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Nine: Summer, 996 afe

Nine: Summer, 996 afe

Behind Walls that Reach to the Sky

“I wish they’d stop beating those drums!” Turran growled. Leaning on the battlements, he studied the enemy encampment. A dull throbbing echoed upward, like the heartbeat of a world. “They’ll drive me mad!”

“That’s the idea,” said Ragnarson, leaning beside him. “War of nerves. An old bin Yousif trick. He heard they do it in Shinsan.”

“It’s working.” The Storm King turned, glanced along the wall toward where Nepanthe and Saltimbanco strolled together. “Somebody’s not bothered. Our windy friend’s making headway.”

Indeed. They walked hand in hand, and Nepanthe seemed unashamed of being seen.

“Ha!” said Redbeard. “She’s making headway. He’s lost a good four stone. What do you think of the match?”

After considering, Turran replied, “Nepanthe needs a man more than anything else in the world. A one-eyed, one-legged beggar from the blackest slum in Itaskia would suit me if she’d have him. But Saltimbanco pleases me. His origins seem humble, yet his heart’s as noble as a king’s. I wouldn’t prevent a wedding, or even an affair. In fact, if I knew how I’d help him seduce her.”

Grimnason nodded, offered, “If there’s anything I can do…” Then, “Speaking of Itaskia, have you heard anything about Haroun?”

“No. Gold and knives have sealed a lot of mouths. Ridyeh’s having trouble. How long before they reach the wall?”

Ragnarson looked down at bin Yousif’s earthworks, long, lazy zigzags advancing up the Candareen. The heavy weapons had been unable to damage them. “Not soon.”

“Number three trebuchet!” Turran bellowed. “Fire one at the center approach.”

A missile arced through the air, trailing smoke, but fell short. Naphtha spewed and burned amongst broken rocks.

“Not quite,” Ragnarson observed. “Another day or two.”

“Can we hold till winter?”

Ragnarson was surprised. Turran with doubts about the invincibility of his fortress? Impossible! “They won’t be ready to try the wall till autumn. And then they’ve got to get over it. I don’t think they can. Not when they have to bring their gear up that slope under fire.”

“Still, I’d like to delay them. Can’t we make a sortie? To wreck their siegeworks?”

“I’ll put Rolf on it. But it’d be risky. We can’t afford casualties. We don’t have enough men to defend the whole wall now. Maybe we could use Nepanthe’s Iwa Skolovdans. They wouldn’t be much loss. Blackfang and Kildragon have drilled them silly, and they’re still not much better than recruits.”

“What do you think of our chances?”

“Excellent. Standard assault procedure calls for a five-to-one advantage. They’ve got us by about three. Haroun knows that. But he’s got something going, or he would’ve left. But I can’t figure what.” He glanced down. Saltimbanco and Nepanthe had left the wall. He saw them enter the Bell Tower. Mocker was certainly taking his time with her. But, from what Elana said, she was a stubborn case. Women. Remarkable creatures.

His thoughts turned to the old man who had hired them. Who was he? Why was the destruction of Ravenkrak so important to him?

Saltimbanco held the door for Nepanthe. She thanked him, walked to her embroidery frame, fidgeted with needles. There were always fires in Ravenkrak, even during the “summer.” The chair wasn’t as comfortable as when he had been heavier. He closed his eyes halfway and watched the flames through his lashes. They were curious iridescences.

Nepanthe toyed with her embroidery for fifteen minutes, then started pacing. Her gaze refused to leave Saltimbanco. They had been discussing the siege and Turran’s plans, but their thoughts tended elsewhere.

Saltimbanco was frightened of himself, of his lusts, and that strange other feeling he had for Nepanthe. The latter he thought he could conquer, but the former… More than once, he had come near rape. And that would destroy everything.

Nepanthe, for her part, had finally admitted to herself that she loved this strangely frightened man. She had admitted that she wanted to… well, that she wanted. But she was terrified. Her talks with Astrid calmed her intellectual fear, but dark emotional currents still surged under the surface of her mind, far too deep to be easily stilled. She was sure she would die a virgin.

She circled the chair where he sat sleepily studying the fire through his lashes, thinking of attacking his ear the way Astrid had described. But no, that was too much. And she was too frightened.

She went to the front of the chair. He looked up with those strange brown eyes. She bit her lip. Her throat became tight and unresponsive. She couldn’t say what she wanted. A flicker of emotion crossed his dusky face. What?

