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"Come on, boys," General George boomed. "You'll never catch up with the traitors if you don't move faster than that."
"Why didn't you turn traitor, the way Duke Edward did?" one of the crossbowmen in gray returned. "You're from Parthenia, just like him. And if you were fighting on the other side, whoever'd be leading us now wouldn't march us so stinking hard."
"Oh, I doubt that," George said, and all the soldiers who heard him laughed. He knew they called him Doubting George. He didn't mind. They could have called him plenty worseone brigadier in King Avram's army was known, though not to his face, as Old Bowels. George went on, "Any officer worth his pantaloons would push you hard now, because we're going to run Count Thraxton clean out of this province."
"You don't think he'll fight us, sir?" asked another crossbowman, this one a yellow-haired fellow whose liege lord was probably still looking for him.
"I hope he does, by the gods," George answered. He'd had some serfs on his own family lands in Parthenia, but holding Detina together under the rightful king came first for him. "If he doesn't run away himself, we'll run him out, and we'll smash up his army while we're doing it."
"What about Thraxton's magic, General?" a soldier asked him: another blond likely to have come out of the north. He sounded a little nervous. Serfs, even escaped serfs, often had reason to be nervous about northern nobles' magecraft.
But George just laugheda deep, rolling chortle that made everyone who could hear him look his way. "I doubt you've got much to worry about," he said, which made the crossbowmen and pikemen close by laugh again, too. "If Thraxton's magic were half as good as he brags it is, those bastards in blue would be down in the Five Lakes country by now, instead of us pushing on them. Besides, it's not like we haven't got mages of our own."
He waved to the gray-robed contingent of scholarly-looking men on assback accompanying the long columns of crossbowmen and the blocks of pikemen and the squadrons of unicorn-riders at the army's front and wings. Most of the soldiers nodded, relieved and reassured.
George wasn't so sure he'd reassured himself. The southron mages just didn't look like men of war. They looked as if they would be more at home as healers or stormstoppers or diviners or fabricators who helped the manufactories in the southwest turn out the crossbows and quarrels and spearheads and catapults without which a modern army couldn't go about its murderous business. And the wizards had excellent reason for looking that way. Almost all of them were healers or stormstoppers or diviners or fabricators. They'd had to learn military magecraft from the ground up after Grand Duke Geoffrey chose to contest Avram's succession.
Things were different up in the north. The tradition of military magecraft had never died out there, as it had in the south. Instead, northern nobles used the sorceries that had helped their ancestors win the land to help hold down the serfs those ancestors had conquered. In the early days of the war, they'd embarrassed Avram's armies again and again.
Doubting George knew one reason he'd risen swiftly through the ranks was that, as a Parthenian who'd held serfs, he'd known some of the northern spells and how to block them. He'd never systematically studied sorcery, as Count Thraxton and some of the other northern commanders had, but he'd never panicked when it was used against him, as, for instance, Fighting Joseph had when Duke Edward's magic cast a cloud of confusion on the southrons and let him win the Battle of Viziersville despite being outnumbered worse than two to one.
A scout on unicornback rode up to General George. Saluting, he said, "Sir, there are stone fences up ahead with northern men behind them. They started shooting at us when we got close."
"Are there? Did they?" George said, and the scout nodded. The general rapped out the next important questions: "How many of them? Is it Count Thraxton's whole army?" Eagerness coursed through him. If Thraxton wanted to make a fight of it this side of Rising Rock, he'd gladly oblige the Braggart.
But the rider, to his disappointment, shook his head. "No, sir, doesn't look that way, nor even close. If I had to guess, I'd say they were just trying to slow us down a bit before we go on into Rising Rock."
"It could be." George looked ahead, to Sentry Peak in the northwest and Proselytizers' Rise due west but farther away. "Maybe they're buying some time to let their army pull out. All right." Decision crystallized. "If they want us to shift them, we'll do the job." He pointed toward the center, off to his right. "Go tell General Guildenstern what you just told me, and tell him we're moving against the foe."
"Yes, sir." With another salute, the rider pounded off to obey.
Now, George thought, how long will it be before Guildenstern sticks his long, pointed nose into my business? Not very long, or I don't know himand I know him much too well. With Thraxton the Braggart in command of Geoffrey's armies in the east, King Avram's men should long since have smashed this treason. With General Guildenstern in command of the southrons, George supposed he ought to thank the gods that the traitors hadn't long since smashed the armies loyal to the rightful king.
Meanwhile, before Guildenstern could get his hands on this fightwhich Doubting George duly doubted he would handle wellthe army's second-in-command decided to take charge of it. "Deploy from column into line!" he shouted. Lesser officers echoed his orders; trumpeters spread them farther than men's voices readily carried. "Pikemen forward! Crossbowmen in ranks behind! Cavalry to the flanks to hold off the enemy's unicorns." He didn't really expect Thraxton's men to make any sort of mounted attack, but he didn't believe in taking chances, either.
The soldiers under his command went through their evolutions with precision drilled into them by scores of cursing sergeants on meadows and in city parks and sometimes on city streets all through the southern provinces of Detina. Hardly any of them had been soldiers before King Avram began levying troops from his vassals and from the yeomanry of the countryside and from the free cities and towns that had stayed loyal to him. But they moved like veterans now. Most of them were veterans now, and had seen as much hard fighting as professional soldiers often did in a liftetime's service during quieter days.
And then George shouted another order: "Mages forward! Cavalry screen for the wizards!"
Some of the gray-robed men on assback nodded and urged their small, ill-favored mounts up to the best trot the beasts could give. Others looked startled and apprehensive. George wanted to laugh at them. In many cases, they'd been in the field as long as the footsoldiers, who knew exactly what was expected of them. But the mages never stopped acting surprised.
George spurred his own unicorn. With an indignant snort, the beast bounded forward. George always wanted to see for himself; one of the things that had won him his nickname was his reluctance to trust other people's reports. He'd seen too many things go wrong because scouts brought back mistaken news or because a senior officer, not having examined the situation or the ground for himself, gave the wrong orders.
As George rode up to the top of a low hill and looked ahead, he found that things to the west did look much as the scout had described them. Not a lot of northerners were delaying the army's advance, but they had stone fencesthe likely border markers between two farmsto hide behind. One crossbowman shooting from cover was worth several out in the open.
A moment later, George discovered the enemy didn't have only crossbowmen slowing up his advance. Trailing smoke, something large and heavy flew through the air toward his forwardmost unicorns. When it hit the groundfarther from the foe than even a crossbowman could shootit burst in a ball of fire. That was half artisans' work, half mages'. The flame caught one unicorn and its rider. They dashed off, both screaming, both burning.
"Catapults forward, Brigadier Brannan!" Doubting George shouted. "If they want to play those games with us, we'll make 'em think the seven hells start just behind those fences."
His army had more and better missile-throwers than did the men who followed Grand Duke Geoffrey. The northerners had looked down their noses at the mechanic arts till they discovered they needed them. But serfs and artisans could not match manufactories, no matter how they tried.
Up came the catapults. Brannan was a good officer. Doubting George kicked himself for not having ordered the engines forward with the cavalry. The northerners, surely, would not rush from cover to attack the catapults. They would be asking for massacre if they did. They might be bravethey undoubtedly were bravebut they weren't stupid.
