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Chapter Fourteen

The Mong armies were arrayed in the plain before the city. When the sun shot over the horizon they would attack. All night the horsemen and foot soldiers had been moving into position and, once there, sleeping on the ground.

Rahstum, who commanded the center, kept Blade close to him. His manner was curt, near to insulting at times, but he had designated Blade to fight at his right hand. It was nearly dawn before they found a chance to speak alone.

Rahstum said: "What of this marriage, Blade? Do you and Sadda plot against me?"

They were riding along the line of battle, well forward, near the lip of the huge ditch. There was no moon and the city was dark but for an occasional vagrant light, but the star sheen was sufficient for Blade to see the Captain's face. It was grim. The gray eyes glinted hard at him.

Blade had foreseen this moment and thought it out. He could not go on forever picking his way through plots. He must choose. He had chosen. He told Rahstum as much as was needed to indicate Blade's loyalty. They reined in the horses and Rahstum listened without comment. A sea breeze sprang up and moved salt air across the plain. Horses nickered softly.

When he had finished Rahstum fingered his beard and said, "She is clever. I never doubted that. And it is a good plan. But how is she going to force Morpho to slay the Khad? What hold can she have over him?"

Blade knew of one possible hold, one lever, and yet he did not see how it could be. And he dare not mention it. He had given his word.

He said: "I do not know. Yet she seems positive. Perhaps she deludes herself. It is all a fantasy, or a lie. I cannot say."

"Waste no time thinking about it," Rahstum said harshly. "I will strike first and that will settle the matter. My men are ready. I am more than ready, for this waiting has been agony."

Blade watched a torch moving in the city. "The plan is the same, then?"

"The same. It should be easier now. He is going fast into madness, and when we sack the city he will grow worse. He has told me of his plans for the Sea Caths. No quarter. And afterwards a great feast to celebrate his triumph. Be you ready when the time comes."

Blade said: "What of Sadda?"

Rahstum snarled like a wolf, showing his white teeth. "What of her? She dies also, man! Surely you see that? What good to kill the big viper and leave the small one? She has men loyal to her and would raise a revolt against me. She is also a princess of the blood and has law and tradition on her side. I could not rule with her alive. She dies!"

He was right. Blade said: "As you say. I only ask that I not be the one to kill her. After all I have made love to her, shared something of her life, and do not want to be her murderer."

The Captain laughed curtly. "You are a strange man, Blade. But no more of this now. You saw those gates holding back the sea? Do you think they will open them?"

Blade was surprised. He had not thought the Mong command astute enough to notice the sluice gates, or guess at their use. But Rahstum was not a Mong.

"They will let in the sea," he said, "if they are losing the battle - which they may not do, Captain. This will not be an easy victory."

Rahstum agreed. "I know. And they will let in the sea. I am counting on it. I intend to use most of the Khad's men, as many as I can, to storm into the dry moat. I will hold back my own as long as possible. The more of his men drowned the better!"

At this Blade was not surprised. He nodded and said, "I have gauged the depth of that moat. When full it will rise to ten feet, well over the heads of our men and, as you say, many will drown. But there is a way over it if the men can be protected while a bridge is laid down."

Rahstum looked at him in puzzlement. "How know you how deep it is? You have not been close to it, or in it."

Trigonometry would have meant nothing to the Captain.

"A thing I learned in my own land. Suffice that I know. And the bridging will not be hard if the men are protected."

"I know of bridges. We Caucas built them. But in our country there were many trees, enough timber. Here we have nothing."

Blade told him how it could be done. The sun shot up then, an instant red ball of flame, and the Mongs scrambled from sleep and into formation, rubbing their eyes and gnawing on chunks of cold horsemeat. Trumpets brayed and officers ran to and fro, dressing the ranks and cursing, prodding and slapping with the flats of their swords.

Sea Caths lined the ramparts of the town, waiting. No huge cannon here, or they would have fired it before now. But they had catapults of a sort, like massive crossbows on wheels, mounted at intervals along the ramparts and firing twelve arrows at a time.

Chunkkk - whanggg! The first catapult was fired and a dozen long thick arrows screamed over Blade and Rahstum and did bloody work in the first rank of Mongs. Two men, transfixed by the same arrow, flopped and scrabbled like fish on a single hook.

Rahstum gentled his nervous horse and cast an expert eye at the Cath ramparts. "A good weapon," he told Blade, "but they cannot depress. When we move forward they will be firing over our heads. That is all to the good." His teeth flashed beneath the beard. "They will be firing into the Khad's men then. Now, Blade, heed well! We will lead the first attack in and move the obstacles and plant scaling ladders against the far wall of that ditch. We will lose men, but not too many, and the Khad will think nothing but that we are valorous to go first. While he sits in safety and drinks bross and caresses some poor child!"

