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Sweat streamed down General Guildenstern's face. Hating the hot, muggy summer weather of the north, he took off his broad-brimmed gray hat and fanned himself with it. The unexpected motion spooked his unicorn, which sidestepped beneath him. "The gods curse you, you miserable creature," he growled, and fought the animal back under control. It took a little while; he knew he was something less than the best rider in King Avram's army. But I hold the highest rank. The warmth of the thought was far more pleasant than the warmth of the weather.
Beside him, Lieutenant General George shed his hat, too, and wiped his wet forehead with the sleeve of his gray tunic. His unicorn stayed quiet under him. Guildenstern noted that with a stab of resentment, as if it were a reproof of the way he handled his own mount. He saw slights everywhere, whether they were there or not. His thick, dark eyebrows came down and together in a fearsome scowl.
Lieutenant General George squinted into the westering sun, which glinted off the silver streaks in his black beard. "Do you know, sir," he said, "now that we've forded the river, I don't see how in the seven hells old Thraxton's going to keep us from running him out of Rising Rock."
Now Guildenstern's eyebrows leaped upward in astonishment. His second-in-command was most often known as Doubting George, sometimes even to his face. He worried about everything. "That's . . . good to hear," Guildenstern said cautiously. If Doubting George thought Thraxton the Braggart couldn't hold Rising Rock, he was very likely right.
And if by some mischance the army didn't take Rising Rock even after Doubting George thought the town ought to fall, who would get the blame? Guildenstern knew the answer to that only too well. He would, no one else. Not his second-in-command, certainly.
He reached for the flask of brandy he wore on his belt next to his sword. He took a long swig. Peaches and fire ran down his throat. "Gods, that's good," he raspedanother warmth obviously superior to the local weather.
"Nothing better," Lieutenant General George agreed, though he didn't carry a flask in the field. He nodded to himself. "We're coming at Rising Rock from three directions at once, and we outnumber Thraxton about eight to five. If he doesn't fall back, he won't have much to brag about once we're through with him."
"Count Thraxton is a sorcerer of no small power." Guildenstern knew every officer within earshot was listening for all he was worth. He didn't want any of his subordinates thinking the attack on Rising Rock would prove a walkover, just in case it turned out not to be.
"Oh, no doubt," Doubting George said. "But we gain on the northerners in wizardry, so we do, and the Braggart's spells have already gone awry a time or two in this war. I wouldn't fall over dead with surprise if it happened again."
Was he really as guileless as he seemed? Could anyone really be that guileless? Or is he laying traps beneath my feet? Guildenstern wondered. Had he been Doubting George's second-in-command, that was what he would have done. He took another swig of brandy. He trusted what he carried in his flask. That was more than he could say of the men who served under him.
But I'm advancing, he thought. As long as I'm advancing, as long as I drive the traitors before me, no one can cast me down.
A haze of dust hovered over his army, as it did over any army marching on roads that had never been corduroyed. Because of the red-tinged dust, Guildenstern couldn't see quite so far as he might have liked, but he could see far enough. The ordinary soldiers weren't out to betray him. He was . . . pretty sure of that.
Regiments of crossbowmen made up the biggest part of the army. Save that they wore King Avram's gray, many of them hardly looked like soldiers at all. They looked like what they were: butchers and bakers and chandeliermakers, tailors and toilers and fullers and boilers, grocers and farmers, woodsmen and goodsmen. Not for nothing did false King Geoffrey and the rest of the northern bluebloods sneer at King Avram's backers as a rabble of shopkeepers in arms. Shopkeepers in arms they were. A rabble? In the first year of the war, perhaps they had been. No more. They'd never lacked for courage. Now they had discipline as well. The crossbow was an easy weapon to learn, and could slay at long range. That they were here, deep in the Province of Franklin whose lord had declared for Geoffrey, spoke for itself.
A fair number of the heads under those identical gray hats were blond, not dark. Serfsformer serfs, ratherhad been free to bear arms or take on any other citizen's duties in most of the southron provinces for a couple of generations. That accounted for some of the blonds in the ranks. Others had fled from their northern overlords. Avram's orders were to ask no questions of such men, but to turn them into soldiers if they said they wanted to fight.
Even through the dust the marching army raised, the sun sparkled off serried ranks of steel spearheads. Archers were hideously vulnerable if cavalryor even footsoldiers with pikes and mailshirtsgot in among them. Posting pikemen of one's own in front of them forestalled such disasters.
General Guildenstern's smile turned as amiable as it ever did when he surveyed the spearmen. Far fewer blonds served among them. They were real soldiersprofessionals, not conscripts or zealots. If you told a man who carried a pike to do something, he went out and did it. He didn't ask why, or argue if he didn't care for the answer.
The sun also gleamed from the iron-shod horns of the unicorn cavalry. Guildenstern sighed. The riders he commanded were far better at their trade than they had been in the early days of Geoffrey's attempted usurpation. They still had trouble matching their northern foes, for whom riding unicorns was a way of life, not a trade.
And, of course, unicorns bred best in the north. "I wonder why," General Guildenstern murmured.
"Why what, sir?" Doubting George asked.
"Why unicorns thrive better in the north than in our part of the kingdom," the army commander answered. "Hardly anyone up here is virgin past the age of twelve."
His second-in-command chuckled, but said, "That's just superstition, sir."
"I should hope so," Guildenstern growled. "If it weren't, every bloody one of our riders'd go on foot." He sent Lieutenant General George a baleful stare. Was the seemingly easygoing officer trying to undermine him by pointing out the obvious? When Doubting George muttered something under his breath, Guildenstern's ears quivered. "What was that?" he asked sharply.
"I said, `The enemy is weak,' sir." Doubting George's voice was bland.
That wasn't what General Guildenstern thought he'd said. Gods knew it had sounded a lot more like "Unicorn Beak." Guildenstern's left hand came up to stroke his nose. It was of generous, even noble, proportions, yes, but no one had presumed to call him by that uncouth nickname since he'd graduated from the officers' collegium at Annasville. He'd hoped it was years forgotten.
Maybe he'd misheard. Maybe. He tried to make himself believe it.
Assesunicorns' humbler cousinshauled the wagons that kept the army fed and supplied. They also brought forward the stone-throwers and the dart-flingers that made the footsoldier's life so unpleasant in this war and that sometimeswhen the gods chose to smilemade siegecraft move at something faster than a glacial pace.
A company's worth of men in long gray uniform robes also, to a man, rode asses. General Guildenstern's lip curled as his eye lit on them. "Why is it," he demanded of no one in particular, "that we can't find a wizardnot a single bloody wizardwho knows what to do when he climbs on a unicorn?"
"I don't much care about that, sir," Doubting George said. "What I want to know is, why can't we find a single bloody wizard who knows what to do when he opens a grimoire?"
"Demons take them all," Guildenstern muttered. That was, of course, part of the problem. Demons had taken a couple of southron wizards in the early days of the war. Down in the south, mages were more used to using sorcery in business than in battle, and military magic was a very different game, as the elegant and arrogant sorcerers who served Grand Duke Geoffrey had proved several times.
"We do need them," Lieutenant General George said with a sigh. "They are up to holding off some of what the enemy's wizards throw at us."
