Less than a week after Fortönn had fallen, the armies of Alcázar reached the mainland. With Thusund’s fleet scattered among the northern isles, fighting rebels, the southerners had easy passage across the sea. Five thousand troops landed some thirty miles south of Portesur; nearly all that had been involved in the assault on Fortönn.
It was a small force, hardly enough to besiege one of the largest cities in Ealond, and vulnerable to immediate counter-attack. Unaware that neither the Order nor the king at present could gather a sizeable army to retaliate, the southerners’ first act was to send out raiding parties. Besides scouting the area, they plundered the surroundings for food and materials, allowing a fortified camp to be raised. The ships that had brought the armies of Alcázar to Mearcian shores, meanwhile, turned around without delay. Unable to traverse the Teeth, they had a long journey west through Drake Run before circling around Fortönn, sailing south-east to reach Maleth and reinforcements, upon which they would make the same voyage back. On the way, they would meet the remainder of Alcázar’s fleet; large galleys, slow in open seas, and still making their own way to Fortönn.
Prince Saif, his mamluks and mercenaries watched the sails of the ships disappear from the horizon. Whether the new vessels built for this invasion or the old galleys, largely taken from Labdah, would reach them first with reinforcements, remained an open question. The only certainty was that until either happened, the small army from Alcázar stood alone in hostile lands.
Given their precarious situation, the southerners constantly patrolled the surroundings. Eventually, their presence in Ealond would provoke a response; if the soldiers of Alcázar’s vanguard were to stand a chance of defending themselves, they would need immediate awareness of when such a response showed up. It also kept the men occupied; restless soldiers stuck inside a camp could only spell trouble.
Thus, in groups of five, the southerners roamed the area. All of those sent on patrol were mercenaries; the prince kept his small contingent of mamluks close to him. One band of these sell-swords, bearing the dark emblem of the Black Sun company, slowly trudged through fields ten miles north of the encampment. Despite this being the direction of Portesur, the mercenaries seemed relaxed. More than a week had passed since their arrival, and they had yet to see the surcoat of a single Order soldier.
“Every day on patrol,” one of them murmured. “I thought this posting was going to be sitting in camp, doing nothing but besieging and waiting. But first day of battle, they send us storming up. We barely get a night’s sleep on solid ground before it’s back to the ships, and now, it’s bloody patrols day after day.”
“You’re getting paid for walking around,” another argued. “Quit your grumbling and be glad we haven’t seen one hair of these northern bastards. If the whole war is spent on patrol, I’ll be glad to have coin in my pocket and not a single scar more than I came with.”
“Hah, yeah,” came the third person. “War without battles, that’s how we like them.”
“You’re a blue-eyed fool if you think this’ll last.” The greybeard in the group spoke up next. “We’re one city fighting against seven kingdoms. The wool-heads may be slow to react, but once they do…” He cleared his throat. “You don’t ever want to see a host of knights charging your position.”
“If that’s what you think, why come along?”
“Here’s where the pay is.” The veteran soldier shrugged. “If things go bad, you run. Throw away your surcoat and find some other place that needs swords to fight for them.”
“What’s that?” One of them pointed at distant movement.
“A rider, I think.”
“Looks like it.”
“Spread out,” said the greybeard. “Unless he’s one of ours, it smells like a trap.”
The man next to him squinted. “I don’t see any colours on him. Not any of ours, nor the white star. He doesn’t like a soldier.”
“Even more suspicious,” grunted the informal leader of the band. He glanced around. “Hide over there, behind the bushes. You and you, get your spears ready if he tries to ride past us. You,” he continued at the soldier moving to hide himself, “if he tries to turn back once I talk to him, jab his horse.”
Quickly, the soldiers obeyed, and the veteran placed himself in the middle of the dusty road, flanked by spears. The rider approached, keeping the horse trotting. For a moment, it looked like steed and spears might collide before the reins were pulled back sharply. As the horse regained its balance, the rider swayed precariously for a moment. Wearing garments typical of any peasant, the only thing of notice about the latter was a scroll case hanging over the shoulder in a leather strap.
“You are soldiers of Alcázar?” the rider asked, using Nordspeech with a light voice.
“We are,” the greybeard replied, speaking the same tongue with some difficulty. “Get off your horse and throw weapons away.”
“I’m here to see your commander. I wish to enter his service.”
The mercenary laughed. “He’ll not want peasants. Your horse is not enough to make you warrior.” He glanced to the side where one of his companions crept forward from the bushes. “And soon you won’t even have horse.”
“I bring him a weapon,” the rider declared, taking hold of the scroll case. “This will let him take any city with ease, and, might I add, far fewer casualties. If you fellows value your lives, you’ll take me to him.”
The soldiers looked at each other and began discussing in Suthspeech. “You think he’s telling the truth? A weapon?”
“What kind of weapon is so small yet so dangerous, it fits inside his small case?”
