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As Lieutenant General George had known he would, General Guildenstern made his headquarters in the finest hotel Rising Rock boasted. As George had feared he would, Guildenstern grew less diligent about going after Thraxton the Braggart than he had been before Rising Rock fell. George suspected the army commander had found something lively in the female line here, but judged coming right out and asking would only make Guildenstern's always uncertain temper worse.
At supper a couple of days after King Avram's army paraded into Rising Rock, Doubting George did ask General Guildenstern when he intended going after Count Thraxton. "The sooner the better, sir," George added, "if you care for what I think."
By Guildenstern's expression, he didn't care a fignot even a moldy figfor what his second-in-command thought. But he did his best to make light of his feelings, waving his hand and speaking in airy tones: "I don't think we need to worry about Thraxton for a while now. By the way he scuttled out of here with his tail between his legs, he's skedaddled down to Stamboul, and that's if he hasn't gone all the way to Marthasville. We'll settle him in due course, never you fear." He lifted a glass of amber spirits to his lips and gulped down half of what it held.
"If he's skedaddling, we ought to push him," George said stubbornly.
"And we will." General Guildenstern finished the spirits and waved for a refill. A blond maidservantnot a serf any more, Doubting George reminded himselfhurried up with a corked jug and poured more of the potent stuff into the glass. Guildenstern's eyes followed her as she swayed away. Doubting George sighed. He's more interested in what's between her legs than in the tail he thinks Thraxton has between his. But Guildenstern did bring himself back to the matter at hand: "In a few days, we will."
"Why wait, sir?" George asked. He'd already seen more than one victory count for less than it should have because the general in charge of Avram's army failed to push hard after winning the initial battle. And he doubted his superior's sincerity here. "If we've got the traitors in trouble, shouldn't we do everything we can to keep them there?"
General Guildenstern looked down his long, pointed nose at George. "Eager, aren't you?" By the way he said it, he didn't mean it as a compliment.
But George didn't care how he meant it. "Yes, sir," he answered. "If we've got 'em down, we ought to kick 'em."
Instead of answering right away, Guildenstern took another swig of spirits. "Ahh," he said, and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his gray tunic. "That's the real stuff." George could only nod; Franklin was famous for the spirits it distilled. After yet another gulp, something kindled in Guildenstern's eyes. It didn't look like something pleasant. George hoped he was wrong, butagainhe doubted it. His superior said, "So you really want to go after Thraxton the Braggart, do you?"
"Yes, sir!" Lieutenant General George didn't hesitate, no matter what the gleam in General Guildenstern's eye meant. "If we chase him, we'll catch him, and if we catch him, we'll lick him."
"Here's what I'll do, then," Guildenstern said. George leaned forward. He was sure he wouldn't get everything he wanted. For him to have got everything he wanted, General Guildenstern would have had to set the army in motion day before yesterday, or even the day before that. Guildenstern breathed spirituous fumes into his face, fumes potent enough to make him marvel that the commanding general's breath didn't catch fire when it passed over the flame of the rock-oil lamp on the table. "I'll give you half the army, and you go after Thraxton with it the best way you know how. I'll follow behind with the rest."
"Half our army is smaller than the whole of his," George said slowly. "Not a lot smaller, mind you, but it is."
"So what?" General Guildenstern answered, airily once moreor perhaps the spirits were starting to have their way with him. "If I've told you once, I've told you a dozen times: my guess is that he's hightailing it for Stamboul."
"I'm still not sure you're right about that, sir," Doubting George said, in lieu of some stronger and less politic expression of disagreement.
"So what?" Guildenstern repeated. That struck George as a cavalier attitude even for a cavalier. But then the commanding general went on, "Suppose I am wrong. Suppose Thraxton the Braggart's lurking in the undergrowth just outside of town here. Suppose he hits you when you come after him."
"I am supposing all that, sir," George replied. "I don't suppose I like any of it very much."
"By the gods, why not?" Guildenstern said. "You said it yourself: half our army isn't much smaller than all of his. Suppose he does attack you. Don't you think you can keep him in play till I come up with the rest of our troopers? Don't you think we can smash him between us, the way you'd smash a hickory nut between two stones?"
Now Lieutenant General George was the one who said, "Ahh." He took a pull at his own glass of spirits. Maybe Guildenstern wasn't the best general in the world (as long as Duke Edward of Arlington kept breathing, Guildenstern surely wasn't the best general in the world). But he wasn't the worst, either. The move that flanked Thraxton the Braggart out of Rising Rock had been his idea. And this ploy here . . . It puts me in danger, Doubting George thought, but it gives me the chance to show what I can do, too . . . if Thraxton really is hanging around not far north of here. George nodded. "That just might do the job, sir."
"I think so myself," Guildenstern said complacently. "How soon can you have your half of the army ready to move?"
"Sir, I can put them on the road tomorrow at sunrise," George answered. "I know you'll be ready to follow close on my heels."
He knew nothing of the sort. And, just as he'd expected, the commanding general looked appalled. "That strikes me as too precipitate," Guildenstern said. "The army should have at least two or three days more to recover itself before plunging on."
"We've already had all the time we need, sir," Lieutenant General George said. "Why, just today I had a delegation of soldiers asking me why we weren't already up and doing." That was fiction of the purest ray serene. George didn't care. If it got General Guildenstern moving, he was of the opinion that it benefited King Avram and the whole Kingdom of Detina.
"Insolent rogues!" Guildenstern rumbled. "I hope you gave 'em what they deserved." If he wanted to be up and doing, it was more likely in a bedchamber than anywhere else.
"Why, yes, sir," Doubting George said. "I gave 'em each two silver crowns from my own pocket, for being true Detinan patriots."
What General Guildenstern gave him was a harassed look. Guildenstern might have outmaneuvered Thraxton around Rising Rock, but George had just outmaneuvered the commanding general here. "Very well," Guildenstern said. "If you set out tomorrow, you may rest assured I'll follow the day after."
"Thank you, sir," Doubting George said. "I knew I could rely on you. I knew the kingdom could rely on you."
He knew nothing of the sort. What he did know was what a devilish liar he'd turned into. He hoped the Thunderer would have mercy on him. It's not for my own advantage, he thought apologetically. It's for Detina. No lightning bolt crashed through the roof and smote him where he sat. He chose to believe that meant the god knew he was telling the truth.
"Yes, we must save the kingdom," Guildenstern said, as if the idea had just occurred to him. He got to his feet. "And, if I'm going to be marching out of Rising Rock day after tomorrow, I have some urgent business I'd best attend to now." He bowed to Doubting George and departed.
George suspected the urgent business resided in the commanding general's pantaloons and nowhere else but. He shrugged as he rose, too. Even in his jaundiced opinion, Guildenstern wasn't the worst general around. Now that George had succeeded in reminding him of his duty, he would probably do it well enough.
And I have business of my own to attend to, George thought as he left the hotel and hurried through the twilight toward the encampment of the brigades he himself commanded. Sweat ran down his face and down his back and dripped from under his arms. Even though summer was on the point of turning to fall, Rising Rock's muggy heat made it a place where nobody in his right mind wanted to hurry. Doubting George hurried anyway. Unlike his commanding general, he needed no one to remind him of his duty.
