The smoke from burning siege engines still clung heavily to the outer castle walls making it difficult for Lillian to see Dragart's encampment through the crenilation. The smell of blood and decay drifted upwards. Dragart's men were afraid to come pick up their dead. Those who hadn't been removed under cover of darkness during last night's attack would remain where they lay. All normal courtesies of war had been foregone in this siege.
A sudden breeze cleared the smoke and Lillian saw the broken bodies at the base of the wall. She bit her tongue to keep from gagging. True, they were Dragart's men, but she knew all too well that one day it might be her body lying bloody and broken in the freezing mud like that. She would kill herself before she let herself be taken by Dragart or his men.
Reluctantly, she released the tension on her bowstring. There were no living targets in range. Dragart's soldiers had learned long ago how deadly was her aim. More than half a dozen had strayed too close this winter, and they had felt the deep bite of her arrows. Always her father's soldiers had bustled her away afterwards, afraid that a ballista bolt might find its mark upon her in revenge.
They loved her, her father's soldiers did, and while they admired her courage for coming to the outer walls, they feared for her, too. But she could see that her presence bolstered their morale, so she came out often, especially now that her father had taken ill.
"My Lady, you should go inside the gatehouse," a guardsman told her, nodding towards the closest of Dragart's siege weapons. He had a nasty cut along his eyebrow, fresh, undoubtedly, from defending the walls in the dark hours of the moonless night. "Dragart's men are loading the trebuchets. Like as not 'twill be twice as bad today, since their attack last night failed."
Lillian smiled and nodded. "You are hurt," she said.
"Tis naught, Lady," the soldier grinned. "Please..."
"I'm going," she laughed, not really a laugh, but as close as she could muster after such a night. "You should rest today, if you can."
"Yes, Lady." The soldier bowed, then crouched, pulling his cloak tightly around him for warmth, looking out at the desolation below.
Lillian hitched her skirts up with her free hand so she wouldn't trip going down the stairs, and kept them lifted as she crossed the outer ward, now reduced to a sea of slush and mud. She ignored the makeshift graveyard set against the eastern wall; there were too many beloved faces buried there. Plague and illness over the harsh winter had claimed more than Dragart's weapons. And now her father was taken ill as well.
Her two ladies in waiting and her father's favorite page met her at the entrance to the main gatehouse. Her heart froze when she saw the looks on their faces.
"My Lady..." the page began.
Lillian swallowed hard. "Father?"
"He wishes to speak to you..."
Without bothering to remove her muddy shoes, Lillian flew up the stairs to her father's quarters.
He looked old and frail lying in bed, yet barely three weeks before, he had been prowling the walls of the castle in full armor like a caged bear.
He patted the side of his bed, inviting her to sit.
"Father..." she began, but he shushed her gently.
"My time is come, daughter. I go to meet my maker." He took her hand in his own, and she was appalled at how weak his grasp seemed.
Lillian shook her head, disbelieving, not wanting to believe. "No!"
"Lilly," he said, squeezing her hand. His feverish eyes searched her face. "Lilly, you must hold the castle. The Prince will come... he will come... He will lift the siege, Lilly, if you but hold til warmer weather. When the ice melts you can re-supply through the river gate, and when the passes clear, the Prince will come."
Lillian shook her head, tears blurring her vision. "No, father! How can I go on without you?... You can't leave me! You can't!"
"Oh please, father...! Please don't go!" she begged, "Please...!"
"Lilly.... you must hold." He smiled at her then, and closed his eyes. His strained face relaxed, and his hand in hers went limp.
Lillian dropped his hand and grabbed his shoulders, shaking them. "No! No! No! Father, please!!!!" She collapsed on top of him, sobbing. How could she continue without him? Her whole world was falling apart... first her mother at the beginning of the war, then her brother in the battle, now her father. She had no family left. More than half the population of the castle had died this terrible winter, servants, friends, and soldiers alike. How could she go on without her father's strength and guidance? How could she live without his kind advice, his courage, his laugh, his hugs? How could she live when all of them were dead?!
A trembling hand touched her shoulder. "My Lady, he has passed on."
Lillian glared at him. The physician's apprentice. The physician himself had been one of the first to die of the illness, soon after the siege began. The apprentice looked tired and grieved; she knew he was but barely a boy, but she felt nothing but grief and rage at him for letting her father die. "Do you think I don't know it?!" she spat. "I would that it were me instead!"