“Idiots,” sneered the greybeard. “He’s got plans of some sort inside. It could be knowledge of the city walls. Or,” he continued pensively, “a small dagger meant to murder the prince with.”
“Then we better kill him,” another suggested. “If he’s a hired blade, we stopped him. If those are plans of the walls, we give them to the prince, and he’ll reward us in gold.”
“Show us,” the old soldier demanded in Nordspeech, pointing his spear at the scroll case.
The rider seemed hesitant, but surrounded by sharp points on all sides proved persuasive. Slowly, one hand opened the case to pull out sheets of parchments.
The soldiers grinned seeing this. “We’ll be rich, boys, once we give it to the prince!”
“Wait.” The veteran raised one hand to calm his companions and spoke again to the rider. “What is that?” he asked in Nordspeech with narrowed eyes. “That’s not city.”
“I’m an engineer from the guild in Fontaine,” came the reply. “This is a weapon I will build for your commander. With this, he will win every siege quickly.”
“What did he say?” asked one of the mercenaries. “I couldn’t make sense of it, he speaks so fast.”
“He builds machines for sieges,” the greybeard explained. “He’s not got any plans of the city.”
“My gold!” someone complained.
“No gold for us.”
“So what do we do with him?”
The ostensible leader of the group seemed to chew through the options. “Take him with us. If this is a ploy, let the mamluks deal with him. You,” he added in Nordspeech, “leave your horse. Walk with us back. We take you to prince.”
Placing the parchments back in the casing, the rider dismounted rather ungracefully. One soldier grabbed the reins, and the small group began the walk back to the camp.
The mercenaries led the engineer to the prince’s tent and had an exchange with the mamluks guarding it. More words ensued, including some of the guards entering the tent and returning soon after; at the end, the engineer was forcefully seated on the ground and made to wait.
An hour passed where the northerner received neither food nor drink, only suspicious glances. Eventually, one of the mamluks barked some harsh words in Suthspeech and pulled the engineer up to stand. The scroll case was torn away and quickly examined, along with a quick search for weapons. Looking for any hidden blades, the mamluk suddenly stared intently at his prisoner before laughing. Finally, the guards led their prisoner inside the tent.
Seated on a chair, Prince Saif watched the newcomer with his advisor Adherbal standing behind him. The mamluk gave the scroll case and its contents to the prince while two other guards held the northerner by the arms.
Slowly, Saif unfurled the parchments, staring at the designs of a strange weapon. “Who are you?” he asked in Nordspeech.
“Watch this, sidi,” declared one of the mamluks, pulling the engineer’s cap off. Long hair was revealed, which along with the beardless face led to one conclusion.
“I am Nicole from Carcas, an engineer of the guild in Fontaine,” she proclaimed.
The mamluk tightened his grip on her arm. “You address a prince.”
Nicole bowed her head. “Your Highness. That is my stone thrower.” With her arms held, she could only nod in the direction of the parchments in the prince’s hand. “It will make a mockery of anything your own engineers might build.”
“Those are strong words,” Saif said. “You can imagine your fate if they prove to be mere bluster. If I am inclined to believe you in the first place. It seems far more likely you are a spy.”
“If so, Your Highness, I would be a bad one, attracting this much attention,” Nicole claimed.
The prince laughed. “True. But the right spy could make that work. This is your invention?” He rustled the parchment in his hands.
“The weapon was created by my husband-to-be, Armand. But I helped with the calculations, ensuring it would work.”
“Why is he not here to present it, in that case?”
“The guild killed him, out of jealousy. Stole his weapon,” Nicole exclaimed with sudden anger.
“But not you.”
“They did not know of my involvement, I suppose. Or they underestimated me. I am a woman, after all.”
“Yet you claim to be from that very guild of engineers,” Adherbal interjected.
“Yes,” Nicole nodded. “I was given Armand’s apprenticeship, as is custom. I learned the craft as he had done, though my master never taught me of siege weapons. I had to learn that on my own, in secret, until I could remake Armand’s masterpiece.”
“And what happened to him, exactly? You claim he was murdered,” Adherbal said.
“My master, Master Lambert, always acted odd when I mentioned Armand. One night, I got him drunk and made him reveal the truth. That fearing his weapon, the guild had Armand killed.” Nicole’s features became twisted in hatred, seeping into her voice. “I fled Fontaine that same night.”
“And came here?” Saif raised an eyebrow.
“No, Your Highness. You seek to find falsehood in my words, but I tell no lies. News of your arrival couldn’t have reached Fontaine yet in order for me to travel from there to here already,” Nicole pointed out. “I went to Herbergja, hoping to take a ship elsewhere and sell my service as an engineer.”
“Yet you are here,” Saif said.
“Traffic became disrupted as most ships set sail for war in Thusund, while winter kept the remainder in harbour. And when war threatened Herbergja itself, I thought it best to make myself scarce. I fled south, reached Portesur, and heard of Your Highness’ arrival,” Nicole explained, sounding a little out of breath. Her arms were still restricted, leaving only her hands to fidget. “And I thought, who better to make use of Armand’s weapon and take revenge on his behalf?”
