Kerrick saw the chiefwoman’s frantic wave and understood that some terrible danger menaced the gate and that the citadel’s defenders in the courtyard had to flee as swiftly as possible. He saw Lars Redbeard charge out the small door, but everything else was confusion. His mind was still thick and lethargic from using the magic ring.
He joined the Highlanders scattering out of the open courtyard, racing for doors and niches, barracks and stables and sheds along the fortress’s inner wall. A glance over his shoulder showed the gatehouse defenders spilling down from the parapets, pouring from the doors onto the top of the great wall. He could hear lookouts shouting that the ogre attackers had abruptly fallen back from the portal. Guided by instinct, he found a narrow, deep doorway in the side wall of the keep and ducked inside. There he crouched, momentarily, hand on the hilt of his sword.
Terrible fatigue threatened to overcome him. Every movement was a great effort, and he slumped against the cold stone, longing only for sleep or for even deeper oblivion. His surroundings, the attack and the fortress and the human fighters, all seemed vague and unreal.
The explosion ripped through the courtyard like surreal thunder. He glimpsed a blast of dust and debris, a massive, tumbling slab-one of the gates-and he was blinded by the stinging soot and heat. He lay stunned on the ground for an eerie span of time that seemed to last for hours but actually passed in a matter of seconds. At first his muscles seemed beyond the control of his will. Gradually, his body obeyed him, and he pushed himself upward to sit and blink, wiping dust and grime from his face.
Gasping and choking, he groped to his feet and lurched into the great courtyard of Brackenrock. He was too numb to feel horror. He only registered disbelief as he gaped at the splintered remains of several wooden structures near the gate, saw the spreading aperture where once the heavy barrier had rested on iron hinges. The sky, cloudy and obscured by black, roiling smoke, was all he could see where once stood a stout and protective barrier.
The walls of Brackenrock were breached.
The ogre king’s ears still rang from the echoes of the blast, but he shouted exultantly, his thunderous voice oddly muffled in his own hearing. Still he roared with delight, lifting his royal sword and circling it over his head. “Up, you louts! Up, and behold the power of Gonnas!” That power was obvious to all. The gap in the walls of Brackenrock was a breach such as even Grimwar had scarcely dared to imagine. True, one of the towers still stood, leaning precipitously, stones breaking free from the gash along the gate side, tumbling and clattering into the rubble-strewn gap, but the gate and other tower and a section of the wall beyond had been simply blown to bits.
All around, the ogres were rising from crouches, gaping in shock, blinking in disbelief. A hardy few were the first to take up the king’s cries, then more, and soon the entire company of Grenadiers was bellowing in joy. Grimwar turned, saw his wife’s face alight with battle-fury.
“The axe!” Stariz demanded.
“We go, now!” he replied fervently. “Prepare the catapult-ready the golden orb!”
Broadnose and his squad wheeled the great weapon around, aligning the lever so that it would launch its load over the fortress wall, into the keep itself. Already they were cocking back the arm of the catapult, while the queen herself gingerly lifted the heavy metallic sphere, cradling the orb against her belly as she waited for the basket to be lowered.
The Grenadiers moved forward with a fierce will, with so much eagerness that it took the sergeant-major’s use of his whip to dress the lines. The king approved of the discipline. This was a great opportunity, and his warriors must keep to the plan.
Grimwar Bane himself strode forward with the Shield-Breakers, bravely showing himself in the second rank of the line. He looked between the brawny forms, saw the smoke and dust blowing out of the gap, and felt the thrill of battle, a killing frenzy such as he had not known in years. A few humans were visible, one smallish fellow rushing forward in a completely irrational manner, others forming a pathetically thin line across the breach.
As if these puny humans could stop the might of Suderhold, when Gonnas the Strong was with his king!
The gate was gone, and one of the two towers had been completely obliterated! Kerrick was stunned to note that the very hinges had been bent and twisted by the force of the blast, and both the gate and the portcullis had been tossed into the courtyard, so much splintered wreckage. Then he saw shapes forming, advancing through the murk.
An ogre charge! The realization barely seemed to seep through his stunned consciousness. He shuffled, forced his feet into a trot, his sword awkward in his hands.
“Here they come!” cried Strongwind Whalebone, urging his men to form a line. “Meet them with Highlander steel!”
