3 The Siege of Arvendale

Cornelius marches along the outer walls, giving orders to his men. Each only has ten bolts to his crossbow; he knows they'll make them count. A young soldier, perhaps barely seventeen, struggles to draw his weapon. Cornelius takes it from him with a scowl on his face, the soldier winces. He steps back and watches as Cornelius deftly winds back the drawstring and strings the steel bolt without a single wasted movement.

The five columns of dust have parted and gave way to a wall of men. Each carries a spear and round shield with their strange symbols and icons adorning them in blue. Their footsteps are slow and heavy, many fall over in the snow. Most never get back up, having been exposed to the cold for far too long with too little warmth. Their motley mail coat offered no refuge against the harsh winds. Cornelius cannot pity them as they fall; he gazes grimly on as their lines approach the wall.

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A group of horsemen part from their ranks, they are richly dressed in furs and gilded armour, and their horses are girdled with gold and silver. One of the bellows in their guttural tongue, on plays a fanfare of trumpets and horns in the distance.

The lines part, out rides a handsome white horse, on it is a priest in a white frock. In his left hand is a bow, and the right a thick book. He rides out from the line and pauses just shy of the walls, the fanfare stops, and the marching legions stand in deadly silence. Cornelius braces the crossbow against his shoulder and aims at the priest's white crown.

The white rider opens the book and reads from the first chapter. Cornelius does not know what he says but listens. He speaks to his legion with a grave tone, his breath like the rolling tides of the sea, and all else was silent. Then he turns to the walls and shouts some accusation. And along with it he sends flying an arrow, with a red haft and fletched with the feather of crows. The priest faces Cornelius, raising his book and bow, and bellows some frenzied gibberish. His soldiers cheer in support and stamp their feet and weapons against the frozen earth. Cornelius thinks they sound like wild animals, being goaded to death with spears and long knives.

Then there was a sharp whistle in the sky, a dull thud, and the white rider fell in a pool of red blood.

"Make every shot count," Cornelius says firmly as he hands the crossbow back.

The cheers outside his walls rang dry, and it was replaced with the growl of angry beasts. He drew his sword and stepped on top of the battlements.

"Men of Elemeras," He commanded as he stepped forwards with trepidation. "The fate of the empire rests on this battle, let every man do his utmost!" He pointed his great sword towards his enemies, and a shower of a hundred bolts poured from behind him. Thus, the battle for Arvendale had begun.

The air soon became thick with arrows as their enemies answered with archers, and they blotted out the leering glare of the sun. Ladders were brought out and carried to the front of their lines, then in ten hands it was carried forwards. They began to wrap their lines around the curved walls like a coiling snake, with the head of the serpent on the eastern side, and its body at the centre.

"Elemeri!" He cries. "Pick your marks!" And the crossbowmen stared at the front of each ladder, and those at the back.

"Aim!" And they knocked their weapons against their shoulders and waited.

"Loose!" Cornelius bellows with anticipation, and many dozen men fell with the sharp whistle tearing through the frozen air. Their compatriots rushed forwards, shouting as they pry their frozen hands from the ladder and continue forwards.

"Aim!" Cornelius cries again, his soldiers have yet to reload their weapons. The first ladders begin to reach the walls, each slowly raised with hands and string and crude levers.

"Aim! Do not falter!" he cries again, the crossbows rush towards the front, aiming down at men desperately climbing the ladders. Some tremble as the faces of other humans come into sight.

"Loose!" Cornelius commands. They close their eyes and tightly squeeze the cold trigger, and a short silence answers a dull thud. Still more men climb the ladders. Cornelius jumps as a ladder comes up next to him. He strikes it, it shakes and the clamour of men beneath grows louder. He calls, and three soldiers spring towards him. They pry the ladder with a wooden beam, it shakes violently, and the voices become fearful. And louder. Cornelius strikes the ladder again as it strained against his soldiers, it snaps and swerves backwards. The voices rise to a trembling zenith. Louder. And then becomes silent. Cornelius looks down, for a moment every eye turns towards the wreckage. But still more ladders push against the walls. And the shouting became louder still.

"Halberdiers!" Cornelius bellows, struggling to catch his breath. "To the front, hold them back! Crossbows, loose when ready!" He retreats.

The first pair of foreign boots stamp on the walls. They are met with brutality as they are hurled back down with swords and steel. Still, more have climbed the walls. Most are met with halberds and are thrown from the walls with their ladders, others struggle and are cut down on the cold stone.

Still, more ladders dock on the walls of Arvendale, latched firmly into the stone with iron hooks and metal jaws.

One of them leaps up next to Cornelius, its jagged teeth rip his cloak. He struggles to free himself as his soldiers rush to his side, hacking at the ladder with axes and long knives. As he shakes himself free, a man leaps on top of him.

His bearded face is scrawled into a primal howl as he strikes. Cornelius blocks the blow with his sword and pushes him aside. His soldiers hack him to death. He gets back to his feet and helps his men push the weighted ladder down.

Cornelius is struggling to breathe. His armour presses against his inflated lungs, its chains stabbing his ruddy skin like knives. One of the soldiers offers him a drink from his canteen, he pushes his hand away and points to the bastion towers.

"Go," He shouts hoarsely. "Give it to them."

The arrows have fallen silent on the high towers. Cornelius can see that they are struggling to rotate soldiers. Most of the men clambering down the winding steps are pale and short of breath, those wounded are kept alive only by grim determination and coarse bandages.

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