Blade followed the Captain's contemptuous glance. On the crest of the rise behind them the Khad's throne had been set up. He was on the throne now, Sadda standing beside him, the sun brave on his honor guard and the lances flaunting horsetails and skulls. As they looked the Khad shielded his good eye with a hand and peered toward them. He raised a hand in command. The order to attack.

"He was never a coward," grunted Rahstum. "I give him that. But now that he is old, and has the madness, he is not so fond of battle. And will not die. So be it!"

Arrows planged just over their heads. Blade could not help but wince a little. Rahstum did not move a muscle but to calm his prancing horse.

"When we have made a ramp to the moat," he said, "it will be fair that we fall back for rest. Then I will send in the Khad's best troops. He will suspect nothing and if the Caths open the sea gates he will lose a great many men."

Rahstum leaned to Blade and spoke a final word. "Watch your back today."

He brought his steed about and raised his sword high over his head. Blade moved his horse into position on the right. Sunlight glittered on their polished leather armor, flung sparks from the upraised steel.

Rahstum uttered a stentorian cry that echoed up and down the line of battle, heard clearly over the hiss-hiss-hiss-hiss of arrows.

"To me, Mongs! To me!"

The lines surged forward. High time. The crossbows had found their range and were chewing up the first ranks. Every volley brought down a score or more of the Mongs. The dead and wounded were ignored. When a man fell, another stepped forward to take his place.

Rahstum led them to the lip of the first sloping ditch. There his lieutenants dismounted the horsemen and set them to answering the fire from the city. They knelt, each beside his horse, and the short crooked bows began a nasty ssstt - ssstt - ssstt. This fire was not particularly effective, for the bows had no great range, and Blade, now beginning to be caught up in the battle fever, found himself wishing for an English long bow.

Yet the fire gave some cover. Under it the foot soldiers came storming up and into the ditch. They carried scaling ladders and some had large baskets of withe and digging utensils. This puzzled Blade at first.

He and Rahstum remained mounted, riding up and down the lip of the ditch, commanding and urging, and were fair targets for the Caths on the ramparts. As Rahstum had predicted they were in defilade now, beneath the fire of the crossbows, and the Sea Caths began to line their ramparts with bowmen who could aim better. Dark flurries of arrows came down, but the Cath bows were no longer-ranged than the Mongs', and only the first ranks, now deep in the ditch, suffered much.

The Mongs were tearing the obstacles out of the earth, clearing a way for horsemen, but they did not content themselves with loosening the pointed stakes and tossing them aside. They were passed rapidly down the line to the base of the slope, where the wall stopped progress. They were wedged into the ground and Blade, still puzzling, saw that a platform was being built. First one, then another. They were building stairs!

Mongs with baskets and tools were shoveling dirt frantically and filling in the narrow platforms as they rose. Blade nodded. He knew how agile the Mong ponies were. They would easily climb the stairs when they were finished, and the footmen behind them.

But the arrow fire began to intensify. The Caths had stronger bows and were bringing them into action. An arrow grazed Rahstum's horse and another, nearly spent, bounced off Blade's breast armor. Rahstum sent a rider off to order diversionary attacks on both flanks. Sadda's men, on the right, moved into action and immediately began to suffer from the big crossbows. Blade saw the Captain's lips move in a faint smile.

Blade was nearly caught unawares. But for his fine peripheral vision he would have been murdered. He caught a flicker of movement from the right and saw the bowman aiming. In the last second the bowman turned slightly and loosed his arrow at Blade. Blade got his shield up just in time. It was a Mong shield, round and of leather, and the arrow pierced it and hung dangling an inch from his throat. Blade pulled his horse around and rode at the man. The Mong ducked, eluding him, and tried to run. He ran straight into Rahstum, who slashed down with his sword and cleft the man from shoulder to belly.

Rahstum shouted. "Coward. Deserter! Run toward the enemy, not away."

He winked at Blade as he rode past. "You see? On guard! They will try again."

Blade peered down at the dead man. He wore the insignia of the Khad, not that of Rahstum. He had mingled, then, with the clear purpose of killing Blade.

His spine cold, Blade glanced about him. The incident had gone unnoticed in the din and clangor and rise and fall of the battle. From that moment on Blade guarded his back as well as his front.

The stairs were rising up the wall now. Another long line of warriors had moved up into position near the lip of the ditch. The Khad's own troops.

The Mongs had thrown another attack in on the left as a further diversion. These were also the Khad's men. Farther back, on the green slope, the second line of reserves moved into position.

It was still in essence a frontal attack, and brutal. The high cliffs guarding the moat at either end served as a funnel to divert the Mongs against the ramparts where the Sea Caths were strongest. No real flank attack could be mounted, and as the Mongs pressed forward, urged by the pressure of their own troops behind them, they began to converge and the separate companies to lose identity.