With that, she fled past her father's servants and her own, and sought the refuge of her private chambers.
Lillian remained kneeling, weeping helplessly into her hands before her altar until a knock sounded on the outer door. She bid her ladies not to open it, but her father's steward, Sir Edward, pushed his way in anyway. Sir Edward was an old man with wispy white hair, but he was not yet bent by age, despite that he used a cane to walk. "Let me pass!" he commanded, giving her ladies a stern look.
Lilly loved Sir Edward like a grandfather, but she did not want to see him now.
"Sir Edward!" Emma protested, knowing her lady's desire to be left alone.
Sir Edward ignored her. He stopped just behind Lillian. "Lillian Eloise Whitecliff of Wymer, I would speak with you."
Lilly wiped her cheek with one hand. "I am in mourning, Sir Edward, and wish to be alone."
Sir Edward stepped in front of her and kneeled, grasping her arm, forcing her to look at him. Lilly knew how painful it must be for him to kneel with his injured leg, but none of it showed in his stern face.
"Lilly," he said, his voice soft yet firm, "You know as well as I... if Wymer falls, the kingdom follows. Dragart caught us all off guard, risking a winter siege. But this castle must hold. Your father is dead... you must be the Duchess now. And God forgive me, but there is no time for mourning. Sir Melkirt is a good man, but he is no Sir Lowen... and when Lowen was killed your father lost his best warrior. Melkirt will crumble if you are weak. Already the troops are wondering if you will surrender. Dragart knows time is short... The snows have begun melting even here in the north; soon the Redsluice will be free of ice, and we'll be able to resupply by the river. Dragart will redouble his efforts... last night's attack is only the first of many, I fear. Indeed, he may try again tonight. Without your leadership, the men will not hold; there are too few of them. You must inspire them as your father did. You must fight this war now."
Lilly sobbed, knowing the futility of it. "It's no use! All is lost! All is lost!" The castle would fall; she would die; and Prince Randal would arrive to find Wymer held against him. The King would eventually be overthrown, because with Wymer under his control, Dragart would have the resources and strategic position to win the war. Wretched, wretched fate!
Sir Edward slapped her hard across her face. "Lillian!" He shook her shoulders. "All is NOT lost, yet with that attitude it most certainly will be. Get yourself together! Would you see us all dead?!"
He stood up then, and stormed out of her chamber, leaving her stunned both by the pain of the blow to her face and the fury of his question.
It took several moments for her to collect herself enough to realize that her ladies in waiting had not swooped to her rescue. They were standing, frozen in horror, waiting for some signal from her. Perhaps they even thought Sir Edward was right.
She stared at her hands, damp from tears and snot.
Slowly she realized that she had been prepared to die herself; that throughout this whole terrible, miserable winter she had been expecting it, even. Her father's death had just been confirmation of her fears.
But she was not prepared to see Sir Edward die... or Madelaine, or Emma... her faithful, faithful ladies in waiting. She didn't want Sir Melkirt or the other men to be turned over to Dragart's mercy. She knew well enough what he would do to them. Like as not they would be executed. The knights and officers most certainly would be.
No, no, Sir Edward was right; she would not see them all dead. She would have to be strong. Somehow. Alone. She would have to save her father's Duchy for her King. Somehow, she would have to do it. At the very least, she would die trying.
Slowly she stood up and faced her two ladies in waiting. "Bring me my brother's armor," she said.
Her brother had died three years ago in the beginning of the war. He had saved Prince Randal's life in battle, and Lilly assumed that was why her father and Sir Edward were so certain he was coming in person to lift the siege. While Lilly would never have been able to wear his adult armor, she believed that the suit he had worn as a youth might fit her well enough for her purposes.
It seemed to take hours for her ladies to figure out how to put the armor on, and it was discovered that she could not wear the breastplate even if she had wanted.
Lillian snorted to herself. She was considered flat-chested by the standards of the Southern Court, and yet she was not flat enough for this. Still, it was probably for the best, because she wasn't sure she could carry the weight of the full suit anyway. It took the three of them to wrestle the heavy mail coat over her head, and the rings caught and pulled her long hair. She had to forgo wearing the plates of armor on her arms, as well, because they could not figure out how to keep them from sliding off her arms without fastening them to the breastplate. They attached the leg harnesses to a belt. Female hips, apparently were good for this, at least.
