February 3, TA 3019/AD 1200
The noises of an army preparing for war sounded out across the Udun. Officers howled orders to their subordinates, and said subordinates cursed under their breath in reply. Dozens, if not hundreds, of forge hammers rang constantly, each blow of metal on metal carrying across the ashen plains. Their products clanked and jingled with every movement as the armorers fitted each set to an orcish soldier, roughly yanking straps tight and forcing iron plates into the correct positions. Horns blared as companies were formed, and soon afterwards the stomping of thousands of feet, the beating of makeshift drums and the cries of soldiers on the march were all but omnipresent. The Armies of Mordor were on the move.
The Witch King of Angmar watched them from atop his mount, his emotions ever unreadable. For the moment, his second, the orc Captain known as Gothmog, guided the proceedings, his eye critical and his tongue harsh as he moved through the ranks: the fodder of Mordor had not yet proved incompetent enough to merit the Wraith’s direct intervention in the muster of his army, and the Head of the Nazgul had more pressing matters to attend to than mere logistics.
Namely, gathering intelligence on his target and planning the assault that would reduce it to a pile of broken stones. Not that there was much need to be clever. The Wraith had flown over the city he was to lay to waste numerous times, hiding himself within the black clouds that clung to the skies around Mordor, pinned there by the fell magics of the dark land. Even from such heights, the city reeked of fear, with feelings of terror and despair bleeding from it like blood from a wound. The prisoners that had been taken, from the villages near the Black Gates and the pathetic excuses for scouts that had attempted to spy on the same, were reduced to gibbering wrecks by the mere appearances of the orcs, screaming to the sky in their strange tongues long before the implements of torment had even entered the same room as them. Even by the standards of men, it was almost pitiful.
Of course, the Lord of the Nazgul felt no pity for them whatsoever: those that proved to be non-useful died in torment, their foreign screams dying on their lips. The raw terror that consumed the men of these lands like locusts consumed a harvest would simply make the Witch King’s job all the more simple. His Master wanted the lands before the Black Gate utterly destroyed, the spirits of their inhabitants shattered beyond repair. And his Master’s will would be done.
Before too long, the time had come. Formation by formation, column by column, regiment by regiment, the vast host of Sauron had reached their points of assembly, thousands of orcs, wargs and trolls organized to begin the march. Their officers could be seen, gesturing wildly and spitting madly as they stoked the fires of bloodlust and rage that would fuel the coming conquests. The cheers and stomping and beating of weapons rose from all corners of the plain as the Army of Mordor worked itself into a frenzy, eager for the blood of men to bathe in.
A single flick of the Witch King’s hand, and it had begun. The horns were blown again, and the roar of the host sounded out like thunder. Thousands upon thousands of feet stomped to the beat of the drums, the columns moving like a black wave towards the northwest, as unstoppable as the rising of the tide. There was one last blast of horns, and the Black Gate of Mordor began to creak open.
And the Legions of Hell were unleashed upon the Earth.
In the days preceding, the countryside had been nearly emptied, its inhabitants fleeing as far as they could away from the Black Peaks that had descended from the sky. The majority fled northwards, a human flood rushing away from the mysterious mountains and whatever terrible things behind them made the air freeze and the hearts of men despair. The tales were everywhere, of hideous monsters that descended from the dark lands and ate the flesh of men, of the Black Gate that was manned by an army of demons and of the flaming eye that could be seen beyond it. Lesser Poland was a land filled to the brim with dread and fear.
Nowhere was this more true than in the beating heart of the land. Krakow, the capital of the realm, was filled to bursting with three things: wild tales from the southeast, refugees from the same region and the rampant terror that spilled from both. Even the army that now encamped within the city could do little to quell the horror that sprung from every corner of the city. All of Krakow waited with baited breath, waited for the next stage of this calamity to begin.
Leszek the White, High Duke of Poland, could do little but wait with them. Prayer was his only comfort now. He had sent for aid in all directions, north and south and west and east, but no reply had come. The tales from the southeast had grown more terrible by the day, if not by the hour. The people that carried the stories with them now were crammed into Krakow like fish into a barrel: nearly every road in southern Poland fed into the city at some point, and in the depths of midwinter moving off of the road was a sure way to be slain by the elements or starvation, whichever came first. This forced the seemingly endless columns of refugees into a bottleneck that slowed their northwards flood in to a trickle, crowding the city and stretching its larders and housing spaces to their limits.
