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Rollant had never been so weary in all the days of his life. Now, he was yet a young man, so those days were not so many, but he had spent a lot of them laboring in the swampy indigo fields of Baron Ormerod's estate. Ormerod was not the worst liege lord to have, and never would be as long as Thersites remained alive, but he was far from the softest, and demanded a full day's labor from all his serfs every day. Rollant would not have cared to try to reckon up how many times he'd stumbled back to his hut at or after sundown and collapsed down onto his cot, sodden with exhaustion.
However many times it might have been, though, none of those days in the fields came close to matching this one. He'd been fighting for his life by the River of Death for two days straight. By all accounts, a good part of General Guildenstern's army was already wrecked. He knew how close Doubting George's wing had come to utter ruin. George had pulled his regiment and the one beside it out of the line and sent it to the rear to face a couple of northern regiments that had got round behind them. If they hadn't driven back the traitors, he didn't see how George's wing could have survived, either.
But they had. And now, as the sun sank low in the direction of the Western Ocean, Rollant wiped sweat and a little blood off his forehead with the sleeve of his tunic. "That last traitor almost did for me," he told Smitty.
The youngster from the farm outside New Eborac nodded. "But he's dead now, and you're not, and I expect that's the way you want it to be," he said. He was surely as worn as Rollant, but could still put things in a way that made everybody around him smile.
"Sure enough," Rollant agreed. "Some of them don't have a much better notion of what to do with a shortsword than I doand a gods-damned good thing, too, if anybody wants to know what I think."
Sergeant Joram said, "Don't fall down and go to sleep yet, you two. Nobody knows for sure they won't try and hit us one more lick." Rollant and Smitty exchanged appalled glances. If the traitors still had fight left in them after the two days both sides had been through . . .
Maybe they did. Way off to Rollant's left and rear, Thraxton the Braggart's men began their roaring battle cry. It was taken up successively by one regiment after another, passing round to Doubting George's front and finally to the right where Rollant stood and even beyond him to the remnants of the two regiments he and his comrades had broken, till it seemed to have got back to the point whence it started.
"Isn't that the ugliest sound you ever heard?" Smitty said.
"Yes!" Rollant agreed fervently. As the roars from the traitors went on and on, he stood there almost shuddering, feeling to the fullest those two days of desperate battle, without sleep, without rest, without food, almost without hope.
Almost. There was, however, a space somewhere to the back of George's battered host across which those horrible roars did not prolong themselvesa space to the southeast, leading back in the direction of Rising Rock. At last, just before the sun touched the horizon, orders came that the men were to retreat back through that space.
In profound silence and dejection, Rollant began to march. No one, not even the irrepressible Smitty, had much to say during the retreat. The only sounds were those of marching feet and the occasional groans of the wounded. Rollant clutched his shortswordhis crossbow remained slung on his back, for he'd shot his last boltand wondered if Thraxton's men would try to strike them as they fell back.
But the northerners let them go unmolested. As he stumbled along through the deepening twilight, Rollant wondered if Thraxton's army was as badly battered as Guildenstern's. For his own sake, for the sake of the army of which he was one weary part, he hoped so.
"We held them." That was Lieutenant Griff. He sounded as tired as any of the men in his company. He'd led them well enoughbetter than Rollant had expected him toand he hadn't shrunk from the worst of the fighting. If his voice broke occasionally, well, so what? He went on, "The rest of Guildenstern's army ran away, but we held the traitors and we're going off in good order."
"That's right." Somebody else spoke in a rumbling bass. Rollant knew who that was: Major Reuel, who'd been in charge of the regiment since Colonel Nahath went down with a bolt through his thigh. "And Lieutenant General George chose us to throw back Thraxton's men when things looked worst. Us. Our regiment. And we did it, by the gods."
Rollant suspected Doubting George had chosen them more because they were handy than for any virtue inherent in them, but that was beside the point. Where so many men deserved to be embarrassed, he and his comrades could walk tall. They'd done their best.
Smitty said, "Doubting George was the rock in the River of Death, and the traitors couldn't get past him."
"Let's give him a cheer," Rollant said, and a few men called out, "Huzzah for Doubting George!"
