The Red Cloak (p. 1)
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The name "Cappel Rode" was an archaic tenn meaning "the Red Cloak," and in Sergeant Padrin Zelmorzi' s opinion, it fit the man too well. If Captain Rode were to wear a cloak into battle, Zelmorzi had no doubt that it would soon become red with Guipesan blood.
Captain Cappel Rode watched stoically in the gray August predawn. Some hundred yards past the nose of his steed, the light forest gave way to a long swath of tall grass that sloped down to the solid gray walls of Carseli. Three gates were visible to the militia arrayed beside and behind Rode and his Sergeant, Zelmorzi. To the left, torches set splotches of light afloat in the Carseli River where it left the city .Only the loudest screams reached Zelmorzi's ears from the battle being waged there by the Morsine vanguard against the besieging Guipesans.
Directly ahead lay the North Gate, on the road from the Guipesan stronghold of Bochi Orro. Only a few defenders remained there, the rest having been called away to help in the struggle at the River Gate. But the North Gate did not interest the Morsine army. Almost out of sight around the right-hand curve of the city wall was the gate on the track from the western port of Amar. Arrayed around the road, on the flat meadow used in peacetime as a cattle market, were hundreds of white A-frame tents. A rough palisade sutTounded the Guipesan encampment. Rode's gaze lingered on the rough-hewn gates, broad enough to admit a supply wain.
The assault on the River Gate continued as dawn bled reds and oranges into the sky. A similar effect was produced in the normally brown-black Carseli River.
"All right, men, on three," said General Dalen Roma, Commander-in-Chief of the Morsine Army. "One ..."
Zelmorzi buckled his bell-shaped helm. Rode scratched his long, narrow nose through the T-slit in his similar headgear.
"Two ..." Zelmorzi could see flickers of movement as cavalrymen made last-minute checks on their equipment. Rode sat motionless and focused.
"THREE!!!" With a madcap chorus of whoops and banging of shields on weapons, the Morsine army broke from the cover of the woods. Ripe golden hay, speckled with withered stalks of wild carrot and sheep sorrel bowed before the tide of hooves. The shouts of sentries patrolling the palisade were lost in the cacophony of the Morsine charge. Mailed mens' left sides became dazzling sheets of white in the newly risen sun.
The advance slowed and sobered as they entered the Guipesans' bow range. Arrows chinked off lindenwood shields. But as the bulk of the Morsines braked their wild downhill charge, four men whipped their mounts into a dead run. Slung between their saddles was a stout trunk of oak, hewn to a point at the front end. The log jounced wildly on its chains as the horses pounded toward the gate. Defenders scattered from the region of the gate, recognizing the flimsiness of their wall.
The ram smashed into the gate with a deafening crack. The four bearers were thrown forward onto their steeds' necks. Zelmorzi steered his horse to the side on shortened rein in order to give the ram room. The rammers recovered quickly under pressure of arrows zinging down from the palisade. They trotted back from battered and splintered gates which held onto the jambs with their last strength.
The second ramming easily burst the doors asunder. Sword in hand, Cappel Rode led the charge into the Guipesan tent city. Groggy soldiers burst from their bunks half dressed to confront the attackers. Cappel Rode moved his blade strongly and efficiently, dropping Guipesans as they raised arms to attack him. Rode seemed to enjoy battle. It was not the sadistic bloodlust common in berserkers, but an inexplicable sort of satisfaction or vindication. It was as if, with each cut, Rode needed to prove or justify his whole military career.
Zelmorzi let such contemplations of his commander drop, as the price of thought in battle was one's life. He surrendered to the pull of hard learned instinct, cutting and parrying while guiding his mount through the thicket of tent ropes. He quickly oriented on the rippling purple canopy of the command tent. The Guipesans had already guessed that it was the object of the Morsine offensive, and so the pavilion was ringed with men-at-arms in varying states of readiness, from just-awakened nudity to full mail. Zelmorzi bent low on his horse to attack the chiefly unmounted defenders. He noted with an incidental spark of happiness that the attack had penetrated deep enough to make bowflre an unwise action, given the intermingling of Morsine and Guipesan soldiery.
Zelmorzi's shield and sword darted in and out, parrying blows aimed primarily at his horse. The Guipesans struck frantically at the animal's legs, knowing that if a cavalryman was thrown, he would be at the infantry's mercy. Zelmorzi thanked the Goddesses that the attack had been a surprise. A blow struck against a man in his nightshirt was far more likely to be meaningful than one against a man in full mail.
With every cavalryman who danced his mount through the rows of tents, the pressure on the ring of men surrounding the commander's awning increased. Zelmorzi could see desperation in their eyes. A few degrees to his right, Cappel Rode calmly chopped down attackers, who assaulted him with a kind of kamikaze fanaticism. Though not the highest ranking, Rode was clearly the most formidable soldier among the Morsines.
Without warning, the Guipesans broke. Cappel Rode found himself without a foe before him. Unfazed by the change, he assaulted the command tent. Purple canvas billowed as he and other Morsines slashed the ropes and knocked down poles. Meanwhile, any remaining resistance dissolved. The Guipesans, finding their rally point defeated, scattered. While Guipesans fled for their lives or retreated to the siege trenches, Cappel Rode cut the last cord. The wheat sheaf flag of the Guipesan Alliance flopped down on top of the deflated command tent.
The attack now shifted to the trenches. The Guipesans had dug trenches at intervals around the city, with earthen ramparts to protect the inhabitants of the trench from Carseline arrows while allowing them to return fire. These trenches were especially common near the gates.
Zelmorzi followed Cappel Rode down an alleyway between rows of white canvas tents. Seeing his sergeant behind him, Rode slowed.
