Luthien's Gamble by R. A. Salvatore


  “We held,” Siobahn informed him, prodding him on, forcing him to his feet. She took hold of him as he stood, steadying him. “We scattered them and stung them. Their dead litter the field.”

  Luthien liked the words, but there was something in Siobahn’s words, an edge of anxiety, that told him she was trying to convince herself more than him. He wasn’t surprised when she continued.

  “But they have re-formed their lines and are advancing,” the half-elf explained. “Your wounds are not so bad, and your presence is needed at the wall.” Even as she spoke, she was dragging him along, and Luthien felt like an ornament, a figurehead, symbol of the revolution. At that moment, he didn’t doubt that if he had died, Siobahn wouldn’t tell anybody; she’d just prop him up against the wall, tie Blind-Striker to his upraised hand, and shove a dwarf under his cape to call out glorious cheers.

  When Luthien got up to the wall, though, he began to appreciate the cold edge of Siobahn’s actions. The field before Caer MacDonald, all the way to the rubble of the outer wall, was covered in bodies and red-soaked with blood, huge puddles of blood that couldn’t find its way into the frozen ground. Every so often, someone from the wall would hurl something down to the field and the air would throb with beating wings as countless carrion birds lifted off into the gray sky—a sky that had grown darker as the day progressed.

  It was such a surreal, unbelievable scene of carnage that Luthien could hardly sort it out. Most of the dead were cyclopians, all silver and black and red with blood, but among them were the corpses of many men and women, a few elves, and many, many of Shuglin’s bearded folk.

  That’s what Luthien saw most of all: the dead dwarfs. The brave dwarfs who had sprung up in the midst of the marching army, causing chaos and destruction, though they knew they would pay dearly for their actions. It seemed to the young Bedwyr as if all of them were out there, broken and torn, sacrificed not to save Caer MacDonald but only to ward off the first cyclopian charge.

  His face ashen, breathing hard, Luthien looked at Siobahn. “How many?” he asked.

  “More than three hundred,” she replied grimly. “Two hundred of them dwarfs.” Siobahn stood straighter suddenly, squared her shoulders and her delicate jaw. “But five times that number of cyclopians lay dead,” she estimated, and it seemed to Luthien that there were at least that many bodies covering the field.

  Luthien looked away, back to the field, then beyond the field and the rubble, to the swarming black-and-silver mass, the Avon army coming on once more. He took note of a lighter patch of gray in the sky and figured that it was not yet noon, yet here they came again, to repeat the scene of carnage, to cover the dead with a second layer.

  “All in one morning,” the young man whispered.

  Luthien examined his line. There would be no falling outer wall this time, no ambush by Shuglin’s people. This time, the cyclopians would march right to the inner wall, and if they overcame its defenders, if they got into the city, Caer MacDonald would be lost.

  Would be lost, and the rebellion would be at its end, and Eriador would not be free. Luthien did not consider the personal implications of it all, did not even think that he might die in the next hours, or wonder about the consequences to himself if he did not die and the city was lost. Now, up on this wall, the situation was larger than that; there was too much more at stake.

  Strength flowed through Luthien’s battered limbs; he hoisted his sword high into the air, commanding the attention of all those nearby.

  “Eriador free!” came the cheer. “Caer MacDonald!”

  Next to Luthien, Siobahn nodded approvingly. She half-expected the young Bedwyr to pass out from his wounds and knew that he would find this next battle difficult indeed. But he had accomplished what she needed of him, and if he was among the dead after this attack, she would cultivate the legend; she would have every remaining soldier defending Caer MacDonald add the name of Luthien Bedwyr to the cheer.

  Those thoughts were for another time, the half-elf told herself. The catapults fired, the ballistae twanged, and the squared cyclopian groups—two now, not three as in the first attack—plodded on. Upon the wall, a thousand bows bent back and fired, and then again, and again, and again, a thick hail of arrows whistling and thumping against shields, occasionally slipping through a crack in the cyclopian defensive formation.