A few more men shouted out George's name the next time, and more the next, and more still the time after that, so that soon the whole company, the whole regiment, and the whole long winding column of men were crying his name. That made Rollant walk taller, too. It made him feel much less like a soldier in a beaten army and more like one who'd done everything he possibly could.
And then he heard a unicorn's hooves on the dirt of the roadway. He peered through the deepening gloom, then whooped. That was Lieutenant General George on the white beast. "Huzzah!" Rollant shouted, louder than ever.
Doubting George waved his hat. "Thanks, boys," he said. "I don't know what in the seven hells you're cheering me for. You're the ones who did the work." He touched spurs to the unicorn and rode on.
Rollant felt ten feet tall after that, and ready to whip Thraxton the Braggart's whole army by himself, and Duke Edward of Arlington's, too. He even forgot how tired he wastill the regiment finally halted in a clearing through which the road to Rising Rock ran. When Lieutenant Griff didn't choose him as one of the pickets to watch for the northerners and try to hold them back if they attacked, he unrolled his blanket, lay down on the grass, and fell asleep at once.
Smitty had to shake him awake the next morning. Even then, Rollant felt more like his own grandfather than himself. He ached in every bone, in every muscle. He felt as if he ached in every hair on his head. Only seeing how Smitty moved like an old man, too, made him feel a little better.
Cookfires smoked off at one side of the clearing. Rollant dug out his mess kit and lined up with other soldiers who all looked as if they could have used more sleep. A cook who looked even tireder than the men he served spooned slop onto Rollant's tin plate. "Thanks," Rollant said. He ate like a wolf.
He was chasing scraps with his spoon when the pickets came back from the north. "Thraxton's men aren't chasing us," they reported. "We must've hurt them as bad as they hurt us."
"Then how come we're going back toward Rising Rock?" Smitty wondered aloud.
That was such a good question, Rollant wished Smitty hadn't asked it. He did his best to answer: "They hurt us more on most of the field, but we hurt them more on Merkle's Hill. That was too late to do the rest of the army any good, though, because it was already heading south."
"I suppose so," Smitty said. "And what Doubting George had with him couldn't lick the traitors' whole army by itself."
"If he'd been in charge of our whole army . . ." Rollant said.
"If unicorns had wings, we'd all carry umbrellas," Smitty said, which made Rollant look at a courier going by on a trotting unicorn in a whole different way. In spite of everything he'd been through, his laugh was close to a giggle.
Before long, the regiment started marching again. Easy enough to see it followed in the wake of a defeated army: it passed the wreckage war left behind. Here lay a crossbow someone had thrown away so he could flee faster, there a couple of pikes probably discarded for the same reason. Soldiers who'd already come this way had shoved a wagon with a broken axle over to the side of the road. Dead unicorns were already starting to bloat in the sun. So were the corpses of a couple of men in gray who'd died on the way south.
Rollant heaved a rock at a raven hopping around a dead man. The big black bird let out an angry croaking caw and sprang away from the body, but not far. It would, he feared, go back all too soon.
By the time his regiment got into Rising Rock, it was already full of soldiers. Some of them still had the panicked look of men who'd seen too much, done too much, and weren't likely to be able to do anything more for some time. But others were busy building breastworks that faced north. Those breastworks had men behind them, men who looked ready to fight.
"Well, Thraxton's not going to walk right on into Rising Rock behind us," Rollant said. "That's something, anyhow. If he wants it, he'll have to take it away from us."
"That really is something," Smitty agreed. "I was wondered if we'd stop here at all or just keep on marching back toward Ramblerton."
"That's a long way from here." Rollant knew just how far it was, too, having marched all the way from the capital of Franklin north and west to Rising Rock.
"Not a lot of good stopping places on the way, though," Smitty said, which was also true.
And there, up near those breastworks, stood General Guildenstern. The black-bearded soldier in gray tipped back his head and swigged from a flask. "Come on, you bastards! Dig!" he shouted. "Those traitor sons of bitches whipped us once, but dip me in dung if they're going to whip us twice. Isn't that right, boys?"
