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Another gray, foggy, misty day. Captain Ormerod was sick of them. "Is this what fall is like in these parts?" he asked, leaning closer to the campfire. "If it is, why in the hells does anyone live here?"
"It really isn't, sir," Lieutenant Gremio answered. "I've spoken with some men who come from this part of Franklin, and"
"Looking for evidence, eh?" Ormerod broke in.
"Well, yes, as a matter of fact," Gremio said. "They tell me they can't recall seeing such a wretched run of weather. It's almost as if some mage were holding a blanket of clouds and mist over Rising Rock."
Ormerod raised an eyebrow. "Do you suppose some mage is? Some southron mage, I mean?"
"I wouldn't think so, sir," Gremio said. "Surely Count Thraxton would notice if that were so."
"Oh, surely." Ormerod put as much sarcastic venom in that as he could. "Thraxton is just like a godhe notices everything that goes on around him. Haven't you seen that for yourself?"
"It's foggy. I can't see anything much," Gremio said.
But then Ormerod said, "It is starting to clear out a bit, I suppose." The more he looked, the more and the farther he could see. If it had been a spelland he didn't know about that one way or the otherthe wizard who'd been casting it seemed to need it no longer. When he looked up to the top of Sentry Peak, he spied King Geoffrey's flag, red dragon on gold, floating where his regiment (though Major Thersites would have had something memorable to say had he put it that way in earshot of him) had placed it.
And when he looked east . . . When he looked east, his jaw dropped and his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth. Lieutenant Gremio was already looking east. Being a barrister, he'd likely had a tongue hinged at both ends since birth. "By the Lion God's mane," he said hoarsely, "if that isn't every stinking southron in the world out there, it might as well be."
"Oh, gods be praised," Ormerod said. "I was afraid I was imagining them."
"And they're all heading this way," Gremio added.
"I know," Ormerod said. That also made him afraid, but in a way different from, and more concrete than, he'd felt before.
Major Thersites saw the advancing enemy, too. "Stand by to repel boarders!" he called, as if the southrons were so many pirates about to swarm onto a fat, rich merchantman. But General Bart's men advanced with far better discipline than pirates were in the habit of showing.
"Can we hold them back, sir?" Lieutenant Gremio asked, in the voice of a small child looking for reassurance.
But Ormerod had no reassurance even for himself, let alone to give to anyone else. "To the hells with me if I know," he answered, while Not a chance on earth or under it ran through his mind.
Thersites was right, though: they had to try. Ormerod shouted orders to his men, who found the best cover they could and got ready to fight back. The Franklin River anchored the southern end of their line, the steep slopes of Sentry Peak the northern. Thersites said, "Gods damn it, where's that louse-ridden Thraxton the Braggart when you really need the son of a bitch? He ought to have a spell ready that'd sweep away these bastards like a blond wench sweeping out your bedroom."
The more the mist lifted, the more Ormerod saw. The more Ormerod saw, the more he wished he didn't. "I think Thraxton is liable to be busy somewhere else," he said unhappily.
From Sentry Peak here in the north to Funnel Hill, the extension of Proselytizers' Rise in the far southwest, southron troops advanced against the line the Army of Franklin had set up to hold them inside Rising Rock. How many soldiers had General Bart brought into the town? Ormerod didn't know, not in numbers, but the southrons were sending forth far more men than he'd thought they had.
He couldn't pay so much attention to the distant vistas of the battlefield as he would have liked. The southrons moving on his part of the line from the east drew closer by the minute. He cursed as he recognized the banners their regimental standard-bearers waved.
"Those are Fighting Joseph's troopers!" His voice rose to a furious shout. "Those are the sons of bitches we fought when we went west toward Brownsville Ferry. Some of you boys ran away from jackasses on account of you thought they were unicorn-riders. You're not going to let these bastards shift you now, are you?"
"No!" his men yelled, and he hoped they meant it.
"We haven't got enough of anything," Gremio said worriedly. "We haven't got enough men, we haven't got enough engines, we haven't got enough mages. How are we supposed to stopthat?" He pointed toward the gray flood rolling down on them.
"We've got to try," Ormerod said, echoing Thersites. "If you like, Lieutenant, I'll write you a pass so you can go to the rear." Gremio bit his lip but shook his head. Ormerod slapped him on the back. "Stout fellow."
"No, just a fool, ashamed of looking like a coward before my comrades," Gremio said. "I'd be smarter if I took you up on that, and we both know it."
"They haven't killed me yet," Ormerod told him. "Futter me if I think they can do it this time."
"I admire your spirit," Gremio said. "I would admire it even more if I thought Count Thraxton could send us reinforcements from elsewhere on the field."
"We'll manage," Ormerod said; he didn't think Thraxton the Braggart could send them reinforcements, either. "We have to manage."
King Geoffrey's soldiers were doing everything they could. Artificers turned engines away from Rising Rock and toward the east so they would bear on the advancing foe. Stones and firepots began to fly. So did streams of darts from the big repeating crossbows. Southrons in gray started falling.
But the southrons, along with everything else, were bringing their own wheeled engines forward. They started shooting first at the catapults and repeating crossbows that were tormenting them. That spared Ormerod and his fellow footsoldiers for a while, but only for a while. Gremio was right: the southrons had more engines here than did this part of Count Thraxton's army. Little by little, they battered Thraxton's engines down to something close to silence, and then turned their attention to his pikemen and crossbowmen.
By that time, Ormerod's soldiers were shooting at the oncoming enemy footsoldiers. "Avram!" the southrons yelled. "Avram and freedom! One Detina, now and forever!"
Some of the northerners gave their lion-roar of defiance. Others shouted Geoffrey's name or cried, "Provincial prerogative in perpetuity!" And still others yelled things like, "We don't want to stay in the same kingdom with you sons of bitches!"
Despite the crossbow quarrels hissing around the battlefield, Ormerod stood tall as he drew his sword. He flourished the blade, screaming, "You'll never take my blonds away!"
A ditch and an abatis of sharpened tree trunks held the southrons at bay. Ormerod's men shot a good many of them as they struggled through the obstacles. But the rest of the pikemen, still shouting their hateful battle cry, swarmed forward. One of them came straight at Ormerod, the point of the pike held low so it could tear out his guts.
He hated pikemen. He always had, ever since he first had to face one. Their weapons gave them more reach than his sword gave him. That anyone might kill him without his having so much of a chance to kill the other fellow instead struck him as most unfair.
He slashed at the pikestaff, just below the head. He'd hoped to cut off the head, but an iron strip armored the staff, tooa nasty, low, devious trick the southrons were using more and more these days. Still and all, he did manage to beat the point aside, which meant the fellow in gray tunic and pantaloons didn't spit him for roasting, as he'd no doubt had in mind.
"King Geoffrey!" Ormerod yelled, and stepped in close for some cut-and-thrust work of his own.
That was what he'd intended, anyhow, but things didn't work out the way he planned, any more than things for the Army of Franklin looked to be working out as Thraxton the Braggart had planned. Instead of either letting himself get run through or fleeing in terror, the enemy pikeman smartly reversed his weapon and slammed the pikeshaft into Ormerod's ribs.
