Tharol heard the scream ringing from the barracks and stood up with a start. After a moment he realized what it was and he looked down somberly.
“Well maybe you couldn’t do anything about all these plots, but I did,” he told Master Palthio defiantly. “That’s the sound of Reis’s schemes being snuffed out. I did it myself because no one else was going to lift a finger to stop him!”
Master Palthio smiled sadly. “I applaud your initiative, Tharol, but you haven’t stopped anything. Reis was but the tip of an iceberg.”
Inol frantically backed away from Reis’s twitching form, spun around, and leaned for support against the rampart railing.
“ATTACK! ATTACK!” he shouted in the direction of the barracks. “THERE’S AN ARMY OUTSIDE THE GATES!”
Beesk came racing up the staircase and onto the ramparts.
“What do you think you’re doing? Do you want everyone to–” he stopped speaking as he came into view of the army approaching below. They were near enough now to see them in detail. They were a strangely cobbled force, a mixture of elite soldiers in armor, peasants bearing wooden clubs, and a third class that was…made of stone! Some had only a rocky or head, while others were entirely composed of rock except for a single patch of flesh. They hobbled forward awkwardly on their heavy joints, shaking the ramparts with the collective force of their boulder feet.
“Seventeenth Gate!” the woman at the forefront of the army called. “Why are your doors not open?”
“It’s her,” Beesk mumbled to Inol, stepping back from the ramparts’ edge in fear. “It’s the statue lady…. This was all a trap!”
“Seventeenth Gate!” the statue lady called again. “Is anyone there? Answer me or face the consequences!”
Reis turned on his side and retched violently. The chills washed over his body in waves and he fell back to the rampart trembling uncontrollably. Even though he didn’t have the strength to even raise himself his eyes were steeling with anger and resolve. He knew what had happened to him and he knew who had done it. He wasn’t sure how, but Tharol had known more than he had let on, and he had poisoned Reis with a lethal dose. But Reis hadn’t been killed. Not yet. And now Tharol would have to deal with the consequences of that fact!
“What do you mean you did your part to resist what’s coming?” Tharol demanded of Master Palthio. “You say you couldn’t put a stop to Beesk, or Inol, or Reis, or any of the things they represent, so what were you doing? What was the point?!”
“What I was doing was teaching,” Master Palthio said simply. “I’ve been training the lot of you, hoping to instill some sense of duty and principle in you all. Preparing your minds and bodies for the coming fight. Teaching you how to operate as individuals and as a group. Yes I knew we had corruptors in our bunch, but the rest of you I tried to keep apart from all that.”
“Yes, and Tharol you were the brightest of them all, and the most capable. I saw that if there was going to be any hope for these boys it would be through you. And that’s why I have been pushing you so hard of late.”
“Felt more like you were trying to get rid of me!”
“Well, in a sense, yes, but for your own good. I was trying to take away the order as your crutch. Trying to wean you off of this sick, decaying body. There’s no future for you here. Your destiny needs to be apart from the city, the order, and Gate Seventeen.”
“A destiny for what? To hear you go on there isn’t anything left for us to save!”
“Just each other.”
“Avro, Janeao, Bovik, Golu, and others like them,” Master Palthio continued. “Maybe those like Beesk and Inol after their schemes have fallen to pieces and they’re humbled. But don’t waste any time trying to save our order or nation. Just take care of the individuals who still have their spark of duty. Do it by your own means. Take your own counsel. Don’t rely on any part of our dead system, not even on me.”
Tharol paused to take it in. He had just had his whole world disrupted and he felt like he needed to sit down and think it over for a long while. But, of course, there was no time for that.
“I really do need to go,” he said softly, stepping towards the door.
“Yes, you do,” Master Palthio waved his hand and the door was unfastened. “And I have my final work to do as well.”
All the other boys had rushed out into the courtyard now and were halfway up the stairs to the ramparts.
“What’s going on?” Avro demanded.
“We’re doomed!” Inol came down to meet them, face ashen. Beesk followed behind, trembling like a leaf. “Reis betrayed us. They’re going to kill us!”