He was shouting for runners as he got to his own pavilion of gray canvas. The young men appeared as quickly as if a military mage had conjured them up. That was their duty, and they would have heard about it had they failed. "Sir?" one of them said, saluting.
"Hunt down Brigadiers Rinaldo, Brannan, Negley, and Absalom the Bear," George said. "Inform them all that they are to be ready to move at first light tomorrow morning. We shall march on Thraxton the Braggart's army then, our purpose being to bring him to battle and hold him in place so that General Guildenstern, following behind us, may fall upon him and destroy him altogether."
The runners stared. Whatever they'd expected, that wasn't it. After they took it in, though, they whooped and scattered. Reddish dust flew up from under their boots as they ran. The commanding general might be distracted, but they wanted to close with Thraxton.
Before long, the encampment started to stir like a just-kicked anthill, only with rather more purpose. Lieutenant General George chuckled a little and rubbed his hands together, as if he were an evil wizard on the stage in New Eborac. When word reached the half of the army that wasn't going forward, the half General Guildenstern had kept for himself, that this half was, he suspected Guildenstern wouldn't be able to stay in Rising Rock for even a few hours, no matter how much he might want to. He also suspected the commanding general hadn't figured that out for himself. Well, too bad for the commanding general, he thought.
Colonel Andy, Doubting George's aide-de-camp, came bustling up to him. Andy was a small, plump, fussily precise man, hopeless leading soldiers in the field but brilliant when keeping track of all the things they needed to do to reach the field with everything they had to have to fight well. "Sir, are we moving?" he asked, reproach in his voice. "You didn't tell me we were moving. How can I be ready when I don't know what to be ready for?"
"If I'd known, your Excellency, I would have told you," George said, and set a reassuring hand on Andy's shoulder. The aide-de-camp was only a baronet, hardly a nobleman at all, but despite thator perhaps because of ittouchy about the way people used him. "I didn't know it myself till General Guildenstern gave me the order less than half an hour ago."
"He should conduct his business in a more businesslike manner," Colonel Andy said with a sniff. He bowed to George; if he expected punctilious politeness, he also returned it. "What preciselyor even what approximatelyare we expected to do, if the commanding general has any idea of that?" His opinion of Guildenstern was not high.
"We're going after Thraxton the Braggart," George answered. "The commanding general is of the belief that he's falling back on Stamboul, or maybe even all the way to Marthasville."
"What utter nonsense," Andy said, a view that marched well with George's own. "Thraxton's an arrogant boor, but he's not an idiot." He added something under his breath. It might have been, Unlike some people I could name, but it might not have, too.
Doubting George didn't ask. Instead, he said, "Be that as it may, we're going after the traitors. If it turns out they're closer, we'll hit them, and then General Guildenstern will come up and finish them off."
"And what route shall we take?" his aide-de-camp demanded. "I have been given to understand that knowing where we're going is considered desirable in these affairs. This may be only a rumor, but I do believe it holds some truth."
"Eryes," Lieutenant General George said. "The only real route we have starts in the gap between Sentry Peak and Proselytizers' Rise. Once we get up into Peachtree Province, what we do will depend on where Thraxton really turns out to be, don't you think?"
"Improvisation at the end of a campaign often leads to victory," Colonel Andy said, sniffing. "Improvisation at the beginning of a campaign often leads to disaster. The gods grant that this one prove the exception."
"Your Excellency, we are going after Thraxton the Braggart," George said. "I don't know where we'll find him, but I expect we will. When we do, we'd better be ready to give him a kick right where it'll do the most good. I rely on you to help us do that."
"You expect me to make ham without a pig," Andy said. "I shall do what I can, but I could do more if I knew more."
"I intend to move along the western slope of Sentry Peak," Doubting George said. "That way, if the traitors try to strike at us, they'll have a harder time hitting us from the flank. Past that, we'll just have to see."
His aide-de-camp sniffed again. "Not good enough. Not nearly good enough." But off he went, to do his best to make pork-free ham for George's army.
Ned of the Forest urged his unicorn across a stream in the forest north of the River of Death. The animal's every step took him farther from Fa Layette, and from Thraxton the Braggart. The farther he got from Thraxton, the happier he became.
A squirrel peered out from behind the trunk of an oak and chattered indignantly at him and at the rough-looking men in faded indigo riding behind him. Ned chuckled and spoke to Colonel Biffle, who followed him most closely: "If we weren't in such a rush, somebody'd bag that little fellow for the supper pot."
"Somebody may yet," Biffle answered.
But Ned shook his head. "We don't slow down for anything. We don't slow down for anybody. One of my men tries to make us slow down and I find out about it, he'll be one sorry so-and-so, and you can bank on that."
"All right, Ned," Colonel Biffle said hastily. "Everybody knows better than to get your angry upeverybody this side of Count Thraxton, anyway," he added in lower tones.
"People had ought to know that," Ned said. "I'm a peaceable man, but . . ." He normally spoke in a quiet voice, so quiet one had to listen closely to him to make out what he was saying. But when his temper rose, an astonishing transformation came over him. His eyes flashed. He shouted. He cursed.
"But . . ." Colonel Biffle echoed, and let out a nervous chuckle. "When your angry is up, your men are a lot more afraid of you than they ever could be afraid of the graybacked lice who fight for King Avram."
"Good," Ned said.
They went on for a while in silence. The road they followed hardly deserved the name. It was little more than a game track. But Ned's scouts had already traveled it from one end to the other, as they had most of the paths in the woods, and they knew just where it hit the main road leading north from Rising Rock.
After splashing through another small stream, Ned held up his hand and reined in. "Column, halt!" Colonel Biffle called from behind him, and the column did halt. Biffle asked, "What is it, sir?"
"I want to be sure the pack animals are keeping up with us all right," Ned answered. "Pass the word back, and then send it forward to me again. We can all use a little blow till it comes."
"Yes, sir," Biffle said, and back the word went. In short order, it returned: the laden assesand even a few unicornswere where they were supposed to be.
"Fine." Ned of the Forest nodded. "When we bump into Guildenstern's men, we'll need 'em. Every one of 'em'll be worth its weight in gold, matter of fact."
"Yes, sir," Colonel Biffle repeated, though he didn't sound altogether convinced. He did say, "You think of everything, don't you, sir?"
"I'd better," Ned answered. "We'd be in a fine way if I counted on Thraxton to do it for me, now wouldn't we?" His regimental commander giggledthere was no other word for itdeliciously scandalized. Ned didn't see that he'd made a joke. Thraxton wouldn't do him any favors. Nobody except the men he ledthe men who'd seen for themselves what he was worthwould ever do him any favors. He didn't care. He expected none. "Forward!" he called, and rode on.
Forward they went. As they moved on, Ned wondered what he would do if Guildenstern's men suddenly and unexpectedly attacked from the south. It wouldn't happen, not if he could help it. He had scouts out not just ahead of his riders but off to the flanks as well.
