Luthien's Gamble by R. A. Salvatore


  The heartbeat of the drums; the thunder of the footsteps. An occasional bow twanged, but at this distance, even arrows from the great elvish longbows had no chance of penetrating the blocking shield wall. Luthien wanted to pass the word along the line to hold all shots. The cyclopians would get closer, after all, much closer.

  Luthien kept quiet, though, realizing that his desire to scold his own was wrought of his ultimate frustration and fear, and understanding that those same emotions guided the defenders who did fire their bows. The archers might not be doing any real damage to the cyclopian line, but they were bolstering their own courage.

  It occurred to Luthien that courage and stupidity might not be so far apart.

  The young Bedwyr shook that nonsense from his mind and from his heart. This was Caer MacDonald, his city, his Eriador, and there was nothing stupid about dying here for this concept called freedom, which Luthien had never truly known in the short two decades of his life.

  The cyclopians reached the rubble of the outer wall and came over it, like an indomitable wave of black-and-silver death. Now the bows sang out, one after another, many at a time, and the catapults and ballistae fired off as fast as the crews manning them could reload baskets of stones or heavy spears. But how many could they kill? Luthien had to wonder as he, too, let fly with his bow. A hundred? Five hundred? Even if that were the case, the cyclopians could spare the losses. The air about Luthien hummed with the song of quivering bowstrings, but the cyclopian ranks did not falter. As the defenders on the wall had become quickly seasoned to the type of battle on this field, so had the Praetorian Guard, and the defenders of Caer MacDonald had nothing new or unexpected to throw at them.

  The squares dissolved into a rushing mob. Out came the grapnels and hundreds of ropes, out came the ladders, dozens and dozens of stripped trees with branches pegged or tied on as cross-steps, for the cyclopians had not been idle during the hours of midday. Caer MacDonald’s wall was not high enough to delay the charge; the defenders did not have the time to slaughter enough of the brutes, or cut enough of the ropes, or knock away enough of the ladders.

  Luthien wondered if he should call the retreat immediately, run back to the inner wall by the Ministry with his soldiers, surrender the outer section of the city. In the few moments that he took to make up his mind, the decision was made for him. The battle was joined in full.

  Shuglin’s battered dwarfs, as solid a force as could be found, held the courtyard, ready for another breach along the main gates. Looking out from the gatehouse, Luthien realized that the dwarfs would not be enough. A swarm of Praetorian Guards battered at the barricaded doors. A line of cavalry waited behind them, the heavy ponypigs and the largest and strongest of the cyclopians. Luthien spotted the ugly general among those ranks. He wanted to call for a concentrated volley to that spot, but in looking around, he understood that it was too late; few on the wall still held their bows, and most of those who did were swinging the weapons like clubs, battering at the cyclopians as the brutes climbed up in stubborn, unending lines.

  Luthien sprinted along the wall. He cut one rope, then a second, then heard a shout below and decided that the best place for him would be among the dwarfs. The breaches along the wall were dangerous, of course, but if the courtyard was lost, then so, too, would be the bulk of the city.

  As he came down among Shuglin’s throng, Luthien saw that the fighting had already begun at the gate. One of the doors was gone, buried under the weight of the press, and in the bottleneck at the gates, the dwarven and cyclopian dead began to pile up.

  Luthien came across Shuglin and grabbed his friend by the shoulder, a farewell salute.

  “We’ll not hold them this time,” the dwarf admitted, and Luthien could only nod as he had no words to reply to the grim, and apparently accurate, argument.

  The cyclopians began to gain ground at the gate, the press of one-eyes forcing the dwarfs back. And each step back widened the area of battle, allowed room for more cyclopians to pour into the fight.

  “Eriador free,” Luthien said to Shuglin, and the two exchanged smiles, and together they rushed in to die.

  • • •

  Tears rimmed Siobahn’s green eyes as she darted from position to position atop the wall, bolstering the defenses wherever a cyclopian had gained a foothold. Her sword carried dozens of nicks, from chopping through ropes and banging against the stone of the walltop, but the imperfections were hardly noticeable beneath the thick layer of blood and gore that stained the blade.

