Horns bellowed in answer to the screaming trumpets that sounded from the high towers of the concentric castle. The starless night was suddenly bright with globes of glowing light, radiance that shed betraying illumination behind the lines of besiegers outside the fortress. Men and machines were moving across the trampled ground toward the great stone walls. Arrows, quarrels, and streaking missiles of magical origin flew toward the encircling soldiers. Some arrows and quarrels lodged in wooden mantlets or struck into shields, but others sank into flesh. The magic missiles, blazing fireballs, and crackling bolts of lightning were far worse. Bodies were tossed high by roaring blasts; wheeled shelters were split and broken by the flashing strokes of electricity while metal-clad men-at-arms behind them became charred corpses. Varicolored darts sped unerringly into hapless targets who screamed and died. Torrents of flame erupted from the sky to set siege towers blazing, giant torches that added a hellish light to the scene, while raging fires swept over the advancing lines or made curtains of flame that seared their flesh.
From these conflagrations sprang huge, manlike forms. The very flames formed them, and these great things strode forth from the fires to further wreak death and destruction on the attacking army. Glowing tentacles sprouted up from the earth itself and wrapped their fiery coils around war machines and men. Flesh and blood could not stand such an inferno. The lines of soldiers quickly became scattered, fleeing men seeking escape from flaming death, their ranks decimated, all cohesion gone. Arrows and buzzing crossbow bolts sought out the retreating attackers and exacted further toll, while chains of blazing, blue lightning leaped among them, slaying and completing the devastation.
The battle was not all one-sided, of course. While the defenders in the great castle wrought their destruction, the ringing soldiery had countered with showers of arrows, but parapet and merlon protected the defenders, and bolt and shaft most often splintered harmlessly against stone. Rocks and boulders smashed into bartizan and tower, impacted wall, or arced over into the courtyard, before fire silenced catapult and trebuchet. Thick, spearlike missiles flew also, until, likewise burned, the ballistae that shot them forth were blazing bonfires. There were a few, pitiful spells cast too – silvery darts and opalescent rays of cold light, even a few blasts of fire – but these had slight effect. It seemed that the spell-casters of the besieging force were unable to withstand those within the great fortress, for the former had to work relatively unprotected, while those within were not so exposed. Abruptly, the scene changed.
Almost simultaneously, the bright spheres of light that revealed the attacking army went out. In turn, the sky above the castle was bright, and the place was illuminated with something that resembled the light from a full moon, while the area round about its walls was dark, save for burning equipment and fiery elementals still delivering death. As all this occurred, drenching bursts of rain issued forth from directly above the huge fire elementals, while gentler precipitation fell upon burning wood. The fire elementals, four in number, hissed and roared their anger and pain as the pelting drops of water vaporized upon them, sending forth steaming clouds and cooling the monsters' flames.
One of these glowing elementals was near the partially filled moat. A pillar of water suddenly arose, formed itself, and grappled with its fiery counterpart. Even as the two giant elementals struggled, a new sort of elemental creature arose from the rain-soaked earth, this one formed of damp dirt and stone and clay. Earth and fire contested, as did fire and water. Men watching from the castle or the surrounding camp of the besiegers saw the blazing fire elementals' flames become smothered and wink out.
Bass twangs and thumps came from the encircling force, and arcing boulders and massive spears again rained upon the curtain walls, the towers, and the castle courtyard and buildings inside it. The radiance illuminating the fortress was extinguished but almost immediately replaced by globes of light such as those that lit the scenes behind the attacking forces. Some hung above the place; others seemed to emanate from turret top, bartizan, and tower. The contesting spell-casters seemed to be playing a game, for globes of utter darkness would intermingle with the bright spheres and neutralize each other, while yet fresh lights would spring up elsewhere.
As this all occurred, the defenders on wall and tower were plain to see, and sniping fire from longbow and heavy crossbow began to score successes. Here and there, men dropped after suddenly sprouting a clothyard shaft or the feathers of a thumb-thick crossbow bolt.
