|The Grand Design|
|excerpt courtesy of Bantam Spectra Science Fiction and Fantasy|
|and Victor Gollancz|
For an hour, Vorto watched his siege machines circle the city. Then the ram was ready. Vorto rode down to inspect it, surrounded by an armored entourage of legionnaires. The ram was enormous, the largest the war labs had ever constructed. Twenty greegans had dragged the war machine to Goth. Its wheels were as tall as a man, and a hundred wooden handles poked from its side like the legs of a centipede. Its head was of granite, fastened to the stout, oak shaft with bands of riveted iron, and along its top length were loops of rope to keep the men from being dragged beneath its crushing wheels. As he brought his mount up alongside the weapon, Vorto wondered if it was up to the task. Goths walls were legendary, and the city gate was reinforced with spikes and lengths of petrified timber. The Walled City had stood for generations, shrugging off countless wars. Some said it was impregnable.
But then, nothing was impregnable to God or Nar. Vorto reigned in his bucking horse and turned to Kye. The colonels helmet was covered with a sheen of snow.
"Bring up two platoons of cannoneers. Have them concentrate fire on the walls around the gate. We have to keep the archers back. And stop the rocket barrage. I dont want those damn things landing near the ram. When the gates comes down, well swarm. Is your infantry ready, Kye?"
"Theyve been ready, Sir."
"Then keep the cavalry back until I give the order. We need a clear passage for the charge. I dont want them bunching up near the gate; Lokken will be expecting that. And hell probably have some surprises for us."
Kye grimaced. "Sir, if were going to use the gas anyway . . ."
"I want Lokken, Kye. I have a surprise for him. Off with you now. Do as I say."
Kye dismissed himself with a shrug, then rode off to gather the flame cannoneers his lord had requested. Vorto watched him go. Once again, impatience was gnawing at him. The snow was deepening, and the cessation of rocket fire would bring back the darkness. Beneath his metal gauntlets his fingertips were blue. Goth could hold out for weeks, and winter was coming fast. Hunger and cold would soon eat away at his legions morale, and he couldnt risk that.
It took only moments before Kye had the cannoneers arranged. As ordered, he had them flank the rams path to the gate. A steady stream of fire belched from the nozzles of the cannons, pushing back the archers defending the citys entrance. The wooden catwalks along the wall burst into flames under the barrage. Gothan archers drew back to safer positions. Vorto heard their desperate cries for reinforcements. They had seen the ram.
Vorto pulled his double-sided axe from his back and thundered down the hillside. Behind him followed his standard bearers, holding high the Light of God. The sight of the golden flag attracted the attention of some of the archers on the wall. Vorto laughed and shook his fist at them.
"Im here!" he taunted. "Put one through my heart!"
But he was still too distant and the archers knew it, so instead they pumped their arrows at the ram and the legionnaires taking up position alongside it. Vorto shouted orders at the hundred-man team. Above the rams pulling stations was a hood of metal, a deflector against the rain of missiles. Each solider in turn tethered themselves to the ram, dropping the loops of rope around their waists. Vorto moved in a little closer, until he was with Colonel Kye again. The platoons of cannons fired at the wall, pressing back the wave of Gothans. Fingers of flame splashed against the monolithic wall. Overhead the rockets had ceased. A dull darkness pressed down on the world.
The walls of Goth loomed fifty feet tall. The gates themselves stood a proud twenty. General Vorto quickly calculated the required force. Five passes; maybe more. But that would take time, and the cannons wouldnt hold forever. Already longbowmen had scored some lucky hits against his men. From the torches in a nearby tower, Vorto could see the shadows of more Gothans taking up position. His men would have to hurry.
"Kye," he said very calmly. "Now."
Colonel Kye raised his saber. "Ram!" he directed.
A grunt of exertion filled the air. Very slowly, the massive wheels of the ram began grinding forward. Lieutenants near the ram cursed orders, urging on their men. The weapon picked up speed as it rolled toward Goths gate. Vorto licked his wind-chapped lips. The ram groaned as it accelerated. A panicked shout went up from the Gothans. Flame cannons detonated, spilling against the wall. Faster and faster went the ram. Larger and larger loomed the gates. Vorto grit his teeth . . .
Louder than a crack of thunder, the ram smashed against the wooden gate. All the world seemed to shudder. Archers along the wall tumbled backward with the impact, and for one moment the cannoneers stopped their endless fire, astonished by the sound. Vorto peered expectantly through the murkiness. As the light grew again, he saw the damaged gate. Impossibly, a hairline fissure was snaking its way through the petrified wood.
"God in Heaven!" Vorto laughed. A cheer went up from the legionnaires gathered around the ram. They were two hundred strong now, called from their circling of the city to storm falling Goth. Men on horseback shook their swords in victory. Even Colonel Kye broke into an unreserved smile.
"Again!" ordered Vorto. Already the ram was being pushed back into position. Again the night flashed with cannon fire. A new rain of arrows poured down upon the soldiers, catching some in their backs. Kye directed a squad of hand-helds toward the new threat. The two-man teams hurried up to the wall and hosed it down with streams of fire. Though small and lacking the range of their bigger brothers, the hand-held cannons threw their fire high into the night, scorching the tower of the Gothan archers and halting their barrage.