  Still they came on, the black-and-silver, undeniable flood. They crossed the rubble of the outer wall, stepped over or on top of the dead. An incessant popping noise, the rapid bursts of arrows slamming against metal, became one long drone, mixing with the hum of bowstrings, the very air vibrating.

  The Praetorian Guard broke ranks less than fifty feet from the wall. Ladders appeared; dozens twirled ropes with heavy grapnels as they charged the wall. One large group supported a felled tree between their lines and charged the main gates.

  Arrow volleys from the gatehouses decimated the group holding the battering ram, but many other cyclopians were nearby to take up the tree.

  Now the ring of swords, steel on steel, was heard up and down the wall. Cries of rage mingled with cries of agony, snarls and wails, hoots of victory that became horrifying, agonizing shrieks a moment later as the next opponent struck hard.

  At first, cyclopians died by the score, ten to one over the defenders. But as more grapnels came sailing over the wall, as more and more Praetorian Guards gained footing, stretching the line of the defenders, the ratio began to shift.

  Soon it became five to one, then two to one.

  Luthien seemed to be everywhere, running along the battlements, striking hard and fast before racing on to the next fight, chopping a taut cyclopian climbing rope on his way. He lost track of his kills and wasn’t really certain how many brutes he actually finished anyway. He felt that the defenders would hold, though the price would be heavy indeed.

  An explosion, a shudder along the wall near to the gatehouses, nearly knocked the young Bedwyr from his feet and did indeed tumble a couple of men and cyclopians nearby.

  A second followed, then a third, accompanied by the sound of hammers working furiously.

  “The door!” someone shouted, and Luthien understood. He glanced over the wall and saw the mass congregating, saw the end of the dropped tree, its mission completed.

  Down from the wall leaped Luthien, into the courtyard, into the tangle. He believed that he was rushing to his death, but couldn’t stop himself. The cyclopians were in the courtyard, pouring through the broken gates. This was where Caer MacDonald would fall or hold, and this was where Luthien Bedwyr had to be.

  Soon, as it had been out in the courtyard for the first fight, there were no defined lines, just a mass of soldiers, killing and dying. Luthien tripped over one dying man, and the stumble saved his life, for as he lurched low, a cyclopian sword, still dripping with blood of the victim Luthien had tripped across, whipped high, just above the young Bedwyr’s bent back. Luthien realized that if he stopped, he would be killed before he could turn and face this adversary, so he threw his weight ahead, plowing into another group.

  Right into the midst of three cyclopians.

  • • •

  Up on the wall, Siobahn and her elves continued sending a stream of arrows into the mass outside of Caer MacDonald’s wall, while the larger and stronger humans battled with those brutes stubbornly scrambling up the ropes and ladders.

  “Find their leaders!” the half-elf commanded, and many of her archers were already doing just that. They scanned the mob, seeking out any one-eye giving orders, and whenever an elf spotted one, he called all those archers near to him to bear a concentrated barrage.

  One by one, Belsen’Krieg’s undercommanders went tumbling to the dirt.

  • • •

  Luthien went down to his knees in a spin, completing a semicircle and whipping his sword across, straight out, driving two of the cyclopians back. The young man brought his lead foot under him, coming about and up, batting the third brute’s blade high and lunging forward, guttin
g the one-eye.

  Luthien rushed forward, tearing free Blind-Striker as he passed, then cutting right around, using the falling brute as a shield from the other two, who were close on his heels. He came out behind the tumbling cyclopian, slashing and charging.

  One of the cyclopians wielded a trident, the other a sword, and both weapons were knocked aside in that furious charge. The cyclopian with the trident jumped back, put one hand over the butt end of the weapon, and launched it straight for Luthien’s head.

  Luthien, quick as a cat, dropped down and parried, sword coming high and deflecting the angle of the deadly missile. He didn’t let the trident fly past him, though, but caught it halfway along its shaft in his free hand as the sword defeated its momentum, then reversed its angle, bringing its butt to the ground just in front of him and angling it out to the side, setting it against the charge of the sword-wielder.

