When last we saw the worthy Sir Robert, two days ago, he was standing at the top of the castle of Corridane, waiting with his men for the time when the Naiberns would breach the gate. We must now return to him, and the day and hour at which we left him, to see what came of the attack.
Sir Robert and his men waited silently as the ram of the Naiberns continued to pound at the gates. The Naiberns knocked three more times before they finally broke through. At long last, as the shattered gates fell to either side, Naiberns began to charge into the city by the hundreds, fighting among themselves to get through.
They did not get far, though. The moment the vanguard showed themselves in the opening, the hidden Corridane archers loosed their shafts, laying many foes low in the passage. The archers took advantage of the confusion caused by their sudden counterattack to make their way across the planks that had been laid between the houses and hide themselves once more on the next roof behind the one they had just left, reloading their bows as they dropped flat once more, waiting for the next wave of attackers.
They were not kept waiting, as the next wave of attackers came swiftly on the heels of the first. This time, the Naiberns advanced far enough to pass the first houses, but were once more laid low by the shafts of the Corridanes, who were now positioned on the roofs in the second line.
Once again, the archers stood, retreated, and positioned themselves as they had before, moving backwards, and closer to the castle, with each street they crossed.
Sir Robert, who was watching the attacks from the top of the castle, was well satisfied with the progress that had been made, but did not expect it to last, and said as much. “It will not be long before our enemies grow wary of us, and approach with more caution. No man, seeing his comrades slain before him in such a manner more than once, will expect to survive himself unless he moves with more caution than they did. Are the men ready? Some man run to the rear wall and bring back word of how the men guarding that gate are faring.”
As a man ran to do what he had ordered, another appeared in his place saying “The men are ready, sir. They have been ready this hour and more.”
“The gates and ladders?”
“Those also are prepared. Your word only is awaited to release them.”
“Good. Send down to tell the archers that they may fire once more, but then must fall back to rejoin us here. The infantrymen will be warned to hold themselves in readiness.”
“What if the enemy sets fire to the houses? What will we do then?”
“That is a sacrifice we must make. It is enough that the women and children were able to escape the city under cover of darkness last night! We did not have time to provide a defense from fire to every house!”
“If it must be so in return for our lives, I am resigned.” the man answered in a dejected tone.
“Do not lose heart!” Sir Robert cried as the man turned away. “Mayhap they will not burn your house! Though if they do, it is easily rebuilt once we drive these foes away!”
Turning back toward the city, Robert saw that the enemies had widened the opening in the outer wall and were now pouring through the space in numbers far greater than the archers could hope to stem. As he watched, he spotted a runner make his way out to the nearest house. In moments, the man had scaled the ladder leaning against the wall of the building and dropped flat on the roof to approach the archer’s position on the far end. Robert was startled when the archer stood up with an arrow on the string and turned to face the messenger.
His fear was baseless, though, because a moment later, the archer turned and, firing his shaft toward the advancing foes, began retreating, with the messenger, across the building to where the ladder had been placed. In a few moments, he had reached the ground, taken his knife to the ladder to render it useless, and turned to run toward the castle. The other archers, seeing what he did, had soon followed his example.
The messenger, meanwhile, had disappeared within the house he had just climbed upon. Just inside the door, he met the five soldiers who had been stationed in the building. Wasting no time, he inquired whether they were prepared to play their part in the defense.
The soldiers answered that they were, and showed him the device that had been prepared. It can be best described by likening it to a sled, which had been turned on its side and given a third runner, with a thick log supported on the inner side for the purpose of supporting the barrier by wedging it against the walls of the buildings on either side of the street. The soldiers had also altered the door of the building to enable it to swing in both directions and so allow them and their device swift passage to the outside.
“You have done well. If all goes well, our enemies will pay a heavy price for their capture of the city. Do you remember the signal that was agreed upon? The foe is close upon us. You will be called on any moment.”
The soldiers replied that they did remember the signal, and drew their weapons, sliding their swift-moving barrier into a better position. They did not do so a moment too soon, either. The instant they had arranged themselves in the best manner to exit the building, a horn, the great horn of the castle, gave forth it’s deep note over the surrounding city.
“Your hour has come. Strike swiftly and hard!” cried the messenger.
Without reply, the soldiers charged out into the road, pushing their barrier along. Wedging it into the space they had prepared for it, they turned to face the band of enemies they had now trapped in the stretch of road between two houses.
Having been stationed at the end of the street, closest to the castle, these soldiers had had the task of closing off the bottleneck of their passage. At the moment that the great horn had sounded, bands of men had charged out of the last four buildings of every street leading from the ruined main gate to the castle, pushing their vertical sled barriers, to close off the passage once the foes had passed. They now turned to the work at hand.