Heads bobbed up and down as the soldiers digging paused in the labor for a moment. Then they went back to it, harder than ever. Dirt flew. Rollant said, "He's not the worst general in the world, not even close. He takes pretty good care of his men."
"No, he's not the worst, but he's not the best, either," Smitty said. "And I wonder how much longer he'll have the chance to go on taking care of us. King Avram's not going to like the way this battle turned out. For all you know, Guildenstern had his beaky old nose in the brandy flask when he should have been thinking straight."
"That's so," Rollant admitted. "Getting drunk isn't taking care of your men, if that's what happened. But I don't know that it is, and neither do you. People are talking about Thraxton's magic."
"People say all sorts of stupid things," Smitty observed. "Just because they say them doesn't make them true, though Thraxton might have magicked Guildenstern."
"I'm ready to believe anything when it comes to the northern nobles' magecraft," Rollant said. "You never lived up there. I did." He shivered at the memory. "By the gods, I'm glad I don't live there any more."
Smitty started to answer, then checked himself and stared in delight. Rollant followed his gaze. "Captain Cephas!" they both exclaimed at the same time.
"Hello, boys." The company commander was thin and pale, but he was on his feet. "It's good to be up and movinga bit, anyhow. I hear I missed a little something."
"Yes, sir," Rollant said. "Awfully good to see you again, sir. From what they were saying about your wound . . ." His voice trailed off.
Cephas' hand went to the right side of his ribcage. "I've still got bandages under my tunic," he said. "But I can walk, and I think I'll be able to fight before too long." He sounded as if he was trying to convince himself. "I was lucky. The wound didn't fester at all. And they threw me off my cot because so many soldiers hurt worse than I am started coming in."
"How's Lieutenant Benj?" Smitty asked. Benj had been wounded in the same skirmish as Captain Cephas.
Cephas' face clouded. "He didn't seem so bad when we first got hurt, but the fever took him." He shrugged, then winced. He didn't seem ready to swing a sword any time soon. "It's as the gods will. That's all I can say about it."
"Don't you worry about a thing, Captain," Smitty said with a sly smile. "I expect Corliss will take good care of you now that you're back."
Rollant wanted to stick an elbow in Smitty's ribs, but didn't quite dare, not where Cephas could see him do it. He hadn't brought Hagen and Corliss and their children back to the camp so the escaped serf's wife could become the captain's leman. On the other hand, Cephas hadn't forced her, as northern nobles were in the habit of doing when blond girls took their fancy. That also made Rollant stay his hand, or rather, his elbow.
Cephas smiled, too. "I'm glad she and Hagen came back safe from the fight. I'll be glad to see her; I wouldn't say any different."
I'll bet you wouldn't, Rollant thought. Other soldiers crowded forward to greet Captain Cephas. Even Lieutenant Griff had a grin on his face, though he would lose command of the company when Cephas was well enough to take it back. Rollant looked around for Hagen and Corliss. He didn't see either one of them. Just as well, probably, went through his mind. Corliss might be glad to see Cephas again. He didn't think Hagen would.
Count Thraxton had never felt so tired in his life. He wasn't a young man any more, and the struggle against the southrons' wizards to reach the mind, such as it was, of General Guildenstern had taken more out of him than he'd dreamt it could. But he'd done it, and Guildenstern's army had streamed back out of Peachtree Province in headlong retreat.
And now, after Thraxton had won the greatest victory of his career, his own junior commanders were nagging him. "Sir, we have to pursue harder," Baron Dan of Rabbit Hill said the morning after the fight by the River of Death. "The sooner we can throw a line around Rising Rock, the sooner we can drive the southrons out of the city or force them to surrender to us."
"Baron, I think you are worrying overmuch," Thraxton answered. "After the beating we gave them, with their army in such disarray, how can they possibly hope to stay in Rising Rock?"
"I don't know how, sir," Dan of Rabbit Hill answered. "I do know I don't want to give them any possible excuse."
"Any possible excuse to do what?" That was Earl James of Broadpath, whose blocky form kept almost as much light from Thraxton's farmhouse headquarters when he stood in the doorway as the door itself would have done.
