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Chapter Fifteen

The wagons were ready on the slope. Fifty of them with a thousand men assigned to handle them. The felt tops and wooden sides had been removed, and the sides mounted on the front to serve as arrow shields. The tall wooden wheels were locked straight ahead. All this under Blade's supervision.

Blade spurred back, shouting commands. Rahstum cleared his men from the center, leaving an aisle down which the wagons thundered. Some of the Mongs pushed, others guided and braked by means of long rawhide lines.

Blade sent twenty wagons into the ditch first, ten to a side, leaving a reserve of thirty. By now the sea had found its level and the water was not quite waist high. Bodies of drowned Mongs and horses were brushed aside as the wagons were run down to the steps. Then, fifty men to a wagon, they were hoisted up to the moat level.

The Sea Caths, who a moment before had been screaming in triumph, fell silent as they watched this strange new maneuver. Not for long. A signal was passed back and the catapult ships began to cast their deadly missiles again. One slab of jade, weighing tons, missed Blade by inches and smashed two wagons and thirty men. Muddy water splashed fifty feet into the air and Blade was drenched. He went in immediately to direct removal of the crushed wagons lest they slow the line.

The Caths brought their archers into play again and directed a heavy fire on the wagons. Still they went up, one after the other. Men fell and horses died and the Cath trumpets screamed high defiance as Blade began to fashion a crude pontoon bridge across the moat.

He rode up and down the rim of the moat, his horse belly deep in the surging water. Some of the Cath archers spotted him and began trying to bring him down. Arrows hailed about him but none touched him. Blade, caught up in battle fever now, forgot about guarding his back.

When he had two wagons in place, end to end, he saw that his plan was in trouble. He had meant to string a line of wagons across the moat, then bring up another line and manhandle them atop the submerged wagons. The tops would be replaced and the Mongs could cross, with the water only slightly above their knees. It was slow work, and the price in men was murderous, but he had thought it would work. Now he saw that it wouldn't.

The first wagons, sloping down the bank of the moat, held easily enough. But when the Mongs sought to get the third wagon into position it was swept out of their hands and away. One Mong forgot to let go and was taken with the wagon. He clambered to the driving seat, out of the water, and yelled back at them as the wagon went spinning away down the moat. A moment later the Cath archers put twenty arrows into him.

Blade, frowning, watched the wagon drift away toward the sea gate to his right. The tide was coming in, that was obvious enough, and there was a strong current through the moat. Blade leaped atop his saddle, as agilely as any Mong, and peered after the wagon. He had thought the tide, rushing in from both ends, would cancel itself. Not so. He soon understood why. The Caths had dug a drain channel near one of the sea gates to direct the flow and so create a current. And drain the moat when the sea gates were closed.

Blade saw Rahstum spurring toward him, making slow progress in the corpse-cluttered water.

Blade waved his sword at a sublieutenant assigned to him. The man moved in close. Blade had to cup his hands and yell over the clamor of battle.

"Forget the bridge! Get poles. Hurry! Take a hundred men."

The Mong stared at him. "Poles? I do not know where..."

"The wagon poles, man! Bring them."

He had ordered the wagon poles detached as useless and liable to impede movement. Now he saw how he could use them. They were slim, only about three inches in diameter and sixteen feet long.

Rahstum reached him at last. An arrow dangled in his chest armor. He broke it off and glowered at Blade. "Your plan is not working!"

Blade grinned. "Not my first plan. I have another. It will work."

When he explained the Captain nodded. "Yes. It is a better plan than the other. We had boats in Cauca."

Blade snapped an order to a young Mong officer. "Bring the rest of the wagons into the ditch. All of them."

To Rahstum he said, "The Khad's men are pretty well used up. They'll break and run any time now."

It was true enough. The Khad's men had been doing the extremely dirty work, and the punishment had been terrible. They had lost over half their number, and the survivors were rapidly losing heart. They were terrified of the deep water in the moat and moved sluggishly along the banks and in the ditch where the water was waist deep or more. All of the catapult ships were in action now and monstrous hunks of jade fell from the sky in a steady rain. Blade, counting, judged that a ton of jade was slapping into the disordered ranks every twenty seconds. A direct hit left nothing recognizable.

A missile struck near them and drenched them with muddy water. Rahstum wiped his face and beard and said, "You are right. They have taken enough punishment. They will blame the Khad for it, and will not be much good to him when the time comes. Signal me, Blade, when you want my men in again. We will lead the attack in your wagon boats!" He gave Blade a wolfish smile and spurred away back up the slope. An arrow glanced off his helmet and hummed away. Rahstum did not turn around.

When he had all his wagons in the ditch, and the poles, Blade put a horsetail on a lance and waved it at Rahstum, The Captain gestured acknowledgment and barked orders to his officers.