Firepots flew through the air toward the catapults as they deployed. So did large stones: altogether unsorcerous, but highly effective. A stone smashed one machine, and several of the men who served it. Another catapult sent a cloud of dirty black smoke into the sky. The rest of the crews stolidly went about their business. In mere minutes, they were flinging missiles back at the northerners.
Some of their stones smashed against the fences. Some of their firepots burst in front of or against the fences, too. That was spectacular, especially from George's hilltop view, but accomplished nothing. But most of the missiles made it over the fences and fell among the enemy soldiers beyond. The northerners stirred and boiled, like ants when their hill was disturbed.
"That's the way to shift them!" George shouted, and ordered a runner to go on down to the catapult crews and tell them so. "Those buggers won't be able to stand against us for long if we keep dropping things on their heads."
Other catapults turned the business of pelting the foe with crossbow quarrels into something that might have come straight from a manufactory rather than out of a general's manual of stratagems. An operator at the right side of each dart-throwing engine worked a windlass connected to the engine's cocking mechanism by means of flat-link chains each turning on a pair of five-sided gears. Another operator fed sheaf after sheaf of arrows into a hopper above the launching groove. When the devices worked well, each one was worth several squads of crossbowmen. When they didn'tand they often didn'ttheir crews spent inordinate amounts of time attacking them with wrenches and pliers.
Today, they were working as well as Doubting George had ever seen them. Their operators had them angled high so their darts plunged down over the fences and onto the enemy crossbowmen just beyond. George smiled and called for another runner. "Order the pikemen and crossbowmen to advance on the walls there," he told the youngster. "They'll be able to get up to them and over without too much trouble, or I miss my guess."
But before the second runner could carry that command to the footsoldiers, lightning struck from a clear blue sky and smote one of the dart-throwers. The great ball of flame that burst from it made George's hands involuntarily fly up to protect his eyes. As the roar from the blast thundered by half a heartbeat later, his unicorn snorted and sidestepped in fright. With automatic competence, he fought it back under his control.
Doing that made his wits start working again. "Hold!" he shouted to the second runner. That worthy wasn't going anywhere anyhow. Like everybody else, he was staring in horrified astonishment at the ruination visited on the catapult. Even as he stared, another flash of lightning wrecked another engine. Doubting George was horrified and astonished, too. But he was also furious. He pointed to the runner. "No, by the gods! Get yourself gone to our so-called mages. You tell them that, for every catapult wrecked after you reach them, one of them will end up shorter by a head."
The runner sprinted away. George doubted he had the authority to make his threat good. With luck, the mages wouldn't realize that. If he had to terrify them into doing their job better, he would, and without thinking twice.
Another thunderbolt crashed down among the catapults. When George stopped blinking, he saw that this one had punished bare ground, not one of his engines or its crew. He nodded. Slower than they should have, his mages were casting counterspells. The next bolt didn't reach the ground at all. Doubting George nodded again. The southron sorcerers could do the job, if only they remembered they were supposed to.
And then, when lightning struck behind the stone fences from which Geoffrey's men fought, George did more than nod. He clapped his hands together. "Go it!" he shouted to the mages in gray. They were too far away to hear him, but he didn't care. He shouted again: "Make the traitors think the seven hells aren't half a mile off!"
His officers knew what wanted doing. They had a better, more certain idea than the mages. That was plain. As soon as the catapult crews could work their stone- and firepot- and dart-throwers again without fear of being crisped from the innocent air above, his company and regimental commanders sent their footsoldiers forward against the stone fences without waiting for orders from him.
A few of the soldiers fell; neither bombardment nor magecraft had forced all the northerners away from those fences. They were stubborn and brave, sure enough. The war would have ended long since were that not true. Their bravery didn't help them here, though. Southrons gained the fences and started scrambling over them. Some northerners died where they stood. Some fled. Some came back captive, with upraised hands and glum faces.
"Lieutenant General George!" a rider called, galloping over from the center. "General Guildenstern's compliments, and do you need help from the rest of the force?"
Doubting George shook his head. "Give him my thanks, but I need not a thing. Only a skirmish here, and we've won it."
Captain Ormerod was not a happy man as he trudged west, back toward Rising Rock. The mages had promised they would do dreadful things to the ragtag and bobtail of gallowsbait from the southern cities and runaway serfs who filled out the ranks of false King Avram's army. Mages' promises, though, were all too often written on wind, written on water. What one mage could do, anotheror several otherscould undo. The southrons didn't have great mages, but they had a lot of them. Ormerod didn't think the little delaying action at the stone fences had done enough delaying. It certainly hadn't done as much as his superiors had hoped.
And he had more reason for being unhappy than that. His left leg pained him, as it always did these days when he had to march hard. He'd taken a crossbow quarrel right through the meat of his calf in the frigid fight at Reillyburgh. The wound hadn't mortified, so he supposed he was lucky. But he had two great puckered scars on the leg, and less meat than he'd had before he was hit. Hard marching hurt.
"Come on, boys," he called to the footsoldiers in the company he commanded. "Keep it moving. Those southron bastards aren't chasing us, by the gods. We showed 'em we've still got teeth."
He put the best face he could on retreat. He'd had practice retreating, more practice than he'd wanted, more practiced than he'd ever thought he would get. Like so many northern nobles, he'd joined King Geoffrey's levy as soon as war broke out: indeed, Palmetto Province had been the first to reject Avram and proclaim Geoffrey Detina's rightful king.
Baron Ormerod wondered what kind of an indigo harvest his wife and the serfs would get from his estate when he wasn't there to keep an eye on things. Bianca's letters were all resolutely cheerful, but Bianca herself was resolutely cheerful, too. What all wasn't she telling him? How many serfs had run off these past few months? How many of the blonds still on the land dogged it instead of working?
His first lieutenant came up to him, making him think of something besides his estate. "Sir?" the man asked.
"What is it, Gremio?" Ormerod asked. "By your sour look, something's gone wrong somewhere."
"With this whole campaign, sir," Gremio burst out. "Truly the gods must hate us, if they watch us bungle so but do nothing to help. . . . Why are you laughing, sir?" He sent Ormerod a resentful stare.
"Because if I did anything else, I'd start to wail, and I don't care to wash my face with tears," Ormerod said. "And speaking of faces, what would they say if they saw yours in the Karlsburg law courts looking the way you do?"
"Sir, they would say I've been serving my sovereign and my kingdom," Gremio answered stiffly. He had no noble blood, but had had enough money to buy himself an officer's commission: he was one of the leading barristers in Palmetto Province's chief town.
And now, no matter what he was, he looked like a teamster who'd had a hard time of it: filthy, scrawny, weary, in plain blue tunic and pantaloons that were all over patches, with black marching boots down at the heels and split at the front so his toes peeped out. Ormerod would have twitted him harder, save that his own condition was no more elegant.
And the footsoldiers they led were worse off than they were. The companythe whole regimenthad come out of Karlsburg and the surrounding baronies full of fight, full of confidence that they would boot the southrons back over the border and then go home and go on about their business. They were still full of fight. They still had their crossbows and quivers full of quarrels. They had very little else. They were all of them lean as so many hunting hounds, leaner than Ormerod, leaner than Gremio.