Trembling slightly, she took his hand, settled onto the arm of the chair. He squeezed gently, went back to studying the fire. She shifted, leaned toward him. Tightly, hoarsely, she said, “There’s something you need…”

When he glanced up, she moved the last six inches and pressed her lips against his. It lasted just a second. Her jaw trembled. She shivered. She felt him quavering as he fought for control. She wanted him to drag her into his lap, but… The enchanted moment died. A door slammed somewhere in her mind. Fear struck. She backed away slowly, fighting herself, not wanting him hurt. She was running again, fleeing herself. She bit her lip painfully, returned to her embroidery.

Moments later, as she cursed a bad stitch and her own ineffectuality, he started snoring. It seemed a pointed sound, a mockery. It cut her to the heart of her being.

Why can’t I be a normal woman? Why? Why? Why?

Nepanthe responded to the knock with a glum “Enter.” But when Elana came in, she brightened. “Astrid. What do you think about me? Why am I so mixed up?”

Elana paused just inside the door, wondering what had happened. “Company leave already?”

“I kissed him… but he didn’t do anything… and I got scared and ruined it.”


“Well, I wanted…”

“Nepanthe, let it be. You’re worrying too much. Don’t force it. It won’t work. Let it ride. Suddenly, you’ll look up and find everything roses.” She hoped.

“Maybe. It’s just… well… I can’t explain.”

“Why try? Nepanthe, you’re a natural worrier, you know that? You find problems where there aren’t any. Do you like being miserable? I mean, sure, it’s something to think about, but don’t hinge your life on it. You need something to keep you busy, that’s what. That’s your trouble.”

“What? What use am I here? I’m just another mouth, worthless to Ravenkrak.”

“You make me mad when you’re like this. Something to do? Last night Rendel said Brock hasn’t made any hospital arrangements. We’ll need a place to doctor the wounded. I hear there’s plenty of space in the Deep Dungeons.”

“But it’s filthy down there. They haven’t been used for ages.”

“We could clean them up, couldn’t we? Look, we’ve got a castle full of women that’re bored silly. This would keep them out of trouble.”

“It’d take a lot of time…”

“It’ll be a month before they’re ready outside. Longer, if Rendel raids them like he’s thinking.”

“We’d better get started then.”

Elana smiled. Her ploy had been effective.

“Let me get my wrap,” said Nepanthe. “We’ll get the keys, then see what’s got to be done.”

Elana, with Nepanthe, Saltimbanco, and the male Storm Kings, stood in the parapet of the Black Tower, over Ravenkrak’s gate, silent in a strong wind, watching the midnight sortie. Below, besiegers had been working by torchlight till the sortie reached them. Their first warning had been the cries of their fellows. Now flames, fed by naphtha, were devouring lumber and tools. Tents in the workers’ camp went up.

The wounded began coming in. The fighting went on. Torches coming up the mountain showed reinforcements on the way. Elana and Nepanthe fled to their makeshift hospital and began the sad, bloody business of putting soldiers together again. Most of the wounded were prisoners. With the enemy advance camp destroyed and two weeks’ labor on the earthworks ruined, Ragnarson withdrew. He and Rolf mustered their companies in the courtyard for roll call.

Suddenly, Elana came running, winded from the climb out of the Deep Dungeons. “Bragi,” she gasped, almost collapsing. “It’s Haaken. He’s bad hurt… And he’s got… something on the old man.”

“Damn!” He turned and bellowed, “Rolf! Kildragon! Elana, stick with him and keep Nepanthe away. Don’t let him give us away.” Rolf and Kildragon arrived. Ragnarson explained. “Haaken’s found what we want. I’ll go down as soon as we get muster.”

“How is he?” Rolf asked.

“Out cold,” Elana replied. “But I can’t find anything wrong, even though he looks like he’s dying. I’ll have to keep him alive before anything.” She started off.

“Wait!” said Ragnarson. “There’s a room in the Lower Armories no one uses. If we can shuffle him in there, he’d be out of the way. Damn! Damn!” He was scared Haaken would give them away, scared he might lose the only family he had…

High above, Saltimbanco watched the party break up. He glanced at the Storm Kings. They were enthralled by the flames below the walls. He looked back into the courtyard, wondering what the trouble was. Elana had brought the news, so she was the one to see. “Self,” he said, “am going down to Deep Dungeons. Will gentle brave troops.”

“Ha!” Valther snorted. “Need an excuse to see Nepanthe, eh? Been neglecting you?”

Saltimbanco bowed slightly, took his leave.

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