  She ran on toward yet another break in the line, but skidded to a stop, nearly tumbling in a bloody slick, as she noticed a silver helmet coming up over the wall. Her sword crashed down, cleaving the helm, cleaving the cyclopian’s skull.

  Siobahn allowed herself a moment to catch her breath and survey the wall. Cyclopians were coming over in large numbers; soon they would be a virtual waterfall of bodies, leaping down into the city, Caer MacDonald, wiping out whatever gains the rebellion had made. Montfort’s flag would fly again, it seemed, along with the pennant of Greensparrow, and under them, Siobahn’s people, the Fairborn elves, would know slavery once more.

  The half-elf shook her head and screamed at the top of her lungs. She would not play whore again for some merchant in Greensparrow’s favor. No, she would die here, this day, and would kill as many Praetorian Guard as she could, in the hope—and it was fast becoming a fleeting hope—that her efforts would not be in vain, that those who came after her would be better off for her sacrifice.

  Another silver helm appeared above the battlement; another cyclopian fell dead to the field below.

  • • •

  Luthien was fighting now, beside Shuglin, yet they were nowhere near the broken gate. The dwarven ranks could not hold tight enough to stem the cyclopian flow. It was like grabbing fine sand, too much fine sand to fit into your hand. And still the brutes were coming in an endless, incessant wave.

  Luthien wondered when the enemy cavalry would burst through. He hoped that he would get a chance, just one chance, at the ugly cyclopian leader. He hoped that he might at least win a personal victory, though the war was surely lost.

  Blind-Striker cut a circular parry, narrowly deflecting a cyclopian spear. Luthien realized the price of his distraction, feared for an instant that his fantasizing about the enemy leader had put him in a perilous position indeed, up on his heels with no room to retreat!

  His one-eyed opponent noted the opening, too, and came on fiercely. But suddenly the cyclopian lurched and fell away, and standing in its place was Shuglin, who offered a wink to his human friend.

  “To the door?” the dwarf asked through the tangle of his blue-black beard.

  “Is there any other place for us to be?” Luthien answered wistfully, and together they turned, looking for an opening that would lead them to the front lines of the fight.

  They stopped suddenly as a sharp hissing sound erupted from the stone above the broken doors. Green sparks and green fire sputtered about the structure, and the fighting stopped as dwarfs, cyclopians, and men turned to watch.

  There came a sparkling burst of bright fire, a puff of greenish-gray smoke, and then, as abruptly as it had appeared, it was extinguished, and where it had been, instead of smooth, unremarkable stone, loomed a portcullis—a huge portcullis!

  “Where in the name of Bruce MacDonald . . .” Shuglin started to cry out, among the astonished cries of everyone else who witnessed the remarkable spectacle, particularly those unfortunate cyclopians directly below the massive, spiked creation.

  Down came the portcullis, crushing the one-eyes below it, blocking the advance of those beyond the gate and preventing the retreat of the brutes inside.

  The dwarfs didn’t wait for an explanation, but fell into a battle frenzy, hoping to clear the courtyard quickly that they might bolster the defense of the wall.

  Luthien spent a few moments marveling at the portcullis. He knew it was a creation of magic—he was one of the few in the battle who h
ad ever personally witnessed such a feat before—but he wondered if someone in the fight had caused it, or if it was some unknown magic of Caer MacDonald, some magical ward built into the stones of the city to come forth when the rightful defenders were in dire need.

  A horn from far across the field and cheers from those defenders on the wall who had a moment to consider the scene answered Luthien’s questions. He broke free of the tangle in the courtyard, scrambled up to the parapet, and witnessed the charge of allies.

  Luthien’s gaze focused immediately on two mounts, a shining white stallion and an ugly yellow pony, and though they and their riders were but specks on the distant field, Luthien knew then that Oliver and Katerin had come.

  Indeed they had, along with a force that had swelled to almost two thousand, the militia of Port Charley’s ranks more than doubled by bands of rebels joining them along their march.

  Arrows rained on the confused one-eyes outside of the wall. Here and there, bursts of flame erupted above the cyclopian heads, releasing shards of sharpened steel to drop among the brutes, stinging and blinding them.

