When Ronsard arrived at the gatehouse barbican, he was met by the worried glances of his officers and Lord Rudd. “What is it?” he asked. “What is the alarm?”
“I ordered it,” explained Rudd. “Look down there. They are bringing some machine up the ramp.”
Ronsard looked down and saw that what Rudd had said was quite true; two hundred or more Ningaal were laboring with ropes and poles to drag an enormous device up the ramp. The battering ram had been taken away, and this lumbering object was being wheeled with great exertion to assume its place before the gates.
“What is it?” a perplexed Ronsard asked. “I have never seen anything like it.”
“I cannot say I have seen such a machine in war either. But I can tell you I do not like the look of it, whatever it is.”
“Direct the archers to hinder them as much as possible. I have no doubt it would be better if it never reached the gates. I will fetch Biorkis; I would have him look at it. Something tells me that thing down there belongs more to his ken than ours.”
Shortly the lord high marshal was back at the battlements, dragging a blustering priest behind him. “What do you make of that?” Ronsard asked as they peered over the stone ramparts onto the activity below.
“It is a strange thing indeed!” said Biorkis, pulling on his braided beard. “Very strange.”
His old eyes gazed upon the massive black object inching its way up the long incline under a hail of arrows. Its black skin shone with a dull luster in the sunlight, and two great arms thrust forward, palms upward as if to receive the supplications of the castle dwellers. It stood with the legs and torso of a man, one leg thrust forward, bent at the knee, the other stretched straight behind. But its face and head were its most distinguishing features, next to its size, for it bore the head and mane of a lion and the gaping maw of a jackal with a jackal’s sharp fangs bared in a furious, frozen snarl of rage. Two huge black horns swept out from either side of its hideous black head, and its unblinking eyes stared angrily ahead as it groaned forward under its immense weight.
Ronsard’s archers were causing much consternation among the enemy, but not as much as Ronsard would have liked; for no sooner had one rope-bearer fallen than another sprang forward to take his place. Soon those in the forefront had been provided with shields that they held over their heads to fend off the deadly rain, and the arrows rattled harmlessly down, striking only at random and seldom causing any mortal hurt. Ronsard called for the arrows to cease, but for the archers to remain alert to any target careless enough to present itself. Still the thing inched forward.
“Well?” asked Ronsard. “What say you, Biorkis?”
“Undoubtedly it is an idol of some sort. But to which god I am uncertain. I have never seen it before, and the thing that puzzles me is this: what kind of idol is it that it is taken into war to do battle with men? What kind of god do these Ningaal worship?”
“Why should that puzzle you? Men are always calling on their gods to lead them in battle, to deliver the victory into their hands, as you well know. This is only slightly more obvious, I will warrant, but it is the same.”
“Yes, it is the same, and not the same at all. This is more primitive and more savage. It is a thing unholy and evil. Even the gods of the earth and sky are offended by such as this. It belongs to a long-distant time and place, back in man’s darker past. It is evil, and it breeds evil.”
“But does it have any power?” asked Ronsard. Biorkis looked at him oddly. “You know what I mean. Of itself—is it a thing of power?”
Biorkis thought for a moment before answering. “That I cannot say with certainty. Your question is perhaps more difficult than you know.” He fingered his white beard as he gazed at the monstrous thing.
“An idol is but wood or stone,” the priest continued. “It is the image of the god it represents. Images do not often have power, except for the ones who worship them, and then the power can be very great indeed.”
“This one has power,” said a gruff voice behind them. Ronsard and Biorkis turned to see Myrmior standing behind them. “And, yes, it is evil. Well I know it, for I have seen it work often enough. It is an idol, yes. But its purpose is far more coldly cunning than you suspect. It is foremost a machine of war, known in other lands as Pyrinbradam—a fire-breather.”
A glimmering of understanding appeared in Ronsard’s eyes. “If that is true, I will order water to be brought up at once.”
“It would be wise,” Myrmior assented. “Wet skins, if you have them, might offer some protection.”
Ronsard called his officers to relay his orders and see that they were carried out. Water was to be poured over the gates and wet skins draped across them in an effort to reduce their flammability.
“Is there nothing else that may be done?” he asked.
“Nothing but to wait. Wait and pray,” muttered Myrmior.
The waiting began and lasted for twelve long days. And each of those days was filled with ceaseless labor as water was hauled in buckets to the top of the drawbridge gate and poured over the great wooden planks. By night and day the water cascaded down the gates, and skins of cattle were soaked and spread only to be retrieved, soaked, and spread again.
The fire-breathing idol spewed flames from its mouth and nostrils in a never-ending torrent, scorching wood and stone, and heating metal until it glowed with a ruddy cast. The Ningaal tore apart the dwellings of the townspeople to fuel the monster at the gates. Into a cavity at the idol’s base they threw the timber and oil that sent the flames and sparks gushing from its white-hot mouth.
