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TWENTY-SEVEN: THE PRINCE’S SIEGE
Early the next morning, the siege of Orison began.
The huge, rectangular pile of the castle stood on slightly lower ground, surrounded by bare dirt and straggling grass – and surrounded, too, by the Alend army, with its supporting horde of servants and camp followers. From Prince Kragen’s perspective, Orison looked too massive – and the ring of attackers around it too thin – for the siege to succeed. He understood sieges, however. He knew his force was strong enough to take the castle.
Nevertheless the Prince didn’t risk any men. He felt the pressure of time, of course: he could almost taste High King Festten’s army marching out of Cadwal against him, a sensation as disturbing as a stench borne along on the edges of the raw wind. And that army was large – the Prince knew this because he had captured a number of the Perdon’s wounded men on their way to Orison and had taken the information from them. Composed half of mercenaries, half of his own troops, the High King’s troops numbered at least twenty thousand. And of the Alend Monarch’s men there were barely ten thousand.
So Kragen had to hurry. He needed to take Orison and fortify it before those twenty thousand Cadwals crossed the Broadwine into the Demesne. Otherwise when the High King came he would have no choice but to retreat ignominiously. Unless he was willing to lose his entire force in an effort to help Joyse keep the Congery out of Cadwal’s hands. The lady Elega’s plan to paralyze Orison from within had failed, and now time was not on the Alend Contender’s side.
Still he didn’t risk any men. He was going to need them soon enough.
Instead, he ordered his catapults into position to heave rocks at the scant curtain-wall which protected the hole in the side of the castle.
He had seen that wound from a similar vantage point the day after the Congery’s mad champion had blasted his way to freedom, the day when, as the Alend Monarch’s ambassador, he had formally departed Orison: a smoking breach with a look of death about it torn in one face of the blunt stone. The damage had been impressive then, seen against a background of cold and snow, like a fatal hurt that steamed because the corpse was still warm. The sight of it had simultaneously lifted and chilled Prince Kragen’s heart, promising as it did that Orison could be taken – that a power which had once ruled Mordant and controlled the ancient conflict between Alend and Cadwal was doomed.
In some ways, however, King Joyse’s seat looked more vulnerable now. The inadequacies of the curtain-wall were so simple that a child could measure them. Considering his circumstances, Castellan Lebbick had done well – quite well, in fact. But circumstantial excuses wouldn’t help the wall stand against siege engines. The Prince’s captain of catapults was privately taking bets as to whether the curtain-wall could survive more than one good hit.
No, the obvious question facing Prince Kragen was not whether he could break into Orison, but rather how hard the castle would defend itself. The lady Elega had failed to poison Lebbick’s guards – but she had poisoned the reservoir, putting the badly overcrowded castle into a state of severe rationing. And as for King Joyse—He wasn’t just the leader of his people: he was their hero, the man who had given them identity as well as ideals. Now he had lost his mind. Leaderless and desperate, how fiercely would the Mordants fight?
They might find it in themselves to fight very fiercely, if Joyse kept his word. He had certainly lost his mind, there was no doubt about that. Yet he had met Alend’s demand for surrender with the one threat which might give heart to his followers: King Joyse intends to unleash the full force of the Congery against you and rout you from the Earth!
Elega didn’t believe that, but the Prince lacked her confidence. If Joyse did indeed unleash the Congery, then what happened to Alend’s army might be worse than a rout. It might be complete ruin.
So Prince Kragen held his troops back from the walls of Orison. Wearing his spiked helmet over his curly black hair, with his moustache waxed to a bold gloss that matched his eyes, and his longsword and breastplate exposed by the negligent way he wore his white fur robe, he was the image of assurance and vitality as he readied his forces, warned back the army’s camp followers, discussed weights and trajectories with his captain of catapults. Nevertheless every thought in his head was hedged with doubts. He didn’t intend to risk any men until he had to. He was afraid that he might soon need them all.
The terrain suited catapults. For one thing, it was clear. Except for the trees edging the roads, the ground was uncluttered: virtually all the natural brush had been cut away, and even the grass struggling to come out for the spring was having a hard time because of the chill and the lack of rain. And the roads weren’t in Kragen’s way: they met some distance outside Orison’s gates to the northeast of the castle, and the wound in the wall faced more toward the northwest. For another, Orison’s immediate setting was either level with or slightly lower than the positions of Alend’s army. As Prince Kragen’s military teachers and advisors had drummed into him for years, it was exceptionally difficult to aim catapults uphill. Here, however, the shot which actually presented itself to his siege engines was an easy one.
The lady Elega came to his side while the most powerful of the catapults was being loaded. His mind was preoccupied; but she had the capacity to get his attention at any time, and he greeted her with a smile that was warmer than his distracted words.
“My lady, we are about to begin.”
Clutching her robe about her, she looked hard at her home. “What will happen, my lord Prince?” she murmured as if she didn’t expect an answer. “Will the curtain-wall hold? The Castellan is a cunning old veteran. Surely he had done his best for Orison.”
Prince Kragen studied her face while she studied the castle. Because he loved her, even admired her – and because he was reluctant to acknowledge that he didn’t entirely trust a woman who had tried so hard to betray her own father – it was difficult for him to admit that she wasn’t at her best under these conditions. Cold and wind took the spark out of her vivid eyes, turning them sore and puffy; stark sunlight made her look wan, bloodless, like a woman with no heart. She was only lovely when she was within doors, seen by the light of candles and intrigue. Yet her present lack of beauty only caused the Prince to love her more. He knew that she did indeed have a heart. The fingers that held her robe closed were pale and urgent. Every word she said, and every line of her stance, told him that she was mourning.
“Oh, the wall will fall,” he replied in the same distracted tone. “We will have it down before sunset – perhaps before noon. It was raised in winter. Let Lebbick be as cunning and experienced as you wish.” Kragen didn’t much like the dour Castellan. “He has had nothing to use for mortar. If he took all the sand of the Congery – and then butchered every Imager for blood – he would still be unable to seal those stones against us.”
The lady winced slightly. “And when it comes down?” she asked, pursuing an unspoken worry. “What then?”
“When this blow is struck,” he said, suddenly harsh, “there will be no turning back. Alend will be at war with Mordant. And we cannot wait for thirst and fear to do our work for us. The Perdon is all that stands between us and High King Festten. We will make the breach as large as we can. Then we will fight our way in.” A moment later, however, he took pity on her and added, “Orison will be given every conceivable opportunity to surrender. I want no slaughter. Every man, woman, and child there will be needed against Cadwal.”
Elega looked at him, mute gratitude on her chafed and swollen face. She thought for a while, then nodded. “Castellan Lebbick will never surrender. My father has never surrendered in his life.”
“Then they must begin here,” snapped the Prince.
He believed that. He believed that the curtain-wall couldn’t hold – that apart from Imagery, Orison didn’t have the resources to withstand his assault. Yet doubts he could hardly name tightened their grip on his stomach as he ordered the captain to throw the first stone.
In unison, two brawny men swung mallets against the hooks on either side of the catapult; the great arm leaped forward and slammed against its stops; a boulder as heavy as a man arced out of the cup. The throw raised a shout of anticipation from the army, but Prince Kragen watched it go grimly. The flat smack of the mallets, the groan of stress in the timbers, the thud of the stops and the protest of the wheels: he seemed to feel them in his chest, as if they were blows struck against him – as if he could tell simply by the sound that the stone was going to miss.