"King Geoffroof!" Ormerod's battle cry was abruptly transformed into a grunt of pain. He sucked in a breath, wondering if he'd feel the knives that meant something in there had broken. He didn't, but he had to lurch away from the southron to keep from getting puncturedthe fellow was altogether too good with a pike. Why aren't you somewhere far away, training other southrons to be nuisances? Ormerod thought resentfully.
Then a crossbow quarrel caught the pikeman in the face. He screamed and dropped his spear and rolled on the ground and writhed with his hands over the wound, just as Ormerod would have done had he been so unlucky. Another southron pikeman stepped on him so as to be able to get at Ormerod.
Once he got at him, he was quickly sorry. He wasn't so good with his pike as the unlucky southron had been, and soon lurched away with a wounded shoulder.
"That's the way to do it!" Major Thersites shouted. Thersites himself was doing his best to imitate a whirlwind full of flail blades: any southron who got near him had cause to regret it, and that in short order. "Drive those sons of bitches back where they came from!"
But the southrons kept pressing forward, no matter how many of them fell to blades and crossbow bolts. Ormerod's comrades were falling, too, and reserves were thin on the ground in this part of the field. Here and there, men from his company began slipping off toward the west, toward Proselytizers' Rise.
"Hold your ground!" Lieutenant Gremio shouted.
"Hold, by the gods!" Ormerod echoed. "Don't let them through. This is for the kingdom's sake. And besides," he added pragmatically, "you're easier to kill if they get you while you're running."
That made the men from his company hang on a little longer. Major Thersites' profane urgings made the whole regiment hang on a little longer. But then a firepot burst at Thersites' feet. He became a torch, burning, burning, burning. He screamed, but, mercifully, not for long. That left the seniormost captain in the regiment, an earl named Throckmorton, in command.
"Hold fast!" Captain Throckmorton cried. But he sounded as if he were pleading, not as if he would murder the next man who dared take a backward step. And pleading was not enough to hold the soldiers in their places, not in the face of the oncoming southron storm. More and more of them headed for the rear.
"What can we do?" Gremio asked, watching them go.
"Not a gods-damned thing, doesn't look like," Ormerod answered grimly. "We aren't the only ones getting away from the enemynot even close. That's the one thing that makes me feel halfway decent. Look at some of those bastards run! You could race 'em against unicorns and clean up." He spat in disgust.
"If we stay hereif you and I stay here, I meanmuch longer, the southrons will kill us," Lieutenant Gremio said.
He was right, too; Ormerod could see as much. For a moment, rage so choked him that he hardly cared. But, at last, he said, "Well, we'd better skedaddle, too, then. I haven't killed as many southrons as I want to, not yet, and I won't get the chance by staying here."
"I feel the same way, Captain," Gremio said. Ormerod wondered whether that was true, or whether the barrister simply sought an acceptable excuse to flee. He shrugged. It didn't really matter. They could fall back, or they could die. Those were the only choices left. They could not hold.
Dying here wouldn't accomplish anything, not that Ormerod could see. Along with other stubborn northerners, some from their regiment, others men he'd never seen before, they fought a rear-guard action that kept the southrons from overwhelming this wing of Count Thraxton's army. The soldiers fell back toward the protection of the lines on the height of Proselytizers' Rise.
"I wonder if those bastards will have cut and run, too," Ormerod grumbled.
"Doesn't look like it, sir," Gremio said, and he was right. He added, "If you ask me, we can hold the crest of the rise forever."
"Here's hoping you're right, because we'd better," Ormerod answered. Some of his men went into line with the troopers already in place on Proselytizers' Rise. Others, exhausted by a long day's fighting and by the retreat they hadn't wanted to make, sprawled wherever they could.
Ormerod stayed in line till darkness ended the fighting. He was up before sunrise the next day, too, up and cursing. "What's the matter now?" Lieutenant Gremio asked sleepily.
"That's what, by the gods." Ormerod pointed back toward Sentry Peak. Above a thick layer of cloud, King Avram's gold dragon banner on redan enormous flag, to be seen at this distancehad replaced Geoffrey's red dragon on gold. Ormerod knew he shouldn't have been surprised, but he misliked the omen.
At the same time as Fighting Joseph attacked the forward slopes of Sentry Peak, the northern end of Count Thraxton's line, Lieutenant General Hesmucet's soldiers went into action against Funnel Hill, the southwestern part of the unicornshoe Thraxton had thrown partway around Rising Rock. Runners reported that Fighting Joseph was driving the traitors before him. Hesmucet wished he didn't have to listen to any of those reports. Things were not going nearly so well for him as he would have hoped.
For one thing, Funnel Hill, like the nearby Proselytizers' Rise, had a steep forward face and a devils of a lot of northerners at the top. For another, Hesmucet rapidly discovered that the maps they were using had led him and General Bart astray. By what the maps said, Funnel Hill wasn't just near Proselytizers' Rise, but was the Rise's southernmost extension. The ground told a different story. Even if his men got to the top, they would have to fight their way down into a deep, unmarked valley and then up another slope to get where they really needed to go.
But, even though they had no hope of doing what he and Bart had thought they might, they had to keep fighting. If they didn't, the northerners on Funnel Hill would go somewhere else and cause trouble for General Bart's soldiers there.
A runner came up to Hesmucet and said, "Sir, they've got our right pinned down pretty badly."
Hesmucet managed a smile of sorts. "Well, it was our left a little while ago. If that's not progress, I don't know what is." He knew perfectly well it wasn't progress, or anything like progress. But if he didn't admit that to anyone else, he didn't have to admit it to himself, either.
Lightning bolts smashed down out of the clear sky. They didn't strike the men in gray struggling to advance, but they came too close to make Hesmucet happy. The runner said, "Where the hells are our wizardsuh, sir?"
"That's a good question." Hesmucet raised his voice to a shout: "Alva! Where have you gone and got to, Alva?"
"Here, sir!" The young mage came running up. "What do you require, sir?"
"Are you good for anything besides fogs and mists?" Hesmucet asked. "These northern whoresons are giving our boys a hard time. I want you to do something about that, gods damn it. Show me what you can manage."
"I'll do my best," Alva said. "I wish I could have had a little more notice so I could have prepared more effects, but"
"But nothing," Hesmucet said. "You're a mage who knew he was going to be in the middle of a battle. How much fornicating preparation do you need?"
"I don't need any fornicating preparation, sir," Alva answered with a grin. "All I need there is a friendly girl."
That stopped Hesmucet in his tracks, as surely as Doubting George's men had stopped the traitors on Merkle's Hill. Before Hesmucet could start up again, Alva began to incant. Hesmucet stared as the Lion God appeared in the sky over the battlefield. The god roared anger down at the northerners. Then, walking on air, his great tail lashing across a quarter of the sky, he stalked toward the place where the northern mages on Funnel Hill were likeliest to be standing.
"You don't do things by halves, do you?" Hesmucet knew he sounded shaken, but couldn't help it.
"I try not to, sir," Alva answered calmly. "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, or that's what people say."
"Is it? Do they?" Hesmucet rallied. "Leonidas the Priest would not approve of you at all, young fellow." Alva laughed the clear, boyish laugh of someone feeling his full power for the first time. It occurred to Hesmucet to wonder just how great that power was. "Ah . . . Alva . . . That isn't really the Lion God up there, is it?"