Five hundred of the dung gatherers were driven down into the ditch, miserably clad men without arms. Blade thought briefly of Nantee, but there was no time for thought or pity. The Mongs sacrificed dung people as they stepped on beetles.

Behind the dung gatherers Rahstum sent a wave of his best men. Five thousand of them, rested now and eager for battle again. They left their mounts at the rim of the ditch and ran screaming down into the water. The Khad's men, battered and decimated, began to fall back.

Rahstum joined Blade again. "You will have to lead," he said. "Show them it can be done. My men are no boatmen."

Blade nodded and spurred down into the water. Rahstum shouted after him, "Remember your back!"

Blade leaped from his horse and waded up to the bank of the moat. The arrow fire from the ramparts over the water was not as heavy as before, and he guessed the Caths were running low on arrows.

He brought twenty of the wagons, lifted by the straining dung people, into line along the bank of the moat. Another twenty to be lifted into position when the first rank left the shore.

Judging that ten men to a wagon would be enough, he selected his first ten and leaped into the wagon with them. He shouted instructions and orders with a throat that had gone raw. Four of his Mongs were given poles and told how to use them.

Blade leaped to the driving seat, brandishing his sword, and shouted at the top of his voice.

"Hear me, Mongs! Watch me. And do as I do. There is no return from this journey."

He pointed with his sword to where the Caths waited on the rampart. A ton of jade sliced down from the sky. An arrow nicked his arm. It broke flesh but drew no blood.

"Once on that rampart," Blade told them, "we stay or we die. Now follow me, Mongs!"

He turned to the pole men. "Push off." The wagon tops, removed and bound into place as shields, afforded some cover. Even so he lost three of his men before the wagon butted into the rampart.

Now the fury! And the Caths made a fatal mistake. In their eagerness to dispatch the invaders, they rushed howling to the water's edge. Too many of them. They jammed into a crowd and none could use their weapons effectively. Blade gave an order and his remaining men, but for two poling, sent a deadly hail of arrows into the packed crowd of Caths. They emptied their quivers and the carnage was such that the Caths broke and fell back. Blade leaped onto the rampart. He had breathing room. Fighting room. Barely, but enough.

He had but seven men. They formed a semicircle and linked shields and fought for their lives. Arrows fluttered at them with a steady pstt-pstt-pstt.

Blade shouted and they closed in, fighting on top of the bodies of the dead men. Lances now, and spears and hurled axes. Blade lost another man. He was fighting like an automaton, streaming with sweat and other men's blood, parched with thirst and his voice almost gone. A dozen Caths charged, yelling taunts, and it became hand-to-hand as the circle broke and the fight swirled up and down the rampart. Blade found himself beset by three Caths at once.

He slashed at one, daggered another, and took, a nasty blow on his helmet from an axe. The world spun and he felt sick and his knees nearly betrayed him. He staggered back, retreating to the water's edge, fending off the blows that rained on him. He got his wind back and parried and dodged and at last ran the Cath through.

Sudden respite. Never had it been more welcome. He was dizzy and spent, on the verge of vomiting, drenched in sweat and blood and barely able to stand.

Suddenly Rahstum was at his side, bellowing and laying about him with his sword to deadly effect. The Caths about them began to fall back.

Rahstum turned to Blade with his white grin. An arrow had nicked his forehead and blood trickled down into his eyes. He pointed with his sword.

"You see, Blade. It works. Your plan works! We have them now."

A score of wagons had landed and spilled their Mong cargo onto the ramparts. A dozen small battles were being waged to the death. More wagons were crossing in a steady stream, ferrying far more men than Blade's original ten. The Mongs clung to the sides, the top spars, the front and the wheels, everywhere. Many drowned. All were anxious to get across and share in the booty and the killing.

Back across the moat, on the slope beyond the ditch, more of the Khad's men were getting ready to come in. Trumpets brayed and horsetails fluttered, skulls glistened in the sun as the reserves moved forward and down the slope. The Khad was still standing in front of his throne, grotesquely hunched, staring across the distance with his good eye.

Blade, having recovered his breath and his strength, could smile at Rahstum and offer advice.

"Send a party to both ends of the moat, Captain. Close those sea gates and the water here will soon drain through their outlet ditch. We cannot have the Scourge of the Universe getting his feet wet."

A smile twitched at Rahstum's mouth. "Well said, Blade. We cannot have that. It will be done."

He sent parties to close the sea gates. By this time the Mongs had cleared the rampart of Caths and were following them down and into the city itself. Behind them the Mong reserves came into the battle in a never-ending stream, cursing, eager and hurried, each man afraid he would be cheated of the spoils of war.