"Some," Guildenstern granted grudgingly. He kept on glaring over toward the mages, though. As if his gaze had weight, it drew the notice of a couple of them. He would have taken pride in the power of his personality . . . had he not misliked the way they looked back at him. Like any man of sense, he wore an apotropaic amulet on a chain around his neck. His left hand stroked it, as if reminding it to do its job. Measured against the mages who fought for Geoffrey, most of King Avram's wizards were less than they might have been. Measured against a man who was a soldier and not himself a mage, they remained intimidating.
Doubting George said, "I wonder what sort of hellsfire Count Thraxton's cooking up over there in Rising Rock."
Now General Guildenstern glared at him. "You were the one who said his spells kept going wrong. Have you changed your mind all at once?"
"Oh, no, sir." His second-in-command shook his head. "I think we'll lick him right out of his boots." Yes, he could afford to be confident; he wouldn't have to explain what had gone wrong if the army failed. "But it's always interesting to try and figure out what the whoresons on the other side'll throw at us, don't you think?"
"Interesting." It wasn't the word Guildenstern would have used. Rather to his relief, he was spared having to figure out which word he would have used, for a scout came riding toward him, waving to be noticed. More often than not, Guildenstern would have let the fellow wait. Now he waved back and called, "What's your news?"
Saluting, the young rider answered, "Sir, some of our pickets have run the traitors out of Whiteside. The little garrison they had there is falling back toward Rising Rock."
"Splendid." Guildenstern brought a fist down on his thigh in solid satisfaction. "I'll spend the night there, then." The scout saluted again and galloped back off toward the west, no doubt to warn the men who'd taken the hamlet to have ready a lodging suitable for the army commander.
They didn't do a perfect job. One of Grand Duke Geoffrey's bannersred dragon on goldstill floated above Whiteside when General Guildenstern rode in as the sun was setting. At his snarled order, troopers hastily replaced it with Detina's proper ensigngold dragon on red. The general doffed his hat to the kingdom's banner before dismounting and striding into the village's best, and only, inn.
The innkeeper served up a decent roast capon and a tolerable bottle of white wine. He'd likely favored Geoffrey over Avram, but did a fair job of hiding it. By their blond hair and blue eyes, both the serving wenches who brought Guildenstern his supper were serfs, or rather had been till his army entered Whiteside. The wineand, no doubt, the brandy he'd put away beforeleft the general feeling expansive. Beaming at the wenches, he asked them, "And how do you like your freedom?"
"Oh!" they exclaimed together, like characters in a comedy. Their names were Lindy and Vetty; Guildenstern wasn't quite sure which was which. Whichever the younger and prettier one was, she said, "Hadn't thought about it much, your lordship, sir. I guess it'll be pretty goodmoney of our own and all, I mean."
By his scowl, the innkeeper didn't think it would be so good. Now he'd have to pay them wages instead of hiring them from whichever local noble controlled their families. "Freedom," Guildenstern said, quoting King Avram, "is worth the price."
He wasn't altogether sure he believed that; he'd never had any great liking for yellow-hairs himself. But he enjoyed throwing it in the innkeeper's face and watching the fellow have to paste on a smile and pretend he agreed. "Just as you say, General," he replied, as if each word tasted bad.
"Just as I say?" Guildenstern echoed complacently. "Well, of course."
When the innkeeper took him up to his bedchamber over the dining hall, he found it a rough match for the supper he'd had: not splendid, but good enough. "Won't find anything finer this side of Rising Rock," the innkeeper said.
"No doubt." Guildenstern's voice was dry; there weren't any more towns between Whiteside and Rising Rock. But he put that out of his mind, for something else was in it: "Send me up the prettier of your girls, the one with the freckles, to warm my bed tonight."
"With the freckles? That's Lindy." The innkeeper's smile went from deferential to rather nasty. "Can't just send her up, now can I, sir? Not if she's free, I should say. She'll have to decide all by herself if she wants to come up here."
"By the gods!" General Guildenstern exploded. "That's taking things too far, don't you think?" The innkeeper just stood there. "Oh, all right," Guildenstern said with poor grace. "Ask her, then."
He wondered if he'd made a mistake. If the girl said no, he would never live it down. But Lindy knocked on his door a few minutes later. As soon as he closed it behind her, she pulled her shift off over her head. Guildenstern enjoyed himself. If she didn't, she was a reasonably good actress.
Afterwards, she leaned up on one elbow beside him, so that the soft, pink tip of her bare breast poked him in the shoulder. "You trounce our lords," she said earnestly. "Trounce 'em good, and every blond girl in the kingdom'll open her legs for you."
"One more reason to win," Guildenstern said, and caught her to him again.
If Count Thraxton had ever been happy in all his born days, his face didn't know it. He was tall and thin and lean, beard and mustache and eyebrows going gray. His features might have come from one of the masks tragic actors wore so even people in the highest rows of the amphitheater could see what they were supposed to be feeling. His eyes were large and dark and gloomy, the eyes of a sorrowing hound. Harsh lines of grief scored his cheeks. His thin-lipped mouth perpetually turned down at the corners.
He'd looked mournful at his wedding, to one of the loveliest and wealthiest women in all of Detina. He'd looked mournful after their wedding night (wags said she had, too, but never where he could hear them: along with his skill at magecraft, he was uncommonly good with a sword). Now, with real disaster looming up from the south and east, he looked no worsebut no better, either.
A servanta serf, of coursecame up behind Thraxton, his footsteps obsequiously soft. "Supper is ready, your Grace," he murmured. "The others have already taken their places."
They hadn't presumed to start eating without Thraxton. He wondered how long even that minimal courtesy would last. Not long, unless he started winning victories against the rabble of merchants and peasants who fought for scapegrace Avram and not Geoffreya man who, by the gods, knew how to be king. But Thraxton saw no victories around Rising Rockonly the choice between losing another battle and abandoning northwestern Franklin without a fight.
His stomach knotted. How was he supposed to eat, faced with such a dismal choice? But not appearing would only affront the generals who served under him. He nodded to the hovering serf: a sharp, brusque motion. "I'm coming," he said.
His subordinates sprang to their feet when he strode into the dining room. All three of them bowed low. "Your Grace!" they chorused.
"Gentlemen." Thraxton returned the bow, not quite so deeply. He sat down in the empty chair at the head of the table. Once he was comfortable, the other officers sat down again, too.
"May I pour you some wine, your Grace?" asked Leonidas the Priest, who sat at Thraxton's right hand. Instead of the blue tunic and pantaloons that uniformed Geoffrey's men, Leonidas wore the crimson vestments of a hierophant of the Lion God, with a general's sunburst over each shoulder. Not only did he worship his chosen deity, he fed him well.
"Blood of the grape," Thraxton said, and Leonidas smiled and nodded. Thraxton nodded, too. "If you would be so kind." Maybe wine would let him see something he couldn't see sober. Maybe, at the very least, it would help ease his griping belly.
On Thraxton's left, Baron Dan of Rabbit Hill filled his own goblet with red wine. He was younger than either Thraxton or Leonidas, and waxed the tip of his beard and the ends of his mustache to points, as if he were a town dandy. Fop or not, though, he made a first-rate fighting man. Dan offered the bottle to the officer at the foot of the table, who commanded Thraxton's unicorns. "Some for you, General?"
"No, thanks," Ned of the Forest answered. "Water'll do me just fine." The harsh twang of the northeast filled his voice. Thraxton wasn't altogether sure he could read or write; one of his lieutenants always prepared the reports he submitted. He was a gentleman only by courtesy of his rank, not by blood. Before the war, he'd been a gambler and a serfcatcher, and highly successful at both trades. Since the fighting broke out, he'd proved nobody could match him or his troopersmost of them as much ruffians as he was, not proper knights at allon unicornback.