  Luthien knew magic when he saw it, and in considering the allies approaching, he knew who else had come to the call of Caer MacDonald. “Brind’Amour,” he whispered, his voice filled with gratitude and sudden hope.

  Siobahn was beside him then, wrapping him in a tight hug and kissing him on the cheek. Luthien wrapped one strong arm about her and did a complete pivot, a quick turn of pure joy.

  “Katerin has come!” Siobahn cried. “And Oliver! And they’ve brought some friends!”

  The moment of elation for the pair, and for all the other defenders, was quickly washed away by the reality of the continuing fight. Luthien surveyed the scene, trying to find some new plans. Even though the defenders were still outnumbered, he entertained the thought of destroying the entire cyclopian army on the field, there and then. If the confusion among the one-eyes could hold, if there was any desertion among their ranks . . .

  But these were Praetorian Guards, and Luthien had not overestimated the cunning of their leader. Belsen’Krieg, too, paused and considered the battle, and then he turned his forces, all of them who were not trapped inside the city.

  “No!” Luthien breathed, watching the thousands of black-and-silver clad Praetorian Guard forming into a new line as they ran straight toward the approaching reinforcements. Even from this distance, he could estimate the numbers of his allies, and he put them at no more than two thousand, less than one-fourth the number of enemies that would soon overwhelm them.

  The young Bedwyr called for archers to fire into the ranks of the departing brutes; he wanted to organize a force that could rush out of the city to the aid of Katerin and Oliver. But the battle along the wall and in the courtyard was not yet won, and Luthien could only watch.

  “Run,” he whispered repeatedly, and his heart lifted a bit when the approaching force turned about in an organized retreat.

  • • •

  The Avon army gave chase, but Oliver and his companions had not been caught off guard by the cyclopians’ turn. They had expected to be chased from the field, and were more than happy to oblige, running all the way back to Felling Run and across the river on makeshift bridges they had left behind, into defensible positions on the other bank.

  Then the bridges were pulled down, and the cyclopians came upon a natural barrier they could not easily cross, especially with hundreds of archers peppering their ranks once more.

  Frustration boiled in Belsen’Krieg, but he was no fool. He had lost the day, and probably near to two thousand soldiers, but now he was confident that the rebels had played out their last trick. Even with these unexpected reinforcements, the cyclopian leader did not fear ultimate defeat.

  Tomorrow would be another day of war.

  And so the cyclopian force moved north. The sun settled on the western horizon, somehow finding an opening among the thickening clouds to peek through and shine upon the walls of the city that was still known as Caer MacDonald.

  At least for one more day.

  CHESS GAME

  The fighting within the city did not end at twilight. The wall and courtyard were cleared soon enough, but many cyclopians had slipped into the shadows of Caer MacDonald; several fights broke out in alleyways, and several buildings went up in flames.

  Soon after sunset, too, the storm that Siobahn had predicted broke in full. It began as heavy sleet, drumming on the roofs of the houses within the city, drenching the fires of the encampments from Avon and Port Charley. As the night deepened and the temperature dipped, the sleet became a thick, wet snow.

  Luthien watched it from the gatehouse, and later from the roof of the Dwelf. It seemed to him as if God, too, was sickened by the sight of the carnage, and so He was whitewashing the grisly scene. It would take more than snow, however deep it lay, to erase that image from Luthien Bedwyr’s mind.

  “Luthien?” came a call from the street below—Shuglin’s throaty voice. Luthien cautiously picked his way across the slippery roof and peered down at the dwarf.

  “Emissary from Oliver’s camp,” Shuglin explained, pointing to the tavern door.

  Luthien nodded and headed for the rain gutter that would allow him to climb down to the street. He had expected that their allies would send an emissary; he had wondered if perhaps the whole force might come into the city.

  Apparently that was not the case, for the night grew long and the fires of the encampment still burned far in the west, beyond Felling Run. The emissary would explain the intentions of the force to him so that he could coordinate the movements of Caer MacDonald’s defenses. Luthien found that his heart was racing as he slipped down the rain gutter, lighting gently on the street, which was already two inches deep with snow.