But the forest between Rising Rock and Fa Layette was often thick and tangled. He liked setting ambuscades, and knew he could fall into them, too. If he did, he wanted to have a plan ready. Some meneven some soldiers of high rankwent through life perpetually surprised. Ned of the Forest had no desire to be among their number.
A scout came galloping back along the game path toward him. "Lord Ned! Lord Ned!" he called, reining in.
"What is it?" Ned leaned forward, like a hound who knew he was about to be released from his lead line. "It must be something, by the gods, or you wouldn't ride hells-for-leather to get me word of it."
"Something, yes, Lord Ned." The scout nodded. He was a lean, weatherbeaten man in his early thirties: not a fellow who'd owned an estate full of serfs before the war, surely, but not one who'd take kindly to anyone who told him he couldn't dream of acquiring such an estate one day, either. His sharp northeastern accent wasn't much different from Ned's own. "Herk and me, we spotted southron riders heading up the road from Rising Rock. Unless we're daft, there's a whole big army behind 'em."
"Is that a fact?" Ned said softly, and the scout nodded again. Ned scratched at the edge of his neat chin beard. "They're not moving as fast as I would have, but they're not sitting on their hands down there, neither." His eyes narrowed. "They didn't spy you?"
"Lord Ned!" The scout both looked and sounded affronted. "You think me and Herk are a couple o' city men, can't walk across ground with grass on it without we fall over our own feet?"
"No, no." Ned of the Forest waved in apology. "Forget I said that: the Lion God swallow up the words. To business: tell me exactly where you and Herk were at and how fast the southrons were moving. Soon as I hear that, I can reckon up where we'd do best to pay 'em a call."
"A social call, like," the scout said, and grinnedshowing a couple of missing front teethwhen Ned nodded. The rider spoke for a couple of minutes, at one point dismounting to sketch in the dirt to make his words clearer.
Ned scratched at the edge of his beard again. "Clinging close to the west side of Sentry Peak, are they? That's not stupid. I only wish it was. But we'll have a harder time hitting 'em from both flanks at once this way."
If General Guildenstern had his whole army on the move, he would outnumber Ned's men eight or ten to one. Just for a moment, Ned wondered how he had the nerve to think about attacking the southrons from two directions at once. Then he shrugged and laughed a little. I might have a better chance of licking 'em that way, he thought.
But it didn't seem practical, not with the dispositions the scout said the enemy was making. Ned abandoned the idea without remorse. "Let's get down to business," he said again, and started giving orders.
When the path along which his troopers were riding forked, he chose the more northerly branch. Before he found out where Guildenstern's men were, he would have kept pressing as far south as he could. Now, though, he knew where he and his men had to be before the southrons' scouts got there.
He reined in when the track ran into the main south-north road. A couple of hundred yards south of the junction, the trees came down close to the main road on either side. A slow, nasty grin spread over Ned's face. The riders close enough to see it started grinning, too, and nudging one another. "He's got something up his sleeve besides his arm," one of them said. Everybody who heard him nodded.
Although Ned of the Forest did hear that, he hardly noticed. His mind turned like a serf woman's spinning wheel. And then, all at once, it stopped, and he knew what he had to do. "You men!" he barked to the unicorn-riders nearest him. "Take some axes and knock down enough trees to make a barricade across the road. Quick, nowdon't sit there playing with yourselves. Get your arses moving right now!" He never cursed, except when action was near.
The troopers dismounted and fell to with a will. Chestnuts and oaks and pines came crashing down. Meanwhile, Ned shouted more orders. His voice changed timbre at the prospect of a fight. It belled forth, loud and piercing enough to stretch over a battlefield and urgent enough to make men obey first and think afterwards.
One man in eight stayed behind to hold unicorns. In most cavalry forces, it would have been one man in four. Ned wished he could do without unicorn-holders altogether. He didn't have that many men. He needed to get all of them he could into the fight.
At his command, the troopers who'd built the barricade crouched behind it, their crossbows cocked. Along with Ned himself, more men moved into position among the trees to the west of the road. In country less wild, one of the local nobles would have had his serfs trim the trees back out of bowshot from the roadway, to make life harder for bandits. No one had bothered here: here the road was the intruder, with the trees the rightful inhabitants.
Ned had just got things arranged as he wanted them when a warbler whistled cheerilyonce, twice, three times. He nodded: that was no natural bird, but a scout at the southern end of the line he'd formed. The southrons were in sight. "Pass the word along: nobody shoots till I give the order," he said. "Anybody spoils our surprise, I'll cut off his balls and feed 'em to my hounds."
His men chuckled, not because they thought he was kidding but because they didn't. And he wasn'tat least, not when his temper was upon him. Along with the dismounted riders, he waited for the foe. The indigo uniforms in the shadows under the trees made his soldiers and him next to invisible.
The gray-clad outriders from King Avram's army rode north up the road without so much as glancing into the forest. They were well mountedbetter mounted than a lot of Ned's menand carried themselves with the arrogance that said they thought they could whip any number of northern men. A lot of southrons thought that way till they'd been in a couple of fights with the men who followed King Geoffrey.
When the southron scouts saw the barricade across the road, they stopped, then rode forward again. Ned of the Forest nodded to himself. He would have had his men do the same thing. If the barricade had been left behind as an annoyance by the retreating northerners, they could just haul the tree trunks off to the side of the road and free it up for the men under General Guildenstern to continue their advance.
If. When the men in gray dismounted and started walking over to the felled trees, Ned's troopers behind them popped up and started shooting. A few riders in gray fell. Others ran back out of range or started shooting, too. And still others rode back toward the south, to bring reinforcements to get rid of what looked like a small nuisance. Me, I aim to be a big nuisance, Ned thought.
The southrons wasted no time in bringing more men north to deal with the dismounted troopers who harassed them from behind the fallen trees. Ned nodded again. It was a smart piece of work. Had those men behind the trees been the only ones who were bothering them, they would have driven off King Geoffrey's soldiers in short order.
Ned filled his lungs and shouted one word: "Six!" Instantly, his officers and sergeants took up the cry. Every sixth soldier hidden among the trees stepped out into the open and started shooting at the southrons. Ned stepped out into the open himself. He would not order his men to do anything he wouldn't do himself. He was a good shot with a crossbow, although he preferred the saber at closer quarters.
With crossbow quarrels suddenly smiting them from the flank as well as the front, the southrons yowled in dismay. They went down one after another. Some few of them, with more courage than sense, tried to charge Ned's men. The charge withered like a garden in a drought. Some of the southrons drew their swords, but nobody got close enough to use one.
Again, of course, Ned's men couldn't slay everybody. More of the soldiers in gray ran back toward the south. "Shouldn't we chase 'em, Lord Ned?" one of Ned of the Forest's men askedone who didn't get the point. "They'll bring all of Guildenstern's soldiers down on our heads."
"No, not all of 'em," Ned said. "They'll bring back enough to deal with what they seeand a bit more besides, in case some little thing goes wrong. So let the gods-damned sons of bitches run." Sure enough, the heat of battle also heated his language. "They're doing just what I reckoned they would."