"Just a simulacrum," the young mage said. "Nothing to worry aboutand the real Lion God probably won't even notice. From everything I've been able to find out, the gods pay a lot less attention to what goes on down here on earth than most people think. You almost wonder if it's worth your while believing in them."
"No, I don't," Hesmucet said. "What I wonder is what the younger generation is coming to. If we don't believe in the gods, our magic will fail, and then where would we be?"
"We'd manage." Alva sounded perfectly confident. "I think we could get along just fine with nothing but mechanical devices."
"Not bloody likely!" Hesmucet exclaimed. "How would you replace a firepot or a glideway, for instance?"
"I don't know, not off the top of my head," Alva admitted, "but I'd bet we could do it if we set our minds to trying."
"Easy enough for you to say when you haven't got anything riding on it," Hesmucet told him. "Next thing you know, you'll say you could make light without fire or magic, or else that you could capture sounds out of the air without a crystal ball."
"It might be interesting to try," Alva said in thoughtful tones.
Hesmucet cursed under his breath. He'd succeeded in distracting the mage, which was the last thing he needed. The image of the Lion God above the enemy was fading, fraying. "You might want to fix that up," he suggested.
"No, no point to it," Alva said. "They've figured out it's not real. I'll let their mages tear at it for a while. As long as they're doing that, they won't make any mischief of their own. I'll come up with something else in the meantime."
Make them responddon't respond to what they're up to, Hesmucet thought. General Bart had said the same thing.
"You might make a general one day," Hesmucet told Alva.
"Not likely." The young mage didn't try to hide his annoyance. "The north treats its wizards much better than we do."
"You were the one who pointed out there are reasons for that," Hesmucet said. "Maybe you would have done better to stay with the mechanic arts."
"Maybe I would have," Alva said. "But it's rather too late to worry about that now, wouldn't you say? I've got work to do, even if it's work that won't ever get me fancy epaulets."
What sort of work he had in mind became evident in short order, for lightning bolts crashed down onto King Geoffrey's men on Funnel Hill from out of the clear sky. Unlike the manifestation of the Lion God that had appeared a few minutes before, the lightnings were unquestionably real.
When Hesmucet remarked on that, Alva nodded and smiled as if he were a clever child. "That's the idea, sir. You mix the real and the illusions together till nobody on the other side is sure which is which. Then the enemy has to test everything, and you can give him some nasty surprises."
"You're a menace, do you know that?" Hesmucet said. "All I can tell you is, I'm gods-damned glad you're on our side. You'd be worth as much to the traitors as Count Thraxton, I think."
He meant it as a compliment. Alva took it as an insult. "That old foof? He's not so much of a much."
"He's very strong," Hesmucet said. "If you don't believe me, go ask General Guildenstern. But you'll have to go a long way to ask him, because he'll be sent off to fight the wild blonds out on the steppes if he's lucky enough to stay in the army. Thraxton wrecked his career, and the bastard came within an eyelash of wrecking his whole army. If Doubting George hadn't held on, there at Merkle's Hill . . ."
When Alva answered, Hesmucet doubted his words had anything to do with anything: "Sir, have you ever seen a rhinoceros?"
"Yes, a time or two, in zoological parks," Hesmucet said, too surprised not to give back the truth. "So what?"
"A rhinoceros is a great big strong beast with a pointed horn, right?" Alva said, and Hesmucet had to nod. The young mage went on, "And most of the time, it isn't dangerous at all, because it can't see past its own ears. No matter how strong it is, it hasn't got any brains to speak of, either. Most of the time, it'll charge in the wrong direction. Every once in a while, it'll squash something flat, but not very often. That's Thraxton, sir. That isn't me."
"No, I can see that," Hesmucet said, doing his best not to laugh out loud. "You're practicing to be a viper."
"That I like," Alva said. "That suits me fine. I'll stay by the edge of the trail and bite from ambushand what I bite will die."
"Splendid." Hesmucet pointed toward the top of Funnel Hill. "What do you say to biting some more of those traitors? We may take the hill yet." By now, though, the sun was sinking toward the western horizon. Even if his men did take Funnel Hillwhich struck him as unlikely, despite his bold wordsthey wouldn't be able to turn and move on Proselytizers' Rise from the flank, which had been the point of the attack in the first place.
Maybe Alva saw the same thing. Maybe nothe wasn't a general, only a kid with more brains than he knew what to do with. He said, "I'll try my best, sir."
His best proved hair-raisingly good, even for Lieutenant General Hesmucet, who was, as he'd said, on the same side. Flames suddenly sprang into being all along the northerners' lines, as if one of the hotter hells had decided to take up residence on earth for a while. They can't be real . . . can they? Hesmucet thought.
He had to nerve himself before asking Alva. Partly, that was not wanting to distract the sorcerer. Partly, it was . . . Hesmucet would have hesitated to call it fear, but he would have hesitated to call it anything else, either.
When at last he did put the question to the mage, Alva smiled an unpleasant smile. "If you have trouble telling, sir, think how much more trouble the traitors must have. Often enough, an illusion you can't tell from the real thing is as good as the real thing."
Hesmucet nodded. He'd heard the like from other sorcerers, too. But he said, "I want a straight answer, if you don't mind."
"And if I do?" But Alva seemed to think twice about the wisdom of twitting a fierce-faced lieutenant general. "Well, sir, to tell you the truth, most of it's illusion. Most, but not quite all. Some of the traitors up there on the hillside are really roasting, and that makes them all thoughtful."
"I can see how it would," Hesmucet said. "It'd make me thoughtful, that's for gods-damned sure. Nowwhat can they do about it?"
"Cook," Alva said happily. Hesmucet laughed.
But Thraxton the Braggart wasn't the only mage the northerners had. Before long, the flames faded. Hesmucet wondered how many men they'd seared. Not enough for his purposes: he saw that quite soon. Shouting King Avram's name, his own men charged the enemy's trenches on Funnel Hill. They chargedand, not for the first time that day, they were driven off with heavy loss.
Now Alva sounded indignant: "Why can't the traitors just panic and flee?"
"Because they're Detinans, same as we are," Hesmucet answered, "and because they're a pack of stubborn bastards, too, maybe even more than we are. Would you like to try to stand up to the might of most of the kingdom when all you had to help you was the north?"
"I never thought about it like that, sir," Alva said. "As far as I'm concerned, they're traitors, and that's all there is to it."
"Oh, they're traitors, all right," Hesmucet said. "But that doesn't mean they're not brave men. I don't think I've ever seen braver."
"Or fighting for a worse cause," Alva remarked.
"Splitting the kingdom, you mean? Of course," Hesmucet said. Alva stirred beside him. Before the mage could speak, Hesmucet went on, "If you aim to talk about the blonds, I'm going to tell you something first. What I'm going to tell you is, I don't much care about them one way or the other. If you want to think they'll make good Detinans, go ahead. I have my doubts. But I obey my king, and my king is King Avram. I haven't got any doubts at all about that."
Alva eyed him as if he'd never seen him before. "You are a very . . . peculiar man, aren't you, sir?"