Sensing Ormerod's eye on him, a sergeant named Tybalt grinned a grin that showed a missing front tooth. "Don't you worry about a thing, sir," he said. "We'll give those whipworthy bastards what they deserve yet, see if we don't." Some of the men trudging along beside him nodded.
"Of course we will," Ormerod answered, and did his best to sound as if he meant it. The men he led had little farms on the lands near his estate. None of them had serfs to help plant and bring in a crop: only wives and kinsfolk. They'd given up more than Ormerod had to take service with King Geoffrey and fight the invaders, and had less personal stake in how the war turned out. The least he could give them was optimism.
Unfortunately, optimism was also the most he could give them. In the third year of a war he'd hoped would be short, in retreat in the third year of that war, even optimism came hard.
Lieutenant Gremio asked, "What do you know that I don't, your Excellency?" He made Ormerod's title of nobility a title of reproach. "How are we going to give the southrons what they deserve?"
Though he spoke with a barrister's fussy precision, he did at least have the sense to keep his voice low so the troopers couldn't hear his questions. Ormerod replied in similar low tones: "What do I know? I know that, if the men start believing they can't give Avram's armies the kick in the arse they ought to get, they'll all go homeand what will King Geoffrey do then? Besides take ship and flee overseas, I mean."
He watched Gremio chew on that and reluctantly nod. "Appearances do matter," Gremio admitted, "here as in the lawcourts. Very wellI'm with you."
Earl Florizel, the colonel of the regiment, rode up on unicornback. He waved to Ormerod. Back home in Palmetto Province, they were neighbors. Ormerod kept hoping Florizel would look his way when their children reached marriageable age. The earl said, "You fought your company well back there, Captainas well as could possibly be expected, considering how outnumbered we were."
"For which I thank you, sir," Ormerod replied. "I hoped for rather more from the mages, and I'd be lying if I said otherwise."
"We usually hope for more from the mages than we get," Florizel said with a sour smile. He was in his late thirties, and a good deal lighter and trimmer after a couple of years in the field than he had been on his estate, where he'd let himself run to fat. "The trouble is, those bastards who fight for Avram the Just" he turned the nickname into a sneer "have mages, too."
"Ours are better," Ormerod said stoutly.
"No doubt, or our hopes would already be shattered," Florizel said. "But they have more. Many little weights in one pan will balance a few big ones in the other. That leaves it to the fellows who go out and hack one another for a living."
"King Avram's got more soldiers, too," Lieutenant Gremio said.
Ormerod and Florizel both pursed their lips and looked away from him, as if he'd broken wind at a fancy banquet. It wasn't so much that Gremio was wronghe was right. But saying it out loud, bringing it out in the open where people had to notice it was there . . . The warriors who fought under King Geoffrey's banner rarely did that, as it led to gloomy contemplations.
To avoid such gloomy contemplations, Ormerod asked, "Colonel, where are we stopping tonight?"
"Rising Rock," Florizel answered, which gave rise to other gloomy contemplations. "And take a good look around while you're there, too."
"Why's that?" Ormerod asked.
Lieutenant Gremio was quicker on the uptake. "Because we're not bloody likely to see it again any time soon, that's why," he said.
"Oh." One mournful word expressed an ocean of Ormerod's frustration.
"He's right." Florizel sounded no more delighted than Ormerod felt. "We'll be some of the last men into Rising Rock, too, and it looks like we'll be some of the last ones out as well." Out meant retreating to the northwest. Colonel Florizel pointed in that direction. Sure enough, Ormerod could see the dust men and unicorns by the thousands raised as they marched along the road through the gap between Sentry Peak and Proselytizers' Rise, the gap that led up into Peachtree Province.
Closer, Rising Rock itself looked deceptively normal. The sun played up the blood-red of the painted spires on the Lion God's temples, and glinted from the silver lightning bolts atop the Thunderer's shrines. Ormerod sighed. The southrons worshiped the same gods he did, but they would send the local priests into exile for speaking out against the perverse belief that serfs were as good as true Detinans.
No sooner had that thought crossed Ormerod's mind than he saw a blond young man in ragged pantaloonsno tunic at all, and no shoes, eithermaking his way east with a bundle at the end of a stick on his shoulder. The serf was moving against the flow of soldiers on the road, toward the advancing southrons.
"Runaway!" Ormerod shouted, and pointed at him. He was amazed nobody'd pointed and shouted at the serf before he did.
The blond young man ran for the cover of the trees that grew close to the road. He dropped his bundle so he could run faster. Ormerod cursed; he couldn't send men after the runaway without disrupting the company's march.
Then he stopped cursing and pointed again. "Shoot him!" he yelled.
Some of his men hadn't bothered waiting for the order. They were already cocking their crossbows and setting bolts in them. Triggers snapped. Bowstrings thrummed. Quarrels hissed through the air. With a meaty thunk!, one of them caught the fleeing serf in the small of the back. He shrieked and fell on his face.
Ormerod trotted after him. The serf kept trying to crawl toward the woods. He wasn't going to make it. Ormerod saw that right away. If a crossbow quarrel didn't hit a bone, it could punch right through a man. By the trail of blood the serf was leaving, the bolt that hit him had done just that.
Drawing a knife from the sheath on his belt, Ormerod stooped beside the blond man. The fellow stared at him out of eyes wide with hate and pain. "I'll cut your throat for you, if you want, and put you out of your pain," Ormerod said. He did what needed doing with runaways, but he wasn't deliberately cruel about it.
"Red Lady curse you," the serf ground out. "Death Lord pull you under the dirt and cover over your grave."
"Serfs' curses. Serfs' gods," Ormerod said with a shrug. "They won't bite on a Detinan. You blonds ought to know that by now. Last chance: do I finish you, or do I walk away and let you die at your own speed?"
Blood dribbled from a corner of the serf's mouth. He'd bitten his lips or his tongue in his torment. His eyes still held hate, but he nodded up at Ormerod and said, "Get it over with."
The noble caught him by his yellow hair, jerked his head back, and drew the knife across his throat. More blood spurted, scarlet as the Lion God's spires. The serf's expression went blank, vacant. Ormerod let his head fall. The blond lay unmoving. Ormerod plunged his knife into the soft earth to clean it, then thrust it back in its sheath.
His men had kept going while he finished the runaway. He quickmarched after them, and was panting a little by the time he caught up. "Dead?" Lieutenant Gremio asked him.
"I didn't go after the bastard to give him a kiss on the cheek and tell him what a good boy he was," Ormerod answered. "Of course he's dead."
"His liege lord could bring an action against you for slaying him rather than returning him to the land to which he's legally bound," Gremio observed. "It falls under the statutes for deprivation of agricultural resources."
"His liege lord could toast in the seven hells, too," Ormerod said. "As far as I'm concerned, that sort of action falls under the Thunderer's lightning bolt."
"I merely mentioned what was legally possible," Gremio said with his annoying lawyerly precision. Baron Ormerod spat in the dirt of the roadway to show what he thought of such precision.