This time, he heard unicorns and footsoldiers coming before he spied them. The pounding of hooves, the drumroll of marching feet, soaked into his body through the soles of his own feet as well as through his ears. And when the southrons came into sight, he nodded to himself once more. They'd sent plenty to overwhelm what he was showingand that he might not be showing everything never once crossed their minds.
A great shout rose from the enemies in gray when they saw Ned and his men still in line of battle out in the open, waiting for them. The unicorn-riders outdistanced the crossbowmen and pikemen who advanced with them. Ned's crossbowmen, waiting there away from the cover of the trees, were the sort of target cavalrymen dreamt about.
Lances and sabers and iron-shod unicorn horns gleamed in the afternoon sunlight. "Bide your time, boys," Ned said. The onrushing unicorns thundered nearer. Here and there, Ned's men began to shoot in spite of orders. Then he shouted, "Now!" and all his men, both those in the open and the far larger number concealed under the trees, shot a volley at the unicorn-riders that broke their charge as if it had run headlong into a stone wall. Unicorns tumbled. Men pitched off them. Unhurt beasts fell over wounded ones. Ned's men kept right on shooting; thanks to those pack animals, they had bolts to spare.
Cries of "Magecraft! Black magecraft!" rose from the southrons. Ned of the Forest threw back his head and laughed out loud. And General Guildenstern's footsoldiers, seeing that the unicorns had failed but not seeing why, kept coming forward till they too took a couple of volleys from his massed dismounted force of riders.
"We'll lick 'em all!" one of his troopers cried.
But he shook his head. "Next time, they'll bring up enough to deal with the lot of us," he said. "The idea is, not to stick around here to get dealt with. Back in the woods, boys. Back to the unicorns. We'll be gone, and we'll hit 'em again somewheres else pretty soondoing what we want, not what they want us to." He clapped his hands together. "That's what this here war's all about, ain't it?"
"Forward!" General Guildenstern cried grandly. Horns blaring, drums thumping, the part of the army he hadn't given to Doubting George marched out of Rising Rock, heading north toward the border with Peachtree Province. Guildenstern wished the armyor at least hecould have stayed longer. One of the blond serving girlsa serf no longer, of course, but still a servantat the hotel had served him as delightfully as he'd ever imagined a woman doing. He sighed, then loosed another shout: "Forward! Duty calls!" He wasn't just telling his men. He was reminding himself, too.
Having reminded himself, he used his knees and the reins to urge his unicorn forward. Its every step took him farther from the blond girl. He wished he hadn't reminded himself of that. To keep from thinking about it, he loosed the brandy flask he wore next to his sword and swigged from it. Maybe the peaches from which the potent stuff was brewed had come from the province toward which he advanced. That was some consolation for leaving the wench behind. Some, yes. Enough?
Probably plenty of willing blond wenches up in Peachtree Province, he thought. That notion, possibly sparked by the brandy he'd poured down, went further toward consoling him for leaving Rising Rock.
And they'll all fall at my feetor into my bedonce I smash up Thraxton the Braggart's army once for all. I can do it. I will do it. Once I get clear of these woods, I'll outflank him again and again, the same way I flanked him out of Rising Rock, out of Franklin altogether. He can flee or he can fight. If he flees, I throw more wood on King Geoffrey's pyre with every mile of land I take back for King Avram. If he fights, I crush him. Guildenstern nodded and took another nip from his flask. The sun shone down brightly, as if on him alone. The breeze smelled sweet, at least to him. Victory made a better perfume than flowers or spice.
Let me crush Thraxton, Guildenstern thought. Let my scryers send word to King Avram that Marthasville is his again, that the gold dragon, the true dragon, has driven out the red. What will that mean? Earl Guildenstern? Count Guildenstern? Even Duke Guildenstern, by the gods? Duke Guildenstern. I like the sound of that.
He came from a family of merchants and artisans. No one except a couple of worthless cousins had ever gone hungry. Some of his kin enjoyed more wealth than most nobles. He'd never lacked for anything in all his daysanything except respectability. He shook his head. That was the wrong word. In the bustling south, merchants and artisans were perfectly respectable. He'd lacked . . . prominence.
He nodded. That fit. Becoming an officer had given him some of what he wanted. Becoming a noble would give him the rest.
"Duke Guildenstern," he murmured, and nodded again. It had a fine ring to it.
Doubting George, now, Doubting George was already a baron over in Parthenia, though King GeoffreyGeoffrey the traitorhad seized his estate when he stayed loyal to King Avram, just as Avram had declared Duke Edward of Arlington's lands forfeit to the crown when Edward chose Geoffrey over him. Guildenstern was sure George scorned him because his blood wasn't higher. Let me settle Thraxton, and it will be. Let me rescue George, in fact, and it will be.
His second-in-command had stuck close to the western flank of Sentry Peak. General GuildensternI outrank Doubting George, no matter how blue his blood ismoved his slightly larger force north along roads farther west still. If Count Thraxton was rash enough to have lingered in the neighborhood, Guildenstern and George would smash him between them.
But Guildenstern didn't really believe Thraxton had done any such thing. No matter what Doubting George thought, he remained convinced Thraxton had hightailed it for Stamboul. If anything, George's belief that the enemy might be closer made him sure Thraxton wasn't.
He turned to Brigadier Alexander, who commanded one of the two divisions in the part of the army Guildenstern still led personally. "I say we have them on the run," he announced.
"Hope you're right, sir," Alexander answered with a smile. His face usually wore one; he had a bright, easygoing disposition.
His smile was enough to make General Guildenstern give one backwhich meant it was sunny indeed. Expansiveness perhaps fueled by brandy, Guildenstern said, "No wonder you're a brigadieryour family's given King Avram a brigade's worth of men."
"Oh, not quite, General." Alexander chuckled at the commanding general's quip, even if he'd surely heard the like before.
"How many kinsfolk of yours have come out of Highlow Province, anyhow?" Guildenstern asked with genuine curiosity.
"Seventeen in all, sir, if you count my father," Alexander said proudly. "They wouldn't let him come north with ussaid he was too old. But when John the Hunter led his unicorns south of the Highlow River to stir things up in our part of the kingdom last year, Father went out against him. They killed him in one of the little fights down there, the bastards." For a moment, his smile faded. But then it returned, though tinged with sorrow. "Not many of them got back over the river, and Geoffrey hasn't tried anything like that since."
"Seventeen." Even Guildenstern hadn't thought it was quite so many. "Not all brothers, surelyor your father was an even mightier man than I would have reckoned. Mightily beloved of the Sweet One, anyhow." He extended his middle finger in the gesture sacred to the goddess.
"Well, she did smile on him, Generalthere are ten of us sprung from his loins," Alexander answered. "The rest are close cousins. My brother Niel is one of your colonels of foot, and Cousin Moody leads one of your cavalry regiments. If Geoffrey wants to win this war, he'll have to lick every one of us, and I don't suppose he's got enough men to do it."