“That will be your payment, is it?” asked the prince. “Revenge?”
“And gold as befits my services as engineer. Your Highness.”
Saif laughed again. “We shall see. You have yet to explain, let alone prove, what your weapon is capable of.”
“A typical stone thrower works on torsion,” Nicole explained. “The power and range of such a weapon is limited to the tensile strength of the material. My weapon works on counterweights,” she continued. “The only limit is how big you can build it. It can throw stones at such size to break down walls at such distances, you are safe from the defenders.”
The prince exchanged a look with his advisor. “That strains credulity,” Saif finally said.
“Give me a chance to prove my weapon, and I shall make believers of you all, Your Highness.”
The prince exhaled. “What do you require?”
“Lumber. The best that you can provide, Your Highness, long and strong beams. And a blacksmith with the skill to forge the metal parts of my weapon.”
“That might be an issue,” Adherbal quickly said. “The lumber in camp is already cut to fit our own siege machines, and we have chopped down every nearby tree for our palisades.”
“How many ships do we have left?” asked Saif.
“Three, sidi, but we use them to patrol the coast,” the advisor pointed out, speaking in Suthspeech. “And they remain our only defence or means of – rapid departure, should the northerners come.”
“Whether we have two or three will make little difference,” the prince replied in the same tongue before returning to Nordspeech. “You may have one of the ships. They are made from strong, northern wood. Fitting for our purpose.” He gave a sardonic smile.
“I shall not disappoint, Your Highness.” Still restricted, Nicole gave an awkward bow with her head.
“Escort the engineer and ensure she has what she requires,” Saif commanded the mamluks by her side, who eased their grip on her. He spoke again, in Suthspeech. “Keep her under close watch. Kill her if she raises your suspicion.”
“Yes, sidi,” the mamluks replied before ushering Nicole from the tent.
The other engineers in camp reacted in one of three ways to Nicole’s arrival. Some had nothing but disdain for a northerner. Others had nothing but disdain for a female engineer. The remainder were delighted to meet someone taught by the famous guild of Fontaine. With the aid of the last grouping, Nicole set to work. A ship was disassembled and the logs of wood repurposed. Due to their bent shape, it required great efforts to salvage them into being useful for their new purpose, but given the engineers had no other tasks, they were only too pleased with the challenge.
The blacksmiths brought along, otherwise meant for repairing armour, forging weapons, and shoeing horses, had new work as well. Great chains to hold the massive counterweight needed to be made, along with large nails that could support the entire construction. Finally, the intricate mechanisms that could lock the counterweight in place, holding back the tension and allow the release of boulders big enough to destroy walls.
Setbacks and unforeseen issues cropped up. None of those involved had ever built a stone thrower of this manner before, and the journey from parchment to functional weapon proved difficult. Logs turned out to be worn by prior use of sailing on the sea and had to be discarded and replaced. Raising the actual construction and fastening it together took several tries. But despite mounting difficulties, the work continued.
In the end, it took Nicole and her aides seven days to finish the weapon, and each night, the assisting southern engineers took copious notes in order to replicate the weapon in future sieges while being scorned by the hostile craftsmen for wasting their time. But a week after her arrival, the stone thrower was ready to be tested.
Near camp, a village lay. The inhabitants had fled at the first sight of Alcázar’s fleet, and half the houses had been pulled apart to supply the mercenaries with material to fortify the camp. Still, some houses of various size remained standing, even if they seemed more or less derelict now.
Almost three hundred and fifty paces away, Nicole’s stone thrower had been constructed. It was smaller than originally anticipated, constrained by the limited supply of usable timber. All the engineers, whether they expected success or failure, had gathered to witness the first attempt. The prince, his advisor, and a sizeable number of mamluks also stood in attendance; several of the latter carried bows and had arrows within reach.
With a few anxious glances at the armed warriors in yellow, Nicole directed her labourers to move a large rock into the pouch of the stone thrower. “Release!” she commanded. An engineer pulled the locking mechanism to open. The great construction groaned as its restrained force was unleashed. The great counterweight fell down, sliding the pouch along the ground before raising it into the air. Finally, the projectile inside flew out, hurling in an arch across the sky before smashing into the village. One of the houses collapsed.
“Again,” the prince commanded. Another rock was placed into the stone thrower and launched. “Again.” After a while, the village was all but obliterated. Saif turned towards his advisor. “Add her name to the list of engineers with an extra payment of ten crowns for bringing this weapon to us.”
The prince turned towards Nicole. “You must learn our language. Once this war is over, you will return to Alcázar with us.”
“Very well, Your Highness.”
The prince left with his retinue. He barely had his back to the engineers before they began an eager and loud discussion, examining the stone thrower.