Chapter 17: At the Roof of the World
Taren was exhausted, and the Deshik forces seemed endless. He knew that Makret was only using them. They were tools, nothing more. The Kindler’s most favoured servants had always been Morschen and Morschledu who had turned to his ways. The Deshika had their chieftains, but they could easily be overruled by any one of The Kindler’s more favoured beings. All this rushed through Taren’s head and was immediately forgotten as he raised his sword once again to fight off yet another crushing wave of enemies amongst countless waves that were still going to come. The three hundred men and women who had stayed with him were all reasonably skilled with a bow, and they had done their best, many times already, to end as many of the Deshika as they could before the stream reached Taren. That stream was forming again in the far distant camp, for the third time already that day. Perhaps he should have called for reinforcements, and then he could have fought back, but he could not charge them alone, nor could he even take those three hundred that stood behind him. So he held the gate. The Deshika were charging, and the arrows from the defenders pierced rank after rank of the foul beasts. Many fell, several lines in the middle broke and fled, but still, well over one hundred held on as they always did and came for Taren. If any got past him, they would quickly be dealt with, but none ever rushed by him into the city. They knew, because Makret knew, that their whole force could be in the city, but if Taren still stood in the gate, they would have the same trouble getting out. And so they spent hundreds of lives, pouring soldiers into the breach in the walls, only to have a hundred run to their camp in defeat. Taren wondered for a fleeting moment why the bodies never seemed to accumulate. He knew his men came down every night, and often during the day, to find all the arrows that they could, but even after only three days, Taren doubted that a single person on the wall above him had half of the arrows they had at the beginning of this nightmare. He did hear occasional whisperings from his soldiers, wonderings as to why the Deshika did not use their catapults against the city. That was simple enough. The Deshika would remember from their first attack five years before that Agrista was a city of ice and stone. Too hard to break by catapult and nothing that would burn. All this passed through Taren’s mind and was gone, as once again, hundreds of Deshika warriors tried in vain to end his life.
“It’s been three days since you arrived, and we’ve had no word from Taren.”
“General Reeshnar, we know. Taren all but ordered everyone to leave the city.”
“But if we go now, then-”
“General, we hate waiting as much as you do, but now, both the Warship and the city are beyond our aid. The Brotherhood charged in before, and if I am not mistaken, you yourself were one of those with Taren during that battle.”
“Until Taren returns, or his heir is appointed, I am in command of Drogoda and its empire.”
“Taren still lives, so, while you control the army, you have little say in what happens throughout the rest of Taren’s holdings.”
“The High Generals of Drogoda are second only to our country’s Morschcoda. It has been that way for millennia. As the Morschcoda is not here, I am in command of his empire, not just his armies.”
Erygan was as frustrated as Edya was, but he knew Taren better than most did. “Edya, the Deshika will be expecting a last minute charge from our forces. And I doubt that this is their only army. This is a test, and if Taren falls, Makret passes it. If this force is destroyed, than whoever is really in charge will unleash everything: Morschen who have been idle for centuries, possibly even countries that we have never heard of marching from the west over the mountains. If Taren falls, then Anaria will be looking to Alquendiro, looking for Taren’s true heir. We need to know who that is.”
“So, you know it’s not his sister.”
“It was always a weak lie to hide behind. Anyana married a Ristan Prince. Elich, were he still alive, would answer to you. So, who is Taren’s heir?”
Taren sagged against the wall. He had spent three long days fighting, and longer nights sleepless, with little food and no rest. It was only a matter of time before he fell underneath the crushing weight of those whom he slaughtered. Still, he could only fight on, delaying that moment as long as he could, while at the same time, making it both sooner and more inevitable. “It is a grim sort of fate” Taren said to no one. “To know that the duty assigned to you is the one which means your death. Cutting away the ties to life, and cutting the wrong one only makes the death sooner or more painful.”
Meanwhile, Makret was debating with the Deshik War Chiefs.
“He has slaughtered us, like we are your pathetic kind.”
“Who is more the coward, War Chief, if you turn away from a city guarded by fewer than five hundred men?”
“Your kin is weak, depending on other forces to fight the battles you dare not. There is no true honour in fighting them.”
“And yet one of my ‘kin’ has the blood of thousands of your greatest warriors still drying on his blade. You saw not even seven years ago the valour of the Morschen, and now, you dare to call it to question?” Though it had only been five years, Makret knew that to say seven would make a greater impression on the inferior minds that he was surrounded with. “Especially now, when three hundred stand against a force that is still ten times more than ten times their number, and greater even than that.”
The War Chief straightened up to his full, impressive height, well over nine feet tall. “We will belittle their strength as we choose.”