"I like that." Guildenstern took another swig of brandy. After the spirits seared their way down to his belly, he liked it even better. And he put it to his own purpose: "No wonder Thraxton's probably scurrying back toward Marthasville right this minute."
"No wonder at all," Brigadier Alexander said agreeably. "After the way you flanked the Braggart out of Rising Rock, what else could he do?"
"Not a thing. Not a single, solitary thing, by the gods." General Guildenstern smiled again. Yes, he liked the way Alexander thought.
"No wonder about what, sir?" asked Brigadier Thom, Guildenstern's other division commander.
"No wonder Thraxton the Braggart's on the run," Guildenstern replied. He gave Thom a wary look. The brigadier's father, Count Jordan of Cloviston, had done everything he could to keep Detina a single kingdom. Count Jordan had done a great deal to keep Cloviston loyal to King Avram, too, but the divisions in the realm also split his own family, for Thom's older brother, George the Bibber, had served as a brigadier under Geoffrey till cashiered for drunkenness. Even now, Guildenstern wondered about Thom's loyalty.
But the dark, shaggy-bearded officer nodded without hesitation. "No wonder at all," he said. "We've got him where we want him, sure as sure."
"Well said. By the gods, Brigadier, well said!" Guildenstern boomed. He leaned over to clap Thom on the shoulder. He almost leaned too far, far enough to fall off his unicorn. Only a quick shift of weight saved him from that ignominious tumble. Having righted himself, he did his best to pretend nothing had happened. "Sure as sure, as you put it so well, Count Thraxton must ingloriously flee, or else see himself ground like wheat between the millstones of our victorious army."
"A pretty figure, General," Thom said, "and one we shall make true." If he would sooner have been serving under Thraxton the Braggart, he did conceal it well. Of course, from everything Guildenstern knew about his immediate foe, even a man who might sooner serve King Geoffrey than King Avram was apt to have second thoughts about serving under Thraxton.
As General Guildenstern had during the advance on Rising Rock, he admired the concentrated might of the army he led. Crossbowmen, pikemen, unicorns cavalry, dart- and stone- and firepot-throwers, mages . . . He sighed, wishing mages were less necessary. But if the northerners had themand they didhe needs must have them, too, and so he did.
On paced his unicorn. On marched the army. Rising Rock vanished in the distance behind him, obscured by bends in the road, by forest, and by the red dust boots and hooves and wheels raised. He sighed again. He would sooner have stayed back there sporting with that yellow-haired wench. She'd fit him very well, in every sense of the word. Well, no help for itand there would be other women ahead.
He was musing thus when a courier shouting, "General Guildenstern! General Guildenstern!" rode toward him, fighting his way south against the northbound stream of soldiers in gray.
"Here!" Guildenstern called, and he waved for good measure. Both call and wave were probably needless: a swarm of banners and gold dragons marked his place in the line of march. But he didn't care to seem to be doing nothing.
The courier brought his unicorn up alongside Guildenstern's and saluted. "Sir, I'm Captain Menander, one of Lieutenant General George's guardsmen. You need to know, sir, that we had a sharp little run-in with Ned of the Forest's troopers late yesterday afternoon."
"Did you?" Guildenstern said, and Menander the guardsman nodded. "Whereabouts was this?" Guildenstern asked. "How far had Doubting George got before they jumped you?"
He didn't notice he'd used George's disparaging nickname till too late. Captain Menander was in no position to take offense. The courier answered, "Sir, our vanguard had got within perhaps six miles of the River of Death."
"Had it?" Guildenstern saidGeorge was wasting no time in moving north. "And what precisely happened?"
Menander looked disgusted. "If you want to know the truth, sir, Ned suckered us. I hate to say it, but it's true."
Guildenstern wasn't altogether sorry to learn of Doubting George's discomfiturenot even close. But showing that too openly wouldn't do. He said, "Ned of the Forest has managed to sucker more commanders more often than we'd like to admit. How did he do it to George?"
"He felled some trees to block the road and shot at our vanguard," Captain Menander answered. "Then, when we brought up more men to deal with his skulkers, he showed some of what he had hiding in the woods. We sent up still more menand his whole force showed itself, gave us a black eye, and then ran away."
"His whole force, you say? Are you sure of that?" Guildenstern asked.
Menander the guardsman nodded. "Sure as can be, sir. I was up there at the edge of the fighting. As a matter of fact, it seemed like Ned had twice as many men as we thought he could. They handled us pretty roughly." He took off his hat and looked at it. So did General Guildenstern. Up near the crown, it had two small, neat holes through it. Captain Menander said, "A couple of inches lower, sir, and somebody else would be giving you this report."
"I see." Guildenstern nodded. He plucked at his beard as he thought. "I wonder if Thraxton left Ned of the Forest behind to harass our advance while he retreats with the rest of his army."
Captain Menander didn't answer. Guildenstern would have been affronted had he done so. Judging strategy wasn't a captain's place. King Avram gave me that job, Guildenstern thought.
"Wherever Thraxton the Braggart is, we have to find him and beat him," Guildenstern said. Menander nodded at that. He could hardly do anything else. The commanding general went on, "I still do believe he's running away as fast as he can go." He raised his voice: "Brigadier Alexander! Brigadier Thom!"
"Sir?" the two division commanders chorused.
"I intend to pursue Thraxton on a broad front, as broad as possible," General Guildenstern said. "Brigadier Thom, you shall take your men north up roads farther west. Brigadier Alexander, you shall continue on our present route, and hold the center between George and Thom. I'll come with you, and stay in touch with each wing through messengers and scryers."
"Yes, sir," Thom and Alexander said together. Guildenstern nodded. They were subordinate to him. They couldn't possibly say anything else.
As Captain Ormerod strode along the northern bank of the River of Death, he shook his head in frustration. "This would be miserable country for fighting a battle," he said.
"Sir, this is miserable country whether we fight a battle here or not." As usual, Lieutenant Gremio was more exact than he needed to be. That didn't mean he was altogether wrong, though. The woods, mostly pine with oak and elm and chestnut scattered through them, were thick and hard to navigate. Bushes and brambles grew in riotous profusion under the trees, making things worse yet.
"What's that?" Ormerod raised an eyebrow. "You wouldn't care to have an estate hereabouts?"
After the words were out of his mouth, he wondered if Gremio would take offense. Living in Karlsburg, the lawyer didn't haveand didn't seem to wanta proper landed estate. But Gremio just said, "The only thing this country would be good for is burying my enemies. May it bury a lot of them."
Ormerod peered south, as if expecting to see King Avram's gray-clad villains bursting out of the trees in division strength or more. All he saw were more woods, identical to those on this side of the river. He said, "I hear Ned of the Forest buried a good many southrons a couple of days ago."
"The Lion God grant it be so," Gremio said. "Ned's no gentleman, but he fights like a round sawbladethere's no good place to get a grip on him."
"They say he almost fought Count Thraxton before we pulled out of Rising Rock," Ormerod remarked.
"He wouldn't be the first," Gremio said. "He won't be the last." His opinion of Thraxton was not high. Since Ormerod's wasn't, either, he nodded.