So Leszek prayed, as he had without end since the storm had struck, since the mountains had fallen, since the first reports from the south had returned to him. He prayed for strength, for guidance, for aid, for anything that might light his darkest hour. On and on, pausing only to eat, sleep or discuss plans for the city’s defense, he prayed, calling out to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mother and every Saint whose name he could remember. Many joined him. Wawel Cathedral, that holy place on the hill, was packed to the rafters, every day and every night. Commoner, noble, criminal, guard...all of them prayed to the Lord, crying out for salvation.
It was not before that altar that Leszek heard the message that he had been dreading, despite all the hours each day that he spent there. Rather, it was within his castle that the runner had found him, listening to his Captains report to him their progress on stockpiling supplies, arming and training every able-bodied man they could find, fortifying every wall and gate. The man that delivered had eyes that were wild with terror, his breath shallow and rapid. Leszek had known at the mere sight of him. There was almost no need to ask, but still the words came from his trembling lips, barely above a whisper.
“Has...has the gate opened?”
The man nodded vigorously, his whole body shaking like a leaf. Leszek felt his breath leave him, the weight of his body seeming to double, no, triple, in that single moment. He felt his joints begin to weaken, his body slouching over as his mind tried and failed to process the information he had been given. He barely noticed as the other men around him succumbed to the same symptoms, their breathing becoming hard and sudden, their faces twisting in horror and dread. The Gate was open. The demons were marching. They were coming. Good God almighty, they were coming.
The words barely escaped from Leszek’s mouth, his tongue drying out and his lips cracking as fear began to spread like poison through his body.
“Suh...suh...some th-thousands, my lord,” the man stammered out. His words hung in the air as he regained his breath, trying to steady himself somewhat, regain the smallest measure of composure. “Demons, giants, monsters...I saw them with my own eyes. They’re all coming this way. It won’t be more than a day's time before they’re here.”
Leszek’s knees gave way then, and he slumped to the ground, practically forgetting the world around him. All his fears, all his horrors...they were about to be realized. He simply stared ahead, his gaze fixed at a point somewhere behind the messenger before him. Vaguely, at the edge of his consciousness, he was aware of the rest of the men in the room either joining him on the floor or begging him for orders. After what seemed to him an eternity, he finally found his voice again.
“God...God help us all.”
The black tide swept northwards, consuming all in its path. Villages were burned. Crops were put to the torch. Those refugees that had not yet reached the relative safety of Krakow were slaughtered like livestock, their bodies desecrated and looted for anything of value, then piled in heaps besides the road. The horde of Mordor moved like so many locusts, laying the lands before them to waste.
Far above, the Witch King of Angmar watched from on high with an emotion akin to satisfaction as the army advanced. All around him, the fell winds of winter howled, and snow and hail tumbled out of the sky on the lands below. The inclement weather did little to slow the pace of his hordes however, the orcs and trolls and other beasts being driven ever forwards by the bellowing of the officers and the beating of the drums. They made good enough time, for the moment. The Nazgul could turn his thoughts to other things.
Nazgul did not feel joy or happiness as living men did, if at all. The closest emotion that they could muster to such feelings was a certain sort of sadistic glee, an emotion that was somewhat like a hunter’s anticipation of slaying their prey. It was this bestial pleasure, the anticipation of a coming slaughter, that the Lord of the Ringwraiths now felt coursing through him, a savage pleasure that made the black fire of his soul burn like a blacksmith’s furnace. The coming ‘battle’ could hardly be called such: it was to be little more than a massacre. The city, despite all of its fortifications and defenses, was as ready to fall as a ripe fruit. One solid blow, and the whole rotting place would come crashing down upon itself.
And that blow was being prepared at that very moment. Orcish engineers tore down every sturdy building they could get their hands on, converting the materials into siege ladders, catapults and battering rams. The foremost columns of the army already stood before the city itself, taking up their positions for the general assault. Those behind them were herded to their own starting points, drums pounding and horns calling as the army arranged itself for the attack. Soon, oh so very soon, it would begin. The Witch King watched as his soon-to-be victims scurried about on their walls, their fear radiating off of them like heat from Mount Doom. It was no a matter of ‘if,’ but of ‘when.’ And ‘when’ drew nearer by the moment.