Once more the ram inched forward. Vorto heard the agonized shouts of the men as their muscles strained with effort. The ram accelerated slowly, then faster and faster still. Another concussion shook the ground as the ram battered the wooden portal. This time the fissure became a groaning rent. Vorto hurried his charger nearer the gate. Through the crack he could almost see the city. Several poles of timber still held the doorway fast, but these had bowed and would never withstand another blow. Kye shouted orders to his men. The ram started backwards for one last assault. Vorto pranced triumphantly in the cannon-light, laughing and praising heaven for his coming victory. The Light of God waved above his head.
"Times up Lokken," caroled Vorto gleefully. He spared one last look into the hills where the launchers were waiting, and a little pang of anticipation ran through him.
Lorla reached the hidden gate just as the snow began falling in earnest. Her pony was exhausted from the hard, fast ride through the city. Daevn, her guide and guardian, was slick with sleet and sweat. He was a tall man and a fast talker, and Lorla watched anxiously as he spoke to the Gothan soldiers at the gate, and shouted up to the men pacing the wall. Except for the soldiers, Goth was locked up tight. The rockets had stopped falling now, and darkness crept over the city. Lorla fidgeted as she listened to the far off pounding at the main gate. The sound reminded her of a drum.
Daevn returned, mounting his horse as he waited for the portal to slide open. It was far smaller than the main gate, more like a door really, and made up of the same dull gray as the rest of the wall. Lorla tried to peer through as it opened. Beyond it she could see only darkness and snow.
"Whats that sound?" she asked nervously.
"Battering ram," Daevn explained. "Theyve started to break through. Lucky for us, too. The rest of the Naren soldiers are gathering near the main gate." He smiled at her wickedly. "We just might make it."
Lorla hardly knew Daevn at all, and wasnt sure he understood what she truly was. But she tried to smile, because she would need the brutes goodwill, and when the hidden gate creaked open she ushered her pony closer to it.
"Its clear, I think," said one of the soldiers. He looked up to the catwalk where another Gothan silently gave them the go ahead. "Hurry now. Stay to the shadows, but dont linger."
Daevn nodded. "Ready, girl?"
"Im ready," Lorla lied.
Daevn took the lead, trotting his horse outside the wall. At once the darkness swallowed him. Lorla steeled herself before urging her pony outside. The beast seemed to sense her trepidation and moved with leaden legs. Lorla heard another concussion from the far side of the city, and fear sped her on. Daevn impatiently waved her forward. Outside the wall, everything was silent. The din of battle was oddly quieter here. Lorla spared a sad look backwards as the hidden gate drew slowly closed. Remarkably, it seemed to disappear.
"Come on," Daevn ordered. He began speeding for the hills. It would be thick there and dark. Dressed in black, Lorla and Daevn quickly became part of the shadows. Fast and silent, they rode toward the looming unknown of Dragons Beak.
Duke Lokken stepped out onto the balcony of his tower and brooded over his falling city. Reports were coming in faster than he could comprehend them, and his private chambers were flooded with aides. Vortos legions had broken through the gate and were swarming into the city. The glow of flame cannons told the duke how near they were. Larius, his Counselor-at-Arms, was tugging at his shirt sleeve like a little boy, begging for guidance or any semblance of life. But Duke Lokken was a million miles away. His eyes had glazed over with dreadful visions, and his thoughts had slowed to a crawl. His boy Jevin was on the main gate. Dead by now, surely. And in another hour or so his daughters would join himbut not before they lost their virtue to the marauders. Very quickly, Goth was becoming a Naren ruin.
"Larius," the duke said quietly. "Take my wife and daughters to the throne room. Wait with them there. I will be down presently. Just a few moments alone . . ."
"No," cried his wife. Kareena rushed up to him and took his hand. Throughout the siege she had been resolute, but now the dam of her emotions was crumbling. "I wont be away from you."
Lokken smiled forlornly. "Kareena, do this for me. I want to watch the city. Alone."
"We will stay with you," his wife offered. "Send the others away, but not us. Please, the girls"
"Will have their father with them in minutes," Lokken said. "Go to the throne room. Wait for me there. And have the guards wait outside." He turned to his counselor. "Larius, you hear? I want no soldiers in the chamber. You alone will stay with them, understood?"
"I understand, my Duke."
Lokken took his wifes face in his hands and pulled it close, his voice a whisper. "I have to be strong, Kareena, and theres not much time. Just let me have my moment of weakness, will you?"
Kareenas lips shuddered. Without a word she slipped from the dukes embrace, gathered her daughters, and led them out of the chamber. Larius was silent too. The old warrior gave his duke a sad smile before leaving the balcony and ordering the others out of the chamber.
Alone, Duke Lokken of Goth cast his eyes out over his burning city. Goth the fair. Goth the strong. Built by slaves, mortared with blood, it had been the only home the duke had ever known. Tears trickled down his cheeks. Soon Vorto would come for him, and by then he wanted to be purged of tears. He would face the butcher of Nar with the same contempt that had made him shred Herriths hateful flag. This day, even as Goth collapsed, he would give his enemies no satisfaction.
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