and briefly, preserving their strength in case of another sudden assault.
To a few, time passed swiftly. A handful of people knew how much water remained in the cisterns, how many bags of flour and barrels of salted fish lay in the inner stores, guarded more jealously than gold. Several times a day, Roar measured the provisions; when rations had been distributed, or the guards changed, the jarl consulted his meticulous records to keep everyone honest. Afterwards, he went to Svana and gave his estimate of how many days’ worth of supplies remained. As for the queen, she shared this information with the few people she relied upon for counsel; the rest of the castle were left to speculate and guess.
As for the servants, their tasks kept them occupied for the most part, and the rest of their time was spent in their now cramped quarters. Those who lived in the city had been forced to find beds inside the castle, making room scarce. Only a few of them had any relatives also trapped inside the walls, leaving nearly all of them unable to see their families. Although letting them leave would ease the strain on provisions, the risk that one of them would betray knowledge of their defences to Jarl Harald was deemed too great. Instead, they kept at their work and prayed for a swift end to the siege; quietly, only whispered among themselves, some prayed for a swift end regardless of the outcome.
In this manner, time passed since the first assault upon the fortifications, since the cries of alarm had risen, calling the defenders to the walls. Ten days later, those crises rose yet again into the air.
Dvaros had no engineers. A city with scarcely any walls had little need for their knowledge of warfare; in the island kingdom of Thusund, war took place at sea between ships or as attacks upon harbours, and sieges were seldom. As the defenders rushed to the western walls, a rare sight greeted their eyes. Up the sloping road, a handful of men pushed a battering ram. It had been constructed by shipwrights and a few veterans with previous experience of sieges; most apprentices to the engineer’s guild in Fontaine could have built better. But the construction held together as the soldiers pushed it along, walking inside the frame. Further behind, beyond the range of arrows, hundreds of men stood assembled.
Archers on the walls released their bowstrings, but the house of the ram kept the men inside safe. Fire arrows followed, striking the sloped roof of siege engine. Reinforced with wet hides on top, the ram scorned the flames, which soon died out.
Having watched the defenders’ futile efforts, Brand turned his eyes inwards. He gazed over the courtyard until he found the queen, ordering her troops to the battlements. While soldiers rushed up the stairs to the walls, Brand went the opposite way, struggling against the mass of armoured bodies and shields. Finally reaching the ground, he ran to the queen.
“How long for ships to reach Jarl Harald’s island and return to Dvaros?” Brand gasped the question.
The young queen swung around in his direction with a harried expression. “What?”
“A week with favourable wind, two weeks if not,” Roar replied, appearing next to them. “They have reinforcements,” the jarl realised.
“There are hundreds outside,” Brand told them. “We are badly outnumbered! Their ram will take down the gate in moments, and they will flood the courtyard!”
“Then we hold them back!” Svana replied.
“It will only delay the inevitable briefly,” Brand argued.
“He is right,” Roar admitted.
“Then we die fighting,” the queen declared, almost shouting over the noise of battle preparations.
Brand looked beyond Svana, inside the castle. “The cisterns are deep in the mountain,” he muttered, “but not the rest.” He looked at Roar. “Call for the servants, and every man or woman with idle hands!”
The ram rolled on. Despite everything the defenders tried, it could not be stopped. Arrows and fire had no effect. Heavy stones were thrown from the gatehouse, making the timber groan when struck, but it did not break.
The fortress in Dvaros was ancient, older than any dwelling made by Men in the Seven Realms. The stonework was exquisite, made by Dwarven hands and strong as the mountain it lay against. This also meant that no further defences had been added in the many centuries since. Any engineer’s first proposal would have been stone throwers atop the gatehouse to destroy any attacking rams, but the defenders had no more access to such knowledge than the attackers did. And by now, it was too late.
However strong the stonework, the gate was made of wood. The jarl’s men pushed the frame up close and began to swing the iron-capped ram, striking the gate like a hammer.
No further arrows flew, no stones fell. The defenders had abandoned their attempts to stop the ram. It continued to strike. A better built ram would have broken through the gate faster, but the task was being done. To the troops waiting, huddled up against the walls to avoid the archers on the towers, every moment seemed as a storm building up at sea. Like thunder and lightning tearing the open horizon apart, the anticipation was reflected on their faces, red with battle fury.
Finally, the tempest broke loose, the gate fell apart, the planks shattered into pieces. Roaring, Harald’s men stormed through the gap in the otherwise unbreachable walls.
Nothing but silence met them.
They spread across the yard before halting their advance, exchanging confused looks. Closing ranks, they sent watchful eyes in every direction. The walls, the towers, the gatehouse, and the keep itself all seemed devoid of life.
Confusion spread outside the walls; the jarl’s men crowded together, trying to pass through the narrow gap, but they heard no sounds of the battle as expected. With distrust, the attackers slowly spread out while some worked to remove the remains of the gate, allowing easier entry.
A few ran up onto the walls, explaining matters to those outside. Some finally braved the castle doors and found them blocked. Men with axes were called to the forefront, and they began striking the heavy planks. Others entered the towers and searched down the fortifications.
The axes were still at work – the timber for the great doors was reinforced and tough – when one man came running back along the walls. “The east,” he shouted, “they are in the eastern yard! Hurry!”
