Chapter 32: The Dead and the Living
Rain drizzled on King Braeden as he stood at the entrance to the royal crypt in the cemetery. The seal had been unlocked and the doors opened. He stared at the darkness within. Alexandra stood solemnly by his side, holding a handful of lilacs. Her father looked more regal wearing his chest plate, leg guards, and pauldrons. Around them, five guards stood vigil with torches. The mob had been quelled once Mariselle had fled the city and Braeden had appeared. The remaining guards were cheered at the sight of their king, once again healthy and stalwart in his command. Four men carried Samuel’s body, covered by a sheet, on a simple litter to the doorway of the tomb.
“This was meant for me. I should be the one, not him,” Braeden whispered.
“Father, don’t say such things,” Alexandra said and took his hand. “Samuel knew his path by the end. He saved you. He knew you could change things.”
“Can I? Even now our forces are dying. I led Gilead to this ruin. How many lives have been lost because of my stupidity? How many lies did I tell myself and others?”
Alexandra turned to face the shrouded corpse and placed the lilacs on Samuel’s body. “I know custom says lilies, but you always liked these more. Thank you for your kindness,” she said. Her eyes welled with tears, and she quickly brushed them aside. “Sorry,” she said as she turned to her father.
“No, Alex. Weep. I’ve been wrong. Your heart’s a hearth fire in a world where so many others have gone cold.”
She looked up at his face. It was impossible to tell where the raindrops began and his tears ended.
“He will rest with my ancestors,” Braeden said and motioned to the guards. They carried Samuel’s body into the crypt. A soldier approached the king. He paused for a moment before removing his helmet.
“My Lord, we searched the dungeon and the castle. There is no sign of the boy or his body anywhere.”
Braeden turned to Alexandra, “Would he have run? Fought his way free?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t think he could have freed himself. Mariselle’s guards grabbed him and, I don’t know.”
Braeden saw the look of dread in her eyes and nodded to the guard. “Thank you. Ready my horse.”
He turned again to his daughter. “I’ll be riding now to aid Egan at the Ambassador’s Square, if I fall, you will rule Gilead. You’ll wear the crown and have to make those same choices I did. I pray you make wiser ones than I. I wish I had more to give you, but, at the very least, I must tell you the truth.”
“You won’t die--” Alexandra started.
“Alex, I’m no warrior. I’m old. If this night ends with my death, you must guide Gilead back to the light. You must be wiser than me, and you must . . .” Braeden shook his head, holding back his words.
“I asked Samuel to do something I should’ve done a long time ago. Before your mother died, before Mariselle cursed our shores, I took a lover,” Braeden breathed. “She bore a child.”
Alexandra’s mouth dropped. Braeden continued, “You will rule Gilead, but you must make provision for your older brother. I dismissed his mother because of her station and left little to provide for either of them.”
“Why? How could you?” Alexandra shook her head.
“There is no excuse. Egan mentioned the child to me and I fear his life is now in danger, so you see, I must help defend the city. At the very least, I owe him that.”
The guards returned from the crypt and locked it shut.
“Who is he? What’s his name?” she peered into her father’s face, but he turned away from her. A guard brought Braeden his horse and he hoisted himself onto it.
He nodded towards his men, then glanced at her one last time, “She named him Absalom. I hope one day you’ll meet him.”
“And you’re only telling me this now?” She stared coldly at him. “All these years.”
Braeden searched her eyes, “Daughter, I’ve found one thing true in this life, that no choice is ever easy, no path is as clear cut as you might imagine. I have done some evil to achieve a good in the past, and what I thought was right one day, later returned to befoul my steps. You were right about Mariselle.” He turned and mounted his steed. “You were right about me as well.” Braeden nodded to his guards. “Farewell, daughter. Know that I love you.”
With a flick of the wrist, he charged forward with his men, his eyes on the battle head but his mind rested on the children he left behind.
* * * * * * * *
Egan marveled at commoners as they bellowed their warcries, grim determination in their eyes. Old men, women, and farmers pressed hard against the gate as it bulged from the attackers ramming. Others efficiently brought more arrows to the archers on the high wall - as well oiled as any platoon he’d trained. As more guards arrived to reinforce their efforts, he stopped one lad, not much younger than himself as the boy doused out some flames with a bucket of water.
“You’ve held them this long without soldiers?”
“We’re all soldiers tonight, sir. Your Seargent was right. I’d rather die standing, than live on my knees.” The boy nodded and hurried away.