As Colonel Florizel had said it would, his regiment camped just outside Rising Rock that night. Florizel said, "Ned's unicorn-riders are supposed to keep the enemy away from us till we fall back, too." He eyed Ormerod and the rest of his captains. "Ned is an able officer, but I wouldn't put all my faith in his riders, any more than I would put all my faith in any one god."
Ormerod had already planned to post double pickets to make sure his company got no unpleasant surprises from the east. After hearing that, he posted quadruple pickets instead. But the southrons didn't trouble his men, and the regiment, along with the rest of Count Thraxton's rear guard, passed a quiet night.
"Ned knows his business," Ormerod remarked the next morning.
"Nice that somebody does," Lieutenant Gremio answered. He looked around to make sure nobody but Ormerod was in earshot, then added, "It'd be even nicer if some more people up above us did."
Ormerod grunted. "And isn't that the sad and sorry truth? But there's not one cursed thing we can do about it, worse luck." He raised his voice so the whole company could hear him: "Come on, boys. We've got to move out. I wish we didn't, but we cursed well do." Along with the rest of the regiment, the rest of the rear guard, he and his company marched out of Rising Rock, out of the province of Franklin, and into . . . he didn't want to think about what they were marching into. Into trouble, was what crossed his mind.
"General?" someone called outside of Earl James of Broadpath's pavilion. "Are you in there, General?"
"No, I'm not here," James answered. "I expect to be back pretty soon, though."
As he'd hoped it would, that produced a fine confused silence. When he strode out of the pavilion, the runner who'd come up was on the point of leaving. He brightened when he saw James. "Oh, good, your Excellency," he said. "Duke Edward's compliments, and he'd like to see you at your earliest convenience."
"Would he?" James of Broadpath said. "Well, of course I'll see him straightaway. He's in his pavilion?" He waited only for the runner to nod, then hurried over to the rather mean tent housing the commander of the Army of Southern Parthenia. He was panting and sweating by the time he got there, though the walk wasn't very long. His bulk and Parthenia's heat and humidity didn't go together. As Duke Edward's sentries saluted, James asked, "Is his Grace here?"
"Yes, your Excellency, he is, and waiting for you, tooor I think so, anyhow," one of the sentries answered. He raised his voice: "Duke Edward? Earl James is here to see you."
"Is he?" Duke Edward of Arlington came out of the pavilion. James saluted. Punctilious as always, Edward returned the courtesy. Then he plucked a folded sheet of paper from the breast pocket of his indigo tunic and presented it to James. "This may possibly be of interest to you, your Excellency."
"Ah?" James rumbled. The paper was sealed with a dragon's mark stamped deep into golden wax. "That is King Geoffrey's seal," James breathed, and Edward nodded. Only a king would or could use the dragon's mark, and Avram's sealing wax would have been crimson, not goldnot that Avram was likely to send a sealed letter to a general in his rival's service.
With his thumbnail, James broke the seal. He opened the paper. The spidery script within was King Geoffrey's, too; James had seen it often enough to recognize it. The missive read, In regard to the proposal to send the army under the command of General James of Broadpath, the said army presently constituting a wing of the Army of Southern Parthenia commanded by General Edward of Arlington, to the aid and succor of the Army of Franklin commanded by General Thraxton, the aforesaid proposal, having been endorsed by the aforementioned General Edward of Arlington, is hereby accepted and approved. Let it be carried out with the greatest possible dispatch. Geoffrey, King in the northern provinces of Detina.
"You know what it is, your Grace?" James asked.
"I don't know, no, but from your countenance I should guess his Majesty has chosen to send your soldiers east," Duke Edward replied.
"He has." Earl James of Broadpath bowed to his commanding officer. "And I am in your debt, sir, for your generous endorsement."
"Hard times require hard measures," the duke said. "I am not certain this action will answer, but I am certain inaction will not answer. Go east, then, and may the gods go with you. I trust your men are ready to move at short notice?"
"Yes, sir," James said. "All we need do is break camp, march to the glideway port at Lemon's Justiciary, and off we go eastward."
"Not quite so simple as that, I fear," Edward said, "for it is reported the southrons have lately wrested from us the most direct glideway path leading eastward. But the wizards in charge of such things do assure me a way from here to Count Thraxton's army does remain open: only it is not so direct a way as we might wish."
"Then I'd best leave without any more delay, hadn't I, your Grace?" Without waiting for Duke Edward's replyalthough Edward might not have had one; he approved of men who took things into their own hands and moved fastJames bowed, spun on his heel in a smart about-face, and hurried back toward his own pavilion.
As he neared it, he shouted for the trumpeters who served him. They came at the run, long, straight brass horns gleaming in their hands. "Command us, sir!" one of them cried.
Command them James of Broadpath did: "Blow assembly. Summon my whole army to the broad pasture."
The trumpeters saluted. As they raised the horns to their lips, one of them asked, "Your Excellency, does this mean we're heading east, to whip the stinking, lousy, gods-detested southrons out of Franklin?" Rumor had swirled through the army for days.
Getting King Geoffrey's army back into Franklin would be a good first step toward getting the southrons out. But James just waggled a finger at the trumpeter and said, "You'll hear when everyone else does. I haven't the time to wastethe kingdom hasn't the time for me to wastetelling things over twice."
Martial music rang outthe call for Earl James' army to gather together. As the trumpeters played, they eyed James reproachfully. He knew why; Count Thraxton's army wouldn't have fallen to pieces had James given them the news before anyone else got it. He wagged his finger at them again. One of them missed a note. That made the others eye their comrade reproachfully. They took pride in what they did. James nodded at that; anything worth doing was worth doing well.
Soldiers in blue tunics and pantaloonsand some in blue tunics and in gray pantaloons taken from southrons who didn't need them any morehurried from their tents and huts to the meadow where they gathered to hear such announcements as their commander chose to give them. They formed by squads, by companies, by regiments, by brigades, by divisions. At the head of one of the three divisions stood Brigadier Bell, a fierce smile brightening his pain-wracked face. Unlike the trumpeters, he had a pretty good notion of what James would say.
James strode out in front of the crossbowmen, the pikemen, and the unicorn-riders he commanded. As he ascended to a little wooden platform, he was very conscious of the thousands of eyes upon him. That sort of scrutiny made most men quail. Whatever else James was, he wasn't modest. He relished the attention.
When he held up a hand, complete and instant silence fell. Into it, General James boomed, "Soldiers of the Army of Southern Parthenia, soldiers of my wing, King Geoffrey has given us the duty of coming to the rescue of our beset comrades in the east. As you will know, Count Thraxton has been forced from Rising Rock, forced from Franklin altogether. He isthe kingdom iscounting on us to come to his aid, to help him drive the invaders from our sister province. The Army of Southern Parthenia is the finest force of fighters in Detinain all the world. When we go east, shall we show Thraxtonshall we show General Guildenstern, may the gods curse himhow soldiers who know their business make war?"
"Aye!" his troopers roared, a great blast of sound.
"Good," James said. "Tomorrow morning, then, at dawn, we march to the glideway port at Lemon's Justiciary. From there, we fare forth to Peachtree Province, and from there we help Count Thraxton bring Franklin back to its proper allegiance. Is it good?"
"Aye!" the men in blue roared again.
