Elrond of Rivendell watched impassively as the first crate was opened.
"There you are," the uruk lieutenant said, stepping back smartly. "Twenty-five rifles in that crate, twenty-five in the next one over. Two hundred and fifty rounds per rifle, in the other four crates. And fifty inert cartridges, for reloading drill."
"My thanks, then." The elf lord gestured, and his son Elladan stepped forward.
Elladan picked up the top rifle, inspected it slowly and carefully, then turned to the lieutenant. "Demonstrate, please."
"My pleasure." The uruk removed his own rifle from the sheath. "This here is the trigger safety – it prevents the rifle firing when you're not ready for it to. It goes in here, and is made ready to fire thus."
He then worked the lever, opening the chamber and revealing that it was empty. "We carry them unloaded, unless we expect trouble. Scouts tend to carry them loaded. To load, the round has to be pushed down into the chamber, like so."
Elladan watched as the brass round slid down the ramp into the chamber, and then the block was raised to seal the breech.
"This gun is now ready to fire. But, for safety, treat them all as ready to fire unless you've got the breech open and a cleaning rod going from there to the barrel. Firing is simple, just pull the trigger."
The hammer clicked on one of the dummy rounds.
"Pull the lever like this to open the chamber, which ejects the spent round. A new round goes in the same way as the first one, return the lever to the closed position, and fire again.
"Now, aiming. This is a ladder sight..."
The birds took flight as a series of cracks echoed from the mountains around Rivendell.
"Well, that's better than most recruits do..." the lieutenant said, squinting through the powder-smoke haze. "That'll be enough for most fights, and you'll get better with experience. 'course, you can't get accuracy better than the weapon will manage, but that looks pretty close."
Elladan nodded, coughing, and waved away the clouds of smoke. "Is it always this smoky?"
"Yep," the uruk replied. "Worse the more gunners there are, and better in more wind. Bit better if it's cold, too, if the air's still. It rises."
"Like wood-smoke from a fire. I see." Elladan safed the rifle, hands moving with care on the unfamiliar catch, and grounded it. "What about the bayonets?"
"Well, that's more in the way of how they're to be used for infantry, really. They attach like so, and then it's more like using a short spear than anything. But as you lads are mostly cavalry, you'll want to use your swords, I'd imagine."
The lieutenant then frowned. "Actually, that reminds me. We should make sure your horses can be steady when they hear the thunder of the guns."
"I am sure they will," Elladan said calmly. "Elven steeds are wiser than other horses, and they will not balk when they have had a chance to become used to it. We will stable them near the firing... range?" He checked the unfamiliar usage, and received a nod. "That should work."
"Well, it's your funeral if it doesn't work..." The uruk shrugged. "Right, we'll call that a day, then. I'm eager to get home to Isengard, to tell you the truth."
Elladan raised an eyebrow.
"It's cold up here," he received by way of explanation. "Much colder than I'm used to. It's warm all year round in the tunnels under Isengard."
A crow flared his wings, shedding most of his speed, and landed on Marek's shoulder.
"What is it?" he asked, turning his head. His warg grumbled as his weight shifted, but maintained her steady pace.
"Sir – Dorwinion has fallen."
Marek blinked. "What?"
After a moment, he shook his head. "No, I heard, and I imagine you'd have corrected yourself if you misspoke. Oh, brilliant... did you see how it was done?"
"I... believe I did, though I don't fully understand."
"Right. Okay, come with me, I'll go tell Brand."
"That's one of the most... audacious moves I've heard of in a long while," the Earl of Ilanin said, once the tale was told.
"That hardly captures the scale of it, though, does it?" Prince Brand asked, staring at the map laid out on a small trestle table. "I thought he was withdrawing fast..."
"Hell of a risk," Marek added. "If they hadn't been taken in, and had decided to hold out..."
"Victories open doors." Earl Ilanin punched his fist into his other palm with a loud smack. "Even fake ones."
Kadphises, having been repelled at the Battle of the Ford, had headed at maximum speed back to Dorwinion the city with most of his cavalry and as many infantry as he could fit on carts and riding alongside his cavalry. Once there, he'd essentially run a colossal bluff – bringing out the luxuries from his own tent as though they were war booty from the Dale army, casually showing off every scrap of Dale war materiel he'd captured on campaign so far, even having the army's fabric workers make up two dozen ersatz 'captured' Dale banners.
The image had been of an army that had won a victory against the relieving force, albeit at considerable cost, and the nerve of the Dorwinion garrison had broken. They'd managed to get good terms – stack arms, march west, and a week's parole – but their surrender had given Kadphises a city ready to withstand a siege.
After a few more seconds, Brand turned to Marek, all businesslike. "Right. We built that city to withstand a year's siege from the Easterlings. I couldn't break into it in less than six months, with trebuchet. What can your guns do?"
"Not a lot," Marek admitted with a frown. "They'd tear down a low curtain wall in a few days, but we don't have the ammunition to pull that off. We left Isengard with two basic loads – two hundred rounds of ammunition per man, one hundred and fifty per gun, and a reserve for the rapidguns. We're pretty much down to one basic load now, and the types of ammunition for the big guns are a bit mixed – time fuze, impact, cannister."
He squared his shoulders. "Get us over the wall and we'll rip them to shreds, I think. But that's the problem, of course."
"Yes." Brand frowned, then tapped his chin. "And against a sally?"
Marek grinned. "Dog meat."
"Right. Well, the best we can do is to encircle the place, I suppose. Then see what to do next. Oh – Berlin, send out a cavalry squadron to contact the Dorwinion garrison, we can use them and we've got enough weapons to spare. And send a messenger upriver to Ilanin to let them know we're going to need a further shipment of weapons if we're to arm the local militia as we were planning, for the counterstrike..."
Kadphises stood on the wall of Dorwinion, watching as the Dalesman army approached.
Their cavalry had encircled the city hours before, and after a number of nasty clashes with the damnably effective longbow-armed dragoons the Dale used as their outriders, he'd ordered all the raiding parties back into the walls. He could ill afford to lose cavalry, after all, he had little enough left after the battle further upriver.
But now... the Dale army were blowing their horns, and deploying from line of march into a looser formation which was ready to close up in an instant. Already, there were spades flying as their sword regiments began to dig, forming the foundations for a wall of countervallation and a wall of circumvallation.
The Sahrdhan clenched his fist. If this were happening towards the end of the year, he'd have been laughing – a reinforcement could have been scheduled from the east, and they would have broken the siege before he was in any trouble. As it was, he wasn't sure how it would go.
"Master sergeant," Prince Brand began.
