The arrival in Amaranthine
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18. The Quality of Mercy
The high walls of Amaranthine stand out before them, the streams of smoke from the chimneys and cooking fires rising straight to the sky in the still, clear air.
Frowning, Ned Cousland briefly pauses his horse at the sight of the chaotic tangle of huts and provisional shelters, sprawling before the city gates and along the walls. "I thought I made clear that I wanted these people taken care of, "he remarks to no-one in particular, his face setting in an already familiar expression of concealed anger.
Though he shares the indignation, Nathaniel is somewhat less surprised: Esmerelle has never been known for charity. However, ignoring her liege's command is another thing, and far from insignificant.
Not used to not having your way, right?
Esmerelle will love the talk.
Passing through the refugee encampment, the Commander slows down, and Nathaniel holds little doubt that he is taking in every single detail: the haggard faces, the children wrapped up in rags, the people huddling around too few fires, burning too low… and none of the farm animals or dogs that still could be seen during the last visit of the city.
"My Lord! Give us food!"
A grey-haired woman, limping, falls to her knees right before the Commander's horse.
Their company, twenty men strong, pack horses and all, comes to a halt as Ned Cousland stops to speak to the woman… and as he does so, more and more gaunt faces gather closer and closer, with the same request: "Food! Give us food! Open the granaries!"
With a pang of unease, Nathaniel looks around: people are gathering from all directions, already half-blocking the road behind and before them.
"Food, my Lord… We are starving!"
More and more voices, their tones quickly changing from pleading to agitated.
How could Esmerelle have let things come so far? Is she mad, to keep a starving crowd just before her gates? Even if she does not care for those people's needs, what about her common sense? How long before despair turns them into a mob and they start attacking merchants?
And the mob there might be any second; a beast demanding food with its thousand voices… a beast that will respond with rage if its demands are ignored. Ned Cousland has to raise his own voice to be still heard: a trained voice, clear and melodic, proclaiming what the beast wants to hear: you will be cared for, you will be fed.
For a moment, Nathaniel feels relief: this will soon be over. It will be a bitter pill for Esmerelle, to be forced to open her granaries.
Amaranthine is rich, she can well afford to feed these folks. With its port open all year long, those within her walls never have to face lack of supplies which money can buy. It will be only just if some of her riches spill over the walls to those in need.
The next moment, though, Nathaniel's stomach churns.
"Don't trust the Commander! His words are empty! He would have us all starve to death!"
A deep rumbling male voice, but Nathaniel cannot identify the speaker: a face between many in the crowd, and his shouts are already repeated elsewhere, and Ned Cousland stands up in the stirrups. "Do not slight the word of your liege! Disperse now, and receive your grain when you have gathered in peace!"
However, the steely voice and the warning it delivers still fall on deaf ears, and the pleas for food are becoming subdued with protests and insults.
You cannot convince those who do not wish to be convinced, Nathaniel realizes, his heart sinking even lower as he notices men gesturing and signalling at each other. Inciters. Great Maker, there are inciters among the crowd.
A quick look around reveals that the soldiers have already drawn closer, gripping their sword hilts; sergeant Kenneth watches the mob with squinted eyes. Velanna slowly turns her head around, like a wolf scenting…
This will end in a bloodbath.
Mere splits of seconds are separating them from the moment when the Commander's voice finally drowns in the angered roar and the mob moves on them –
– or when his raised hand comes down in a gesture signalling attack –
Nathaniel is beginning to feel nauseous: these are common folks, starving and desperate, not deserving to be stricken down because someone has taken advantage of their needs –
– someone has taken –
A frantic look around: every single hut may already be hiding bowmen –
His own bow, disassembled for the travel, rests within its case on his back, but could as well be miles away: it is too long to be used on horseback.
Anders, soundlessly moving his lips and making small gestures with his hands, is apparently already preparing for the worst, yet Nathaniel has no clue what he intends to unleash.
The time slows down, like a fly trapped in honey.
Ned Cousland is still attempting to bind the people to his will, not realizing that his attempt is doomed from the beginning.
– still no bowmen to be seen, but this means nothing, anyone can be hiding behind the walls of bodies obscuring sight, with the string already being drawn, and Ned is not wearing a helmet –
"This is staged! Look out, Commander, this is staged!"
His shout brings about a momentary pause, promptly filled with Cousland's voice: "Disperse now while you still live!"
The quiet lingers a second longer, like a breath held before plunging into deep waters, and then, the havoc starts.
A deafening mixture of roars and screams, as those pushing forward mercilessly shove those trying to retreat. A swirl of chestnut fur, as Wolf springs at the man trying to grab hold of the Commander's reins; the drawn blade flashes, striking down another, but remaining clear of blood. "… them! Stay your hands and make for – "
The rest of the command is lost in the uproar, even as Nathaniel draws his own blade and spurs his horse, forcing those in his way to spring aside, or be trampled.
An opening appears: Velanna's spell buffets the men a few feet back. Roars become screams, as the people start to panic, seeing the crackling lightnings dance along the elf's raised hands.
"Don't kill them, Velanna!" Nathaniel yells but there is no telling if she has heard him or not.
Something hits him hard between the shoulder blades but the layers of clothes and armour ease the impact. Two men appear by his side, swinging clubs; Nathaniel kicks one in the face and strikes the other with the pommel of his shortsword. A stone flies past him as he leans back in the saddle to avoid the hook of a halberd, and grabbing hold of the shaft, he shoves its wielder away.