By the time they finished, Lilly thought she might collapse. How could anyone walk, much less fight, in such a heavy outfit?
Her feet ached in boots that were slightly too large, and her knee cops clanked together most distressingly when she tried to walk across the chamber. When she turned around, she almost tripped on her brother's sword when it hit the leg of her writing table.
"Oh my Lady," Emma said, tears in her eyes, "Why must you do this?"
"Because, Emma, if the men know I am on the walls with them, they will fight twice as hard to protect me. What better way to inspire them than with the threat of my eminent demise? I'm all they have left."
"But you could be hurt!"
"I could be crushed by one of Dragart's siege missiles walking across the courtyard, or catch the same plague that killed father while sitting here in my chamber. If the walls fall to an assault, my death is a certainty for I will not let Dragart take me hostage."
"Find Sir Edward. Tell him I wish to address the troops. Have them assemble in what remains of the great hall."
The weight of her armor, concealed beneath her warm winter cloak, caused Lillian to sink deeply into the courtyard mud, so deeply that she thought it might suck the boots right off her feet when she tried to lift them, yet she made it to the hall without losing them.
A large section of the roof had collapsed in flames over a month ago after one of Dragart's trebuchets had successfully launched a ball of fire over both sets of walls to find its mark. The hall itself smelled of smoke and unwashed bodies. The pitifully small number of her father's surviving knights and soldiers were gathered at attention at the opposite end.
Sir Edward and Sir Melkirt stood together, in front. They turned towards her when she entered.
Gratifyingly, she somehow managed to walk the distance to them without tripping, stumbling, or clanking her legs together too loudly.
"My Lady, Sir Edward tells me that you wish to address the troops?" Melkirt asked with a low bow as she approached.
Lillian could see the sadness and dread in his eyes, and the bone weary fatigue on his face. They told her all she needed to know. He was expecting her to announce their surrender. After all, she could expect to be held safely for ransom. Knowing the Prince's debt to her brother, Dragart could ask the Prince for a sizeable fortune and expect to get it. And how could she, a woman, be expected do otherwise?
Clearly, he was a man already defeated, just as she had been before Sir Edward had slapped some sense into her.
These men had loved her father too. In their own way, they felt his loss as keenly as she.
"Yes Commander. Thank you."
She turned to the men and swallowed. She looked at them, these men who were prepared to die for her father and his family. She recognized most of their faces, knew many of their names. Some she had helped tend when they were wounded. They were not strangers to her, not now, after so many months of hardship together. She felt her eyes fill with tears... tears of gratitude for all their sacrifice... tears for the grief she knew they shared.
"As you know," she began, and had to stop because her voice threatened to crack with emotion.
She swallowed once more, gathering her composure, then tried again. "As you know, my father died this morning. I cannot claim these lands and this castle as my own, until the King sees fit to bestow them upon me." She did not add, "if he sees fit," but she knew that they all thought it, for it was far more likely that he would command her to marry some northern noble, and give Wymer to her husband's family. And without her father to speak for her, she knew she would be powerless to defy such a royal command.
They were still her father's men, and they were afraid of what she would do. She was seventeen, and they loved her for her kindness, but she was a very young woman, and what they needed most right now was strength.
She undid the clasp holding her cloak and tossed it aside, and had the satisfaction of seeing seventy some odd pair of eyes widen in surprise and shock.
"But I am Wymer," she said, forcefully this time, "And Wymer does not surrender to the enemy. I am my father's daughter, and my brother's sister, and someday I will be your rightful Duchess. And tonight, and tomorrow, and the day after until this siege is lifted, I will fight by your sides on the castle walls, because my father and my brother would do no less."
She drew her sword from its sheath and held it up in what she hoped was a dramatic gesture. "I ask you, men, are you with me?!"
The hall was silent as a tomb.
Lilly felt her face go red. She stared at them. They stared at her. Her sword arm fell.
And then the fury hit.
How dare they humiliate her like this?! She was her father's daughter. She was of noble blood!