Leszek stood on the wall. He looked out over the horde before him, but it was anyone’s guess if he actually saw them. The High Duke was in a near-stupor, his eyes barely focused and his body lax. The young man, no, young boy, had been guided to where he stood by several of his guards, looking for all the world like the 17-year-old child that he was: small, frail, and thrust into a spot far above his capability.
It had been a matter of some discussion of whether or not to allow the boy to the wall at all. He himself had muttered the order, that he be taken to see the legions of hell that now availed him, but many among his advisors feared that his appearance in such a state would do more harm than good, lessening even further the already flagging morale of the men. But the High Duke had stumbled in the direction of the walls anyways, and in the end his Captains had not stopped him. It was all that they could do to stop him from tripping over the things in his path.
Now they all watched, as what could only be the army of Satan himself assembled before their walls. Their number was difficult to count, especially with the falling snow and hail obscuring the sight of the Poles, but it was easily far greater than what was available to the defenders. A sally would be suicidal. As they had for so long, the soldiers of Krakow waited, waited for the hammer to fall. Most prayed. Some wept. All felt a sickening fear grow within their hearts. The insufferable waiting...it seemed to continue, on and on and on.
And then, as the sun fell on the night of February 3rd, AD 1200, they heard it. It was a terrible noise, painful to the very soul to hear. It carried on the dark winds, a black voice from within the storm all around them, a cry of the Devil himself. Loud and long it was, and the men of Krakow’s muscles froze and bowels clenched when they heard it. Then, there was another noise, a horrible cheer that rose on thousands of twisted throats, and the legions of hell began to move forwards, like a great wave threatening to sweep the whole city away.
The Battle of Krakow had begun.
Jakub Kowalsky had not been a soldier for long. Not more than a week before, he had been another simple and poor farmer, just one more peasant among the thousands that populated southern Poland and northern Hungary. Then the storm had come, and the mountains and the tales of monsters and demons and soon he had found himself swept up in the great flood of refugees, leaving behind his livelihood and home in search of safer lands to the north.
He had hoped to make it further than Krakow by now (perhaps even as far as the border with Mazovia) but much like veins and arteries feeding into heart, every road in the country seemed to lead directly to the city, forming a bottleneck that slowed the human river roaring in from the south from a vast torrent to a feeble trickle. With traffic slowed to a standstill, Krakow had become less of a city and more of a great camp, with refugees taking whatever shelter they could in and around the city.
With it apparent that the vast majority of said refugees would be unable to move on anytime soon, the city officials did all that they could to both give support to the displaced (many of whom had only the close on their backs with them) and to gain some measure of value out of them. Every able bodied man had been levied into the ranks of either the defenders against the coming battle or as workers to build up fortifications in preparation for the same.
Jakub had fallen into the former category. They had given him a shirt of mail that didn’t quite fit right, a spear that felt just the slightest bit wrong in his hands and a few days worth of training in their use. It was not that he did not know how to use them (indeed, he had learned such things from his father, many years before, as had most of the men), but the thought of the battle to come filled him with dread. He could see it on the faces of the other men too, hear it in their voices when they spoke. Fear and terror clung to every corner of the city, a terrible thing that sat just at the edge of their thoughts, waiting to lunge forwards and consume them.
Now he watched in horror as the black tide swept towards him, illuminated by the light of hundreds of blazing torches, and the feeling of dread welled up within him once more. Every muscle in his body clenched together, and his every limb trembled as the legions of hell drew closer, a roaring swarm carrying wicked blades and fitted with twisted armor. The went out all along the line, for archers to pick their targets and fire at will, and within moments arrows began to fly, first a handful at a time, then in groups, and then one after another after another plunging out of the darkening skies, thinning the ranks of the demons with every shaft that struck home.
But the demons had archers of their own, and they responded in kind, black arrows streaking up from the grounds below, and soon the air was filled with the shafts of both sides, cutting down any that dared expose themselves. To the terror of the defenders, however, it seemed that for every shaft that was sent over the walls, the monsters would send three in response, uncannily accurate in the fading light. The howls of wounded and dying men sounded out from all across the rampart as more and more black shafts streaked in, forcing the men to take whatever cover they could find as well as pinning down the defender’s own archers, preventing them from picking their targets with any true accuracy.
