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"Are we ready?" Lieutenant General Hesmucet demanded. General Bart shook his head. "Not quite yet," he answered.
"What in the hells are we waiting for, then?" Hesmucet asked. "I'm here. Fighting Joseph is here. We've got unicorn-riders here all the way from Georgetown. What more do we need, sir? A fancy invitation from Thraxton the Braggart?" He was a hot-tempered man, and wanted nothing more than the chance to close with the traitors and beat them.
But Bart shook his head. "We're still light on rations. Harvest is done, and there's no foraging to speak of. I don't want to move without being sure we won't bog down because we're too hungry to go forward."
"Oh, very well," Hesmucet said testily. "How long do you think we'll need to build up the stores you want?"
"A couple of weeks more, unless Thraxton the Braggart pulls a sorcerous rabbit out of his hat," Bart replied. "And I want to keep an eye on what's happening off to the southwest. I may have to send out a detachment to help Whiskery Ambrose against Earl James. I hope I don't, but you never can tell." He sighed.
"Something wrong, sir?" Hesmucet asked. A sigh from General Bart often had more weight than a tantrum from a man with a spikier disposition.
"Only that I'd really rather not be fighting James," the commanding general answered. "Back in the old army, back in the days when there was just one army, we were the best of friends."
"That sort of thing will happen in a civil war, sir," Hesmucet said. "I have plenty of friends among the traitors, too. But that doesn't mean I don't want to lick them."
"It doesn't mean I don't want to lick them, either, as you ought to know by now," Bart saida sharper comeback than he usually made. "It only means I wish I didn't have to fight James. That's all I said, and that's all I meant."
"Yes, sir," Hesmucet replied, accepting the rebuke.
Bart chuckled. "I know you're not a reporter or anyone else who claims he can read minds."
"Ha!" Hesmucet's answered smile was savage. "That would be funny, if only you were joking. You read what people have to say in the papers, they know what you'll be up to six months from now."
"Oh, I read them all the time," Bart said. "I read themI just make sure I don't believe them."
Hesmucet laughed out loud. Bart had a deadpan way of being funny he'd never met in another man. Here, though, the commanding general gave him a quizzical stare. He might have been funny, but he didn't seem to have intended to. Hesmucet said, "When we do move, we'll whip 'em."
"That's the idea," Bart agreed. "Not much point to moving unless you move intending to whip the other fellow and then keep after him. I don't know why so many generals have trouble with that notion, but they seem to."
He made it sound so simple. When he fought, he made it look simple, too. Maybe it was, to him. Hesmucet felt the same way, and also tried to fight the same way. Bart was right: a lot of officers on both sides either wouldn't move at all or moved for the sake of moving. And when they fought . . .
"If Thraxton had known what to do next after he beat Guildenstern by the River of Death, this army would have been in a lot more trouble than it was," Hesmucet said.
"Well, I can't tell you you're wrong, because I think you're right," General Bart said. "When you've got somebody in trouble, you'd better go after him immediately." He pronounced the word immejetly; aside from an eastern twang, it was one of the very few quirks his speech had. He nodded, as if to emphasize the point to Hesmucet. "If you don't go after him, he'll come after you sooner than you'd like."
"That's the truth," Hesmucet said. "That's the gods' truth, and we're going to prove it to the Braggart. And now, if you excuse me, I aim to make sure we're good and ready to do just that."
"Good." Bart waved a hand in genial dismissal.
For the rest of the day, Hesmucet prowled through the force he'd brought west from along the Great River. He made sure the men had plenty of food and the unicorns and asses plenty of fodder. Considering the state Rising Rock had been in before the supply line back to Ramblerton opened up, victuals were his most urgent concern. As he'd expected and hoped, everything there was as it should have been.
But he didn't stop with smoked meat and hard biscuits and hay. He spent a lot of time with the armorers, checking to be certain his men had enough crossbow bolts to fight a battle, and that the siege engines had more than enough darts and firepots.
"We'll be fine, sir," an armorer assured him. "Don't you worry about a thingwe'll be just fine."
"If I didn't worry, we might not be fine," Hesmucet answered, which left the armorer scratching his head in bemusement.
And Hesmucet conferred with his mages. He knew from experience that magecraft got short shrift in most southron armies, sometimes including his own. The south was a land where artificers earned more respect than wizards, and a good many southron generals reckoned that having enough munitions would get them through almost any fight. Sometimes they were right. But sometimes they were wrongand when they were wrong, they were disastrously wrong.
Hesmucet was not that sort of southron general. Maybe that was because he'd spent some time teaching at a northern military collegium, and seen how important sorcery was to the serf-keeping nobility of the north. If the traitors used it as an effective weapon of warand they did, over and over againhe was cursed if he wouldn't do the same.
One of his mages said, "You do realize, sir, that we are not fully a match for our northern counterparts. I am embarrassed to admit that, but I would be lying were I to deny it."
A good many southron generals would have thrown their hands in the air at hearing such a thing. Again, Hesmucet was not that sort of southron general. He said, "Don't worry about it."
"Sir?" the mage said. His colleagues, especially those newly attached to Hesmucet's command, looked startled, too.
"Don't worry about it," Hesmucet repeated. "I don't ask you to beat Thraxton the Braggart all by yourselves with your magecraft. I ask you to make the son of a bitch work hard to get anything past you. If we can hold the traitors anywhere close to even when it comes to magic, we ought to whip them, because we're stronger than they are every other way."
Again, the magesespecially the new onesgaped. "What a refreshing attitude," said the one who'd spoken before.
"I wish more officers had it," another added wistfully.
"Don't fall down on the job, now," Hesmucet warned. "We can't afford to let the traitors ride roughshod over us."
"Of course not, sir," a mage said, as if northern wizards hadn't ridden roughshod over their southron counterparts too many times.
But Hesmucet couldn't rub the sorcerers' noses in that. He was trying to build them up, not to tear them down. He said, "I'm sure you'll all give your best for the king and for Detina."
One of the mages, a youngish fellow with an eager gleam in his eye, stuck up a hand as Hesmucet was about to leave. When Hesmucet nodded to him, he said, "Sir, would it be useful to keep these clouds and this mist around for a while longer?"
"Useful? I should say so," Hesmucet answered. "With the traitors peering down on us from Sentry Peak and Proselytizers' Rise, the more bad weather, the better. But can you do anything about that? By what I've heard, weather magic is a nasty business."
"It is, sir, if you try to make it sunny in the middle of a rainstorm or to bring snow in the summertime," the sorcerer said. "But it's a lot easier to ride the unicorn in the direction he's already goingthat's what the proverb says, anyhow, and I think it's true. This time of year, low-hanging clouds and fogs and mist happen all the time around Rising Rock."