The sturdy noncom, one of the senior NCOs of the Dorwinion garrison, looked nervously at the retainers seated beside his prince. "Sir, I-"
"No, don't worry," Brand smiled. "No formality. I just want to know one thing, Troop."
The prince leaned forward in his seat. "What happened two days ago?"
"Not sure I ought to say, sir." The master sergeant's hands curled around where his sword would have been, had he not had to surrender it. "I-"
Brand slammed a fist on the table. "Damnit, man," he interrupted, voice low but forceful. "The strongest garrison town in the entire vale gave up without a fight. I want to know why, I want to know who screwed up, and most of all, I want to be sure who among you will stand like men in the coming battle!"
The words hung in the air for several seconds.
"Right," Brand said, more calmly. "Now, if you please. When Kadphises arrived, what happened?"
Drums rolled across the windswept grass.
"Men of Dorwinion," Brand began. "Three days ago, an army from the East approached these walls. That army was one that had been defeated in open battle only days before, by the army you see around you. Yet, when this army arrived, it passed within the walls of your city without struggle, and without casualties."
Brand's voice was almost pleasant. "This is cowardice-in-the-face. This is treason. This is surrendering your city to an enemy unfought, when you had the opportunity to hold until the walls were breached according to the rules and customs of warfare."
There was a slight rustling in the ranks of the former garrison. None spoke.
"The traditional punishment for this failing is decimation." One man in ten selected by lot, and the other nine forced to beat him to death with clubs. "However, as a battle approaches and I have no wish to deprive myself of five hundred men unnecessarily, the sentence is deferred."
"Impress me, and I may not execute punishment."
"However, I must first discuss matters with one of your number. Earl Dorwinion, step forwards."
For a heartbeat, no movement took place. Then, as though he was being dragged, an armoured man stepped forward to stand before his prince.
"Earl." Brand looked the man up and down. "What oath did you swear, to my father?"
The earl's mouth worked. On the second try, he began through dry lips. "Here do I swear fealty and service to King Bard. In peace or war. In living or... dying. Fr… from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death… take me."
Brand nodded. "That is correct."
He drew a small dagger from a sheath on his hip. It was a tiny thing, with a blade barely three inches long.
He passed the weapon to the earl. "Your sentence will be passed in one hour." Brand made eye contact. "You should shave, and prepare to meet death."
Earl Dorwinion swallowed, and nodded jerkily. Then turned towards his tent, and walked off the field, not giving notice to anything around.
"Why did you do that?" Marek asked, as they pored over a map.
"Sorry?" Brand looked up. "Oh, the earl."
Marek nodded. He'd seen the earl's body taken for burial – a red gash across his throat from ear to ear.
"Well..." Brand stretched. "Disloyalty and treason should be punished with execution, the confiscation of the estates and lands, and the body thrown into an unmarked grave. And what he did was cowardice-in-the-face, which is close enough to treason for such an important fortress I'd have to try him for oath-breaking. But the trial was never held, the sentence never passed."
The prince sighed, looking older. "So he died in a shaving accident before being brought to trial, and as with no sentence he's not legally guilty... his son can inherit."
Marek frowned, considering this. "Seemed to be an awful risk, though. Arming someone who-"
"I knew he wasn't actually treacherous," Brand commented. "But the rule of law applies to everyone – the last thing a ruler can afford to be is arbitrary."
The uruk nodded soberly, absorbing that. It was strange to think in terms of dynasties, rather than individuals...
"Sorry about the distraction," he said eventually. "What about if we place four guns here? Roll them back behind the hill, and approach it like so, and they shouldn't be observed until they're run forward to fire. Then..."
After a short pause, the council of war in Minas Tirith reconvened.
"Assuming we do get these rifles you mention," Boromir began, "who would be the best choice to take them? I mean, should I equip a squad in each company, or..."
"I believe the best option is to make sure battalions are homogenously equipped," Saruman advised. "Any rifle is an effective weapon on its own – with bayonets, the users have both an effective melee weapon and a devastating ranged weapon – and you can use the unconverted units as similarly homogenous units. As for who to convert first..." Saruman frowned, summoning up his knowledge of the forces of Gondor. "My advice is to hold off on re-equipping rangers or blackroot vale men. Rifles are only a little better than an expertly handled longbow, and you can use the longbowmen well enough. No, the best choice might actually be archer militia – and regulars, of course. The ones who use shortbows."
Boromir frowned, then brightened and nodded. "I think I see. They're going to be the ones with good eyesight, at least hopefully, so they can adapt most easily."
"That's correct." Saruman tapped a finger on the stonework. "You should also start raising horses around the sound and fury of gunpowder, because I would also advise equipping some of the knights of Gondor and of Dol Amroth with revolvers in addition to their current weapons."
"But... the revolvers use your rounds, don't they?" Boromir checked. "I thought the aim was to reduce dependence on the forges of Isengard, and allow Gondor to supply her own weaponry."
"Other kinds of cavalry weapon just aren't easy enough to use," Saruman explained. "I can supply some such rounds, but reducing their use is all to the good, you are correct. Similarly, I suspect the better option for artillery would be to use an Isengard artillery train."
"I see." Boromir mulled that over.
Saruman rose to leave.
"Oh, before you go," Boromir said, "did you manage to prise some support free for the expedition to Umbar?"
"Ah, yes." Saruman looked eastwards, out the window high in the White Tower. "Raza's infantry regiment is holding Osgiliath, Kerkú is headed for Cair Andros to reinforce them – and to establish contact with Aragorn – before heading for the Gates, and Mauhúr is retained here as a strategic reserve... but I can certainly give you Geren's regiment. The Stormwind, about thirty down from establishment, and their artillery."
For a moment, Saruman looked off into the distance, as Central painted images over his eyes.
"Remember that they're cavalry, and warg cavalry at that, so they'll take a lot of transports – and talk to his artillery commander, as well. If there's some well-found ships, he could mount the artillery pieces on them to give you a useful punch at sea..."
"Cap," a soldier whispered. "Cap, el-tee says you should come."
The infantry captain stood, putting his mug of hot milk down on a short table. "Right," he replied, only slightly louder, and slung on his pistol and helmet. "That's lieutenant Grenster?"
"Yes, sir," the soldier replied. "Says there's a boat movin' on the far shore."
"Well, I'll be along in a minute." The captain frowned. "Hmmm... tell the lieutenant that he's to engage if the boat looks to cross before I get there, otherwise wait for me."
"Looks like one of the barges, captain," Grenster replied. "Guess we missed one."