Those standing idle heeded the call, and more than a hundred warriors hurried up the stairs, passing down the length of the wall. Reaching the eastern courtyard, the initial report was confirmed. Scores of people, whether servants, courtiers, or soldiers, walked quickly back and forth. They entered one of the storages built between the keep and the outer walls and left again, carrying sacks or rolling barrels.
“They’re here!” came the shout upon seeing Harald’s men on the fortifications. Immediately, the guards dropped what they carried and seized their weapons, while more warriors appeared from within.
“Keep hauling,” yelled Roar to the terrified servants and courtiers, as he himself carried a heavy crate inside before grabbing his axe and shield. “Keep them back!” He gestured with his weapon towards the stairs leading down from the walls.
His carls responded with cries of battle and rushed forward. They aimed spears and axes at the narrow staircases, where only a few enemies could appear at a time. For a moment, this balanced the uneven numbers, and the attackers began jumping down from the upper steps, as high as they dared. Some landed poorly and were struck down immediately, never to rise again; others managed to find footing and could attack the defenders from other angles. The fight turned into chaotic skirmishes as the jarl’s men filtered into the courtyard from several directions, and cries of fury mixed with those born of panic.
Jana walked with staggered steps inside the castle doors, struggling under the weight in her arms. Her dress was tied up to help her move less restricted. Taking a few more paces, she finally let the bag of flour land on the ground. They were nearly done emptying the storage of all food provisions. Catching her breath, she turned around again. As if the din of fighting left any doubt, she saw the battle raging while islanders slaughtered islanders. Her eyes found Brand, a tall figure flanked as always by the stocky Glaukos.
Already, others fled deeper into the castle; unarmed servants and courtiers abandoned by courage. Resolutely, Jana stepped outside. Arrows began to fly; archers had arrived to help the attackers deal with the resistance. Only five steps ahead of her, one such missile impaled the skull of a servant, and he died before hitting the ground. Swallowing, Jana ran outside, grabbed the bag dropped by the dead man, and dragged it inside.
She left it by the pile, wiping sweat from her brow. Behind her came the foreboding sound of the doors being shut. Jana turned quickly, watching two carls barring the entrance. “They are still out there!” she shouted, running forward. She began to pull on the doors.
“Calm yourself,” demanded one of the guards, a dour-looking Dwarf. “The queen told us to close the gate.”
“What of those outside?” Jana asked with despair.
“They’ll have to find another way back,” the carl told her. “Help the others drag that away,” he commanded her, nodding at the supplies lying piled up. “We’ll need the hallway clear.”
Jana sent him a spiteful look and left with empty arms. She ran down the corridors to the inner part of the castle. Confusion ruled as people moved in every direction, often hindering each other. Servants dragging provisions, warriors receiving call to arms, people fleeing in terror.
She reached the great hall, made into a temporary sickhouse for the wounded. Head turning, she looked over a sea of misery and pain. Wounded men and women, sitting or lying down, with all too few hands administering aid.
“Haki,” she called out, approaching the carl.
He sat, pressing a bloody rag to his neck. Hearing his name spoken, he opened his eyes partly, but quickly closed them again. “What,” he mumbled.
“Did you come from the courtyard? Was Brand with you?”
“No,” he spoke in the same, slow manner as before. “I was at the western doors. They broke through.” The last words could barely be heard.
More people arrived, being carried or limping on their own. Others passed through quickly, pursuing various errands. Outbursts of agony were replaced by death rattles, and blood stained every surface.
“Jana,” a voice called out, and she turned on her heel.
With weary steps, Brand made his way through the many wounded lying on tables or on the floor. She met him halfway, throwing her arms around him. “I thought you were trapped,” she spoke quietly, “outside.”
“They kept a door open for us.” He reciprocated her embrace with one arm; the other hand held his bloody sword. “Collapsed the hallway behind us.”
“The jarlinna will have need of us,” Glaukos said in a low voice, appearing next to them. “They must be through the western doors.”
Brand extricated himself from Jana. “I will be back. Stay safe.” Looking exhausted, he followed Glaukos out of the hall, towards the sounds of battle.
The fighting continued for the rest of the day. Where possible, the defenders collapsed the doorways into the inner part of the castle. The great doors to the western and to the eastern courtyards were the exceptions; destroying the large stone arches here would bring down parts of the castle and most likely leave the defenders permanently trapped.
Thus, the battle for the castle became funnelled into the entrance halls. The defenders desperately fought to buy time while their comrades built barricades further in, hauling furniture and statues from every room. It was mayhem with every soldier fighting on his own, and the bodies began to pile up.
Both sides suffered losses, but the constrained area kept Harald from using his superior numbers; while most of his men were levies from his island jarldom, the remaining defenders were royal guards, jarls, and their housecarls, as well as one drakonian wielding sea-steel and a fearsome heathman, inferior to none. Man for man, the defenders proved the stronger warriors, and the attack was pushed back.
As the day waned, the assault was abandoned. With the provisions rescued from the outer stores, the siege continued, only moved one step further. The walls had fallen, as had the gates for the keep itself. Only the inner part of the castle, hidden under the mountain, remained in the defenders’ hands. Barricading the hallways as best could be done, they prepared for an anxious watch with little separating them from the enemy.