"So you can keep them happening?" Hesmucet said, and the mage nodded. Hesmucet stabbed out a finger at him. "But can you keep them happening and keep Thraxton the Braggart from noticing you're doing it?"
"I think so, sir," the wizard replied. "He might notice, he or his mages, if they really set their minds to investigatingbut why would they? They know the weather around Rising Rock as well as we dobetter than we do, in fact. Chances are, they'd just grumble and go on about their business."
"I like the way you think," Hesmucet said. "What's your name?"
"I'm Alva, sir."
"Well, Alva, you just talked yourself into a good deal of work, I'd say," Hesmucet told him. "What happens if Thraxton decides to try a spell to lighten things up around these parts?"
"For one thing, sir, he's working against the way the unicorn's going," Alva answered. "He's a mighty mage, but he could try a spell like that and have it rain for a week afterwardsand he knows it, too. For another, even if he did try his spell and had it work, he probably wouldn't notice mine. And even if he did notice mine, how are we worse off for trying?"
There was a question to warm Hesmucet's heart. "We aren't, by the gods," he said. "Go ahead and take a shot at it, Alva. And you're rightThraxton's spells have a way of going wrong just when he needs them most."
Some of the other sorcerers congratulated Alva. Rather more of them looked jealous. That surprised Hesmucet not at all. People who wanted to get out there and do things, from all he'd seen, were more likely to draw people trying to hold them back than people trying to push them ahead.
He thought about warning the wizards. In the end, he held his tongue. Again, he was trying not to put pressure on them. I wouldn't treat my brigadiers so tenderly, he thought. But mages weren't brigadiers. If you tried to treat a tiger like a unicorn, you'd be sorry.
And if you treat southrons like men of no account and don't believe they'll do as they said and fight to keep the kingdom one, you'll be sorry. Hesmucet looked toward Thraxton's headquarters on Proselytizers' Rise and nodded. Thraxton couldn't see or hear him, of course, but he didn't care.
Full of restless energy, Hesmucet hurried back to General Bart and told him what Alva had in mind. Bart nodded. "That's worth a try," he said. "It'll be good, if he can bring it off."
"Just what I thought, sir," Hesmucet said.
Bart nodded again. "And even if it doesn't work, it'll give Thraxton and the other northerners something new to flabble about. Having 'em run every which way after something we're trying is a lot better than letting 'em plan their own mischief and making us pitch a fit."
"That's . . . true." Hesmucet gave the commanding general a thoughtful look. "That's very true, as a matter of fact, and I hadn't thought of it."
"You don't want to make things too complicated," Bart said. "If you push first, the other fellow has a harder time pushing back. And if you've known the other fellow for years, you've already got a pretty good notion of what he'll do and what he won't do. We went to the same military collegium as the traitors' generals. We fought alongside 'em before they tried to pull out of Detina. We know who's smart and who's a fool. We know who's brave and who isn't, and who gets drunk when he shouldn't."
Was he talking about himself? Even more than General Guildenstern, before the war he'd had a reputation as a hard-drinking man. But Guildenstern had kept right on tippling, while Hesmucet couldn't recall seeing General Bart with a glass of brandy or even wine in his hand since the fight against Grand Duke Geoffrey started.
Bart went on, "And, by the gods, we know who can get along with people and get the most of out of them and who can't, don't we?"
At that, Hesmucet threw back his head and laughed out loud. "Now who could you be talking about, sir? The chap who changes his wing commanders the way a dandy changes his pantaloons?"
"Count Thraxton is a fellow with a little bit of a temper on him," Bart said, "and since we know that, we ought to take advantage of it, don't you think?"
He did make things sound simple, simpler than they'd seemed to Hesmucet. He made good sense, too. Hesmucet could see that. He ran a hand along his closely trimmed beard. Maybe, as Bart said, the simple ability to see and to do all the obvious and important thingsand to realize they were obvious and importantwas what set fine generals apart from their less successful counterparts.
In that case, Hesmucet thought, we're in pretty good shape here in Rising Rock.
"No, no, no," Doubting George said, not for the first time. "I don't mind in the least. This is one of the things that happen in a war."
Absalom the Bear shook his big, shaggy head back and forth, as if he were indeed the great beast that gave him his ekename. "It's not fair, sir," the burly brigadier said. "It's not right. This ought to be your army now. You're the one who made sure it'd still be an army."
"It wasn't my army when I did thatnot that I did so much," Lieutenant General George replied. "It was General Guildenstern's."
"So it was." Absalom snorted. "And a whole great whacking lot of good he did with it, too."
"What should I doraise a rebellion?" George asked. "If I do, how am I different from Geoffrey?"
After that, Absalom looked like a flustered bear. "I certainly didn't mean you should do anything of the sort, sir."
"I doubted that you did," George said dryly. "If you don't want me leading my soldiers against General Bart and Lieutenant General Hesmucet, what do you want?"
"I want you to get the credit you deserve for saving this army," Absalom said stubbornly. "You did that, and everybody knows it. You ought to be commanding hereyou and nobody else."
"No, no, no," Doubting George said yet again. He was more flattered than angry, but he knew he had to look more angry than flattered, and he did.
"But why not?" Absalom the Bear demanded. "You saved the army, and"
"Enough," George broke in. Now he really was starting to get angry. "For one thing, I'm a long way from the only one who's done something like that, you know. Bart saved King Avram's army at Pottstown Pier, sure as sure he did, and that was an even bigger fight than the one by the River of Death."
Absalom tried again: "But"
"No, no, no." George cut him off again. "I named one thing, but it's the small one. Here's the big one coming up. The big thing, the important thing, the thing that really matters, is that we lick Grand Duke Geoffrey and the traitors. How that happens doesn't matter a copper's worth. That it happens is the biggest thing in the world. Have you got that, Brigadier?"
Absalom the Bear was eight years younger than Doubting George, and close to a head taller. Had he so desired, he could have flattened George without breaking a sweat. George knew that. If he knew it, Absalom had to know it, too. But the big, muscular brigadier quailed before him like a young lieutenant taking a dressing-down from the king. "Yes, sir," Absalom said earnestly. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean any harm, sir."
"No one will use me to play the game of factions in King Avram's army. No one," George said. "Have you got that?"
"Yes, sir," Absalom repeated. "I . . . I hadn't seen it like that. Now that you point things out to me, I know you're looking at them from higher ground than I was."
"All right, then. I'll say no more about it." But Doubting George held up a forefinger. "No, I will say one thing more after all. If by any chance you have friends who think the same way you did, make it very plain to them that I will not be a party to any of this. I ask no names. I don't want to know. But if there has been some stupid conspiracy, I expect it to dissolve."