Baron Dan withdrew the wine bottle. Leonidas the Priest clapped his hands a couple of times in smiling amusement. "Any man who drinks water from birth and lives," he observed, "is bound to do great things, much like one who survives snakebite."
"Oh, I got bit by a snake once," Ned said. "Any snake bites me, it dies."
He might have meant he killed snakes with his knife or with a boot. By the way he made it sound, though, he thought his blood more poisonous than any venom. And he might have been right. He was the biggest man at the table, and without a doubt the strongest. His face was handsome, in a hard, weathered way. His eyes . . . His eyes worried even Thraxton, who had seen a great deal. They were hard and black and unyielding as polished jet. A killer's eyes, Thraxton thought.
A lot of men were killers, of course. The world was a hard, cruel place. But most men pretended otherwise. Ned of the Forest didn't bother.
The serf who'd led Thraxton in began carving the pork roast that sat in the middle of the table. He also served Geoffrey's commanders baked tubers. Thraxton, Leonidas, and Dan ate in the approved manner, lingering over their food and chatting lightly of this and that. Ned's manners proved he'd been born in a barn. He attacked his food as if he were a wolf devouring a deer he'd pulled down. In an astonishingly short time, his plate was empty. He didn't bother asking the serf for a second helping. Instead, he stood up, leaned forward to grab the knife, and hacked off another big slab of meat. He slapped it down on the plate and demolished it with the same dispatch he'd shown at the first helping.
"A man of appetite," Dan of Rabbit Hill said, more admiringly than not. He waved to the serf, who gave him a second helping about half the size of Ned's.
"We are all men of appetite," Leonidas said with another smile. "Some have a passion for spirituous liquors, some for the ladies, some for our meats, some for arcane knowledge and enlightenment." He inclined his head to Count Thraxton, who acknowledged the compliment with another of his curt nods.
"This here is just supper," Ned said, helping himself to still more pork. He took a big bite, then went on with his mouth full: "What I've got me an appetite fora passion for, if you likeis killing those stinking southrons who reckon they've got some call to come up here and take our serfs away."
"That is well said," Thraxton murmured, raising his wine goblet in salute.
Had he been dealing with another proper gentleman, the lower-ranking officer would have drunk wine with him and graciously changed the subject. Ned of the Forest did not drink wine and had few graces. Staring across the table at Thraxton, he demanded, "Then why did we let those sons of bitches run us out of Wesleyton, southwest of here? Why are they running us out of Rising Rock, too?"
Leonidas the Priest coughed. Turning to Thraxton, he said, "What the distinguished soldier commanding the unicorns meant was"
"I said what I meant," Ned ground out. "I want a proper answer, too." Those black, black eyes of his held Count Thraxton's.
He is trying to put me in fear, Thraxton realized. Ned wasn't doing a bad job of it, either, though the army commander refused to show that. Thraxton said, "The unfortunate truth, sir, is that General Guildenstern commands more soldiers than I do. We shall withdrawI see no other choiceregroup, and strike back toward Rising Rock as opportunity permits."
"Guildenstern's got more men than we do, sure enough." Ned nodded. "That's an unfortunate truth, no doubt about it. Way it looks to me, though, the unfortunate truth is that nobody figured out what in the seven hells the bastard was up to till after he got his whole army over the Franklin River and started coming straight at us, and that was a lot too late." He snapped his fingers. "So much for all your fancy magic. Sir."
"Really, General." Leonidas wagged a finger at Ned of the Forest. "You forget yourself."
Thraxton waited for Dan of Rabbit Hill to come to his defense against the border ruffian, too. Baron Dan sat staring at his goblet as if he'd never seen such a thing before. He said not a word. From his abstracted silence, Count Thraxton concluded he agreed with Ned.
Realizing he would have to speak for himself, Thraxton said, "I confess, I thought Guildenstern would turn north after crossing the river instead of making straight for us. Perhaps I let myself be distracted by the enemy's demonstration toward Wesleyton."
"Demonstration?" Ned made the word into a reproach. "What they demonstrated was, we couldn't hold the place."
Leonidas the Priest and Dan looked at each other. Then they looked at Thraxton. And then they looked at Ned. After coughing a couple of times, Leonidas said, "What Ned meant was"
"I said what I meant," Ned repeated. "We didn't hold Wesleyton, and we aren't going to hold Rising Rock. And it's a shame and a disgrace that we aren't, if anybody wants to know what I think." He stared straight into Thraxton's eyes again.
Thraxton glared back. His temper was slower to kindle than Ned of the Forest's, but it burned hot when it did catch fire. "Now you see here, young man," he growled. "We may have lost Wesleyton. We may lose Rising Rock, and in part that may even be my fault. But I tell you this." He pointed a forefinger across the table at Ned, and his voice rose to a shout: "We may have to fall back now. But we will take back Rising Rock. We will take back Wesleyton. We will! My army will! And that's not all. We will rout General Guildenstern and the invaders out of Franklin. And we will rout them out of Cloviston south of here, too. We'll push them over the River and back among the rabble of robbers who sent them forth. By all the gods, we will! My army!" He slammed down his fist. Silverware jumped on the linen. Wine jumped in the goblets.
Dan of Rabbit Hill's lips shaped a word. He didn't speak it out loud, but Thraxton, among his other arcane skills, had learned to read lips. He knew what that silent word was. Dan might as well have shouted it. Braggart.
King Avram's men called him Thraxton the Braggart. He'd sworn a great oath to beat them at Pottstown Pier, back when the war was young. He'd sworn it . . . and eventsbad luck, really; nothing morehad left him forsworn. He'd chased Guildenstern back into the Province of Cloviston, chased him almost to the Highlow River, and sworn an even greater oath to drive him out of Geoffrey's realm altogether. He'd sworn that second oath . . . but the hard battles of Reppyton and Reillyburgh, somehow, had gone no better for his cause and Geoffrey's despite the savage sorceries he'd loosed.
Braggart? He shook his head. He didn't see himself so. If anything, he felt put upon, put upon by fate and by the blundering idiots it was his misfortune to have to endure as subordinates. If only I led men worthy of me, he thought. Then everyone would know me for the hero I know I am.
Meanwhile . . . Meanwhile, Ned of the Forest stared steadily back across the table at him. "All right, your Grace," the backwoods ruffian said. "Remember you said that. I aim to hold you to it."
Arrogant dog, Thraxton thought. He muttered to himself. Not all sorcery was showy. Not all of it required elaborate preparation, either. He waited for Ned to leap up and run for the commode. The spell he'd just cast would have kept a normal man trotting for a couple of days.
But Ned of the Forest only sat where he was. For all the effect the magic had on him, he might have been carved from stone. Thraxton ran over the spell in his mind. He'd cast it correctly. He was sure of that. He's been drinking water all his life, he remembered. His bowels might as well be made of cast bronze.
His head, too. That piece of malice helped ease Thraxton's bile-filled spirit. So did the words of Leonidas the Priest: "So long as we all stand together, we shall drive Guildenstern back into the southron darkness whence he sprang. Rest assured, the Lion God will eat his soul." He made a certain sign with his fingers.
Thraxton, who was an initiate in those mysteries, made the answering gesture. So did Dan. Ned of the Forest kept on stolidly sitting. Scorn filled Thraxton. But why should I be surprised? The gods must hate him.