Earl James saluted them as if they were his superiors, which made them cheer louder than ever. But when he raised his right hand, the cheers cut off as if at a swordstroke. They're fine men, he thought. No commander could ask for better. More, perhaps, but not better. "Dismissed!" he called to them. "Be ready to move when your officers and underofficers give the word."
As the soldiers streamed back toward their encampment, Brigadier Bell came up to James. The lines of agony from Bell's crippled arm would probably never leave his face, but his eyes shone. "A new chance," he breathed. "A chance to strike the southrons the blow we've been looking to strike since the war began."
"A new chance," James of Broadpath agreed. "Maybe our best chance."
"Yes!" Bell said. "We have never shifted men from the Army of Southern Parthenia to the east. Guildenstern won't expect it." His lip curled. "Guildenstern hasn't the mother wit to expect much."
"Maybe our best chance," Earl James repeated. His spirit wanted to soar. Bell's eagerness and the way the men responded to the transfer order tried to make it soar. But the warthe war he, like so many of Geoffrey's followers, had gaily assumed would be won in weekshad ground into its third year with no end in sight. And so, instead of scaling his hat through the air in glee, he added, "Maybe our last chance, too."
The divisional commander stared at him. "Your Excellency, this is your scheme," Bell reminded him. "Have you no faith in it?"
"With the way the war has gone, my view at this stage of things is that any man who has faith in anything but the gods is a fool," James answered. "What I have is hope, a more delicate, more fragile flower."
He might as well have started speaking the language of the camel-riding desert barbarians of the western continent, for all the sense he made to Brigadier Bell. Well, that was the advantage of being a superior officer. Bell didn't have to see the sense in his words. All he had to do was obey. And he could be relied upon for that.
Getting James' effects ready to move took some doing: he had a great many more effects than his troopers did. Even with some serfs from Broadpath helping knock down the pavilion and load it and its contents into a couple of wagons, he felt rushed and harried. But he couldn't very well require of the men what he did not match himself. And so, mounted on his big-boned unicorn, he led the march out of camp at sunrise the next morning.
Lemon's Justiciary was named after the stone fortress where an early Count Lemon had had his courthouse. A little town had grown up around the fortress after the local blonds were subdued, a little town that had got bigger when the glideway went through and the port was built a stone's throw from that frowning stone keep.
For ages, men had dreamt of flying. Those camel-riding desert barbarians had tales of flying carpets. But that was all they were: tales. Modern mages in Detina and in the kindred kingdoms back across the Western Ocean had finally persuaded carpets to rise a couple of feet off the ground and travel along certain sorcerously defined glideways at about the speed of a galloping unicorn. It wasn't what poets and storytellers had imaginedbut then, the real world rarely matched poems and stories. It was a great deal better than nothing.
Or it would have been, had any carpets waited at the Lemon's Justiciary glideway port. James and his men were there. Their conveyances?
James set hands on hips and roared at the portmaster: "Where are they, you worthless, stinking clot?"
"Don't blame me, your Excellency," the portmaster answered. "By the gods, you can't blame me. Something must have got buggered up somewheres further northin Nonesuch its ownself, or up in Pierreville north of there. I can't give you what I don't got." He spread his hands. He went further than that: he pulled out the pockets of his pantaloons to show he had no traveling carpets hidden there.
Cursing did no good. James cursed anyway. Setting his hand on the hilt of his sword did no good, either. That didn't stop him from half drawing the blade. He said, "I can't travel on what I haven't got, either. And if I can't travel, I can't save the kingdom. The longer I have to wait here twiddling my thumbs, the longer the army has to wait here twiddling its thumbs, the greater the risk the war in the east will be lost past fixing. Well, sirrah, what do you say to that?"
With a shrug, the portmaster answered, "Only one thing I can say, your Excellency: I can't do nothing about it."
The fleet of carpets finally glided into Lemon's Justiciary nearer to noon than to sunrise. By then, James of Broadpath was about ready to murder the mages who piloted it. But that would only have made him later still getting to the northern border of Peachtree Province. And those mages, once he got a good look at them, proved plainly weary unto death. The southrons, being tradesmen ever ready to ship their goods now here, now there, had gone into the war with far more glideways and far more wizards able to exploit them than was true in the provinces that had declared for King Geoffrey. They'd got good use from them, too. Till he had to do it, Earl James hadn't really worried about how hard it was to move and feed large numbers of soldiers. Glideways and their mages helped.
A few days before, he could have got to Peachtree Province by a relatively straight route through eastern Parthenia. But, as Duke Edward had said, one of Avram's armies now bestrode that glideway path, which meant James' men had a far more roundabout road to go. Once all his troopersand their animals, and their catapults, and the fodder for the beasts and the darts and firepots for the engineswere finally aboard the carpets, they had to travel north through Parthenia, through Croatoan (which was supposed to mean something filthy in the language of the blond tribes that had dwelt by the shore of the Western Ocean when the Detinans first came from overseas), and into Palmetto Province before finally swinging east toward Marthasville in Peachtree Province . . . from which they would finally be able to go south toward the border and Count Thraxton's waiting army.
The journey would have tried the patience of a saint. James doubted whether even Duke Edward could have stayed calm through its beginningsespecially through the half-day delay occasioned by ferrying men and beasts and impedimenta over a river whose bridge had collapsed for no visible reason save perhaps the malignity of the gods. James didn't try. He bellowed. He cursed. He fumed. He consigned whoever had made that bridge to some of the less desirable real estate in the seven hells.
"Will we be in time, your Excellency?" Brigadier Bell asked once they got moving again.
"We'd better be," Earl James of Broadpath growled. "In spite of everything, I think we will be. And when we get there on time, we're going to make a lot of southron soldiers late." He rubbed his beefy hands together in anticipation.
A gold dragon on red flew in front of every company as General Guildenstern's army triumphally entered Rising Rock. "Show these traitors why they lost," Captain Cephas told Rollant's company. "March so you'd make King Avram proud of you." He couldn't have found a better way to make Rollant do his best. Serfs and ex-serfs cared more for Avram than did most free men.
Sergeant Joram added, "March so you'll make me proud of you, or you'll end up wishing you'd never been born." Hearing that, Rollant changed his mind. Keeping his sergeant happy was ever so much more important than pleasing King Avram. The king was far away, in the Black Palace in Georgetown. He would never have anything directly to do with Rollant. Joram, by contrast . . .
At the head of General Guildenstern's army, a band struck up the royal hymn. Beside Rollant in the ranks, Smitty murmured, "That's pretty stupid. Grand Duke Geoffrey uses the same air as Avram."
"Silence in the ranks!" Sergeant Joram shouted. The end of his pointed black beard twitched in indignation. "Rollant, you can haul water for the squad tonight for running your mouth."
"But" Rollant began. Then he bit down on whatever he'd been about to say. He wouldn't make Joram change his mind, and he would make his squadmates hate him. Being a blond in a dark-haired world wasn't easy. He had to keep swallowing injustice, and he never got the chance to give any out.
"Forwardmarch!" Captain Cephas called as the motion of the column finally reached his company. Off the soldiers went, always beginning with the left foot. Rollant hadn't had an easy time learning that; it was the opposite of what he'd been used to doing on Baron Ormerod's estate. Beginning with the right foot was the serfs' way of doing things throughout northern Detina; nobles and strawbosses hadn't bothered trying to change it. But Detinans themselves began with the left, and King Avram's army was profoundly Detinan even if it included some blond soldiers.