"Yes, sir. It will, sir." Absalom the Bear fled as precipitately as most of General Guildenstern's army had when James of Broadpath threw his soldiers into the gap in the southrons' line. But he hadn't fled quite fast enough. He'd told George what George hadn't wanted to hear.
Now alone on the streets of Rising Rock, George sighed. His breath smoked in front of his face. The day, like a lot of days lately, was cool and damp and misty. Maybe that mage Hesmucet had found was doing his job. Maybe the weather would have been like this anyway. How could anyone not a mage tell?
At the thought of Hesmucet, Doubting George sighed again. He did want a larger command, and recognized that the other lieutenant general was more likely to get it. But that mattered only so much. He'd meant every word he said to Absalom the Bear. As a Parthenian, he, like Duke Edward of Arlington, had had to choose between ties to Detina and ties to his province. Unlike Edward, he'd chosen the large kingdom. He knew the choice he'd made, and didn't regret it.
Smashing the traitors is the most important thing. Doubting George had to make himself believe that beyond the shadow of a doubt. He'd given up too much not to believe it. He would get his confiscated estate in Parthenia back if Avram beat Geoffrey, but how much would it be worth with the serfs freed, with no hope of bringing in the crops that supplemented his meager army pay?
"I don't care," he said, as if someone had asked him the question aloud. "By all the gods, I don't." If that weren't true, he would have been wearing blue pantaloons and calling Geoffrey his sovereign. And, as if that weren't bad enough, he might have been serving under Thraxton the Braggart. Next to that dreadful prospect, the thought that Hesmucet might gain some extra preferment didn't look so bad.
George looked toward Proselytizers' Rise and then toward Sentry Peak. He couldn't see them, which meant the northerners there couldn't see him, either. He wondered what Count Thraxton was planning. He couldn't have much of an attack in mind hereabouts, not if he'd sent James of Broadpath off towards Wesleyton.
I wouldn't have done that. Doubting George shook his head. No, I wouldn't have done that at all. He was a defensive fighter, first, last, and always. You have to be daft to send a big part of your army away when the other fellow is building up his forces. Well, maybe you don't have to be daft, but it certainly helps.
Did Thraxton really think his magecraft could make up for his lack of men? Maybe he did. It hadn't at several other fights, but maybe he did. That, in George's opinion, was another bit of daftness. Well, Thraxton's troubles weren't his, for which fact he heartily praised the gods.
He began walking toward the north end of town, toward the trenches and barricades he'd ordered built after General Guildenstern's army had had to fall back to Rising Rock from the River of Death. Magecraft or no magecraft, anyone who tried to take those fieldworks would have his work cut out for him. The works were stronger now than they had been when first made right after the grinding retreat from Peachtree Province, and better manned, too, but the traitors wouldn't have enjoyed trying to take them even then. No one enjoyed trying to take a position Doubting George chose to defend.
"Here's the general!" someone called from the trenches. Southron soldiers whooped and cheered. A couple of them scaled their hats through the air.
"Careful, boys," George said. "You'll make old Thraxton and his pet he-witches try and curl my beard for me if they find out I'm around."
"And do you think they can do it?" a soldier asked, as if delivering a cue in a play.
"Oh, I have my doubts," George answered. The soldiers cheered louder than ever. They played up the nickname he'd got back at the military collegium, and enjoyed it when he did the same.
"Shut up, you gods-damned noisy fools!" a northern sentry yelled from his post not far beyond the line.
"To the hells with you!" the southrons yelled back, and much else besides. They finally made the enemy soldier so angry, he shot his crossbow at them. The bolt harmlessly buried itself in the ground. A southron added, "And you can't shoot worth a gods-damn, either!"
"Why don't you southron bastards go back to your own kingdom and leave us alone?" the sentry called.
"This is our kingdom!" George yelled before any of his men could answer. "Detina is one kingdom. It always has been. It always will be."
"Liar!" the northerner shouted back. "If you think we're going to let that son of a bitch of an Avram turn all our blonds into nobles, you can gods-damned well think again."
"He's never said he wanted to do anything of the kind." George rolled his eyes in exasperation. "All he wants to do is turn them into Detinans."
"That's bad enough!" the sentry said, and shot another crossbow quarrel in the direction of the southrons.
"Don't worry about him, sir," said one of the soldiers in gray tunic and pantaloons. "He shoots at us all the time, but he hasn't hit anybody yet."
"You ought to send out a couple of fellows with knives and get rid of him once for all," George said.
Eyes wide, the soldier shook his head. "By the Lion God, no! If we sneak over and cut that bastard's throat, the stinking traitors are liable to put somebody there who really knows how to handle a crossbow."
"All right." Doubting George yielded the point. He had to fight hard not to yield to laughter, too. "Leave him there, then, if it makes you happy. In that case, though, you have to go on listening to him."
"He's a fool," the soldier said dismissively. But the question he asked next showed he wasn't quite so sure: "Sir, do you think a blond could ever become a Detinan nobleman? Do you think that could ever happen?"
George had his doubts but, for once, didn't voice them. He didn't much care for the idea, but he also didn't tell the soldier that. What he did say was, "I don't know and I don't care and I'm not going to worry about it. Don't you worry about it, either. Like I said, the only thing that matters is holding the kingdom together. If we can do that, the gods will take care of us, right?"
"Yes, sir," the fellow said. "That's a good way to look at things, sir."
"I hope it is," Doubting George said. He hadn't thought about the question the trooper had put to him. He wondered whether King Avram had thought it all the way through. If blonds were to become the same as real Detinans in law, what was to keep them from becoming part of the nobility? What was to keep them, even, from marrying into the royal family? Nothing he could see.
He shrugged. It wasn't his worry, for no blonds would marry into his family any time soon. He was perfectly happy with his wife, who was now living in a rented house in Georgetown. He hadn't even tomcatted around his Parthenian estate when he was there, as so many nobles did. Unlike a lot of his neighbors, he wasn't liege lord to young serfs who looked like him.
How will the blonds make their way in the world if they aren't serfs any more? he wondered. He shrugged again. He didn't see any of them in this regiment, but he'd had a fair number under his command, and they'd fought as well on Merkle's Hill and other places as anybody else. That had surprised him at first, but one thing he didn't doubt was what he saw with his own eyes.
Having looked over the fieldworks with his own eyes, he went back into Rising Rock. When he got to the hostel where General Bart made his headquarters, Colonel Andy said, "Oh, there you are, sir."
George looked around behind himself, as if he might have been somewhere else. "Well, yes, I think so. What of it?"
"Only that the commanding general's been looking for you, sir," his adjutant replied.
"Ah." That was business. Doubting George nodded. "Well, he'll probably find me pretty soon. Will he find me in his rooms, do you suppose?"
"Er, yes, sir, I believe he will." Andy suffered George's occasional fits of whimsy in much the same way as he might have suffered a bout of yellow fever.
