PART TWO: FIRST SURGE
From the highest point in all of Tsab, the uppermost story of the northern watchtower, King Guc gazed northward as if his height could compensate for the distance between his city and the massive army of quatics his scouts informed him was out there...somewhere. Five thousand of them, headed in this direction. Five thousand vicious, warlike quatics against his scant population of 5000, more than two-thirds of whom were infirm, women, and children. The standing militia of Tsab numbered 600, and perhaps another 800 could be pressed into service. Even with the walls, Guc knew it would not be enough.
"Has this morning's scout returned yet?" asked Guc, addressing the question to the captain of the guards who stood silently by his side.
"No, Your Majesty."
Guc stifled the impulse to sigh. "Send out another one," he commanded.
With a crisp salute, the captain turned to carry out his sovereign's orders. Guc spared the officer a glance as he began his descent down the long spiral staircase that would take him to ground level.
This morning's scout was probably dead, joining several others who had vanished in the past day. Less than half the men Guc sent out returned. Theirs was a dangerous mission, and each loss was one less able body to defend the city, but this kind of campaign needed intelligence more than people. When it came down to it, one sword arm - or a score, for that matter - would mean little.
How he wished for someone other than the silent Captain Yob to stand by his side - a Caa or a Mak, or anyone who would offer suggestions and not simply agree with his every decision. Guc understood tactics, and knew what had to be done to prepare the city for what was to come, but he yearned to hear a voice other than his own speak thoughts that were not born in his mind.
Guc didn't know exactly when the attack would come, but it would be soon, perhaps as early as tonight, if the quatics flouted conventional warfare and began a starlight siege. The situation presented several dilemmas, each of which needed an immediate solution.
Convinced that the quatic army was far beyond the reach of his vision, Guc descended from the watchtower. On the way down, he encountered Yob, bearing a message that the full council was seated and awaiting His Majesty's presence.
Rather than going to the chamber where his hand-picked group of sycophants would be whining for reassurance, Guc headed for the militia barracks, where strategy sessions were being conducted. There, at least, he might be able to learn something. Council meetings at times like these were needless annoyances. Had it not been dangerous to his public image, Guc would have disbanded the circle of fourteen long ago. The people, however, viewed those men and women as their links with the king, even though there were perhaps two people who had anyone's interests other than their own at heart.
Four of the highest-ranking military minds in Tsab were gathered around a large map of Devforth. The position of the quatics based on the last scouting report was indicated by a large red marker. When the men noticed who entered, they gave perfunctory salutes before returning to the matter at hand.
"What do you think, gentleman?" asked Guc, moving uninvited into their midst.
The eldest of the four, an ancient, battle-tested veteran named Fam, spoke first. "If we don't get help from somewhere, they'll beat us back no matter what we do." Though his face was a mass of wrinkles and blotches, his eyes were alert and lively. Fam, who had once been Tsab's battle commander, had resigned that post a dozen years ago, but remained available for occasions such as this.
"I think we can withstand a siege," muttered Tyw, the youngest of the four, a newly promoted captain who was popular with the men because he never put them through anything he wasn't willing to endure. Tyw was perhaps the ugliest man Guc had ever seen, but he had an open, easygoing manner that encouraged people to forget his twisted, out-of-proportion features and gangly body.
"I doubt it's a siege they're after," said Fam. "Creatures like that, with their strength and in those numbers, they can bring down the walls. They aren't going to sit out there and wait for us to surrender. They want blood."
"We need to devise a defense," said Irn, the current battle-commander, an impressive man of fifty-five years with iron-gray hair, a full beard, and eyes that could capture and hold a man's attention. He was an imposing presence who bowed to two men only - the king and Fam.
"We can’t possibly hold them off in an open battle," argued Tyw. "We don't have enough men to try field maneuvers, then withdraw and wait it out behind the walls. The whole army numbers only three-hundred fifty horse and two-hundred fifty foot soldiers. I wouldn't want to throw any emergency conscripts into immediate fighting."
"We may have no choice," noted Irn.
"Still, if we plan for a siege, we can take a defensive posture..."
Guc interrupted the proceedings. "There will be no siege. If we stay behind the walls, these creatures will tear them down to get to us." He remembered the group of quatics he had encountered on the previous trip from Vorti to Tsab and knew instinctively that waiting was not these creatures' way. "What we have to decide is which plan will keep the maximum number of our people alive for the longest time, in the hope aid will arrive from the east. I believe we're all in agreement that if it's just us against them, there's no way we can win."
Reluctantly, all four nodded.
"I have sent messengers to Merk, Xert, Llam, and Vorti requesting immediate aid." Guc didn't mention Fels, and everyone understood why. It was widely believed King Yax was guilty of collaboration with the enemy. Otherwise, how had his city, lying on the border of Flaz' Quag, gone untouched by the massive quatic army?
