December 3rd, 1384
Melitene province, occupied Anatolia
A sullen murmur ran along the great hall, threatening to build into an open claque of "Open the gates!" The Persian envoy suppressed the smugness on his face; but Alexa saw it in his eyes. The enemy commander was being clever. His offer of life and property for all but nobles had created an instant rift among the defenders of Kantara. Eighteen months into the siege, the romance and power of defying the ancient enemy was long gone; there were only the long dragging days on three-quarter rations, the same familiar faces and voices, the same eternal depressing sight of the Persian siege lines. She felt the pull of it herself, of giving up and admitting that the Eagles would not come; the news had been uniformly bad for a year. But, on the other hand, the enemy had made her own decision easy. By not offering so much as safe passage for the nobles among the defenders, he had made it clear what they could expect. Slavery in Persia would be the best outcome for her; more likely she would be given to the troops, as an example. An easy decision, then, to resist. The problem would be to enforce it on her people. The first step was to take control, to avoid letting suppressed resentment spiral into the open defiance that could not be ignored or called back.
"Eusebio," she called. "Escort this scum to the gates, and don't let him back until he knows what terms to offer Romans. If he thinks our people would buy safety - and from Persians, at that! - with the bodies of their noblewomen, he sadly mistakes their virtues; and if he doesn't think that, why then he is merely being insulting. Out! Out!" She made shooing motions with her hands, like a housewife removing a goat from her room, and stared defiantly around her. Her little speech had, of course, completely ignored the obvious fact that many of her Romans were, indeed, willing to barter their nobles' bodies for life and property, and to trust the Persians to keep their bargains. But at least she had brought it out into the open exactly what was on offer, and reminded everyone just how short a spoon the commoners had for supping, if they opened the gates. And by phrasing it as though she automatically assumed her people were noble and self-sacrificing, she forced them to either act that way, or admit out loud that they weren't. It might not hold for a long run, but it would stop the immediate confrontation.
Nobody met her eyes; and behind her were Deirdre and Zoe, likewise glaring at the ones who would not have been paying the price of surrender. The wordless confrontation only lasted half a minute; then the commoners began filing out of the hall. Alexa's shoulders wanted to slump with relief, but she held them steady until everyone was back to their tasks; then she allowed herself to collapse into her chair again, and feel how narrow a shave that had been. Just one man shouting "Open the gates" loudly instead of muttering it, and her choices would have narrowed to suicide or - no. To suicide; the other wasn't really an option, just a more unpleasant way to die.
February 24th, 1385
Melitene province, occupied Anatolia
Alexa moved her shield into line to block the Persian's sword; and her eyes widened in shock at the sheer impossible effort it took to stop what had looked like rather an awkward swing, from a man standing atop a siege ladder. She took a step back, stumbling, and got her own stabbing sword up to thrust at the Persian's eyes; he flinched, lost his balance, and nearly fell. His desperate grab gave her a moment to get back on her feet, and she slammed her shield into his helmet; it rang like a bell, and he crumpled. She looked about, panting; but the Persians were retreating. It hadn't been a really serious effort, just a way to notify the Romans that they couldn't relax their vigilance, they'd have to keep a strong watch out on the walls, winter cold or not.
She bit her lips in sudden self-doubt. To put herself and her ladies out on the walls had seemed like a perfect gesture of solidarity; let the commoners see that at least they would fight for their honour. But - had that Persian's strength been a fluke? It had felt like holding back a mountain, not a sword; if his footing had been at all reliable she would certainly have died. Was that why soldiers were all men? Or was it just a question of exercise? She looked at her arms; slim and soft, like any noblewoman's. That Persian could probably have put his hands around her elbows. Her lips thinned at the thought.
"Eusebio!" she called, and her commander hastened to her side.
"Aye, my lady?" There was respect in his voice, and perhaps just the slightest touch of "I-told-you-so"; he had seen her fight with the Persian.
"Get me some weights; heavy ones."