"Thank you," Hesmucet said, which only seemed to confuse the mage further. He added, "What I am right now, thank you very much, is an angry man. We aren't going to take that stinking hill. You've done everything you couldyou've been splendid, Alva, and that'll go into my reportbut we aren't. And we needed to. This whole army will have to work harder because we didn't."
"Don't you worry about it, sir," Alva said. "We'll lick them."
"How can you be so sure?" Hesmucet asked. "You're the one who said the gods don't worry about us so much as we think."
"Even so," Alva said.
"Well, then?" Hesmucet growled. He knew he sounded impatient. As far as he could see, he could hardly sound any other way. The fight on Funnel Hill wasn't going the way he wished it were.
"There's more of us, and we've got more engines," Alva said. "If we lose in spite of that, we should be ashamed of ourselves."
"General Bart says the same thing," Hesmucet replied. "He's right about the war. I'm pretty sure about that. But I don't know whether he's right about this fight hereand right this minute, this fight here is all that counts."
Lieutenant General George was not happy with the role General Bart had assigned to his army. The soldiers General Guildenstern had formerly commanded were making what amounted to a noisy demonstration against Proselytizers' Rise. Even if Bart hadn't spelled it out in so many words, their assignment was to keep Thraxton the Braggart's men busy in the center while Fighting Joseph and Hesmucet won glory on the wings.
Bart's orders did read, If possible, your force shall scale the heights of Proselytizers' Rise and expel the enemy therefrom. "I like that," George said to Colonel Andy. "I truly like that. If the gods themselves attacked Proselytizers' Rise from below, could they carry that position?"
"Sir, I . . ." His aide-de-camp spoke with all due deliberation, and with malice aforethought: "Sir, I doubt it."
"So do I," Doubting George said morosely. "By the Thunderer, so do I."
"General Bart doesn't think this part of the army can really fight," Andy said. "He doesn't think we're worth anything."
"I'm very much afraid you're right," George said. "And, as long as he gives us impossible positions to try to take, all he has to do is see that we haven't taken them to get all his assumptions proved for him."
"It isn't fair," Andy said. "It isn't even close to fair."
"Well, there I would have to agree with you." George raised a forefinger. "Now don't get me wrong. I want this whole great force to whip Count Thraxton. That comes first, and I've said so many times. But I don't want my men, so many of whom fought like heroes by the River of Death even though we lost, I don't want them slighted."
"I should say not, sir," Andy replied. "It's a reflection on them, and it's also a reflection on you."
Privately, Doubting George agree with that. Publicly . . . He said what he'd been saying: "No one man's part is all that important. But I think we could serve the kingdom better with different orders."
"Do you want to complain to Bart?" Andy asked. "It might do some good."
"Unfortunately, I doubt that," George said. "It wouldn't make the commanding general change his mind, and it would get me a reputation as a whiner, which is not the reputation I want to have."
Pulling the brim of his hat down lower over his eyes, he watched his men doing their best to go forward in the face of formidable odds. The eastern slope of Proselytizers' Rise was very high and very steep. No one could reasonably be expected to get close to it, let alone scale it with an enemy waiting at the top.
But, as long as George's men kept trying, Thraxton couldn't move any of his own soldiers away from Proselytizers' Rise to Sentry Peak or Funnel Hill. We'd be a proper fighting army if Bart would let us, George thought. Then, reluctantly, he checked himself. As long as the battle is won, how doesn't much matter. And there will be credit to go around.
And if the battle isn't won, where will the blame land? He imagined coming before the panel of Avram's ministers empowered to review the conduct of the war. He imagined some crusty, white-haired pen-pusher rasping, "You were requested and required to drive the traitors from this place called Proselytizers' Rise. Would you care to explain to us how you failed to carry out your duty?"
He wouldn't be able to. He knew he wouldn't be able to. If the king's ministers saw the ground, they might possibly begin to understand. Without seeing the ground? Not a chance, he thought. Not a single, solitary chance, not in any one of the hells. All they would see was that he'd got an order and failed to carry it out. And that panel was full of vindictive souls. They would remember he was a Parthenian. They would forget he was called the Rock in the River of Death. And they would, without the tiniest fragment of doubt, kill his soldierly career.
By all the gods, we'd better win.
Seeing where he was, seeing what lay ahead of him, seeing what his orders were, he had to rely on Fighting Joseph to his right and Lieutenant General Hesmucet to his left. He wasn't going to win the battle by himself. He hated that. Relying on others came no easier to him than it did to most Detinans. If he had to do something, he wanted to be in charge of it. But this battle was too big to make that possible. Come on, Fighting Joseph. Make them run.
Colonel Andy pointed. "Look, sir! We've got a lodgement there, right at the base of the Rise."
"So we do," Doubting George said. "Next question is, can we keep it?"
They couldn't. George hadn't really expected that they would, not with the advantage in numbers the northerners held. The traitors rolled boulders down onto his men, sweeping them away as a blond scullery maid might sweep crawling ants off a wall. They rained firepots on the southrons, too, and plied them with crossbow quarrels. A few men in gray clung to the ground they'd gained, but moreeven those who weren't hurtfell back. George had a hard time blaming them.
"I thought we had something going there," Andy said dejectedly.
"I hoped we had something going there," George replied, which wasn't the same thing at all.
"The traitors will know they've been in a battle, by the Lion God's fangs." Colonel Andy looked and sounded as belligerent as a man could when he wasn't doing any actual fighting himself.
"I want them to know they've lost a battle," George said. "Right now, Colonel, I have to confess, I don't know how to make that happen, not on this part of the field."
"I wish I did, sir," his aide-de-camp said.
"I wish you did, too. I wish anybody did. I hope we're doing well on the ends of the line, because we're in a devils of a fix here in the middle." Doubting George sighed. "We're all doing the best we can. I have to remember that."
"General Guildenstern was doing the best he could, too," Andy said acidly.
"Why, so he was," George said. "Guildenstern is a brave man, and he had the start of a good plan. I think General Bart has a better plan, and it may well work. But he gave me a hard role to play."
Shouting King Avram's name, his men made another lunge toward the eastern face of Proselytizers' Rise. A few more of them got into the trenches of the base of the Rise. Some of the ones who did came out again. Nobody seemed able to hold on there. You are not here to win the battle, George reminded himself. You're here to keep the men on the wings from losing it. Remembering that came hard.
"There's some sort of a commotion over to the north," Colonel Andy said.
"Well, so there is." George peered off in that direction, trying to figure out what sort of a commotion it was.
Andy's voice broke in excitement: "It'sit's the northerners running back from the slope of Sentry Peak, that's what it is!"
"Looks that way," Doubting George agreed. "And there's our men after them, too. Looks like Fighting Joseph has won himself a victory, it does, it does."
"It sure does," his aide-de-camp exulted. After a moment, Andy said one more word: "Oh."
George answered him with one word, too: "Yes." Seeing Fighting Joseph's men storming forward in pursuit of the traitors while his own soldiers impotently smashed themselves against Proselytizers' Rise ate at him. But then, with an effort he regretted but could not help, he said, "It's for the good of the kingdom. We always have to remember, that comes first."
