War Front, Book Three

They were roused out of bed in the middle of the night by the frantic ringing of the alarm bell. Azzir just had time to roll out of his cot as the first rocks flung by a trebuchet thundered down on the walls.

He felt a quick thrill of fear, swallowed up by the necessity of the moment. He stomped his boots on–the seasoned war veterans had taken to sleeping in their armor and he was no exception–and grabbed up his spear and shield. They had fallen from their hooks on the wall, probably from one of the trebuchet shots. The other men at arms clustered around the doorways out of the makeshift barracks, filing out in grim silence, barely flinching as the shuddering ceiling reined dust down on their heads.

Azzir could barely hear the shouts of the commanders over the clash of arms starting up near the western wall. His unit lined up in the courtyard to await orders, trying not to think of what it would feel like if one of the rocks from the trebuchets came plunging in from the starlit sky above, landing right on his head…

He watched as an aide ran up to his commander. “It’s a breach, sera! They’ve come in through the scaffolding on the western wall.”

“Damn those engineers! I told them to get the rocks placed and worry about the details later. This is war, not building the king’s vacation home–” Everyone tried not to stumble as a brilliant flare lit up the night sky, followed later by a loud crash that neatly cut off the commander’s rant. Flames erupted along the walls to Azzir’s left, though the screams were barely louder than they already had been from the melee.

“And they’ve brought mages,” the aide amended lamely.

The officer glanced back at his ranks, nodding in approval as they all bravely stood their ground. “I’ll not sacrifice my men on their mistake,” he said. “There was little use in taking this gutted heap of rock to begin with. Captain Roryn! Ready the mounts for a charge. We’ll at least trample a few of them on the way out. Sergeant Tilles? Salt the earth and burn the foodstores. We’ll meet you at the bridge and beat a quick retreat back into home territory.”

He dismissed them, and they clashed their spears to their shields to acknowledge him. Then the careful ranks disintegrated like a stepped-in ant hill. Azzir followed the crush to the stores, listening with detachment to other men betting if there was enough time to open up a cask of the firewine, and even joining in on calling for dibs on the rare liquor. For many, this would be their last night with such comforts.

He tried not to think of that.

Ransacking the broken keep’s carefully stocked supplies was easy, and Azzir took some pleasure in lighting up the casks of Altmeri flour, each going off like a bucket of blasting jelly, one after the other in a row. He hesitated briefly by those clustering around the firewine cask, and with a wrench of will, tore himself away. Father would have been pleased with his discipline. But then, it was also what survival dictated this night.

By the time Azzir reached the lean-tos serving as stables, Captain Roryn’s riders had come and gone, leaving only a few scattered packmules and guar left. The Dominion had been temporarily pushed back into the fields by the charge, and the rest of the Pact was quickly fleeing across the broken remnants of the wall to safety. The keep was in shambles, barely defensible when they had captured it, and now even less so.

Azzir quickly chose a guar and swung up on it, looping the lead rope over its back as makeshift reins. The guar needed little urging as another Dominion firepot burst over the stables, and Azzir almost lost his seat as the creature took off with a frightened bellow.

At least guar were more sure-footed than horses, Azzir thought, as the beast slowed down and negotiated the rubble with smart hops. The retreat was no longer orderly, and Azzir blindly directed the animal to follow after another guar, hoping its herd instincts would keep them all together. He could see nothing in the night away from the torches of the keep. The moons were not out, and all he could hear was the snorting and jingling of harnesses somewhere ahead of him, and the rumbles of the battle behind him. Every so often another flare lit up the road ahead like lightning, and it was only at those times he was reassured he was still with the rest of his unit.

The sounds of slapping guar feet drew nearer all around him as they came closer to the Alessian Bridge, and the first ricocheting echoes of horse hooves and guar feet touched down on its flagstones ahead of him.

They had less than a breath’s warning. Azzir heard surprised shouts, and then a long string of curses from a particularly verbose Nord, and then the bridge exploded into pure light underneath him.

He was Dunmer, and the fire flickering across his skin barely registered as he rode the blast into the sky. He felt himself rise off the back of the guar, as if in slow motion, the stars spinning overhead, a kaleidoscope of color strangely bereft of sound. The blast must have knocked out his hearing…

Then his stomach leapt into his throat, and it was down, down. Something jerked at his hips–the lead rope had gotten wrapped about him–and then he hit the ground. He felt the first impact as a mere jolt through his body, then a wave of pain as his senses caught up. He slid with the flailing guar down the short slope towards the river. The lead rope flipped his legs sideways, pulling his spine into a orientation no spine was ever meant to accommodate. He screamed until he heard a snap like someone popping their knuckles, and the pain disappeared. Then he just screamed in terror.

In stories, someone would obligingly come by and knock him out, Azzir wildly thought. Or he would lose consciousness from the pain and wake up safe and sound in a healer’s tent. But he didn’t lose consciousness. He came to settle half out of the water, the now deathly-still guar pressing him into the rocks–or was it mud? He was too numb to tell, only that there was an infinite weight attached to him somewhere below his ribs. He wriggled and dug with his arms, only succeeding in the bank collapsing a little more under him, and he stopped moving in the terror he might go all the way under the water.

Back up on the road, the battle continued, and Azzir caught his breath, praying no one would find him, and then praying that they did, as the battle dragged on without heed. The shouts and rings of metal began to move away as the Dominion picked off the last of the Pact caught on their side of the bridge.

When the sun rose, it rose on a field empty save of bodies and the wrecks of siege engines. As the silence settled more deeply, Azzir contemplated his solitude, and then his death.

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