"Take your division and flush out the south end of the rearmost gate trench," he ordered, pointing with his bloodied sword. Zelmorzi responded with a crisp salute. As Rode continued toward the center of the Guipesan siegeworks, Zelmorzi led his division diagonally toward the southern end.
The sentries in the trenches were in no condition to resist effectively. Having seen their commander's tent go down within half an hour of dawn, their hearts were chained by despair. A good number of them were already out of the trenches and running for the relative safety of the woods.
"It's a wonder they produce children," Zelmorzi commented, to nobody in particular. "There's not a real man in the whole lot!" Then, seeing the trench before him, he reined in his steed and shouted to the men, "Careful now, single file. Let's show these fatherless pigs who owns the Peninsula!"
As the soldiers behind him hollered agreement, Zelmorzi' s horse leaped the steep slope at the end of the trench. Guipesans scrambled back, holding shields and pikes ready. Over the screams of dying men and the clank of steel, Zelmorzi could hear the cadence of a prayer to the Goddesses. He snorted.
"Don't worry, you don't have souls to save. Lucky thing, too, or Hades'd be overflowing with the Guipesan filth we've done away with!" He batted aside a pike with his shield and spurred his steed forward, bowling over a shield bearer. His blade took three Guipesans' lives before the remainder could flee.
Once past that knot of men, the trench widened enough for two men to ride abreast. As Guipesans scrambled out of their earthworks, cheers rang out from the Morsines trapped in Carseli. Their encouragement hastened the clearing of the trenches.
Cappel Rode met Zelmorzi halfway, leading another division of his battalion. "Now into the city, Sergeant." Zelmorzi saluted and gave a crisp affirmative nod. Turning to his men, he said, "You heard the Captain. Out of this swine trough and into the city." He jumped from his horse's back to the edge of the trench. His steed bunched its haunches and followed him. After remounting, he waited a moment for the rest of his division, then followed Rode through the gate. Grateful Morsine defenders, trapped for a year by the siege, shouted wordless approval or chanted the names of commanders, mostly "Dalen Roma" or "Cappel Rode."
Zelmorzi had been to Carseli three times before the war -- just enough to control his gaping at the famous sights of the Peninsula's largest city. The liberating Morsine army flowed haphazardly down the narrow cobblestone street toward the most notable landmark of Carseli: the Blue Fortress. Centuries ago, for reasons mired in legend, the brothers Morsi and Guipeso brought their followers to the Peninsula. Mter years of war between them, the Morsines laid siege to the Guipesan headquarters at the Blue Fortress. Unfortunately, Morsi allowed his brother to sue for peace and help draw up the Articles of Federation, establishing a jointly ruled republic on the Peninsula. The Federation had ruled in relative peace until the outbreak of the current war.
As they neared the blocky azure granite bulk of the Blue Fortress, Cappel Rode dropped back to speak with Zelmorzi. Rode's eyes were fixed in front of him, refusing to look at the brick and slate shops and tenements that lined the road, or the blue-gray majesty of the Blue Fortress. He scratched his long nose and addressed his sergeant: "General Roma is sending us to the South Gate, to clear the trenches there. I doubt there'll be more than a token watch, since they probably sent everybody to help with the battle at the River Gate last night." Rode's tone was such that there was an understood "OK?" on the end.
Rode's battalion, composed of two other divisions as well as Zelmorzi's, turned right at the Blue Fortress. Others of the force that had entered the city continued straight or took a left, to help sandwich in the defenders there.
The street they were on now was broader by half than the one they had followed into Carseli, and paved with red brick. The Morsine army did not, however, take advantage of the additional width to spread out more. Any soldier who strayed under the eaves of the tenements was soon hit with the contents of a trash basket or chamber pot. Though the city had been in the hands of the Morsines since the first few months of war, fully half of the city's population had been Guipesan, and the vast majority of them lived northwest of the River. Just as the River Carseli divided the peninsula between the Guipesan Northwest and the Morsine Southeast, it also divided the city.
To Zelmorzi's right, the close packed houses gave way to a huge open area. This was the Grand Market of Carseli. At the far end of the Market, he could make out the high wooden gables of the Assemblyhouse, where Assemblymen elected from both Morsine and Guipesan provinces met to make the Peninsula's laws. The war had begun in the Assembly two years ago. The Guipesans blamed the Morsine "rebels," stating that they assassinated the Speaker of the Assembly, Don Loreni Peigno, out of jealousy and spite. Zelmorzi was sure that any violence was provoked by Guipesan treachery. It was well known that Don Peigno advocated a repeal of the high tariff on textiles and timber products from the northern nation of Horth. It was also well known that nearly all of the domestic weaving and woodworking was done in the Morsine south.
Zelmorzi noted that Rode purposefully averted his gaze from something on his right as they passed the Market and Assemblyhouse. He didn't have much time to contemplate it though, because the southeast corner of the Grand Market lay at the foot of the Sable Bridge. The name referred to the color of the marble statues of the Goddesses that held the street lamps over the span. All four Goddesses were represented thrice along the bridge. Here Rode relaxed somewhat, looking upon the Goddesses' holy faces.
Rode upped the pace as they entered the Morsine bank of the city. The battalion rushed by the Craftsmens' Market, the Coliseum, and the Granaries en route to the South Gate.
The South Gate trenches were nearly empty. The few sentries that remained fled upon hearing the gates open. Cappel Rode watched grimly as the last Guipesan was spared from the bite of an arrow by a stray gust of wind as the soldier ran off into the forest that framed Carseli. Rode scratched his nose and sighed. Zelmorzi unbuckled his helmet and approached the Captain.
"Well, sir, what now?"
"Now we clean up this mess. And we wait." There was an odd touch of bitterness and impatience in Rode's voice that Zelmorzi couldn't explain.
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