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"Forward!" Captain Cephas shouted, waving his sword. His command was almost lost in the roar that came from the throats of hundreds of officers and the throats of hundreds of horns. And forward the men of Doubting George's army went.
"King Avram!" Rollant yelled. "King Avram and freedom!" He wasn't thrilled about moving once more against the base of Proselytizers' Rise, but nobody cared whether he was thrilled or not.
"We can do it!" Cephas said. Rollant didn't know whether they could do it or not. He wasn't going to worry about it very much, either. He would go forward as long and as hard as he could. If his comrades started going back instead of forward, he would go back, tooa little more slowly than most, so as not to let ordinary Detinans get any nasty ideas about blonds.
Beside him, Smitty said, "I hope the traitors up there at the top of the Rise are pissing in their pantaloons, watching us come at 'em."
"And the bastards in the trenches down below, too," Rollant added. "That'd be good."
"It sure would," Smitty agreed. Then he stared up toward the forbidding crest line of Proselytizers' Rise and grimaced. "Likelier, though, they're just sitting up there getting drunk and laughing their arses off at us."
Rollant thought that was pretty likely, too. All through the campaign, nobody in Rising Rock had said anything about driving the traitors from Proselytizers' Rise. The closer Rollant came to the base of the Rise, the more sense that made to him. It looked to him as if men who held the top could stay there forever.
The men in the trenches at the bottom of the Rise started shooting at the advancing southrons. They had a few engines with them, too, which hurled stones and firepots at Rollant and his comrades. A stone smashed two men to shrieking ruin only a few feet to his left. Something hot and wet splashed his wristsomebody's drop of blood. With a soft, disgusted curse, he wiped the back of his hand on his pantaloons.
Then the southrons broke through the ditches and downed trees in front of the trench line. As it had been the day before, the fighting was fierce, but it didn't last long. The southrons had more men here today, and overwhelmed their foes. A few of the traitors got away, but only a few.
Having gained the trenches, what did the southrons have? Rollant had wondered that the day before, and still wondered now. The northerners on top of Proselytizers' Rise were free to shoot down at them to their hearts' content. And they galled the southrons, too, with their bolts and with the stones and firepots the engines up there hurled down.
"What do we do about this?" Rollant shouted to anyone who would listen. He hoped Smitty would have an answer, or Sergeant Joram, or Captain Cephas. If they didn't, he hoped the generals who'd sent the army forwardand who mostly hadn't come themselveswould. But no one said a word. A plunging crossbow bolt struck a soldier not far from him between the neck and the left shoulder and sank down through his flesh to pierce his heart. A surprised look on his face, the man fell dead. "What do we do?" Rollant repeated.
Afterwards, he would have taken oath that he heard someone with a great voice shouting, "Forward!" A few other men said the same thing, so he didn't think he'd imagined it. But he was never quite sure, for neither Smitty nor Joram nor a good many others recalled hearing anything of the sort.
What was plain was, the army couldn't stay there. It couldn't go back, not when it was only being stung, not unless it wanted to humiliate itself forevermore before General Bart and Doubting Georgeand humiliate George in the process. That left only one thing to do.
Rollant wasn't among the very first who started scrambling up the steep, rocky slope of Proselytizers' Rise toward the traitors at the crest line. He wasn't among the very first, but he wasn't far behind them, either. Anything seemed better than getting shot at when his crossbow lacked the range to shoot back.
"We're out of our minds," Smitty said as the two of them scrabbled for hand- and footholds. "They'll fornicating massacre us."
"Maybe they will," Rollant answered. "Maybe they won't, gods damn 'em. But we'll get close enough to hurt 'em before they do." A quarrel struck sparks from a stone a couple of feet in front of his face and harmlessly bounded away. Maybe we'll get close enough to hurt the traitors, he thought. Maybe.
More and more southrons were on the slope now. When Rollant looked back over his shoulder, the whole surface of the Rise below him was gray with soldiers taking the one way they could to come to grips with the foe. Even as he watched, a couple of them were hit and went rolling back down toward the trenches.
The spectacle of the southrons scrambling up the front face of Proselytizers' Rise was awe-inspiring enough from where he saw it. What did it look like from the crest, where the northerners watched a whole army heaving itself up the mountainside straight at them? Rollant didn't, couldn't, know. He just hoped he would make it to the top.
When he got about halfway up, he paused to shoot at the traitors peering down at him, and to reload once he had shot. He didn't know whether he hit anyone, but he'd come far enough to try. Another bolt spanged off a rock in front of him. Lucky twice now, went through his mind. How much longer can I stay lucky?
"They can't hit anybody," Smitty said, as obvious a lie as Rollant had ever heard.
Before he could answer, the sun seemed to dim for a moment, though no cloud was near. A breath of cold air went straight down the back of his neck. Under his cap, all his butter-yellow hair tried to stand on end. He'd had those feelings before, back in his serf hut on Baron Ormerod's estate. "Magecraft," he whispered, putting all a serf's dread into the word. "That's strong magecraft."
Other voices, not all of them belonging to blonds, said the same thing or things that meant the same. The spell hovered over Proselytizers' Rise like a great bird of prey. Rollant shuddered, shivered, shook. I must have been crazy to join King Avram's army, to go up against what the traitor lords can throw. Crazy? Worse than that. I must have been stupid.
And the spell, after hovering for a few unbearable heartbeats, struck home. And the traitors atop the Rise howled like beaten dogs and fled, throwing away their weapons to run the faster.
Rollant stared up at the crest in delighted disbelief. That wasn't, that couldn't be, a bluff. That was real panic, and he knew exactly what had caused it. "Either our mages got a spell just right, or theirs botched one," he said as he scrambled forward.
"Bet on theirs botching one," Smitty said beside him. "Thraxton the Braggart's done it before."
"I know he has," Rollant answered. "It only goes to show that, every now and again, the gods do make sure there's some justice down here below."
"Maybe," Smitty said. "And maybe it just goes to show old Thraxton can't count past ten without taking off his shoes."
"Believe what you want to believe," Rollant said. "I'll put my faith in the gods. And I'll put my faith in getting to the top of the Rise before you do."
"That's what you think." Smitty made for the crestline as if propelled from a catapult. Rollant did his best to keep up, but found himself outdistanced. Smitty waited, grinning, at the crest of the Rise. He gave Rollant a hand and pulled him upright. Somehow, it wasn't a race Rollant minded losing, especially when Smitty pointed west. "Will you look at those sons of bitches run? If they keep going like that, they won't stop till they get to the ocean."
"Good." Rollant brought up his crossbow to his shoulder and sent a bolt after the fleeing traitors.
More and more southrons, all of them whooping with the joy of men who unexpectedly find victory in place of disaster, came up onto the top of Proselytizers' Rise. And more and more of their officers, seeing Thraxton's men abandoning what had been the strongest of positions and running for their lives, shouted things like, "After them! Don't let them get away!"
Though still panting from the climb up the side of the Rise, Rollant was willingRollant, in fact, was eagerto go after the men who wanted to keep blonds bound to their land. And plenty of Detinans in the southrons' army went with him. Maybe they didn't care so much about serfdom, but they knew a won battle when they saw one, and they wanted to get as much as they could from this one.