The serf brought in a honey cake piled high with plums and peaches and apricots. "A sweet, my lords?"
Count Thraxton took a small helping, more for politeness' sake than any other reason. Dan of Rabbit Hill and Leonidas matched him. Ned attacked the honey cake with the same gusto he'd shown with the pork roast. "Sir, you have crumbs in your beard," Leonidas remarked after a while.
"Thank you kindly," Ned replied, and brushed at his chin whiskersa surprisingly neat adornmentwith rough, callused fingers.
"How is it," Thraxton asked, "that your whiskers remain black while your hair is going gray?" Did fearsome Ned of the Forest resort to the dye bottle? If he did, would he admit it? If he didn't admit it, what clumsy lie would he tell? How ridiculous would he look in telling it?
Ned's smile was the one Thraxton might have seen over dueling sabers. But the ruffian's voice was light and mild as he answered, "Well, Count, I reckon it's likely on account of I use my brains more than my mouth."
Silence fell in the dining room, silence broken only by the serf's smothered guffaw. Thraxton turned a terrible look on the fellow, who first blushed all the way up to his pale hair, then went paler than that hair himself and precipitately fled.
"Any more questions, sir?" Ned asked with another carnivorous grin.
"Enough!" That wasn't Thraxton. He said nothing, reckoning Ned of the Forest would not listen to him if he did. But Dan of Rabbit Hill's voice commanded attention. Then Dan said, "Enough, the both of you."
"Sir?" Thraxton sounded winter-cold, the cold of a bad winter. "Do you presume to include me?"
"I do," Dan said stubbornly. "If you get people quarreling with youif we quarrel among ourselveswho wins? Avram the serf-stealer and the stinking southrons, that's who. Nobody else but."
"You're right," Ned said at once. "I'll let it lay where it's at. Count?"
"Very well." But Thraxton's voice remained frigid. It might not have, had Dan phrased his request a little differently. King Avram was the worst foe, true. But that did not mean no wretches, no enemies, marched behind King Geoffrey. And now Dan of Rabbit Hill had chosen to add himself to that list. Your time will come, Dan, Thraxton thought, yours and Ned's and everyone's.
"Up, you lazy sons of bitches!" somebody shouted. "Think you're going to sleep all bloody day? Not bloody likely, let me tell you."
Rollant's eyes flew open in something close to panic. For a horrid moment, he thought he was back on the indigo plantation outside of Karlsburg, and that the overseer would stick a boot in his ribs if he didn't head out for the swampy fields on the dead run.
Then the escaped serf let out a sigh of relief as full awareness returned. His pantaloons and tunic were dyed gray, not the blue of the indigo he'd slaved to grow. The traitors wore blue, not King Avram's men. And that wasn't the overseer screaming at him, only his sergeant. As a matter of fact, Sergeant Joram had more power over him than the overseer ever had, but Rollant didn't mind. When he joined Avram's host, he'd chosen to come under the rule of men like Joram. He'd never chosen to do as his one-time northern liege lord and overseer told him to do. He'd expressed his opinion of that relationship by fleeing to the south the first chance he gotand then again, after the serfcatchers ran him down with dogs and hauled him back to his liege lord's estate.
All around him, his squadmates were stirring and stretching and yawning and rubbing their eyes, as he was doing. Sergeant Joram roared at them as loudly as he roared at Rollant, though their hair was dark. Joram treated everyone like a serfor rather, like a free man in the army.
No, Rollant hadn't had to join King Avram's host to return to the north country to make war against the baron who'd chained him to the landthat was how he thought of the fight, in purely personal terms. He'd been making pretty good money as a carpenter down in New Eborac. He'd married a pretty blond girl he met there; her family had escaped feudal ties a couple of generations before. They had two towheaded children.
Norina had wept when he took King Avram's silver bit. "I have to," he told her. "Geoffrey and the northern nobles are trying to make sure we never get our place in the sun."
His wife hadn't understood. He knew that. Norina took for granted the freedom to go where she wanted when she wanted and do whatever she pleased once she got there. Why not? She'd enjoyed it all her life. Rollant hadn't, which made him realize exactly how precious it was.
Right now, that freedom consisted of standing in line along with a lot of other poorly shaved, indifferently clean men and snaking toward the big brass kettles hung above three fires. When Rollant got up to the fire to which his line led, a bored-looking cook slapped a ladleful of stew down on his tin plate. Rollant eyed it with distaste: barley boiled to death, mushy carrots, and bits of meat whose origin he probably didn't want to know. He'd eaten better back on the baron's estate.
"You want pheasant and asparagus, blond boy, you pay for 'em out of your own pocket," the cook growled. Rollant went off and sat on the ground to eat. The cook snarled at the dark-haired fellow behind him, too.
One of Rollant's squadmates, a youngster named Smitty, sat down beside him. He ate a spoonful of the stew and made a face. "The crocodile they threw in the stewpot died of old age," he said.
"Crocodile?" For a heartbeat or two, Rollant thought Smitty meant it. His horizons had expanded enormously since he'd escaped his liege lord, and even more since Norina taught him his letters, but he remained hideously vulnerable to having his leg pulled by men who'd been free to learn since birth. He took another spoonful himself. "Just a dead jackass, I think, or maybe one of the barons who live up here."
Smitty grinned at him. "Bet you'd like to see every traitor noble from Grand Duke Geoffrey on down boiling in a pot."
"That's what we're here for," Rollant said simply.
"And to keep the kingdom from breaking in two," Smitty said. "If Geoffrey gets away with this, Detinans'll be fighting wars among themselves forever."
"I suppose so." But Rollant couldn't get very excited about the idea. Smashing the nobles who held down serfs like himthat was something he understood in his belly.
He went down to a little stream to rinse his tin plate, then stuck it in the knapsack in which he carried most of his earthly goods. Along with the meager contents of the knapsack, he had a shortsword on his right hip (he always hoped not to have to use it, for he knew nothing of swordplay but hack, swing, and hope for the best), a quiver full of crossbow quarrels, and the crossbow itself.
He patted that crossbow as he took his place in the ranks for the day's march toward Rising Rock. It was a splendid weapon. All you had to do was pull to cock it, drop in a quarrel, aim, and squeeze the trigger. Thousands of flying crossbow bolts made battlefields very unhealthy places for unicornsand for the men who rode them. A quarrel would punch right through a shield, right through chain, and right through plate, too.
Smitty came up to stand beside him. "Did you ever shoot one of these things before you joined the host?" Rollant asked.
"On my father's farm, sureyou know, hunting for the pot," Smitty answered. "How about you?"
Rollant shook his head. "Never once. Northern nobles don't want serfs knowing how easy crossbows are to use. They're afraid we'd find out how easy they are to kill. And do you know what?" He grinned a ferocious grin. "They're right."
"Why do you say `we'?" Smitty asked. "You're not a serf any more. You haven't been one for a while."
"That's true," Rollant said in some surprise. "But it's not just something you can forget you ever were, either." The way he talked proved as much. Having grown up tied to his liege lord's land had marked him for lifescarred him for life, he often thought.
Sergeant Joram strutted up in front of the men. "Let's go!" he boomed. "Next stop is Rising Rock." Rollant cheered at that. So did most of the soldiers with him. They all knew Geoffrey and his forces couldn't afford to lose the town. They all knew he couldn't keep it, either, not with the small army he had there. Joram went on, "Any traitors get in our way, we smash 'em into the mud and march over 'em. That's all I've got to say about that."