"Leftright! Left, right, left, right!" Sergeant Joram's cadence count underscored the difference.
Behind the kingdom's bannerthe banner whose colors the northern traitors reversedRollant strode into Rising Rock. Back in the days when he was a serf, this collection of clapboard and brick buildings, some of the latter rising four or even five stories high, would have awed him. He remembered how astonished he'd been when he sneaked through northern towns on his way south after fleeing Ormerod's estate. Now he put on a fine southron sneer. You could drop Rising Rock in the middle of New Eborac and it would vanish without a trace. Even the gray stone keep by the river wasn't so much of a much, not when set against the southron city's temples and secular buildings that seemed to scrape the sky.
Up ahead, the band switched to the kingdom's battle hymn. Rollant's lips skinned back from his teeth in a fierce grin. The northerners hadn't kept that one; they had their own martial music. The battle hymn of the kingdom belonged to King Avram alone, to him and to the serfs he was freeing from their longstanding ties to the land.
A lot of the people lining the streets to watch Avram's soldiers go by were blonds. They were the ones who whooped and cheered and clapped their hands. They cheered hardest, too, when they saw fair heads among the brunet Detinan majority. A very pretty girl of his own people caught Rollant's eye and ran her tongue over her lips in what would have been a promise if he hadn't swept out of sight of her forever a few seconds later. He sighed, partly for the missed chance and partly because he missed his wife.
The dark-haired Detinans who'd come out to look over General Guildenstern's army looked less happy. "Did you ever see such a lot of vinegar phizzes in all your born days?" Smitty asked. "They never reckoned we'd get all the way up here. Shows what they knew when they backed Geoffrey the traitor."
"What do you want to bet some of 'em'll sneak off to tell Count Thraxton everything they can about us?" Rollant answered. Smitty scowled, but nodded.
"Silence in the ranks!" Sergeant Joram boomed again, and then, "At the beat, we shall sing the battle hymn of the kingdom."
"How can we do both of those at once?" Smitty asked, which struck Rollant as a reasonable question.
It struck Joram rather differently. "You, Smittywater duty tonight," the sergeant snapped. He checked himself: "No, wait. I already gave that to Rollant. You can dig the latrine trench for the squad, and cover it over tomorrow morning."
Smitty winced. He didn't sing the battle hymn with any notable enthusiasm. Rollant did. Some sergeants would have put Smitty on water duty and handed him the nastier latrine detail. Even in the south, not everybody gave blonds a fair shakenot even close. Rollant tried not to fret about that. Compared to being bound to the land, with even less hope of getting off the land than an ox or an asswhich might be soldthe life of a carpenter in New Eborac wasn't bad at all.
"To the seven hells with King Avram!" somebody in the crowd shouted.
"Hurrah for good King Geoffrey!" someone else cried.
"Arrest those men!" Half a dozen officers and sergeants from the Detinan army yelled the same thing at the same time.
Soldiers went into the crowd to do just that, but came back emptyhanded. They couldn't tell who had shouted, and no one pointed a finger at the guilty men. No blonds must have seen them, Rollant thought. A moment later, he shrugged. That was not necessarily so. Maybe some of his people had seen, but were keeping quiet because they would have to go on living in Rising Rock along with the Detinans. A man who opened his mouth at the wrong time was liable to have something unfortunate happen to him, even if King Avram's troopers did occupy his home town.
When the leading regiments of General Guildenstern's army marched out of Rising Rock heading west, the troops at the tail end of the column hadn't yet reached the east side of town. That said something about the size of the army. It also said something about the size of Rising Rock. Sure enough, the place could fall into New Eborac and never get noticed.
The field to which Captain Cephas led his men had plainly been used as a campground by Thraxton the Braggart's army not long before. The grass was trampled flat. Black patches showed where fires had burned. A lingering stench suggested that the northerners hadn't been careful about covering all their latrine trenches.
"Smitty!" Sergeant Joram pointed. "You dig a fresh trench there, among the old ones."
"Have a heart, Sergeant," Smitty said pitifully.
Asking a sergeant to have a heart was like asking a stone to smile. You could ask, but asking didn't mean you'd get what you wanted. Joram didn't even bother shaking his head. All he said was, "Get a shovel." He turned to Rollant. "Gather up the squad's water bottles. Looks like the ground slopes down over behind those bushes. Probably a creek somewhere over there. Go find it."
"Right, Sergeant." Rollant knew better than to say anything else. Some of the bottles he got were of oiled leather, others of earthenware. Most, though, were stamped from tin, and almost identical to one another. The manufactories in the south might not make very interesting goods, or even very fine ones, but they made very many. That counted, too; King Geoffrey's domain had trouble matching them.
Joram must have grown up on a farm: as he'd predictedand as Rollant had thought, tooa stream wound on toward the Franklin River. He wasn't the only man in Avram's gray filling water bottles there; far from it. "These stinking things are light enough to carry when they're empty," said a dark-haired soldier with a scar on his cheek, "but they're fornicating heavy once they're full of water."
Several troopers laughed. "That's the truth," Rollant said, and they nodded. But if he'd complained about having to carry the water bottles, one of them would have been sure to call him a lazy blond. If he wanted the Detinans to think him even half as good as themselvesif he wanted them to think he deserved to be reckoned a Detinan himselfhe had to show he was twice as good as they were.
Out in the middle of the stream, a red-eared turtle stared at the soldiers from a rock. Had Rollant seen it in his days as a serf on Ormerod's estate, he would have tried to catch it. Turtle stew was tasty, and serfs didn't always have enough to eat after paying their liege lords the required feudal dues. He'd learned, though, that most southrons not only didn't eat turtles but were disgusted at the idea that anybody would. This one slid into the water undisturbed by him.
Not far from where he was filling the water bottles, a mossy stone bridge spanned the stream. One glance at it told him it had been there since before the Detinans crossed the Western Ocean: it was the work of his own people. Detinan arches used proper keystones; this one didn't.
We were something, he thought. We weren't as strong as the invaders, but we were something, all by ourselves. Whatever we were becoming, though, the godsour gods, the Detinan gods, I don't know which godsdidn't let us finish turning into it. Now we're part of something else, something bigger, something stronger, and I don't know what we can do except try to make the best of it.
He was putting the stoppers in his water bottles when the bushes on the far side of the stream rustled. He didn't have his crossbow with him, but a couple of men close by did. If a few of King Geoffrey's soldiers still lingered, they would have a fight on their hands.
"Come out of there, you gods-hated northern traitor son of a bitch," rasped one of the troopers with Rollant.
More rustling, and out of the bushes came not northern soldiers but a scrawny blond man and woman in filthy, tattered clothes and four children ranging in size from almost as tall as the woman down to waist high on her. The manplainly a runaway serfsaid, "You're Good King Avram's soldiers?"
That made the Detinans laugh. The one who'd called the challenge answered, "If we weren't, pal, you'd already have a crossbow quarrel between the ribs."