"Or they put one together out of the ruins of the ones we destroyed... right. Gun two, load contact. Take the time to make your shot count... then fire for effect."
The gunners grinned. They'd worked over the section of water around the old bridge several times over the last few days, and by now they knew it well enough to have most of it ranged in.
"Third pillar," the number two man muttered. "That's left half a point... there. Ready to fire."
His superior nodded. "Fire."
The Anduin belched a spearhead of fire and rocked backwards, ran up a curved earthen rampart, and rumbled back down again nearly into battery – saving considerable time on the part of the gun crews, who hauled the gun the final few feet back into battery and began reloading.
"Hit, sir!" Grenster reported, adjusting his telescope. "Straight through the side."
"Hold fire," the captain ordered, before the gun could shoot again. "That's not going to stay afloat, and we need to save the ammo."
"Yessir," the gun commander acknowledged, saluting. "Pleasure working with a man who knows his business."
"The pleasure is mutual, gunner."
The flickering of firelight a mile or so distant marked the end of another attempt to resupply the cut-off Mordor forces in western Osgiliath.
They wouldn't have time to make many more. The orcs were already eating their own dead, and fights were breaking out even over those unpromising morsels.
"Ancestors," a dwarf muttered, staring at the plans in front of him. "And I thought the first one was big..."
"Nah, that was a toy compared to this one," a human replied, with a grin. "Right, the good news is, now we've got the pioneer line, we can build this one from several places at once. Blanket first. Okay, we've got about twenty thousand to work on it, so if we start in five places and spread out from those we've got ten work-fronts at once. They should only have to make about eighty miles each, to reach the first base-camp, and once that's set up we can build out towards Cair Andros and Minas Tirith..."
Karenna adjusted his scimitar-belt, frowning into the darkness.
Nothing. Just like the Dalesmen had done nothing for the last four days.
And with the regular inspections the tossers in charge were insisting on, he couldn't get a bit of stealthy sleep on watch. No, it was four hours for him, then a brief snatched sleep before patrolling the city by day. Impressing on the men of Dorwinion that they were under Rhun control.
Bloody fucking waste of time, he thought. Everyone worth the effort to throw them off the battlements ran off with the garrison.
He reached the end of his wall-pace and turned, heading back along the wall. The Azadan insisted on it. No man on patrol should be sitting like a sack! Though they all just sat in their cozy rooms, in houses, and ate well while the rest of the army were on rations.
At least the rations were large enough. He'd not eaten so well in years-
A red flash out to the west caught his eye – a momentary, firey spike taller than a man, reaching to the heavens.
"What-" he began, turning towards the flaming spear. It was already falling back as he turned.
But there'd been something inside it. Karenna didn't see it very clearly – just a flicker of movement, heading straight up – and didn't really understand it. But now that he looked closer, let the corner of his eyes fall on it, there was a tiny little spark of light headed straight upwards.
It slowed, hung there for a moment-
And the sudden light stabbed needles of pain into his eyes.
Karenna, unlike most of the sentries and wall-walkers, had not paused to gawk. Through chance, or a sense of duty, or just plain unconscious reflex, he'd continued moving, and the arm he flung up to shade his eyes from the actinic glare coming from directly overhead meant his pace checked.
Which saved his life.
Ugbrag closed one eye as the star shell bloomed overhead. His rifle went from up and resting on his knee, and adjusted minutely to track the target he'd already had a vague idea of.
His left knee was on the wet grass, with the dew soaking through his uniform trousers again. It seemed to be how fighting was going to be, here in the far north.
Mind, it was getting on for summer. Winter was going to be a stone-plated bitch.
When he was sure of his sight picture, he squeezed the trigger.
Around him, others of his company fired their own rifles. No meticulous volley this – the shots were more of an extended crackle, as each uruk fired when they had a target. It sounded like a bundle of dry sticks being broken.
"Ah, bugger," he muttered, as one of the figures on the battlements dove for the floor – his chosen target. "Missed the bastard."
A trumpet snarled.
"All right," the corporal called. "Back to camp, on the double!"
Ugbrag stood, slung his rifle, and fell into a compact column with the other uruks of his squad. That squat box of nine soldiers coalesced with the others of its platoon, and then its company, until over a hundred riflemen were moving back from the east wall of Dorwinion.
Ahead, more rifle shots winked. Single aimed shots, now, as sharpshooters from another company sniped at the men who stood to the walls.
"How'd you do?" an uruk asked him between measured, quick breaths.
"Missed," Ugbrag replied with a wince.
"Happens." The fellow rifleman shrugged. "Bet they won't be so happy to walk the walls now, though."
Ugbrag chuckled, then grinned. "Yeah."
"Alright," Kadphises grated, as the dawn light broke over Dorwinion.
His eyes were pouched with lack of sleep, and there was a hard glitter in his eyes.
"I have had it up to the neck of a horse with these infernal fire-weapons," he began, still with a dangerous calm to his voice. His men, more used to outbursts than this slow-burning anger, shifted uneasily around the map table.
"How many men did we lose?"
"Five hundred," his commander of infantry replied, not looking much more awake himself. "Most of them in the first attack. The second one was halfway through the second shift, so the men up on the walls were... less alert than they could have been – that's why we lost anyone at all that time."
The middle-aged infantry commander fell silent, eyes dropping to the floor. No-one else spoke, trying to avoid the gaze of their commander.
"Five hundred," Kadphises repeated. "And most of them dead with holes in their head a deghan could shoot an arrow cleanly through."
He scowled, rubbing his temples. "Okay. We didn't know they had that... silmaril," he said, naming the weapon for the captive stars western legends spoke of. "Now we do. What do we do about it?"
"No patrols?" a Vurzugan suggested. "Keep the men off the walls."
Kadphises whirled. "Fool of a dog! If we do that, the westerners can storm the walls by night!"
The luckless noble flinched.
"If I must, I will lose more infantrymen! I will lose five hundred infantrymen every day if it will keep this city in the hands of the Khan!"
"We cannot keep the city in the Khan's hands if we lose five hundred infantrymen a day," the cavalry commander said, clearly. "Our enemy outnumbers us. We must keep enough men ready to defend along the whole line of the wall, or they may storm over all along it."
Kadphises shot a glance at his commanders, then subsided. "Very well. But we must maintain the patrols. Or we are stormed sooner instead of later."
Kadphises' aide, a young man of a good suhrdhan family not yet old enough to ride with the dehgans, raised a hand. "Noble sirs?"
"What is it, youngster?" the cavalry commander asked.
"Well... could we not build wooden shielding to go atop the battlements?"