"Good," George said. "I'll wander upstairs, then, and see if he does find me there." He headed for the fancy spiral staircase, leaving his adjutant scratching his head behind him.
When he knocked on the commanding general's door, Bart opened it himself. General Guildenstern would have, too, but Guildenstern likely would have had to shoo a scantily clad blond wench out of the chamber first. Not being a noble had never stopped him from tomcatting. "Good day, George," Bart said. "Good to see you."
"Good to be seen, sir," George said, deadpan as usual.
Bart scratched his head. His quizzical expression looked very much like Andy's. He rallied faster than George's aide-de-camp had, though, saying, "How would you like to look over the latest plan for attacking Count Thraxton's army?"
"I think I'd like that pretty well, sir," George answered.
"Do you, eh?" Bart said. "I was wondering if you'd tell me you didn't care."
Innocent as a sneakthief who'd seen a judge more times than he could count, George said, "I can't imagine why, sir."
"No, eh?" General Bart's eyes glintedor maybe it was just a trick of the light. "I doubt that."
"I can't imagine why, sir," George repeated, and stepped into the commanding general's chamber.
Rain drummed down out of a chilly, leaden sky. Captain Ormerod's boots squelched in mud when he stepped out of his tent. Peering south from the forward slopes of Sentry Peak toward Rising Rock, he saw rain and mist and not much else. He cursed. Even his curses sounded dull and commonplace and gray.
Then he said, "If this is what licking the southrons up by the River of Death got us, gods damn me to the hells if I don't think we'd've been better off getting whipped."
Lieutenant Gremio was looking south, too, with rain dripping from the brim of his hat and from a threadbare cape some southron didn't need any more. He shook his head. "Losing is always worse," he said, ready as ever for an argument. Sure enough, he was a barrister to the very core of his being.
But Ormerod said, "No. Look at the southrons."
"I can't, not with all this rain and fog." Gremio was also relentlessly precise.
Precision notwithstanding, Ormerod ignored him. "Look at the southrons," he repeated. "They lost by the River of Death. They had to run back here and hole up in Rising Rock. And they went and did things. They brought in more men. They made sure they kept their supply lines open. What can we do to them now?"
"Beat them again," Gremio answered.
"Fine," Ormerod said. "Let's beat them. How do you propose to do it?"
"I'm not a general," Gremio said. "Even you have a higher rank than I do, sir." He let reproach creep into his voiceprobably reproach for Ormerod's having that higher rank. "But I am sure those in command must have some notion of how to go about it." Maybe that was where the reproach came from. Maybe. Ormerod didn't believe it.
He said, "If they do, they've done a hells of a good job of keeping it secret from everybody else."
Gremio grunted. He couldn't very well deny that, not when it was staring not only him but the whole Army of Franklin square in the face. At last, sounding a good deal less than happy, he said, "We can only hope that all the changes the army has seen will lead to a happy result."
"Not fornicating likely." That wasn't Ormerod; he and Gremio both jerked in surprise. When Ormerod whirled, he found Major Thersites standing behind them. Thersites could move quiet as a cat when he chose. He stood bareheaded in the chilly rain, letting it drip down his face. "Not fornicating likely," he said again, relishing the phrase. "We had our chance, had it and didn't take it. Now we're just waiting for the other boot to dropon us."
Ormerod wished Colonel Florizel still commanded the regiment. Florizel was a good, solid fellow; even when he worried, he never showed it. Thersites, on the other hand, spoke his mind in a thoroughly ungentlemanly wayand would gleefully gut anyone who accused him of being ungentlemanly. Picking his words warily, Ormerod said, "It is true that we might have done better after the fight by the River of Death." Finding himself agreeing with Thersites made Ormerod wonder about his own assumptions.
"Better?" Thersites snorted now. "We couldn't have done worse if we'd tried for a year. I've seen plenty of mugs of beer with better heads on 'em than Thraxton the Braggart's got." That jerked a laugh out of Ormerod. Thersites went on, "Not chasing Guildenstern hardthat was plenty smart, wasn't it? And sending James of Broadpath off to the hells and gone when the southrons are getting ready to up and kick us in the ballockswhy, gods damn me to the hells if that wasn't even smarter."
It was true. Every word of it was true. Ormerod knew as much in his belly. He still wished Thersites hadn't come right out and said so. The man had a gift for pointing out things that would have been better left unnoticed.
Gremio spoke with as much care as he would have used before a hostile panel of judges: "I think Count Thraxton ordered Earl James away because the two men had a certain amount of difficulty working together." As a barrister, he saw the world in very personal terms.
Thersites saw it that way, too. He also saw it in very earthy terms. "James is no fool. He knows Thraxton is a dried-up old unicorn turd, same as everybody else with an ounce of common sense does. No wonder Thraxton sent him off to Wesleyton. He knows what a proper general's supposed to be like, James does. Thraxton ran Ned of the Forest out of this army, too, and don't think we won't regret that."
He'd complained about Ned's departure before. Ned, Ormerod thought, is what he wishes he were. Gremio said, "We can't do anything about it now."
"Of course we can, by the Thunderer's hammer," Thersites said. "We can pay for itand we will." He squelched away.
"What a disagreeable man," Gremio said. But he said it in a low voice. He was right, too, no doubt of that. But being right about a disagreeable man's disagreeability (Ormerod wondered if that was a word, and rather hoped it wasn't) could have disagreeable consequences.
"He says what he thinks," Ormerod observed.
"If that doesn't prove my point, curse me if I know what would," Gremio answered.
Ormerod went back to what they'd been talking about before Thersites made his appearance: "What are we going to do here? What can we do here, except wait for the southrons to hit us and hope we can beat them?"
"I don't know," Gremio saidnot the most common admission for a barrister to make. "As I told you before, I hope our generals do."
"Well, I hope so, too," Ormerod said. "I hope for all kinds of things. But hoping for 'em doesn't mean I'm going to get them. If Count Thraxton doesn't know what in the hells he's doing, he could have fooled me."
Lieutenant Gremio raised an eyebrow. But he was too smooth to contradict his superior too openly. Instead, he changed the subject: "If you had everything you hope for, what would it be?"
"Why, for us to have our own kingdom," Ormerod answered at once. "For us to whip the southrons out of our land. That's what we're fighting for, isn't it?"
"And after we've won the war?" Gremio asked.
"All I want to do is go back to my estate and go on like nothing ever happened," Ormerod said. "That's what we're fighting for, too."
"Well, so it is." But Gremio had an ironic glint in his eye that Ormerod neither liked nor trusted. The barrister from Karlsburg asked an innocent enough question: "How likely do you think that is?"
Ormerod didn't like to reflect any more than he had to. "If we can lick the southrons, why shouldn't things go back to the way they ought to be?"
