They spied Fort Taraam from a good distance out.
Prudence and Yorrin had moved offroad some time ago. They had spent the day’s waning light creeping through the hedges and foliage that dotted the countryside. Always staying in sight of each other, but only just. They hadn’t spoken a word since setting out. When something needed to be said, they said it simple gestures and expressions.
He’s an uptight prick, no doubt. But it’s good to work with a professional again, Prudence thought to herself.
It had been too long since she had worked with someone able to communicate with such an economy of action. Yorrin was arrogant, rude, sexist, and somehow managed to be both ignorant of scripture and overly zealous in his faith. But the man knew the Trade. It was in his blood and bones, as deep as it was in Prudence.
They’d taken positions on a low rise northeast of Taraam, hunkered down in the wet bushes and muddy ground. Their clothes were already completely drenched, so neither of them had hesitated in the slightest to lie down in the muck, Prudence knew they were all but invisible to anyone that might chance to look their way.
Taraam looked about as Prudence had expected. She’d heard a few stories of the Fort, even before she met Perrin. And the doe-eyed young man had spoken of the place in glowing terms.
The fort was on elevated ground, but she hesitated to call it a hill. Most of it was wood: thirty foot high palisade walls made from thick tree trunks. The walls were formed in a rectangular shape, with regular wooden towers rising at the corners and above the gates. A simple trench was dug out around the wall, partially filled with rainwater.
The southeast corner of the fort had a second set of walls around it, and it was there that Prudence saw the most fortified part of Taraam. A stone tower rose fifty or more feet into the air, relatively well-maintained despite its age. The old Cassaline watchtower had been lovingly cared for by the mercenaries.
For good reason, Prudence thought. After all, it had given the fort its name. Turrim, the Cassaline word for tower, had been slowly bastardized over the centuries by the Middish barbarians that the fallen Empire left behind. Mix that with the old Temple Torathi tongue’s particular sensibilities and you were eventually left with Taraam.
Prudence had found it somewhat amusing that this was all news to Perrin. In fact, he was convinced it would be a surprise to all of his brothers-in-arms. Ignorant of their own history.
Hardly surprising. How many Middish sellswords speak old Cassaline, much less Temple Torathi? How many of them know any tongue but Middish?
Regardless, Taraam’s turrim stood as tall and proud as it had in the stories Perrin had told her. Which was a good sign, given the state of the rest of the fort.
How the hell did they get a catapult? Prudence wondered.
Down below, she and Yorrin had found the source of the noise they’d heard earlier. There was a camp sprawled out beside the road, a few hundred feet from the walls. A dozen tents were pitched, and Prudence saw three firepits blazing merrily despite the rain. A crowd of men sat around the fires, and a few more stood guard around the perimeter of their little camp.
In the center of the camp, was a surprising sight. A Cassaline siege engine. Even at a distance, she could see that it was in poor repair. Moss-covered, old, likely suffering some wood-rot. But still, it was a catapult. A weapon that—as Prudence understood it—required Cassaline engineering to build and maintain.
She could make out the shapes of men on the walls of Taraam—the men left behind when the Taraamites made their excursion into the Underpass. They were standing guard, staring out across the field at the camp.
Taraam is besieged.
It was the only reasonable explanation. The enemy camp, whoever they were, looked small enough. Prudence counted thirty four men between the ones gathered around the fires and standing sentry.
From what Perrin had told her, Taraam’s defenders should number a score, unless they had sent men seeking the ones lost in the Underpass. Not too bad, surely enough to easily repel a direct assault.
But the sieging force had a catapult. It was obvious that the men in the camp had used it, too. The northern wall of Taraam looked as though a giant had taken bites out of it. Several of the trunks in the palisade were cracked and splintered, especially around the north gate.
Sooner or later, they’re going to crack the fort open. And if they’re smart, they’ll just keep bombarding them. Force the Taraamites to come to them. Level the field, so that their advantage of numbers is all that matters.
Yorrin crawled over to Prudence, slowly and carefully.
“Catapult,” Prudence whispered, nodding at the weapon. The camp was hundreds of feet away, and the rain pelting down on them further masked her voice. She was confident that no one could hear her but Yorrin.
“Sh!” he growled. “Saw it. Thirty three?”
“Four,” she corrected.
Yorrin snorted, but he didn’t argue. Instead, he just pointed to the camp, particularly the northern side of it.
