52. Chapter 51
The enemy did not come to our walls that night, and could not have done so even if they had wished to, for the fire they had unleashed would have made it impossible. They did not come the following day either, and we watched wearily from the heights as the fires subsided and were replaced by an immense pall of smoke that rose high into the heavens. Fortunately what little wind there was had swung round into the south so we were spared being choked and blinded by it as we had been the night before. It was the third day before the fires finally began to burn out and the enemy finally made their move.
They came at dawn, with a blare of horns, but we were ready for them. A great press of men and orcs came up through the blackened ruins of the town, and among them were teams carrying battering rams hastily fashioned from felled trees. I watched from high above as they closed to within bowshot of the walls, and our archers began to rain death down on them. They had archers of their own, but though they loosed off many arrows in reply few found their mark to my knowledge, and clattered harmlessly off the stonework of the walls or fell into the courtyard, where they were gathered up ready to be returned whence they had come. Despite our efforts weight of numbers prevailed and the foe were able to bring one of their rams up to the gate, and at this I gave the word and men began to gather up the cobbles that had been brought up from the yard and they cast them down to terrible effect. Soon the street in front of the gate was heaped with their dead, but still they came, though the screams of the maimed and dying were terrible. We rapidly exhausted our supplies of stones and more men were detailed to replace them, bringing them up in relays from below. However despite our deadly efforts the ram began to boom like a great drum on the gate. The sound filled me with dismay, and like all others who heard it I prayed silently that the gate would hold.
We need not have feared, for it was very old but well made and the tree trunk made little impression on it. By noon the enemy, who had suffered great loss, fell back leaving their dead and dying behind them in the heat of another fine summer afternoon. A ragged cheer went up along the battlements, but it was a hollow victory, for we knew this was only the first stroke and we would face many more from an enemy who had every advantage over us. We were already on short rations, short of water, and if our enemy was well supplied then all he would have to do was starve us out, or wait until we ran out of arrows or cobbles or became too weak to reply and they would be able to break our gate and slaughter us. It was far too soon to hope for a relief force from the south, but already men were beginning to look that way and exclaim impatiently that no help had been sent.
The first few days of the siege were tolerable enough, and people kept their spirits up, but the mood soon began to sour with so many souls packed so closely together without adequate supplies. It was not long before the close confinement began to breed tensions, especially when the meagre daily rations were being doled out. Berenion was forced to set guards and send patrols round the Keep to maintain order, and quite a few individuals, both soldiers and townsfolk ended up in the dungeons after disobeying edicts or fighting with their fellows. Soon the weakest, those who were either already sick or badly wounded began to die, famished, thirsty and surrounded by filth, and with nowhere to bury them their bodies were wrapped and stowed in a cool storeroom in the cellars. I could not abide what was happening and spent as much time as I could up on my tower away from the stench and overcrowding down below, sleeping under the stars and spending my days watching beyond our walls. We had little to do, the enemy returned twice in the first week and both times we turned them back with considerable loss, unable to break the gate. After that they did little other than taunt us periodically, and their dead remained lying where they had fallen. The continuing hot weather soon meant there was yet another unbearable stench to for us to contend with as the corpses rapidly became corrupted. After suffering heavy losses at first it seemed they had decided to wait us out until we sued for mercy or became too weak to defend ourselves. They had set up camp in the ruins of the town, and during the first week at least two supply columns crossed the ford to replenish their stores, yet another sign that our enemy was growing ever more formidable, and that his reach now stretched far from Carn Dum.