"Any possible excuse for the southrons to stay in Rising Rock," Dan replied before Count Thraxton could speak.
"Oh." James of Broadpath nodded. "Well, I should hope not, by the gods. We ought to run those sons of bitches out of thereeh, my lord Count?"
"My opinion," Thraxton said coldly, "as I was explaining to Baron Dan here, is that Avram's ragtag and bobtail will abandon Rising Rock of their own accord, and thus there is no reason for us to stage a hard pursuit."
James frowned. "In the Army of Southern Parthenia, there's always a reason to stage a hard pursuit. Duke Edward says"
"I don't care what the hallowed Duke Edward says," Thraxton broke innothing could have been more surely calculated to infuriate him. "What I know is the present state of this army. Are you aware, your Excellency, that in the fighting of the past two days we have had one man in four killed or wounded? One man in four, your Excellency! How can I pursue after that?"
He thought he'd startled James of Broadpath with his vehemence, for James took a step back: away from the doorway, which made the inside of the farmhouse much less gloomy. But James wasn't giving way to him, as he thought James should have doneJames was stepping aside so someone else could come into the farmhouse.
When Count Thraxton saw Leonidas the Priest, he snapped, "And what in the seven hells do you want?"
In wounded tones, the hierophant replied, "I just came to ask, sir, when to order my troopers forward for the pursuit."
"Why the demon should that make any difference to you?" Thraxton demanded. "When I told you to order them forward for the battle, you paid me no heed. Will it be different now?"
Leonidas drew himself up to his full height, which was still several inches less than Count Thraxton's. "Your Grace, I am affronted," he said.
"Bloody idiot," Thraxton muttered, not quite far enough under his breath. Leonidas stiffened even further. Thraxton hadn't thought he could.
"Sir, I didn't come to Peachtree Province to quarrel with you," James of Broadpath said, tryingtoo lateto sound like the voice of sweet reason. "I came here to whip the southrons. We're off to a good start. Now we've got to finish the job."
"That's right," Baron Dan agreed. He'd fought in the Army of Southern Parthenia, too. Of course he and James will take each other's side, Thraxton thought resentfully.
Aloud, he said, "The job shall be finished. We shall, in due course, advance upon and make a demonstration against Rising Rock, and the southrons will abandon the city to us." And I shall have my parade through the town. The people will cheer me. The people will love me. They should have all along, but they will now.
Sadly, Earl James of Broadpath shook his head. "Your Grace, you started this campaign to drive General Guildenstern out of Rising Rock, and all you managed to do was drive him back into it. Is that worth losing one man in four from your armyand from my division, too, I might add? And the chirurgeons still don't know whether Brigadier Bell is going to pull through after they cut the leg off him."
From under his bushy brows, Count Thraxton glared at James. "Who is in command here, your Excellency?" he asked, his voice as frigid as a southron blizzard. "Whose magics won this victory?"
"You are, sir," James said. "I've never denied it. And your magics won the day. Without them, Guildenstern wouldn't have torn a hole in his ranks. But I tell you this, sir: a good general can win a victory. It takes a great general to know what to do with it once he's got it."
That only made Thraxton more coldly furious. Before he could say anything more, though, a courier came in. "What do you want?" Thraxton snapped, aiming his wrath at the luckless fellow instead of at James of Broadpath.
"Sir, I've got a message here from Ned of the Forest for Leonidas the Priest," the courier answered.
"Let me see that," Leonidas said, and took it from him. The hierophant of the Lion God perched gold-framed spectacles on his nose before reading the despatch. When he did, he read it aloud: " `Sir: Have been on the point of Proselytizers' Rise. Can see Rising Rock and everything around. The enemy's glideway carpets are leaving, going around the point of Sentry Peak. The prisoners captured report two pontoons thrown across for the purpose of retreating. I think they are evacuating as hard as they can go. They are cutting down timber to obstruct our passing. I think we ought to press forward as rapidly as possible. Respectfully &c., Ned of the Forest. Please forward to Count Thraxton.' " He looked up from the paper. "There you are, your Grace. You may consider it forwarded." He chuckled wheezily at what he reckoned his wit.