The rumbling and murmur of advancing troops were again discernible to the castle's defenders. Despite the terrible punishment dealt to their initial foray, the troops were again advancing to storm the walls. Somehow, the soldiers had been rallied, reinforced, and sent back. Trumpet and drum sounded within the fortress, calling every possible defender to man the walls for a last defensive effort. Their magic-users and clerics had spent their powers on the destruction of the first attack; the fresh assault would have to rely on flesh and blood, armor and weapon, to hurl the attackers back from the stronghold. The castle's own, smaller versions of the attackers' war machines were put into play. Springnal and catapult began working while rocks were readied, cauldrons of burning charcoal and bubbling oil swung out over machicolated battlements, and ram-catchers assembled.
A column assembled in the outer bailey. The great gates of the fortress were opened, the iron portcullis winched up, and the oaken drawbridge let drop with a clatter and a bang. Out into the pale morning came a swarm of hulking, mailed ogres brandishing huge morning stars, six-foot swords, and other massive weapons.
With them were even more malign creatures – a score or more of hideous trolls, monsters needing no weapons save their iron-hard talons and teeth. Their stooped, shambling gait made the trolls seem smaller than the thicker ogres, but occasionally one would stiffen and stand upright to peer ahead. Then their height, more than half again man-size, and a full head taller than their ugly companions, could be seen. Huge trolls and great ogres, nearly a hundred in total, issued forth, crossed the oak of the drawbridge, and fanned out. These were the terrible advance guard of the castle's sally.
More trumpets blared, and behind the advance guard came a force of gnolls – hyena-faced things, seven feet tall, and armed and armored as men would be. Their great bows taut, bardiches and glaives ready, they came in hundreds, barking and giggling as they advanced, lusting for the feast of battle and flesh to come. If the castle was besieged, it by no means felt itself at the mercy of the army doing so.
"At last. The filth from below is vomited forth!" Thus spoke the general commanding the ringing host. As he said this, he waved his arm in a signal, and the echoing rumble of kettle drums filled the morning.
Bristling phalanxes of pikemen, supported by mailed cavalry, moved to meet the ogres and gnolls, while archers and crossbowmen began to direct a flaming volley of burning missiles toward the knots of rampaging trolls. The field before the castle gate was quickly swirled with men and humanoids locked in mortal combat. Champions and spell-casters of the attacking army were now engaging the trolls, immune as they were to most harm that ordinary folk could cause. These contests were terrible things indeed, and many men fell before the on-rushing green monsters. This pleased the crimson-robed priests who observed the melee from the castle's highest tower. The bright light of the sun climbing higher into the heavens, however, also revealed a curious fact to these observers. Where ranks of charred corpses and slain bodies should have been, the commanders of the fortress saw only slight evidence of the slaughter which had been wrought by spells and elementals before daylight. Instead of soldiers slain in windrows and devastated by firestorms, there were but scores of dead, not hundreds or thousands.
"This is wrong! Where are the ruins of the siege towers and war machines?" demanded one of the greater of their number.
Priests whose vestments were trimmed in fiery orange or tawny shades, as opposed to the bright gold work on the speaker's gown, dared make no answer; but one in deep red and bright crimson replied, "Where indeed?" and, turning to the huddle of his lessers, commanded one of their number haughtily. "Go!" he ordered. "Request that the others hasten here with all speed!"
One of the clerics scurried off, while the remainder of the group again turned their scrutiny to the fighting below. The first charge had pushed the attacking forces backward in a great bow, but their lines of armored men and horses had not broken. Now it was the turn of the sallying humanoids and monsters to be forced away, back toward the castle's barbican and massive gatehouse. The four companies of hyenalike gnolls were now hard pressed by infantry, while skirmishing crossbowmen sent humming quarrels into the humanoid bands' flanks. The ogres too were being slowly decimated, the survivors shoved back by pike and pole arm, the towering creatures subject to well-aimed shafts and bolts from rear-rank fighters. True, both gnolls and ogres had exacted a great price upon the attacking soldiers, but the observers in the castle could see it was a mere pinprick compared to the total force that ringed the beleaguered stronghold.
Of the three sorts of creatures that formed the counterattacking force, the twenty or so trolls were fewest in number and most effective in their devastation. Ten times their number had fallen to them before the first troll went down under burning arrows and hacking blades. Its sundered pieces attempted to rejoin themselves even as the loathsome monster began regenerating its own wounded and scorched flesh. A squad of sappers came suddenly to the area where its throes marked the situation, carrying with them pots of smoldering coals. Soon smoke and flame came from their efforts, and the greasy, black plumes marked the final end of one after another of these oil-soaked, dismembered limbs. Others of the trolls went to quicker deaths, struck by lesser magic-users mere evokers and conjurers, but armed with slim wands that spat missiles of magical sort and flame as well. It was evident that they had been saved for just such a purpose, and they now went about their duties with efficient action, shielded by fighting men and even clerics in brown or green garments.
