Down to the final week for Storm of Empire
, and I need you help to make it a success. So here I present the entirety of the second chapter, where things start to get intense...
Chapter 2: Gates of Empire
Arthras held his side with one hand and carried the stolen axe in the other as he jogged forward. He heard the battle drums call for the charge, and he was swept up in a great forward rush. All around him were other men of his people, or of related tribes. They wore their hair in braids and their faces were dark with soot and paint. They surged forward with spears and shields and swords in a glittering, deadly wave, shouting as one, and he joined his voice with theirs. He felt as if he were part of one great animal, huge and hungry. The power of the Almanni released at last.
They entered the shadows of the gates, and arrows began to sheet from the walls of the city, rattling down like hard rain that struck shields and armor and men. Arthras had neither armor nor shield, so he hunched down, tried to shelter behind the shields of the men around him as they held them up to block out the missiles. Men screamed and fell wounded or dying, but the wave came on. Balls of fire hammered against the walls, and Arthras wondered if they would stop firing when the lines met the stone.
Closer now, those men with bows bent them and fired upwards. He did not see how they could hit anything, for down here there was no sign of the enemy, only unflinching stone. He was being swept in toward the gate itself, and men around him rushed forward with ladders and tried to fling ropes with iron hooks up against the towers. They could not throw them high enough, and the ladders went up but he saw they were far too short. They did not even reach halfway up.
Now they were close against the walls, and the defenders began to hurl stones down at them. He heard the terrible sound of them as they struck shields or crushed in helmets. He felt a sudden fear, realizing there was nothing he could do to avoid being hit – it was simple chance. He closed his eyes for a moment and offered up a prayer to Bora, that she might protect him.
Then the army was hammering at the wooden gates, axes and swords beating against the iron-hard wood. He was caught in the press and had to fight for enough space to move and breathe. He cried out, not sure if he was angry or afraid, pushing to try and get free of the mass of men. Shields and spear-hafts battered at him, rattling against each other and hammering on the gate. Stones fell and crushed men to the ground, and Arthras realized how helpless they all were.
There was a crushing wave in the mass of men, and more warriors appeared, carrying the body of a great tree. The end was cut to a point and armored with iron plates nailed into the wood. The branches had been cut off long and stripped of bark to leave handholds. They dragged it forward until the iron tip dug against the gates, and then they started to swing it.
It seemed to take a very long time, drawing back a distance that didn’t seem far enough to matter, and then they swung it in and it crashed against the wood with a sound that echoed off the towers and made the seemingly impregnable gates shudder under the force of it. More men rushed in to help, and Arthras tried to get closer and join, but in the press he was held back, fighting against a mass of sweaty, bloodied men. The ram swung back, and then forward again. There were too many men hanging on it, holding up their shields to protect themselves, and the second blow was not as powerful.
The men on the ram began to chant, getting a rhythm going, driving the terrible weapon forward to strike again, and again. Arthras could not believe anything could withstand such punishment. The whole mass of them became a single, heaving force, pushing the ram against the gate again, and again, until he almost boiled with frustration to see it remain unbroken.
Something splashed down from above, heavy and stinking, and at first he thought it was water, then he smelled it and knew it for rendered oil. Men cursed and fought to wipe it from their faces, their hands slipping on the wooden grips of the ram. Some of the men suddenly turned and tried to fight their way clear of the ram, and Arthras didn’t understand why until he saw torches drop from the walls above.
There was a moment when his mind cleared, and then fire burst alive and spread like a mantle across the men, igniting shields and arms and faces. The ram itself blazed with fire and the warriors dropped it, thrashing as they beat at the flames that clung to them. More oil came down and exploded into fire, covering the ground in a lake of flame and immolating men whole. They staggered like shadows, wrapped in light as they were devoured. He saw them fall.
Arthras was thrust aside as men tried to flee, but they were trapped by the press of men still dashing themselves against the walls. Arrows scythed down, and he fell, pinned under a man who writhed with an arrow through his neck. The ground was covered in dead men, the air thick with choking smoke. Arthras shoved the man off him and cried out as pain lanced through his head. He had lost his axe, and he had nothing to fight with. He looked at the smoke-blackened gates and bared his teeth, feeling a heat boil inside him. He looked at his hands, and he saw his skin turn black.
