My beast was turned broadside in the port city when it hit. The plaza lit up like someone dropped a sun. The world turned gold. Air hissed. Time stopped. Mastodons bellowed and men screamed. Jerem Cozak’s warning cry came late: “Artillery!” And the world resumed in time to rearing beasts and crumbling buildings and the stench of burning flesh. I could not see who had been hit. The herd next to mine panicked and burst back through the streets and alarm escalated to frenzy all the will in the world could barely contain. “Retreat!” Jerem Cozak’s voice cut clear through the morning fog, though I could not see him anywhere. “Behind the buildings! Disks first! Move, move!” And the whole army turned, so that the entirety of it, fifty thousand men and five thousand artillery, stood between my position in what had been the front ranks of the mastodons and any cover whatsoever.
So I sat upon my mastodon and cringed and sweated and feared while the whole herd turned and filed back, utterly exposed. I could only hope to not be hit. So when the hiss came I flinched and when the blast fell I shuddered and could not understand where it was coming from. It must have been high overhead. That’s the only way the angles made sense. It hadn’t hit me. It hadn’t hit anyone in the herd or my part of the line but scorched the open plaza in front of the wall. By the time it was my mastodon’s turn to file back the street I still hadn’t figured it out. Barrage after barrage filled the emptying plaza behind us.
Jerem Cozak explained when he gathered the herd around him, tucked behind an enormous building that could only once have been a warehouse. As always, messengers came and went away among the buildings, up and down our haggard line.
“It’s the greatships,” he told us all. “The nightwind lowered the west wall so that artillery positioned atop the greatships’ decks could fire down into the city. It was a trap. The spearmen in the city were only a distraction. But they’re firing blind because of the nightwind and the fog.”
“Why not just leave?” someone asked behind me.
“Because the port authority may direct the navigation of any greatship in the world. Whoever controls that machine commands them, and it is housed upon the docks. They cannot leave while the city is contested. In fact they cannot even seal their ships.”
“I meant us,” came the rejoinder. Men laughed.