"Of course, sir." Colonel Andy didn't sound as if he fully believed it, either.
Fighting Joseph, George thought with distaste. I wouldn't mind nearly so much if it were Hesmucet, over there on the other flank. But he looks as though he's having as much fun as I am, or maybe even more.
Part of it was his personal judgment of Fighting Joseph: overfond of gambling and spirits and hookers, the man would never be a gentleman. Part of it was his, and everyone else's, professional judgment of Fighting Joseph: having botched the battle of Viziersville, and having botched it in the way he did, why was he given another important command? General Bart probably had the right of thatKing Avram didn't mind giving Joseph another command of sorts, so long as it wasn't anywhere close to Georgetown or the Black Palace.
"Send a messenger to him," George told his aide-de-camp. "Ask him if we can do anything to help in the pursuit."
"Yes, sir." Colonel Andy spoke as if the words tasted bad. Doubting George didn't reprove him. He hadn't enjoyed giving the order, either, however necessary he knew it to be.
Sooner than George quite wanted, the runner returned. After saluting, he said, "Fighting Joseph's compliments, sir, and he declines your generous request. He says he's quite able to do what wants doing all by his lonesome."
"He would say something like that," Andy sneered.
"Of course he would," George said. "He wouldn't be the man he is if he were the sort who could be gracious at times like this."
"What do we do now, sir?" Andy asked.
"What can we do?" George replied. "We've done everything we can. We've served our purpose. In the north, Joseph did break through, as General Bart hoped he would. Maybe Lieutenant General Hesmucet can do the same in the southwest. I wish him the best."
"We can't break through here," Colonel Andy said.
"We're not supposed to break through. We're just supposed to keep the traitors too busy to send reinforcements anywhere else along the line," George said, trying not to think about the exact words of the order Bart had given him. "We've done exactly that. We wouldn't need just wizards to do more. We'd need . . . I was going to say real, live miracle-workers, but even they'd have trouble."
"For the sake of the men, I wish we could stay out of range of the enemy's engines and crossbows," his aide-de-camp said.
"So do I, but we can't," Doubting George said. "We wouldn't seem very dangerous here if we did." Not that we seem all that dangerous here now.
"I suppose you're right," Andy said. Whatever he supposed, he didn't sound very happy about it. A moment later, though, he had a thought that seemed to cheer him. "The battle looks as if it will still be going tomorrow. I hope General Bart will see fit to give us reinforcements."
"I don't, by the gods," George answered. "As best I can see, all we'd do if we had them was get them killed. Do you really think we can force Proselytizers' Rise?"
"It's our duty," Colonel Andy said.
Doubting George was glad his aide-de-camp wasn't in the line of command. If he went down himself, Brigadier Absalom would take over for him. And Absalom the Bear knew how things were supposed to work. Andy was excellent at details, not nearly so good at the big picture. George said, "No, no, no. Our duty here is just to keep the traitors busy. As long as we manage that, all's right with the world."
"If you say so, sir." Andy didn't sound convinced, and George was too worn to argue with him any moreand he wasn't convinced, either.
Instead of arguing, he watched the sun go down between Proselytizers' Rise and Sentry Peak. "We aren't going to accomplish anything more today," he said at last, and sent orders forward to have his men leave off fighting and encamp out of range of the northerners atop the Rise.
As they pulled back, a rather short man with a neat dark beard rode up on a fine unicorn. "Good evening, Lieutenant General," General Bart called.
"Good evening to you, sir," Doubting George replied. He held his salute as the commanding general dismounted. A trooper took charge of the unicorn's reins. George asked the question surely uppermost in everyone's mind: "What's your view of the battle thus far?"
"Up in the north, Fighting Joseph has done everything I could have hoped for, and a little more besides," Bart answered. "He's driven Thraxton's men as handsomely as you please, and I expect he'll do more tomorrow."
"Yes, sir," George said. "I gather things aren't going quite so smoothly in the southwest."
"Well, no," General Bart allowed. "Hesmucet and I looked over the ground ourselves before I ordered the attack, and"
"Did you?" That impressed George. Few generals were so thorough.
"We did indeed. We looked it over, but we might not have done the best job in the world, because that Funnel Hill looks like a tougher nut than we thought it would. Hesmucet will have another go at things in the morning, too, and we'll just have to find out how that fares." Bart shrugged. "I still think we can beat the traitors here. It's a question of making them crack somewhere."
"Yes, sir." That impressed Doubting George, too. A lot of generals, having fought hard one day, were content to take things easy the next. Bart didn't fit that pattern. "What are your orders for me, sir?"
"For now, you're doing what you ought to do," the commanding general replied. "I have no complaints against you, not in the slightest."
"We'll see what happens tomorrow, then, sir," George said. "I think we can beat them, too. I hope we can." We'd better, he thought.
The campfires of Doubting George's men flickered down on the flat country below Proselytizers' Rise. Up on the crest of the Rise, the traitors' fires likewise showed where they were. General Bart studied those latter flames, doing his best to gain meaning from them. His best, he feared, was none too good. Thraxton the Braggart had men up there. He'd already known that much, but he couldn't learn much more.
"Colonel Phineas!" he called. "Are you there, Colonel?"
"Yes, sir, I'm here," the army's chief mage answered. He bustled up beside Bart. Firelight flickered from his plump, weary face. "What can I do for you?"
"What sort of sorcerous attacks has the enemy made against us in the fighting just past?" Bart asked.
Phineas licked his lips. "Actually, sir, not very many. For one thing, young Alva has kept the traitors remarkably busy down in the south."
He didn't sound altogether happy about that. Bart thought he understood why. "The youngster is strong, isn't he? I'd be surprised if he stayed a lieutenant very much longer. Wouldn't you be surprised, too, Colonel, if that were so?"
"Sir, deciding whom to promote is always the commanding general's prerogative," Phineas said stiffly. "I will admit, young Alva has proved himself stronger than many of his colleagues had thought he might." He didn't admit that he was one of those colleagues.
Bart almost twitted him about that, but decided to hold his peace. The less he said, the less cause he would have later to regret it. Sticking to business seemed the wiser course: "Does the northerners' quiet mean they won't be able to do anything much with magic tomorrow, or does it mean they're saving up to give us as much trouble as they can?"
"Obviously, you would have to ask Thraxton the Braggart to get the full details of their plans," Colonel Phineas said.
"But I can't very well ask Thraxton." Now Bart did let some annoyance come into his voice. "And so I'm asking you, Colonel. Give me your best judgment: what can we look forward to when the fighting picks up again?"
Phineas licked his lips once more. Now, on the spot, he looked very unhappy. The firelight probably made that worse by exaggerating the lines and shadows on his jowly face. With a sigh, he said, "My best judgment, sir, is that they're holding back, and that they still may try something strong and sorcerous against us tomorrow."
"All right," Bart said. "That's my best guess, too. I'm glad our thoughts are going in the same direction. Has Thraxton made any sorcerous attempts against me, the way he did against General Guildenstern up by the River of Death?"
"None I or my fellow mages have been able to detect, sir," Phineas replied.
"You so relieve my mind, Colonel," Bart said dryly. "You're saying that if he has tried to turn me into a frog, you haven't noticed him succeeding."