The king charged and waved, exhorting his men. From a stone-walled storeroom a dozen shaken Highlanders spilled forth, while a few more stumbled out of various shelters. A score at least had perished instantly in each of the structures nearest the shattered gate… how many others were dead? The swiftness of the carnage was unthinkable, but Stronghold was rallying his warriors, and they roared for vengeance as they rushed to block the gate.
Kerrick had a sickening thought. The missing gatehouse-Moreen had been atop that parapet! There was nothing left of her previous perch. Stone and lumber had been blasted to oblivion. Surely there was no way mere flesh could have survived! Furiously he pushed his fears aside. She couldn’t be gone! The very idea was impossible, and he took faint comfort in that impossibility.
Through the smoke and settling dust cloud, the horde of dark shapes advanced on the breach, hulking shapes marching shoulder to shoulder, bristling with great spears. Besides his enormous fatigue Kerrick felt a sudden overpowering sense of hopelessness. Surely there was no way for the Arktos and Highlanders to stop such an attack.
Others must have felt the same, as, crying in pain or shouting in panic a few turned and ran. Kerrick felt a sob well up. It was too much! He had no strength left!
“Stand and fight-it’s our only hope!” Kerrick tried to shout, croaking the words as he waved his sword at one of the frightened survivors. The fellow, eyes wide but unseeing, stumbled past the elf, shouting inarticulately.
One man drew the attention of many others, racing toward the gate in a frenzy. The elf’s hopes flared at the inspiring sight of Mad Randall. The berserker’s mouth was open, a rictus of fury. His voice swirled through the chaos like a banshee’s song, and he held his axe upraised. Mad Randall charged as though he could turn back the entire army alone, hurling himself into the path of the ogres.
“Follow Randall! For Kradok and the Lady of Brackenrock!” Strongwind roared, and his men took up the cry.
Even the surging army of ogres seemed to hesitate in the face of this clearly deranged foe, screaming with laughter as he taunted their front ranks. The other Highlanders and Kerrick as well took heart from the berserker’s courage, rushing after, enough of them materializing to form a ragged line, a gate made of flesh and steel, standing shoulder to shoulder across the entrance.
Before the ogre charge struck, the voice of an old woman, brittle and sharp as an angry bird’s, rose above the din.
“Chislev Wilder, born of flood-render bedrock into mud!”
Dinekki! The old shaman was casting a spell from somewhere just behind the rank of defenders, who cheered a hurrah as the front rank of ogres suddenly tripped and flailed. Their boots sank into ooze, a soft patch that quickly spread to cover all the ground in front of shattered gate. Mud sucked at feet, slurped around stout knees. The next rank of ogres spilled forward, tumbling over their fellows, and for several moments the enemy front dissolved into a chaotic tangle of infuriated warriors, some drowning, others hacking their own companions in their struggles.
One finally broke free, climbing from the slimy pit, roaring in rage as he lifted arms draped with mud. As he strode forward Mad Randall howled and charged him with his axe whirling. The ogre flailed wildly, wielding a weapon clotted with soil. The berserker ducked underneath the blow and swung his axe like a lumberjack. The steel edge slashed through armor plate and scored a deep wound across the bulging belly. With a moan, the ogre fell backward and sank into the muck. The humans cheered.
Others struggled forward now, but the humans sprang to meet them. Steel clashed with steel at the edge of the mud pit. A few ogres still clutched their spears and thrust these long weapons into the rank of lightly armored human defenders. A Highlander next to Kerrick went down, bleeding heavily. Another doubled over, clutching his gut, resisting only weakly as the spear-bearer jerked his barbed weapon backward and dragged the hapless human away.
Kerrick’s weariness still hampered him. It felt like slow motion as he slashed with his sword, and his keen steel edge sliced past one ogre buckler to draw blood from a thick forearm. The hammer blow of the attacker’s fist slammed the elf backward, and he barely hung onto his weapon as he smashed to his back and lay gasping for breath. Somehow he managed to push himself up back in line.
The mud pit was now choked with ogre bodies, and the attackers had to climb and kick their way across the corpses of their fellows to join the fight. More Highlanders went down, slashed by cruel axes or crushed by blows of massive war hammers. Other humans stepped in to take the places of the fallen, but there were fewer and fewer reserves. As the attackers pressed, the line was depleted and bent until the defenders were stretched thin.