"They might," Gremio allowed. "They might, but I wouldn't count on it. And if they don't, it's Avram's fault, the gods chase him through the seven hells with whips forever."
Even Ormerod figured out what he was talking about. "You mean the serfs, don't you? With King Geoffrey running things, they'll fall back into line soon enough, you wait and see."
"I hope you're right," Gremio said. "As I say, though, I wouldn't count on it. Avram's told the blonds they can be free, and they aren't going to forget. Ideas are corrosive things."
"Chasing the serfs through the fields with whips will bring them back into line," Ormerod said. "They've risen up before. We've whipped them every fornicating time they tried it. If we have to, we can bloody well do it again."
"We've done such a good job of sitting on themthe past hundred years especiallythat most of them forgot things could be any other way," Gremio said. "It won't be like that any more."
"We can do it," Ormerod repeated, but he didn't sound quite so sure of himself any more. "Or we could do it, anyway, if the southrons didn't keep stirring up trouble in our land. That's another reason to have our own kingdom: to keep them from bothering the blonds, I mean."
"Yes, but can we?" Gremio asked. "If they don't respect provincial borders, why should they care about the bounds between kingdoms?"
With a grunt, Ormerod studied a new idea. The more he studied it, the less he liked it. As Gremio said, ideas were corrosive things. They kept a man from resting easy with the way the world had always worked. "We'd have to conquer the southrons, beat 'em altogether, to keep 'em from meddling. That's what you're saying." He sounded accusing. He felt that way, too.
"We can't conquer the southrons, not in a thousand years," Gremio said. "The south is bigger than we are."
He was right. Ormerod knew it. Keeping Avram's men from conquering the north was hard enoughmore than hard enough. "You're saying we'll never have peace!" Ormerod cried in dismay.
Gremio shrugged a barrister's shrug. "I didn't say that. You did."
For a moment, Ormerod accepted the remark. Then he wagged a finger at the lieutenant. Voice sly, he said, "I know what you barristers do. You trick a man into saying what you wanted him to, and then you act like it wasn't your fault at all."
"I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about." Gremio did his best to sound innocent. His best wasn't quite good enough, for he also ended up sounding amused.
"A likely story," Ormerod told him. "If you don't think we'll ever have peace even if we do lick the southrons, why'd you join the army in the first place?"
"On the off chance I might be wrong," Gremio repliedand to that, Ormerod had no answer whatever.
When he walked off shaking his head, he heard Gremio quietly chuckle behind him. The lieutenant had won this round in their ongoing skirmish, and they both knew it. Ormerod stared south toward Rising Rock. He would have relished a fight with the southrons just then. When he was fighting, he didn't have to think. Encampedbecalmedhere on the lower slope of Sentry Peak, he couldn't do much else. And, little by little, the Army of Franklin had stopped being the force besieging the town. These days, it felt more as if they were the besieged.
He wondered if Rollant was down there somewhere, or if the runaway serf had perished during the fighting by the River of Death. Rollant had been fighting under Doubting George, who'd made the stand on Merkle's Hill. He'd had plenty of chances to come to grief. Ormerod hoped he had. No serfcatcher would bring the blond back to Palmetto Province, not from out of the south. Even before the war, the southrons had laughed at the runaway-serf laws intended to bind blonds to the land. They surely wouldn't pay those laws any attention these days.
"Bastards," Ormerod muttered under his breath. There weren't so many blonds in the south and the southeast; the real Detinans there could afford to pretend blonds were as good, or almost as good, as anybody else. Up in the north, that would never do. Ormerod was as sure of it as he was of the power of the gods. But King Avram, that gods-damned fool, couldn't see it, and so . . .
And so my crops have gone to the hells these past three seasons, Ormerod thought resentfully. And so I'm here in the middle of nowhere, instead of taking care of my estate the way I ought to. He shook his fist in the direction of the southrons down in Rising Rock. Why don't you go away and leave us alone?
But they wouldn't, and so they had to be driven away. Ormerod shook his fist at mist-shrouded Rising Rock again. Then he turned and shook his fist at Proselytizers' Rise, too, and at Count Thraxton's headquarters there. If Thraxton had pursued, maybe . . .
Ormerod heard a thud behind him. He whirled, hand flashing toward his swordhilt. Shaking your fist at a mage wasn't always a good idea, even when the mage couldn'tor wasn't supposed to be able tosee you. And Thraxton the Braggart had always been a bad-tempered son of a bitch. If he somehow knew, if he'd somehow shaped a sending . . .
"Sorry, sir," the blue-clad soldier in back of Ormerod said sheepishly. "Kicked that gods-damned rock hard enough to hurt. I expect I'd trip over my own two feet if there was nothing else handy."
"Heh," Ormerod said, still jumpy. The soldier sketched a salute and ambled away. He didn't know what he'd done to his company commander's peace of mind. Ormerod hoped he never found out, either.
One of the sergeants was doing a good, thorough, systematic job of chewing out a man who'd forgotten something the underofficer thought he should have remembered. The soldier was giving about as good as he got, denying everything and loudly proclaiming that the sergeant hadn't told him about whatever it was and had no business bothering about him anyway, as it shouldn't have been his job in the first place.
Instead of spraying flames all over the place like a firepot, the sergeant said, "Ahh, to the hells with it. What we both want to do is rip another chunk off the gods-damned southrons. Till then, we're just chewing on each other on account of we can't get at them."
"Gods-damned right," the common soldier said. "We'll tear 'em a new one when we do, though." The sergeant grunted agreement. Neither had the slightest doubt in his mind.
And their certainty made a small, tender, flickering hope live in Captain Ormerod.
General Bart eyed his wing commanders and brigadiers. "Gentlemen, we are just about ready to attack," he said. Some of them really were gentlemenDoubting George, for instance. Bart was a tanner's son. But he had the rank. That was all that mattered. If he did the job right, he would keep the rank and keep on giving orders to his social betters. If he didn't, he would deserve whatever happened to him. That was how things worked. It struck him as fair. But things would have worked the same way even if it hadn't.
Fighting Joseph said, "Turn me loose, General. Just turn me loose, and I'll show you what I can do."
"You'll be in the fight, never fear," Bart said. Joseph's handsome, ruddy face showed nothing but confidence. Earlier in the year, he'd commanded the whole western army after Whiskery Ambrose failed so spectacularly with it. And Joseph had failed, too, letting Duke Edward of Arlington trounce him at Viziersville with about half as many men as he commanded. Joseph would never have charge of a whole army again.
He had to know that. He wasn't a foolno, he wasn't that particular kind of fool. But he remained an ambitious man. He would try to stretch what command he had here in the east as far as Bart would let him, and then a little further. Bart didn't intend to let him get away with much of that.