Before he could say anything, a gong chimed. "The call to worship," Ormerod said. He raised his voice to a shout: "Come on, men! Time to pay our respects to the Lion God."
"Time to keep Leonidas the Priest happy," Lieutenant Gremio said with a sneer. "I wish we were in Dan of Rabbit Hill's division, so the gods wouldn't hit us over the head every sixth day."
"You're nothing but a citified scoffer," Ormerod said, to which his first lieutenant nodded emphatic agreement. Ormerod went on, "The gods will recognize you, whether you recognize them or not."
"I'll take my chances," Gremio replied. "And ifsobe I'm wrong, and end up toasting in the seven hellswhy, I'll save you a spot by the fire, Captain."
"Avert the omen!" Ormerod exclaimed. His fingers twisted in a sign the Detinans had borrowed from their serfs so long before, only a few scholars knew they hadn't brought it over the Western Ocean with them. Ormerod's own piety might not have been profound, but it was deep and heartfelt. He'd been a young man when a wave of proselytizing swept through northern Detina twenty years before, and he'd sealed his soul to the gods then.
Colonel Florizel had consecrated himself during that wave of proselytizing, too. "Up!" the regimental commander called. "Up, you Detinans! Let the gods know you care for them, and they'll be happy to care for you!"
Soldiers in indigo tunics and pantaloons made their way toward the altar Leonidas the Priest had set up in a clearing not far from the River of Death. Baron Ormerod and Earl Florizel accompanied their troopers. So did Lieutenant Gremio; he might be a scoffer, but he didn't advertise it to the men.
Again and again, the gong rang out. Florizel's regiment wasn't the only one assembling in the clearing; several more joined it. Off in the distance, more gongs belled. Leonidas couldn't be everywhere at once, but he made sure the men he led had every chance to worship.
When the southrons were closer, Ormerod had sometimes heard their gongs calling the faithful to prayer. All Detinans followed the same gods. All Detinans were convinced those gods favored them. Some Detinans would end up disappointed. Not a man usually given to deep thought, Ormerod simply assumed the southrons would prove the disappointed ones.
Florizel poked him in the ribs with an elbow. "Isn't that a splendid altar?" the regimental commander said. "You couldn't find better in a proper temple back in Karlsburg, not hardly."
"No, sir, you surely couldn't," Ormerod agreed. The altar, gleaming with gilt, stood on a platform of new-sawn boards so more soldiers could see it. Also gilded were the bars of the cage in which the lion prowled, thrashing his tufted tail back and forth. Even the chain securing the frightened lamb to the altar had been slapped with several coats of gold paint.
Leonidas the Priest prowled the platform as the lion prowled the cage, waiting for the worshipers to gather. His vestments were partly of gold, but more of scarlet, as befitted a hierophant of the Lion God. Ormerod was proud to serve under such a holy man. He would have been prouder still had he reckoned Leonidas a better officer.
At last, the gongs stopped chiming. Leonidas the Priest raised his hands in a gesture of benediction. "We are gathered at the River of Death to fight for the life of our kingdom," he said. "Death and life are brethren. The Lion God knows as much. So does the lamb, his victim." He stroked the woolly little animal. It let out a desperate-sounding bleat.
An acolyte in crimson robes somewhat less magnificent than Leonidas' held a deep red-glazed bowl under the lamb's neck. Leonidas himself drew a knife from his belt and cut the lamb's throat. The acolyte caught the spurting blood in the bowl. "It is accomplished!" Leonidas cried.
"It is accomplished!" Ormerod echoed, along with the other soldiers reverencing their god. "Death and life are brethren. Such is the wisdom of the Lion God."
When the lamb was dead, Leonidas unchained the little carcass, lifted it, and gave it to the lion. With a soft grunt, the great beast began to feed. As the hierophant served the living symbol of his god, the acolyte passed the bowl of blood down to the waiting soldiers.
Ormerod stood near the portable altar. The bowl did not take long to reach him. He dipped the tip of his right index finger into it, then touched that finger to his forehead. "I am washed in the blood of the lamb," he murmured, and put the finger in his mouth to lick off the blood. "Like the Lion God, I taste victory. So may it always be."
Ritual accomplished, he passed the bowlstill warm with remembered lifeto the soldier nearest him. In the worship of the Lion God, all brave men were equals. Even the southrons who worshiped him were Ormerod's equals in that way . . . which didn't keep him from wishing every one of them dead.
The last trooper who received the bowl brought it back to the acolyte, who, bowing gravely, returned it to Leonidas the Priest. Bowing in return, the hierophant accepted it from him and set it in the lion's cage. The lion, a veteran of countless such services, walked over and flicked out his tongue, drinking from the bowl.
"Go forth, my fierce friends," Leonidas called to the men who had come to worship with him. "Go forth and triumph over the wicked thieves who seek to steal everything we have, even our way of life."
As Ormerod and Lieutenant Gremio walked back toward their encampment, Gremio remarked, "It's nice to feel the gods are on our side. The way things look, I wonder if anyone else is."
"We'll whip the southrons yetsee if we don't." Ormerod spoke in ringing tones, not least to still his own unease.
"Do you know what I wish the gods would give us?" Gremio, on the other hand, was all but whispering. Ormerod shook his head. Still in that half whisper, the barrister from Karlsburg went on, "I wish they'd give us leaders who could count past ten without taking off their shoes."
"Leonidas is a very holy man," Ormerod said.
Gremio nodded. "No doubt of that, sir. But, once you've said it, you've said everything you can say to recommend him as a soldier." He lifted a forefinger; Ormerod saw a tiny bit of lamb's blood clinging to the cuticle and the crease between nail and flesh. "No, I take that back. He is brave, but how much good is bravery without wisdom?"
"I don't know," Ormerod answered. "I'd sooner have that than wisdom without bravery."
"In a commander?" Gremio's eyebrows rose. "I wonder." Whether he wondered or not, he changed the subject, at least a little: "And as for Thraxton, he'd serve King Geoffrey better if anyone could stand him."
"He's a mighty mage," Ormerod said.
"So he ismighty enough to terrify his own side as well as the enemy," Gremio said.
Ormerod snorted; that was scandalous, but hardly untrue. The company commander said, "King Geoffrey dotes on him. The gods must know why, even if no one else does."
"It could be that no one at all knows why, the gods and King Geoffrey included," Gremio remarked. Ormerod snorted again, on a different note this time. That was too cynical for him to stomach easily. Maybe his unease showed on his face, for Lieutenant Gremio said, "Go into the lawcourts often enough, Captain, and you stop believing in everything."
"I suppose so." Ormerod didn't feel any happier. He wanted the men who fought under him to believe in what they were doing. He might have said more, but Gremio, whether he believed or not, had proved himself both brave and capable.
Back at the camp, a couple of serfs were tending to the company's asses. The blonds looked up from their work when the soldiers returned from the worship service. Seeing the Detinans with the bloody mark of the Lion God on their foreheads, the serfs muttered back and forth. They worshiped Detinan gods, too. How not, when those gods had proved superior to their own pantheon? But they still recalled the deities they'd once followed. Ormerod gave the serfs a suspicious look. Wouldn't they love to get some of their own back, after Avram loosed them from their feudal obligations? In their place, Ormerod knew he would have.