More cheers rose. Rollant yelled till his throat hurt. The chance to smash the men who'd mistreated him was all he wanted. He'd dreamt of revenge for years, ever since he fled the north for New Eborac. In a way, he was almost grateful to Geoffrey and the other high lords who were trying to carve their own kingdom from the flesh of Detina. If they hadn't, he might never have got the chance to hit back.
Thin in the distance, trumpets blared at the head of the column. As with an uncoiling snake beginning to crawl, that head began to move before the tail. Rollant's company was somewhere near the middle. He breathed the dust the men ahead of him kicked up marching along the dirt road, and his feet and his comrades' raised more dust for the men behind them. His toes wiggled inside his stout marching boots. He'd rarely worn boots, or shoes of any kind, on Baron Ormerod's estate near Karlsburg.
Through the haze of reddish dust, Sentry Peak punctuated the skyline to the northwest. Most of the countryside hereabouts was pretty flat; were it otherwise, Sentry Peak would have been named Sentry Knob or some such, or perhaps wouldn't have been named at all. Rising Rock lay by the foot of the mountain. West of Rising Rock swelled the lower elevation of Proselytizers' Rise, named after the bold souls who'd preached about their gods when Detina was first being colonized from the west. Rollant's early relatives hadn't cared to listen; they'd had gods of their own, and the proselytizers had got no farther than the rise.
Rollant knew the names of the gods his forefathers had worshiped, and some of their attributes. He believed in them, but didn't worship them himself. The settlers' gods had proved themselves stronger.
And so has our southron army, he thought. Most of the war had been fought in the traitors' lands. They'd mounted a couple of invasions of the south, but had been beaten back each time. When Rising Rock fell, they'd be driven out of Franklin altogether. Rollant's hands tightened on the crossbow he carried. He wanted the northern nobles to pay for everything they'd done.
Where was his own liege lord? Somewhere in one of Geoffrey's armiesRollant was sure of that. Baron Ormerod wouldn't be a great marshal; he hadn't owned estates wide enough for that, and he was no mighty mage. But he was convinced the gods said he had the right to keep serfs on the land whether they wanted to stay there or not.
A farmer looked up from the field he was cultivating as Rollant's company marched past. He was old and stooped with endless years of labor; otherwise he probably would have been fighting for Geoffrey, too. Shaking his fist at the men in gray, he shouted, "By the seven hells, why don't you sons of bitches get on home and leave us alone? We never done nothing to you."
Rollant pushed his way to the edge of the company so the farmer could see him. "Say that again!" he called to the northern man. "Go aheadtry and make me believe it. I could use a good laugh."
"You!" The fellow shook his fist again. "Wasn't for your kind, we wouldn't have no trouble. I hope the Lion God bites your balls off, you stinking runaway."
Rollant started to bring up his bow and pull back the string, then checked himself and laughed instead. "What's funny?" Smitty asked him. "Nobody would've blamed you for shooting that bugger."
"I was just thinkinghe hasn't got any serfs of his own," Rollant answered. "He couldn't dream of a farm big enough to work with serfs. Look at his homespun tunic. Look at those miserable pantaloonsout at the knees, a patch on the arse. But he thinks he's a duke because his hair is brown."
"A lot of these northerners think like that," Smitty said. "If they didn't, Grand Duke Geoffrey would have to fight the war by himself, because nobody would follow him."
"Conquerors," Rollant muttered darkly. His own people had had real kingdoms in the north when the Detinans landed on the coast. They'd had bronze spearheads and ass-drawn chariotswhich hadn't kept them from going down to defeat before the iron-armored, unicorn-riding invaders, whose magecraft had proved more potent, too. In the south, blonds had been thinner on the ground, and more easily and thoroughly caught up in the kingdom that grew around them.
Such musings vanished from his head when a troop of unicorns ridden by men in blue burst out of the pine woods behind the farmer's fields and thundered toward his company. "Geoffrey!" the riders roared as their mounts galloped over and doubtless ruined the crops of the northerner with the ragged pantaloons and the lordly attitude.
General Guildenstern's army had unicorn-riders, too. They were supposed to keep enemy cavalry off King Avram's footsoldiers. But Geoffrey's riders had proved better all through the war. They looked likely to be better here, for no gray-clad men on unicornback were in position to get between them and Rollant and his companions.
"In line to the right flank! Two ranks!" shouted Captain Cephas, the company commander. "Shoot as you find your markno time for volleys."
Close by, another officer was yelling, "Pikemen forward! Hurry, curse you! Get in front of those unicorns!"
The pikemen did hurry. But the troop of riders had chosen their moment well. Rollant could see that the pikemen wouldn't get there fast enough.
Because he'd gone over to the side of the road to shout at the farmer, he was among the crossbowmen closest to the on-thundering unicorns. That put him in the first rank. He dropped to one knee so his comrades in the second rank could shoot over him. Then it was the drill swearing sergeants had pounded into him: yank back the crossbow string, lay the quarrel in the groove, bring the weapon to his shoulder, aim along the two iron studs set into the stock, pull the trigger.
The crossbow bucked against his shoulder. Other triggers all around him clicked, too. A unicorn crashed to the ground. Another fell over it, sending its rider flying. A northerner threw up his hands and slid off his mount's tail, thudding to the ground as bonelessly as a sack of lentils. A wounded unicorn screamed and reared.
But most of the troop came on. They smashed past the pikemen before the wall of spearheads could fully form. Rollant had time for only two shots before he had to throw down his crossbow and snatch out his sword. He might not be very good with it, but if it wouldn't save his life, nothing would.
A unicorn's horn spitted the crossbowman beside him. The fellow on the unicorn slashed at Rollant with his saber. Rollant got his own sword up just in time to turn the blow. Sparks flew as iron belled off iron. The unicorn pressed on. When the northerner slashed again, it was at someone else. He laid a crossbowman's face open, and shouted in triumph as the fellow shrieked.
Rollant stabbed the unicorn in the hindquarters. Its scream was shrill as a woman's. It reared, blood pouring from the wound. While the rider, taken by surprise, tried to fight it back under control, Rollant stabbed him, too, in the thigh. More blood spurted, astonishingly red. Rollant could smell the blood. That iron stink put him in mind of butchering day on Ormerod's estate. The rider bellowed like a just-castrated bullock. Then a pikeman ran up and thrust him through from behind. Ever so slowly, he toppled from his mount.
Surviving northerners broke free of the press and galloped away. King Avram's unicorns came up just in time to chase them as they went. Smitty said, "They paid a price today, by the gods." He had a cut over one eye, and didn't seem to know it.
"That they did." Rollant rammed his shortsword into the ground to clean off the blood. Baron Ormerod had always screamed at his serfs to take care of theirhisironmongery. Rollant looked at the bodies strewn like broken dolls, and at the groaning wounded helped by their comrades and by the healers. Even as he watched, a healer cut the throat of a southron too terribly gashed and torn to hope to recover. "They paid a price, sure enough," Rollant said. "But so did we."
General James of Broadpath was a belted earl. The northern noble needed a good deal of belt to span his own circumference, and had to ride a unicorn that would otherwise have made a career of hauling great jars of wine from hither to yon. Despite his girth, though, he'd proved a gifted soldier; few of the commanders who fought under the Duke of Arlington had done more to keep Avram's larger host from rampaging through the province of Parthenia and laying siege to Nonesuch, the town in which Grand Duke Geoffreyno, King Geoffreyhad established his capital.