The roars of the monsters grew ever louder, and they spat words at each other in their harsh tongue, a twisted and black noise that hurt to even hear. What they called for soon became apparent: the call went out across the wall that the foe was bringing up ladders. Jakub gulped, his throat dry. The storm of arrows flying overhead was bad enough. Now the true battle was about to begin. In mere moment, he would be facing demons, demons, with only a spear and a shirt of mail. Garbling a quick prayer to the Lord for protection, he lifted himself to a crouch, trying to keep himself out of the view of any prying bowmen’s eyes below. He risked a quick peek over the wall, and yes, there they were, dozens of ladders being carried to the base of the wall.
Some were already going up, men armed with pikes and hooks desperately trying to push them away. It was a deadly business: everywhere that a ladder reached the wall, a dozen bows sighted the men trying to push it away. Black shafts buried themselves into the pikemen, and into those that took up the weapons and tried once more to shove away the ladders. And the ladders were many: every one pushed down was replaced within what seemed an instant.
Eventually, the inevitable happened. Too many pikemen had fallen, arrows piercing through their flesh and leaving them to bleed to death, and one by one the ladders began to find purchase on the walls. Taking in a shuddering breath, Jakub readied his spear, watching as the ladder nearest to him shook with the steps of a demon rapidly beginning their ascent. Even in the rapidly darkening night, he saw the demon’s head as it came into view.
It was a terrible thing to behold, a twisted and scarred face with wild, blood-red eyes and jagged, dagger-like teeth. As the demon finished their climb, a wicked-looking sword held high above their head, Jakub found himself for the briefest of moments looking straight into its eyes, seeing the burning hatred behind them, the pure malice that made up the dark creature’s soul. Then, with a scream of animalistic fear and rage, he thrust his spear forwards, burying it deep into the monster’s stomach. They roared in pain, madly swinging their blade towards Jakub’s head, even as Jakub drove his spear further into their gut, pushing the demon back off the ladder and into open air.
So they can die, Jakub thought as he pulled his spear back and ducked for cover once more, a volley of arrows tearing through the air where he had stood a moment before. It was a thought that he took at least some comfort in. Maybe there was the slightest bit of hope that he would live long enough to see the dawn. The ladder before him continued to shake, another demon trying their luck. Another prayer on his lips, Jakub Kowalsky steeled himself to face another monster.
Gothmog, Lieutenant to the Witch King, was not one to lead from the rear. He stood at the very front ranks of the Army of Mordor, screaming himself hoarse at the maggots that ran with him towards the walls. He paced the lines, hollering for the ladders and rams to be brought up, for his archers to pin down the enemy bowmen atop the ramparts, occasionally lashing out with the flat of his blade against of the grunts that dared to let their ranks waver.
Unlike the Nazgul, the Orc had a concept of joy, if a bestial and savage one. Gothmog was currently revelling in that feeling, his heart lifting with every scream that rose from the walls when a shaft found its mark, with the resounding CRACK! that accompanied the battering ram as it hammered at the city’s gates, with the terrified cries of the men at the walls as his maggots ascended the ladders and stormed the ramparts. It was what made him feel alive.
The only thing that made him feel any more alive was removing life from men, watching the light in their eyes blink out as he forced a blade through their flesh. He would have his chance to indulge such feeling in mere moment. The gates of the city were shuddering with every blow from the ram, the boards composing it beginning to crack and splinter. The arrows of the guards flew wide of their marks in the darkness, and the pressure being applied by his grunts on the other parts of the wall drew off more and more of defenders as the orcs threatened to overrun the ramparts.
He could see gaps in the gate now, holes that the defenders desperately tried to board up or shot arrows and thrust spears through. They targeted the maggots working the ram, of course, but every one that they managed to bring down was easily replaced, and the gate came ever nearer to breaking. With every blow, another plank broke, another beam snapped, and the anticipation of those behind the ram waiting to storm the city built. Finally, with one last CRACK, the gate fell away, those that had been bracing it hurriedly trying to form ranks behind where the gate had once stood. Finally, the Lieutenant to the Witch King could give the order he had been waiting to give.
Leszek heard the gate shatter below his feet. He had been standing practically frozen for hours, watching as the demons had battered down his defenses. While he had stared ahead with a blank face, his Captains running the battle as he remained in his stupor, madness had unfolded, the monsters finding purchase upon the walls and breaking down the gate. Now, finally, with the legions of hell storming forwards into his city, his eyes regained their focus.