On the evening of the thirteenth day, an officer approached Ronsard timidly. The knight rested on his arm and watched with weary dread as the flames and water did battle one with the other, clouds of white steam resulting from the conflict.
“Lord Ronsard, I—” The man hesitated and fell silent.
Ronsard swung his tired gaze toward the man. “Yes? Say anything but that we are running out of water.” The thought had occurred to him often during this long vigil.
The man’s face went white; his mouth hung slack.
“By Azrael! I meant it as a jest! Speak, man!”
“What is the trouble?” Theido said as he strode up to relieve Ronsard at his post. He was fresh and rested, eyes alert and tone confident.
“I am trying to find out, sir,” said Ronsard hoarsely. “It seems the news he brings steals his voice.”
“Well? Speak, sir. We are stout enough to hear it.” Theido looked furiously at the officer and folded his long arms across his chest.
The man licked his lips and worked his jaw, but it was some moments before any words tumbled out, and when they did, it was in a tangled rush. “Lord Rudd has sent me . . . the water . . . supplies too low . . . we cannot last the night.”
Ronsard needed to hear no more and sent the man away. “That cuts us to the quick. What are we to do now? Wait until our gates crumble away in flames, or until we die of thirst? Which would come first, I wonder?”
“We have our wits about us yet. But we have been too slow in comprehending this menace, and that may be our undoing. I have an idea I should have had days ago, but may work yet. Quickly, send some of your men to bring ropes and grappling hooks. Tell them to hurry, Ronsard, and bring all they can find. There is little time.”
Theido took his place on the barbican directly over the flame-throwing idol. After soaking a long rope in water, he tied a three-pronged grappling hook onto one end and, leaning as far out over the wall as he dared, held only in Myrmior’s and Ronsard’s steely grasp, he lowered the hook toward the monster. The Ningaal, guessing his intent, howled with rage at the sight as above them the long length of swinging rope snaked down the face of the castle wall.
After several futile attempts, Theido swung the hook out and by a chance it caught on one of the iron beast’s fangs. He called for a group of men to take the rope and pull it tight as he readied another rope and hook. In the space of an hour he had another hook lodged in the idol’s horns. The Ningaal were now in a maddened frenzy, helpless to prevent what they feared might happen. They screamed in frustration as a third and then a fourth rope snagged the fire monster.
“That should suffice,” said Theido as he scrambled back to safety on the battlements not a moment too soon, for the howling Ningaal had begun launching rocks and flaming debris from slings and mangonels.
“Do you think it will work?” asked Myrmior. He eyed Theido’s web of ropes and hooks suspiciously.
“We will soon see. I can think of no better course.”
“Then let us hope this one does not fail,” replied Ronsard. He signaled to the men, three hundred in all, who were holding the ropes to begin pulling. With a mighty groan they all heaved at once. There came a resounding roar from the enraged Ningaal below as they saw the ropes pulled tight.
“Heave, men!” shouted Ronsard. “Heave!”
A few of the enemy, braving the arrows that still whistled through the air on occasion, threw ropes of their own over the ropes that Theido had fastened to the idol. Now they skittered up these like spiders, armed with knives that they carried in their teeth in the hope that they might somehow cut the ropes binding their fire-breathing god that threatened to overturn it.
The king’s archers managed to keep the ropes of the Ningaal unoccupied, though at great price, for the warlords had appeared on the scene and were directing the efforts to save their endangered machine. The first act of the warlords was to order the mangonels to be filled with flaming coals from the idol and these flung aloft into the archers’ faces. More than one bowman fell screaming to his death after being struck with the flaming debris.
The ropes were pulled and pulled with force, but the iron image did not move. Three hundred more men were ordered to the battlements, and the ropes were lengthened to accommodate them. They heaved and pulled, straining to their task until their hands bloodied the thick lines. But still the idol stood.
“It is not working,” observed Myrmior. “We need more ropes.”
“We have no more,” reported Theido. “At least not the length we need.”
“Then we must tie them together, and our cloaks and shirts as well. Your plan will work if we have more ropes.”
“Wait! I have just thought of something,” announced Ronsard. “What about chains? There are long lengths of chain in the gatehouse below. Let the ropes be fastened to the chains and the chains to the windlass of the drawbridge and the counterbalance.”
“Can such a thing be done?” wondered Theido. “It might mean disengaging the drawbridge.”
“It is a chance we must take. Send for the gatekeeper!”