But what he intended and what would actually happen were two different beasts. Fighting Joseph had a will of his own, and Thraxton the Braggart had a will of his own, tooquite a will of his own, Bart thought with wry amusement. Nothing would go exactly as planned. No, not exactly. Still and all, I aim to have my will be the one that prevails.
"Will you be ready to move on Sentry Peak when the day and the hour come?" he asked Fighting Joseph.
"Of course, sir." Joseph sounded affronted. "I am always ready to move."
There Bart believed him. Joseph might prove too aggressive, but he was unlikely not to be aggressive enough. Bart turned to Doubting George. "What about you, Lieutenant General?"
"Give the order, sir, and my men and I will obey it," George replied. "You have only to command."
Bart hoped he meant that. George was no glory hound, as Fighting Joseph was. He made an indomitable defender; they were calling him the Rock in the River of Death these days. But he wasn't so good at going forward as he was at not going back. "I shall rely on you," Bart said, and Doubting George nodded.
"Tell me where to go," George said. "Tell me what to do. By the gods, I'll do it. If you think you have another man who can do it better, give it to him. The kingdom comes before any one soldier."
"Well said," Bart replied. "An example for us all, as a matter of fact." He looked at Fighting Joseph. Joseph stared blandly back, as if he didn't have the slightest notion of what Bart had in mind. Maybe he didn't. Maybe he truly was blind to what other people thought of him. Maybe. Bart wouldn't have bet anything on it he couldn't afford to lose.
Bart wouldn't have bet anything on it anyway. Spirits had been his vice, not rolling dice or a spinning wheel of chance. Fighting Joseph had been rich and then poor several times in quick succession in silver-rich Baha out in the far east. He would gamble on anything, including his superiors' patience.
With some relief, Bart turned away from him and toward Lieutenant General Hesmucet. "Are you ready to fight?" he asked, already confident of the answer.
Sure enough, Hesmucet nodded. "I've been ready for days, sir. So have my men. We're just waiting for you to turn us loose."
"Don't worry. I intend to," Bart replied. Hesmucet didn't puff himself up the way Fighting Joseph did. He didn't prefer the defensive, as Doubting George did. He wanted to go forward and grapple with the enemy. In that, he was very much like Bart himself. If a strong man and a weak man grappled and kept on grappling, sooner or later the strong man would wear down the weak one.
"When we start fighting the northerners, we have to hit them with everything we've got and go right on hitting them till they fall over," Bart said. "That's what will win the fight for us."
"We shall win glory for King Avram," Fighting Joseph declared.
"As long as we win the fight," Doubting George put in. Bart decided George really didn't care about glory, and that he'd meant what he said when he urged his own replacement if Bart thought that would help defeat Thraxton's men. It wasn't that he had no pride; Bart knew better. But he really did put the kingdom ahead of everything else. Bart had to admire that.
He said, "All right. I think we know what we're supposed to do. That was the point of calling you together, so we're through here. Lieutenant General Hesmucet, stay a bit, if you'd be so kind. I want to talk with you about weather magic when we do attack the traitors."
"Yes, sir," Hesmucet said as the other officers rose from their seats and headed back to their own commands. "At your service, sir."
"At King Avram's service," Bart said, and Hesmucet nodded. Bart resumed: "He made us, and he can break us. That's what being a king is all about."
"Yes, sir," Hesmucet repeated. "But we can make him or break him, too. That's what fighting a civil war is all about."
Had Fighting Joseph said that, he would have meant trying to break the king and seize the throne himself. Hesmucet's mind didn't work that way. Neither did Bart's. He said, "Can we do this the way we've planned it?"
"I think so," Hesmucet answered. "We've got more men. We've got more engines. We've got more of everything, except . . ." His voice faded.
"Except fancy magecraft," Bart finished for him. Hesmucet nodded. Bart shrugged. "Most of the time, it doesn't work the way it's supposed to. If it did, the northerners would have licked us by now."
"I know that," Hesmucet said calmly. "But Thraxton's sure to throw everything he's got at us. He doesn't want to have to fall back into Peachtree Province again."
"We just have to stop him," Bart said.
"Guildenstern couldn't," Hesmucet said. "His mages couldn't, either. If the traitors are playing with loaded dice, we have trouble. You know that's so."
"Yes, I know that's soif they are," Bart agreed. "But I also know I'm not going to lose much sleep over it. I'll tell Phineas and the others to do their best. That's all they can do. If they do their best, and if our soldiers do their best, I think we're going to win."
"Yes, sir." Hesmucet didn't sound as if he believed it himself, not at first. But then he paused, stroking that short beard, hardly more than stubble, he wore. His smile, Bart thought, was quizzical. "Do you know, sir," he said, "there are a lot of generals who, if they said something like that, you'd right away start figuring out what would go wrong and how you'd keep from getting the blame for it. But do you know what? When I listen to you, I think you're going to do exactly what you say you'll do. And if that's not pretty peculiar, to the seven hells with me if I know what is."
"Thraxton the Braggart's just a mage. He's not a god," Bart said. "He makes mistakes, the same as anybody else does. He did it down at Pottstown Pier, and he did it again at Reillyburgh. If we jog his elbow right when he's trying to do three or four things all at the same time, he'll likely do it once more. And if he does, we'll lick him."
"But if he doesn't . . ." Hesmucet still had doubts.
Bart sighed. "Look at it this way, Lieutenant General: the traitors have to do everything perfectly to have a chance of beating us. We can make some mistakes and still beat them. General Guildenstern made every mistake in the book, but they couldn't run him out of Rising Rock even so. Don't you think the Braggart knows that as well as we do?"
"He has to," Hesmucet said. "He's not stupid."
"No, that's never been his trouble," Bart agreed. Both men chuckled. Bart continued, "But it has to weigh on his mind, wouldn't you think? Knowing he's got to be perfect, I mean, knowing he's got no margin for error. It's easy to walk along a board lying in the middle of the road. But take that board to New Eborac and stretch it out between the top floors of a couple of blocks of flats, where you'll kill yourself if you fall off. How easy is it then? The more a mistake will cost, the more you worry about it . . ."
He waited. Either he'd convinced Hesmucet or he hadn't. Slowly, the other officer nodded. "That sounds good to me, sir. Nowdid you still need to talk about Alva the weatherworker?"
"No, I don't think so," Bart answered. They both chuckled again. Hesmucet gave a salute so sloppy, some sergeant at the Annasville military collegium would have had an apoplexy seeing it. Bart returned an even sloppier one. When anybody could see them, they stayed formal. By themselves, they were more nearly a couple of friends than two of Avram's leading officers.
After Hesmucet left, Bart sent a runner to summon Colonel Phineas. The army's chief mage arrived looking apprehensive. "You wanted me, sir?"