Whirling around, his hand flying to the hilt of his sword, he watched in awe as half-a-dozen giants, pale skinned and wielding clubs the size of trees, pushed their way into the courtyard behind where the remains of the gate stood, smashing aside the defenders like a scythe cutting through wheat. At the mere sight, he almost froze again, but the he shook the feeling away as quickly as it had come. He had already missed most of the battle, God forgive him. He would not miss the rest.
“Archers! Bring down the giants! Bring them down! Bring them down now!”
His own voice was nearly alien in his mouth, but the words managed to carry out into the cold night air, and his men responded with gusto as volley after volley of shafts began to tear into the courtyard, plunging into the thick hide of the monsters. The giants turned slowly as the arrows ripped into their flesh, looking for the sources of the shots. They stumbled confusedly, dumb looks on their faces as the arrows continued to rain down, but it wasn’t enough. The monsters were still standing, even as they became more and more like porcupines in appearance, and with the defender’s attention pinned on the giants the smaller demons were starting to storm into the city. The giants needed to fall. And suddenly, Leszek had a rather stupid idea on how to bring them down. Shaking his head, he took a deep breath and said a prayer to the heavens.
Then he made by far the stupidest choice (in his own opinion, at least) that he had ever made: taking a running jump, he propelled himself forwards into the air above the courtyard, bellowing like a madman as he flew towards the nearest of the giants. His aim was true, and he landed square on the monster’s shoulders, desperately clutching onto its left ear as for support as the beast began trying to throw him off. With his right hand, he maniacally slashed at the giant’s skull, striking again and again and again, blood flying out of the wounds that he managed to open in its leather-like hide.
The monster roared and stumbled as he struck, gashes being sliced into the side of its head and neck. The archers focused their fire on the giant, feeding dozens of shafts into the target as it began to slow and weaken. Finally, black blood flowing like a river from its myriad wounds, the giant fell to first its knees, and then forwards onto its face. The men roared as its dying groans escaped it lips, their hearts filling with renewed hope at the sight of the beasts fall, at the actions of their Lord.
Leszek stood up, his whole body covered in the black blood of the giant he had brought down. There were still five more of the beasts in the courtyard, although the injuries that the archers had inflicted upon them were finally starting to slow them down. The smaller demons, through, were beginning to flood into the city, their way opened by the giants. The scattered defenders were trying to regroup and plug the hole, but there was no cohesion, no leadership. Leszek knew that if they failed here, there was nowhere that the enemy could be held except for the river, which would doom half the city to fall. Raising up his bloodied sword, the High Duke of Poland summoned up what courage he had left to him and shouted out his orders.
“Men of Poland! Of Christendom! With me! Seal up this breach, with your own bodies if you must! The line must be held here! For God, for your city, for your families, I bid that you stand! Your! Ground!”
And then he charged back into the fray. Behind him, he could hear the ragged cheer of his men as they formed up behind him, spears and swords clattering as they moved towards the battle. Arrows continued to rain into the courtyard, cutting down many of the demons, two more of the giants finally falling to the ground under the weight of the shafts. The blades of the defenders lashed out madly in the darkness, sending all those that they struck back to the pit from whence they had come. But it was anyone’s guess as to if it would be enough.
The Witch King watched the battle, unmoved by what he saw. The defenders had taken serious losses, but were still managing to (somewhat) hold their lines against his forces. The wall was still in Polish hands, as was the courtyard beyond the main gate. Perhaps their valor and courage had been underestimated. Regardless, they could not hope to hold out forever. The losses that the men had taken were far more grievous than what they had meted out against the orcs, and the Army of Mordor could afford far more losses than that of Poland. Even the loss of most of the trolls was merely an inconvenience, if a larger one than had been expected.
Still, as the moon rose higher and higher into the sky, the Witch King had expected to make more progress. He should not still be fighting to control of the city’s wall and gate. In the black pit that was his soul, the Lord of the Nazgul made his decision. Mere men would defy him no longer. The defenders had bent, but yet remained unbroken. It was time, past time, for them to be completely shattered.
Pulling on the reins of his mount, the Witch King of Angmar took flight.