The pronouncement was immediately followed by the sound of death shouts off in the distance. Inol and Beesk cowered even lower behind the wall, but Avro poked his head up high enough to see where the noises were coming from. He looked to Gate Eighteen to the right and Gate Sixteen to the left. There the great doors had been opened from within and the army was filing through uncontested. And no sooner had the army been admitted into the keep than they had apparently begun murdering the gatekeepers there!
“Never mind,” the statue lady scoffed in disgust down on the plains. It was clear to her that their accomplice wouldn’t be opening the gate for them. “Break this door down!”
Her stone soldiers had only been waiting for the order! Like dogs freed from the leash they gave a shout and charged forward at full speed, built up their momentum, then flung their bodies against the gate like a hundred different battering rams! The entire keep shook from the impact, the wood of the doors splintered, and the iron lattice bent inwards. Meanwhile the peasant soldiers picked up their ladders, sprinted to place them against the walls, and began their ascent. Several of the armored soldiers lifted crossbows and fired them along the ramparts in case any guards were concealed in the dark.
The boys inside flung themselves to the ground, faces looking to one another in horror. For a moment they were paralyzed into inaction, but then Golu broke the silence with a sudden thought.
“The breaching charges!” he said, then rose to his feet and began crawling back up the stairs to the ramparts, careful to keep his head beneath the bolts sailing overhead. Avro and Janeao followed behind, while the other boys dashed to the weapon rack and grabbed their swords and bows and arrows. The three boys up top crawled across the ramparts, lighting the fuses that ran along the top of the wall as they went.
What they were lighting was a series of explosives that had been mixed into the rock all along the top of the wall. No sooner did the first of the peasants reach the top of the wall than the explosives went off, spraying fire and rocky shrapnel, slaying the first of the offenders and blasting their ladders backwards off the wall!
Of course Golu, Avro, and Janeao had not been able to reach all the sections of the wall, and so in other places the peasant soldiers mounted the ramparts unscathed. But these were met by the arrows of the other boys down below. Bovik, Beesk, and Inol fired with practiced skill, cutting the infiltrators down easily, due to their lack of proper armor.
“We’ve got to fall back!” Inol roared as the stone warriors flung themselves once again the at the gate, buckling it to the point that wide gaps were starting to appear. One more dash and they would have the whole thing down.
“They’ll just chase us down,” Bovik shook his head sadly.
“No, they’ve got bigger matters to attend to,” Inol offered hopefully. “They probably don’t even care about us.”
“Up above!” Beesk pointed to a wave of armored soldiers that had just mounted the ladders. The boys fired a fresh volley, but only half of the arrows were able to find weak parts in the armor, such as around the joints, while the rest clattered harmlessly off the plate. The surviving men charged undeterred towards Golu, Avro, and Janeao, while yet another wave of armored soldiers mounted the ladders behind them.
“We’ve got to go!” Inol repeated, then turned and ran, not waiting to see if the others followed him.
“We can’t just leave the other boys!” Bovik protested. But also Beesk turned and ran, proving that he most certainly could!
“Let’s go get them, Bovik.”
Bovik turned back and saw Tharol quickly approaching.
“But–” Bovik’s misgivings towards Tharol were clear on his face.
“I just want to help you,” Tharol said earnestly, pulling sword and shield from the weapon rack then coming back to his ally. “Let’s go get them.”
Bovik exhaled deeply, gave a nod, and the two boys began sprinting for the staircase. Along the way they passed by the gate, just as it shook from a third battering by the stone warriors. The hinges ripped out of the stone and the entire door fell inwards! The boys instinctively lifted their arms to protect themselves from the crashing rubble…but it never hit them.
Master Palthio stepped forward, hands outstretched to the broken door, magically keeping it pinned to its proper place. His eyes shone brightly and he sent out a great shockwave. It coursed through the wide gaps that had been broken in the door, breaking into the stone soldiers on the other side, and bursting them into pebbles! The remaining stone warriors pulled back in surprise.