"Eryes." Phineas didn't seem to know what to do with a general in a whimsical mood.
Bart decided to let the flustered wizard down easy. "All right, Colonel. I want you to go right on keeping an eye out for me. If Count Thraxton does try to get nasty with me, I want you and your mages to try your hardest to stop himif you happen to notice him doing it, that is." He decided he didn't want to let Phineas down too easy after all.
"Yes, sir," the chief mage said. As best Bart could tell by the firelight, Phineas looked as if he wanted to hide.
Bart wasn't quite ready to let him get away, either. "And if you don't mind too much, be sure and let Lieutenant Alva know to keep an eye on the Braggart along with his other duties."
"Yes, sir," Phineas said once more, this time in a hollow voice. "Will there be anything else, sir?" He sounded like a gloomy servant in a bad play.
"That should just about do it, I expect," General Bart said. "You go get yourself a good night's sleep. We'll start bright and early in the morning." He nodded to show Phineas he really was finished. The mage bowed and saluted and fled. If the traitors run as fast as he does, Bart thought, we'll win ourselves a great and famous victory tomorrow. Wouldn't that be fine?
He thought about going back to his pavilion and getting himself a good night's sleepthought about it and shook his head. He wouldn't be able to rest till the battle was decided. A yawn tried to sneak out of his throat. He stifled it unborn. He'd had practice going without sleep, and knew he could still come up with the right answers when he had to. He might take a few heartbeats longer than he would while wide awake, but the answers wouldn't change.
A quiet voice came out of the darkness: "Is that you, sir?"
"Yes, it's me, Colonel Horace," Bart replied. "I have a habit of prowling the field. You'll just have to bear with me."
"Yes, sir," his aide-de-camp said. "You would do better with some rest, sir."
"I'd do better if we'd driven the traitors just the way I hoped we would," Bart answered. "Nothing ever works out quite so smoothly as you wish it would."
"Fighting Joseph did well in the north," Horace said, though his tone of voice showed something less than complete delight.
Noting as much, Bart chuckled and said, "You sound like a man watching his mother-in-law fall off a cliff."
"I'm glad he won." Colonel Horace shook his head. "No, by the gods, if I can't be honest with you, sir, where can I? I'm glad we won. If we had to win somewhere, though, I wish it were at the other end of the line."
"Well, so do I," Bart said. "But Funnel Hill doesn't seem to be quite what Lieutenant General Hesmucet and I thought it was. He'll have another go at it tomorrow."
"And may the gods grant him better luck then." Horace coughed a couple of times, plainly aware he was opening a delicate subject: "What do you plan to do here in the center tomorrow, sir?"
"I'm still trying to make up my mind about that, Colonel, if you want to know the truth," Bart replied. "I think Lieutenant General George did about as well as could be expected yesterday, given what he was up against in Proselytizers' Rise. Still and all, though, I am weighing in my mind a larger demonstration against the Rise tomorrow. That should give Count Thraxton something to think about."
"Good." In the dim red glow of the campfires, Horace's face looked more aquiline than ever. "He doesn't think any too well. The more he has to do it, the better our chances."
"I don't believe that's quite fair," General Bart said. "It's not the Braggart's wits that land him in trouble. It's his temper."
"You're too kind, sir," his aide-de-camp said. "It's that nobody can stand him and he can't get along with anyone, himself included."
Bart chuckled. "I didn't say that. I'm not necessarily going to tell you I think you're wrong, but I didn't say that."
"Have you let Lieutenant General George know what you'll require of him, sir?"
"No, not yet." The commanding general shook his head. "I will want to talk it over with him before I give the order. If he doesn't think such a demonstration would serve any useful purpose, we'll probably try something else instead. He's the one who's been ramming his head against Proselytizers' Rise all day. He'll have a better notion of what will and won't work than I do; I'm sure of that."
"A lot of generals wouldn't care about their underlings' notions," Horace observed.
"I care. I care a great deal," Bart said. "That doesn't necessarily mean I'll do anything George asks me to. But I do want to listen to what he has to say before I make up my own mind. That last is the most important thing. I bear the responsibility, so I get to give the orders in the end. It's only fair."
"As may be, sir," Horace said. "By a lot of people's standards, you seem to bend over backwards to be fair."
"I try to see things as clear as I can," Bart said. "The way I look at it, that's how you do a job and get a fighting chance of having it stay done."
Colonel Horace plucked at his bushy mustache. "You may well have a point."
"And I may well be talking through my hat, is what you're thinking." Bart chuckled. "Well, perhaps I am. Everyone is strange in his own way: I'm sure of that. Take me, for instance. Here I am a soldier, and I have to have my meat cooked gray, for I shudder if they bring it to me all bloody."
"I'd noticed that," his aide-de-camp replied. "Seems a pitiful thing to do to a poor, innocent beefsteak, but that's your concern and no one else's. No accounting for taste."
"Which is what I just said, only all boiled down to a proverb." Bart set a hand on Horace's shoulder. "Why don't you go get yourself some shuteye, if you're able?" He saw Horace hesitate. "Don't fret about me, son. I'll sleep when I'm ready, I promise you, but not until then."
"Very well, sir." Horace sounded grudging and grateful at the same time. After a last crisp salutehe seemed to do nothing that wasn't crisphe strode off, each of his strides almost twice as long as one of Bart's would have been.
Bart looked this way and that, his head swiveling on his neck as an owl's might have done. Am I really by myself at last? he wondered. Can I really get a quarter of an hour to hear myself think? People have been yelling at me the whole day long. How can I hear what's inside my own head when I'm trying to take care of everybody else?
An owl hooted, somewhere off in the trees not far away. In the distance, he heard the moans of wounded men who hadn't been brought in yet. They didn't distract him; he'd heard them before, and was as used to them as any man not dead of soul could be.
He paced along: one lean, medium-sized man in charge of the destinies of more soldiers than anybody this side of the gods. That it should be so struck him as strange even now, but so it was. He'd rocked Thraxton during the day, but he hadn't broken him. That meant those soldiers were going to have to do more work tomorrow, and he was the one, the only one, who could decide what sort of work it would be.
With a sigh, he murmured, "I'd better go see Doubting George, the way I told Colonel Horace I would."
Seeing Doubting George wasn't what he most wanted to do. He knew the lieutenant general couldn't care for his friendship with Hesmucet. And now Hesmucet hadn't done what he'd set out to doand, almost worse, Fighting Joseph hadand Bart was going to rely on George in a way he hadn't planned to do. If George wanted to throw all that in his face, how could he stop the man?
He couldn't. He knew it too well. But he walked toward Doubting George's pavilion anyway. The kingdom needed what they could do together, even if they weren't any too fond of each other while they did it. An alert sentry called out, not too loud: "Halt! Who goes? Stand and name yourself."
"I'm General Bart," Bart said, also quietly. "Is Lieutenant General George awake?"
"Advance and be recognized, uh, sir," the sentry said. When he did recognize Bart, he saluted almost as precisely as Colonel Horace had. "Sorry, sir."
"Don't be," Bart said. "Just answer my question, if you please."