  The cyclopian skidded to a stop, but got poked in the shoulder.

  Luthien wasn’t paying attention. He left the trident the moment it was set, rushing out the other way, toward the brute that had hurled the weapon. The cyclopian scrambled, trying to pull a short sword from its belt. It got the weapon out, but too late, while Luthien’s sword slammed hard against its hilt, knocking it from the one-eye’s grasp.

  Straight up went Blind-Striker, cutting like a knife, slicing the brute’s face from chin to forehead. The sword spun around and down in a diagonal swipe, tearing at the brute’s collarbone, across its lower throat and down and under its right breast. Luthien managed yet another stab as the brute fell away, again in the belly.

  The young Bedwyr whirled about, instinctively slashing his sword before him, just in time to pick off the sword of the remaining brute. Back came Blind-Striker, parrying the weapon again, and then a third time, and with each pass, Luthien gained ground, forced his opponent to backpedal. Pure rage drove the young man; this was his homeland; his Eriador. He stabbed and slashed, dropped and cut at the brute down low, then leaped up and poked at the cyclopian’s eye.

  “How many can you block?” he screamed into the brute’s face, pushing it back, ever back, up on its heels until it stumbled.

  A club knocked free from a nearby melee hit Luthien on the leg and he, too, stumbled, and the cyclopian tried to reverse the momentum, tried to go on the offensive. It jabbed with its short sword, but wasn’t able to throw its weight into the thrust. Luthien fell back, then came forward in a rush, beyond the extended weapon, Blind-Striker driving straight into the brute’s heart.

  It had all happened in the span of a few moments; three kills before the blood had even dripped from the blade. Luthien tore his sword free and jumped about, expecting to be overwhelmed in the crush. He was surprised, for suddenly there seemed to be many fewer cyclopians in the courtyard. He looked at the doors and saw that Shuglin’s tough three hundred had fought in a line to seal the courtyard, and now many dwarfs had their shoulders to the battered doors, holding them fast. Still, by Luthien’s estimation, there should have been more cyclopians, more frenzied fighting, in the courtyard.

  Luthien sprinted to a stack of crates piled nearby and leaped atop it, and from the better vantage point, he understood the cyclopian tactics. Instead of fighting a pitched battle just inside the gates, many of the one-eyes had broken away and were running and scattering along Caer MacDonald’s streets.

  A cry from the wall above Luthien declared that the cyclopians outside were in retreat. It was repeated all along the defensive line, accompanied by rousing cheers. With the slaughter becoming more and more one-sided inside the gates, the second assault, like the first, had been repelled.

  Luthien didn’t feel much like cheering. “Clever,” he whispered, a private applause for his adversary, no doubt the huge and ugly cyclopian he had seen at Felling Run.

  Siobahn was beside him a moment later, her shoulder wet with fresh blood. “They have broken away,” the half-elf reported.

  “And many have slipped into the city,” Luthien replied grimly.

  “We will hunt them down,” Siobahn promised, a vow Luthien did not doubt. But Luthien knew, and Siobahn did, too, that hunting the brutes would be an expensive proposition. The fact that they would have to take the effort to search out these cyclopians was exactly the point of the maneuver, for it would take as many as ten defenders to search out each creature that had slipped into the many alleyways of Caer MacDonald.

  Somewhere far away from the wall came the cry of “Fire!” and a plume of black smoke began a slow and steady ascent over the interior of the city. The cyclopians were already at work.

  Luthien looked to the wall and thought again of his clever adversary, a tactician far better than he would expect from the crude one-eyed race. There were, perhaps, twenty thousand enemies facing each other, another few thousand already lying dead, but suddenly it all seemed to be a personal struggle to Luthien, as it had out by Felling Run. The ugly cyclopian against him.

  And if he lost, then all of Caer MacDonald would pay the dear price.

  TWILIGHT

  It will snow tonight,” Siobahn remarked to Luthien and the others manning the wall around them. In the city behind them, several fires raged. Many cyclopians had been hunted down during the course of that afternoon, but others were still out there, prowling the shadows.