When the scream reached Jakub’s ears, he thought that his skull would split apart. He fell almost instantly to his knees, the black sound now echoing across the battlefield piercing into the very depths of his mind. A feeling of pure pain emanated out from his ears, destroying his ability to think of anything else but trying to block out the noise. His own screams of agony were barely audible above the din, and he felt himself fall to the ground, writhing in pain.
It was lucky that he did. Vaguely, his wide eyes refusing to focus through the pain, he watched as some kind of dragon, with a body like a worm and wings like a bat, darted down the length of the wall, its sword-like talons tearing through any that weren’t pressed flat against the surface of the stone. There was another sound then, just barely audible below the black screeching: a horrible cheer that rose up from the demons below the walls, followed by the sounds of the monsters clambering up the ladders once more.
They were upon the defenders as fast as lightning, long before the men had even started to recover. In seconds, the battle had gone from something close to a stalemate to something close to a rout, as the demons raced up the ladders and onto the ramparts, tearing through the shattered remains of the defenders like sharp axes through dead logs. Few were coherent enough to stand, let alone fight. In the space of mere minutes, the wall was overrun.
Jakub, amid his mad spasms of pain, had rolled down one of the stairs that led up to the wall, and he now bore a dozen bruises across his body where the stairs had smacked against his flesh. He had lost his weapon in the fall. Looking back up warily, he saw the demons pouring over the wall, slaughtering what remained of the defenders there. Some were starting to come down off the walls into the city itself, eyes darting across the battlefield for prey. One spotted him, pointing him out with their blade, beckoning in its black speech for its fellow monsters to join in the hunt. Jakub ran.
For a short while, Leszek had almost felt as if they had been winning. The giants had been brought down, arrows and spears stuck out of them like knives into cuts of meat. The smaller demons had been contained into the courtyard, hemmed in from all sides by shield and spear walls, while the archers had rained shot after shot down upon them. The lines had been holding. Leszek had allowed himself to hope.
And then the screaming had begun. The voice of the devil himself had sounded out on the winter winds, inspiring fear and terror in all that hear it, if not outright paralysis. The walls had fallen, the defenders cut down by a great flying worm. Those demons that pressed forwards through the gate had redoubled their efforts at breaking through. In as much time as it takes to tell, the Polish lines had been broken, the defenders fleeing in a mad dash away from the carnage.
What was left of his men were now desperately trying to hold the bridges over the Vistula, hoping against hope that they could hold the demons back here. It was a losing effort. The black screaming continued, freezing men where they stood and leaving them to be cut down, and more mundane problems were starting to rear their heads as well: The archers were running low on arrows, and many of the men had lost their weapons in the earlier melees. Simple fatigue from hours worth of battle was beginning to tell, and where the exhaustion of the men was apparent, the enemy had a seemingly bottomless reserve of fresh monsters to throw into the fire.
Leszek’s heart sunk. His men were fighting like wild animals, desperate to simply survive, but their number was dwindling further and further with each passing moment. Unless a miracle happened, there was no longer any hope in victory. Krakow would fall, that much was certain. All that he could change now was how much longer the city held out and how many would survive its destruction.
With those thoughts in mind, he grabbed one of his Captains, a man by the name of Pawel Jankowsky and gave what would be among his final orders.
“The battle is lost. We cannot hope to hold them back for much longer. I need you to assure that our people survive. Take as many people as you can through the Dragon’s Den, beneath the Cathedral. It will get you out of the city. Head north, towards my uncle’s lands. They must be warned about what is coming. I will buy you as much time as I can from here, distract them from your flight.”
“No, Captain, I will not run. I will not leave my men to fight on alone. Now go! Every second lost is one less that will escape the city, one second closer to darkness no longer being able to hide you!”
The man looked like he was ready to protest further, but he nodded anyways, accepting the orders. Then, with his eyes near tears, he bowed to his Lord, before turning away, gathering a small handful of men and heading back up towards the Cathedral. Leszek watched him go, his own eyes stinging as he watched his last chance to survive the battle leave. Then he turned back towards the river, where the demons and giants and monsters drove ever forwards, and plunged back into the fray.
Gothmog pushed forwards with the rest of his grunts, across the bridges strewn with the bodies of the fallen. The river below ran red and black with the spilled blood of orc and man alike, but now, finally, it seemed that the defenders had broken. In the predawn gloom, he could see them falling back towards the citadel of the city, a castle of hard stone set atop the highest ground for miles around.