The aide darted quick glances at his commander as he spoke, then began to speak more boldly as official displeasure did not strike him down. "If we put arrow slits in them – I mean, small horizontal slits, or cross-shaped ones to see better through them – then those weapons of theirs can't strike our wall-walkers."
Kadphises stroked his chin, frowning with interest. "Go on."
"Well, if we get the wood from Dalesman houses – smash the ones who are making the most noise, to teach them a lesson..."
Eight Easterling soldiers marched down the street, halberds in both hands, driving a civilian work detail before them carrying wooden planks from a destroyed house.
Several of the civilians had bruises on their shoulders or black eyes or missing teeth, from the slamming impact of a weapon butt or mailed fist. They bore their weight stolidly, but with a certain sullenness.
A few feet back from the window of his house, Elbert Wellson scowled at the chink of light and what it revealed.
The damn Easterners were tearing up the city, mistreating civilians... he'd hated the idea of opening the gates, everyone had, but there'd at least been the hope that the city would be spared the chaos of a sack.
Now the halberd-men were giving orders that had to be obeyed, and quickly – at least three bodies testified to that – while the few enemy horse-men were taking the best of the wine and food of the city for themselves.
And as many young women as they could find, as 'entertainment'.
"Get away from there," his wife chided, fussing over the lunch-table.
He didn't respond for a long time, hands tightening. Then turned with an impatient movement, and sat.
"This is getting ridiculous," Elbert announced, as his wife put the bread and cheese on the table.
"I know it is, dear." She sat heavily, and cut a slice of the cheese. "But what can we do? You're going to get yourself conscripted into those gangs if you keep this up – they'll rip our house down as well!"
Elbert sighed, and quickly downed some of the cheese himself.
"There might be something," he mumbled around the food. "I've been talking with Willem and Mahk, at the stables."
His wife looked lost for a moment. Then shook her head. "No," she said, pleadingly. "You can't – it'd be suicide!"
"And why would that be," Elbert asked, looking her straight in the eye. "How is living like this any better? In fear, that one day the easterlings will want something we have? Knowing that, in a few months, the siege will bite, and we'll all starve before they open the gates?"
She looked uncomfortable.
"I know, 'bert," she replied, after a moment. "But please, don't do anything rash!"
"I won't," he replied, very softly.
"What do we have?" Willem asked.
"Forty-odd swords," Mahk replied. "Mostly stuff officers or militiamen left behind in their houses. I had them hidden in three different places. And... call it eighty or so polearms. I might be able to get another dozen or so."
"That many?" Elbert's eyes widened, very slightly.
"Butchers, tanners, a few farmers..." Mahk chuckled. "A lot of tools tradesmen use are long poles with sharp bits. Some of them are just scythes, but old Blake has been remaking a few of them on the sly. Turning the blades up."
Elbert nodded. Willem asked the next question. "What about the rest?"
"Butchers' knives," Mahk shrugged. "A few lumber axes. That's about it. Do we need more?"
Willem frowned. "I've got about fifteen men who know. All of them friends of mine – a few used to be archers, a couple of old swordsmen... More than that I can't be sure, of course, but I've sounded a good few dozen out very carefully. Most of them will agree."
"And what of spies?" Elbert pressed. "We have to be sure, my friends."
"I found a body in the street last night," Mahk contributed. "I asked around, and it seems the man had new Eastern coins in his pocket. He fell out of a window." A grin. "Twice."
Willem nodded. "Damn fool Tomas was. What good does coin do you in a starving city three months hence?"
"Will that alert them?" Elbert asked urgently.
"I doubt it," Willem answered. "He was pretty drunk, and I gave three of the coins to the barkeep at the Roused Goat – two doors down. It'll look like he got drunk off his arse with the gold and fell out the window onto his head."
"Still," Elbert said, frowning. "We might need to accelerate. Contact anyone you can – carefully!"
The middle-aged farrier gave a long sigh. "I need to go find Elizbet. The Eastmen who took her yesterday evening-" he paused, and made the gesture to ward off evil. "Well, she'll know what we need."
"Interesting," Marek said softly. "Thank you."
The crow nodded to him.
"Prince," he added, louder. "The men of Rhun are tearing down houses and building wooden shields over the ramparts."
"What does that mean for your rifles?" Bard replied.
"For the next few days, we can still try to snipe at patrols – though it will get harder." Marek shrugged. "After that, it'll be too hard. But it does give us an advantage, as well."
"Oh?" Bard invited him to continue, then blinked and shook his head. "No, I see. They can't fire over the walls so easily – or even see over them very well."
"That's correct." Marek paused. "Should we try a shoot on the gates?"
Bard was silent for a time. He stood, walked over to the map table, and examined it carefully.
By now, the army were in their siege camps. The horses were stabled away from the main accomodation area, and walls of countervallation ringed Dorwinion at a distance of about half a mile. The woodlots nearby hadn't vanished yet, but had shrunk severely with the demands of fortification and firewood and the hundred and one more mundane uses an army had for wood.
Supplies were adequate, for the moment. Riders had been sent upriver to Ilanin, and within a week or two barges would begin to float down the river with regular resupply – for which a jetty was being built out over the River Running. More interestingly, contact had been made with the dozens of small fortified towns that studded the Vale of Dorwinion, and fresh produce was coming in daily. Including some of the finest wines on Arda, half a bottle of which was waiting on the mantel for the conclusion of the day's planning session.
All this was in papers resting on the table. But Bard gave them only a short look, before moving them aside to cast an eye over the dispositions themselves - paying particular attention to the forces near the main gates of the town.
"No," he decided, eventually. "Not yet. Let's give them a few weeks to stew, first. Let a routine sink in."
"Did you ask her?" Mahk began, as Willem entered the upstairs room.
"Yes," Willem replied. "It was... not pleasant."
Elbert and Mahk winced. Willem's twenty-year-old daughter Elisbet had been the talk of the Merchant's Quarter for years – a girl known for her wit as much as for her looks, and more justifiably.
When she had married a young trader and the new couple had taken their first trip to Ilanin, hundreds of friends and family had seen them off at the docks. The trip wasn't long, and so she'd found time to stop by several times a year, often with stories of exotic peoples from far-off lands – dwarves from Eriador, elves from not just Mirkwood but also the lands west of the Misty Mountains, and even once a hobbit – and recipes or foodstuffs from just as far afield.
But evil chance had had them in town when the war came, and when her husband had been part of the militia contingent of the surrendered garrison, she had been badly scared by the Easterling presence and by what their victory meant for the Dale.
Then, two days before, she had been noticed by an Easterling captain and 'requested' for help bringing food up to the wall guards.