May 2nd, 1385
Melitene province, occupied Anatolia
Her arms ached from lifting the five-gallon buckets, and the twenty-fourth repetition had still eluded her; she was not pleased at being called up to the wall in her rest period. "Well, what?" she near-snarled. Eusebio nodded to the thin-faced youth beside him - Alexandros, whose beard was showing more than fuzz now; the Eagles would likely take him along, if they ever came back. Alexandros, in turn, pointed towards the Persian lines, and she saw immediately what had puzzled him; the Persians were - doing ironwork? In the middle of a siege?
She squinted, but there didn't seem to be any other interpretation: Large mounds of coal and clay, an enormous mold, teams of soldiers pumping bellows, scent of hot iron overlaying the usual bodies-and-dysentery stench of a two-year siege. Puzzlement overcame her irritation; that and a stab of worry. The Persians weren't stupid. If they were doing something she didn't understand, there was likely a reason for it, and it was quite unlikely that the reason was pleasant. She looked again at the mold. "They're - casting a bell?"
"That's what it looks like, my lady. But that makes no sense, does it?" Alexandros was as puzzled as her. They both looked at Eusebio, but the veteran shrugged. "Getting ready for a victory celebration? Important nobles coming to inspect the siege, and they want something impressive and useless to show off? They've gone mad? It's a distraction so we won't notice them tunneling under our walls? It's a necromantic ritual and tomorrow we all start dying of the squats? I have no idea. But that's a huge weight of iron, it must be costing them - I don't know, more money than I've ever seen in my life."
"Could they really tunnel under our walls?"
"Usually, yes, and no doubt they tried it. Months ago, I expect. But Kantara stands on bedrock. It would take years."
"Well! Until we understand their doings, we'll assume it's necromancy and keep a sharp eye on it. And get Father Eudoxus up here for some blessings, maybe that'll help."
May 12th, 1385
Melitene province, occupied Anatolia
Another explosion rocked the air, and everyone jumped; they came at irregular two-hour intervals, long enough apart that you couldn't really get used to them. Alexa bit her lips grimly; Persian necromancy, right enough, and no help from the Father's blessings, either. "How long will the walls hold?" she asked.
Eusebio shrugged. "I don't know, my lady; I've never seen anything like this before. Days, maybe; or hours. Not weeks."
"And we cannot hold if there's a breach." She didn't bother asking it as a question; Eusebio nodded. "No. You've seen - well. We are all brave, and all veterans, now; and if I commanded a legion, I'd be proud to recruit anyone here young enough to march. Not excluding the ladies. But the Persians, they're brave too, and veterans; and better fed, younger than most of us, stronger, and there's just the Devil's own lot of them. If not for the walls we'd be dead twenty times over."
"Terms, then?" That was Deirdre; she looked pale and scared, perhaps thinking of the last terms the Persians had offered. "Maybe - perhaps we can negotiate for safe passage?"
Eusebio shook his head grimly. "I'm afraid not. They've cast that thing in place, at who knows what cost; they won't be moving it out of here, not with twenty oxen, it must weigh five tons. And we've held them off for two years, killed who knows how many soldiers from dysentery, stopped them running supplies through the pass - take my word for it, they are pissed. They'll want to set an example; and they'll write it in blood. The day after the walls go down there won't be a goat or a rat alive in Kantara. I suggest" - he hesitated. "For myself, I'll stand in the breach and go down fighting; and that'll be good enough for the men. For the women, I suggest you... don't risk being taken alive."
There was silence. And then, at last, for the first time in months, Alexa laughed; a real laugh, a happy one. The others looked at her as though she were mad. "All right! At last, then, it has come to true hopelessness! Kantara has fallen, we all agree; very well, that cannot be helped. The Eagles did not come, and our cause is lost. But the lady of Kantara has one last trick up her sleeve; one more card to lay on top of all our desperate work and grief and struggle, these many months. And the people of Kantara will live, and fight again."
They kept right on looking at her as one looks at madwomen, and her smile broadened to a grin. "No, no, I'm not crazy! I'm just aware of a secret that the rest of you don't know; a secret held by the lords, and the ladies, of Kantara these hundred years. There are passages in the walls -" she was interrupted by Deirdre.