"The gate! Make for the gate!" Cousland raises his horse on its hinds, turning around; the people frantically push out of his way to get from the reach of the beating hooves. There is blood trickling from his forehead, and the horse neighs in pain as more stones come from various directions.
Only when he feels a sudden clunk in his ears, Nathaniel realizes that the clear sky has become overcast; the air has chilled to the point when breathing becomes painful. Taken aback, people cease in what they have been doing…
The wind strikes with the force of a hammer, and a deafening wail. Nathaniel desperately clutches the reins, bowing low to the horse's neck to protect his face against the pricking crystals of ice. The horse neighs in panic; with luck, rather than skill, Nathaniel brings it to dart forward, somewhere – hopefully, out of the unnatural storm. He feels the hooves trample over something soft more than once; the ice quickly envelopes the horse's mane, the reins, his gloved hands; his face burns and he can no longer see where he is heading.
The change from the blizzard into a sunny winter day comes between two steps; the air suddenly feels warm by comparison.
The horse, snorting, makes a few more steps towards the gate where Ned Cousland just brings his own horse to a stop.
Turning, Nathaniel watches in disbelief the dark whirling cloud, hanging over the road, and the figures, ice-covered, staggering out of it, crawling to safety. A horseman, two, three… Oghren on his pony, mightily cursing and breaking away the icicles from his beard; Anders and two more soldiers sticking close to him, all three free of ice, except for the tail of the rear horse. Kenneth, the snow on his moustache coloured red with the blood from his broken nose.
Gradually, all of the company gather around Ned Cousland, who, moveless like a stone, never averts his eyes from the slowly dissipating cloud; never even wavers when Wolf, whining, finally makes it out.
No-one pays attention to them: in the face of the sudden disaster, their existence is entirely forgotten.
With a loud whoosh, the cloud disappears as if it never existed, revealing Velanna, sitting on her horse within its former centre, without even as much as a ruffled hair.
Finally, the Commander moves, dropping his gaze to the ice-covered forms, lying here and there on the ground: way too many. Some of them are beginning to move, more, rather than less, not. His breath becomes ragged.
The shelters closest to the road have become a heap of debris, entrapping those within. Somewhere among the huts, a child has begun to wail; more cries, calling for help, moaning, sobbing.
Velanna approaches them with a disinterested expression, which turns into puzzlement as she feels the hard looks on her. "What? You wanted them dispersed without much killing, or not?"
"You bloody nearly killed us!" one of the soldiers yells, his voice breaking. "You knife-ear bitch!"
Velanna's face contorts in an expression Nathaniel has not seen yet, while her hands start to simmer in a blue glow he already knows.
It must have been Cousland who has spoken, since it is him Velanna looks at, but in a voice not resembling his own. The frozen blood on his face is slowly beginning to trickle again. He nudges his horse, until it comes head to head with the elf's. "Look back," he says softly. "Look back."
Perplexed, Velanna does: at those few refugees daring to come so close as to help the injured hobble to the dubious safety of their shelters, and to carry away those who do not move. None dare for more than a dark glance towards their company, standing still before the gate.
The mob is dispersed. Broken.
Some women begin to wail over their destroyed homes; yet another falls on her knees next to one of the bodies covered with ice, a pitiably small one.
"Look. Look at your doing." Cousland's voice still doesn't sound right; as if his lips were numb from the cold. "Next time you unleash something like this without my order… I will personally cut off that reckless head of yours."
Velanna stares at him with her eyes open wide and her jaw dropped, but before she can muster a reply, there is a commotion at the gate.
"Commander…" Belatedly, the city watch arrives. Their leader, a tall man with soldierly bearing, stares at the destruction before them. "What has happened? I was informed there was a situation here, but…"
"The situation has been dealt with," Cousland replies curtly. "Good that you have arrived, nonetheless, I would have a word with you. Tell me, Constable Aidan: why are these people still here?"
Nathaniel has to give it to the man that he does not cow from the Commander, nor pretends not to understand. He barely hesitates when he looks up to meet Cousland's eyes: a cold, hard stare. "I was under the impression that your orders changed. Was I wrong?"
The silence takes impossibly long. Ned sits moveless, only two red spots colouring his cheeks revealing that he has heard the Constable's answer. "What did you say?" he asks finally, and dangerously.
The man does not as much as blink. "When I started making arrangements to take the refugees in, I was promptly informed that I was acting outside my authority and that the Bann would see to it herself, according to your orders. When nothing happened, rumours started to circulate that you prevented her from acting on behalf of those poor folks."
Even longer silence, when the two men stare into each other's eye, unwavering. "No," the Commander says at last, his tone unnaturally flat. "This must have been… some misunderstanding. My order still holds, and since I will be staying for a couple of days, you will be acting under my direct authority. Start moving those people in right now…" his voice falters a little as he looks again at the destruction, "and make a list of those who have been injured or lost a family member. They will be compensated."
The cold blue stare softens considerably, and when the Constable bows, it is slightly lower than necessary. "As you command, my Lord. Shall I inform Bann Esmerelle?"
"No. I will speak to the Bann myself. Should there be an issue, just refer to my orders and report to me."
When the Constable departs, they remain before the gate a little longer, until Anders clears his throat. "Well, shall we enter the viper's nest already?"
Glancing from the destruction to the empty pikes above the gate, Ned Cousland slowly nods and nudges his horse forward into the city.
Passing under the pikes, Nathaniel also looks up: Esmerelle's head would look magnificent there. May the Maker fulfil our wishes.
Though, the problem with Him is that he only rarely listens.