Blade and Rahstum, as befitted the dignity of commanders, found a stair leading down from the rampart into a small square. There had been fierce struggle here before the fighting swirled on, and the square was littered with corpses. A dozen houses were already burning. The screaming of women was a constant high note of terror in the murky air, now so besmudged by smoke as to blot out the sun.

They rested for a moment. The real fighting was over and Blade had no wish to engage in senseless slaughter. He was calmer now, the battle haze leaving his brain. He could think clearly again, and he deemed it time to tell Rahstum that he did not want Sadda killed. Not while she carried his child. Blade had said nothing before, had seemed to agree with the Captain, but even then he had known. That he was being illogical he admitted. That it was dangerous was certain. He would jeopardize his new and hard-won camaraderie with the Captain. But so it must be. The child was his, no matter what the mother was, and he would not have it murdered in her belly.

Rahstum had taken off his helmet, badly dented and pierced in several places, and was wiping blood and sweat from his face with a cloth.

"These Caths fight like fiends," he said. "I had not thought them such warriors, Blade. But it is over now. Look!"

Horsemen were streaming down the ramparts and galloping past them into the city warrens. The horses were coated above the fetlocks with thick black mud.

"The moat has been drained," Blade said. He turned back to the Captain.. He was determined to seize the moment and tell him that Sadda must be spared.

He never spoke the words. An arrow hissed between them, closer to Blade than the Captain. They wheeled in time to see a Mong wearing the Khad's insignia shooting at them from a corner of the square. He loosed another and Rahstum bellowed curses as it grazed him. "After him, Blade! Get the son of a she carrion ape!" Rahstum was running toward the Mong, who was fitting another arrow to his short bow. As Blade pounded after the Captain he wondered what price the Khad had placed on his head. A high one, he guessed, because this Mong was making a determined effort to earn it.

The Mong got off one more arrow that missed them both, then turned and fled down the narrow street. Still bellowing curses Rahstum went after them. A second later he was back around the corner, yelling a warning at Blade.

"Cath horsemen! Get your back against a wall." The little party of Caths had been harried and beaten from place to place. They knew now that there would be no quarter. There were ten of them left and they came galloping into the square in a clatter of hooves on stones, half of them wounded, some dying, looking for Mongs to kill before their turn came. They spotted Blade and Rahstum and came at them with cries of rage.

The skirmish was short and brutal. Blade and Rahstum, their backs against the wall of a house, fought like two fiends. Blade ducked in to hamstring two horses and dodge back before he could be lanced. He pulled a Cath down and cut his throat. A lance point slid along his ribs and left a trail of fire.

The Caths were weary and frightened and disorganized, else they would have made quicker work of it. As it was they drew off for an instant of parley and Blade and Rahstum separated and each found a doorway to defend.

The Caths, seeing this, split into two groups and charged them again.

Blade, using his shield and sword, and fighting like a maniac, beat off the first charge. There was no second. A large party of Mong horsemen swept into the square and finished the work in a minute.

Blade walked to where Rahstum still stood in his doorway. The Captain was clutching his right arm and staring down at something on the ground. Blood was spurting from the arm to crimson Rahstum's hand and his armor-clad legs. Blade ran toward him.

Rahstum's hand lay on the pavement, the fingers still twitching in reflex action. He looked up as Blade approached. He had gone deathly pale, but his teeth flashed white in a grin.

"My luck is bad, Blade. As bad as his." He nodded to a dead Cath nearby. "Curse his ancestors! It was the only blow he struck - and now see. I am finished."

Blade wasted no time. The Captain was bleeding to death. Blade whipped off his sword belt and twisted it high on the arm as a tourniquet, using his dagger for leverage. The spurting blood dribbled to a halt.

Rahstum swayed and clutched at Blade. "I am as weak as a woman. Let me sit down here."

Blade supported him as he sank to the doorstep. Then he beckoned to the lieutenant in charge of the horsemen who, seeing their High Captain, had lingered.

"Bring a fire pan and an iron," Blade commanded. "Make haste, man. This wound must be cauterized and the bleeding stopped. Ride!"

Rahstum's forehead was beaded with sweat. He gave Blade a strange look and spoke almost in a whisper. "I will tell you what I have never told any other man, Blade. I dread the flame. I fear no man or devil but I dread the flame. I do not think I can bear it."

Blade clapped him gently the shoulder. "You will bear it, Captain. I will see to that. I will hold you myself. You have lost a hand but there is still much to do - or has the pain made you forget?"

Rahstum shook his head. "I do not forget. It will be this night. But now you will have to do it, Blade. You must act in my stead. When the dwarf has poisoned the Khad you must kill Sadda. And quickly. I will do all I can, I will be there, but I cannot slay even a woman with this thing."

Chapter Fourteen | The Jade Warrior | Chapter Sixteen