“Then you will not choose to do so in front of me.” He stared at each of the seven War Chiefs in turn, as one by one, all broke under his gaze. “I will lead this army, but I will not have our forces lied to about what it is that they are going against.” He faced each of the seven again. That was the thing he hated most about the Deshika. Seven was a number of evil, and it was the number most revered by the Deshika. Their years were seven months of seventy days, though they had ten holy days, seven at mid-year and three others starting the day before the Silver Moon, making their year the same length as a Morschen year. Makret may have joined them, but in his mind, he cursed their customs. ‘I guess one must be prepared for evil when one consorts with The Kindler’s spawn.’ He dared not voice these thoughts, for though he was in charge, if the War Chiefs rose against him, the rest of the Deshika would follow. “Am I understood?” The Chiefs nodded. “Good. Now, we need to find a way to through that gate.”
Taren watched the distant camp with renewed interest. Smoke was rising from one of the larger tents in the camp, one that had been identified by several far-sighted archers as the command tent. Eight beings, one obviously Makret, were seen often either going into or emerging from the tent. He assumed that they must be War Chiefs, but he was no closer to killing them than he was of slaughtering the rest of the army camped before him. But, he had found one thing, one single solitary thing, to respect in the Deshika, his most hated enemy. They did not shirk from a fight. They knew what he was capable of, had seen him do it attack after attack, day after horrible day, but still, at the command of their War Chiefs, or Makret, they launched themselves at him recklessly. He was startled out of his relentless study when the Ristans who had stayed began moving around him. They dared not venture far into the field for fear of dead that were not so, so part of their duty was to stab all the bodies they could to ensure every one of the brutes was really dead. It was a nasty business, and Taren regretted the necessity of it, but it had to be done. Already, his fellows had put to death forty that had survived the flying arrows, the pounding feet of their compatriots, and Mishdonkar. A cry went up from the field in front of Taren. “Forty one” said Taren grimly as a short man raised his sword in defiance against the unnatural armies that were massed against them. A woman with a bloody bandage on her left arm where a Deshik arrow had ripped away a chunk of flesh offered him a piece of course bread and a small lump of cheese, which he accepted gratefully, as well as a mug of cold water. As he took the food, his eyes settled on the bandage, and he regretted that he was not skilled in healing. It was for him that she, and most of the others, had taken brutal injuries, a surprising number of which were poisoned and life threatening. He had lost … he could not even remember how many of those with him had already fallen since the nightmare had begun. It was at least fifty, but it could not be as many as one hundred. Over thirty were in no state to fight because of the injuries that they had taken from Deshik arrows, aimed with more luck than skill. The store of their own arrows that were undamaged was rapidly diminishing, even with the deaths and injuries, he doubted that even one hundred of his soldiers had more than thirty arrows to shoot before they had to retrieve from beyond the wall.
“At least they will leave us alone for now,” the woman who had given him food said.
“For now, but they will return ere long.”
“And soon, there will be nothing left to do but die.”
Taren ripped a chunk off of the bread and offered it to the woman. She ignored it, so Taren put it in his mouth, chewed for a second, and swallowed. “If I thought any of you would go, or had a way of getting you out safely, I would make you leave.”
They stood together silently for several minutes, sheltered in the shadow of the arch of Agrista’s great southern gate. “There is a way” she whispered.
“What?” He did not feel any excitement at the thought that he might soon be alone at the roof of the world.
“The ice caves. They lead from the palace into the hills south of the city. I thought all the major cities in Anaria had something like them.”
“Not Alquendiro, it stands on an island. Our only retreat is the water.”
“That would make sense for your people.”
“That isn’t the point. There’s a way out of the city. You and the rest can leave.”
“No. I’m recently ascended to my post, and I don’t know how to find the caves, and those that are with me weren’t palace people either. Even if we could, you can’t seriously suggest that we abandon our home. We won’t, not while one who is not of our blood defends this city.”
“You don’t understand. This fight is between Makret and me. While I stand here, they can’t turn their attention to other countries. Sooner or later, Makret will leave the safety of that camp and he and I will fight. Because of the powers that he and I both wield, it may be that this city won’t be worth defending once he, or I, or both are dead.”
“You would level the city?”
“To prevent the Deshika from having it, I would do far more.”
“We won’t leave.”
“I won’t let you stay.”
“I’m not asking for permission, Morschcoda.”
“I’m not in the mood to give it.”
“Who will respect us if we go?”
“After four days holding a city against one hundred times our number? I would have someone live who witnessed the last stand of Agrista.”
“And of you?” She raised an eyebrow at him.
This woman had sharper eyes than most, to see what even Marrdin and Erygan had had to be told. “And of me,” he nodded.
The woman turned back to Agrista. “This is my home, and has been for my entire life. If it must fall, I would be here.”
“Then I would know the name of the last person I talked to in this life.”
She looked up at him and her tight lips relaxed into the closest thing to a smile that any of them could give. “Gelinia Eshtarin.” She stopped then added “General Gelinia Eshtarin, of the Crystal Sword.”
Taren recognized the name. Eshtarin men ran rampant throughout Rista’s military history, as well as through Drogoda’s own bloody past. There was something else, though, something that he could not quite place about Gelinia Eshtarin and her family history. Not at the moment, at least, so he let the matter drop without saying anything. Instead, he feigned ignorance about news he had already heard. “General? But I thought …”
“You thought that the Crystal Sword was commanded by a man. It was. I was your brother-in-law’s second in command.”