None of them could imagine what she had endured since. It probably said enough that she could only bear the presence of her own father for a few minutes at a time. Other men set her off in seconds.
"The wife and I managed to keep her calm long enough to get the information we desperately need," Willem elaborated. "Ten men in the tower on the first floor. None on the second – that's where the winch is. And the watch changes at midnight and every four hours."
Mahk counted under his breath. "Right. And the gatehouse central area?"
"She didn't know. Several men, though – and she heard something bubbling, but not where."
"Boiling water – or oil." Elbert gritted his teeth. "Well, can we do it?"
"It'll be close," Mahk hedged. "We couldn't hold it for long. But we could do it – if the Prince is ready to act."
The three men, two of them fathers and one a proud uncle, exchanged glances.
Willem broke the silence. "Two days from now. Two of the morning."
"I'll let my lot know," Elbert said, nodding.
"Anything?" Marek asked, as a crow came down to land at the end of her scheduled patrol.
With a flare of wings and an indulgent caw, she dropped out of the orange sunlight onto his outstretched hand.
"Nothing unusual," she replied. "Those shields are about half done. Patrols are starting again – but they're staying below the battlements for now."
"And seeing bugger all," Marek replied with satisfaction. "Anything else?"
The crow dipped her head. "There's a barge coming down the river – I saw it on the far northern sweep half an hour ago. Looks like it'll arrive at night."
"I'll let Bard know."
"Aside from that... nothing. Oh, the weather." With a glance skywards, the crow resumed. "Clouds coming in from the south-east – off the Sea of Rhun, by the looks of it, which means rain. Not great flying weather."
"I'm sure you'll manage," Marek smiled. "Thank you. Report to the mess for your meal."
"Just doing my duty." The crow shrugged, flipped a wing, and took off.
Two hours after midnight, a gentle rain filled the northern night with the soothing sounds of water on stone. Rivulets sluiced off the tiled roofs of those houses prosperous enough to have them, pattering on the cobbles of the street, and made the few torches hiss and sputter.
Elbert Wellson walked through the streets, holding his woollen cloak around him to ward off the damp.
The cloak had been a gift from his son late last year. Woven out of freshly cleaned wool just off the sheep, it still had the lanolin impregnated into the fibres that made water roll off it. He'd worn it on dozens of cold, rainy nights just like this one already, and hoped to wear it on hundreds more.
Not least because that would mean he'd have survived this night.
He slipped into a doorway, and tapped twice on the door. A slit opened, examined him, and closed. Then the door opened with the silence of recently oiled hinges.
"Good to see you," Mahk said, nodding at him. "You're the last." As he spoke, he moved aside to let his friend into the front room of his house.
Elbert glanced up at the pendulum clock – it was ten past two already. "Sorry I was late. I had to avoid a patrol."
He looked into the room itself, seeing a dozen or so young men – usually relatives of his or at least one of the others – and maybe sixty older, often middle aged, men like him.
Men too old to be part of the militia call up. Men who had secure jobs and positions, who'd already given their service for their country in war, and who had served it in peace.
Men who now had to serve it in war again.
The air was rank with sweat – the inevitable result of so many men in such a small space. But looking at their faces, none of them were actually afraid, as such. Just – nervous.
"Everyone has a weapon?" he asked.
Those who had them indicated their sword hilts. The rest had polearms, knives, axes... all improvised or repurposed weapons, rather than the sleek and purposeful deadliness of a shortsword.
No matter. They could kill a man just as dead.
"Okay." He looked around again, catching men's eyes, and seeing them nod back. "It's about a minute's walk to the gate. We walk – no sense making too much noise – and we head for the right hand gate tower. Make sure to let me do the talking."
"Once we're in, there's just four things we have to do. Hold the door to the tower – Willem, you do that. Mahk, you know how it works, you organize men to turn the winch – then smash it. Ulden, make sure they don't come at us from above. And me-"
"All I've got to do is somehow let Prince Bard know we've seized the gate."
"Sounds a tall order," Ulden said quietly.
"I've got a trumpet." Elbert lifted his cloak, revealing the instrument secured by a piece of string running to his arm. "And – well, whatever happens, we can give him an open gate."
Mahk passed around a tray with mugs of hot spiced wine, and one by one almost all the conspirators took quick gulps. The fine wine, two bottles of a ten-year vintage, burned on the way down and settled into the stomach like a promise of summer.
"For the Dale," Mahk said softly, to a muttered chorus of agreement.
Elbert gestured to the door. "Now, follow me – quietly."
Karenna warmed his hands by the fire.
"Is it always this cold?" he asked, frowning.
"You must be getting soft!" his friend Ralen replied. "We're not even out in the wind!"
"Yet," Karenna grumbled. "When those wooden shields are built, we'll be right back out on the walls in the rain."
"You're too pessimistic these days, Kar," Ralen replied. "Enjoy it while it lasts!"
Karenna looked over at his friend. "Ral, last week I came within a hand-span of having my head blown off by a fire-bow. I don't want to go out there again!"
"Shut it, you two," their sergeant snapped, walking over from his chair to look out the arrow slit. "Nothing."
"Nothing, nothing, weeks of nothing." Ralen grinned slyly. "Hey, you want I should find another pretty thing for tomorrow night?"
There were mixed reactions to that. A few of the squad shouted their approval, some others smiled, and Karenna and the sergeant looked uncomfortable.
"Don't like to think about what might happen if the captain checked on us when that was goin' on," the sergeant commented.
Karenna's dislike was more nebulous. Try as he might, he couldn't get the image from two days ago out of his head – the look of pure, venomous hatred that a Dalesman had been giving him when he unexpectedly turned his head.
The rage had vanished into a carefully blank expression so quickly he wasn't certain of what he'd seen, but... it worried him.
A knock sounded on the door.
"I'll get it," Ralen volunteered, standing.
"Think it's the captain?" someone asked.
"Nah," Ralen replied, shrugging. "He's been in bed for hours – he's been up all day, or so I hear." The view-slit slid across. "Who is it?"
"Elbert, sir," a Dalesman's voice replied. "I've been sent with extra firewood."
"Hah, see?" Ralen shot a look back at Karenna as he unlocked the door. "They do care-"
Ralen's hand lifted the latch, and the door creaked open a few inches. Then slammed open, knocking Ralen to the floor.
Karenna's mind spun as he tried to come to terms with the explosion of movement.
"Damn it!" the sergeant shouted. "Attack! We're under-"
The first three Dalesmen came through the door in a rush, wielding unusual-looking polearms and trying to point them everywhere at once. A fourth came through behind them, looked the situation over for a moment, and punched the tip of his sword (where did they get a sword from?) through Ralen's throat.