"They aren't as good as we are," he muttered. "Their gods aren't as good as our gods are, either."
"Well, their gods aren't as strong as our gods are, anyway," Lieutenant Gremio said. "In the end, that's what counts, isn't it?"
"I suppose so." Ormerod knew he didn't sound altogether happy about that. Strength mattered, of course. Without it, the Detinans never would have overthrown the blonds' kingdoms after coming across the Western Ocean, never would have bound the natives to the soil. But if strength was the only thing that mattered . . . King Avram's army had driven the one Count Thraxton commanded out of Franklin. Unless something splendid happened, the stinking southrons would drive Thraxton's army farther north still. Ormerod wished he knew how something splendid might be made to happen. For the life of him, though, he didn't.
As if his gloomy reflections were a cue, a scout came pelting back to him, calling, "Captain! Captain! The southrons! The southrons are coming up to the River of Death!"
Ormerod didn't hesitate. "Forward, men!" he called. "Get your crossbows, get your pikes, and forward! We have to keep them from crossing the river."
"Sir, our company's not going to be able to do that all by itself," Gremio said.
"Of course it won't." Ormerod pointed to the scout. "Go on to Colonel Florizel. Tell him what you just told me. If he doesn't send you on to Leonidas the Priest, I'm a serf. Go on." The scout pelted away. Ormerod raised his voice to a battlefield roar: "Forward!" He lowered it again. "No, we can't hold the southrons off all by ourselves, but, by the gods, we've got to try."
He waited for more argument from his lieutenant. After all, Gremio made his living by being argumentative. But now he only nodded. "Of course, sir. Let's go fill the southrons full of holes."
Along with the company, Ormerod hurried down toward the northern bank of the River of Death. Sure enough, a few unicorn-riders in gray had come up to the southern bank. They were peering north, as if wondering what awaited them.
Despite its fearsome name, the River of Death wasn't a great stream. The far bank lay within easy crossbow range. Before Ormerod could even start giving orders, his men started shooting at King Avram's troopers. A unicorn screamed as a quarrel went home. A man in gray toppled, clutching his belly.
"Well shot!" Ormerod said. "By the gods, well shot!"
A moment later, he discovered he might have been wiser not to draw notice to himself. Buzzing like an angry wasp, a crossbow quarrel zipped past his head and buried itself in a tree trunk. It would have buried itself in his flesh, too. He knew that all too well. He usually tried not to think about it. But when the Soulstealer's cloak brushed by him, he couldn't pretend he didn't feel the breeze of its passage.
Brave as if they fought for a cause Ormerod held dear, the southrons tried to charge across the river and get in among his men. But quick, fierce archery slew some, wounded more, and drove them all back to the southern bank. They started fighting as dragoons then, dismounting to give battle on foot.
Ormerod grinned. "They won't advance that way," he said. Since his job was to hold them south of the River of Death, he'd done exactly what he was supposed to.
Earl James of Broadpath felt like kicking someone, or perhaps several someones. The pox-ridden cretins who'd designed and created the chaotic jungle of glideways in the northern provinces of Detina would do in a pinch. No, he wouldn't have minded pinching them at all, preferably with red-hot pincers.
Everything had been tolerable till he'd brought his army over the Veldt River from Palmetto Province into Peachtree. He'd thought he would get to Marthasville soon afterwards, and down to Fa Layette soon after that. His scryers had told Count Thraxton as much.
Coming into the town of Julia, though, on the Peachtree side of the Veldt, had begun his education into just how complicated glideways could be. An indigo-uniformed officer awaited him at the glideway port there. The fellow saluted and said, "Very good to see you here so soon, your Excellency. You must have made splendid time come up here from southern Parthenia."
"Not splendid, but good enough," James agreed, more than a little smugly.
"Excellent," the officer said. He wore a broad smile, but not one of the sort that prompted Earl James to trust him. He'd seen that kind of smile on the faces of rivergalley gamblers and unicorn thieves. It didn't match whatever was going on behind the fellow's eyes.
When the officer didn't say anything more right away, James of Broadpath asked him, "Why did you call me out onto the pier here? I would sooner have headed straight east towards Marthasville with my army."
"I'm sure you would, sir," the officer said, his nod as false as his smile. "And as soon as your army transfers from these carpets to those waiting to take them to Marthasville, so you shall."
"As soon as my army does what?" James dug a finger into his ear, as if wondering whether he'd heard correctly.
"As soon as it transfers, sir," the other officer said again. No, James' ears hadn't betrayed him.
That didn't mean he understood what the other fellow was saying, or why he was saying it. "What's wrong with the carpets we're on?" he asked. "We've come this far on 'em. I don't see much point in changing for the couple of hundred miles from here to Marthasville."
"There is a point, I'm afraid," the officer said. "You've come this far on the Northern Glideway. The route east is over the Peachtree Glideway." Earl James' bushy eyebrows rose. The other officer, a captain supercilious enough to be a general, condescended to explain: "They use different sorcerous systems, sir. A carpet that will travel with ease on the one will not, cannot, move a finger's breadth on the other."
As northern noblemen went, James of Broadpath had a mild temper. But he felt that temper fraying now. "What idiot made that arrangement?" he growled, wondering how much time this unexpected difficulty would cost him. However much it was, he couldn't afford it.
"It isn't like that, General," the local captain insisted. "By the Thunderer's prick, sir, it isn't." For once, he seemed sincere. "The fellows who made the Northern Glideway had the low bid for that stretch of the route, and the fellows who created the Peachtree Glideway came in with the low bid there. The two outfits worked with different sets of mages who favored different sets of sorcery. Simple as that."
"Simple?" Earl James turned the word into a curse. "If things were simple, I wouldn't have to change glideways here. They all ought to run on the same system."
"They don't even bother with that down in the south, sir." The officer's shrug said that, if even the gold-grubbing merchants of the southern provinces who backed King Avram couldn't see the point to standardizing glideways, it wasn't worth doing.
James thought otherwise. "If they all ran on the same system, Captain, I wouldn't have to move my men off these carpets and onto the new ones. That sounds mighty fine to me."
"Nothing to be done about it," the local fellow said with another shrug. "Do I hear rightly that your men'll be heading south from Marthasville?"
"What if you do?" James asked suspiciously. This fellow was without a doubt a son of a bitch, but that probably didn't make him a southron spy. Probably.
"Well, your Excellency, if you'll be going by way of the Northern Provinces and Western Ocean Glideway, you'll have to change again once you get into Marthasville," the captain said.
"What?" James of Broadpath's bellow made heads whip toward him all over the glideway port. Curses cascaded from him.
"It can't be helped, your Excellency," the other officer said. That was bound to be true, but did nothing to improve James' temper.
When he gave the necessary orders, his subordinates cursed as loudly and foully as he had. Brigadier Bell said, "We've come round three sides of a square, seems like. We might have done better just to march it."