The ditch was now filled with thousands of screaming, working, fighting, blood-crazed Mongs. The sound was one long anguished scream of battle. Men died beneath the arrows and were stepped on and trodden into soft earth. Some who were merely wounded were trampled to death.

The Sea Caths, all this while, had been quietly warping their tall clumsy ships in toward the sea wall which held back the ocean. Blade had wondered about those tall ships, more like towers on a raft than ships, and now he saw their use. The sides of the towers fell away and revealed long slender poles with cup-shaped devices at the top end. Blade could see this because Rahstum had now given the order for his own men to fall back, and Blade rode back up the slope as the Khad's troops poured into the ditch and toward the completed stairs up the wall.

Blade, from this new vantage, saw a crew winching back one of the slender poles. It bent like a resilient whip and something was loaded into the cup. It glittered in the sun and even at that distance Blade recognized it. Jade. Not cannon balls, but jade just the same.

He saw a Cath officer pull a rope trigger. He could imagine the nasty spanggg as the slender catapult whipped up and over, though he could not hear it over the battle. A huge shard of jade, flattish and sharp edged, soared high over the city and came down in the ditch. Nearly a vertical fall, a mortar effect. The jade missile smashed twenty men to pulp. There was no way to miss the target in that fighting, dinning mass.

Rahstum was riding furiously up and down, extricating his men from the ditch so that Khad's men could rush in. He turned and rode toward Blade as another shard of jade smashed down and squashed the attackers like bugs. The Caths were warping more of the tower ships in. Blade counted a dozen of them.

Rahstum, after sending his officers scurrying to reform and rearm his men, joined Blade. Together they watched the carnage grow as more and more of the ships began to hurl the deadly chunks of jade over the city.

Rahstum tugged at his beard in puzzlement. "Are they wizards, then? Every one finds its mark. I would expect a miss now and then."

Blade did not try to explain. The Sea Caths had tested and fired and planted sighting stakes, all against this emergency. Those tall catapults were perfectly adjusted for range.

"Anyway," Rahstum said with a grin, "those are the Khad's men. Not mine."

He turned to shout at a lieutenant. "Form up again, Lusta. They will be in the moat in a few minutes."

It was true. The Mongs in the ditch had completed a series of shallow steps up the wall. They bounded up and over into the moat, waving their swords and bows and screaming defiance at the Caths on the rampart beyond the moat. A wave of horsemen went charging down the ditch and put their ponies at the stairs. The shaggy little beasts plunged up, as agile as mountain goats.

Now came another wave of foot, carrying ladders. The rank and file of the Mongs thought it was almost over. Soon they would be in the town and cutting throats and raping to their hearts' content.

The actual rampart of the city offered no serious obstacle. It was barely ten feet high, of earth and stone and braced by timbers. A broad way ran atop it, where the crossbows were still at work. The wall was thronged with Caths who screamed insults and every type of obscenity meant to lure the Mongs into the moat.

Blade tapped Rahstum's arm. "Soon now. If they mean to flood it at all."

He glanced up the hill behind him. The Khad had left his throne and ventured down the slope a few feet, staring and shielding his eye with both hands. He also was thinking that victory was within his grasp. Nothing could stand against the Mongs in hand-to-hand combat.

The Sea Caths waited, cunningly, until the dry moat was a raging mass of attackers from sea gate to sea gate. Some ladders were already up and being thrown back. Great cauldrons of boiling oil were tipped on the Mongs as they swarmed up, uttering blood-curdling yells, swords in hand and knives in teeth.

Slowly, paying a terrible price, the Mongs began to gain a foothold on the wall. A line of Mong archers came into the ditch, at a proper distance from the wall, and poured in a murderous covering fire. More and more of the ladders went up and stayed. There was hand-to-hand fighting on the wall now, and the archers began to kill Mongs as well as Caths. Rahstum could have sent an order to the archers, but he did not. The arrow fire ceased, after minutes, when some sublieutenant gave the order.

A slow, growing, rushing thunder sound began to fill the air. Rahstum pointed. The Caths had opened the sea gates.

From both ends the sea rushed into the moat, foaming and churning, a roaring green monster flecked with muddy white, a manmade tidal wave that was twenty feet high and scoured everything before it. It overflowed the moat and spilled into the ditch below like an avalanche. There it turned muddy and churned in frenetic whirlpools and killed everything in its path.

Blade thought it unlikely that any of the Mongs could swim.

There was a tremendous clashing hiss as the two streams of water met. Horses and men were tossed high in the air, to be immediately sucked down and under. The Caths, screaming in triumph, and having finished off the Mongs on the rampart, began running up and down and making pincushions out of the few that could keep their heads above water.

Blade looked back at the Khad again. The Scourge of the Universe was beating his breast.

Rahstum nodded at Blade. "Now, man! Your wagons. We will see how well your plan works."

Chapter Thirteen | The Jade Warrior | Chapter Fifteen