With a little more luck, James thought, just a little more, mind you, we would have been laying siege to Georgetown, and hanging Avram from the flagpole in front of the Black Palace. We came close. Sighing, he stroked his beard, which spilled in curly dark ringlets halfway down his broad chest. Close counted even less in war than any other time.
Now the struggle in Parthenia seemed stalemated. However much mead the southron commander swilled, he'd beaten back Edward of Arlington's invasion of the south and followed him into Geoffrey's territory when he had to retreat. Neither army, at the moment, was up to doing much.
Which meant . . . Earl James studied the map pinned down to the folding table in his silk pavilion. He rumbled something down deep in his chest. His beard and soup-strainer mustache so muffled it, even he couldn't make out the words. That might have been just as well.
He shook his head. He knew better. And what he knew had to be said, however unpalatable it might prove when it came out in the open.
Muttering still, he left the tent and stepped out into the full muggy heat of late summer in Parthenia. He'd known worsehe'd been born farther north, in Palmetto Provincebut that didn't mean he enjoyed this. No one of his build could possibly enjoy summer in Parthenia.
The sentries in front of Duke Edward's pavilion (rather plainer than James'; Edward cared little about comfort, while the Earl of Broadpath relished it) stiffened into upright immobility when they saw James drawing near. Returning their salutes, he asked, "Is the duke in?"
"Yes, your Excellency," they chorused. One ducked into the pavilion. He returned a moment later, followed by Duke Edward.
James came to attention and tried to make his chest stick out farther than his bellya losing effort. Saluting, he said, "Good evening, sir."
"And a good evening to you as well, your Excellency," Edward of Arlington replied. In his youth, he was said to have been the handsomest man in Detina. These days, his neat white beard proved him nearer sixty than fifty, but he remained a striking figure: tall and straight and, unlike Earl James of Broadpath, slim. "What can I do for you today?"
"Your Grace, I've been looking at the map," James said.
Duke Edward nodded. "Always a commendable exercise." Back in the days before war broke Detina in two, he'd headed the officers' collegium at Annasville for a time. Even before then, he'd been known as a soldier who fought with his head as well as his heart. Now he went on, "Perhaps you'll come in with me and show me what you've seen."
"Thank you, sir. I was hoping to do just that," James said. Duke Edward held the tentflap wide for him with his own handstill one of the sentries, scandalized that he should do such menial service, took the cloth from him. Grunting a little, James bent at what had been his waist and ducked his way into the pavilion.
A couple of rock-oil lamps burned within, one by Edward's table, the other next to his iron-framed camp bed. The stink of the oil made James' nostrils twitch. The sight of the camp bed made him wince. He wouldn't have cared to try to sleep in anything so . . . uncompromising. Not for the first time, Duke Edward put him in mind of a military saint: not a common breed in Detinan history. James, never modest about his own achievements, reckoned himself a pretty fair soldier, but he was willing to admit sainthood beyond him.
Putting on a pair of gold-framed spectacles, Edward said, "And what have you seen, your Excellency? I presume it pertains to our army?"
"Well, no, sir, or not directly," Earl James answered, and his superior raised a curious eyebrow, inviting him to continue. He did: "I don't expect we'll be doing much fighting here in southern Parthenia for the rest of this campaigning season."
"That has something to do with what the mead-swiller who commands Avram's army has in mind," Edward observed, "but, on the whole, I believe you are likely to prove correct. What of it?"
"We're hard pressed in the east, your Grace," James said. "By all reports, Count Thraxton will have to fall back from Rising Rock, and that's a heavy loss. We've already lost Wesleyton, and Ramblerton and Luxor fell early in the war. Without any toehold at all in the province of Franklin, how can we hope to win?"
"Sometimes the gods give us difficulties to see how we surmount them," Duke Edward said.
As far as James was concerned, that was more pious than helpful. He said, "By himself, I don't see how Thraxton can surmount this difficulty. He hasn't got enough men to hope to beat General Guildenstern. Who was it who said the gods love the big battalions? Some foreigner or other."
"A gloomy maxim, and one we have done our best to disprove here in Partheniabut, I fear, one with some truth in it even so," the duke said. "Do you have in mind some way to get around it?"
"I hope so, sir," James replied. "If you could send my army and me to the east, we would be enough to bring Count Thraxton up close to even in numbers with the accursed southrons. If we match them in numbers, we can beat them on the battlefield." He spoke with great conviction.
Duke Edward frownedand, in frowning, did indeed look a great deal like a sorrowing saint. "I should hate to weaken the Army of Southern Parthenia to the extent you suggest. If that mead-swiller should bestir himself, we'd be hard pressed to stand against him."
"I do understand that, your Grace," James of Broadpath persisted. "But he seems content to stay where he is for the time being, while Guildenstern presses Thraxton hard. If he weren't pressing the Braggart hard, our army wouldn't have to pull out of Rising Rock."
Edward of Arlington's frown deepened. Maybe he didn't care to hear Count Thraxton's nickname spoken openly. Or maybe, and perhaps more likely, he just wasn't used to anyone presuming to disagree with him. King Geoffrey was admired in the northern realm. Duke Edward was admired, loved, almost worshiped. Had he wanted the crown, he could have had it. He'd never shown the least interest. Even Geoffrey, who mistrusted his own shadow, trusted Edward.
Earl James trusted Edward, too. But he didn't believe Edward was always right. Usuallyno doubt of that. But not always.
"Holding our army between the southrons and Nonesuch is the most important thing we can do," Edward said.
Most of the duke's subordinates would have given up in the face of such a flat statement. James, perhaps, had a larger notion of his own self-worth. Or perhaps he'd simply spent too long brooding over the maps in his own pavilion. He stuck out his chins and said, "Your Grace, we can lose the war here in Parthenia, yes. But we can also lose it in the east. If Franklin falls, if the southrons flood through the gaps in the mountains and storm up through Peachtree Province toward Marthasvillewell, how do we go on with them in our heartland?"
"Surely Count Thraxton's men and his magecraft may be relied upon to prevent any such disaster," Duke Edward said stiffly.
"If Count Thraxton were as fine a soldier as the king thinks he is, if he were as fine a wizard as he thinks he is, he wouldn't be falling back into Peachtree Province now," James replied. "He'd have Guildenstern on the run instead."
One of Edward's gray eyebrows rose again. "It would appear you are determined to do this thing, your Excellency."
"I am, your Grace," James said.
"You do realize that, even if you were sent to the east, you would serve under Count Thraxton, he being of higher rank than you," Edward said.
You would serve under the man you've just called a blunderer, was what he meant, though he was too gracious to say any such thing. James of Broadpath sighed. "The good of the kingdom comes first," he declared. "It is my duty" my accursed, unpleasant duty "to serve its needs before mine."
And there, for the first time in the conversation, he touched a chord with Duke Edward, who bowed to him and said, "Duty is the sublimest word in Detinan. You cannot do more than your duty. Prepare a memorial proposing this move, and I shall submit it to his Majesty with the recommendation that it be approved."
"Thank you, your Grace," James replied, bowing in return. He wondered why he was thanking the duke. Serving under Edward was sometimes humbling but more often a pleasure and always an education. Serving under Thraxton, by everything James had heard, was an invitation to an apoplexy. Hesitantly, he said, "Tell me it isn't true, sir, that Count Thraxton once picked a quarrel with himself."
"I believe that, as regimental quartermaster, he refused to issue himself something to which, as company commander, he believed himself entitled," Edward saidwhich meant it was true.
