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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019–2021 John Alleyn

Chapter 30

The enemy began their assault in the late afternoon, after a few straggling bands of skátoi arrived from the sack of outlying farmsteads.

The skátoi led the attack, advancing toward the walls of the fortress in well-disciplined squads, until they could easily sweep the top of the walls with flights of arrows. They were at a disadvantage, firing uphill and into the afternoon sunlight, but what they lacked in accuracy they more than made up in numbers. For their part, the Angvírai were of no account as archers, but they lent their aid in another way.

“Now, that’s rather clever,” Kráva mused, as she peered out from behind the battlement.

“What are they doing?” asked Várdan, from his position a few yards away.

“They’ve got big shields of some kind. Too big to carry on one arm, and they look to be improvised out of thatch or wicker. They might have made them out of materials they found in the villages and farmsteads they’ve sacked.” Kráva looked again, measuring the distance. “The Men of Iron run up with the shields, then they set them down on the ground, and it looks like they prop them up somehow. Then the skátoi can take cover while they shoot at us.”

Várdan grunted, as if struck. “I didn’t expect the Angvírai to be so clever,” he said. “Usually all they can think to do is make a bare-assed charge at your lines, screaming a war-chant the whole way.”

“Yes. Well.” Kráva uncoiled from her crouch, nocked an arrow, drew and fired all in one smooth movement. Down the slope, a naked spearman howled and curled around the arrow that had just planted itself in his ribs, little more than the feathers still showing. “This method has its drawbacks too.”

The Sun-clan had posted archers all along the taimar’s walls, concentrating them in the eastern sector above the main gates, where the assault was focused. Every man or woman who could shoot was there, firing back at the skátoi and the Men of Iron.

For her part, Kráva had stationed herself directly above the gate. She had given away her old war-bow in exchange for the most powerful weapon in the taimar, a monster with two-hundred-pound draw that no one had seriously tried to use in years. After a few shots to accustom herself to the weapon, and to make sure it would stand up to combat after so long hanging on the wall, she set herself to wreak slaughter. The Angvírai and skátoi soon found themselves under fire from well outside their own effective range, every arrow that struck home claiming a life.

“You know you’re drawing fire, of course,” said Rána, more amused than afraid.

“You can get down from the wall any time you like,” said Kráva, firing again. Far below, one of the skátë archers fell backward, dropping its bow and tumbling down the slope, an arrow buried in its throat.

“No, no.” Rána rose and fired her own bow, three times in rapid succession, before she ducked down behind the battlement once more. “You’re a fine archer, for a mortal, but this plan is going to need a more experienced eye.”

Kráva only snorted in derision, and kept watching for targets of opportunity.

Slowly, as the sun set behind the great hill, the arrow-fire from the walls dwindled. The enemy, scenting an advantage, began to move even closer to the fortress. Their flights of arrows lashed the battlement, killing or driving away the last of the defenders. Even Kráva and Rána stopped shooting back, crouching behind the battlement and holding shields over their heads to fend off stray arrows. Before long, the two women were the last of the defenders to remain on the walls.

There was a pause in the battle, as if the enemy gathered its strength. The shadow of the taimar stretched out down the hill-slope, growing longer and darker by the minute. From the bottom of the hill, a fierce war-chant broke out, the skátoi shouting an invocation to whatever bloody gods or demons ruled them. Even the Angvírai broke ranks, screaming at the heavens, dancing and brandishing their spears and shields at the fortress.

Three massive figures detached themselves from the mass of the foe, and began to lumber rapidly up the path toward the gate. With them came a hundred skátoi archers, ready to deal with any of the defenders who had remained in hiding upon the walls.

“They come!” shouted Rána, caught up in the excitement of the moment.

Kráva only crouched silently in the shadows, her head barely exposed to the enemy in a gap of the battlement, her archer’s eyes and her archer’s mind watching, measuring.

The three nórdeni mórë reached a certain point Kráva had marked out on the road. Her right hand flashed out, and slapped the stone beside her. Off to her right, she heard Rána’s hand do the same.

“One hundred paces!” she shouted. “Now!”

In the open court of the taimar, behind the walls and the closed gates, where no one could see the ogres on their way, Drúthan repeated the order. “One hundred paces!” he shouted, his deep baritone voice like sudden thunder. He drew his war-bow and lifted it to a precise angle, pointing the arrow into the eastern sky.

Two hundred Tremára archers raised their bows with him, all the archers who had survived the afternoon’s exchange of fire, who had deliberately withdrawn from the walls to present the appearance of a failing defense. Archers who could not see the nórdeni mórë, and whom the monsters could not themselves see, could not subject to their preternatural terror.

“All together . . . loose!”

Two hundred arrows soared into the air, lifting over the walls and the gates, catching the fading sunlight at the top of their arc. Then they plunged down into the shadows, onto the road and the slop...

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