Chapter One: The Shield
Bahn had climbed the Mount of Truth many times in his life. It was a green, broad-shouldered hill with gentle slopes, not overly high; yet that morning, hiking up the path that wound its way towards the flattened summit, it seemed steeper than it ever had before. He could not fathom why.
“Bahn,” said Marlee by his side, her hand in his tugging him to a stop.
He turned. His wife was gazing back along the path, her palm shielding her eyes from the sun. Juno, their ten-year-old son, struggled some way behind. He was small for his age, and the picnic basket he carried too bulky for his short arms. Still, he had insisted on carrying it on his own.
Bahn wiped sweat from his brow. In the moment his hand drew clear and cool air kissed his forehead, he thought: I do not wish him to see this today. And he knew then that it was not the hill that was steeper that morning. It was his own resistance to it.
An apple toppled from the basket, red and shiny as lip paint, and began to roll down the foot-polished stones of the path. Both parents watched as the boy stopped it with his boot, then cursed under his breath as he bent to pick it up.
“Need a hand?” Bahn called back, and tried not dwell on the money it had cost him for that single apple, or the rest of the precious food.
The boy replied with an angry, dark-faced glare. He dropped the apple back into the basket, hefted the load before continuing.
Thunder rumbled in the far distance, though there were no clouds in the sky. Bahn looked away from his son, tried to exhale the worry that seemed always to curdle in his stomach these days. He forced a smile onto his face. It was a trick he had learned in his years of fighting in the Red Guard; if he stretched his lips just so, his burdens would grow a touch lighter.
“It’s good to see you smile,” said Marlee, her brown eyes creasing at the edges. On her back, in a canvas sling, their infant daughter hung open-mouthed, asleep.
“It’s good to have a day away from the walls. Though I’d rather we were spending it anywhere but here.”
“If he’s old enough to ask, he’s old enough to see it. We can’t shelter him forever, Bahn.”
“No, but we can try.”
She frowned at that, but her hand squeezed harder.
Below, the city of Bar-Khos roared like a distant river. Gulls soared and dipped above the nearby harbour, wheeling in their hundreds like a snow storm in the far mountains. He watched them, a hand across his forehead, as they took turns to speed low and fast across the mirror-flat water, their reflections flying upside down between the hulls of ships. Sunlight speared from the surface. Dazzles painted it in burning gold. The rest of the city lay beneath a glamour of heat, the people small and indistinct as they made their way through streets cast deep by shadows. Bells rang from the domes of the White Temple, horns from the Stadium of Arms. In the air, hazy with dust, mirrors flashed from the baskets of merchant balloons tethered to tall towers. Beyond them, beyond the northern walls, an airship rose from the pylons of the skyport, heading east on its hazardous run to Zanzahar.
It seemed strange to Bahn, even now, that life could carry on as normal while the city teetered on the brink.
“What are you waiting for?” Juno panted as he caught up.
Bahn’s smile was a genuine one. “Nothing,” he said to the boy.
On days like this one, a crisping hot Foolsday in the high point of summer, it was common for people to climb out of the baking streets of Bar-Khos to seek refuge at the top of the Mount of Truth, where a park rose in tiers around its flattened summit, and where the breeze blew as a constant fresh breath from the sea. The path levelled off as it reached the park. Young Juno, more confident now with his load, took the opportunity to increase his pace, overtaking his parents, dodging past others strolling more sedately. Together, they skirted a narrow green where a group of children played with a kite; a fight was breaking out over who should fly it next. Past them, on a bench shadowed by a withered jupe tree, an old beggar monk sat with his bottle of wine while he talked to his dog. The dog seemed not to be listening.
Again, thunder rolled through the air, a sound more distinct now they were closer to the city’s southern walls. Juno glanced back at his parents. “Hurry up,” he shouted, unable to contain his excitement.
“We should have brought his kite along, for later,” said Marlee, as the children ceased their squabbling long enough to send their box of paper and featherwood into the wind.
Bahn nodded, but said nothing. His attention was fixed on the building that stood on the summit of the hill and the very heart of the park, its tall walls surrounded by hedgerows and occupied by hundreds of white-framed windows, reflecting sky or blankness depending on where he looked. Bahn reported to that building almost every day in his capacity as aide to General Creed. Without choosing to, he found his gaze running across the flank of the Ministry of War to where he knew the general’s office to be. He sought sign of the old man in one of the windows.