“Tent wall,” he said. He rolled his eyes, to express his disgust at what he was seeing.
Good catch, Prudence understood what Yorrin was saying instantly. They had several tents lined up close to one another, perhaps to better shelter themselves from the wind that whipped the rain in from an angle.
But the consequence was that a large section of their northern flank was not being patrolled by sentries at all. The tents formed a wall, and the sentries seemed to be—unconsciously or intentionally—treating it as an actual wall.
We could cut through those tents and be inside their camp in an instant. Aleksandr and Dylan could trample the tents from horseback without even slowing down.
Prudence nodded at Yorrin. She met his eyes, and then jerked her head towards the fort.
“Contact?” she asked.
Yorrin considered for a moment, then nodded.
Time to go.
They crawled back through the mud until they were on the far side of the rise, and completely out of sight. They skirted the hillock, and moved towards the denser forests to the south. North of Taraam, around the road, the ground was only lightly covered in foliage, small glens, and hills. But a good three-quarters of the fort was surrounded by dense woods.
It was easy to get to the treeline and then use it to keep totally out of the camp’s line-of-sight. By the time they approached Taraam, the sun had set. The rainclouds kept the night moonless, so they were rapidly thrust into a dense darkness. Lanternlights bobbed along the walls of Taraam.
“Should we just call up to them, once we get there?” Prudence asked.
It was safe to talk, or at least whisper. They were still a considerable distance from the walls, picking their way through the rough ground carefully to avoid injury. Out of earshot of both the defenders on the walls and the camp of the sieging force.
Yorrin shook his head, vigorously enough that she caught it despite the darkness. “They might mistake us for them,” he pointed out. “Besides… let’s not tempt fate. We should be in a position to defend ourselves, or disappear, if needed.”
Good thought, Prudence realized Yorrin was right. Perrin and his comrades are good enough men, and they trust us. But we don’t know these men on the walls, and they don’t know us. We’ll have to tread carefully, or they’ll be just as likely to assume we’re in league with the catapult men.
“Should we scale it, then?” she asked.
Yorrin nodded. “Scale it, and one of us stays quiet. We should try to tell whichever guard we find taht we’re on his side. It might be a terrible plan, but I think we should move quickly. If we hit the enemy from the road, and they come out the front gate to hit them from the south, I think we could finish them in one go.”
“That sounds… unusually bold, coming from you,” Prudence said.
“I’m not bold?” Yorrin frowned. “Nevermind, doesn’t matter. Shut up Prudence. It could work. And I think it’s what Aleksandr would want to do.”
Ah, that sounds like Yorrin.
“Only issue will be whether or not he listens to us. I’ll do the talking, you stay out of sight. If things turn sour, you step in to back me up.”
Prudence did not respond verbally, instead answering his suggestion with a quick nod. It was a fine approach, and in what was clearly Yorrin fashion it put all of the risk on his own shoulders. She wasn’t going to argue.
They reached the trench at the base of the wall unnoticed. It looked like the rainwater was no more than a few feet deep, though it was hard to judge with any real accuracy. There was a chance it was deeper.
I can swim, if it comes to that, Prudence told herself. Although…
She gently tapped Yorrin’s shoulder. He glanced at her, and she gestured to the trench-turned-moat. She arched an eyebrow at him.
Yorrin rolled his eyes. He gave her an exaggerated nod, a snide expression on his lips, and then slid down the muddy lip of the trench.
He grew up in Nasarat, Prudence recalled. A port city, on the banks of the Limes River and the Encircled Sea. No doubt many urchins living there still never learn to swim, but that’s not Yorrin’s style. The man taught himself to read, and pushed himself to learn to ride in less than a season. Of course he can swim.
Not that it turned out to be necessary. The water in the trench came up to Yorrin’s waist, and he waded through to the other side. Prudence went down after him. Her clothes were already soaked through by the torrential rains, so submerging her lower half in muddy water was no great discomfort.
The far side of the trench was slippery with mud and rain, and Prudence didn’t relish trying to climb it. But in moments Yorrin drew a pair of iron spikes out of his pack, without even unslinging it from his shoulders.
He reached up high and rammed one spike into the muddy earth. It held fast, and he used it to pull himself higher before placing the second. With them, he cleared the trench easily. Prudence used them to follow him. By the time she’d clambered up onto the small strip of ground between the trench and the wall, Yorrin had already begun climbing.