Abruptly a cloud of smoke billowed in the melee, and the howls of pain-maddened ogres rose above the din of battle. A mist of liquid spilled from the high wall, from the tower that still stood, and the elf knew that some of the gatehouse defenders were pouring hot oil onto the attacking army. Infuriated ogres fanned out to all sides, frantic to escape, while the defenders knew where to step to avoid the searing rain. The humans were heartened and stood firm, knocking ogres away into the spattering, blistering deluge.
Another fresh company of ogres charged forward, however, shields over their heads as they lumbered through the bodies of their compatriots. A desultory splash of oil hit the first of these, burning through gauntlets and armor, but then the trickle ceased, as the precious liquid was expended. A few arrows pelted down from the walls, some of them causing painful wounds, but that barrage was too diffuse to have any effect on the large number of enemies.
Kerrick fell to one knee, too weak even to stand as an armored ogre, tusked face leering grotesquely, loomed overhead. The elf raised his sword, knowing he didn’t have the strength to block the ogre thrust. In the instant before the strike, however, Mad Randall whirled into view, slashing the ogre’s hamstring with his own axe, then cutting the brute’s throat with a blow from the opposite direction. The berserker was gone before Kerrick could thank him-and the elf doubted that the infuriated warrior would even have heard him. Once again, he somehow pushed himself to his feet and strained to raise his sword.
Another Highlander fell, pierced by an ogre spear, and an ogre lunged toward the gap. Strongwind himself sent the brute tumbling back, with a slash across his face. The charge was relentless, however, and the Highlanders couldn’t keep up. Now the defenders to the elf’s left were falling back, and still Kerrick could barely lift his sword.
Without pausing to consider the consequences, he reached into his pocket and slipped his finger through the cold circle of his magic ring. Immediately the strength suffused him, and his sword seemed to grow lighter in his hand. He lashed out with renewed fury, piercing the breastplate of a monstrous ogre halberdier. A white rage consumed him as he swung again and again at other attackers. Randall, cackling nearby, gave him a nod, and the two of them together rushed against the group of ogres leading the others in their furious attack.
The elf parried a blow from a heavy battle-axe, and the ogre warrior in front of him gaped stupidly as the haft of his massive weapon snapped, broken on the slender blade of elven steel. That expression remained on his face as the raider died, transfixed by a lightning thrust of that same deadly metal. Kerrick wrenched his weapon free, ignoring the gore that trailed from his blade as he pushed after another brutal attacker. That one stumbled back but not fast enough to escape a swift slash of that blade. With a horrified howl the ogre fell back, struggling to contain his spilling guts.
Randall’s singsong shriek came from somewhere on his right as Kerrick fought exultantly. More of the attackers fell, and then the two comrades were fighting back to back, surrounded by hulking bodies, yet stabbing and parrying so quickly that none of the brutish attackers dared to move in close. The elf felt no fatigue, no fear… only a growing hatred and fury that denied any frailty in either his flesh or his will. The magic of the ring conquered his weakness even as it buried his normal restraint and conscience.
Through a gap in the enemy line he espied a great ogre, brutish face contorted in fury. Some glimmer of recognition pierced his battle haze. This was Grimwar Bane himself, Kerrick suddenly realized-the same cruel monarch who had destroyed Moreen’s village and who had driven the humans behind the walls of Brackenrock years before. Now the king carried a heavy sword and stood several feet away, waging war with his own hands.
The elf twisted, sidestepping a crushing blow that left an ogre axe blade lodged in the ground next to him. He smashed a blow into the axer’s temple, punching sideways with his sword, using the metal hilt. The supernatural force of the ring added to his blow, and the ogre dropped like a felled tree. Immediately the elf leaped forward, as if his blade magically drew him toward the nearby monarch.
Grimwar Bane brought his sword up with startling alacrity, holding the weapon in both hands, swiping it sideways to knock away the charging elf. Kerrick was aware of ogres flocking to their king, saw armored bodyguards on his flanks, but he pressed forward as if immune to the lethal blades slashing at him from all sides.
Perhaps it was his audacity that protected him, or else his speed-like his strength, enhanced by the ring-was just too much for these hulking creatures. In any event, several blows missed, one ogre even hacked into a comrade’s arm as he slashed wildly at the elf. Kerrick tried to shove between two guards and once more stabbed at the king, who gaped in astonishment at the frenzied attack.