"River of Death!" some of them shouted. "This pays you bastards back for the River of Death!"
The traitors who'd been on the crest of Proselytizers' Rise kept right on retreating in spite of the jeers from the southrons. Maybe, as Smitty said, they really would run till they came to the Western Ocean. When Thraxton's spells went wrong, they went spectacularly wrong. Rollant was glad this one hadn't gone right, or he would have been running back toward Rising Rock. But some northern soldiers finally formed lines to oppose the southrons. They were, Rollant realized, the men whom Fighting Joseph had forced away from Sentry Peak the day before.
"See how thin they are, boys?" Captain Cephas called. "A couple of good volleys and they'll melt like ice in the springtime."
Rollant hadn't seen much in the way of ice before fleeing down to New Eborac; snow rarely fell near Karlsburg. But he was all for making the traitors melt away. That big, burly son of a bitch waving a sword, for instance. Gods damn me if that doesn't look like Baron Ormerod, he thought as he took aim with his crossbow. Looks just the way Ormerod did when he almost put a hole in me. Thinking thus, he aimed with extra care. He squeezed the trigger. The crossbow kicked his shoulder.
And the traitor dropped his sword, clutched his chest with both hands, and sagged to the ground. Rollant yowled in triumph. Whether it was Ormerod or not, he'd killed his man.
And Cephas had the right of it. There weren't enough northerners to stand up to the men facing them. After a couple of volleys, the company commander and other officers yelled, "Charge!" Charge the southrons didand the traitors broke before them.
As Rollant loped past the man he'd slain, he looked down at him and whooped. "By all the gods, it is Ormerod!" he shouted, and kicked at the corpse. He missed, but he didn't care. "Tell me blonds can't fight, gods damn you." He hoped devils were doing horrible things to the baron's spirit down in one of those seven hells the Detinans talked about.
"Your liege lord?" Smitty said. "Did you shoot him?"
"I sure did," Rollant answered. "I just wish I could've done it ten years ago." He paused. "No. All his Detinan friends would've caught me and burned me alive. Not now, though."
"No, not now," Smitty agreed. "Now we've just got to keep chasing all these traitor sons of bitches as far as we can."
More northerners kept coming forward to try to stem the retreat. They couldn't do it, but their rear-guard action finally did let the bulk of Thraxton's army break free of its pursuers and make its escape: the same role Doubting George's wing had played in the fight by the River of Death. By the time the sun set, most of the traitors were several miles ahead of General Bart's army, moving in the only direction open to themup toward Peachtree Province.
Rollant and Smitty sprawled by a fire. Some of the soldiers ran up a tent for Captain Cephas, who'd kept up well but looked even more worn than most of his men. As Rollant was too tired even to get up and see what Hagen the blond had thrown into the stewpot, Cephas had to be truly weary. But when Rollant remarked on that, Smitty shook his head. "He wasn't too worn out to keep Corliss from sneaking in there," he said.
"What?" Rollant sat up, though every joint ached. "I didn't see that."
"Things happen whether you see them or not," Smitty said with a superior sniff.
"I know," Rollant answered. "Bad things are liable to happen on account of this." He glanced over at Hagen. As long as the escaped serf was busy dishing out supper, he might not have time to worry about where his wife had gone. For everyone's sake, Rollant hoped he wouldn't.
When Captain Cephas didn't emerge from the tent, Lieutenant Griff ordered sentries out. "We have to stay alert," he said. "The traitors might counterattack." Rollant didn't believe itthe northerners were beaten men tonightbut he recognized the possibility. He also let out a long sigh of relief when Sergeant Joram didn't call his name. Making the most of the opportunity, he wrapped himself in his blanket and fell asleep.
He wouldn't have been surprised had Joram shaken him awake in the middle of the night to take someone's place on sentry-go. Getting jerked from sleep by a woman's shriek, though, took him back to the bad days on Baron Ormerod's estate, when Ormerod had enjoyed himself among the blond girls as he pleased.
For a moment, Rollant lay frozen. Back on the estate, he hadn't dared interfere. Few blonds did, and they all paid. But he wasn't on the estate, wasn't a serf, any more. A man's cryno, two men's criesrang out with the woman's. Rollant knew exactly where he was then, and feared he knew exactly what had happened. A cry of dismay on his own lips, he sprang to his feet and dashed toward Captain Cephas' tent.
Hagen burst out through the tent flap. He held a butcher knife, but hardly seemed to know it. He took a couple of stumbling steps, then fell on his face. Captain Cephas' sword stuck out of his back.
Cephas himself came out a moment later. "I got him," he said, and then something else, but the blood pouring from his mouth kept Rollant from understanding what. Cephas' left hand was clasped to his undershirt, the only garment he was wearing. He swayed, said one more clear word"Corliss"and crumpled as Hagen had before him.
"Oh, by the gods," Smitty said from behind Rollant, and set a hand on his shoulder. "Looks like you were right."
"I wish I'd been wrong," Rollant said. "Is she still in the tent?"
Smitty went inside before anyone else could. Rollant heard him gulp. "She's in here," he said, and his voice wobbled. "Hagen almost took her head off with that knife." He came out in a hurry, bent over, and was noisily sick. He mighthe surely hadseen worse in battle. But you expected such things in battle. Here, after the victory was won . . .
"It takes the edge off," Rollant said. "It does more than that, in fact." He gulped, too, though he hadn't gone into the tent. What was outside was bad enough.
Smitty spat, swigged from his canteen, and spat again. "It does for us," he said. "But if you think the generals will care, you're daft." Rollant thought that over. Reluctantly, he nodded.
General Bart folded his right hand into a fist and smote his left palm, as much of a gesture of excitement as he ever allowed himself. The sun rose on as complete a triumph as the southron cause had seen in some time. He nodded to Doubting George, who was also just emerging from his pavilion. "Good morning, Lieutenant General. Now that we've whipped the northerners, let's see if we can run the legs off them and break their whole army to pieces."
"I wouldn't mind that at all," George said. "When General Guildenstern forced Thraxton the Braggart out of Rising Rock, he let him retreat, because he was sure Thraxton would run all the way up to Marthasville. He found out differently by the River of Death."
"Well, that's two lessons for us," Bart said.
"Two?" Doubting George asked.
"Yes, two," Bart replied. "The first is, pursue vigorously. The second is, keep your eyes open while you're doing it." He watched George consider that and nod. He would have been disappointed had the other officer done anything else. And he said what needed saying: "Congratulations to you and your men. They were the ones who cracked the Braggart's position and let us win our victory."
"Thank you very much, sir." George grinned wryly. "I would take more credit for it if I'd actually given the order that sent my men up the slope of Proselytizers' Rise, but thank you all the same. I do take no little pride in what my men accomplished, no matter who gave that order."
"If anyone did," Bart said. "Whoever he was, he's proved remarkably shy about coming forward and taking the credit for it." He hesitated, then went on, "Not to take anything away from whoever it was, or from you, or from your undoubtedly brave men, but Colonel Phineas gives me to understand that part of the credit for our victory and the traitors' defeat also goes to Count Thraxton for making a hash of a spell at just the wrong time."
"Yes, my mages told me the same thing," Lieutenant General George replied. "We hoped it would happen in the heat of battle, and it did."