The wall was made of vertical tree trunks, stripped of bark and branches. They were flush against one another, lashed tight and mortared with some sort of tar. The wall felt sturdy, to be sure. But it was also rough, with plenty of small handholds. Yorrin was already making his way up the side, freehand, without the aid of rope or spikes or grappling hook.
Prudence made her own ascent with a bit more care. Her progress was slow, but steady. She was just reaching the top when she heard sound above her. First, a gasp.
“Don’t call an alarm,” Yorrin murmured. “Sorry to threaten you. Believe it or not, I’m here to help. Not to fight.”
A gruff voice spoke in reply. “What? You’re not making any sense. Who the hell are you?”
“My name is Yorrin, and I’m with Lefty and the other men that were lost in the Underpass. Like I said, I’m here to help.”
“And that blade’s your idea of helping, is it?”
Yorrin sighed, and Prudence felt she could see the impatient look on his face from the sound of it. “Yes,” he said. “If you shout an alarm, you’ll get the attention of the men camped out there. The only way to ensure you would keep calm and not do anything stupid was to get your attention first.”
“Oh, you definitely have my attention,” the man said.
What an idiot, Prudence thought. Such stupid posturing. If Yorrin was an enemy, the best way to handle him would be to put him at ease. Make him think you believe him.
“And yet it seems you aren’t listening,” Yorrin said. “I’m with a small group, waiting out on the road north. We fought our way free of the Underpass alongside Lefty and what’s left of your mates. If we coordinate, I think we can hit those bastards with the catapult while most of them are still sleeping.”
“I hear you just fine, little man,” said the Taraamite. “Sounds like an interesting plan… maybe. But so far you’ve just blown some breath my way. You haven’t proven anything to me. You’re still pointing a sword at me. I don’t know how the hell you got up here, or who you are. If you think I’m going to just roll over and buy this story, or even take you to talk to Davan, you must be fucking daft.”
Prudence shifted her grip on the wall, as her arms began to ache from the strain of hanging at the edge of the battlements. She crept higher, judging from the man’s voice where he was. She’d guessed right, and she quietly climbed over the wall. She dropped down onto the wooden platform behind the Taraamite. Yorrin stood in front of the soldier, sword drawn. A quick glance around confirmed the nearest sentry was down on the west wall, a considerable distance away. Taraam’s sentries were focused around the gates into the fort, not the long and empty southern wall.
“Let’s back up,” Yorrin said. “What’s your name?”
The man hesitated, but then acquiesced. “Joseph.”
“Alright Joseph. How are you lot holding up in here? How long has this been going on?”
“You must be joking,” Joseph said, sounding annoyed.
“It’s been shit. These bastards somehow found out that the Captain and most of the men were away on an expedition. Which you apparently know, too. Curious, that.”
“Stay on track, Joseph,” Yorrin chided. “Who are they?”
“What do you want to know? They call themselves the Songbirds, I think. Brigand group that plies the Cassaline road into Kirkworth, mostly. Been growing bolder and bolder all last fall, and even into winter. But they’ve always been just a nuisance. Not too violent, nothing too serious. Captain was more concerned with the goblins, when word came out that they were on the move.”
“They don’t look like just a nuisance to me,” Yorrin said.
“Well, no. Not now. They managed to find a God damned catapult, somehow. One that works well enough to lob stones at us all fucking day. A few of us have been wounded. But they’re too cowardly to assault us upfront, so they just sit there. Whittling us down day by day. If they’re patient enough, they’ll have us before the season’s out.”
He eyed Yorrin. “Though… maybe they’re getting impatient.”
Yorrin frowned. He was clearly considering how to talk to the stubborn Taraamite. Finally, he spoke. “Lefty, Olivenco, Wallbreaker, Lordling, Quickblade, and Perrin. That’s who’s traveling with us. I’m not in league with the men in that camp. Now do you trust me?”
There was a pause. Prudence imagined Joseph was considering. After a moment, he spoke: “Why only the six of them? Where’s everyone else?”
“That is everyone else!” Yorrin growled. His voice raised a fraction, but Prudence doubted the other sentries would hear it over the rain. “The Underpass was a bloodbath. Neither of us would have made it out alive without the other.”
Joseph recoiled as if struck. “You’re lying.”