"So the question is whether to keep the army within the walls and fight the creatures as they attempt to scale them, or shut up the citizens inside while sending our forces out to engage the enemy in open combat. Not a pleasant choice," commented Captain Rug, the rugged undercommander to Irn, and the only one not to have previously spoken. Rug, a veteran of the Vorti war, rarely offered a comment, but when he did, his fellows listened.
"I agree," said Irn. "If we close up the forces within the gates, we negate their effectiveness. Women can throw boiling pitch on climbing quatics as easily as trained guards. On the other hand, if we send the army into the field, we consign them to slaughter. A pitched battle would devastate us."
"What about lightning raids?" questioned Guc. "None of the quatics are on horses. They can move fast, but not as fast as mounted men. If we have the cavalry attack quickly and repeatedly, then retreat, we might be able to harry their forces enough to give the other cities time to respond."
"And how do you propose to use the foot soldiers, Your Majesty?" asked Fam.
As bait, thought Guc, but he didn't voice the idea. As leaders of the army, these men wouldn't appreciate the notion of sacrificing half their soldiers.
"I leave that up to you gentlemen," said the king. "Deploy them as they can best serve their city without committing suicide."
"Your Majesty, pardon my saying so, but aren't you placing undue reliance upon the other cities? What if they decline to come to Tsab's aid? We are not the most popular city in Devforth," said Tyw.
"They will come because the threat we face is a danger to the whole continent, not just one city. They would rather see Tsab as the battleground, rather than their own cities, and they recognize that if the quatics aren't stopped here, they'll march on to the Twin Cities and beyond. The armies will come - all of them. The question is whether we'll be able to hold out long enough for them to get here."
"How many men can they bring?" asked Tyw.
Irn, who knew the strengths of the other cities' armies, responded to that question. "Undoubtedly, none will bring their full military might, but the forces will be larger than a token show of strength. The first aid should come from the Twin Cities. Assuming they send about half their militias, we’ll have an influx of twenty-five hundred men in one day. Llam will take longer, and they'll probably only contribute one-thousand men. If we can hold out three days, Vorti should send another three-thousand - or perhaps more, considering the Queen's relationship with Your Majesty."
"We have to hold for three days, then," noted Guc. "If we can keep the quatics out of the city until Vorti's reinforcements arrive, we have a legitimate chance."
"Begging Your Majesty's pardon," noted Fam, "But I'm not sure even Vorti's militia will be enough against these beasts."
"His Majesty was thinking less of the men than the wizards," stated Rug. "Vorti has two assets which make her dangerous: her military might and her Apaths. Both undoubtedly will come to our aid, and what the first cannot accomplish, the second may succeed at."
“Exactly,” agreed Guc. “The question is: how best to keep this city from falling before help can arrive?”
“What we have to ensure is that they fight our type of battle, not the other way ’round,” said Tyw. “We have to choose the terrain, and the manner of combat, and that means somewhere where our foot soldiers can be as much of an asset as our mounted men.”
“You have a suggestion?” demanded Fam.
Tyw nodded. “The cliffs by the coast. If we can lure the quatics there, we’ll have the higher ground just before the sheer drop. While they’re moving up to destroy us, the mounted riders can attack from behind.”
“And if things go wrong, the foot soldiers will be pinned in an untenable position with no way out,” noted Rug. “You place them with their backs to the edge where they’ll have to stay until the battle ends or the quatics retreat.”
Tyw disagreed. “If the mounted charge breaks or merely scatters the quatic forces, the foot soldiers can divide, with one group moving up the coast and the other in the opposite direction. Splitting the forces will form two smaller, more mobile groups that can make for more difficult targets. The more confusion we create, the longer we can hold out.”
“And the less likely the quatics will turn to the city gates for amusement,” stated Guc with approval. “What do you others think?”
“It’s workable,” agreed Fam. “Dangerous, as with all timing maneuvers, but if we pull it off, it might be possible to keep our forces reasonably intact until reinforcements arrive.”
“It needs refinement,” said Irn. “But I agree with Fam. The basic strategy could be effective against this sort of superior force. As long as we stress to the men that we’re acting as a diversion, not trying to win. If we get into a ‘real’ battle, it doesn’t matter how good our timing is, or how strong our position. Against such an overwhelmingly superior force, we’ll be crushed.”
“We’ll be sure the men understand what’s expected of them,” said Rug.
When he was certain his four battle leaders were in agreement, Guc gave his approval. “Let’s get it done, then. I’ll leave it to you gentlemen to work out the details. I have other things to attend to.”
“Your Majesty?” questioned Irn. “When will you be riding from Tsab?”
Guc regarded the man quizzically. “What do you mean?”
Irn shrugged. “Eastward. To Merk or Xert, perhaps.”
Now Guc understood. “Fleeing, you mean?” His scowl expressed his opinion of the suggestion.
“A withdrawal,” corrected Irn. “For morale. So that the men will know their sovereign survives...”
“...as a craven bastard who runs away with the approach of danger,” finished Guc, his voice thick with scorn. “Not only do I intend to remain behind, but I will lead the attack of the mounted force. This king will not abandon his city. Let the people know that and see how it affects their morale!”
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