At the Gates of the City
The army was ten thousand-strong: one thousand horseback cavalry, two thousand archers, seven thousand infantrymen with their pikes, and various siege weapons. They were all arrayed in front of Coátses, in a broad semi-circle. Standing opposite them, in front of the city’s main gate, was Old Jakan.
Jakan had been a general, years before. Every officer in the army had studied his battles – the battles he’d waged (and won) against their fathers during the last rebellion. Even the pikemen and the slaves that drove the supply-carts had heard the stories: Jakan had tricked his enemies into a battle with straw manniquins, and buried them in an avalanche. Jakan had redirected the river Ib and marched down the riverbed right under Ibford’s defences. And more: before he’d led armies, Jakan had stood alone on the bridge to the Imperial Palace; he’d fought for a full day, and none had passed.
But that was a long time ago. Jakan was in his seventies, he’d been enjoying a deserved retirement in a provincial city. He didn’t have a shield or armour – only the ceremonial shortsword of an Imperial Proxy. The Coátsen army had been defeated out in the open; now there was only an old man to stand in their way. And yet.
‘What are you waiting for?’ shouted Jakan. ‘You have only to go through me, and then the city is yours! I am only one old man. Are you so afraid? I’ll tell you what: to make things fair, I’ll put one hand behind my back.’
Not one man in the army moved. This was a trick – it had to be. Old Jakan spat up a green lump of phlegm.
‘Either fight or leave,’ shouted the old man.
‘My lord, it’s obviously a trap,’ said Hunon, uncle and adviser to Prince Hagáet. ‘This was precisely his strategy at Tirgos. He wants to goad us into an attack.’
‘Or perhaps that’s what he wants us to think,’ said the Prince, eyes narrowed. But he didn’t make the sign for attack.
The whole army watched Jakan in silence, for some minutes. He smiled to himself and moved his free hand down to his sword; he drew it and there was a loud crash as ten thousand men stumbled away from him.