“Bahn,” chided his wife, as she tugged him along.
At last they came to the southern edge of the park. Juno wove between the people sitting amongst the long grasses, slowing with every step as he took in the vista below. He stopped. After a moment, the basket tumbled from his hands.
Bahn joined him by his side. He gathered up the spilled contents of the basket, then watched his son closely, much in the same way he had watched him take his first tentative, risky steps as a young child. The boy had been banned from visiting the hill on his own, and he had obeyed them. But in recent months he had begun to plead to be brought here. He had wanted to see for himself what the other children had been saying, why the hill was named the Mount of Truth.
Now he would always know.
On this southern-most edge of the tallest hill of the city, the sea could be seen to run both east and west along the coastline – and directly ahead, the long, half-mile-wide passage of land known as the Lansway, reaching out like a road towards the continent, a mere suggestion of contours and cloud barely visibly in the distance.
Across the waist of the isthmus, in sheer grey stone, stood the great southern walls of Bar-Khos known as the Shield.
The walls, which had protected the city from land invasion for over three centuries - and therefore the island of Khos, breadbasket of the Mercian isles - towered some ninety feet in height, and taller still where turrets rose from the battlements. They were old, old enough to have given the city its name of Bar-Khos, meaning the Shield of Khos in Trade. There were six of them in all. At least, there had been, until the Mannians had arrived with their flags waving and their declarations of conquest. Now, four stood blocking the Lansway, and two of those were recent constructions. Of the original, outermost one still standing, no gates or gateways remained. All entrances had been sealed with stone and mortar.
The Mount of Truth offered the highest vantage in the city. It was from here, and here alone, that the ordinary citizen could witness what faced the walls on the other side. His son, doing so now, blinked as his gaze roved out from the Shield to the Mannian besiegers arrayed like a white flood across the plain of the isthmus; the Imperial Fourth Army.
His young face was pale, his eyes widening with every detail they consumed.
The Lansway was covered by a city of bright tents neatly arranged in rows and quarters, with streets of wooden buildings dividing them. The tent city faced the Shield with countless lines of earthworks – gouges of dirt across a plain of worn yellow - and meandering ditches choked with black water. Behind the closest sequence of earthworks, like creatures basking in the heat of the sun, squatted the siege engines and newly fashionable cannon, belching smoke and noise as they fired at the city in a slow, unending regularity that had lasted – beyond everyone’s belief – for the last ten years.
“You were born on the day they first assaulted the walls,” Marlee said from behind, in a voice seemingly calm, as she unwrapped a loaf of honeyed keesh from the basket. “I went into labour early, and you came out no bigger than a farl. It was the shock of losing my father, I think. That was the morning he fell.”
The boy gave no impression of listening. What lay before him had seized his full attention; Juno, who normally pleaded to be told of the past, and had asked more than once of that day he was born - only to be told, every time, of bare facts with little context. Bahn and his wife each had their own reasons for not wishing to recall it.
Give him time, Bahn thought, sitting himself on the grass to study the scene with his own experienced eyes. Memories were stirring, unbidden, in the wake of his wife’s words.
Bahn had been twenty-three when the war had begun. He could still recall where he had been when news had first arrived of refugees flooding towards the city from the continent; the taproom of the Throttled Monk, still thirsty after his fourth black ale, fairly drunk already. His mood had been a foul one that afternoon. He’d had enough of his job as a shipping clerk at the city skyport, putting up with Jek, his foreman, a stumpy-legged little dictator of the worst kind, for a wage that barely saw he and Marlee to the end of each week.
The news, when it came, was delivered by a fat skins merchant just returned from the south, the man’s portly face bright scarlet, as though he had run all this way just to say what he said next. Pathia had fallen, he declared to them all. Pathia, their immediate neighbour to the south, traditional enemy of Khos – the very reason the Shield had been built in the first place. Around the taproom his words fell upon a sudden silence. As they listened, shock and wonder grew in equal measure. King Ottomek the Fifth, despised thirty-first monarch of the royal line of Sanse, had himself been foolish enough to be captured alive. The Mannians had dragged him screaming through the streets of conquered Bairat behind a galloping white horse, until his skin had been flayed entirely from his body - along with his ears, his nose, his genitals. Near death the king had been cast down a well, where he had somehow clung on to life for a night while the Mannians laughed down at his cries for mercy. At dawn, they had filled the well with rocks.