  “He’ll not wait,” Luthien assured her.

  The half-elf looked at the young man. The way he had spoken the words, and his referral to the enemy leader, and not to the Avon army, gave her insight into what the young Bedwyr might be thinking.

  Siobahn looked over her shoulder, back toward the city, and saw another group of warriors, their faces covered in soot, emerging from one lane, heading for the wall. Below her, Shuglin’s dwarfs worked hard at reinforcing the gate, but it had never been designed as a ward against so large a force. Up to now, battles for the city had usually been relatively small-scale, mostly against rogue cyclopian tribes. The main doors, though large, were not even bolstered by a portcullis, and though the plans had been drawn up to put one in place, the other defensive preparations, such as rigging the outer wall for collapse, had taken precedence.

  “Replace them on the wall,” Luthien instructed another man near to him, referring to the group coming out of the city. “And send a like number back into the city to hunt and join with the children and the elderly in battling the fires.” The man, his face grim, nodded and left.

  “March on,” Luthien whispered into the biting wind as he looked back out over the fields, and Siobahn knew that he was calling to his enemy. This was a brutal battle, and only growing worse. All the able-bodied men and women had been fighting at the walls, but now even the children and the elderly, even those fighters who had been sorely wounded, had been forced to join in to fight cyclopians, or to fight flames. “Let us be with it.”

  “You are so certain that the one-eyes will come,” Siobahn stated.

  “The storm will be a big one,” Luthien replied. “He knows. Their march to the city will be more difficult in the morning, if they can even come through the storm. Uphill and through blowing snow.” Luthien shook his head. “No,” he assured those around him. “Our enemy will not wait. The time to strike is now, with the sun still in the sky and the fires burning behind us, with our position weakened at the wall and the doors still hanging loose from the last assault.”

  “The dwarfs work well,” one other man remarked, needing to report on some positive news.

  Luthien didn’t argue the point.

  “They will come on,” Siobahn agreed. “But can we hold?”

  Luthien looked at her for just a moment, then glanced all around, at the faces of those nearby who had suddenly become quite interested in the conversation. “We will hold,” Luthien said determinedly, teeth clenched. “We will drive them from our gates once more, kill them in the field, and then let the storm stop them and freeze what few are left alive. Eriador free!”

  An impromptu cheer erupted from that section of the wall. Sioba
hn didn’t join in. She stared long and hard at Luthien, though he, looking over the fields, didn’t seem to notice her. She knew the truth of his little speech, knew that any apparent conviction in his words was for the sake of the others nearby. Luthien was no fool. Three, four, maybe even five thousand cyclopians were dead or wounded too badly to continue to fight, but between the defenders’ dead and those who were within the city’s interior, hunting cyclopians and battling flames, the force along the wall was at least as badly depleted, and every defender lost, every lost archer, who might fire a dozen arrows before the brutes even got near to the wall, was worth several cyclopians.

  They had almost lost the wall in the last attack, and the odds then had been much more in their favor, the defenses more solid.

  Luthien directed a sharp glance at the half-elf, as though he had somehow heard her silent reasoning. “Send the word throughout the city,” he instructed. “Get everyone who is not at the wall or otherwise engaged, within the walls of the merchant section. Let most go into the Ministry.”

  Siobahn bit her lip. She was cold from loss of blood and the freezing wind, and from the confirmation that Luthien shared her doubts. These were plans of retreat, a contingency based on his belief that the outer wall, and thus, the outer city, would be lost before the nightfall.

  “And give them all weapons,” Luthien added as the half-elf started away. “Even the children. Even the very old.”

  Siobahn did not look back because she did not want Luthien to see her wince. The gravity of the potential defeat weighed heavily on her, as it did on Luthien. After the fighting, the victorious cyclopians would not show much mercy.

  • • •

  They were all seasoned to this type of battle now, after only a single day, and so there was no panic along the wall when the black-and-silver mass appeared again, in two huge squares, marching slowly toward them.

 
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