"I certainly did," Bart said. "I want you and your wizards to start doing everything you can to annoy the Army of Franklin. I want you to make the traitors stretch their own sorcerers as thin as they'll go, and then a little bit thinner than that. Can you do it?"
"Of course we can, sir," Phineas said. "But I don't see how doing it will change things one way or the other."
"Oh, it probably won't," Bart said placidly. "Do it anyhow."
"Yes, sir," Colonel Phineas said. After a moment, he nerved himself to add, "I don't understand, sir."
Shall I explain? Bart wondered. If he's too stupid to see for himself, isn't he too stupid to do us any good? But, in the end, he relented: "If the traitors are busy putting out lots of little fires all along their line, it'll make them have a harder time noticing we're setting a big fire right under their noses."
"Ah. Deception." Phineas beamed. He could see something if you held it under his nose and shone a lamp on it. "Very commendable. Who would have thought deception could play a true part in matters military?"
"Anyone who went to the military collegium, for starters," Bart said.
But the army's chief wizard shook his head. "Not from the evidence I've seen thus far, sir. By all the signs, the only thing most officers are good for is bashing the foes in front of them over the head with a rock. . . . No offense, sir."
"None taken," Bart said, more or less truthfully. "We do try to surprise the chaps on the other side of the line every now and again. They try to surprise us every now and again, too, but we try not to let that work."
"Yes, sir." But Colonel Phineas sounded even less convinced than Lieutenant General Hesmucet had. Then the plump, balding Phineas brightened. "Well, we will do what we can, I promise you. Deception? What a conceit!" Off he went, though Bart hadn't given him any sort of formal dismissal.
Colonel Horace came in a couple of minutes later. "What was the old he-witch muttering to himself about?" General Bart's aide inquired. "He sounded happy as a pig rooting for turnips."
"He's amazed that I have some notion of fooling the enemy instead of just pounding him to death," Bart replied. "We do try to play these little games with the least loss we can."
"Of course we do, sir." Horace bristled at the idea that anyone could think otherwise.
"And we'll have the chance to show the northerners just how we play them," Bart said. "Meanwhile, though, the less they see, the better."
"Absolutely, sir." Colonel Horace was fiercely loyal. That made him a splendid aide. "High time they get the punishment they deserve."
"I wish this weren't necessary," Bart said. "I wish we weren't fighting." Even if that meant you were still a drunken failure? Yes, by the gods, even then. "But since we are fighting, we'd better win. Having two kingdoms where there should just be Detina is unbearable."
"It won't happen." Horace was also an all but indomitable optimist. "When we hit Thraxton, we'll break him."
"May it be so," Bart said. "Our job is to make it so, and we're going to do our job. Wouldn't you agree, Colonel?"
Horace's expression declared that Bart hadn't needed to ask the question. "Thraxton will never know what hit him."
"That's the idea," General Bart said. "I don't want him knowing what's going to hit him, not till it doesand not then, not altogether."
"How are things back by Rising Rock?" James of Broadpath asked Count Thraxton's scryer after that scryer finished relaying Thraxton's latest demand that he take Wesleyton on the instant, if not sooner.
With a shrug, the fellow answered, "The southrons keep throwing little pissant magics at us every which way, so much so that nobody quite seems to know what's going on here right now, sir."
"Oh, really? Why does that not surprise me?" Earl James rumbled. A moment later, he realized the remark was odds-on to get back to Count Thraxton. A moment later still, he decided he cared not a fig. Thraxton the Braggart already knew what he thought of him. Thraxton, James thought, had many flaws, but stupidity was not among them.
"Along with everything else, sir, the weather around here's been so nasty and misty, there could be a southronor a regiment of southronsright outside the tent and I wouldn't know about it till the bolts started flying," the scryer said. "That's got something to do with it, too."
"The fog of war," James said vaguely. He forced his mind back to things he could hope to learn: "How is Brigadier Bell doing?"
"Damn me to the hells if he isn't healing up, your Excellency," the scryer answered.
James of Broadpath's eyebrows leaped. "Oh, really?" he said again, this time in honest amazement. Any man who could survive two wounds such as Bell had taken with so little time between them was made of stern stuff. "The gods must love him."
"I don't know about that, sir. He's still in pain, lots of it," the scryer said. "He pours down enough laudanum to knock a tiger on its tail, and it doesn't seem to help much. But he is talking about wanting to command again."
"That sounds like him," Earl James agreed. "He won't be leading from the front any more, though."
"No, sir," the scryer said. "Farewell, sir." The crystal ball went back to being no more than a sphere of glass.
James sighed. Leading from the front is why Bell will be a cripple to the end of his days, he thought, and shivered a little. It could happen to any commander who wanted to mix it up with the foe and to see at first hand how his men were fighting. At Viziersville, between Nonesuch and Georgetown, King Geoffrey's soldiers had shot Thomas the Brick Wall, Duke Edward's great lieutenant, off his unicorn and killed him. James shivered again, a bit harder this time. A goose just walked over my grave. His hand twisted in the sign the Detinans had borrowed from their blond serfs to turn aside omens.
He strode out of the scryers' tent and peered west toward Wesleyton. No fogs, no mists here: only the sun shining bright but cold out of a sky the blue of a swordblade. This time, James' shiver had to do with nothing but the weather, which came as rather a relief.
Looking toward Wesleyton, however, brought him no relief at all. Whiskery Ambrose had more men than he did and plainly intended doing nothing with them but trying to hold on to the town he'd taken. Given that defenders, shooting from entrenchments and from behind ramparts, were likely to take fewer losses than attackers, who had to show themselves to come forward, he didn't like his chances of breaking into the place.
When he sighed, his breath smoked, another sign that autumn was marching toward winter. Quickmarching, tooevery day, the sun sped faster across the sky and spent less time above the horizon. The sun god always went north for the winter.
"I have to try to take Wesleyton," he muttered, and his breath smoked when he did that, too.
He looked around the camp. His men seemed more worried about staying warm than about attacking. He had trouble blaming them. He did wish Whiskery Ambrose wanted to come out and fight. That would have made his own life much easier. Unfortunately . . .
When he gathered together his wing commanders and leading mages, they seemed no more enthusiastic about attacking than he was. "Sir, the odds against our seizing the town strike me as long," said Colonel Simon, his chief mage.
Those odds struck James as long, too. Nonetheless, he said, "We have to make the effort. If the southrons stay here in western Franklin, they can stir up endless trouble for King Geoffrey." All the assembled officers grimaced. They knew only too well that he was right. Serfs were few on the ground in this mountain country, and a great many of the yeoman farmers hereabouts preferred Avram to Geoffrey. A southron army aiding and abetting them was the last thing the already beleaguered north needed. "We have to try," James repeated.