Even amongst the most hardened men in the room, such a fate drew muttered oaths and shakes of the head. Bahn grew fearful. This was bad news for them all. For the full length of his life, and more, the Mannians had been conquering nation after nation around the inland sea of the Midèrēs. Never before though had they been so close as this to Khos. Around him, the talk rose in volume; shouts, arguments, thin attempts at humour. Bahn pushed his way outside. He hastened for home, to his wife of barely a year. He rushed up the steps to their small damp room above the public bathhouse, and blurted all of it out in one desperate, drunken outpouring. She tried to soothe him with soft words. She made him chee, her hands miraculously steady. For a time - Bahn’s mind needing a release from itself - they made love on the creaking bed, a slowly passionate affair, her pitched gaze fixed on his.
Together, that night, they stood on the flat roof of the building, and listened with the rest of the inhabitants of Bar-Khos to the cries of the refugees pleading to be let in, thousands of them beyond the walls. From other rooftops, people shouted in their frustration for the gates to be opened; others, in hot anger, to let the Pathians rot. Marlee had prayed for the poor souls. He remembered that, how she had whispered under her breath to Erēs, the great World Mother, her painted lips made black by a strange casting of light from the twin moons hanging over the south. Oh mercy, Sweet Erēs, let them in, let them have sanctuary.
It was General Creed himself who had ordered the gates to be opened the next morning. The refugees flooded in bearing stories of slaughter, of whole populations put to the torch for their defiance against the invaders.
Even with such accounts, most in Bar-Khos considered themselves beyond harm. The great Shield would protect them. The Mannians would be busy enough with the newly conquered south.
Bahn and Reese carried on with their lives as best they could. She was expecting again, and taking it easy, cautious of risking another miscarriage. She drank infusions of herbs the midwife gave her and sat watching the busy street below, a hand splayed protectively over her belly. Sometimes her father would visit, still clad in his reeking armour, a giant of a man, his face hard, without flex, squinting with eyes weakened by age. His daughter was precious to him. He and Bahn would fuss over her until she snapped and lost her temper. It did not dissuade them.
Four months later, news came of an advancing Imperial army. The mood in the city remained much the same. There were six walls after all, tall and thick. Still, another call went out from the city council, asking for volunteers to fill the ranks of the Red Guards, which were still thin after the previous decades of peace. Bahn was hardly cut out to be a soldier. He was a romantic at heart though, with a wife and child and home to protect. In his own way he was stirred to act. He left his job without dramatics, simply not turning up one morning – a warm thrill in his belly, thinking of Rek the foreman having a tantrum at his absence. That same day Bahn signed up to defend the city. At the central barracks they handed him an old sword with a chipped blade, a red cloak of damp-smelling wool, a round shield, a cuirass, greaves and helm all much too large for him, and a single silver coin. He was told to report every morning to the Stadium of Arms for training.
Bahn had barely learned the names of the other recruits in his company, all as green and untrained as he was, when the Mannian herald arrived on horseback to demand the city’s surrender. Their terms were simple enough. Open the gates and most would be spared; fight, and all would be enslaved or slain. It was impossible, the herald announced to the high wall before him, to resist the manifest destiny of Holy Mann.
A trigger-happy marksman on the ramparts shot the herald from his mount. A cry rose up from the battlements. First blood.
The city held its breath, waiting for what was to come.
At first their numbers seemed impossible. For five days the Imperial Fourth Army assembled across the Lansway, tens of thousands stamping in ordered procession, spreading out to build their colony of tents, earthworks, guns, mammoth siege towers, before the collective gaze of the defenders.
Their barrages began with a single screeching whistle.
On the morning of the first assault, Bahn was standing with the other raw recruits behind the main gates of wall one, a heavy shield hanging from his arm, a sword in his trembling hand. He had not slept. All night the Mannian missiles had crashed down around them, and horns like wild banshees had sounded from the Imperial lines, fraying his nerves to tatters. Now in the early dawn he could think of only one thing: Reese at home with her unborn child, worried sick over her husband and father.