The Rhun infantry needed to charge, to use the armour some of them wore to push forwards and swing the heavy door closed again.
But, in the grip of uncertainty, they didn't think. Under attack, they reacted – defensively.
Karenna siezed his halberd from the pile by the wall, raised it, turned it, and lowered it to point at the Dalesmen as they filtered into the room. The clatter of wood and iron told him that his squadmates were doing the same – and a curse told him that at least one had messed up.
By the time they were in formation, at least a dozen spears – or what he guessed were spears – were pointed at him, as well as several swords and tridents.
Then a particularly large man, wearing the outfit of a tanner, shouldered through the door. He carried a long, hooked implement which Karenna vaguely remembered was involved somewhere in the tanning process.
The Sergeant's cry for help was echoed elsewhere, and Karenna felt his heart leap with optimism. Help was coming!
Then the hook reached forwards, latched onto the prongs of his halberd, and twisted it so his grip weakened. Four more men took the handle of the hook, and with an almighty wrench they sent his weapon sideways – fouling the halberds of the rest of his squad.
And then the Dalesmen charged.
Karenna dropped the halberd, reached for his scimitar-belt, and slid the curved weapon free in time to parry the first blow. The second skirled off his blade, and he took advantage of the inexperience of his opponent to stab at their chest-
One of the spear-like polearms ripped along his bicep as it drove the scimitar home into the chest of his enemy. The pain was indescribable, and his arm fell limp, the tendons cut.
Another polearm jabbed for his face, past his flailing left hand. The edge crunched through bone, and then his world ended in a swirl of blackness.
Elbert drove his knife into the throat of the last Easterling, sprattling on the floor as his body tried to outlive his brain.
The corpse jerked, then sighed and was still.
Another of the Dalesman kicked the corpse. "Fuckers."
"No time for that now," Elbert began, then coughed, and wrinkled his nose at the smell of death.
"Mahk, the wrench. Willem-" his friend was already organizing a dozen men to heave the door closed again and lock it. "Good. Ulden, up, quickly!"
"On it, El." The big tanner saluted with a stolen scimitar, having ditched his hook, and hurried for the stairs as the last of Mahk's lot filed up.
Elbert felt dizzy for a moment, as the sudden release of tension hit him, and shook his head to try and clear it.
"Right," he said, mostly to himself. "Where's there a good window..."
"There!" a young man said, pointing to the arrow slit. Elbert walked over, pulling his trumpet out as he did so, and pulled the wooden cover aside.
A gust of wind blew in, carrying raindrops with it. Elbert shrugged his cloak a little tighter, and blew the trumpet with all his breath.
"Did you hear something?" Ugbrag asked, frowning.
"No," the sergeant replied, matching his frown. Then he stood, and turned towards the city. "Aule's forge! Sound the alert – the gate's opening!"
Ugbrag unslung his rifle, loaded a blank, and fired into the air.
"Merkan, stay here!" the noncom added. "Tell whoever shows up what's going on. Everyone else, follow me! Run!"
Ugbrag wrestled his rifle back to his shoulder, breaking into a run alongside the sergeant. "What's up, sarge?"
"Bugger if I know," the slightly older uruk replied. "But that's not a sally, and even if it is we've got to get to that gate and keep it open!"
Marek blinked, frowning into the cool darkness of his tent. "What in blazes... that was a gunshot!"
He heaved the heavy winter bedclothes off, letting them fall to the canvas floor, and reached by trained reflex for the revolver to the side of his bed. "Tureg!"
The other Uruk's feet could be heard as he splashed up to the tent door. "Sir?"
"What the demondark's going on?" Marek struggled into his mail shirt over his nightclothes, then put his helmet on, picked up his webbing and slung it over one shoulder. "We didn't order an attack tonight!"
He snarled. "And I'll have the balls of whoever thought he'd go off and glory-hound-"
"The gate!" someone shouted.
Marek's tirade chopped off, and he pivoted to stare for a moment at the brooding bulk of Dorwinion. There was a swirl of activity going on – torches, the hint of fires, and the thin sound of a trumpet attenuated by distance.
And, now that he listened, now that he squinted through the darkness and looked, it was obvious.
"Someone's opened the gate," he breathed. "Trumpeter! Sound stand to, then advance at speed! Someone get me Iles, quickly! Messenger to Prince Bard – the gates are open; I don't know why; hurry whatever you have in support as soon as possible! My respects to him. Now go!"
The swirl of confused men in the camp began to cohere as the orders rolled out. Like magic, gawkers became riflemen, and squads gathered in front of their shared tents for a moment before setting off at the jog.
"Remember your ammunition, lads!" Marek bellowed into the night. "You can't fight worth beans without it!"
The trumpet call continued beside him, easily drowning out the sound from the city.
Iles woofed welcome as the handler led her up to him, then sneezed from the rain. Her huge head looked from him to the city.
"That's right, old girl," Marek confirmed. "We're off."
He raised one foot, braced it in the stirrup, and heaved himself into the saddle. His headquarters group – all mounted – cohered around him as they too mounted up.
"Bannerman – get those colours uncased! Messenger to the battery commanders – limber up the Anduins and rapidguns and catch us if you can, and mortars to maintain starshell light. I don't care about ammunition; just do it."
A spatter of mud announced one of his runners returning. "Sir, Prince Bard ordered full assault – all around the perimeter of the walls."
Marek grinned, teeth exposed. "Good. Now, forwards! Fast lope!"
Elbert's eyes flicked back and forth, trying to keep track of everything at once.
They'd got the gate open easily enough – it was built to be moved quickly from here, it had to close at need or open for a sally – but the Easterling counterattack had come before they'd finished wrecking the equipment. It would be hard, but the Easterners could close the gate once more.
Downstairs, there was the steady thudding of an improvised battering ram against the heavy tower door. It wasn't going to last forever, and when it fell the defenders downstairs would have to hold the Easterlings at the door – or retreat upstairs. To the winch-room.
His more immediate problem was that this third-story room was at the level both of the wall walk and the over-gate room. That meant he had to try to defend two doors – and the Easterlings knew it.
Someone staggered back from the wall door, clutching at his face. "Aagh!"
"Stand away from the peephole!" he shouted, voice cracking in the middle. "There's too many archers out there now!"
Roan, the man who'd taken the arrow, fell backwards onto the floor in a lopsided sit-down and nearly curled over. Their medic – a doctor who'd joined in the plot – admonished his helper to keep pressure on a makeshift bandage and moved over to his newest customer.