"I'm awake," Doubting George said before the sentry could reply. He stepped out through the tentflap. "What can I do for you, sir?"
"I was thinking about what my whole army ought to do tomorrow, Lieutenant General," Bart said, "and I was also thinking it might help the cause if your men here were to make a grand demonstration against Proselytizers' Rise, as if they really intended to storm the heights."
"If that's what you need, that's what we'll do," George said at once.
"Do you think your men could carry the Rise?" Bart asked.
Again, George spoke without hesitation: "Sir, I don't think there's a chance in all the hells that they could. But if you give the order, they'll try with everything they've got in 'em."
"You're an honest man, Lieutenant General," Bart said. "Most officers would say, `Of course, sir. My men can do anything.' "
"Maybe that's true," Doubting George replied. "And maybe, begging your pardon, that's how we keep sticking our dicks in the meat grinder, too. Of course, the traitors have lieutenant generals and brigadiers who say the same thing, so I suppose it evens out."
"I hope so," Bart said. The image, when he briefly let himself think about it, made him want to clutch at himself. With a distinct effort of will, he put it out of his mind. "Now let's get down to business, shall we? With any luck at all, we will be able to hang on to the trenches at the base of the Rise."
"Maybe that's true, but maybe it's not," George said. "We couldn't in today's fighting. The northerners up at the top of the Rise can shoot almost straight down at us when we're in those trenches. Still and all, we'll try at your command."
When the sun rose the next morning, the spectacle Lieutenant General George's soldiers made was as impressive as any man could have wanted. Four divisions formed in a line close to two miles wide. Flags fluttered in front of them. When horns called for them to advance, they did so in perfect step. "They're well-drilled men," Bart said. "Thraxton won't dare pull any soldiers away to Funnel Hill with all that coming straight at him."
"No, indeed, sir," Doubting George agreed. "It's an expensive way to use them, I'm afraid, but I don't suppose it can be helped."
"Look at 'em go," Bart said. "They look as though they could roll over anything, like a great wave out on the Western Ocean."
"They're going to roll over those trenches, that's certain sure," George said. "They got into them yesterday, too, but they couldn't stay."
"They're in them now," Bart said. He scowled as the enemy atop Proselytizers' Rise rolled stones and shot firepots and rained bolts down on the men. Then he ground out something startling and pungent, for he'd been shocked out of his usual impassivity. "Who in the seven hells ordered them to go up the Rise? They'll be slaughtered!"
"It wasn't me, sir," George said, "though your orders before yesterday's fight"
"Never mind those," Bart said. "As you must know, those were for use if the lightning struck, and it didn't. I heard the commands you gave this morning, and they were just what I wanted. But if that charge failsand what else can it do?somebody's going to catch it, by all the gods. Can we do anything to call them back?"
Doubting George shook his head. "Not a thing, sir, not now. It's too late." Bart was dreadfully afraid he was right.
Normally, night suited Count Thraxton. Fewer people were awake to demand things of him and otherwise arouse his irascibility. If only the rest of the world would leave me alone, he often thought, I would be the happiest man alive.
But he was not happy now, and the world had no intention of leaving him alone. The world, in fact, was demanding things of him, and demanding things in a loud, piercing voice. The world, or at least what seemed like all the southrons in it, had spent the whole day doing their best to destroy his army, and their best had proved alarmingly good. Sentry Peak was lost, and Thraxton had no idea how to get it back.
"We haven't enough men," he grumbled.
"We might have, if you hadn't sent James of Broadpath away to hells and gone," Cabell of Broken Ridge said, his tone sharpened by the flask of brandy in front of him on the table.
Thraxton glared at his wing commander. "I suppose you will tell me next that Wesleyton does not need retaking," he said icily.
"I didn't say that," Cabell replied, and took another swig. "But if we lose here, what difference does it make whether Earl James takes Wesleyton or not? If we cannot hold our position, he won't be able to hold his."
"In that case, it is incumbent upon us not to lose here," Thraxton said. "Or would you disagree with me? Would you care to comment on how the southrons drove the men of your wing from Sentry Peak?"
"I can give it to you in half a dozen words, your Grace," Cabell of Broken Ridge snapped. "We did not have enough men. Is that plain enough?" His voice rose to a shout.
Thraxton growled something down deep in his throat. He turned away from Duke Cabell to Roast-Beef William, remarking, "Our right had no trouble holding, I will have you note."
"Our right is anchored on Funnel Hill, sir, I will have you note." Cabell put very little respect into Thraxton's title. "The ground I was charged to defend, unfortunately, did not offer us any such advantages."
Roast-Beef William coughed. In the firelight, his face looked not much ruddier than Duke Cabell's. A sheen of dried sweat did a good job of counterfeiting grease, though. He said, "Begging your pardon, sir, but my wing didn't have such an easy time as all that holding on to Funnel Hill. The gods-damned southrons look to have come up with a mage who's actually good for something."
"A showman. A mountebank," Thraxton said contemptuously. "I saw some of his little illusions from my headquarters here. He is good for frightening children; I have no doubt of that. But for doing anything that should seriously disturb a fighting man?" He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant General, but no."
With another cough, Roast-Beef William also shook his big head. "And I'm sorry, too, Count Thraxton, but that's not what the mages attached to my wing say. As far as they're concerned, he's the nastiest son of a bitch to ever wear gray. Haven't you got their reports?"
"I've had more reports than I ever want to see," Thraxton said. "Since your wizards succeeded in neutralizing this terrible, terrible southron, I assume he couldn't be all that devilish, and I have other things to worry about."
"Such as what, your Grace?" Duke Cabell asked. "Such as what? What is the world coming to when the southrons assail us with sorcery and we do little or nothing to strike back? You are supposed to be a famous thaumaturge in your own right, are you not? Such talents are better seen than talked about, if anyone cares in the least for my opinion."
Thraxton knew that people who didn't care for him called him Thraxton the Braggart. Every once in a while, somebody like Ned of the Forest would do it to his face. Duke Cabell hadn't, not quite, but he'd come too closeespecially since, with his rank, he was immune to most of the reprisals Thraxton might use.
And, to make things worse, Roast-Beef William coughed once more and chimed in with, "If we ever needed some good, strong sorcery, now is the time."
"I shall give you everything that is in me," Thraxton said. "I have always given King Geoffrey everything that is in me. Our land would be better off if more folk in it could say the same."
"A free Detinan may say anything his heart desires," Cabell of Broken Ridge observed. "Whether it be the truth or something else, he may speak as he pleases."
William coughed again; he was beginning to sound like a man with a bad catarrh. "Your Grace, I do not think such comments aid our cause."
"Very well, Lieutenant General," Cabell said. "With your commendable" he made the word into a sneer "grasp of matters tactical, what do you think would aid our cause? How, being badly outnumbered as we are, do we lick the southrons?"
His sarcasm stung. But he'd asked a real question, an important question, even so. Count Thraxton leaned forward, the better to hear what Roast-Beef William would say. He hoped Roast-Beef William had an answer. If he does, I'll steal it, he thought without the slightest twinge of guilt.