The Mannians came like a wave cresting over cliffs. With ladders and siege towers they attacked the ramparts in a single crashing line; Bahn, from below, watched in awe as white-armoured men launched themselves over the battlements at the Red Guard defenders, their battle cries like nothing he had ever heard before, shrill ululations that seemed barely plausible from human throats. He had heard how the enemy ingested narcotics before a battle, in order to increase their speed and strength, most of all to dispel their fears; and indeed they fought in a frenzy, without regard for their own lives. Their ferocity stunned the Khosian defenders. The lines buckled, almost broke.
It was butchery, murderous and simple. Men slipped and pitched from the heights. Blood flowed from the gutters carved in the parapet, like the run-offs of a crimson rain. His father-in-law was up there somewhere, in amongst the grunts and hollers of collision. Bahn did not see him fall.
In truth, Bahn failed to use his sword even once that day. He did not even come face to face with the enemy.
He stood shoulder to shoulder with the other men of his company, most of them strangers to him still, every face that he saw white, drained of spirit. The noise of the battle robbed him of breath; he felt a sickness take hold of his body, like a sense of freefall. Bahn held his sword in front of him like a stick. It may as well have been a stick, for he did know how to use it.
Someone’s bowels had loosened nearby. The stench of it hardly inspired courage in the men; it inspired only an urge to run, to be away from there. The recruits shook like colts wanting to bolt from a fire.
Bahn did not know what it was that breached the gates in the end. One instant the gates were there before them, massive and stout, seemingly impregnable. Rall the baker was jabbering by his side, something about his helm and shield being his own, how he had bought them from the bazaar, words that Bahn could barely hear. The next instant, Bahn was on his back gasping for air, his face stunned to numbness, a high-pitched ringing in his ears as he tried to remember who he was, what he was supposed to be doing, why he was staring at a milky blue sky obscured with rolling clouds of dust.
He lifted his head. Grit pattered all around him. Old Rall the baker was in his face, eyes and mouth open wider than they had any right to be. The man was holding up something - the stump of his arm, the hand still dangling from a length of tendon. Blood jetted in an arc that caught the slanting sunlight, almost pretty in that moment. Pain came to Bahn then. It stung the torn flesh of his cheeks, and at once he could feel the air of Rall’s screaming against his face, though he couldn’t hear him. He looked to the gates between the legs of men still on their feet. He found himself staring over a carpet of meat, of gristle, movement in amongst it. The gates were gone. White shapes jumped through the smoke, howling as they came.
Somehow, he staggered to his feet as survivors from his company ran to fill the breach. It seemed like madness to Bahn. Farmers and stall-keepers in ill-fitting armour, rushing straight at killers intent on hacking them down. His eyes burned with what he saw; the impetus, the nerve of them, when all about their comrades lay open to the sky, or stumbled unhinged from their senses, jostling to be away. It roused something within Bahn. He thought of the sword in his hand, and of running to help those fellows, too few of them, trying to stop the tide.
But no, he no longer had his sword. He looked about for it, frantic, and saw old Rall again, on his knees, screaming up at him.
What does he want of me? Bahn had thought wildly. Does he expect me to fix his hand?
At the gates the defenders were being cut down like wheat. They were recruits, inexperienced. The Mannians were not. Behind Bahn a sergeant yelled for the men to stand firm, foam flying from his mouth as he shoved at their backs and tried to form a line. No one listened to him. Those around Bahn started to panic. They pushed against him, cursing, crying out, wanting to flee.
He knew it was hopeless then. He couldn’t find his sword. There were other blades lying amongst the debris, but not one with the right number on the hilt – and it was vital, for some reason just then, to find the right one. Perhaps if he had done so he would have died that day. Instead, in the scattered moments he spent searching in vain, the urge to fight drained away from him. He wanted more than anything else to see Reese again. To see their child when it was born. To live.
Bahn grabbed old Rall and hauled him over his shoulder. His knees buckled; fear loaned him strength. With the rest of the panicking men he allowed himself to be jostled back towards the gates of wall two, faces glancing back over shoulders, over Bahn’s shoulders, no talk or shouting from them now, simply panting. Even Rall stopped yelling and thanked him, would not stop thanking him. His words shook with the bounce of Bahn’s footfalls.
It was a full rout. Hundreds of men raced across the killing ground, casting arms and shields aside as they went. The distance was several throws to wall two. The old baker grew heavier on his back, so that Bahn’s stride slackened and he fell behind the main mass. Rall shouted to move faster, that the enemy were close behind. Bahn hardly needed telling. He could hear the Mannians baying in pursuit.
