The sun dropped below the hills several minutes ago, and though several of the trees lining them are still glowing, outlined with the sun, the sky is darkening rapidly, the forest turning from distinctly outlined trees to a dark, threatening smudge.
Standing on the city walls, I shiver in my chain armour. It was a cold day, and it’s going to be a colder night. At least the sky’s clear. Winter’s a miserable time to be at war, and rain or snow would only make it more so.
My breath steams in the air as I look out over the flat plain surrounding the city. A miserable time to be at war indeed, and no one in their right mind goes to war in winter. But then, no one’s ever accused the Clans of being in their right minds, and they fight in all seasons. There are only three of them out there, covering the plain, besieging us from all sides. It doesn’t matter though: one clan would be more than enough to wipe us out, since they all fight for the clan – men, women and any child big enough to wield a weapon. Frankly, it’s a wonder we’ve held out as long as we have against the three clans swarming about down there, but it won’t matter. We’ve finally realised that the Emperor won’t send us any reinforcements. Elðunswarð is keeping its legions close to home, or sending them to quell the growing unrest in the major trade centres. A small, stultifying backwater like us isn’t going to raise their interest, especially not all the way out here on the northern edge of the forest.
Three long, hard months of disease, privation and fear, our forces whittled down by the continued assaults of the clansmen, and it’s all been for nothing. Reinforcements should have arrived six weeks ago, even if they were crawling here. No-one’s coming. We should have accepted the clans’ terms, and lived (most of us, anyway). Instead we believed in the Emperor. Our pride and our belief in Elðuswarð have doomed us. We’re too few now to withstand another assault. When the clans attack tomorrow, we’ll meet our end in an orgy of blood and fire. The clans don’t occupy the cities they capture. They loot anything of value, exterminate the populace and raze the buildings.
I shiver some more and return to my useless patrol on top of the city walls.
I’m roused from my fitful sleep the next morning by shouts of wonder. Pulling my boots on and wrapping my cloak around me, I leave the barracks with the other off-duty troops and we shove our way through the curious crowds of civilians to the battlements where we look out in amazement over the plain.
The clans are gone.
The news spreads fast, and within the hour an impromptu party is taking place in the streets: the main square is filled with people drinking, dancing and some few are even fucking, so great is their relief.
The General doesn’t look pleased though, and I know why. The clans have never abandoned a siege before. They’ve been beaten, and run for their lives, but they’ve never just upped and left. And why would they start now? They had us beaten. A single attack, and they’d have swarmed over the walls like ants. Why would they just leave?
I turn around, away from the plain, ruined by thousands of fires and midden heaps, and find myself face to face with the General himself.
“Milord.” I say, bowing. “Give you joy.”
He ignores the greeting. “What’s on your mind?”
I hesitate, looking over the jubilant city streets, teeming with jubilant citizens.
“Captain?” The General prompts, sounding irritated.
“Why did they go, my lord?” I ask. “There’s no reinforcement army out there, come to raise the siege. We couldn’t have repelled another assault, and the clans must have known that. But they just left? Packed up, every man, woman and child, abandoned three months’ work, with the city about to fall?” I shake my head. “It makes no sense. Have you ever heard of the clans doing something like this?”
The general turns and looks out over the ruined plain.
“No. I haven’t. I don’t trust this any more than you do, Captain. How many of your men are fit for duty?”
“I’d have to check, my lord. But not many, I think. Less than half, certainly. A quarter, perhaps, if we’re lucky.”
The General nods. “It’s the same with all the divisions.” He sighs. “But I can’t call them back today, there’d be riots. And in any case, you’re right. If the clans assault again, we’ll lose, even with every able-bodied man on the walls. I’m giving the men liberty today, but I’ll send out the Watch this afternoon to announce a curfew. We’re back on the walls tomorrow. For today though, get yourself to a tavern. You’ve earned it.”
I bow again. “Yes, milord.”
The General turns and walks away, and I return to staring at the plain.