Although huge numbers of Naiberns had penetrated the city to the point of the trap, the appearance of the barriers closing the exits instantly caused their numbers to become a danger to themselves rather than the Corridanes. When they heard the horn wind its note, they had rushed on eagerly, thinking that it was blown in distress. Thus, they had hurried on to the end of the road, hardly noticing that their path was growing narrower by the minute until the trap had been sprung. Now many of them stopped short in shock as the Corridanes and their barriers sprang out of the buildings on every side.
The Corridanes, on the other hand, went on the attack the instant they emerged, unfazed by the foes’ numbers. The men positioned at the narrow end of the path made quick work of the few foes who were in a position to reach them. By the time they reached the center, though, the going had become much harder. The core of the Naibern force had regained their senses and were now positioned in a square two ranks deep, prepared to fight like berserkers to save themselves and open the path once more.
The Corridanes, realizing this, advanced warily despite the fact that they had their foes surrounded. Their fear was well-founded, for just as a dangerous animal becomes even more dangerous due to the tension of close confinement, so did the Naiberns become even more dangerous in their current position, striking down several of the Corridanes who approached them. Their resistance could not last, though, as they were confined in a small area and separated from their companions by the barrier, and so it was not long before the Corridanes had overwhelmed their foes and turned away toward the castle.
While this was transpiring on the ground, Sir Robert was watching the progress of the defense of the rear wall. He could see that the twenty volunteers were still standing, surrounded by a mound which could only be their vanquished foes. Three of them had been injured, and were leaning against the wall as several others tended to them in the best way they could manage. The aid they were able to lend one another was not great, however, for, in vowing to fight to the death, they had vowed never to leave their position, not even to gain the momentary respite that leaving their feet would have allowed. A moment later, as Robert and others watched, a sentinel watching the gate gave a cry which caused even the injured men to raise their gear and take their places in the crescent-shaped line which extended out several feet from either side of the gateway.
It was then that Robert spotted the catapults which had finally been maneuvered around to the rear wall and prepared to fire. “They will smash the wall around our men and pour in unchecked! All our hopes now rest on the castle!” Even as he spoke, the machines opened fire, smashing huge sections of the walls, which were as thick as a man is tall, into fragments of various sizes which flew in all directions.
Through all this, the only indication that the guards had noticed any change in the situation was the fact that they straightened their line in order to cover a greater portion of the space which would soon open up before them.
No longer able to bear watching the men without sending them assistance of some kind, Sir Robert turned away from the rear and made his way back toward the front of the castle, turning and hastening down the steps which led to the main part of the building. Without pausing once, he hurried down through the fortress until he reached the storerooms, which were situated underground. When he arrived, he met two wardens, who had remained there throughout the day.
“You wardens! Can you promise that we will not run short of provisions? We will have to withstand a siege now!”
“No, we can not, and we speak the truth, as we have just gone through the stores for the eighth time in the past two days, having nothing more to do.”
“The news is good, then. For you can be sure that if the time comes when even you must fight, the castle will have been taken long since. And now, I must return to the world and the battle.” With that, Robert turned and strode away, without waiting for an answer. As he grew increasingly closer to the top once more, the sounds of the battle outside grew more distinct. Several times, he heard the twang of a bowstring a moment before he turned the corner and faced the man who had just fired the shot.
When this happened on the central level of the tower, the man turned to him and remarked “The villains are thick on the ground today, which may be as well. I am not skilled at this, but neither, for that matter, are half the men in the castle now. It’s learn or die, and I don’t intend dying, today or tomorrow. Good fortune be with you on the wall.”
“And with you also.”
Without pausing again, Sir Robert hastened to return to his place at the top of the castle wall. when he arrived, he found that the barricades in the streets had served their purpose, and as they could not be expected to work with such success again, had been cast aside, allowing the men who had rendered them useful to run toward the castle in gradually increasing numbers, until there were so many of them trying to get through the gate at one time that only the men at the front of the line could pass into the fortress without being squeezed tightly by their companions first.
The reason for this surprising struggle to reach the safety of the castle was that the Naiberns were now pouring in through the ruined gate and walls in greater numbers than ever before, and none of the Corridanes wished to stand futilely against such numbers when they had the opportunity to increase the collective strength of their own side by successfully reaching the castle. In a surprisingly short time, all the men had managed to gain entrance, while the discarded barriers and the increasingly narrow streets impeded the progress of their foes.
But the city, which had been designed in the way it had precisely to aid in its defense in case of attack, could not be expected to hold an enemy back for an indefinite length of time, as, by necessity, the street opened at both ends, and so only impeded enemies without stopping them for a moment. The problem was compounded by the fact that the space between the last house and the castle extended fifty feet in every direction, allowing the enemy ample space to maneuver, though they still could not bring rams or ladders near the walls without destroying all the houses in their path, a task which would take several hours, or even days, to complete properly.
When Robert saw that the last of the soldiers who had fought in the streets had made his way inside and come up to the top of the wall, he turned his back on the enemies massing outside the wall and exclaimed “You Corridanes! My Countrymen! Do you wish to fight for your country?”
