Chapter 42: The Sacrifice
Mariselle spurred her horse forward as it raced across the moors. The eastern walls of Gilead were less than a mile away. The flight from the castle had been swift, but her grasp on the kingdom was weakening with every moment the king breathed. Now that she had recovered and regrouped, the time to retake Gilead had come. The long ride back from Korah’s Maw would end with Braeden’s head on a stick. No more illusions, no more deceit. As Lord Dagon attacked the Lion’s Maw from the bay, she and her men would retake the eastern half of the city. She spied the great walls of Gilead looming in the distance. The executions would go on for days. The first will be that little wench – Alexandra. Behind her, her guards kept pace on their black steeds, swords drawn and ready to cleave. As the high wall of Gilead loomed ahead, Mariselle glanced back and saw that her retinue numbered at least twenty capable Amorite warriors. The sheep at the gate would be no match.
Then the battle cry of “Gilead” echoed into her ears. Mariselle pulled up her horse to a trot, and her men followed suit.
“Damn them! They’ve rallied,” she said and turned to Ananias who followed closely behind. “Take my cargo and spoils round to the shoreline and meet me at the docks. I’ll not have my things damaged in this skirmish, short as it might be.”
“M’lady, are you sure you won’t come with us? Storming Gilead’s walls, even with your guard, seems rash at best,” Ananias replied.
“Does a lion kowtow to a lamb? I’m ruler over this kingdom, and it’s time it pays me the respect I deserve, whether by will or by force. Begone!” Mariselle commanded and motioned to the armed warriors behind her.
Ananias bowed and turned his mount to the back of the line. Four servants followed him bearing a wagon of chests and the captured donkey.
A guard brought Mariselle a black obsidian bow and quiver, full of arrows. She fitted them around her. “It’s been an age since I’ve used these, but one never forgets,” she said to her man and notched an arrow into the line. She turned to her warriors. “Form a wedge, we’ll cut through their resistance at the gate and ride straight for the king’s throat!”
The Amorite guards formed behind her as she spurred her horse forward. The battle cries rolled across the moors as they raced forward. Mariselle dug her knees against the saddle and let the reins loose as she readied her aim, confident her warhorse knew to keep its course. She hoped the princess was among the defenders. The brat’s death would settle all questions of sovereignty.
* * * * * * * *
The gate will not hold, even closed. Egan’s mind raced as he waited in the night. It will shatter the moment they bring artillery to bear down on it and she’ll break through. This is madness. Egan watched the fog roll across the foothills of the eastern moors, and watched on in the darkness alone, crouching low to the ground in a hollow. His horse stood quietly in thorn bushes nearby. It was a meager camouflage, but one he hoped would hold up. Two of his five men were closer to the wall ready to race forward on their horses from the southwest, and two more men were poised to attack from the north side. This was not how he’d learned to play at war. When he was younger, he’d imagine leading a squadron of troops in glorious battle, marching in even rows under the sun. Yet here he stood in the shadows, on a razor’s edge between desperation and annihilation, scared to death. He remembered his eagerness for battle when he was a squire, and he wished he could cuff that young fool’s head. Perhaps courage came from necessity alone, not from will, and to lean on others was no great weakness.
The sound of racing hooves screamed across the high moor above him and he knew it was time. Mariselle flew past, making her charge on the eastern gate. Egan mounted his horse and darted up from the bushes to follow her war party. In the dim moonlight, he drew his sword and spied Mariselle leading the vanguard. Egan pushed his horse harder and came up behind the back line of her warriors. In a flash, he sliced his blade through the backs of two men and they fell from their steeds like rocks in the water. Two more of their number turned their horses to give chase and Egan led them around the moors away from the others. Two more of Egan’s men swooped in from the shadows and pierced Mariselle’s formation from the side, cutting through three of her soldiers before vanishing into the darkness again.
“Shore up!” Mariselle screamed. “They’re upon us!”
Mariselle pulled her horse to a halt. She looked around desperately for the attackers, but they were nowhere to be seen. Her men readied their weapons as another two of Egan’s men raced past and cut down the guards on either side of her. She shot her arrow, but it missed the mark and landed in the chest of one of her own warriors. He fell from his horse and crumpled to the ground.
“Damnit! I said shore up! Protect me!” she screamed again and her men formed a circle round her on their horses. Mariselle notched another arrow. Egan had whittled her fighting force in half in a few moment’s time.
Egan could hear the echo of “Gilead” from the walls and spied his prey checking her flanks, but only shadows greeted her.
Egan saw his chance and in an instant encircled Mariselle’s troop from the right while two of his men came at them from the left. Her circle of protection crumbled as Egan smashed through it. She screamed in the chaos and her horse flew forward, terrified. She clutched at its mane trying to balance herself as it rushed towards the high wall.
The moon peered out from the clouds, laying bare the wall and the ruse that was at play, his plan was about to fail.
* * * * * * * *
Avery’s wife, Helen, leaned out from the eastern wall to try to peer around to the gate, but the darkness was too thick. Avery’s wounds had been tended to before the evacuation from the Ambassador’s Square, but he was still too weak to fight. Their escape to the market had been hard on him, and she knew the sutures she had sewn into his side would split before long. Egan had placed him within the walls to oversee those using the ladders, but it was a duty in name only. A squirming toddler pushed into Helen’s legs. The child’s mother struggled to keep him still.
“You should be within the walls with your baby!” she whispered to the woman next to her.
“They say the western gate has fallen and the armies now march toward the bazaar. There’s no shelter within,” the woman said. “I’ve kept my boy breathing through this horrible night, I’ll not go back in while the streets burn and our men are slaughtered.” Her eyes pleaded with Helen’s. “I’ve already lost the rest of them. He’s all I have left.” She pulled the child to her.
“Nor should you.” Helen’s tone softened. “But he’s up past his bedtime I think. And the yelling and whooping don’t help.”
The woman nodded. “No, it doesn’t.”
The boy broke free from his mother’s grasp and ran out from the wall onto the field. The mother’s eyes widened and she chased after him.
“Forward men!” Mariselle’s voice howled like a banshee through the mist, “They’ve played us for fools!”
In an instant, a black arrow shot out through the night and pierced the mother’s throat. She fell to the ground, dead.
Mariselle burst from the shadows like a wolf, notching another arrow in her bow and flying towards the little boy on her horse.
“No!” Helen screamed and ran for the child.
* * * * * * * *
Avery’s leg was still ablaze from his wound, but he needed to know Helen was alright. He moved around the gate, keeping to the waning shadow, and to his horror, saw his wife running into the broad moonlight towards a toddling child. He watched Helen push the child out of the way as Mariselle shot an arrow, and it perfectly pierced his wife’s chest. Helen fell to the ground and was trampled as the steed sped toward them.
“Helen!” Avery screamed but he knew it was too late.