The massive bodies guarded the king like pillars, even as Kerrick thrust his silvery elven blade between them. The tip of it carved through the king’s golden breastplate, and the elf lunged closer, twisting, drawing a sudden gout of blood from the wound. Ogres roared in shock and rage as their leader fell back, and only then did the elf treat his own safety. He knocked away one bodyguard with a stab to the throat, sent the other stumbling off with a slashed knee. Now Randall was beside him, and once again the two warriors stood back to back, encircled by murderous ogres.
“A good enough way to die,” stated the berserker, his voice surprisingly calm as it emerged from the frenzied grimace of his face. Kerrick merely nodded, his own expression a grim smile. Death was nothing to him at the moment-there was no future, no past, merely this savage melee.
Flames crackled through the air, and the ring of ogres parted. Suddenly, they were three. Suddenly Bruni was above them, standing on a low wall, holding a long-hafted axe in both hands. The big woman swung the weapon and fire trailed from the enchanted metal, white sparks cascading down and across the courtyard ground.
“The Axe! The Axe of Gonnas!” ogres cried, their voices shrill with dismay. Bruni jumped down and waded forward, laying waste to right and left, and all around the attackers gaped and groaned at the sight of the artifact. The Axe of Gonnas was their hallowed icon, treasured by generations of Suderhold’s kings and high priests. Now the appearance of the sacred blade, at the same time as their king lay bleeding and as this human and elf fought them with such tireless intensity, proved cruelly disheartening.
Some of the ogres edged back away from the yawning gate, then turned to flee the citadel, ignoring the impassioned cries of their captains-who waited with fresh warriors just beyond arrow range of the walls. A small knot of attackers remained, protecting their fallen ruler, but now they were squeezed from three sides. The elf paused, blinking the haze of sweat and smoke from his eyes as Strongwind came up beside him. The Highlander king joined Kerrick, Randall, and Bruni, as the ogres retreated, some carrying the wounded monarch, others turning to give their lives so Grimwar Bane could be brought to safety.
“There!” warned Strongwind, clapping Kerrick on the shoulder and pointing toward the edge of the clearing. Through a gap he saw the ogre catapult, cocked and poised.
“Let’s get it,” agreed the elf, suddenly focused on the big weapon.
Bruni and Randall nodded, and the four made a dash through the scattered ogres toward the wheeled machine.
A strangely garbed, impressive-looking ogress stood next to the catapult. Kerrick recognized the queen he had met in battle eight years earlier, wresting the Axe of Gonnas from her hands. Now this ogre queen screeched a command, but the nearby warriors ignored her, flocking to surround their stricken monarch. She looked in panic at the machine but couldn’t trigger it herself, and at the last moment she turned and fled with the panicked troops of her army, lumbering down the slope, leaving the catapult undefended.
“Help me turn it!” cried Bruni, putting her shoulder to one of the great wheels as Strongwind and Randall knocked the chocks away. Kerrick, still filled with magical strength, sheathed his sword so he could help. His sinews strained, and the elf grunted, pushing and pushing, gradually wheeling the catapult around toward the fleeing ogres. He saw something gold and round in the load basket but had barely registered the sight when Strongwind Whalebone chopped downward, slashing the trigger. With a loud snap, the catapult’s arm whipped upward, hurling the sphere into the air, far, far toward the seashore below the fortress.
Immediately Kerrick turned to the ogres, drawing his sword, sprinting with murderous intensity toward the stricken king.
“Chislev Wilder, see defeat! Hold the hasty warrior’s feet!”
The magic chant came from behind him, but Kerrick didn’t even hear the words. Instead, he flailed furiously as his boots became stuck fast to the ground. He cried out in grief and rage as the shaman’s magic robbed him of his chance to pursue the retreating enemy with a final killing frenzy that would have borne him into the enemy ranks.
Kerrick sobbed in frustration as he felt Bruni’s strong arms encircle him, somehow plucking the sword from his clutching fingers. He sagged, fatigue suddenly sapping him, and when she slipped the ring off of his finger he collapsed into her embrace.
The sky turned a brilliant searing white, and the ground heaved and writhed under his feet. A blast of sound chopped through the air, deafening all who heard it, and the elf felt as though an angry god had picked him up, them slammed him to the ground with immortal fury.
Finally he lay in a place of utter, consuming darkness.