"Give Thraxton the chance to make a mistake or make a man dislike him and he will take it more often than not," Bart said. He turned to a blond servant hurrying up with a tray. "Yes? What is it?"
"Your breakfast, sir." The servant sounded surprised he needed to ask. "Just what you said you wanteda cup of strong tea, no milk, no honey, and a cucumber sliced in vinegar."
"Perfect," Bart said. He dipped his head to Doubting George. "If you'll excuse me . . ."
"Of course, sir," George said. "What an . . . interesting breakfast."
"I eat it almost every day," Bart said. "I'm not a man of fancy tastes. I do as I do, and I am willing to let the men under me do as they do, provided they also do as I require when the time for that comes on the battlefield."
"You'd better be careful, sir," George said gravely. "Such judiciousness will get you into trouble." Only when he smiled could Bart be sure he was joking.
An aide said, "Lieutenant General Hesmucet is here, sir. Now that the traitors have left Funnel Hill, his men have occupied it."
"Good; that's very good." Bart resigned himself to eating breakfast in front of his subordinates. Doubting George said nothing at all to the aide. But Bart didn't need to be a mage to know what he was thinking. His men, who didn't have a reputation for boldness, had taken Proselytizers' Rise, while Hesmucet's soldiers, who did, had spent two fruitless days assailing Funnel Hill, and hadn't seized it till after the northerners withdrew.
Hesmucet gave the reins of his unicorn to a waiting trooper and hurried over to Bart and Doubting George. Without preamble, Hesmucet said, "Let's chase those traitor sons of bitches to the hells and gone. The less we let 'em up, the better off we'll be."
"I have no quarrel with that," Bart said.
"Neither have I," George said, "though I do think we would be wise to scout carefully out ahead of our main line of march, to keep us from running into trouble the way General Guildenstern did."
"Well, I have no quarrel with that," Hesmucet said. "I can't see how any sensible man would have a quarrel with that, although you never can tell with some people."
"Let's get on with it, then," General Bart said. "Soonest begun, soonest done, or so they say. I want to drive the Army of Franklin so far into Peachtree Province that it can't ever even dream of coming back to Franklin again."
"That's fine. Mighty fine, in fact," Hesmucet said.
"It will be fine indeed, if we can bring it off," George said. "Talking about such plans is always easier than making them work, though."
He's not a coward, Bart reminded himself. He's a cautious man. There's a difference. Hesmucet bristled at George's words, but didn't say anything himself. He wanted to go after the enemy, and was confident Bart would give him what he wanted.
Before Bart could make any remarks of his own, a scryer came up to him and said, "Sir, King Avram would speak with you from Georgetown."
"Would he?" Bart replied. The scryer solemnly nodded. Bart said, "Well, if the king wants to speak to the likes of me, I don't suppose I ought to keep him waiting. Take me to the right crystal ball and sit me down in front of it."
"Yes, sir. Come with me, sir," the scryer said.
Very shortly thereafter, Bart did sit down in front of a crystal ball from whose depths the long, bony face of King Avram stared out. "Congratulations, General, on the great victory you and your men have earned these past two days."
"Thank you kindly, sir," Bart said. "Thank you for all the confidence you've had in me throughout this war."
Avram smiled a lopsided smile. Most of his smiles were lopsided. He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a handsome man. Geoffrey and those who followed him made much of that, calling Avram a mistake of the gods and other, less complimentary, things. Handsome or not, though, Avram was engaging in a way the cold-blooded Geoffrey could never match. Seeing his smile, Bart had to return it; he couldn't help himself. Avram said, "I'd better be confident in you. You have the one quality I can't do without in a general: you fight."
"That's the point of the exercise, your Majesty," Bart said.
"You understand as much. It's second nature to you," the king said. "Too many men, though, think they've got their fancy uniforms for no better reason than looking pretty on parade. Now, if you'd be so kind, describe your present situation for me, and tell me what you plan to do next."
"Yes, sir." Bart obeyed. Avram had no formal soldierly training, but he'd learned a good deal about making war since he'd had to start doing it.
The king plucked at his beard. He'd grown it only after King Buchan died, perhaps to try to make himself look more regal. In Bart's opinion, it hadn't quite worked. But King Avram, though interested in Bart's views on matters military, had never given any sign he cared about the general's opinions on other matters. Avram said, "Had you planned to send your whole army after Count Thraxton?"
"Yes, sir," Bart said again. "Anything less would be asking for a nasty surprise like the one he gave General Guildenstern by the River of Death."
"Mm, yes, something to that, I suppose," Avram said. "At the same time, though, I am concerned about General Ambrose, over in Wesleyton. With James of Broadpath laying siege to him there, he could use some reinforcements, wouldn't you say?"
"Your Majesty, I'm not at all sure Earl James can go on with that siege now that we've beaten Thraxton the Braggart," Bart replied. "He has the last force loyal to the pretender left in the whole province of Franklin. If we were to go after him instead of Thraxton, we could crush him, and he has to know it."
"That wouldn't be so if he took Wesleyton before you got there, would it?" the king said. "I tell you frankly, General, I would be mighty unhappy if that happened. I've wanted to get an army into Wesleyton ever since this war started, and I don't care to see the chance lost before we can take advantage of it. Do I make myself plain?"
"You certainly do, your Majesty," Bart said with a sigh. "I still think you're fretting more than you need to, but"
"But me no buts. That's what kings are for: to fret about things, I mean," Avram said. "Kindly take care of Wesleyton, General."
"I was about to say, sir, that I can send Fighting Joseph's wing in that direction," Bart said. "He has enough men under his command to meet James of Broadpath by himself, if need be, and enough to have a sizable edge on James if you add his men and Whiskery Ambrose's together."
King Avram stroked his beard again. After a moment, he nodded. "All right, General. Yes, I think that will do the trick." He raised one shaggy eyebrow. "I won't be sorry to see Fighting Joseph marching off into the middle of nowhere, either, and I've got a suspicion it won't exactly break your heart. Eh? What do you say about that?"
Avram might not have been a general, but he showed a shrewd understanding of his fellow man. "What do I have to say to that, your Majesty? I'd say you were right," Bart answered. "But I also have to say that, if I send Fighting Joseph off toward Wesleyton, it will delay my pursuit of Thraxton the Braggart."
"I'm willing to pay that price," the king said. "And, by the time the pursuit does get started, it may not be yours any more anyhow."
"Sir?" Bart said in surprise.
"One of the things I've been thinking for a while is that Detina hasn't had a marshal, an overall commanding general, for a goodish while, and that we need one right about now," Avram said. "Another thing I've been thinking for a while is that you're shaping pretty well for the job. That, I expect, would bring you here to the west to take charge of the fight against Duke Edward of Arlington and the Army of Southern Parthenia. What have you got to say for yourself?"
"Sir, if you think I'm up to it, I'll do my best not to disappoint you," Bart replied.
Avram nodded. "That will do. That will do nicely. What you try, General, you have a way of succeeding at."
I have to, Bart thought. If I don't do well here, what can I fall back on? The spirits jar, and I'd fall into that, fall into it and never get out. "Thank you kindly for all the trust you've placed in me," he said aloud.
"Thank you for not making me sorry I've done it," Avram answered. Yes, they understood each other well.
