Ventus – Day 91 of 135


Calandria May stood next to one of the steam cannon. She held her section of a long ladder over her head, and listened with the other men as their commander told them the riches awaiting those who had volunteered to be first to storm the palace walls.

The steam cannon hissed and bucked, distracting her with its raw primitive power. It was a simple device–just a boiler that aimed its steam at a crude turbine. The turbine turned a wooden wheel like a narrow mill wheel six meters across. Instead of scooping water, its vanes took up gravel and stones and white hunks of rock salt from a hopper underneath, swept it around and up through a covered section and released it at the top of the circle. A steady stream of gravel and stones spewed at the walls, bringing back a crackling sound like a distant rockfall.

Her force was one of ten taking up positions near the main gates of the palace. The steam cannon had swept the walls like brooms, knocking the defenders down or sending them scurrying for cover. Cannon inside the walls were firing back, but they were now firing blind. Every now and then a stream of falling stones would send one of the assault teams to ground. Some men were hit, and when they fell they often didn’t get up again.

Taking the main gates directly was impossible. The portcullis was sunken by about four meters, and the ceiling of the entranceway was full of murder holes. The defenders were waiting to pour molten lead on anyone who tried to enter that way.

Lavin’s army was on the move all across the valley. The long wall that surrounded the palace would be assaulted in at least ten places within her sight, and she had no doubt Lavin had forces coming in from the north as well. There was no way the besieged force could man the entire stretch of wall. They would have to pull back.

When they did it would be to the tower that loomed above the main gates. Everything important would happen there. The queen was there. Armiger would be there too.

A sword hung from Calandria’s belt. Over her back was slung a long, burlap-wrapped object that clanked when she moved. The microwave gun was heavy, but it was the only thing in the arsenal of nanotech seeds from Marya’s ship that stood a chance of knocking down Armiger. When flights of stones rained down from beyond the walls, Calandria moved to shelter it before covering her own head. Without it, she had no reason to be here.

A distant roar reached her ears. A kilometer down the valley, the first assault wave ran forward, carrying their ladders like gangs of ants. Figures on horseback gestured with swords. Behind them, the steam cannon inched closer to the walls.

Her heart was hammering. When she looked around, she saw the same expression of mindless fear in the eys of the men with her. They were all in the same boat–carried forward by habits of training, minds blank with fear hence too stupid to sensibly turn and run. It was this stupor of fear that would later be counted as courage.

A loud crack sounded from ahead; the sound echoed across the valley and back. Looking up she saw a section of the gate tower’s wall tumbling outward in a cloud of dust. The heavier cannon stationed a hundred meters behind her had found a weak point. Now a black hole became visible under the drifting grey pall.

“That’s it, lads! Our door!” The commander bellowed and windmilled his arms, and Calandria found herself running forward with the others, thinking nothing, looking everywhere for a place to hide, a foxhole, a barricade, anywhere out of sight of the men with her who would see her hide; and they too looked around with the same eyes, and continued to run.

For a while she had to concentrate on her footwork, chained as she was to her companions by the heavy ladder. When she next looked up they were under the walls, and dark smoke was pouring out of the hole in the gate tower.

Sand exploded where she’d been about to step. Nearby someone screamed. She heard heavy bangs that must be musket fire. The ladder jiggled. Someone cursed monotonously over and over again; others coughed and over it all lay the rattle of falling rocks, the thud of footfalls and distant booming.

“Halt!” She halted. “Ladder up!” She hopped, pushing it as it miraculously lofted up onto the perspective-narrowed white wall of the tower. The rockfall noises had stopped, meaning the steam cannon had been turned away to let them climb; but that also meant the defenders could emerge from hiding.

Sure enough, more stones and musket balls were coming down. She reached back, feeling the burlap for any sign it had been hit. No.

The first men went up the ladder. Two promptly fell down again. Everyone had their shields up, grinning humorlessly at one another under their shadow as unidentifiable stuff thudded off the wood.

The mob pressed her forward, and suddenly Calandria was climbing, squashed between a man ahead and a man behind her.

Up twelve rungs, over a broken one, left hand closing on splinters, right on slick blood. The man above her stopped, began cursing wildly. Everyone below shouted at him. “I’m hurt, I’m hurt!” he cried; drops of blood hit Calandria’s arm as he struggled with his shattered shoulder.

“Get off! We don’t give a damn! Boy, cut his ham-strings! Get him off the ladder or we’re all done for!”

She glanced down. The fall would kill him. “Do it!” shouted Maenan, who was on the ladder behind her. “Do it or I’ll cut you down and do it myself.”

Something big fell by her left shoulder. Calandria drew the knife from her waist and reached up. “You’ve got to move,” she shouted at the injured man.

“I can’t jump,” he screamed. “I’ll die!”

Maenan stabbed Calandria in the ankle. She cursed and thrust upward herself.

“You bastard,” whimpered the injured man. “Bastard.” He shot her a deeply offended look. He was barely twenty-five if that, with black stubble, dark eyebrows and surprisingly long eyelashes above his blue eyes. “Bastard,” he said, blinking, and then he let go of the ladder.

Just climb. She did, but she was crying.

There was screaming above. Another dark shape plummeted past. Before she knew it Calandria was at the hole in the wall, sucking lungfulls of wood smoke. Blinded, she groped for the broken stones, and pulled herself into the breach.

It was hot here–burning hot. Somebody was crowding her from behind, so she had no choice but to go forward and suddenly realizing she was stepping into a fire she staggered and went down on one knee.

Flames licked up her leg. Calandria screamed and flung herself forward, rolling past burning logs and coming to a crouch on the inside of a very large hearth. The smoking body of a man lay across the logs next to her. In the lurid light of the fire she saw men struggling in a large triangular room.

The defenders were picking off her people as each one staggered out of the broken fireplace. Everyone who came up this ladder was going to die.

A sword swung down, clipping her arm and sending a spasm of pain through her shoulder. Calandria rolled, did a sweep with her foot and was rewarded as her attacker fell over. She vaulted over him and straight-armed the man behind him. The room was a maze of armed men; she ducked and kicked and tried to get to the door.

Swords fell across her back and jabbed her flanks. Her package clanked. She cursed and redoubled her efforts.

She got turned around and ended up in a corner. It was slaughter over by the fireplace. Maenan was dead, as was every one of the men she had met over the last several days. Three desperate defenders faced her now, with more behind them.

She had hoped to delay using her weapon until she confronted Armiger-and not only because its presence would alert the Winds. “Sorry,” she said, and swung the package off her shoulder. She pulled the burlap off the gun and raised it just as they closed on her.

The microwave gun chuffed, and fire shot to left and right from its barrel as the first of its nano-built energy charges let go. The man in front of her coughed and went down. She turned the weapon on the next one and then the next. She was screaming now, tears streaming down her face making it hard to see.

As soon as the door was clear she ran for it. The only thought in her head was to find Armiger now and free herself from having to kill anyone else.

She found herself on the battlements. Two walls ran from this gate tower to the main tower of the palace, forming a narrow avenue. There were two steam cannon down there, ready to send their streams of gravel at anyone who made it through the gates or–

–made it onto the walls.

She saw the blur of flying rocks an instant before they tore the flagstones from under her.

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