"Oh come now, Alexa! Those passages must be the worst-kept secret in the province. The lords have been using them to move mistresses around for a hundred years now, all in secret from their wives; you think serving maids don't gossip? I could draw you a map myself. The Persians probably know all about them."
Alexa looked at her coolly. "Yes, Deirdre, I know that." And we won't go into whether you were ever in those tunnels yourself, or why, went unspoken between them. "And how better to hide a secret, than to have a badly-kept one on top of what you really want hidden? Draw your map, if you like; and I'll bet you three night watches I can add something to it that you don't know about."
Alexandros broke in. "My lady - is there an escape tunnel?"
"Yes. There is." She continued quickly, before anyone could ask the obvious question. "And yes, I kept it from all of you; I let you think there was no hope of life, and yes, people have died who might have lived if we had used it before. I know. Be angry if you will. But I am the Lady of Kantara; the decision was mine to make. And my decision was that we would hold, while there was hope; even the tiniest sliver. So long there was a chance that the Eagles would come, we would not abandon our charge. So I let you all think that we must fight or die, that our backs were to the wall, even though the wall has a door. There is blood on my hands for that; and I would do it again, if I had it to do over. But now - now there is no hope. And so: Here is the door; the wall at your backs is gone. I give you this gift freely, at the last gasp; we shall all live, and fight Persia again."
May 12th, 1385
Below castle Kantara
The sheer giddy euphoria of not being doomed to death made the dank air smell like roses and new-cut grass; that, and the relief of having given up a hopeless struggle. Alexa threw herself with a will into moving the capstan; slowly, slowly, the ancient oaken beam moved and the vast chain rattled, and a part of the wall - to all appearances solid bedrock - began to move. "There's a tunnel," she gasped, "behind the block. It goes, to the old mine. Bricked up. Knock out the bricks, we're two miles, from the Persian camp. Run for the coast. Ship to Nicaea."
The others were still amazed; most of them had played in the 'secret' tunnels as children, and had passed by the actual secret door, the one for which Alexa had the key, dozens of times. But they were grinning, too; it ached in her, to finally see relief and happiness on their thin, tired faces. If the Eagles had come... but no; there was no use dwelling on that. Life, that would have to be enough; they would escape with their lives, and fight again. No horrible choice between the razor (lengthwise, not crosswise) and what would be quite literally worse than death by suicide; no doomed last stand in a breached wall, and at last the edged steel slamming through cringing meat. No babies' skulls smashed against walls to encourage others to surrender in a timely way.
The tunnel was open, and the people of Kantara began to go through; women and children first, carrying little bundles of food and blankets. Alexa would go last, with her command group; that was leadership. She looked around her, not really seeing the moss-grown stone walls that Basil had shown her, the day after their wedding; in her mind's eye she saw Kantara. Two years she had held the fortress her husband had given her. Two years of not-quite-enough food; washing only when it rained; rushing to the walls when the alarm was given, standing watches in winter nights and summer days. Encouraging her people, cajoling and manipulating and hectoring and punishing; and never, ever, ever letting anyone see her cry. Twenty-four months of the constant background fear: What if the Persians came over the wall in secret and she couldn't get to her razor? Two years; a lifetime. And yet I'm only twenty-one, she thought; and felt suddenly dizzy. She might live another twenty years, or another forty; and who was she, when she was not the Lady of Kantara? What would she do, when defiance and courage no longer defined her life?
The last commoners filed into the tunnel, and it was time to leave. Alexa took one final glance at the walls she had held so long, and found her answer. She could no longer be the Lady of Kantara; that title was gone with the masonry and the gates. But still she would be the lady who had been born in this place. Not the silly girl Alexa Phokas, who had married a man who did not love her because her parents told her it was the thing to do, but Alexa Komnenos of Kantara, a woman forged in war and defeat; harder than steel, more bitter than despair. I will bring death to Persia; by these walls I swear it; and if not me, my son, or my son's sons. Kantara has fallen, but the Komnenoi live; and we shall avenge.