They were the last to get through before the gates were closed and sealed. Men remained trapped on the other side. They pounded for the gates to be opened. They shouted of how they had wives and children at home; they cursed, and pleaded.
The gates stayed closed. Bahn lay in a heap and listened to the shouting on the other side, more grateful than anything else in the world that it was not him out there.
He closed his eyes, overwhelmed. For a long time, face-down in the dirt, he had wept.
A gust swept across the Mount of Truth, warm and humid. Bahn exhaled a breath of stale air and returned to the hill and the summer’s sunlight, and his son staring down at the walls.
“Drink?” asked Marlee, as she handled her husband a jug of cider, her motions slow so as not to wake the child on her back. Bahn’s mouth was parched. He took a drink, held a mouthful of the sweet cider before swallowing. He followed his son’s gaze.
Even now, as he and the boy watched on, the occasional missile struck or rebounded against the outermost rampart facing the Imperial army. A slope of earth fronted the wall now, deflecting or absorbing such shots - one of the innovations that had allowed them to draw out the Mannian siege for this long. Still, the structure was sagging in places, and the battlements gaped like toothless mouths where sections of stone and crenulations had fallen. Along these ragged battlements, an almost unperceivable line of red-cloaked soldiers huddled against the surviving cover; amongst them, crews operated fat ballistae and cannon, firing back at the Mannian lines.
Behind the other three walls, more heavily garrisoned in comparison, cranes and labourers could be seen erecting yet another. So far, four walls had fallen to the never-ending barrages of the enemy – at a staggering material expense for the Mannians. In response, the defenders had succeeded in building two new ones to replace them. They could not erect ramparts indefinitely, however. The newest construction was close to the straight line of the canal, which cut across the Lansway to connect the two bays. Not far beyond the canal, the Lansway ended at the Mount of Truth, and beyond that the city. It was clear they were running out of room.
His son was peering down at the wall under fire. Along its battlements, between the cannon, ballistae, and the occasional long-rifle firing down in reply, men laboured with cranes as they raised great scoops of earth and rock. Some were dropping out of sight over the far side on ropes, while others tipped the contents of the crane’s scoops over the side. Even as they watched, a group of men pulling on ropes fell amidst a cloud of flying debris.
“Look there,” said Bahn, drawing his son’s attention away from the sight, and pointed out the structures dotted around the killing grounds between the walls. They looked like towers, though they were open on all sides and not tall. “Mine shafts,” he said. “The Specials are fighting every hour down there, trying to stop the walls from being undermined.”
At last Juno looked down at his father.
“It’s different, from what I was expecting,” he said. “You fight there every day?”
“Some days. Though there are few battles anymore. Just this.”
His words appeared to impress the boy. Bahn swallowed, turning away from what he saw as pride in his son’s eyes. Juno had already known that his grandfather had died defending the city. Even now he wore the man’s short-sword about his waist; when they returned home, he would no doubt insist that his father give him more lessons in its use, while asking endless questions about his experiences as a soldier, most of which Bahn would refuse to answer. The boy talked often of how he would follow in his footsteps when he was old enough, but Bahn didn’t wish to encourage such ambitions. Better his son ran off to be a wandering monk, better even to sign up on a leaky merchanter, than stay here and fight to the end.
Juno seemed to read his mood. Softly, he asked, “How long can we hold them off?”
Bahn blinked, surprised. It was the question of a soldier, not a boy.
He almost lied to his son then, even though he knew it would be an insult to the boy’s growing maturity. But Reese was sitting just behind them, his wife who had been raised to face the truth no matter how unpalatable it might be. He could sense her keen ears listening to the silence before his reply.
“We don’t know,” he admitted, as he shut his eyes momentarily against another gust of wind. Bahn tasted salt on his lips, like the remnants of dried blood.
Juno was staring again at the walls and the Mannian army that confronted them. He appeared to be studying the countless banners visible on both sides, the Khosian shield or Mercian whorl on a sea-green background, dozens of them along the ramparts; the Imperial Red Hand of Mann, the tip of the end finger missing, stamped against a field of white - hundreds hanging staked out across the isthmus. The boy’s skin clung thin and tight to his face.
“There is always hope,” said Marlee to her troubled son.
Juno looked to his father once more.
“Yes,” agreed Bahn. “There is always hope.”
But as he said the words, he could not meet his son’s eyes.