January 24, 2012

The Sons of Zhulkarnein, excerpt 2

A roar as of surf on mighty rocks echoed through the valley, a thousand miles as it was from any sea.

It was the roaring of men striving to kill before they died, of steel hammering on steel and wood and boiled leather, of futile appeals to silent gods and grim promises to the rulers of hell; the awful chorale of battle. The gray-green eyes of Orhan Timur, the man called the Snow Leopard, blazed as he watched yet another wave of his men being thrown back from Tragaea’s walls.

Had those walls not been crowded with men intent on sending him and his to Hell, Orhan knew he would’ve found the little city of Tragaea an idyllic place. Nestled in a verdant highland valley at the foot of the mighty Drokpas, surrounded by distant peaks wreathed in immaculate cloaks of cloud and snow, the polis was a picturesque gem. Legend said the city had been raised by the great Zhulkarnein himself, the invincible warlord who’d conquered half the world then mysteriously disappeared into the heavens. Tragaea’s walls of red and yellow sandstone rose over an artificial mound of earth that raised its tallest battlements over a hundred feet above the valley floor, and making any approach to its gates a scenic climb in itself. For an attacker, though, that beauty was deadly.

This was the third assault to be beaten back this day, and the mercenaries recruited from the hill tribes were beginning to lose heart. Orhan’s pulse raced as he assessed the situation, all his instincts crying a warning. Outlaw, bandit, and now mercenary, the man known as the Snow Leopard had once been something very different; he had been Khagan of the Murjen people, master of a hundred thousand swords. Had he been in command of the defense, he knew exactly what he would be doing next.

“Drop those ladders and fall back!” he roared at his men. “Archers, watch those gates!” Then to his hulking lieutenant Togrul: “Stand by to receive a sortie! Don’t try to hold the slope, we’ll meet them on the valley!”

The burly, bearded warrior in black iron armor beside him flushed in anger. “No! Back to the walls, you dogs! Not much longer and the city will fall! Put your backs to it! One more time, dog-brothers, and Mendraxes will join you!”

Orhan snarled with rage. He almost turned upon the black-clad warrior, but thought the better of it; not because Mendraxes was a king, but because Mendraxes owed him gold. Instead he broke away from the knot of men that made up the commanders’ guard, collecting as many of his own fighters as he could. He began mustering them at the foot of the mound.

The scarred, bronze-bound gates began to open.

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