What Ronsard had proposed was done without great difficulty. The massive drawbridge of Askelon was operated by not one but two windlasses and a system of counterweights. It was quick work to release the chain and allow the ropes to be bundled and threaded through a large iron ring. Then, with the counterweights once more in position, a dozen brawny men were placed on the windlass and they began to turn.
The chain wound around the windlass and disappeared into a hole in the stone floor of the gatehouse. Theido and Ronsard dashed back to the battlements to see the effect of their labors.
“It is working!” shouted Myrmior as they came panting up. “You lazy geniuses! It is working. May the gods be praised!”
They looked down to see the ropes stretched tight as harp strings. The iron idol teetered ever so slightly as the ropes pulled it upward.
“I pray those ropes can hold,” said Theido.
“They will hold—you shall see,” replied Myrmior. “By all that is good and right, they will hold.”
No sooner had Myrmior spoken than he was nearly proved wrong. One of the ropes snapped; its ragged length sang through the air and lashed four Ningaal to the ground as it struck like a whip. “Bring grease!” cried Theido.
“Stop pulling!” shouted Ronsard. The chain stopped moving as the men at the windlass obeyed the marshal’s order.
Grease was brought up from the gatehouse in buckets and smeared on the ropes and on the ledge of the crenellation where the ropes passed over the stone. Two men were stationed to swab the grease onto the ropes as they passed over the stone, and the windlass began turning again.
In a few moments the flaming idol was slowly lifted up off the ground, and then began to swing forward toward the gate. A tremendous knock sounded as the enormous iron image banged into the drawbridge; smoke from its fire rolled up the walls, stinging the eyes of the men on the battlements.
“Keep turning!” shouted Ronsard to the men below at the windlass. The Pyrinbradam inched slowly up the drawbridge, its snout pressed against the bridge’s planks, which began to smolder.
“The gates are burning!” cried a voice from below.
Ronsard shot a quick glance toward Myrmior and Theido. “I did not foresee that.”
“Do not turn away now,” said Myrmior. “Stay with your plan.”
“Yes, just a little while longer,” agreed Theido, peering over the battlements.
“Bring water to the gates!” barked Ronsard. “Continue turning!”
More water was poured down the outside of the gates to quench the fire that had started. White billows of steam rose with the black smoke of the flames.
The idol rose a few more inches and then stopped. The men at the windlass strained; the windlass creaked.
“The cursed thing is caught on something,” called Theido. “I cannot see what it is.”
“Keep turning, and perhaps it will come loose,” suggested Myrmior.
“Put more men on the windlass! Keep turning,” ordered Ronsard.
A dozen more strong men were added to the windlass, and they fell to with all their might. The windlass creaked in loud complaint, the ropes stretched, and the chain moved but one link.
“It is not working,” reported Theido. “Call them off. The gates have caught fire again.”
Ronsard moved to relay the orders below when there came a whooshing sound, and the ropes went slack. A thunderous crash was heard, and everyone dashed to the battlements to see the flaming monster teetering on the edge of the ramp. The ropes had burst under the strain and had dropped the iron image back to the ground, where it had rolled to the edge of the ramp and was in danger of toppling over the edge into the dry moat below.
The king’s men saw this and began to cheer wildly, urging the thing onto its own destruction. Ningaal warriors, half-crazed with anger, leaped to the dangling ropes in an attempt to haul it back from the brink. It appeared they would succeed.
The image righted and stopped rolling with two of its six huge wheels spinning over the chasm. Hundreds of Ningaal were now swarming to the ropes and were tugging it back inch by inch. The cheering from the battlements now abated.
“Well, we are in for it now, I fear,” sighed Theido. “No better off than before.”
“It was a good idea, my friend,” said Ronsard. “It almost worked. At least we did not let the monster destroy our gates without a fight.”
The enemy had placed long beams under the wheels and were attempting to rock the ponderous image in order to allow the rearmost wheels to be pulled back onto the ramp. But the rocking loosened one of Theido’s hooks, and it broke free.
“Look!” cried Myrmior. “We are saved!”
Ronsard and Theido turned in time to see fifty men tumbling down the ramp, grasping the end of a falling rope. The snap of the rope caused the towering statue to lurch violently, teeter once, and then plunge over the edge, dragging a hundred men with it, still clinging to the lines.
The terrible idol spewed fire as it spun slowly in the air, ropes snaking after it with men attached like insects, plummeting to their deaths. The idol landed on its wicked head and crumbled in a shower of sparks, one arm breaking off and opening a great hole in its chest where flames leaped up and showed those looking down from the battlements that the monster was indeed ruined completely and many of its wretched keepers as well.
“We are saved to fight another day!” shouted Ronsard happily.
“Yes, but how many days will we last without water?” asked Theido, the short-lived triumph dying in his eyes and his features giving way to the black cast of despair.