Gothmog drove his maggots forwards, keen on not letting the defenders regroup within their keep. It wasn’t hard to do. The men were covered in wounds, easy to catch up to and cut down. The ragged remnants of the defenders were clearly at their limit. They had held the walls and gate for hours, the bridges for hours more. Gothmog had almost been impressed with their tenacity. Now, through, the end was coming. The orcs’ reserves were already moving through the city, laying to waste anything that they could find. Much of Krakow burned, and the screams of the dying sounded out from all parts of the city.
The orcs began to ascend the hill. Only a handful of arrows screamed through the air to thin out their numbers now, whether from lack of ammunition or lack of archers Gothmog didn’t care. His own archers were quick to reply, returning fire at ten times the volume of shot, forcing the defender’s bowmen back down into cover, if not slaying them outright. The Army of Mordor pressed on, laughing at the pathetic resistance now facing them. They were already celebrating their victory.
And why shouldn’t they? The enemy was beyond broken, their city in flames and their defenses utterly destroyed. One door, that on the keep, remained to be broken down, and already a ram was rhythmically banging away at it, splintering the wooden planks and widening the gaps between them. Shouts could be heard from the other side, the men beyond trying to brace up the door. There were also screams, and anguished cries.
For the people of Krakow, the end had come.
Leszek looked around the room. This was it. This was how he died. Over the objections of many of his men, he had chosen to stay. Perhaps it was an attempt to atone for spending so much of the battle in a daze, unable to lead. Perhaps it was a misplaced sense of duty. Whatever the reason, Leszek the White refused to flee, even with the opportunity presenting itself. He would stand his ground here, until he could stand no longer.
He was not quite alone in doing so, but it made little difference. Out of all of Krakow’s defenders, only some four score had survived the night, the rest dead, left to die or sent along to escort those that were escaping the city. There weren’t enough of those, those that had scraped through the limestone passage below the hill: the old and infirm that could not be moved and those too injured to stand could not be sent through, and the narrowness of the passage meant that there were still hundreds that had not yet been sent on.
Many of that number, seeing now that they could not escape, chose to go down fighting, taking whatever scant arms and armor they could find. The hard decision was made to seal the tunnel entrance, in the hope that the demons would not discover the escape of the city’s women and children so quickly. Leszek watched as his last hope for survival was blocked up, brick by brick, tears in his eyes. The men weeped bitterly as their doom was sealed, taking what little solace they could in that their sacrifice might buy their wives and sons and daughters enough time to flee to safety.
There was a certain lightness in the chamber, the calm that descends when one knows that they are going to their deaths. Waiting was the hardest part, as it had been earlier in the night, waiting for the assault to begin. The men said their last prayers, some thanking God for a life well lived, others begging for his forgiveness for some past sin. A pair of Priests made their rounds, hearing final confessions and administering the Last Rights. All the while the battering ram hammered away at the door, its rhythmic impacts counting down the last moments of the Poles’ lives.
Leszek stood up as the door began to give way. It was time. Breathing in, he prepared to give his final orders.
“Men of Poland, of Krakow...it has been my honor to stand by your sides, that you would follow one so young as me. I ask you now, not as your Lord, but as another man doomed to die here, that you follow me one last time. Let us not stay here, to be slaughtered like cattle. When that door breaks, I bid that you follow me once more into battle, that we may die like men. It is all that I will ask of you now.”
There was no great cheer of approval, but the men gave haggard nods, standing up once more and preparing their weapons for the final skirmish. They formed into a ragtag formation, those few remaining with shields in front, spears and swords behind. They waited, the battering ram’s thumps ticking their final seconds away. Then the door gave way, falling broken to the ground. With a bestial roar, a ragged and broken sound, the last living men of Krakow charged as one.
They attacked the legions of hell with broken swords and shattered spears and even their very fists and teeth as they gave their last and desperate effort. For one, brief, shining moment, the light of Krakow, of Poland, of Christendom itself lit up the night. It drove back the darkness, striking forwards and shining like a beacon in the night. For the briefest of times, it shone like the sun and all the stars together, forcing the shadow back and taking back its own. But the darkness rallied, and descended once more, encircling the small light. The light flickered and wavered, falling in on itself.
And then, like so many to come, it was extinguished.