"Your Majesty, Detina's done a lot for me," Bart said. "The least I could do is give a little something back to the kingdom."
"General, what you and your men had given isn't a little something," the king said. "After what happened at the River of Death, I was afraidI was very much afraid, though I wouldn't say so to most peoplewe would have to start the war in the east all over again, so to speak. Thanks to you, that isn't going to happen, and I thank you for it from the bottom of my heart. Good day to you."
"Good day, sir," Bart replied. In the middle of his words, the crystal ball went blank and empty. He turned and nodded to the scryer. "Thank you."
"My pleasure, sir," the young man said.
When Bart went out to Doubting George and Hesmucet, both lieutenant generals all but pounced on him. "What are our orders, sir?" one of them asked, at the same time as the other one was saying, "What did the king tell you?"
"We're going to have to send reinforcements to Whiskery Ambrose in Wesleyton," Bart answered. "That's what King Avram wants, and he is the king we swore to obey. It's not necessarily what I would do if I had a choice, but I don't."
Neither of the other officers made any effort to hide his disappointment. "That means we won't be able to chase the Braggart the way we ought to, gods damn it," Hesmucet growled.
"Whom will you send west to Wesleyton?" George asked.
Will you send me? he meant. Will you get me out of the action after my men won your battle for you? Bart understood him as plainly as if he'd been shouting. The commanding general said, "King Avram and I talked that over. We agreed Fighting Joseph would be the best man for the job."
"Good choice!" Hesmucet said. Doubting George nodded. Better him than me, they both had to be thinking.
Bart coughed and then said, "There is some talk of my going west in the not too distant future."
"Congratulations, sir," George said. " `Some talk' from the king is as good as an oration from anybody else."
He didn't ask whom Bart would leave in command in western Franklin if he did happen to be summoned to Georgetown. He probably already knew. Bart said, "I thank you. And I want everyone here to bear in mind that, even if we aren't going after Thraxton right this minute, that doesn't mean we aren't going to go after him at all. The day will come, and it will come soon."
"I'll go after Thraxton, if that's what needs doing," Hesmucet said. "I'll go after Marthasville, if that's what needs doing. But mostly, I aim to go after the traitors, grab hold of 'em, and shake 'em by the neck."
"Good," Bart said. "If King Avram calls me to the west, that's what I aim to do there."
"No, sir," the scryer who'd spoken to his opposite number in the Army of Franklin told Earl James of Broadpath. "There can be no possible doubt, not any more. The southrons have struck a heavy blow against Count Thraxton, and have forced his army off Sentry Peak and Proselytizers' Rise."
"Well, gods damn them," James said glumly. "I wouldn't have thought a horde of half-divine heroes from the long-gone days could have forced an army off Proselytizers' Rise if it wasn't inclined to go, but what do I know? Did General Bart find some way to outflank our host?"
"No, sir," the scryer repeated. "They stormed Proselytizers' Rise from the front."
"What?" burst from Earl James. "How in the seven hells did even that imbecile Thraxton the BraggartI beg your pardon, did Count Thraxton the commanding generallet such a thing happen?"
"As I understand, sir, there was a certain amount of difficulty with some piece of sorcery or another," the scryer said. "I am not certain of that, of course, but it does seem to be the most widely credited explanation."
" `A certain amount of difficulty with some piece of sorcery or another'?" James echoed. The scryer nodded. "Oh, by the Lion God's claws!" James groaned. "By the Thunderer's prick! So he went and botched another one, did he?"
"That is my understanding," the scryer said primly.
"At least you have some understanding," James of Broadpath said. "By all the signs, that's more than Count Thraxton can claim." The scryer said nothing in response to that, which was probably wise on his part. With a sigh that sounded much like anther groan, James asked, "What does Thraxton want me to do now? Does he think I ought to try to rejoin him?"
"No, sir," the scryer told him. "Count Thraxton believes the southrons are sending an army from Rising Rock in your direction, and does not find it likely that you could successfully evade it."
After a moment's thought, Earl James nodded. "Yes, they'd do that. All right, then. I'll hold my position here in front of Wesleyton for as long as I can."
"Very good, sir. I shall report that to Count Thraxton's man." The scryer set about livening up his crystal ball once more.
James of Broadpath stood as if frozen in the scryers' tent for a moment. Then he exploded in a torrent of curses. They did no good at all. He knew as much. They did make him feel a little better, though. When he left the tent, he no longer felt like strangling the first man he saw in lieu of wrapping his meaty hands around the scrawny neck of Count Thraxton, whom he could not reach.
The first man he saw was Brigadier Alexander, who had charge of the army's engines. Alexander was young and cheerful and brighter than he had any business being. With a friendly wave, he asked, "How now, your Excellency?"
"How now?" James said. "I'll tell you how now, Brigadier, to the seven hells with me if I don't." He relayed everything he'd heard from the scryer, finishing, "That's how now, by all the gods. The Army of Franklin's wrecked, the southrons are sending an army of their own after us, and we can't break into Wesleyton. But for those minor details, all's well."
"He let the southrons storm Proselytizers' Rise against him?" Alexander said. "By all the gods, sir, an army of dead men could hold Proselytizers' Rise."
"That's what I thought," James answered. "In his infinite wisdom, however, the general commanding the Army of Franklin appears to have outdone himself."
"He's also left us in a hells of a pickle," Alexander remarked.
"Really?" James said. "I never would have noticed. I'm so grateful to you for pointing that out."
"Heh," Brigadier Alexander said. "What are we going to do, sir?"
"Try not to get squashed," James of Broadpath said. "If you've got any better answers, I'd be delighted to hear them."
"No, sir. I'm sorry, sir. I wish I did, sir," Alexander said. "How can we defend against the southrons moving on us from Rising Rock and from Whiskery Ambrose at the same time? Ambrose outnumbers us all by himself."
"I'm painfully aware of all that, too," James said. "I confess, I would worry more with, say, Hesmucet in Wesleyton than I do with Whiskery Ambrose. There are worse foes to have."
"Yes, the whole business of who one's opponent is can make a difference," Brigadier Alexander agreed. "Count Thraxton did rather better against Guildenstern than he did against Bart, for instance."
"Bart." James of Broadpath made a worried noisehad he heard it from another man, he might even have called it a frightened noisedeep in the back of his throat. "I know that man too well. Every day he is in command, he looks for a way to hit us. And he will keep on looking to hit us every single day, wherever he is posted, until this war ends."
"With our victory," Alexander said.
"Gods grant it be so," James said. "Meanwhile, back to our present predicament. I intend to hold our lines in front of Wesleyton with some of our force. I don't think Whiskery Ambrose will venture out into the open field against us."
"I'd say that's a pretty good bet," Alexander replied. "He's going to hold on to Wesleyton, and he's not going to do anything else." He sniffed. "The man has the imagination of a cherrystone clam."
James chuckled. "I won't say you're wrong. Even so, though, he does King Avram good and does us and King Geoffrey harm just by staying where he is. There's no doubt of that. He might do us more harm now if he came out, but he might come to grief, too, so I doubt he will."
"Thank you, Lieutenant General George," Brigadier Alexander said with a saucy grin.