"Gods be praised!" the serf exclaimed. "We're off our estate for good now. The earl'll never get us back again." He led his wife and children across the bridge toward the soldiers. They were halfway across when he noticed Rollant. "Gods be praised!" he said again. "One of our own, a soldier for the southron king." Then, pointing at Rollant, he let loose with a spate of gibberish.
"Speak Detinan," Rollant answered. "I don't understand a word you're saying." Back in the old days, blonds in what was now Detina had spoken scores of different tongues. This one sounded nothing like the one Rollant's ancestors near Karlsburg had used. That language was nearly dead these days, anyhow, surviving only as scattered words in the Detinan dialect the serfs of Palmetto Province spoke.
The runaway looked disappointed. In Detinan, he said, "I want to be a soldier for King Avram, too, and kill the nobles in the north."
"What about us?" the woman with him asked, pointing to the children and herself as they finished crossing the bridge.
One of the troopers in Detinan gray had a different question: "What do we do with 'em?"
"Let the blond fellow here deal with them," another veritable Detinan answered. "They're his, by the gods."
Rollant would have bet a month's pay one of the dark-haired men would say that. He'd already escaped to the south. He had not a word of this serf's language. But his hair was yellow, not brown. To a man whose forefathers had crossed the Western Oceanor even to one who'd crossed himselfthat made all the difference.
And, Rollant had to admit, it made some difference to him, too. He waved to the serf and his family. "Come along with me. I'll take you to my captain. He'll decide what to do with you." He pointed to the water bottles he'd filled. "You can help me carry these, too."
That set the other soldiers laughing. "He's no fool," one of them said. "Doesn't feel like working himself when he can get somebody else to do it for him." Had he used a different tone of voice, he would have been mocking a lazy serf. But he sounded more admiring than otherwise: one soldier applauding another's successful ingenuity.
"Come on," Rollant said again. The escaped serf ran forward and picked up almost all the water bottles. For him, bearing burdens for King Avram's soldiers was a privilege, not a dutyand a nuisance of a duty at that. Rollant smiled as he grabbed the couple of bottles the runaway hadn't. "When I finally got into the south, I was the same way you are now," he told the fellow.
"My liege lord can't tell me what to do any more," the serf said simply. "He can't come sniffing after my woman any more, neither."
Rollant led the whole family of runaways back to the encampment. Sergeant Joram glared at him. "I sent you after water, not more blonds," he growled, and then, before Rollant could say anything, "Take 'em to the captain. He'll figure out what to do with 'em."
Since Rollant had intended to do just that, he obeyed cheerfully. Captain Cephas eyed the newcomers and said, "We can use somebody to chop wood. You handy with an axe, fellow?" The escaped serf nodded. Cephas turned to the woman. "Can you cook? The fellow we've got could burn water."
"Yes, lord, I can cook," she answered softly.
"I'm not a lord. I'm just a captain," Cephas said. "We'll put the two of you on the books. Half a common soldier's pay for you" the man "and a third for you" the woman. Their delighted expressions on realizing they'd get money for their labor were marvels to behold. Rollant understood that. He'd felt the same way. Only later would they find out how little money they were getting.
Count Thraxton knew a lot of his soldiers had expected him to fall back all the way to Marthasville after retreating from Rising Rock. Of all the towns in Peachtree Province, Marthasville was the one King Geoffrey had to hold, for it was a great glideway junction, and most of the paths leading from the long-settled west to the eastern provinces passed through it. Falling back closer to itto Stamboul, say, halfway theremight even have been prudent.
But, after his vow to Ned of the Forest, Thraxton would have reckoned himself forswornand, worse, the officers serving under him would have reckoned him forswornhad he retreated that close to Marthasville. And so he didn't go very far to the northwest, but made his new headquarters at a little town in southern Peachtree Province called Fa Layette, not far from the picturesquely named River of Death.
Death suited Thraxton's present mood. Nor was that mood improved when a fellow who'd escaped from Rising Rock after the southrons seized it was brought before him and said, "They paraded right through the town, sir, the whole scapegrace army of 'em, all their stinking bands blaring out the battle hymn of the kingdom till your ears wanted to bust."
"May the Hunt Lady flay them. May the Thunderer smite them," Thraxton said in a voice so terrible, his informant flinched back from him as if he were the Thunderer himself. "May their torn and lightning-riven souls drop into the seven hells for torment eternal. That they should dare do such a thing in a city that is ours . . ."
"A city that was ours," the fellow from Rising Rock said. Thraxton fixedtransfixedhim with a glare. He didn't just flinch. He spun on his heel and fled from the chamber where he'd been speaking with Thraxton.
"Shall I bring him back, sir?" asked the young officer who'd escorted the refugee into Thraxton's presence. "Do you think you can learn more from him?"
"No: only how great an idiot he is, and I already have a good notion of that," Thraxton answered. The junior officer nodded and saluted and also left the chamber in a hurry.
Count Thraxton hardly noticed. He set an absentminded hand on the front of his uniform tunic. His stomach pained him. It often didand all the more so when he contemplated the spectacle of General Guildenstern, a man with neither breeding nor military talent, parading through Rising Rock, through the city Thraxton himself had had to abandon.
I am the better soldier. Thraxton was as sure of that as he was that the sun was shining outside. I am the better mage. That went without saying. No general in either army could come close to matching him in magic. Then where are my triumphs? Where are my processions?
He could have had them. He should have had them. Somehow, they'd slipped through his fingers. Somehow, he'd ended up here in Fa Layette, a no-account town if ever there was one, while Guildenstern, his inferior in every way, victoriously paraded through Rising Rock.
It wasn't his fault. It couldn't possibly have been his fault. He was the one who deserved that parade, by the gods. And I shall have it, he thought. He always knew exactly what he was supposed to do, and he always did it, but somehow it didn't always come off quite the way he'd expected. Since the mistakes weren't, couldn't have been, his, they had to belong to the officers serving under him.
Slowly, Thraxton nodded. That was bound to be it. Had any general in all the history of Detinain all the history of the worldever been worse served by his subordinates? Thraxton doubted it. Even now, the men who led the constituent parts of his army were not the warriors he would have wanted. Ned of the Forest? A boor, a bumpkin, a lout. Leonidas the Priest? No doubt he served the Lion God well, but he had a habit of being tardy on the battlefield. Dan of Rabbit Hill? Better than either of the others, Thraxton thought, but not good enough. Dan had a fatal character flaw: he was ambitious. Thraxton tolerated ambition only in himself.
A mage with the winged-eye badge of a scryer next to his lieutenant's bars came in and saluted Thraxton. "May it please your Grace," he said, "Earl James of Broadpath and his host have passed out of Croatoan and into Palmetto Province. They should go through Marthasville in a couple of days, and should reach us here the day following."
"I thank you," Thraxton said. The scryer saluted again and withdrew.
Alone in the chamber once more, Thraxton scowled. His stomach gave another painful twinge. Earl James' imminent arrival pleased him not at all. What was it but King Geoffrey's declaration that he couldn't win the war here in the east by himself? And James of Broadpath would prate endlessly of Duke Edward, and of how things were done in the Army of Southern Parthenia. Thraxton could practically hear him already. He himself cared not a fig for Duke Edward or his precious army.