She stomped her foot and whirled on her Knight Commander, shifting the sword into her left hand. She balled her free hand into a fist and punched him in his astonished face with all her might, throwing all her weight into the blow. Melkirt reeled backwards, then toppled over, landing heavily on the floor with a loud "umph."
She stood over him, seething. "Damn you, I want to fight! I want that bastard Dragart's head on a platter, Commander. Do you understand me!?" She turned back to the men. "You will fight, damn you all, and if you refuse, I'll cut your cowardly balls off myself! Now I ask you again, are you with me?!"
A few men muttered "Aye, Lady," but Lillian was hardly mollified. Under normal circumstances, she would repress her anger with all the skill of a noblewoman trained to diplomacy, but she knew instinctively that fury would serve her better now.
"You there, Georg, isn't it? I didn't hear you." She clanked forward and put the point of her sword to his neck. "Will you fight for me, or do I kill you now?" She looked him in the eye until he looked away, flushing.
They knew she could kill. They knew she would kill, for they had all seen her handiwork with a bow.
"Aye, Lady," Georg gulped.
"Say it like you mean it."
"Aye, Lady!" he shouted.
"Better. Now what about you?" she asked the man standing beside him.
She walked down the line.
She walked to the the second rank. "You men, will you fight for me?"
The third rank and the fourth. "Aye, Lady!"
She walked back to where Melkirt was standing next to Sir Edward, nursing a bloody lip.
"These men will fight for me, Commander. Will you?"
He drew his sword and dropped to his knees, holding the hilt towards her. "Aye, Lady... my fealty, my life, and my blade are yours to command, if you will have them."
Lillian took his sword, and motioned for him to stand. "Command these men in my name, and do not let this castle fall." She returned his sword. "Sir Edward tells me that Dragart may attack again tonight. You'd best get ready."
She turned on her heel, then, and strode imperiously toward the courtyard door where her ladies were waiting.
It started slowly at first, the soft stamping of boots on the muddy tile floor, then grew louder, even as she got further away. Soon male voices began to chant in rhythm to their stomping, "Wy-mer! Wy-mer! Wy-mer! Wy-mer!" until when Lilly stepped out into the muddy courtyard, the remaining rafters of the hall were shaking from their voices, and she was certain that Dragart could hear them shouting all the way to his dreary camp.
In her chambers, she collapsed into a sobbing, shaking mass. She did not even realize that Sir Edward had entered until, once again, he kneeled beside her and held out a goblet of wine.
"My Lady," he said.
Reflexively, Lillian reached out to take the goblet, but her hand was shaking so badly that she pulled it back and wiped her face instead.
"That was well done, my dear, though not quite what I expected." He put the goblet aside and took her hands between his own, to still their shaking. "But whatever possessed you to put on your brother's armor?"
"Y-you said, 'You must fight this war.'"
Sir Edward sighed heavily. "I did not mean it literally."
"I realize that, Sir Edward. And yet, I could think of no other way to inspire them 'like my father.' It is what he would do. And if not inspire them, then perhaps it would at least shame them into fighting harder... knowing that I was willing to do the same."
Sir Edward sighed again, then pulled her to her feet. "Very well, what's done is done. You can't go back on your word to the men. I swore to your father that I would look out for you, young Lillian, and that I intend to do. Have you any idea how to use that sword you carry?"
Lillian shook her head.
"Then I suggest you carry your bow. Stay well back... let the men protect you. I will give you lessons in sword work starting tomorrow, so that perhaps, should the need arrive, God forbid, you might have some idea of how to defend yourself."
Lillian smiled, feeling much more herself. Sir Edward was so calm, it was hard for her to remain so upset. "Thank you," she said.
Dragart did not attack that night, nor the next or the next. Lillian wondered if it was because he had heard the men chanting "Wy-mer" the day of her speech, knowing that their morale was high and determined. She doubted very much that he knew her father had died, otherwise he most certainly would have attacked, high morale or no. He would have tested her, sought to take advantage of the change.
She wore her armor all the day, now, and carried sword and bow. Her ladies carried her helm and gauntlets rather than their baskets of needlework and mending supplies. They both had taken to wearing men's trousers and tunics... the better for tramping through the mud and climbing up and down the stairs to the outer walls and towers. She spent two hours every morning and evening working with Sir Edward. She was hopeless at striking with the sword, but she learned quickly how to use it to defend herself.