  Perhaps it was Katerin who had come in, Luthien hoped. He hadn’t realized until this very moment how badly he wanted to see the fiery, red-haired woman of Hale.

  When he rushed into the Dwelf, he found that the emissary wasn’t Katerin, or Oliver, or even Brind’Amour. It was a young woman, practically a girl, by the name of Jeanna D’elfinbrock, one of Port Charley’s fisherfolk. Her light eyes sparkled when she looked upon Luthien, this legend known as the Crimson Shadow, and Luthien found himself embarrassed.

  The meeting was quick and to the point—it had to be, for Jeanna had to get back to the encampment long before dawn, dodging cyclopian patrols all the way. Oliver deBurrows had wanted to bring Port Charley’s force in, the young woman reported, but they could not safely cross Felling Run. The cyclopians were not so far to the north, and they were alert and would not allow such a move.

  Luthien wasn’t surprised. Many of Caer MacDonald’s defenders were dead or wounded too badly to man the walls. If the two thousand or so reinforcements were allowed inside the city, the holes in the city’s defenses would be plugged, and the cyclopians would have to resume their assault practically from the same place they had begun it the previous day.

  “Our deepest thanks to you and all your force,” Luthien said to Jeanna, and now it was her turn to blush. “Tell your leaders that their actions here will not be in vain, that Caer MacDonald will not fall. Tell Oliver, from me personally, that I know he will show up where most we need him. And tell Katerin O’Hale to take care of my horse!” Luthien couldn’t help a sidelong glance at Siobahn as he spoke of Katerin, but the half-elf did not seem bothered in the least.

  With that, Jeanna D’elfinbrock left the Dwelf and the city, picking her careful way across the snowy fields back through the raging storm the few miles to the Port Charley encampment.

  • • •

  Later that night, Luthien and Siobahn lay in bed, discussing the day past and the day yet to come. The wind had kicked up, shaking the small apartment in Tiny Alcove, humming down the chimney against the rising heat so that the air in the small room had a smoky taste.

  Siobahn snuggled close to Luthien, propped herself up on one elbow, and considered the concentration on the young
man’s fair face. He lay flat on his back, staring up at the dark. But he was looking somewhere else, the perceptive half-elf knew.

  “They are fine,” Siobahn whispered. “They have campfires blazing and know how to shelter themselves from the weather. Besides, they have a wizard among them, and from what you’ve told me of Brind’Amour, he’ll have a trick or two to defeat the storm.”

  Luthien didn’t doubt that, and it was a comforting thought. “We could have swung them to the south and brought them into the city along the foothills,” the young man reasoned.

  “We did not even know the extent and location of their camp until well after sunset,” Siobahn replied.

  “It would only have taken a couple of hours,” Luthien was quick to answer. “Even in the storm. Most of the lower trails are sheltered, and there was little snow on them to begin with.” He breathed a deep, resigned sigh. “We could have gotten them in.”

  Siobahn didn’t doubt what he was saying, but the last thing she wanted now for Luthien was added guilt. “Oliver knows the area as well as you,” she reminded Luthien. “If the folk of Port Charley wanted to get into Caer MacDonald, they would have.”

  Luthien wasn’t so certain of that, but the argument was moot now, for it was well past midnight and he couldn’t do anything about the camp’s location.

  “Shuglin informs me that he and his kin have some new traps ready for the cyclopians,” the half-elf said, trying to shift the subject to a more positive note. “When our enemies come on again, they’ll find the wall harder to breach, and if they’re caught out in the open for any length of time, Oliver and his force will squeeze them from behind.”

  “Oliver hasn’t enough soldiers to do that.”

  Siobahn shook her head and chuckled. “Our allies will strike from a distance!” she insisted. “Hit with their bows at the back of the cyclopians, and run off across the fields.”

  Luthien wasn’t so certain, but again he did not wish to press the argument. He continued to stare up at the ceiling, at the flickering shadows cast by the wind-dancing flames of the hearth. Soon he felt the rhythmic breathing of the sleeping Siobahn beside him, and then he, too, drifted off to sleep.

 
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