But William only coughed yet again and muttered to himself. At last, impatiently, Thraxton coughed, too. Roast-Beef William said, "I'm sorry, your Grace. The only thing that occurs to me is that we might beat them with sorcery. Our manpower will not do the job, not even with the advantage of ground we hold."
Duke Cabell said, "That's the first sensible thing I've heard in this conference." He took another swig from his brandy flask.
"It's the first sensible thing I've heard in this conference," Thraxton said. "Certainly more than all the countless, senseless complaints I've had aimed at me."
"If you like, your Grace, we can continue this discussion through our friends," Cabell said. "Although you do not act like a gentleman, by blood you are one."
"As you undoubtedly know, regulations prohibit an officer of lower rank from challenging his superior," Thraxton said. "Nevertheless, however, I will be happy to give satisfaction at your convenience following the battle, if in truth that be your desire."
He spoke with a certain gloating anticipation. Duke Cabell licked his lips, suddenly not so sure of himself. He had a reputation as a redoubtable swordsman, but so did Thraxton. And who but a fool would challenge a mage to a duel? All sorts of . . . interesting things might go wrong.
"Gentlemen, please!" Roast-Beef William said. "I'm sure nobody meant any offense whatsoever. We're all just trying to lick the enemy as best we can, and we'd do well to remember that, in my opinion."
"Quite right." Cabell of Broken Ridge bowed to Count Thraxton. "My apologies, your Grace, and we can worry about carving each other's livers another time."
"Very well," Thraxton said. "I accept your apology, your Grace." Cabell looked unhappy; Thraxton offered no apology of his own. Doing so never crossed his mind. As usual, he didn't think he'd done anything to cause offense. He went on, "Our colleague is probably correct. We do need magecraft as both shield and spear against the southrons. I shall have the necessary spells prepared by the time fighting resumes in the morning."
"Can we rely on it?" Duke Cabell asked. He might not have known he was offending Count Thraxton with his question, but Thraxton was acutely aware of it.
Still, the commander of the Army of Franklin said only, "You can."
"May it be so." That soft murmur wasn't from Cabell. It came from Roast-Beef William, and hurt all the more as a result. William probably remembered Pottstown Pier and Reillyburgh, fights where Thraxton's sorcery hadn't done all it might have, wherehowever little he cared to recall the factit had come down on the heads of King Geoffrey's men, not on the accursed southrons.
"I do know what I am doing, gentlemen," Count Thraxton said. "Did I not prove as much in the fighting by the River of Death? Without my magic, we should never have won our victory there."
We should have won more than we did. Neither Duke Cabell nor Roast-Beef William said it out loud. But they both thought it very loudly; Thraxton could tell.
"We shall send them reeling back in dismay," Thraxton said. "We shall send them reeling back in defeat. We shall retake Rising Rock. From Rising Rock, we shall go on to retake all of Franklin."
"May it be so." This time, Cabell and Roast-Beef William spoke together. Neither one bothered keeping his voice down.
"May it be so, indeed," Thraxton said. "I intend to make it so."
"How, your Grace?" Duke Cabell asked.
"Never you mind," Thraxton answered. "My magecraft will find a way."
"Such claims have been made before, sir," Cabell said. Thraxton scowled at him. The quarrel seemed on the point of heating up again. Then Cabell went on, "And, if we know what your sorcery will be, what it will do, we can give our men orders that will let them take best advantage of it."
"That is an important point, your Grace," Roast-Beef William said.
"Perhaps," Thraxton said. But Cabell of Broken Ridge was right. Even if Thraxton couldn't stand the man, he knew as much. Grudgingly, he went on, "All right, then. What I intend to do is wait until the southrons are well involved in what will plainly be some important attack, then fill their spiritswhich the gods must hate anyhowwith such fear that they can only flee."
"That will be very good," Roast-Beef William said.
"If you can do it," Duke Cabell added.
He got another glare from Thraxton, who spoke in icy tones: "I can do it, and I shall do it. Draft your orders, both of you, so that your men may exploit the southrons' terror and disarray."
"Yes, sir," William said dutifully. Cabell just gave a curt nod.
You still don't believe me, Thraxton thought. I'll show you. I'll show everyone. Everyone who ever doubted me for any reason will know my might by the time this fight is done. Aloud, he said, "Gentlemen, I dismiss you. I am sure that, when the morning comes, your men will continue to fight as gallantly as they already have. Now you must leave me to my sorcerous preparations."
Roast-Beef William left his headquarters in a hurry, as if he didn't want anything to do with magecraft. By the way Cabell of Broken Ridge departed, he didn't want anything to do with Count Thraxton. Thraxton could tell the difference. Treat me as if I were a blond, will you? You'll be sneering out of the other side of your overbred mouth by this time tomorrow.
He went to his sorcerous tomes with a grim intensity that would have alarmed friends as well as foeshad he had any friends nearer than King Geoffrey in Nonesuch. And he found the spells he wanted. The men who'd prepared them hadn't imagined that they could be aimed at a whole army rather than at a man or two, but that was their failure of imagination, not Count Thraxton's.
He forgot about sleep. He forgot about everything except the wizardry he was shaping. He didn't even notice it was growing light outside. He didn't notice anything except the pages in front of him till one of the sentries in front of his farmhouse headquarters exclaimed, "Lion God's claws, looks like every gods-damned southron in the world's lined up down there!"
That penetrated Thraxton's fog of concentration. His joints creaked as he rose from his chair. When he looked down on the enemy, he laughed. "So they think they can storm Proselytizers' Rise, do they? They might as well try to storm the gods' mystic mountain as ours. Let them come!" He laughed again.
Tiny and perfect in the distance, looking like so many toy soldiers, the southrons advanced toward the trench line at the base of Proselytizers' Rise. They'd come that far in the previous day's fighting, though they'd had to fall back. If they tried to come farther now . . . If they tried to come farther and then fear smote them . . .
Imagining thousands, tens of thousands, of panic-stricken men trying to tumble down the front slope of Proselytizers' Rise, Thraxton laughed yet again. That would be sweet, sweet enough to make up for all the embarrassment and bickering he'd had to put up with since the fight by the River of Death. "Let them come," he whispered. "Aye, let them come."
Come they did. The southrons might beas far as Thraxton was concerned, they weresavages, ruffians, uncivilized brigands doing their best to pull down their betters. But they weren't cowards. If only they'd run from Merkle's Hill instead of standing fast . . . But they had a good northern manno, a bad northern man, for he chose the wrong sideleading them, Count Thraxton thought. He wasted a moment sending a curse Doubting George's way.
Into the trenches at the base of Proselytizers' Rise swarmed the southrons. Before long, they had overrun them. And then, to Thraxton's delight, they did start storming up the side of Proselytizers' Rise, toward his men who were shooting down at them from above. Who could have given such a mad order? Whoever he was, Thraxton wanted to clasp his hand and thank him for aiding King Geoffrey's cause.
Thraxton peered down at the southrons scrambling toward him. General Bart's whole army seemed to be trying to pull itself up the steep slope of the Rise. Thraxton waited a few minutes more, then began his spell. Confidence flowed through his narrow chest as he incanted. No, nothing would go wrong this time. Nothing could go wrong this time. He'd been wrong before, perhaps, but not now. He laughed. Surely not now . . .
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