"Let's see that..." the doctor said with a glassy detachment. "Looks like the arrow didn't quite go through cleanly... I can't pull it out now, it's barbed – it'll do more damage coming out. Get a pad, someone, and put it between his teeth."
The over-gate door thudded dully, then the sound of an axe began to sound.
"That door's not going to hold," Elbert noted. A thought struck him. "Someone – you, Merric, you're no good to us without a working right arm – get a torch, douse the gate workings in lamp oil and get it burning!"
"Go, man! If they close that gate all this was for nothing and we're fucked anyway!"
Ugbrag panted as his squad skidded to a halt in the shadow of the gate.
"Fix-" the sergeant took a steadying breath. "Fix bayonets, lads. Load!"
There was a staccato clicking over the sound of the rain, as the socket bayonets went onto their slots and each man chambered a round.
"First in, lads. Forwards!"
Ugbrag took up a position on the left end of the line, nearest the open leaf of the gate. His rifle went up, searching for a target – and he found one quickly.
Bam went the rifles, and the press of Easterling infantry around the tower entrance recoiled. At a range of barely twenty metres, the bullets went through at least two men and sometimes three, dealing horrible wounds to the unprepared targets.
Eight uruks reloaded with focused speed, taking a step forwards.
"Ugbrag, Revest, Snago, you give us cover. The rest of you, with me!"
The sergeant and his fire team moved forwards, taking cover for a moment behind the open gate, reloaded as Ugbrag's own team levelled their rifles, then ran forward in the moment after the shots-
And a cascade of glutinous, yellow-ish liquid poured down out of the murder-holes in the gatehouse tunnel, drenching all five uruks. They screamed, raw pain driving their voices so loud it punished the ears, then collapsed.
"Fuck!" Ugbrag shouted, with an anger that surprised him. "Stay back, they've got boiling fucking oil!"
He reloaded and fired, reloaded and fired again. An arrow pattered down from the slits in the gatehouse, and he shot through the next time something moved behind them – producing a scream which made him feel savagely triumphant.
A splattering clatter approached him from behind.
"Private," a voice asked – a voice which made Ugbrag look around for a second, to confirm that the colonel was right behind him. "Situation?"
"Gate's open, not sure why," Ugbrag related. "Guessing someone's in that tower, the Easterlings are trying-" BLAM. "-hard enough to get in." His voice had a slightly distracted quality to it as he reloaded automatically, sighted in and fired, reloaded... "Tossers in the gatehouse have boiling oil – lost the sarge and four other men finding that out."
He squinted through the rain that was drumming powder-smoke out of the air. "Aim for the men with the ram!"
The next volley punched out, hitting three of the men using the ram as they drew back for another blow. The torque and their suddenly dead weight sent the ram swinging sideways, to cries of frustration.
An axe finally punched through the door.
Elbert nodded to three men with altered scythes, crouched behind the tables they'd rigged up as barricades. "Ready..."
The axe blows came twice more, then stopped. An arrow whipped through the hole, glanced off the table edge and shattered on the wall.
Then weight hit the door, pushing the upper part so it bulged forwards and cracked ominously. The lower part held, aided by the heavy weapon rack pushed against it.
The three men rose to kneeling, and punched their polearms forward at the gaps forming in the door. A yell answered them, and the blades came back dripping with blood.
This time, four arrows came through. One stuck into the barricade, quivering with the shock of the impact. Two more missed entirely, clattering into walls. And one slashed across the scalp of a scythe-man, sending blood and hair falling to the floor.
A rattle of other arrows biting into wood told them that several hadn't been so accurate. It was hard to tell if that was good news or bad.
The axes hit again, orchestrated by someone on the other side to land their blows in tandem.
Elbert glanced around the room. Most of his men weren't wounded yet – the door had seen to that – but it wasn't much longer before the door gave way, and then it was going to be vicious and brutal. And probably quite short.
He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering Mari's hair on the day she married him. When they were young, and nothing in the world could sully that day.
Well. I made my choice.
He readied his sword – taken from the weapon racks up here – and considered what to do.
"Everyone who's got a polearm, try to trip them," he said in a low voice. "Make a pile in the door. Then those with knives stab anywhere you can see – eyes, hands, whatever."
Nods answered him.
Marek eyed the gate for the third time.
"No, sir," his second-in-command admonished. "You might make it through, yes. But you might not, none of the rest of us would, and what good is just you against half the bloody easterling army?"
"There's not more than a few thousand in there," he corrected absently, as he flipped the revolver cylinder back in and took aim. Not too long for a pistol bullet...
CRACK. An Easterling went down.
By now, more rifles were arriving, and a few brave uruks were getting right in close to the murder-holes and trying to shoot upwards to clear the gatehouse. But it was slow work, and several had already been surprised and taken an arrow to the chest or the face or the shoulder.
This close, firing straight down, the easterling recurve bows often went through chain-mail battledress with enough force to still wound or kill.
"With respect, sir," Tureg said with a pinched expression, "You may be able to score with a pistol at this range, but even with one revolver in each hand you couldn't kill them all."
"Well, how do you propose we get in the bloody gate?" Marek asked. Iles caught his mood and snarled, muscles bunching and unbunching under him. "Quiet, girl," he added, soothing her with his off hand; she was spoiling his steady firing position.
"I... I don't know, sir," Tureg admitted. He winced as another arrow slammed an uruk almost to the floor, clutching at the shaft that had gone through his lip and the floor of his mouth. "But we-"
Trumpets blatted behind them. Not Isengard trumpets – the slightly different tones of Dalesman instruments.
Marek looked behind them, blinked, then tapped Iles in the flank. "Out of the roadway!"
The command group scattered, riding to both sides. The firing line paused in their methodical platoon volleys, then company signallers came to decisions and split the line at a particular company seam. The companies each side of that seam slid smoothly aside, like rolling gates, and a column of men moving at a fast trot pounded forwards through the gap.
"Who are they?" Tureg asked. "Are they going to-"
Without pausing, the column plunged forward into the gate tunnel. Arrows and boiling oil poured down upon them, then flaming torches, and a roil of fire erupted in the gap.
But the column kept coming. It took the losses, paid the price, and Marek could see that a lot of them were breaking through the gate. Swords slithered free of their scabbards, and a line of sword-and-shield men crashed into the Easterlings clustered around the tower base.
Unformed, focused on their task, they were completely unprepared for an attack by men who had just come straight through a rain of boiling oil. They broke, running for safety.
"The garrison," Marek whispered, realizing.
More oil poured down. There was another rifle shot from one of the uruks, a brief scream from inside the gate house, and then orange light and smoke belched out of the windows.