Reluctantly, Earl James shook his head. "No, I didn't think so," he replied. "Say what you will about glideways, but they're faster, a lot faster, than shank's mare."
"I suppose so," Bell agreed. "But I hate even to seem as if I'm moving away from the enemy when what I really want to do is close with him." His right hand folded into a fist. His left hand twitched, as if it wanted to make a fist, too. But, hanging on the end of his ruined arm, it was all but useless.
"You'll have your chance," James assured him. The eager smile Bell gave in answer briefly banished the eternal pain from his face.
But when James' army, having disembarked from the carpets that had brought them to Julia, made its way over to the far side of the glideway port and the carpets that were to take them on to Marthasville, the general wondered if he'd spoken too soon. Not nearly enough carpets waited on the Peachtree Glideway's route toward Marthasville. "Where are the rest of them?" James demanded of the local captain. "I can't fit my force onto what you've got here."
"This is just about all the gliding stock on the Peachtree line, sir," that worthy said. "We've got so many men fighting, we're hard pressed to do anything else."
"How am I supposed to fight if I can't get to the battlefield?" James demanded.
"Oh, you will, sireventually," the captain said. "How much difference does it make whether you fight tomorrow or the next day, though?"
"My friend" James freighted the word with heavy irony "it might make all the difference in the world."
"It might," the other officer said. "On the other hand, it might not mean anything at all. More often than not, it won't."
James was tempted, mightily tempted, to argue that with him. The only reason he desisted was the pointlessness of it. "What do you expect me to do, then?" he asked. "Take half my army to Marthasville, send the carpets back, and wait for the other half to catch up?"
"Sir, the only other choice you have is leaving all your army here in Julia," the local officer told him. "If you want to do that, I don't see how I can stop you, but I don't suppose you'll make Count Thraxton very happy."
That, unfortunately, held altogether too much truth. James heaved a long, heartfelt sigh. "I don't think I'll make him happy letting him know I'm going to be late, either. But, as you say, I haven't got much choice." He raised his voice: "Brigadier Bell!"
"Sir!" The division commander hurried up to him.
"Brigadier, you are in charge of that part of the force which is compelled to remain behind in Julia until we free up carpets to bring it on to Marthasville," James of Broadpath told him. "Bring on the rest of the men as fast as ever you can. We'll wait in Marthasvilleor, possibly, we won't. If Thraxton orders us forward, we'll go on as fast as we can. Scryers will keep you informed."
Bell saluted. "I understand, sir."
"Good." Earl James nodded approval. "And, because this delay is in no way our fault, the men need not suffer for it. Feel free to let them forage on the countryside hereabouts while they're waiting for the carpets to return."
At last, he succeeded in piercing the local captain's sangfroid. "What?" the fellow yelped. "You can't do that! They can't do that!"
"Oh, yes, we can." Brigadier Bell sounded as if he was looking forward to it. His good hand dropped to the hilt of his sword. "Just try and stop us."
The captain didn't try to stop him. The captain couldn't try to stop him, not when even the force Bell had left far outnumbered the tiny garrison in Julia. Earl James of Broadpath was something less than astonished when several more glideway carpets from the Peachtree line slid silently into the local port. There still weren't enough for him to take his whole army on to Marthasville at once, but the fraction left behind shrank from half to about a quarter.
At James' command, a scryer sent word to Count Thraxton that he would be delayed. A few minutes later, the fellow came back with Thraxton's answer: "His Grace, sir, is more than a little unhappy."
"You may tell him I'm more than a little unhappy myself," James said. "If he's such a mighty mage, he's welcome to conjure the army and me from Julia here all the way to Fa Layette." He held up a warning hand before the scryer could hurry away. "You don't need to tell him that."
"All right, sir," the scryer said. This time, James let him go.
Earl James soon discovered why the men who'd created the Peachtree Glideway had come in with the low bid: they'd done as little as they possibly could to make it worth traveling on. Their spells left a good deal to be desired. The whole glideway was sluggish; in the poorly maintained parts, the carpets barely moved at all. Watching the Peachtree Province farms and estates crawl past, James wondered if he would get stranded halfway to Marthasville. That captain's head will roll if I do, he thought.
One of the directing mage's assistants strode from one officers' carpet to the next and spoke reassuringly: "We're having just a little trouble with the sorcery on this stretch of the glideway, but it's nothing to worry about. Pretty soon we'll be going along sweet as you please."
"We'd bloody well better be," James said. The placating smile on the face of the directing mage's assistant never wavered. Maybe that meant he believed what he was saying. James of Broadpath hoped so. The other alternative was that he was lying and had no shame whatever.
Before long, the carpets did begin to move more briskly along the glideway. That didn't mean they ever got going as fast as those on the journey from the Army of Southern Parthenia's encampment up to Julia had gone. James drummed his fingers on his knee, as if wishing could make the carpets speed up. Magecraft, unfortunately, didn't work like that.
Brisk movement or not, the glideway carpets didn't get into Marthasville till after nightfall. James scowled at the officer waiting on the pier to greet him. "All right, what are you going to tell me's gone wrong?" he growled.
"Why, nothing, sir," the fellow answered. "I'm here to guide you to the carpets to take your army south, that's all."
"That's what the chap in Julia said." James raised a bristling eyebrow. "Then he found me half the carpets I needed."
"On my honor, your Excellency, I don't think you'll have to worry about that here," the officer said. The captain back in Julia had promised no such thing. James suspected he hadn't because he had no honor.
This fellow kept his word, too. All the glideway carpets James' army neededand more besideswaited on the southbound glideway path. James called for a scryer. "Be so good as to let Count Thraxton know we've arrived in Marthasville with something close to three quarters of our force," he said. "The rest is about a day and a half behind, back in Julia. Ask him whether he wants me to go down to Fa Layette straightaway, or whether he would sooner have me wait till everyone's with me."
"Yes, sir," the scryer said, and hurried away to do what needed doing with his crystal. A couple of minutes later, he returned. "Count Thraxton's compliments, your Excellency, and he says you may use your own judgment. I am also to inform you that he's trying to bring General Guildenstern to battle between Rising Rock and Fa Layette."
"He's doing what?" Earl James demanded. "Did you hear that right? He's trying to bring the southrons to battle now, before I can get there with my reinforcements?" Has he?" He broke off. Has he lost his mind? was what he'd started to say. He couldn't very well ask that of a scryer, no matter how loudly and vehemently he was thinking it.
The scryer nodded vigorously. "Sir, the sorcerous link was very clear. I have told you exactly what Count Thraxton's scryer told me."
"All right," James said. It wasn't all right, but he couldn't do anything about it. He plucked at his bushy beard. "In that case, we'd better press ahead with the men we have here and let Brigadier Bell bring up the rest as fast as he can. Tell Count Thraxton's man we shall hurry on toward him, and tell Brigadier Bell to wring as much speed from the Peachtree Glideway as he can. I don't care if he has to start shooting people to do itwe're going to need him."
"Yes, sir." Off the scryer went again. James of Broadpath sighed. He'd heard Thraxton was difficult, but he'd never dreamt the eastern general could make himself so difficult so fast.
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