The pounding was distant, but steady, and Karana wondered what it was. It sounded like some terrible force beating against the walls, or the gates. She imagined it must be a ram, but in her mind she pictured a giant as were said to exist in the far north, striking down at the stone with a great axe or a hammer. She felt another wave of dizziness and clung to the windowsill until it passed. The wind coiled around her, cool but humid and heavy with rain, like a portent.
Tentatively, she breathed in, closing her eyes, feeling the air flow around her, waiting for it to answer her as it had, and there was nothing. She let her breath out in a long huff, almost glad. Of all the people who might seek the blessings of the gods, she was least among them. Karana was not even sure she believed in the gods. The Church of Attis was everywhere, the sign of the great warrior with his thunderbolt uplifted, frowning on all other gods. In her homeland they had several gods far older than he. Vaosea was the mother of the sea, and it was she who wrought storms with her sons thunder and lightning, and her daughters wind and rain.
She heard a noise downstairs, and she turned and hurried down, hoping it was Marius. She passed the stacks of books and felt her heart heavy in her chest. If all of these documents were left behind, they would be destroyed. If the archive did not burn, then ten thousand barbarians would use them all to wipe their backsides. She was afraid, and she wanted to escape, but she did not want to leave. There was too much here, and she had spent too much time here to give it up easily.
Downstairs, the great hall was dark as the light failed, and there was no one to light the lanterns. She saw the side doors were open, wind coming through, and there were people coming in, but she was close before she saw they were men she did not know. They looked rough, and dirty, and they had a gleam in their eyes she did not like.
One of them saw her, reached out and caught her sleeve. “You! Show us where you hide the gold!”
For a moment she was speechless, not even sure what to say in answer. She tried to remember and think if there was some money in the archives she had forgotten, but then he twisted her arm and it hurt and she cried out, and she realized these men were not supposed to be here at all. “Let go of me!” she said, and she wrenched at him, but he did not loosen his grip.
“The gold, where is the gold, we know you have money hidden in here!” He shook her. “Where is it?”
He was angry, and now she could smell wine on him. There were two more of them, and they were coming closer. She pulled again, but he was too strong. He was still talking but she could not make it out, it was as if he were speaking gibberish. He yanked her arm painfully and she screamed and a flare of lightning turned the world white for a flickering instant just before a thunderclap all but deafened them all. The man’s grip loosened and she ripped her arm free, almost fell down from the effort.
The others began angrily slapping scrolls and books from the shelves, and Karana lost her temper. The man grabbed for her again, and this time she shoved him back as hard as she could, shocked when he flew back more than ten paces and bounced off the door frame, his head striking with an ugly sound. The force sent Karana staggering back and she fetched against the balustrade of the stairs, stared at the man as he groaned and rolled over, the other two stopping their vandalism to stare at her. She felt a heart-speeding terror mixed in with her anger, and she saw their faces uncertain and confused in the flash of lightning.
“Out,” she growled, and then she raised her voice and shouted with a terrible rage. “Get out!” She shook with the force of it, and something seemed to flare inside her like a trail of fire up her spine, and then the wind shifted with a sudden and terrible roaring. Rather than gust in through the door it reversed itself and blew out through the open doors. The men were picked up bodily and hurled backward, sucked in toward the doors, only to slam against the stout wood as the wind yanked them shut.
The wind shattered the windows and sent glass scattering into the night, and then the doors gave way and ripped off their hinges and hurled out into the street along with the intruders. Karana clutched at the railing as the wind coursed around her, bringing up a gyre of loose papers and books that scattered across the room and billowed outward into the growing storm.
She sagged down to the floor, staring, unable to believe what she had seen, what she had felt. Her heart was pounding, and she found her veil was gone, leaving her hair uncovered. She felt a jolt of irrational embarrassment and then she focused on the scattering papers and hurried after them. Alone in the dark, she got down and crawled on the floor, catching scraps of parchment and vellum, trying to save them from blowing away.