Bad move, Yorrin, Prudence realized, but too late to do anything about it. He’s not going to want to hear that. Now he won’t want to believe you, or believe you’re here to help. Because believing that means believing that nearly all of his brothers-in-arms are dead.
“I’m really not,” Yorrin said. His tone was still annoyed. Impatient. He was not working this man as carefully as he ought to have been. “How would I have learned all their names, if I was?”
Joseph shrugged. “Could’ve tortured it out of ‘em. Listened in on ‘em. Dozen other ways. But there’s no way that—”
“He’s telling the truth,” Prudence said. Joseph nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of her voice. He craned his neck to see her, but he didn’t dare try to turn around with Yorrin’s sword pressing so close to his neck.
“Who’s there?” he said.
“Call me Prudence,” she said. “I’m sorry we had to break all of this to you so suddenly, but it’s the truth. More importantly, we have wounded. You have wounded. If we’re going to get them shelter and better treatment, we need to break whatever this little siege is, and we need to do it now.”
“And you want me to bring you to Serjeant Davan, I assume?”
“No,” Prudence said. “I want you to tell Dour Davan the plan. We need to get back as soon as possible.”
Joseph turned his head further, to get a better look at Prudence, a quizzical expression on his face. “Doughty,” he said. “Doughty Davan, that’s what the men call him.”
“Perrin said that he and some of the others that had to train under him gave him a… different nickname.”
“And how exactly did you learn that?” Joseph asked.
“Same way I learned that Lefty—Emmett—was born on a pig farm in Cardenbury. That Lordling’s family line, Maron, are minor nobles in Copperwell. That Olivenco’s sword is named Amante and his dagger is Besito. That Wallbreaker got his nickname from the first time he tried to make a repair on this very wall we’re standing on, and made such a hash of it that nobody would let him live it down.”
The Taraamite’s eyes were wide, and he said nothing. Behind him, Prudence noticed Yorrin was staring at her with nearly as much surprise.
“I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Perrin, these last few days,” she explained. As much to Yorrin as to the other. “Because he’s my friend. Because we’ve been fighting our way out of the Underpass, together. Like Yorrin said.”
Joseph looked back to Yorrin, who nodded. “Like I said,” Yorrin lowered his sword. “We’re here to help.”
Well, he’s not shouting an alarm. That’s a good sign.
After a long silence, Joseph finally shrugged. “Alright,” he said. “Now what? You want me to go tell Davan that some strangers made contact with me, and told me to… what? Get ready to attack their camp? Throw open the gates and charge out? All on your word? And if this is a trap, and it gets more men killed, and—”
“Olivenco is hurt badly,” Prudence said. “The sooner this is done, the better. We will strike their camp in—” she paused, made eye contact with Yorrin. “—two hours. If we die, we die. If you want to improve our chances, and the chances of your Captain, you’ll make sure that we have all the support you can muster.”
Prudence took a rope from where it had been hooked onto the outside of her pack. She made a loop on one end and draped it over one of the tree trunks that served as wooden crenels. She glanced at Yorrin, and he nodded.
This fellow will need to think about this. And we need to go.
Yorrin went first, taking hold of the rope and rapidly rappelling down the side of the wall.
Joseph met Prudence’s eyes. He looked nervous. Anguished. He’d been given far too much information to deal with in a short amount of time.
“Just pass the information along to Davan,” she said. “We need his help. Your help. The Captain needs it most of all. He’ll make the right choice.”
“But… I don’t know what the right choice is.”
Prudence smiled. “Yeah, you do. But if I’m wrong, so be it.” Yorrin was already on the ground below. Prudence grabbed the rope, and climbed up over the battlements. “We’ll do what needs doing, and—God willing—we’ll see you again before first light.”
There was nothing more to say. She dropped off the wall. Her gloved hand slid down the rope in careful, controlled bursts as she made it to the ground.
“That could have gone better,” she said.
Yorrin shrugged. “Went about as well as I’d hoped, honestly.”
“What if they don’t help?” Prudence asked, though she already knew the answer.
“You know Aleksandr. He’ll want to push through anyway. Rout the bandits, save the fort. With the Whip and Bear, if they’re up to it. Lefty’s boys, too. Or all by himself, if he has to.”
“They’ll be heavily outnumbered. He will be heavily outnumbered.”
Yorrin gave Prudence a sly smile, one she could make out even in the deep gloom of the overcast night.
“Well,” he said. “We’ll have to do something about that, then, won’t we?”