"Doubting George would come out against me, because he'd be confident he could hold the place even if something went wrong," James said. "Whiskery Ambrose doesn't believe in himself so much. And he has reason not to, too." He went back to the business at hand: "Against Ambrose, I won't need the whole army. The rest I can move east, to try to hold the passes against the southrons when they come."
"Whom do you suppose Bart is sending against us?" Alexander asked.
"Maybe Hesmucet. I hope nothe knows what he's doingbut maybe." James stroked his beard. "Or maybe Fighting Joseph. The one thing you always want to do with Fighting Joseph is get him the devils out of your hair." Count Thraxton must think the same of me, went through James' mind. Ah, if only I'd had the rank to send him off to Wesleyton. I'd have managed Proselytizers' Rise better. I could hardly have managed it worse.
"Yes, Fighting Joseph," Alexander agreed. "That makes good sense to me."
"Bart has always been a sensible fellow," James said. "And now, if we're going to be sensible ourselves, we had better get moving, eh?"
He felt better in the saddle, riding away from Wesleyton on his robust unicorn. The fragment of his force that he left behind was smaller than Whiskery Ambrose'show could it be otherwise, when his whole force was smaller than the southron general's? The fragment he brought with him was bound to be smaller than the enemy detachment moving from Rising Rock against him. Whiskery Ambrose's inertia warded the part he left behind. The ground would, he hoped, do the same for the part he brought with him.
Ground was supposed to protect Count Thraxton, too, he thought, and wished he hadn't. His men were cheerful, at least till it started to rainand rain, he hoped, would make things even harder for the enemy than it did for him.
"Stinking southrons can't whip us," one of his men said. "We're the Army of Southern Parthenia, by all the gods, and there ain't nobody in the whole wide world can whip us."
"That's right," James of Broadpath said. And so it might be, as long as the men believed it.
He didn't believe it himself. The southrons made good soldiers. They'd beaten the Army of Southern Parthenia down at Essoville just a few months before, beaten it badly enough to make Duke Edward fall back into Parthenia and stay there. The soldier who'd been boasting had probably fought at Essoville, and shrugged off the defeat as one of those things. The north probably did have better generalssome of them, anyway. Of course, we also have Thraxton, James thought. He makes up for a lot.
Brigadier Falayette rode up to him. "Sir," he said, saluting, "I don't think we can make a successful resistance against the southrons, not if they oppose us with even a halfway intelligent plan of attack."
"For one thing, there's no guarantee they will," James replied. "For another, Brigadier, have you got any better ideas? You don't seem to want to carry out attacks and you don't seem to want to make a defense, either. What do you have in mind? Shall we surrender?"
"I didn't mean that, sir," Falayette said stiffly.
"What the hells did you mean, then?" James of Broadpath demanded. "Did you mean you're sick of the war and you want to go home? By the gods, Brigadier, I'm sick of the war and I want to go home, too. But if you want to leave as badly as that, I can arrange it. I can dismiss you from King Geoffrey's service and gods-damned well send you home. Is that what you've got in mind?"
"No, sir," Brigadier Falayette replied, reddening. "I was merely pointing out the difficulties inherent in our position."
"I'm painfully aware of them myself, thank you," James said. "Whining about them doesn't help. Trying to do something about them possibly may."
He waited to see if Falayette had any real suggestions to make. The brigadier tugged on his unicorn's reins, jerking the animal's head around, and rode off. He was talking to himself under his breath. Perhaps fortunately, James couldn't make out what he was saying. Had he been able to, he might have had his friends speak to Falayette's friends, assuming the gloomy brigadier had any.
When they got to the pass Lieutenant General James hoped to defend, his own spirits rose, though he wouldn't have testified as to those of Brigadier Falayette. He summoned Brigadier Alexander and said, "Site your engines where they will bear to best advantage on the enemy."
"Yes, sir," Alexander said enthusiastically. "I hope the southrons do try to gore their way through. We'll make them pay, and pay plenty."
"That's the idea." James gave orders to cut down trees and move stones for field fortifications. The men worked steadily, plainly understanding what they needed to do and why they needed to do it. They did sometimes grumble about the rations they got, but James would have been surprised if they hadn't. Soldiers who had to stay in the field once the roads got muddy had to make do with short commons more often than not.
The southrons approached the pass two days later. By then, James of Broadpath had learned from prisoners that Fighting Joseph did command them. He wondered if Joseph would throw the whole southron force at his fieldworks. But the southron commander had apparently learned caution at Viziersville, if he'd learned nothing else. He tapped at the position in front of him, decided it was solid, and then settled down to figure out what to do next.
James of Broadpath didn't have time on his side. When Fighting Joseph was careless with a column of supply wagons, James sent out his unicorn-riders, captured the wagons, and brought them back to his own camp. He led a happier force after that. The northerners had done without luxuries such as tea and sugar for a long time, as southron ships held most goods from overseas away from their ports.
Fighting Joseph tapped at his defenses again a couple of days later, and again failed to break through. He tried once more, harder, the day after that, and did some real damage before deciding he wasn't going to penetrate James' line. James was more relieved than not when he gave up not long before sunset; one more hard push might have been enough to do the job.
Brigadier Falayette thought so. "If he strikes us again, sir, we are ruinedruined, I tell you!" he cried, striking a melodramatic pose.
But he'd been crying ruin and striking melodramatic poses ever since James' detachment moved out from Rising Rock toward Wesleyton, so all James said was, "Oh, quit your carping." He turned to Brigadier Alexander, whom he trusted to take a more sensible view of things. "What do you think?" he asked the officer in charge of his engines.
To his dismay, Alexander replied, "I fear my colleague may well be right, sir. If he comes at us with resolution tomorrow, we could find ourselves in some difficulty."
"Well, we'll just have to get ready to receive him in the morning as best we can," James of Broadpath saidhardly the ringing, inspirational battle cry he'd hoped to give. He rode along the line to encourage his men. All he succeeded in doing was discouraging himself. The soldiers seemed only too well aware that another attack might be too much for them to handle.
But instead of throwing in another attack the next morning, Fighting Joseph turned his own force around and marched off to the northeast, the direction from which he'd come. "Gods be praised!" Brigadier Alexander exclaimed. "He must have got orders to rejoin General Bart, which means we're safe for the time being."
"So it does," James of Broadpath agreed. He granted himself the luxury of a sigh of relief, but then unhappily added, "I fear we cannot say the same for the Army of Franklin, however."
The Army of Franklin had encamped in and around the miserable little town of Borders, near the southeasternmost corner of Peachtree Province. There Count Thraxton labored valiantly to put the blame for the defeatthe disasterat Sentry Peak and Proselytizers' Rise on anyone, on everyone, but himself.
King Geoffrey's long, stern face peered at him from out of a crystal ball. Geoffrey, Thraxton knew, was his friend. Nevertheless, the king sounded as stern as he looked when he said, "I expected rather better from you, your Grace; I truly did."
"I quite understand that, your Majesty," replied Thraxton, who understood no such thing. "I fear we both erred in the conclusion for me to retain command here after the clamor against me."
He still hoped Geoffrey would tell him that had been no error, that no one else could have done as well as he had. But the king gave him only a curt nod. "Yes, that was an error, and now I shall have to find a new commander for the Army of Franklin under harder circumstances than I would have before."