Arthras thought he was burning alive. He was on his knees in the black, bloody earth, and he watched his skin turn black and screamed. He was filled with a terrible heat that grew and grew and then seemed to radiate from his skin. His tunic smoldered and smoked and then caught fire. Panicked, he tore it off and threw it away, found his breeches were on fire. He leaped up and tried to run, fell against the ram and tripped over the broken handles.
Then he realized he felt no pain, and he lay for a moment and looked at his black hands and down at his arms and his chest. He gripped one of the branches that had served as a handle for the ram and saw the wood smoke and burn under his touch. He did not understand what was happening. His heart was beating hard and fast, but he did not hurt, he was not burning. The pain in his ribs was gone – there was no pain at all. He pulled himself up, stood there as his boots incinerated from his feet and left him naked and smoking, black as a figure etched on an urn.
He looked around himself, saw the army was falling back, shouting and dragging wounded men with them. The attack had failed. He saw warriors pointing at him, staring and saying things he could not hear. He looked at the gates, then up at the walls, still untouched and arrogant above him. He snarled, baring his teeth. He knew his face must be black, and he wondered how he looked.
Something hit him in the chest and he grunted, looked and saw a broken arrow on the ground. He rubbed the place where it had struck him and felt no wound, nothing at all. Another one hit him in the mouth and he flinched as he felt it glance off his tooth. Anger grew inside, and he felt again that tremor in the earth, like the one that had made Thros stumble. Arthras spat out a piece of broken metal and then he began to smile.
This was the power of the gods. He had prayed to Bora, the war-goddess, and she had answered him. He did not know why he was given this power, but he knew it was meant to be used. He bent down and put his hands on the earth while arrows fell all around him. Not knowing what he should do, or say, he only closed his eyes and called the earth to shake.
He felt a kind of ripple pass through the ground, and it was as if he felt the earth and the rocks beneath as they coiled and gathered, and then convulsed. The ground seemed to leap, and Arthras dug his fingers into the soil and held on. The walls shook, and he saw them wave like walls made of leather or cloth, while mortar fractured and spat out from between the stones. The arch above the gate buckled, and cracks raced across the stones. The wooden gate bulged and twisted, and bolts shot out of the wood like arrows.
The sound was incredible – a deep-voiced roar like thunder that never ended. Arthras clung to the ground as he felt the vibrations pass through him, thrumming up his arms, down his back, through his skull. The gate buckled, and then the heavy wood snapped and tore as the arch collapsed. Once the cascade began, it spread, and he looked up as the gate towers twisted, slumped, and then disintegrated under the unending quaking of the ground beneath them. A wave of broken stone swept down and dashed Arthras aside, turned him over and ground him between heavy stones.
The shaking began to subside, tremors diminishing, echoing themselves again and again, and Arthras realized he was not dead. He shoved at the rocks and they moved as if they were made of straw. Broken rock melted to his skin, and when he burst free he was half-covered in a layer of molten rock covered by the dark, cooled surface. It cracked when he moved, and the red glow showed through. Still there was no pain, and he grunted as he scraped the stuff from his skin.
He stood in the towering column of dust arisen from the broken gate, and then he looked back and saw the army there, men all dashed to the ground by the tremors, staring at him as he climbed from the ruin. He stood there for a moment, and then he thrust his fists to the sky and howled a war cry. “Take the city!” he screamed, and a thousand voices rose up to join him.
Karana was on the floor, hands full of papers, when she felt the earth shudder. It began as a low roar, and she thought it was more thunder, but then she felt the floor under her ripple, as if it were the surface of the sea, and she looked up to see the whole building shuddering, heard the joints and beams of the structure creak and crack as though it were about to fall in on top of her. She tried to get up but she could not, lay clinging to the floor as if that would do any good. Two more windows broke and glass fell to the floor and shattered, echoes by thunder from above.
It stopped, and she realized it had not gone on very long, or so long as it seemed. She staggered to her feet, wondering. She had felt the earth shake years ago in Evanos, where such things were common, but not here. She had been three years in Ilion and never felt it, but now the earth shook as if under the tread of a giant.
Another roar came, distant but sharper, and she turned and ran for the stairs again. Up, up so she could get to a vantage point and see what was happening. The windows were broken, shutters ripped loose by the wind, manuscripts scattered on the floor. She climbed up until she could see east, toward the walls. The sky was darkening, clouds moving low and rain beginning to scatter down, but she saw the walls, and she saw the great broken gap at the center where the gate had been, and she felt a knot of terror in her chest like a stone.