James grimaced. "I wish the king would have found someone, anyone, else to command our armies in the east. Thraxton . . . is not a lucky man."
"He is the man we have," Duke Edward replied. "As I told you, he is the man under whom you will serve if your army fares east. Bear that in mind, your Excellency. Also bear in mind that, from all reports, Count Thraxton requires prompt, unquestioning obedience from those under his command."
"I understand, your Grace," James said. Unquestioning obedience didn't come easy to him. The duke had to know as much; James had never been afraid to tell him he was wrong when he believed that to be so. And James had been right a couple of times, too. If the charge hadn't gone up that hill by Essoville in the face of massed stone- and dart-throwers and whole brigades of crossbowmen sheltered behind stone walls . . . It had been grand. It had been glorious. It had also been a gruesome disaster. James had warned it would be. Duke Edward had thought one more push would carry the day against the southrons. If it had . . . But it hadn't.
To his credit, the duke had never shown the least resentment against James for proving himself correct. "Do always bear in mind," Edward said now, "that Thraxton will do as he will do, and that he makes all the vital decisions for his army himself." He was still driving home that same point.
"Rest assured, sir, I shall never forget it," James of Broadpath replied. "But I also know that we here in the west have learned more about how to fight a war than they know in the east. Let me get my men there and I will show Count Thraxton and everyone else how it's done." He bowed to Duke Edward. "After all, I've studied under the finest schoolmaster."
Courteous and modest as always, Edward murmured, "You do me too much honor, your Excellency," while returning the bow. He went on, "As I told you, I shall forward your request to King Geoffrey with my favorable endorsement. I do not promise that that will guarantee his approval, of course."
"Of course," James said. Even more than Count Thraxton, King Geoffrey was a law unto himself. Maybe that was why he left Thraxton in command in the east: one kindred spirit recognizing another.
"Even so, however," Duke Edward continued, "you might do well to keep your men ready to move to a glideway at a moment's notice."
"Yes, sir!" James said. The duke bowed again, this time in dismissal. More pleased with himself than he'd expected to be, Earl James left his commander's pavilion.
On the way back to his own, he met Brigadier Bell, who commanded a division of his army. With his flowing beard and fierce, proud features, Bell had been called the Lion God enfleshed. These days, he looked more like a suffering god; he'd had his left arm smashed and ruined two days before the charge up that ill-omened hill by Essoville. The wound still tormented him. The shrunken pupils of his eyes showed how much laudanum he used to hold the pain at bay.
"Will we go, your Excellency?" he asked James. Wounded or not, drugged or not, he was always readyalways eagerto go toward battle.
"Duke Edward will endorse the proposal and pass it on to the king," James said. "The decision is Geoffrey's, but the duke thinks he will approve." Bell whooped. James asked him, "General, can you fight?"
"I can't hold a shield, but what of it?" Bell replied gaily. "So long as I am smiting the foe, the foe can't very well smite me."
"Stout fellow," James of Broadpath said. He made as if to pat Bell on the shoulder, but arrested the motion, not wanting to cause the man more pain. Bell was like a falcon: take the hood off him at the right time, fly him at the enemy, and he'd always come back with blood on his claws. And if King Geoffrey uses me as I use Bell . . . well, fair enough, James thought. It is the duty I owe the kingdom. A moment later, he had another thought: Duke Edward would approve.
Ned of the Forest preferred camping out with his unicorn-riders to going into Rising Rock to sup with Count Thraxton. Ned had nothing in particular against Rising Rock, or against any other town. He'd served on the burghers' council in Luxor before Avram became king, and he liked the luxuries only town living afforded. But supping with Thraxton was another business altogether.
"You ever go to a dinner where you wished you had yourself a taster on account of you wonder if the fellow who invited you put something nasty in the food?" he asked one of his regimental commanders.
To his surprise, Colonel Biffle nodded. "Happened once, sir. The fellow who invited me was afraid one of the other gents there was too friendly with his wife. If he'd wanted to poison him, he might've botched things and poisoned some other folks, toome, for instance." Ned had trouble imagining anyone wanting to poison Biffle, who was as good-natured a man as had ever been born.
Thraxton, on the other hand . . . "The serf who nursed our army commander, Colonel, must've been a wench with sour milk."
Biffle laughed, a big, comfortable laugh from a big, comfortable man. "I expect you can handle him, Brigadier," he said. He was a viscount and Ned a man of no birth, but he deferred to the commander of unicorns as if it were the other way round. Most men did.
But Ned's shrug was anything but satisfied. "I shouldn't have to try and handle him, Colonel," he said. "Guildenstern and the gods-accursed southrons should be the ones who have to handle him. I tell you, I spoke frankly to him this evening, and I'd take oath he tried to magic me afterwards."
At that, Colonel Biffle's round, pleasant face did take on a look of alarm. "Are you sure you're hale, sir? Whatever else you may say about him, Thraxton's a formidable wizard."
"Not formidable enough," Ned answered. "Miserable old he-witch has had a whole pile of chances to kick Avram's men right in the slats. Has he done it? I'll tell you what he's donewe're going to have to clear out of Rising Rock, on account of he didn't see Guildenstern coming till he was almost here."
"We really are going to have to leave, sir?" Biffle asked unhappily.
"No doubt about it. Not even a tiny piece of doubt," Ned said, more unhappily still. "If we stay where we're at, the southrons'll run roughshod over us in spite of the great and famous Count Thraxton the Braggart's mighty sorcery. They've got cursed near twice the men we doof course they'd run roughshod over us. Then they'd bag the whole stinking army, and Rising Rock, too. This way, they just get Rising Rock. Happy day! And once we're done running, Thraxton'll make it sound like a victory to King Geoffrey. He always does." He spat on the ground in disgust.
"What can we do if they run us on into Peachtree Province?" Biffle asked.
"Hit back some kind of way, Colonel. That's all I can tell you," Ned replied. "You want to know how, you'll have to ask Thraxton the Braggart. It'll be a fine thing, him commanding the Army of Franklin when it's really the army that got run clean out of Franklin." He spat again.
Colonel Biffle wandered off, shaking his head. Ned of the Forest didn't wander. He stalked. He'd eaten his fill with Thraxton, but he checked the cookpots from which his riders ate to make sure the cooks were doing their job. Count Thraxton, no doubt, would have turned up his nose at the foodbut then, Count Thraxton turned up his nose at just about everything and everyone. This was what Ned ate most of the time. Not least because he ate it most of the time, it wasn't bad.
His troopers, those of them still awake, tended their unicorns, currying the white, white hair or picking pebbles out from between their hooves and the iron shoes they wore or doctoring small hurts. Ned nodded approval. "Way to go, boys," he called. "Take care of your animals and they'll take care of you."
"That's right, General," one of the riders answered. "That's just right."
"You bet it is." Ned nodded again, emphatically this time, and the rider grinned at having his commander agree with him. Ned grinned, too. What a liar I'm getting to be, he thought. Oh, he took good care of his unicorns when he wasn't riding one of them into a fight, too. But when he did take saber in hand . . . He tried to remember how many unicorns he'd had killed out from under him since he went to war for King Geoffrey. Eighteen? Nineteen? Something like that. The generals who were known for their mountsDuke Edward of Arlington, for instancedidn't take their beasts into battle.
Ned shrugged. He didn't care about any one unicorn nearly so much as he cared about licking the southrons. He could always get himself another mount. If King Avram prevailed, he couldn't very well get himself another kingdom.