Dragart tried another night attack three days after her father died. The river tower sounded the alarm shortly after moonset. Lilly was up and armored even before Sir Edward knocked on her chamber door.
They attacked the outer wall at its lowest point, near the river, where marshy ground would protect it in warmer weather. Now, the marsh was frozen beneath the top layer of mud. They could not roll their siege engines forward here, but they came with ladders. Dozens of them. The men swarmed like ants at the base of the wall, with no earthworks to hide them. Dragart had not dug his trenches this close to the river knowing that it would be digging through solid ice, so those waiting to climb the ladders were unprotected.
Lilly instructed Sir Melkirt to have some men bring barrels of water to the wall. While they had no wood to waste heating oil, pouring icy snowmelt on the soldiers below was nearly as effective. It slowed both their wits and their bodies. It was hard to fight when one was, literally, freezing.
When that was done, Lilly took her stand in the River Tower with four other archers. She could see by the light of torches, and she did not need to hunt for targets. Thankfully, her father had always kept the castle well supplied with arrows. Enough to last a year, if need be. It was one of the few things they had in plenty.
Dragart's attack did not go well. Even Lillian could see that his men were half-hearted. Fewer than six ladders stayed up long enough for men to get to the top of the wall, and those few were slaughtered by Wymer troops. It was over by midnight, with trumpets sounding retreat. Both sides cheered, and Lillian had to smile, imagining Dragart's fury at that.
His army's low morale did not stop him from trying again the next night, or the night after that. Then, they launched a full scale attack on three different points on the wall, and the Wymer troops were overwhelmed in the center. Lillian was trapped in the East Ward Tower with five of her archers. Three died defending her, taking twice their number with them on the stairs. She killed her first man with a sword, and pushed another over the wall before Sir Melkirt gathered enough men to mount a charge and free the tower.
If she hadn't been so exhausted, she would have been gratified to see the relief in her men's eyes when they found her still alive, bloody sword in hand. Bow forgotten, she followed them out of the tower, and helped push ladders from the wall until the attack was repulsed.
Dragart ceased his attacks after that, apparently confident that cold weather would last long enough that they would give in to starvation. It was a calculated risk, but winter showed no sign of breaking, and what ice on the river melted during the day re-froze at night. Lillian knew that it was a strategy that might well work. They had barely two weeks supply left, and she had just authorized the slaughter of horses for food. The sun, for all their prayers, stayed hidden.
Thus it was a complete surprise to Lillian when Sir Edward awakened her on a foggy night, well before dawn, to tell her that a messenger had made his way through Dragart's line, slipped across the frozen Redsluice, and had been allowed entry at the water gate.
Lillian dressed hurriedly in her armor (it hadn't occurred to her to wear a dress for days), and proceeded to her father's audience hall.
"Sir Edward tells me that you bring word from Prince Randal?" Lillian asked the man, who looked tired and muddy, and very surprised to see her.
"Where is Duke Wymer?" he asked rudely.
"The Duke is dead. I am in command here, now."
"Forgive me, Sir, I did not realize the Duke had a second son!"
Sir Edward chuckled, and Lillian flipped her braid of hair forward across her shoulder.
"He does not. I am his daughter Lillian. Now, tell me, what message do you bring?"
The man bowed, looking flustered. "My Lady, the Prince is one day's march from here. He has split the army in the hopes of trapping Dragart against the Redsluice. The main force will come, as expected, up the south road. But he is sending a large contingent of cavalry between the Redsluice and the forest from the East. The river and the castle block the north. He bid me come give you warning of his attack, so that you may be prepared to sally forth and stop Dragart from escaping across the western bridge."
"We have but thirty horses left," Lillian said slowly, "But we will do as the Prince asks. When does he plan to attack?"
"They will march through the night tomorrow, in the hopes of taking Dragart by surprise at dawn. He left a small force guarding the bridge at Riverdale, but we hope that none escaped to give him warning of our advance. He does not appear to be expecting us."
"No, the weather has been bad. We did not expect the passes to be free for some time, yet."
The man smiled. "They are not, yet the Prince was determined to get through, and so we did."
Lillian smiled back. "We are grateful for your efforts. We could not have held much longer."
[continue to part 2]