The surviving humanoids fell back first, their retreat toward the castle quickly becoming a panicked route as the men pressed them. With them went the ogres, now interested only in saving themselves from sharp pike and broad-headed arrow. The drawbridge was hauled rapidly up, however, to shut fast the gate, and gnolls and ogres alike had no recourse but to turn and fight to the death, having been abandoned to their fate by the heartless commanders of the castle.
The trolls, too stupid to fear the inevitable, also fought until burned to vile ashes or reduced to a welter of stinking jelly by showers of acid that caused their crawling flesh to smolder and run. The last of this transpired under the gaze of the crimson-clad watchers, augmented now by another handful of men.
"We must get relief soon, or the castle falls!" said the leader of these clerics. "Where is Horval Crook-finger?"
A tall, thin man, clad in a robe of purple so dark that only the brilliance of the sun revealed its true shade, stepped forward at the summons and bowed, his hand held over the embroidered red trigon on his chest.
"Your command, Elder Brother?" the man asked meekly.
"You fools were duped by mere phantasms, false visions!" roared the commander. "The entire dweomer of our assembled spell-casters was spent on the destruction of illusions! Why did no one call me forth?"
The magic-user standing before the enraged commander of the castle's garrison made no answer, nor did any of the others. Who dared remind the speaker that he himself had commanded absolute privacy? None among the assemblage would brave him when he was lost in poppy juice and lotus smoke.
"Fools!" he repeated, and then took another long look at the tableaux beneath. The last of the trolls was a writhing bonfire, the gnolls and ogres were trampled and dead, and the attackers were storming the gate's outworks, ladders against barbican.
"Go, Crook-finger! Use scrying to alert those ores that they must leave off bickering with the Ho-jebli. Both must march to our succor at once!"
"I dare not use crystal or fluid, Elder Brother," the purple-robed man replied fearfully. "I have tried already, and the enemy spell-binders nearly had my mind."
"So – another useless tool!" The commander eyed the magic-user with a malign stare, and the fellow seemed to shrived before his gaze.
"I can go to the Euroz tribes, Elder Brother, and force them to come at once," Horval Crook-finger suggested.
The evil countenance of the one referred to as "Elder Brother" twisted into a large smile. "Yes, you can go. Tell our Cousins and Uncles with the tribes that they are to move with all speed to relieve this castle, for its loss opens the way to all the Pomarj. Then you will carry my report to the Oldest… Understand?"
"Of course, Elder Brother."
"Then come with me to my chambers. I will write a message to accompany the rest." With that, the red-and-gold-clad man strode to the staircase that descended inside the massive keep tower. The magic-user followed.
Within minutes, the pair were back atop the high structure. Their associates had remained there, observing the assault. As the commander and his spell-casting underling arrived, a major escalade was being attempted on the southern bastion. Both observed for a moment.
"The fools have left off their attack upon the gate to gain the wall bastion there? This is heartening! Watch, Crook-finger, so you can tell this when you report," the red-robed commander ordered. Then, turning to the knot of others who stood anxiously by, he sent three of their number, lesser clerics of some sort, to bolster the defense of the wall.
Soon the men on top of the towering keep saw these three, with a platoon of men-at-arms, hurrying across the inner bailey's confines into the outer yard. Then they struggled a bit as they climbed the grassy swale that sloped up to the curving strongpoint on the outer wall. The bastion was a twenty-foot-high wall topped by a crenellated battlement. The wall was splayed at the bottom, serving as a batter to foil ram, pick, or screw and to confound attackers in tower or otherwise. For half of its height, the bastion's curve was backed by packed earth. Along this ground, at man-height, and at intervals of about six feet, the thick wall was pierced with sloping embrasures, so that archer or crossbowman could loose his missiles at attacking men with almost total safety. From pierced merlon and embrasures between, as well as from the projecting parapet, the machicolation, missiles and rocks could be rained upon attackers. Defenders doing just that swarmed along the walkway atop die wall, which was as wide as a man is tall.