“So, Danoth is dead.”
“As is your sister. They were found dead almost two weeks ago. I’m sorry. We know that they were murdered, but how it was done was cruel beyond anything that Morschen dungeon masters could come up with.” Gelinia went into morbid detail, understanding that Taren wanted to know what she meant.
Taren shuddered. He could only imagine what the wounds she described would really look like. That the Deshika had captured them was beyond doubt, but the barbaric precision was something that the Deshika did not have. He assumed that they could torture anyone, but they would not understand the differences in a Morschen and a Deshik body aside from the obvious. So, he assumed that it had been done by Morschen traitors, or worse. That it was the work even of one of the Seven Devils may have been possible. Vorteez sprang to mind. Taren had had his suspicions about The Kindler’s dungeon master since the battle of Airachni. “I am glad, almost, that they died before Makret’s betrayal. Anyana would never have let me live that down. She despised the Ringless, even those among the Morschen. I do too, sometimes, but Makret … He saved my life. And then a Ring that had refused a bearer for nearly two millennia chose him. The Ring that, strangely enough, is the brother of my own,” he looked down at the silver circle, set with sapphires all around the band, so that it looked like a river between silver shores, “which had also denied many would be bearers.”
Suddenly, a new voice, one Taren had hoped to hear again, but had known until then that he would not, shouted his name. “Morschcoda Garrenin.”
Taren turned, angry and pleased, to face Edya Reeshnar and Erygan Dalrey.
“Taren.” The pale Morschcoda nodded as he walked up to his shorter friend.
“Erygan, I said …”
“I know what you said Taren, but your General Reeshnar had different feelings on the matter, and refused to stand by while her liege lord was, for lack of a better word, dying.”
“I’m not dying, although I feel like I should be dead by now” he said, as he leaned against the inner wall of the gate. “Since you’ve ignored me one last time, Erygan, you might as well make it for a good reason. I was going to attempt to order General Eshtarin to take those she could through the caves to escape the destruction of this city, but now, you can get them out.”
“I didn’t come here to leave you alone.”
“Erygan, you know as well as I do that I must fight Makret. It is the real reason that this battle drags on. He and I both know that soon it will have to come down to a fight of our own. You alone here have felt the true extent of my powers. Makret’s are similar, almost identical in fact. If, when, the two of us unleash our powers on each other, this city will not survive.”
“Taren, two men can’t destroy an entire city.” Edya looked up at the three older Morschen and lost confidence in that statement. “Can they?”
“Edya, if Makret and Taren combined their powers, they could drown El Redro Delshoi.”
She looked up in surprise that Erygan chose to use her first name. Though it was not the first time he had done so, it still surprised her. “That must be an exaggeration.”
“A small one.” Taren answered. “We could, one island at a time, maybe.”
The four stood silent for a time as night fell over northern Anaria. The cold that had settled into Taren’s bones grew ever colder, slowly robbing him of feeling in his legs. His armor weighed heavier on him than it had four days ago, but he dared not take it off, possibly needing it at a moment’s notice.
“Edya” Taren broke the silence. “This is the last order I will ever give. Send messages to all the Morschcoda that Taren Garrenin has fallen. You should go yourself, if you can.” Turning to Erygan, he added mentally, ‘help her deal with the Mordak Council. They are dangerous when divided, and they will be. With Makret a traitor and me dead, Ren and the four territorial governors will be more powerful than the military advisors. A Morschcoda will have to be named soon, if Drogoda is going to hold together.’
‘But who is your heir? Someone must take over the rule of Anaria from you.’
‘You will have to open El Kardi Morschcoda. It explains more than I can.’
‘Marrdin took the book to Dorok-Baan, to give into Kallin’s keeping.’
‘Good. Kallin knows how to read the book. I only ask that when you read what has been written by me or on my behalf, you remember that I did what I did for many reasons, though I never said many of them. There are many things in that book that, had the enchantments that impregnate it allowed, wouldn’t be part of it, or would be written differently.’
‘If there is anything in the book that makes us think less of you, it would be forgiven because of this final act, Taren.’
‘Wait until you have read what there is to read, old friend.’ He spoke again. “Now, you must go, and General Eshtarin, you and yours must go also.”
There was a cold gleam in Erygan’s eyes, and he shot a glance at the tall Ristan woman, as he heard the name Taren used, but he said nothing. All three turned away from Taren, but Edya turned back. She looked as though she was trying to say something, but instead, she ran at Taren and threw her arms around him. Refusing to let go for several long minutes, when she finally started to let go, Taren hugged her tighter, not wanting to end that one last moment of peace.
“I would never have dared to do that a week ago,” she said when she finally broke away from him. “But I thought that, since you are going to be dying soon, well,”
“I understand, Edya. Now I almost wish that there was somewhere that I could go, some direction that would not end pointed at Makret, here at the top of the world.”
“Good bye, Taren.”
With that, she stepped through the portal Erygan had opened.