Rage boiled up in Thraxton. "By the gods, sir, I would have done betterI would have won that fight, sirwere it not for the bad conduct of veteran troops who had never before failed in any duty."
"On what do you blame this failure, your Grace?" King Geoffrey asked.
"In part, your Majesty, the men on Proselytizers' Rise could simply see too much," Thraxton replied. "They watched the swarm of southrons coming toward them and they lost their nerve. And, in part, their demoralization came from the effect produced by the treasonable act of James of Broadpath, Dan of Rabbit Hill, and Leonidas the Priest in sacrificing the army in their effort to degrade and remove me for personal ends."
Geoffrey coughed a couple of times. When at last he spoke, he plainly chose his words with care: "I have heard reports to the effect that one reason for our retreat from Proselytizers' Rise was the failure of our sorcery. How much truth lies in those reports?"
"Perhaps . . . some, your Majesty," Thraxton answered reluctantly. "I intended to cast a spell of terror on the southrons that would have sent them flying back to Rising Rock in rout and ruin."
"That did not happen," Geoffrey said, a truth so painfully obvious that Thraxton couldn't deny it.
That being so, he didn't waste his breath trying. "No, your Majesty, that did not happen, for which you have my profoundest regrets. But I must say, sir, that not a single one of the arrogant little manikins who claim I mistakenly cast the spell upon our own brave and patriotic soldiers has any true knowledge or understanding of the arcane forces at my control."
"I . . . see," King Geoffrey said after another pause. "You are not of the opinion, then, that a sudden burst of sorcerously inspired terror might have caused our men to abandon what should have been an impregnable position?"
"A sudden burst of sorcerously inspired terror might have done exactly that, your Majesty," Count Thraxton replied. "But any claim that I caused such a burst of terror among our men would be all the better for proof, of which there is none." I couldn't have done such a thing, not this time. And if I couldn't have done it, why then, I didn't do it. It's as simple as that.
Again, the king coughed. Again, the king paused to choose his words with care. At last, he asked, "If sorcery gone awry did not cause our men to abandon Proselytizers' Rise, what, in your opinion, did?"
"I have already alluded to the treacherous, treasonous conduct of officers formerly occupying positions of trust and prominence in the Army of Franklin," Thraxton said.
"So you have," King Geoffrey replied.
Thraxton didn't care for his tone. He had the vague feeling this interview wasn't going so well as he would have liked. Taking a deep breath, he went on. "I might also note that certain officers, Duke Cabell of Broken Ridge among them, are of less use than they might otherwise be, for they take to the bottle at once, and drown their cares by becoming stupid and unfit for any duty. This drunkenness, most flagrant, during the whole three days of our travail, contributed in no small measure to the disaster that befell us."
Geoffrey pursed his thin, pale lips. "So you blame your subordinates, both past and current, for the present unfortunate position of your army?"
"Your Majesty, I do," Count Thraxton said firmly. Relief washed through him, warm as spring sunshine. He'd been afraid the king didn't understand, but now he saw he'd been mistaken. Everything might turn out all right after all. Despite what Geoffrey had said before, he might yet hang on to his command.
But then the king sighed and said, "Yes, I was right before. I am going to name Joseph the Gamecock to replace you as head of the Army of Franklin."
"Joseph the Gamecock?" Thraxton said in dismay. "You must be joking, sir! Why, he's such a bad-tempered little man that no one can get along with him!"
"I have certainly had my difficulties along those lines," King Geoffrey said. "But your own judgment as to yourself was accurate; you should not have remained where you were, and you can no longer remain where you are. You have not the confidence of the officers serving under you."
"They are all a pack of jackals and jackasses!" Thraxton burst out. "You say I have not their confidence, sir? Well, they have not mine, either. By all the gods, I would dismiss every one of them were the power in me."
"I cannot dismiss every officer serving in the Army of Franklin," Geoffrey said. "I would not if I could. It would bring even more chaos than that unhappy army has seen up to now. You were in command, my friend, and you must answer for the shortcomings of those you commanded."
"Very well," Thraxton replied, though it was anything but. "Will you do me the courtesy of allowing me to resign the command on my own rather than being summarily dismissed from it?"
"Of course I will," the king said. "I will do anything within my power to let you down as easily as I may, but let you down I must."
"I was let down," Thraxton raged, "let down by those who should have done everything in their power to support me." His stomach twinged agonizingly. The healers had warned him he was liable to start puking blood if that went on. They'd told him to put less of a burden on himself, to demand less of others. But they hadn't told him how to do that while fighting a war, worse luck. He gathered himself. "How may I best serve the kingdom after leaving this army?"
As soon as he asked the question, he wished he'd kept his mouth shut. The king was liable to say something like, Go home and never show your face in any public place again. What could he do but obey? But he didn't want to fade into obscurity. He wanted a higher place than the one he had.
Instead of relegating him to the shadows, Geoffrey replied, "You know I always value your advice, your Grace. Come to Nonesuch after laying down your command there. Your insights into the struggle will be important to me, and if you serve in an advisory capacity you will no longer, ah, come into difficulties with other officers opposing Avram's tyranny."
"Come into difficulties?" Thraxton said. "Am I at fault if I have the misfortune of being surrounded by idiots?"
"Let us not delve into questions of fault for the time being," King Geoffrey said quickly. "Come to Nonesuch. That will suffice."
"I obey," Count Thraxton said. "I always obey." He gave a martyred sigh. "Would that others might say the same." Being a mage in his own right, he ended the talk with the king while giving himself the last word. He stalked away from the crystal ball with a horrid frown on his face and with fire scourging his belly.
His headquarters were in what had been a rich man's house in Borders. But the serfs had fled, and without servants the house seemed much too big for Thraxton and his aides. He strode inside, speaking to no one, found pen and ink, and wrote furiously. When he was through, he told a runner, "Fetch me Roast-Beef William at once."
"Yes, sir." The man hurried away. Thraxton's grim face probably encouraged him to escape all the faster.
Roast-Beef William arrived with commendable haste. "What can I do for you, your Grace?" he asked. If Thraxton's expression fazed him, he didn't show it.
"Here." Brusquely, Thraxton thrust the note into his hands.
After reading it, Roast-Beef William nodded. "I was afraid this might be coming, sir. The king will know of it?"
"Oh, yes," Count Thraxton said bitterly. "The king will indeed know of it. He has appointed Joseph the Gamecock as my successor in command here."
"Well, that's good. That's very good," William said, which was the last thing Thraxton wanted to hear. "He'll make a first-rate leader, so he will."
"May you prove correct," Thraxton replied, in tones suggesting he thought the other officer was several slices short of a loaf.
If Roast-Beef William noticed that tone, he didn't let it anger him. Thraxton had had a hard time making him angry, and didn't know whether to admire or despise him for it. Roast-Beef William just went on with his own glideway of thought: "Yes, I do think Joseph the Gamecock will be just what we need. We won't be doing much in the way of attacking for a whilethat's as plain as the nose on my face. And there's nobody better than Joseph the Gamecock at standing on the defensive, nobody in the whole wide world."
"Is that a fact?" Thraxton said coldly. In his own judgment, he was a matchless defensive fighter. He thought himself perfectly objective about it, too.