The Watch, it turns out, don’t get to finish notifying the citizens of the curfew. In the middle of the cloudy, drizzle-filled afternoon, as the sunlight begins to fade on another cold, wet midwinter day, and while the revels are still going strong in the streets, a deep, rhythmic booming comes from the forest to the north of the city.
A low, low bass, rumbling and reverberating in my chest. Not quite fading before the next booming note.
The populace don’t notice at first – the only people who hear it are myself and the few soldiers dedicated enough or sensible enough to keep to our posts until we’re sure the clans have gone. Or maybe we’re the foolish ones for not taking the opportunity to relax while we can, as it’s soon clear that the clans haven’t left at all.
About ten minutes after the drumming starts, the sound is joined by more booming from the east, south and west: all evenly spaced, but slightly out of time with each other, creating an otherworldly, overlapping polyrhythm like no drumming I’ve ever heard before. It’s completely alien, but oddly compelling, and it soon catches the attention of the crowding celebrants in the city below the walls. Acting like cold water, it immediately douses their ardour and within half an hour, the streets are empty, the citizens having returned home and the guardsmen, sober now or nearly so, crowding silent on the walls, staring out at the darkening, forbidding mass of the forest.
Their vigilance is soon rewarded. Just as twilight is fading finally into the full blackness of night, we spy a movement at the northern edge of the forest. The drumming, which has been ceaseless and unchanging, speeds up a little, creating a new, but no less disturbing, rhythm. The crowded men on the walls hold their breath – and I’m among them – as everyone senses something is about to happen.
Something does. A huge, towering mass of flame, dozens of feet high, erupts from the forest’s edge. The drumming continues unabated and, just as with the drumming, the pyre to the north is quickly joined by huge fires on the city’s other three sides.
The drum tempo increases again, each rumbling boom coming about three seconds apart now, and everyone stares harder into the night; although we can see nothing except the flame, hear nothing except the never-ending drums.
I don’t sleep that night – no one does – we simply stand motionless, staring at the flames, the drumming filling our ears and our bodies with its terrifying monotony until we’d swear we’ve never heard anything else.
The next day dawns, a flat and dirty grey, and I barely notice. I’m hardly capable of coherent thought after a full night of that unvarying rhythm filling my being. It doesn’t change at all during that day, either, and by early afternoon, the men are dropping in droves, falling exhausted to the stone flags on top of the wall. I manage to drag my attention away from the fire and shout an order to disperse, to return to the barracks. No-one pays any attention to me, and lacking the will to try to enforce my order, I stumble off to my own quarters and fall into a restless half-sleep, pursued by the omnipresent bass of those massive, invisible drums.
I wake with the acrid smell of smoke in my nostrils. Opening my eyes, I see a man stood above me and catch the glint of a blade. Instinctively I roll to the right, and feel a burning line of pain on the back of my neck. I snatch my knife from my belt and stand up just as my assailant is turning towards me. Lunging at him, I shove my knife into his side. A wordless bellow of hate and rage escapes my lips and with my free hand I grab his knife arm, which suddenly seems to have no strength. I pull my knife out of his body and stab him again, this time in the belly. He stiffens, and his eyes, mere inches from my own, grow wide, as though he was surprised, and I stab him again and again and again. When he falls backward onto the bed, I reverse my grip on the knife and plunge it into his chest as hard as I can.
Panting, I push myself away from him and collapse onto the floor. I can feel a warm wetness running down from my neck onto my back, but at least I’m alive. I stare at my arms, red to the elbows, and then at the dead man sprawled on my bed. The city has fallen! I think. The clansmen are inside the walls! It’s only as I get to my feet that I notice he’s wearing a guardsman’s uniform.
I look out of the window and see flames and smoke. The city is burning. I can see fighting in the streets. But none of the combatants look like clansmen.
I have time for a second of confusion before I hear a noise behind me and turn, the booming beat of the ever-present drums filling me, to see another guardsman, face suffused with an unthinking animal rage, walk through the doorway, a crossbow in his hand.
He begins to raise the weapon and I dive toward him, the drums feeding my own rage and lust for destruction.