With a deafening crack, the western gate splintered open. Egan watched in horror as its great bronze hinges snapped loose. Hundreds of obsidian-mailed Amorite warriors surged through the small opening into the Ambassador’s Square like black spiders flooding out of an egg sac and shredded through the men stationed nearby. The defenses were failing again. Egan screamed the order to charge and three platoons of soldiers ran to defend the barricade. His men pushed back against the black tide of warriors, cutting row after row of them down.
They’ll hold them, but not for long. The added reinforcements had rushed to the circle only moments before. Egan signaled to Avery and his archers, stationed high on the surrounding wall. “Send your arrows inward!” he yelled.
Avery, standing high on the battlement walls, nodded reluctantly.
“The walls chief!” Avery’s voice suddenly cried back, “they’re scaling the walls!” Egan peered on as grappling hooks went flying over the upper battlements and latched onto the stone surfaces, while others careened into the archers, sending them flying off the ledge. Like locusts swarming a field, Amorites crawled over the embrasures. Avery pushed some back before slicing through the connected ropes with his sword, letting those still ascending to fall to their death. “The barricade!” Avery commanded his archers. “Send the arrows to our inner barricade!”
The archers on the high wall turned and fired upon the attackers flooding the plaza through the broken gate, laying fifteen down in a pull. A rain of fiery arrows arced up from the Amorite ships in the harbor and impaled five of the bowmen. Egan screamed to Avery, as a solitary dark warrior, scaled a far embrasure and grappled him from behind. The two fell from the high wall onto the cobblestone street. More archers overhead fell from the walls like dominoes as a second wave of Amorite climbers reached them. Amid the chaos, Avery stood and steadied himself, blood running down his leg and the crushed body of his attacker beneath him.
“Reporting for duty.” A low voice rumbled behind Egan. He turned. The large brute from the medical tent stood before him, his armed bandaged, his giant hand clasping a battleaxe. “Rustag, at your service.”
“You service all of Gilead. Can you fight?” Egan asked.
Rustag smiled and grabbed a large battle-axe laying nearby. “I can kill.”
“Good, you’ll want a shield for. . .” Egan started, but Rustag rushed past him before he could finish. The large man dove into the wall of Amorite swarming at the barricade, swinging his axe in full circles. Five warriors were knocked back while three others instantly lost their heads.
Egan ran to Avery’s side and saw a wicked-looking dagger was lodged in at Avery’s thigh.
“I can’t walk! Leave me!” Avery cried as he held back the blood running from his wound.
“You will walk! I won’t lose a man like you!” Egan commanded and together they moved forward, Egan supporting him with one arm and slicing down an attacker with the other. “You formed this defense?” he asked as he moved them back to their lines.
“Aye, Chief, from the ragtags.” Avery nodded, “Even a common man will fight when you embolden his spirit.”
“Your bold spirit is a beacon to us all.” Egan caught his eye, “I’ll not see it extinguished.”
As they scurried forward he could hear Rustag laughing wildly as he mowed down warrior after warrior. Gilead’s soldiers rallied behind him as they pushed the Amorites back to the gateway, and beyond the broken door to the head of the steps.
Egan pulled Avery past the barricade and waved to Helen. She had triaged soldiers across the square near the tent. Her assistants pushed past her, rushing the dying to the shelter. She screamed Avery’s name as she ran to them.
“He’ll live, but you must move those wounded back to the market district! We can’t hold the bastards back all night,” Egan said as he helped Avery into her arms.
Helen looked past Egan to Rustag at the gateway, slaughtering wave after wave of Amorite attackers and keeping their forces locked at the doorway with even more of Gilead’s soldiers moving to help.
“Are you sure M’lord? We may yet keep the gate,” she asked, her face lightened.
The Amorite drums sounded again behind the gate, and throughout the plaza, Egan’s soldiers paused at their rising chant.
“Molek! Molek! Molek!”
The dark warriors at the gate retreated back down the steps and Rustag paused to catch his breath as he peered to the shadows beyond. “Come back, whelps!” he laughed.
The gravel on the cobblestones bounced as if some great mass were climbing up the final stairs.
Egan knew that sound, and his stomach dropped. The insane fear and hopelessness returned as he paused and glanced at the gateway in horror, “Get back! Rustag, get back!”
Rustag’s smile dropped as a shadow rose above him.
In an instant the remains of the great western gate were ripped from their place and sent flying into Rustag, tossing the slaughterman aside like a ragdoll.
Molek ducked under the archway and roared. The men at the barricade ran as the demon hurled his war hammer across the plaza into the medical tent behind Egan.
He turned to see his wounded men’s bodies buried beneath its weight. The giant lifted his head and howled again. The Amorite mass flooded past him back into the plaza, overwhelming both men and women like a swarm of insects.
“Retreat!” Egan screamed, knowing full well it was already too late.