Ten thousand of King Gerabauld’s soldiers encircled the citadel and the city fortifications of Gasparnoiux, seven thousand of foot and three of horse. Siege towers ringed the walls. The gates had not opened in three years except when the defenders sent forth sallies from the sally ports. Yet the city would not fall.
Trebuchets bombarded the towering walls. The walls withstood the assault; they had been constructed with earth packed between two thick layers of stone. Even when King Gerabauld had razed the countryside for hundreds of miles around to procure stones from castles, fortresses, ancient Roman bridges, and cathedrals; and even when he had boulders hauled down from the mountains to use in the trebuchets, the earth-filled walls stood. When the outer retaining wall was breached, the earth absorbed the impact.
The king’s archers rained fire over the wall. The bucket brigades rushed in and drown the fires. King Gerabauld turned again to the trebuchets, hurling flaming pots of oil high over the walls. The bucket brigades were equal to the task.
The king even flung dead bodies over the walls, hoping the Black Death would break out. He was not so lucky.
Nor had starvation succeeded. No visible means of acquiring food existed, but the constant silhouettes of archers upon the walls and the occasional sallies proved that the citadel had a secret source of food. Gerabauld knew from his spies that the citadel had only had a twelve- to fourteen-month food supply before the siege began. Yet still the defenders lived.
The King’s mood became increasingly foul with each war council he held in the royal pavilion that he had ordered to be pitched in the plain in front of the citadel three long years ago. Each council proceeded much the same as every other. The dukes would, with lowered heads, give their reports of another week’s failures. Sometimes the attempts at tunneling had failed—tunnels collapsed, troops dead, further attempts futile. Sometimes the direct attacks upon the walls with ladders or siege towers had been repealed. In the latter case, weeks of work went up in flames as the defenders fired the towers. Sometimes, assaults on the gates had produced nothing but massive casualties.
And eventually, the King would explode, swiping maps off the tables, casting wine goblets at the dukes or at the pavilion’s canvas walls. Yet week after week, month after month, for three long years, the King called the councils.
And then, as the siege entered its fourth year, a stranger entered the council. “King Gerabauld.” At the sound of this distinct, slightly foreign voice, every head in the pavilion whipped around to find its source. In a second, six spear tips pressed into the speaker’s chest, heart-high.
“How did you gain entrance?” demanded the King.
“That is of no moment,” evaded the stranger.
“It is to the guards who will die tonight.”
“That is not my concern.”
“And what is your concern?” queried the king as he circled the stranger, scanning him from head to toe. When the king completed the circle, his nose and that of the stranger were inches apart. Gerabauld had waved the soldiers away, and they now stood, spears in the ready position, just far enough back not to be able to hear the whispered conversation between the king and the interloper.
“Your Majesty has invested three years in the taking of this city, but he has not taken it. Your Majesty has spent much blood and he has been absent from his kingdom all this time. Perhaps Your Majesty does not concern himself overly much with the blood of his knights. But perhaps Your Majesty can realize that his absence has not been wise. Your Majesty’s sons are ambition, as is your sister’s son. For the right price—and if Your Majesty is patient enough—I can deliver this city into your hands.”
“I’m listening,” came the king’s snarled whisper. He intuitively disliked this stranger; he could hear the mockery in his “Your Majesty.” Yet Gerabauld believed his boast. Three years earlier, he would not have believed. Even now, he knew he might be believing because he wanted it to be true. But he didn’t think so. Somehow, the King believed this stranger could deliver the city.
Nonetheless, he was the King. His vainglory surmounted his great desire to hear what the man would say. The stranger would have to be taught his place. When the stranger started to whisper his reply, Gerabauld cut him off immediately. “First, state your name, you who dare enter my pavilion and my war council unbidden.”
For a reply the King received a sardonic smirk. The stranger waited long enough to make Gerabauld wonder whether his demand would be met. Just as the king’s blood was reaching its boiling point, the answer came: “You can call me Yararic.”
“You must trust me completely, Your Majesty.”
“To do what?” whisper-hissed the King.
“You must lift the siege immediately. Return to your kingdom. Attend to your affairs. Reestablish your control. Kill the pretenders. And . . .” Yararic paused. “Ask no questions. Send no spies. At the end of thirty months, I will send word, and you will send to me a small contingent of archers and swordsmen, and the city will be yours,” whispered Yararic.
Yararic had wondered whether he would receive a shocked, outraged reaction. It was one of the few things he had been uncertain of in years. He did not receive such a reaction. Coldly, the king asked, “At what price?”
“I think the price of the ransom of the crown prince is appropriate. I believe you paid ten chests of gold and one third of Your Majesty’s jewels.”
“How do you—”
“Softly, Your Majesty,” interrupted Yararic in response to the King’s shouting, inwardly gloating that he had finally gotten his reaction. “Are not our negotiations to be secret? Surely, they are not for the ears of these spearmen . . . or of these dukes who have won you no victory these three long years.
Yararic continued. “It does not matter how I know. I trust you to fill the chests with sufficiently valuable coins, just as you must trust me to fulfill my promise. If I betray you, I assume you will hunt me down and kill me. If you betray me, I assume . . . something untoward will befall Your Majesty’s person.”
“Done!” Gerabauld whispered, even softer than before. He spun on his heels and left the pavilion. As he thrust his way through the closed canvas flaps, he barked over his shoulder, “Duke, Alulard, execute the faithless guards!”
It was bewilderment that besieged Gasparnoiux now. Surely some trick was afoot.
But after two years, the commander of the citadel was persuaded by the scouting parties and the spies that King Gerabauld truly had withdrawn. By then the repair of the citadel’s and city’s walls was nearly complete. The city gates were reopened for travelers and trade.
A month later, a cloaked figure entered the city. Under the guise of indolence, insanity, frenetic commercial activity, or bewilderment, the figure—actually an astute student of human nature—discovered which of the garrison’s soldiers were its weakest links—not physically weakest, but weakest in character. Soon a careful observer would have seen the figure dropping seeds in locations near the living quarters and duty stations of these weakest links.
The figure now made his rounds with hood thrown back and with no further signs of indolence, insanity, commercial interest, or bewilderment. He was now a most gregarious character and soon ingratiated himself with the troops he had identified as the weakest links. In all parts of the city, but with special concentration at the citadel, he showed these soldiers how the weeds that had suddenly appeared all around them could be cut, cured, and ingested. This, he assured them would lead to a heightened state of awareness, if they persisted long enough. And surely, he persuaded them, even if they did not obtain a heightened state of awareness immediately, they could enjoy the pleasurable sensations the weeds produced. And he used those who could read to convince the others that the ancient shamanistic literature promised great things to those who partook.
After that, it was easy. The weaker links exerted the pressure of camaraderie on the stronger links, and soon most of the garrison’s troops knew the wonders of the weeds that grew everywhere. Then he introduced more potent concoctions to the soldiers. Had they but known, they were enjoying the labors of shamans from Africa, peasants from Asia, alchemists from Europe.
Alas, enlightenment never came. But when King Gerabauld’s archers and swordsmen arrived, dressed as merchants, the stupor helped dull the pain of death.