But Roast-Beef William soberly nodded. "Yes, sir, I think it is," he answered. "Remember when he was defending Nonesuch against the southrons after they came up the Henry River at him? He didn't even have half the men they did, but he held 'em off. He had people playacting, by the gods, marching men back and forth so they'd look like four brigades instead of just one."
"Folderol," Thraxton said. "Claptrap."
"Maybe so, but it worked," Roast-Beef William said. "When you get right down to it, that's the only thing that matters, isn't it?"
Was he deliberately rubbing salt in Thraxton's wounds? Had William been any of several other officers, Thraxton would have been sure of it. With William, though, even his suspicious nature hesitated before laying blame. "May there be victory for us here," Thraxton choked out at last.
"Gods grant it be so." Roast-Beef William cocked his head to one side, as if remembering what he should have thought of long before. "And what will you be doing now, sir?"
"King Geoffrey has summoned me to Nonesuch, to advise him on matters military," Thraxton replied.
"That's good. That's very good." Roast-Beef William chuckled. "Keep you out of mischief, eh?"
Again, Thraxton couldn't decide if that was a cut or merely a witticism in questionablevery questionabletaste. Again, he reluctantly gave William the benefit of the doubt, where he wouldn't have for most of the men under his command. William had fought hard and stayed sober. And so Thraxton said, "Heh"all the laughter he had in him.
"Well, good luck to you, sir," William said. "I'm sure you mean well." He went on his way: a sunny man who was sure that everyone meant well. Thraxton was just as sure he labored under a delusion, but what point to tell a blockhead that he was a blockhead? Off Roast-Beef William went, as ready to put his optimism at Joseph the Gamecock's service as he had been to offer it to Thraxton.
Off Count Thraxton went, too, off toward the glideway port. "N-no, sir," a startled clerk said when he arrived. "We haven't got any carpets departing for Nonesuch today."
"Procure one," Thraxton said coldly. The clerk gaped. Thraxton glared. "You know who I am. You know I have the authority to give such an order. And you had better know what will happen to you if you fail to obey it. Do you?"
"Y-yes, sir," the clerk said. "Ifif you'll excuse me, sir." He fled.
Thraxton waited with such patience as was in him: not much. Presently, the clerk's superior came up to him. "You need a special carpet laid on?"
"I do," Thraxton replied.
"And it'll take you away and you won't come back?" the glideway official persisted.
"That is correct," Thraxton said. Gods damn you, he added to himself.
"Well, I reckon we can take care of you, in that case," the glideway man said. Thraxton nodded, pleased at being accommodated. Only a moment later did he realize this fellow hadn't paid him a compliment. To make sure he remained in no doubt whatsoever, the wretch went on, "Maybe they'll bring in somebody who knows what the hells he's doing." He smiled unpleasantly at Thraxton. "And if you try cursing me, your high and mighty Grace, I promise you'll never see a glideway carpet out of Borders."
Sure enough, that threat did keep Thraxton from doing what he most wanted to do. No, that wasn't true: what he most wanted to do right now was escape the Army of Franklin, escape his humiliation, escape his own mistakes, escape himself. And, as the glideway carpet silently and smoothly took him off toward Nonesuch, he managed every one of those escapes . . . except, of course, the very last.
A runner came up to Lieutenant General Hesmucet in the streets of Rising Rock, saluted, and waited to be noticed while Hesmucet chatted with Alva the mage. Hesmucet could hardly have helped noticing him; he was a big, burly fellow who looked better suited to driving messengers away than to being one. "Yes? What is it?" Hesmucet said.
Saluting again, the runner said, "General Bart's compliments, sir, and he desires that you attend him at his headquarters at your earliest convenience."
"When a superior says that, he means right this minute," Hesmucet said. The runner nodded. Hesmucet turned to Alva. "You must excuse me. There's one man in this part of the kingdom who can give me orders, and he's just gone and done it."
"Of course, sir," the wizard replied. "I hope the news is good, whatever it may be."
"Gods grant it be so," Hesmucet said. Alva smiled a peculiar, rather tight, smile. Hesmucet was almost all the way back to the hostel that had headquartered first Count Thraxton, then General Guildenstern, and now General Bart before he remembered the bright young mage's remarks about how small a role he thought the gods played in ordinary human affairs. When he did recall it, he wished he hadn't. He wanted to think the gods were on his side.
Bart sat drinking tea in his room. "Good morning, Lieutenant General," he said. With him sat Doubting George, who nodded politely.
Hesmucet saluted Bart. "Good morning, sir." He nodded to George. "Your Excellency." Hesmucet wasn't an Excellency himself. If he succeeded in the war, he might become one.
"My news is very simple," Bart said. "King Avram is summoning me to Georgetown and to the Black Palace, as he said he might. He also told me he intends to name me Marshal of Detina when I arrive there."
Hesmucet whistled softly. "Congratulations, sir. Congratulations from the bottom of my heart. It's beenwhat?eighty years or so since the kingdom last had a marshal. If any man deserves the job, you're the one."
"For which I thank you kindly," Bart replied. He, Hesmucet, and doubtless Doubting George, as well, understood why Detina so seldom had a soldier of such exalted rank. A man supreme over all the kingdom's soldiers might easily aspire to the throne himself, and kings knew that. Bart went on, "I intend to deserve the trust Avram is showing me."
"Of course, sir," Hesmucet saidwhat else could he possibly say?
"No one could be reckoned more reliable than General Bart," George said. He was no particular friend of Bart's, but he didn't seem jealous that Bart had ascended to this peak of soldierly distinction. That took considerable character.
"When I become marshal," Bart went on, "I expect I'm going to have to stay in the west. If the king in his wisdom decides we need a marshal, he'll want that man to concentrate on trying to whip Duke Edward of Arlington and going after Nonesuch. If you're in Georgetown, if you're living in the Black Palace, that will seem the most important thing in the world."
Both Hesmucet and Doubting George soberly nodded. Ever since the war began, the cry in Georgetown had always been, "Forward to Nonesuch!" As Hesmucet knew, it was a cry that had produced some impressive disasters: the first battle at Cow Jog sprang to mind. False King Geoffrey's men might have gone on and captured Georgetown and split Detina forever if they hadn't been almost as disrupted in victory as Avram's army was in defeat.
Bart said, "That leads me to the arrangements I'm going to make for the armies here in the east. The fight here won't get the fame of the battles over in Parthenia. We all know that. I'm sorry about it, but I can't change it, and nobody else can, either."
"Oh, I don't know," George said. "King Geoffrey could have changed it if he'd sent Duke Edward out this way instead of Joseph the Gamecock. Joseph's a formidable fighter, but the bards and the chroniclers cluster round Edward like ravens and vultures round a dead steer."
"Pleasant turn of phrase," Bart said with a smile.
"Sir . . ." Hesmucet's driving ambition wouldn't let him sit around and wait for Bart to get to things by easy stages. He had to know. "Sir, what arrangements have you made for the armies here in the east?"
"Well, I was coming to that," Bart replied.
Hesmucet forced himself just to nod and not to bark more questions. He'd thought he had the inside track on higher command till his men banged their heads in vain against the strong northern position on Funnel Hill while George's, against all odds, stormed the slopes of Proselytizers' Rise. Of course, Count Thraxton's botched magecraft had had a good deal to do with George's success, but would Bart remember it?