"Do you really think we can do it?" asked Brigadier Falayette, one of his wing commanders. "Should we risk breaking up this army with an attack unlikely to reach its goal?"
"As I said, taking Wesleyton back is important," James of Broadpath replied. "Count Thraxton is right about that." No matter how little else he's right about. James wished Brigadier Bell were well enough to have come with the army. He never counted the cost before an attack. Sometimes that was unfortunate. It had been unfortunate for him personallythe gods knew that was true. But sometimes an officer like that could lead men to victory where they would never find it otherwise.
"Not wrecking ourselves is important, too," Brigadier Falayette insisted. "If we need to come to Thraxton's aid against the southrons, or to return to the Army of Southern Parthenia in a hurry . . ."
"Suppose we think about how we're going to beat the southrons," James said, glowering from under bushy eyebrows at Falayette. "Let's let them worry about how to lick us."
"Yes, sir," the brigadier said. Any other choice of words would have brought more wrath down upon him.
James unfolded a map of Wesleyton and its environs. His plump, stubby forefinger stabbed down at one of the forts warding the eastern side of the town. "Here," he said. "If we can break in at Fort WiLi, we can roll up the southrons. Brigadier Alexander!"
"Sir?" said the officer in charge of James' engines.
"Concentrate your engines in front of that fort. Nothing like a good rain of firepots to make the enemy lose his spirit."
"Yes, sir." Brigadier Alexander was young and eager. Unlike Brigadier Falayette, he didn't worry about whether something could be done. He went out and did his best to do it.
But, given the dispositions of James' men . . . "Brigadier Falayette!" James waited for the wing commander to nod, then went on, "As your men stand before Fort WiLi, you shall make the assault upon it. As soon as you have gained control, rapidly send soldiers north and south so as to secure as much of the enemy's line as you can, easing the way for our other forces."
"Yes, sir," Falayette said.
James did his ponderous best to hide a sigh. He heard no eagerness there. "Colonel Simon!" he said.
"Sir?" Simon the mage replied.
"As with Brigadier Alexander's specialty, the attack on the fort will require all that your mages can give," James said.
"I understand, sir," Simon said. "You'll have it."
"Good." James wondered how good it was. Brigadier Falayette had a point. Wouldn't it be better to hang on to what they had now than to throw it away on an attack that held little hope of success? Earl James sighed again, openly this time. Count Thraxton had given the orders, and he had to obey. And retaking Wesleyton would be importantif they could do it.
He gave the order for the attack with more than the usual worries. Brigadier Alexander's engines pummeled the earthen walls of Fort WiLi. Stones battered them. Firepots sent flame dripping down them and over the battlements to burn the men inside. James of Broadpath wouldn't have cared to find himself on the receiving end of that bombardment.
And Simon the mage and his wizardly colleagues did all they could to punish the fort and the southrons inside it. Lightning struck from a clear sky. The ground trembled beneath James' feet, and presumably did more than tremble inside Fort WiLi. Batwinged demons shrieked like damned souls as they swooped down on the defenders.
Against the blonds in the old days, the days of conquest, the sorcerous assault would have been plenty to win the fight by itself. But the southrons knew all the tricks their northern cousins did, even if they weren't always quite so handy with them. Their lightnings smote James' men, too. The tremors died away as the southron mages mastered them. And as for the demons, as soon as they manifested themselves in the real world, they were as vulnerable to weaponry as any other real-world creatures. Once the stream of darts from a repeating crossbow knocked three of them from the sky in quick succession, the rest grew much more cautious.
And the southrons had many more engines to turn on James' men than Brigadier Alexander had to turn on them. One after another of the catapults brought with such labor from Rising Rock went out of action. Alexander's artificers shrieked as fire engulfed them.
James beckoned for a runner. "Tell Brigadier Falayette to start his footsoldiers moving right this minute. We're getting hammered harder than we're hammering."
"Yes, sir." The runner dashed off.
Despite the order, the pikemen and the crossbowmen who would follow them did not go forward. Fuming, James of Broadpath dispatched another runner to his reluctant brigadier, this one with more peremptory orders. After a little while, the second runner came back, saying, "Brigadier Falayette's compliments, sir, but he believes the enemy has strung wires in front of his position. Have we tinsnips or axes to cut them?"
"Tinsnips?" James clapped a hand to his forehead. "Tinsnips?" The word might have come from one of the more obscure tongues the blond tribes used. "You tell Brigadier Falayette that if he doesn't get his men moving this instantthis instant, do you hear me?we'll find out if we've got a pair of tinsnips big enough to fit on his gods-damned neck."
With a gulp, the runner fled.
And the pikemen and crossbowmen did go forwardstraight into everything the southrons' still undefeated engines could throw at them, straight into the massed shooting of every crossbowman Whiskery Ambrose could put on the walls of Fort WiLi. They went forward roaring, plainly intending to sweep everything before them.
But, as Brigadier Falayette had said, the southrons did have thin wires strung in front of Fort WiLi. They slowed the attackers so that Whiskery Ambrose's men and engines could pound them without mercy, and the northerners were able to do little to reply.
"Where's Simon the mage?" James shouted in fury. When the wizard came before him, he growled, "Why didn't you clever sons of bitches notice those wires ahead of time?"
"I'm very sorry, sir, but we can't possibly notice everything," Simon said.
"Sometimes it seems as if you can't notice anything," James said. The colonel gave him an aggrieved look, which he resolutely ignored. "Is there anything you can do to get rid of the gods-damned wires? Conjure up some demons with sharp teeth and a taste for iron, maybe?"
Simon the mage shook his head. "We would need some considerable, time-consuming research, and we have no time to consume, I fear."
He was all too obviously right about that. Instead of going forward with roars, James' men were streaming away from the fort outside Wesleyton. They'd made their attack and seen it fail. They were veterans. They knew what that meant: no point in staying close to the enemy and getting hurt to no purpose.
After a while, Whiskery Ambrose sent out a young captain with a white flag. Northern soldiers led him to James of Broadpath. "The general's compliments, sir," the youngster said, "and he would be pleased to grant you two hours' truce to recover your wounded."
James bowed. "That is very courteous and gentlemanly of General Ambrose, and I accept with many thanks." They exchanged a few more compliments before the southron captain went back to Fort WiLi.
Now I'll have to explain to Captain Thraxton how and why I didn't break into Wesleyton, James thought gloomily. That will be every bit as delightful as going to the dentist.
A scryer came up to him, as if the thought of having to talk to Thraxton were enough to bring the fellow into being. "What now?" James asked.
The scryer looked worried. James felt his own temper, stretched thin by the repulse, fray even further. Had the illustrious Thraxton decided to sack him even in advance of knowing what had happened here? James didn't intend to disappear peacefully. But then the scryer said, "Sir, the fighting's started up by Rising Rock."
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