What should she do? If she stayed here she would be killed, but was there any place safe to go? She wondered if there were still ships to be had in the harbor. If there was any way out of the city at all. She could not defend the archive. Or could she? She closed her hands into fists, remembering the strength that had hurled a man across the room like a doll, the way the wind had answered her. What was this power? What could she do with it?
Looking at the broken walls, she saw lights begin to move in the dark, and she knew the barbarian army was flooding in, torches in hand to burn and plunder. How could she do anything against so many? There would be thousands of them, tens of thousands.
Perhaps, perhaps she could at least prevent the city from burning. She looked up to the dark, roiling sky, flickers here and there as the lightning walked in the clouds, and she reached out her hands. She reached with her thoughts, with her will, into the sky, and she pulled.
For a moment, she felt foolish, a girl alone in a library wishing for rain, believing she could control the very storm itself, but then rain fell all at once like the stroke of a thousand swords, and she flinched back from the sudden downpour, felt it blown in on the winds to spatter her face. She felt the ends of her braids coming loose, tapping her neck.
She hurried back down, thinking to herself of the way to the harbor. Rain would perhaps keep the invaders from burning the city. What else could she do? Even if she were blessed by the gods, surely she had by now exhausted their favor. Why would they give such power to someone like her? Perhaps she was only going mad, or she was dreaming and would soon awake with her head pillowed on her arms, sore from sleeping at the table.
She almost ran into Marius as he staggered through the doors, soaking wet and wiping rain from his face. He caught her shoulders. “Karana! I can’t believe you’re still here.”
“What are you doing?” she said. It was hard for her to bring her thoughts back to the moment. Thunder echoed overhead and she seemed to feel it, in her bones. She felt dizzy again, gripped Marius’ arms. “I thought you left.”
“I brought a cart,” he said. “Help me load what crates we can manage, and we’ll go. I have a man with a small boat – he will take us, but he won’t wait very long.”
“The Almanni have breached the gates,” she said. “I saw it from the window. We don’t have time to take anything.” She felt her eyes burning, thinking of all the books and words lost to savagery. “We don’t have time.” She chewed her lips, trying to decide. She wanted to stay, wanted to find a way to protect the archive, but she did not believe she could. Instead she had to decide if she could live with abandoning what she so loved.
There was shouting in the streets, out in the rain. Karana would not have believed there were people still in the city left to flee, but there were. Marius went to look, and she followed him, gathering up the many small braids of her hair and holding them, feeling for the pin she used to keep them in place. She felt naked with her hair uncovered. The wind was less now, and the rain had begun to fade.
She stepped out under the sky, and the light was strange. The clouds were higher, their underbellies flickering with light as the lightning stalked here and there. There was almost no wind, and the light was greenish and pale, seeming to outline everything clearly yet to have no source. Karana knew it was the light of the star, filtering down through the clouds. She had hoped for a greater storm, and perhaps she could make it so. The thought made her belly feel tight and shivery. What was happening to her?
There were people running through the streets, frantic, wide-eyed. They had trusted in the strength of Ilion’s walls, and now that strength had failed them. Their robes and tunics flapped as they ran, clutching whatever of their possessions they had managed to grab before they fled.
More shouts, and she felt the earth shudder underfoot again. She looked across the plaza, toward the gates, and she saw men running, but they did not look like city people. They wore armor and carried spears and swords. She saw the strange light glint on helms and shield-rims, saw their pale skin and pale hair. Almanni. She had never seen so many in one place.
Marius caught her arm. “Come quickly! The cart, we can still get away.”
The oncoming horde of warriors moved like the sea, crashing against the houses and buildings, flowing in through doors, knocking over whatever it came upon. She saw fleeing people cut down and speared to death in the street, heard screams that made the flesh crawl on her arms and neck.
Then the crowd parted, and something else stepped through. It was shaped like a man, but was all black, as if the light could not touch him. Smoke rose from his skin, and every step made the earth boom and shudder at his coming, his footprints black and burning in his wake.