At the end of the first week the fine weather broke and there were thunderstorms and heavy downpours of rain which not only allowed us to replenish our supplies of water by whatever means we could, but also temporarily washed away some of the filth and stench, which was a sweet relief while it lasted. I was queuing for my daily ration of bread with some of my men when a summons came from Berenion. I left the line and made my way up through the crowded corridors and stairways full of listless haggard folk, and tried not to breathe too much. Many were falling ill now, scouring, and I feared that if help did not come soon that death would be coming to us all one way or another. The door to Berenion's apartment was open, and I went in. He was sat at the table where I had first seen Angon all those years earlier, and I was shocked at how quickly he had deteriorated even in the space of a few days, his skin had a grey pallor to it and the lines of his skull were now evident in his emaciated face. A few of the other captains and lieutenants were already there and he acknowledged my arrival with a weak wave of his hand. I nodded to the others and we waited in silence, fearing to speak. When the others had arrived he broke the silence, his voice barely above a whisper. "Brothers, I fear I overestimated our ability to withstand a siege, for it seems there were more left in the town than I had reckoned on, and even after a week our store of food is already low and sickness is spreading. The welcome rain of the last days has given us some store of water again, and perhaps the well will be replenished for a little while too, but unless relief comes soon from the south I fear we are doomed. The quartermaster informs me that we have no more than four days store of food left, even at the current ration, which is insufficient to sustain fighting men. I seek your counsel on this matter, for I know it may be difficult to sustain order for much longer, and there are mutterings that the townsfolk should be left to starve, or sent out beyond our gates to take their chances with the enemy".
Nobody spoke for a moment, but then Arahael replied, in a loud clear voice intended for any of our fellows who might have been thinking otherwise, for surely that would have been the case. "My Lord, I say we wait, and we continue to dole out rations to all, meagre as they may be. The rain has given us renewed hope and we must remain steadfast. Let it be known that I will have the neck of any who think to hatch plots and save their own skins whilst damning the rest. We are not orcs". He too looked gaunt, but a fierce fire burned in his eyes, and I was filled with love and admiration for him, for he was the best of men. "I am with you" I replied, and there was a general murmur of approval from the rest of those who stood with us. "Good, that is settled then" said Berenion quietly. "Woe betide any who take matters into their own hands for I decree that a punishment of death now awaits them, for one less mouth to feed means more for the rest who remain". I knew he was in deadly earnest, and I sincerely hoped none would be foolish enough to test his resolve, however desperate they were.
On the fourth day of the second week the rations ran out, and the announcement was met with weary dismay in the keep. Many people were already attempting to chew leather or eat cloth and other novel items to try and assuage the terrible hunger they felt. They began to die too, every day a few more corpses were laid out in the yard, and then taken down to the overflowing storeroom in the cellars. A woman, driven mad with grief at the death of her infant in the night threw herself from the walls, but unfortunately did not die from the fall and lay maimed and broken on the cobbles below us, sobbing in pain. I witnessed her fall from the tower but was too far away to do anything to prevent it, but I descended to see what could be done. A crowd had gathered on the rampart and I ordered them curtly aside and looked down. The poor girl was still very much alive, but her limbs were splayed out in implausible directions and I knew straight away that there was no hope for her. Already the enemy sentries were gathering just out of bowshot to see what sport awaited them. I sent one of my men back to the tower to order some archers down, and they arrived shortly after. By that time a large group of northmen had gathered, and more were joining them all the time. I cursed, for now there would now be no hope of a sally from the gate to rescue her, even if there had been any good purpose to it. I barked "shoot her" at the nearest bowman, but he trembled and shook his head and made as if to plead with me, even though he knew it might cost him his neck. Her whimpering continued below, and taking pity on the poor man I snatched the bow out of his hand and took an arrow from his quiver, leant over the wall, drew and loosed it. The first shot found its mark easily enough at that range but to my dismay it did not kill her, and her whimpers turned to shrieks. I cursed my ill fortune, notched another arrow, took careful aim again and this time found my mark. I met her eyes as she died, but could not read any message there save one of pain and horror. Weakened though I was the old anger rose in me, and I screamed defiance at the watching enemy and raged at those who stood idly around me as cowards and carrion crows, and they quickly vanished. I remained where I was for a very long time, unable to move, for I was completely spent in mind and body. Fortunately the bowman who had defied me returned and helped me back to the tower.
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