The commanding general was looking at him. "One of the things I have recommended to King Avram, Lieutenant General Hesmucet, and one of the things he has said he will do"he might not have intended to, but he was stringing it out, making Hesmucet wait, threatening to drive him mad"is to promote you to full general, to leave no doubt who will and should be in command here in the east."
A long breath sighed out of Hesmucet. "Thank you very much, sir."
"General BartMarshal Bartalready told me what he had in mind along those lines," George said. "Congratulations, General."
"Thank you, too," Hesmucet said. "I expect we'll be working together closely to defeat the common foe."
"I expect you're right, sir," Doubting George replied. "Give me my orders, and I will carry them out as best I can."
"I'm sure you will, your Excellency." Hesmucet was also sure George had desperately wanted the command he'd just received himself. Some officers, in that situation, would try to undercut their superiors. Fighting Joseph would, in a heartbeat. Hesmucet didn't think Doubting George was a man of that sort. He hoped George wasn't. But if he is, I'll deal with itand with him.
Bart said, "You will have charge of everything between the Green Ridge Mountains and the Great River. Take your station where you will, though I intend that you concentrate on Joseph the Gamecock's army, as I will concentrate on Duke Edward's."
"Yes, sir!" Hesmucet said enthusiastically. "That's just what I aim to do. If we can smash those two armies, King Geoffrey hasn't got anything left." He saluted again. "Thank you for giving me the chance to do this."
"Well, you won't do it all by your lonesome," Bart remarked.
Ah. Now we come down to it, Hesmucet thought. He asked the question the new marshal was surely waiting for: "What sort of arrangement for the armies under my commandunder your commandhave you got in mind?"
"First and foremost, I think you'd be wise to leave Doubting George here in command of the army that used to belong to General Guildenstern," Bart answered. "Since that'll be far and away the biggest army here in the east, he'll be your second-in-command. Does that suit you?"
"Yes, sir. It suits me fine." Hesmucet turned to George. "Does it suit you, Lieutenant General?"
"I tell you frankly, sir, there is one other arrangement that would have suited me better," Lieutenant General George replied. "But I'll do everything I can to whip the traitors, and that includes following your orders. From what I've seen, I think you'll give pretty good ones."
"Thank you." Hesmucet stuck out his hand. If Doubting George hesitated for even a moment before clasping it, Hesmucet didn't notice.
"Good. That's settled." Bart sounded relieved. What would the new marshal have done for a second-in-command here if George hadn't cared to serve under me? Hesmucet wondered. Fighting Joseph? Gods forbid!
"My next question, sir, is, when do you want me to get moving against Joseph the Gamecock and whatever's left of the Army of Franklin?" Hesmucet said.
For one of the rare times Hesmucet could recall, Bart looked faintly embarrassed. "It won't be quite so soon as you'd like," he replied.
"What? Why not?" Hesmucet demanded.
"Because I'm going to want your campaign against Joseph and mine against Duke Edward to start more or less at the same time," Bart said. "That way, neither one of them will be able to reinforce the other, the way Edward sent James of Broadpath here to the east. I'm going to need a while to get a grip on things there in the west, so we may well have to wait till spring."
"I want to move sooner," Hesmucet grumbled.
Doubting George inclined his head to his new superior. "Do you know, sir, if King Avram had had himself half a dozen generals who wouldn't be satisfied with waiting just a little while, with being almost on time, he'd have put paid to the northerners' revolt a long time ago."
"You may be right," Hesmucet said. Then he shook his head. "No, gods damn it, you are right. But I'll tell you something else. The king has got himself two of that kind of general now." He pointed to Marshal Bart, then jabbed a thumb at his own chest. After a moment, he said, "Make that three," and pointed to Lieutenant General George, too.
"I do thank you very much for the kind inclusion," George said. "But you two are the ones who count, and you two are also in the spots that count. Grand Duke Geoffrey won't have such a happy time of it from here on in, unless I'm wronger than usual, and" his eyes twinkled "I doubt I am."
"I know that I'm leaving the east in good hands," Bart said. "What sort of a mess I'll find when I get to the westthat's liable to be a different question. People back there have let Duke Edward cow them for too long. He can be beaten, I do believe, and I aim to try to do it."
"From what I've seen and from what I've heard, the soldiers there in the west go into a fight with Duke Edward wondering what he's going to do do them," Hesmucet said. "They don't think so much about what they can do to him. If you worry about what the other fellow is going to do, you'll wind up in trouble."
Bart nodded. "That's right. That's just right, I do believe. I aim to keep Duke Edward on too tight a leash to let him run wild the way he has a couple of times in this war. I don't know if I can do that, but it's what I'm going to aim for."
"Makes sense to me," Hesmucet said. "I will do the same to Joseph the Gamecock, as best I can."
Doubting George said, "Do one other thing, sir."
"And that is?" Hesmucet asked.
"Keep Ned of the Forest busy the same way," George replied. "We are going to have ourselves a devils of a long supply line as we move up into Peachtree Province, and we'll be depending on a handful of glideways to bring us food and bolts and firepots and such. If ever there was a man who knows how to hit a supply line, Ned of the Forest is the one."
"You're right," Hesmucet said. "You're absolutely dead right. That man is a demon, and I don't see how we can hold down the countryside until he's dead. I promise you, I'll trouble him all the time. He'll be too busy staying alive to bother us too muchor I hope he will, anyhow."
He'd wondered if he should speak sharply when Doubting George made his suggestion. Was the other man trying to sneak his way into command when he didn't have the rank? But what George proposed made such good sense, Hesmucet saw no way to disagree with it.
Bart held out his hand. Hesmucet took it. "Well, General," Bart said, "I look forward to working with you when spring comes. We're still on the same team, still pulling the same plow, even if we won't be side by side for a while."
"That's so," Hesmucet said. "And what we need to aim to do is, we need to plow up this weed of a rebellion. If the gods be kind, we can do it."
"I think you two can do it," Doubting George said, "and I congratulate you both." He clasped hands first with Bart, then with Hesmucet. He will make a good second-in-command, Hesmucet thought. If he's jealous about having to serve under me, he's the only one who knows it. And that's the way it ought to be.
Hesmucet left Generalno, MarshalBart's chamber. A buzz rose in the hostel lobby when he came out of the stairwell. "Is it true, sir?" someone called. No mage had yet divined how rumor traveled so fast.
"It's true," Hesmucet answered, and the buzz redoubled. He added, "But I'll thank you not to pester me about it right this minute. I need to think." Unpesteredwhich would do for a miracle till a greater one came alonghe strode through the lobby and out onto the street.
Men called to him there, too. Rumor had to be running wild in Rising Rock. But he ignored them. He ignored everything in this muddy town. His gaze swung toward the north and the west, toward Peachtree Province, toward the glideway center at Marthasville. He could see the city in his mind's eye as if nothing stood between him and it.
And nothing didnothing except Joseph the Gamecock's army. Hesmucet threw back his head and laughed. "That's not so gods-damned much," he said, and began to think of how he, unlike Count Thraxton, might make such a brag come true.