“Well…” the statue lady mused from behind, “that’s interesting. While the last of the retreating stone soldiers passed by her she strode forward confidently, closing on the door with her own arms stretched out wide. “I don’t know who you are,” she panted as she felt the full force of Palthio’s powers bearing down. “But these walls are mine.” She matched the words my placing her outstretched hands on the stone barrier that framed the door, closed her eyes, and imbued her powers into the lifeless rock.
Meanwhile, Tharol and Bovik mounted the staircase up above and bowled into the front-most ranks of the armored soldiers, flinging them right over the ramparts and off the wall! Then the two boys spun on the spot and met the next line of enemies with swords flashing. They lunged at the foes with an aggressiveness that belied their inferior numbers.
There were too many of the soldiers to keep them permanently at bay, but the two boys made a controlled retreat backwards until Golu, Avro, and Janeao were able to join the fray. Then the retreat slowed and came to a standstill. Though they were still fewer than their foes, and not nearly so well armored, the boys had far greater synergy as a team. Each armored soldier was trained only as an individual, occasionally stumbling over each other as they all sought their own best line forward. The boys, however, naturally fell into a shared rhythm.
To begin with Janeao took the front, using his greater size to shield the other boys and swinging his sword like a windmill, clearing enough room for the others to operate within. Golu was to Janeao’s side and slightly behind, watching for the openings that Janeao’s blustering opened up and then used his superior techniques to administer one finishing blow after another. He was the surgical precision behind Janeao’s thundering hammer. Avro and Bovik meanwhile filled in all the gaps. As efficient as Janeao and Golu were, they couldn’t cover everything at once. So Avro and Bovik drove their swords like spears through the openings, sometimes to counter a missed attack, sometimes to increase their own side’s aggression.
Tharol helped Avro and Bovik in that work as well, but his primary contribution was at the back, directing their troupe in its lethal dance.
“Bovik, on the right!” he shouted. “Six more behind this set, boys, pace yourselves. Perhaps Mora-Long? Was that a cut on you, Janeao?”
“Avro, two steps to the right, I need to move that body!” He pulled the corpse back and flung it over the edge, clearing up the ground for Golu’s footing.
“Watch that sword, Avro, don’t tangle it in Janeao’s swings. Golu, watch the ground, he’s getting back up!”
Every now and then Tharol swept his eyes around the area, making sure that he was ever aware of their surroundings. They had managed to hold their ground thus far, and on occasion had even advanced a foot or two forward. But they were still twelve feet back from the top of the stairs, which was the nearest exit out of this place.
There was a sound of clattering behind them and Tharol turned to see an extra-long ladder being placed against the Northern Tower. The peasants had bound two of their shorter ladders together in order to reach the lowest window of that tower, and were now ascending to enter it. They were going to come into the tower on its second floor, race down its staircase, onto the ramparts from behind, and hit the boys from the rear!
“Alright, we’ve got trouble!” Tharol announced.
This was an exciting, fun piece to write! But even amidst all the action I’ve tried to imbue a sense of character development. Consider the moment here at the end where the boys fight the attacking horde together. Throughout the story there have been scenes of them dueling against one another, jockeying for rank, and carving divisions between them. This moment here is the first time that we’ve really seen them work together, the payoff for all that Master Palthio has been trying to instill in them.
Compare how I portray them here to their performance in the first of their competitions, the one where Janeao was trying to hold up the wooden tower as the opposing side broke it down. That was at the very beginning of the story, and the boys were trying to operate as a team, but were largely ineffective. Their focus was on trying to beat the other team, not protect their own. They were flushed in conquest and competition, all at the expense of collaboration and contribution.
It’s been a long and difficult journey for them to this all-important night, full of drama and shifting loyalties, but through it all they have broken down the old relationships that weren’t working, and learned how to genuinely rely on one another instead.
The story is almost done, just one more post to wrap it up. Before we get to that, though, I am going to finish reviewing all the lessons that I have learned in my next post on Monday. Come back then to read about that, and then again on Thursday to see the final words in The Favored Son: Alternate!