James' men would let him meet Guildenstern on something like equal terms. "And I will meet him, and I will beat him," Thraxton said. He knew what he had to do. Figuring out how to do it was another matter. Until James of Broadpath got here, he remained badly outnumbered. If General Guildenstern pushed matters, he could erupt into southern Peachtree Province and force Thraxton from Fa Layette as he'd forced him from Rising Rock.
Guildenstern, fortunately, was not given to pushing things. Few of the southron generals were. Had Count Thraxton been fighting for Avram, he wouldn't have wanted to push things, either. But he couldn't stomach Avram at all, any more than any of the northern nobles who'd backed King Geoffrey could.
He studied a map of the territory through which he'd just had to retreat. Slowly, he nodded. He might have smiled, had his face not forgotten what smiling was all about. After a little more contemplation, he nodded again and shouted for a runner.
"Sir?" the young soldier said. "Your Grace?"
"Fetch Ned of the Forest here," Thraxton said. "Fetch him here at once."
"Yes, sir." The runner saluted. Even as he turned to obey, though, his eyes widened. The whole Army of Franklin had to know about the quarrel between the two generals. Thraxton shrugged. Beating the southrons, beating Guildenstern, came first. After that, he could settle accounts with the backwoods scum on his own side who failed to have a proper appreciation for his manifest brilliance.
Ned of the Forest came fast enough to give Count Thraxton no excuse to criticize him. His salute was sloppy, but it had never been neat. "What do you want with me, sir?" he askedon the edge of military courtesy, but not over the edge.
"Come to the map with me," Thraxton said, and Ned obeyed. Thraxton went on, "You have always claimed that your unicorn-riders can cover twice as much ground as footsoldiers, and that they can fight as well as footsoldiers once they get where they are going."
"It's the truth, sir," Ned answered. "Not only just as well as footsoldiers, but just like footsoldiers, too. You can do a lot more harm to the fellows you don't like, and do it from a lot further ways away, with crossbows than you can with sabers."
This man knows nothing of the glory of war, Count Thraxton thought scornfully. He might as well be a potterit is only a job, a piece of work, to him. But then Thraxton gave a mental shrug. He is the tool I have ready to hand. I can use him. I will use him. And if, in the using, I use him up . . . so what?
Aloud, Thraxton said, "You shall have your chance to prove it, sir. I require you to take your riders south to the line of the River of Death" he ran a bony finger along it "and patrol it. And, at all costs, I require you to keep General Guildenstern's army from crossing the river and marching on Fa Layette."
Ned frowned. "Don't reckon I can do that, if he throws his whole army at one place. Unicorns, footsoldiers, what have youI haven't got the men to stand against him. Way it looks to me, this whole army hasn't got the men for it, or why would we be waiting for the troopers from the west to get here?"
He had a point, worse luck. Count Thraxton had to backtrack, as he'd had to backtrack from Rising Rock. "Very well," he said with poor grace. "I shall revise my command, then. Here, do this: cross over the River of Death, if that should please you, and make the southrons think you are everywhere in greater force than is in fact the truth. Delay them till Earl James reaches Fa Layette, and you shall have achieved your purpose."
Ned of the Forest's eyes gleamed. This time, he saluted as if he meant it. "Fair enough, sir," he saidnow he'd been given a task he liked. "I'll run those southrons ragged. By the time I'm through, they'll reckon everybody in our whole army is scurrying around south of the river."
"That would be excellent," said Thraxton, who doubted whether Ned could accomplish any such thing. True, the general of unicorn-riders had done some remarkable work down in Franklin and Cloviston, but mostly as a raider. Facing real soldiers, and facing them in large numbers, Thraxton thought him more likely to suffer an unfortunate accident.
And his loss would pain me so very much, Thraxton thought, and almost smiled again.
Ned nodded to him. "You just leave it to me, your Grace. I'll give you something you can brag about. And then, when James' men finally get here from Parthenia, I'll help you make your big brag come true, even if you did aim it right at me. As long as it helps the kingdom, I don't much care." He nodded one last time, then turned and, without so much as a by-your-leave, strode out of the house Thraxton had taken for his own.
"Insolent churl," Thraxton muttered. He rubbed his hands together. With any luck at all, the insolent churl would hurl himself headlong against the southrons and come to grief because of it.
But what if Ned's luck ran out too abruptly? What if Guildenstern's men smashed up the unicorn-riders and decided to press north with all their strength? That would without a doubt prove troublesome. Thraxton called for another runner.
"Your Grace?" the youngster said, drawing himself up straight as a spearshaft. "Command me, your Grace!"
He might have thought Count Thraxton was about to send him into the hottest part of a desperate fight, not simply to run an errand. Thraxton said, "Ask General Leonidas if he would do me the honor of attending me." He summoned Leonidas far more courteously than he'd ordered Ned of the Forest hither.
"Yes, sir!" The runner hurried off as if King Geoffrey would be overthrown unless he reached Leonidas the Priest on the instant.
Leonidas, on the other hand, took his own sweet time about reporting to Thraxton's headquarters. Ned had come far more promptly. When at last Leonidas did appear, resplendent in the crimson vestments of a votary of the Lion God, Thraxton snapped, "So good of you to join me."
Leonidas gave him a wounded look, which he ignored. "How may I serve you, your Grace?" the hierophant asked.
"By coming sooner to find out what I require of you, for starters," Thraxton snapped. He had heard that his underlings complained he was hard on them. With such fools for underlings, what else can I be but hard?
Stiffly, Leonidas said, "Your messenger found me offering sacrifice to the Lion God, that he might favor us and close his jaws upon the accursed armies of our opponents."
"Let the Lion God do as he will," Count Thraxton said. "I intend to close my jaws on the southrons, and to do that just as soon as Earl James' men reach me."
Leonidas the Priest looked shocked. "Without the support of the gods, your Grace, we are as nothing, and our plans as vapors. I shall pray to the Lord of the Great Mane that he put this wisdom in your heart."
"Pray later," Thraxton told him. "I require you to move your army down to the northern bank of the River of Death, and to stand in readiness to repel the southrons if by some mischance they overwhelm Ned of the Forest, whose riders will be harrying them south of the river."
"Very well, sir," Leonidas said, though his voice remained stiff with disapproval. "I shall of course do as you require. But I also suggest that you offer up your own prayers and sacrifices to the Lion God, lest he grow angry at you for flouting him. We would not want his might inclined toward the southrons, after all."
"No, indeed not." Thraxton could not imagine the Lion Godor, for that matter, any of the other Detinan godsinclining toward King Avram and his misguided followers. The gods had led the Detinans to victory over the blond savages who'd once had this splendid kingdom all to themselves. If that wasn't a sign the gods wanted the Detinans to go right on ruling the blonds, Thraxton couldn't dream of what such a sign might be. He nodded to Leonidas the Priest. "Go now. Set your men in motion, as I have commanded."
"Very well, sir," the priest of the Lion God repeated. "Again, though, I urge on you suitable prayer and sacrifice."
"Of course," Count Thraxton said. Leonidas left, though he didn't look as if he believed the general. And he was right to disbelieve, for Thraxton had no intention of sacrificing. Why should I? he thought. I am right, and the gods must know it.
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