There was his pavilion, and there were the serfs who took care of the cavalry's baggage wagons and the asses and unicorns that hauled them. The big blond mensome of them bigger and stronger than Ned, who was a big, strong man himselfgathered round the general. They were all his retainersnot quite his serfs, since he had no patent of nobility, but he looked out for them and they looked out for him.
They all carried knives. Had they wanted to mob him and melt off into the countryside or run away to the southrons afterwards, they could have. They didn't. By all appearances, it never entered their minds. One reason for that, perhaps, was that Ned never let it seem as if it entered his mind, either.
He ruffled the pale hair of the biggest and strongest serf. "Well, Darry, what do you hear?" Folk with dark hair often ran their mouths as if serfs had no more notion of what was going on than did horses or unicorns. Ned had taken advantage of that a good many times. His drivers and hostlers made pretty fair informal spies.
This time, though, Darry answered, "Is it true we've got to skedaddle out of Rising Rock? Don't want to believe it, but it's what people say."
"They say it on account of it's true, and may the gods fry Thraxton the Braggart for making it true," Ned answered. His serfs already knew what he thought of his commander. They chuckled and nudged one another, vastly amused to hear one dark-haired lord pour scorn on another.
A sly blond named Arris asked, "How will we keep Franklin if we can't stay in Rising Rock?"
"That's a good question," Ned answered. "Drop me in the seven hells if I know. Drop Thraxton in the seven hells if he knows, either. And drop him past the seven hells if the thought ever got into his tiny little mind before he let Guildenstern flank him out of this place." That set the serfs nudging and chuckling again.
Arris asked, "But how will we get our farms, boss, if those gods-hated southrons keep pushing us back?"
In the days when the war was youngdays that seemed a thousand years gone nowNed had promised to take the bonds from all the serfs who served him through the fighting, and to set them up as yeomen with land of their own. Free blond farmers weren't common in the northern provinces of Detina, but they weren't unknown, either, especially in the wild northeast from which Ned himself had sprung.
Now he shrugged. "One way or another, boys, you'll get yourselves farms. If I can't give 'em to you, you'll have 'em from the southrons. King Avram says so, doesn't he? And if King Avram says something, it must be so, isn't that right?"
Just as the serfs might have mobbed him and fled, they might have said yes to that and put their hope in the southron king rather than in Ned. But they didn't. They cursed Avram as fiercely as any other northern man in indigo pantaloons might have done. Ned laughed to hear them, laughed and ruffled their yellow hair and punched them in the shoulder, as a man will do among other men he likes well.
"If you people haven't given up on King Geoffrey, I don't reckon I can, either," Ned said. He nodded to Darry. "Saddle me a unicorn. I'm going to ride out and see exactly where the southrons are at." He tossed his head in fine contempt. "It's not like anybody'll know unless I go out and see for myself, I'll tell you that for a fact. Thraxton's the best stinking wizard in the world, right up to the time somebody really needs his magic. Then he flunks."
"Yes, Lord Ned," Darry said. "I'll get you a beast." As Ned ducked into his pavilion, Darry and the other serfs spoke in low voices full of awe. Ned chuckled to himself. The blonds, back in the days before the Detinans came from overseas, had worshiped a pack of milksop godlets that couldn't hold night demons at bay. They still walked in fear after the sun went down. Ned, now, Ned feared no night demons. With the Lion God and the Thunderer and the Hunt Lady and all the rest on his side, any demon that tried clamping its jaws on him would find it had made a bad mistake.
Outside the pavilion, one of the serfs said, "Ned, he could go up against a night demon without any gods behind him, and he'd still rip its guts out."
"Of course he would," another serf answered. "He's Ned."
Ned grinned as he tested the edge of his saber with his thumb. The blade would do. And he wasn't so sure the blonds were wrong, either. Fortunately, he didn't have to find out. He knew the strong gods, and they knew him.
When he went out again, the unicorn awaited him. He would have been astonished had it been otherwise. Handing him the reins, Darry said, "You make sure you come back safe now, boss." Real anxiety filled his voice. If Ned didn't come back safe, how many northern officers were likely to honor his pledges to the men who served him? Would Count Thraxton, for instance? Ned laughed at the idea, though Darry wouldn't have found it funny.
None of Ned's pickets challenged him when he rode east toward the enemy. None of them knew he'd gone by. He didn't think of himself as a mage. Soldiers who did think of themselves so usually made him bristleThraxton sprang to mind. But he was Ned of the Forest. However he got it, he had a knack for pulling shadow and quiet around himself like a mask. Few could penetrate it unless he chose to let them.
Owls hooted. Somewhere off toward Sentry Peak, a wildcat yowled. Mosquitoes buzzed and bit. Ned slapped and cursed. He might cloak himself from the minds of men. Mosquitoes had no minds, not to speak of. They didn't care who he was. They probably bit Thraxton with just as much abandon. Or maybe not, Ned thought scornfully. Why should they like sour wine any more than people do? That made him want to laugh and curse at the same time.
The moon, low in the east, came out from behind a pale, puffy cloud and spilled ghostly light over the fields. Forests remained black and impenetrable, even close by the road. Maybe night demons really did den in them. If so, none came forth to try conclusions with Ned. Confident in his own strength, he rode on.
Ahead in the distance, lights twinkled like fireflies: the campfires of Guildenstern's army, King Avram's army, the army of invaders. "Why can't they just leave us alone?" Ned muttered under his breath. "We weren't doing them any harm. We weren't about to do them any harm."
But the southrons were pushing close to Rising Rock, close to driving King Geoffrey's men out of Franklin altogether. To force them back, to make sure Geoffrey's kingdom stayed a kingdom, someone would have to strike them a blow. Ned of the Forest shook his head in frustrated fury. Count Thraxton wasn't going to do it. Count Thraxton was going to tuck his tail between his legs and skedaddle up into Peachtree Province.
"And he's a great general? He's a great mage?" Ned of the Forest shook his head again, this time dismissing the idea out of hand. Thraxton bragged a fine brag, but the proof of those lay in living up to them. Had Thraxton done that even once, the southrons could never have come so far.
Ned rode through open woods toward the campfires. The fires lay even closer to Rising Rock than he'd thought they would. He shook his fist at them. He'd grown rich and important hunting down runaway serfs and hauling them back to their liege lords. If Avram broke the feudal bonds that held serfs to their lords' estates, how would he stay rich? He would he stay important? He saw no wayand so he fought.
He was musing thusdark thoughts in dark nightwhen a sudden sharp challenge rang out from ahead: "Halt! Who comes?"
"A friend," Ned answered, reining in in surprise. He usually came and went as he chose, with no one the wiser. Maybe his dark mood had let his protection falteror maybe the nervous sentry had a mage close by. Putting an officer's snap in his voice, Ned asked, "What regiment is this?"
"Twenty-seventh, of the third division." That came at once, followed a couple of heartbeats later by a grudging, "Sir."
It told Ned what he needed to know. The southrons, merchants and bookkeepers in their very souls, numbered their regiments. King Geoffrey's were known by their commanders' names. The "friend" ahead was an enemy. Ned said, "I am going to ride on down a little ways and find a better crossing for the stream ahead."
He steered his unicorn into deeper shadows, and then away. The southron sentry didn't shoot. As Ned headed back to his own encampment, he cursed under his breath. He'd found out what he needed to know, but he didn't much care for it.
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