A thundering cry came back from all the men within earshot of his words. “Yes!”
Then, Robert continued. “Would you die for your country, even if you had nothing left of that country but the ground you would be buried in?” This question received the same reply as the first.
“So you see that I am asking that you die for this castle! For it is all that is left in the whole of our great country that we may call our own, and we will die defending it! But our deeds will not go unhonored, for there are still Corridanes living, and they will return to this place and find our bodies strewn throughout the castle as a testament to our courage and loyalty to our land, which we will give even our lives for! I know what many of you are thinking! You are asking yourselves why! Why did the Captain of the Guard say he would lead the men out of the city, why did he not do as he said when the chance came? And I tell you why now! There is not a man in this castle who would have won honor for himself by following me straight onto the blades of the superior force which waited outside for us, and which has now broken its own way in! Thinking on what I said, I saw that I was wrong to say that anyone should flee, like a coward. I saw that if I did such a thing, I would waste the lives of thousands of loyal and brave men. So we did not try to leave. Instead, we took the advantage that had been given to us by our wise forefathers, and remained in the city they had built to protect their sons! If we had left, we would have faced the same difficulties our enemies do in attempting to take it from us! I spoke rashly, and it is likely most of you are still deciding whether I may be trusted to act on what I say to you now! And you see that, proving my loyalty to you and our king and country, I stand here with the rest of you, ready to die defending our home! Yes, we may die, but it is those Naiberns down below our feet who shall suffer! All of us together have five thousand lives to give! Those men down on the ground have hundreds of thousands of lives to give, and they shall pay with them all for this last piece of our country that they must take before they can claim to defeating us!”
At the conclusion of this speech, as the men cheered Sir Robert’s bold statement, he was struck where he stood by an arrow, which lodged in his left shoulder. Ignoring the pain, he pulled the missile out and sent it hurtling back down toward its caster. “If you can not kill a defenseless man, how can you expect to slay five thousand who are ready and waiting for you on the morrow?” He called down, adding this verbal shaft to the physical one he had just returned. The Corridane guards broke out into derisive laughter at this remark, as the nearest one attempted to put a bandage around Robert’s injury.
“Can you fight, my lord?”
“Of course I can, even if I couldn’t, I would not leave the wall for one moment if there was danger near.” replied Robert, disgusted with the man’s apprehension. Leaving his place, he made his way along the wall until he reached the rear and had a clear view of the city wall on that side, which twenty men had vowed to protect to the death.
Now, when Sir Robert looked out upon that place, he saw the gaping holes, which had been made by many machines aimed at a single section of that defense, and through which thousands of enemies now poured unopposed. Looking more carefully, Sir Robert could see the bodies of the twenty men, encircled by a ring of slain foes, the great height of which made the red uniforms of the Corridanes almost imperceptible behind the bulwark of black worn by the Naiberns.
Pointing them out to his men, Robert called out “See how many enemies they sent before them! If they could defeat so many, down on the earth with no walls to protect them, we shall be able to send so many more before us, as we stand behind this wall! The storm will break with the rising of the sun! Be ready!”
After arranging the men in the best way he could, Robert returned to the interior of the castle, turning his steps in the direction of the king’s chamber. When he reached the place, he went straight to Valun’s writing desk and sat down to write a note to his friends. He wrote the day’s date on the top of the page, and then began.
My Lord, it saddens me to say that when, or even if, you find this letter, if you do not venture onto the walls first, I ask that you take this as proof that, if I have not come out to greet you and your men on your return to your great city, it is because I will later be found on the top of the castle wall, alongside my men. We do not have the amount of provisions we need, but I have not told the men, lest they lose hope. A great force of Naiberns (I recognized their banner from afar) came and laid siege to your city three days ago. At about that time, the cowardly traitor John escaped from prison and fled with the princess by way of the rear gate. In that, I failed in my duty, but I sincerely hope that my defense of the castle will atone for all else that I have done, as I will not be able to defend myself against any more accusations by the time you see this letter. The Naiberns have since battered the walls and the gates down and are now camped within the city, filling the area between the houses and the castle. Our only advantage lies in the fact that they are unable to bring anything more dangerous than ladders alongside the walls, but their numbers must bring us down in the end. But we will give a good account of ourselves, and so I hope that you will not forget to give due honor to all those you find, and if you can, number our foes so that you may pass our story down to those who come after us. Your loyal friend and subject, Sir Robert, Captain of the Guards.
When he had finished writing this last message to his king, Robert rose and, taking the letter, sealed it and left it lying on the desk. As he departed from the room, his expression and mood completed the transition from that of excited, defiant, expectation to solemn resignation. “As long as we survive, we shall give a good account of Corridane courage.” he said again as he mounted the last flight of steps leading to the top of the wall, for what he imagined to be the last time.