The oil stopped coming, and a primal roar came up from the tail of the Dorwinion column. They began to run, clearing the gate faster still.
Marek's hands moved without conscious volition, holstering his revolver and drawing his saber. "Trumpeter," he said. "Sound column of advance."
A field gun rumbled up, wargs straining at the hitch. The gun captain glanced at his Colonel as he went past, receiving a gesture conveyed by a bob of the head.
"Third company, forwards!" Marek called. "Then gun number two! Come on, lads, into the town!"
"Blood and steel!" Tureg added. "Forward the second!"
Damning all further caution, Marek cantered forward to just behind the third company as they marched through the clearest path past the mess of corpses in the gateway. There weren't that many of them – most of the dead had run at least a little way before they lay down and burned – and behind him he could hear the gun wheels crunching over something best not thought about.
"Company, face forward! At a walk, forwards in firing line!"
The captain of the third was still hale, which was one reason he'd picked them. Under his shouted direction, the third company shook out into line and advanced, rifles ready.
There was a knot of easterlings at one entrance to the courtyard. They looked like they were recovering their mettle...
Over a hundred needles of fire lanced forwards, sending men collapsing as if gut-punched.
"Second platoon, third squad, out of line! Head left!"
The indicated squad moved back three steps, to not foul their comrades' firing lines, and then doubled over to the left edge of the line of advance.
Through the gap, the muzzle of an unlimbered Anduin field gun poked forwards. The crew spun the screws, adjusting the elevation with finicky precision.
"Ninety yards... juicy target," the gun captain said. "Firing!"
A field gun going off at less than five metres distance punished the ears. The malignant wasp-whine of cannister shot followed, and terminated in a sodden sound as it punched down the easterling infantry battalion.
Marek looked around. The other leaf of the gate was opening, now, and most of the rest of his regiment was coming through in good order. Elsewhere, banners waved on the parapet, seen by the light of torches. The towers were still mostly flying the Eastern banner, but Dale infantry were over in a dozen places.
Slamming volleys drew his attention back to third company. A number of horsemen had appeared around a winding bend in the main street, riding hard for them with scimitars glittering in the firelight. A banner, one that Marek recognized from the battle at the ford, hung wetly on a cross-pieced standard.
Another volley, another blast of cannister, and most of them went down.
Behind him, with a roar like a waterfall on stone, the allied army broke over the walls of Dorwinion and into the city beyond.
"Last holdouts in here, sir," a captain reported.
Marek looked up at the tower, from which a defiant Eye still fluttered in the dawn gloaming. The bulk of the wall loomed to his left.
Something went whunnng, and a ballista-bolt spat from one of the tower slits and skittered off the stone ten feet to his left.
Rifles crashed in answer, and forty rounds went through the tower slit.
Marek raised his glass, focusing. "It looks like the rounds did something pretty permanent to the ballista... can't quite tell, though."
"Hate to waste good men on them," Tureg mused. "And sir, please stop going near enemy artillery!"
Marek shrugged. "I don't think it'll be necessary to waste good men on them." He nodded back up the street.
Tureg followed his gaze, and winced. "Really?"
"I doubt Brand will complain." Marek toed Iles, who stepped aside to let the Anduin gun rumble past.
Not too far past him, the gun unlimbered. Taking care, the crew rotated their piece and let the trails thump to the ground. The elevating screw spun with finicky precision, and then the gun fired a contact fuzed HE round.
The door erupted inwards in a cloud of smoke and wicked, hand-long shards of wood. Screams came distantly from the lower room.
"Load shrapnel, half-second fuze," Marek ordered. "Now, someone get a white flag. Let's see how long it'll take for them to see reason..."
"Men," Prince Brand said from the dais. His gaze swept the ranks of Dalesman soldiers, who were fairly well in hand – unusual for an army that had been required to storm a fortification, but then this was a city of their homeland. "You have done me proud. We've marched down from upriver, fought an army equal to our own, and beaten it handily with relatively few casualties."
At least four thousand, though the final tally wasn't in yet. But it paled compared to the casualties the enemy had taken.
"As such, I am issuing a donative of three months' pay." Cheers began, and he waved a hand. "Have fun in the city, lads, but remember-" the hand came down, cutting off the gathering noise. "-we came here to liberate it. Everyone here hates the Easterners as much as you do, and they've suffered through occupation."
The attitude of the troops seemed appropriately sober. Not that they'd have much opportunity to offend the locals, for the simple fact that they were hysterically grateful to their saviours. The problem was more likely to be fending off enthusiastic offers of drink and company.
The neat ranks dissolved into an ordered chaos, as the town watch – all newly raised from volunteers from the city itself – directed traffic out of the square.
After about ten minutes, only one block of men remained, with a single man standing before them. The sound of a spontaneous street party was already developing.
"Earl Dorwinion," he began again, nodding courteously to the young man standing alone. The youth was barely more than sixteen, his beard still wispy, but he stood steadily enough as his prince called on him. "I have need of men to guard the walls against enemy attack, and stand watch over our prisoners."
Thus missing the party.
"My Prince, the men of Dorwinion stand ever ready to do your bidding," the teenaged Earl replied. His voice cracked halfway through the sentence, but he finished it gamely, and the men behind him slammed their shields on the ground.
Brand considered them. No need for a decimation – by his count, there were at least eight hundred Dorwinion men who'd never fight again as a result of their suicidal charge through the gates – and the new Earl seemed to have them well enough in hand.
"Four hundred picked men. See to it, Earl Dorwinion." Brand paused. "The rest may join the celebration. And could someone get the city's flag? I believe your men require a banner."
"At once, sir!" The earl's voice cracked again, and Brand carefully ignored his dampening eyes.
"Fifty-five each," Tureg summarized, throwing the notepad down in front of his colonel. "That's after redistributing the rounds we found among the dead, as well. Artillery's a bit better off, but not much."
Marek nodded, picking up the notes. "I see. So, we've got about enough for one more major action at most."
"That's about the shape of it – and one is really pushing it, sir." Tureg shrugged. "Should I order a ban on practice?"
"Probably for the best, at least until we've got some kind of reloading shop set up." Marek tapped his chin. "Still, I think we've hardly wasted them... I'll include a request for resupply as soon as practical in the next message home. And I will so advise Prince Brand that our regiment should not be considered combat effective until we can resupply, though we can defend the city well enough."
The two uruks contemplated that for a bit.
"Not a bad spring's work, I think," Marek added, with perhaps a hint of self-satisfaction.
Sieges are nasty business, especially for the attacker.