And Count Thraxton chuckled, too, though he was not a man who often gave way to mirth. He aimed a long, pale finger at James of Broadpath. "Do you see, Earl? Do you see? By Ned of the Forest's report, the southrons are indeed abandoning Rising Rock of their own accord."
James said nothing. He merely plucked at his vast beard and looked grave. But Baron Dan of Rabbit Hill spoke up: "Sir, I think you ought to note Ned's last sentence there. He urges you to press forward as rapidly as possible, and that strikes me as excellent advice."
"It strikes me as unnecessary advice. It strikes me as meddlesome advice," Thraxton said. He wasn't inclined to take Ned of the Forest's advice on anything. In fact, if Ned of the Forest advised something, he was inclined to take the opposite tackespecially when, as here, Ned's words also lent support to his doing what he'd already planned on doing.
"Sir," James said stubbornly, "if you move fast and swing us east of Rising Rock, we can get between the southrons and their supply bases. If we do that, they fall into our hands come what may." Dan of Rabbit Hill nodded.
But Thraxton shook his head. "It is, I repeat, unnecessary."
"Perhaps we should pray for guidance," Leonidas the Priest said, "beseeching the Lion God to show us his will."
Count Thraxton looked at the hierophant as if he'd taken leave of his sense. So did James and Dan. There, if nowhere else, Thraxton and his fractious generals agreed.
It soon became clear they agreed nowhere else. Earl James and Baron Dan, quite forgetting Thraxton's higher rank and bluer blood, went right on arguing with him. His own replies grew ever shorter and testier. Around noon, another courier from Ned of the Forest came into the farmhouse. Like the one before, this message was addressed to Leonidas the Priest. Again, the hierophant read it aloud: " `My force has now come up quite close to Rising Rock. Previous report was in error. The southrons seem to be fortifying, as I can distinctly hear the sound of axes in great numbers. They can be driven from thence, but you will have to drive them.' " Spectacles glistening, Leonidas looked up from the paper. "The signature and the request to forward are as they were in the previous despatch."
"You see, your Grace?" James of Broadpath said with what Thraxton reckoned altogether too much pleasure. "Not even Ned of the Forest supports your view that delay will serve here."
"Whether Ned of the Forest approves of what I do is, I assure you, your Excellency, not of the least importance to me," Thraxton said. "In my view, the man is ignorant, and does not know anything of cooperation. He is nothing more than a good raider."
"Sir, whether you fancy Ned or not, he's quite a bit more than a raider," Dan of Rabbit Hill said. "You weren't up on Merkle's Hill with me, the first day of the fight. His riders were holding back Doubting George's southrons as well as any footsoldiers could have done. I told him so, in plain Detinan, because I've not seen many cavalry outfits that could have done the same."
Count Thraxton folded thin arms across his narrow chest and fixed Dan with his most forbidding stare. "I have never questioned his courage, your Excellency. I have questioned, and do continue to question, his wisdom and his military judgment. Merely because he believes something is no reason to proclaim that the Thunderer's lightning bolt has carved his opinion deep into stone."
Leonidas the Priest cleared his throat. "It would appear to me, your Grace, that you were willing enough to use Ned of the Forest's opinion as a touchstone when it marched with your own."
"When I want your opinion, you may rest assured that I shall ask for it," Thraxton growled. His own opinion was that the hierophant was a dawdling, prayer-mumbling blockhead. He didn't try very hard to keep Leonidas from seeing that that was his opinion, either.
Earl James said, "How does it harm you, how does it harm the army, to order a proper pursuit?"
"I have ordered a proper pursuit," Thraxton said. "We shall follow on General Guildenstern's heels as soon as the army recovers to the point where it may safely do so. And I remain convinced that, when we approach Rising Rock, the southrons shall be compelled to evacuate it and ignominiously retreat."
"Your Grace, I don't want those sons of bitches to retreat," James said. "Even if they do, they'll just come back and hit us again some other day. I want to kill them or take them prisoner. Then we won't have to worry about them any more. We need to get between them and Ramblerton and drive them to destruction. That's my view, and I still hold it."
"I am pleased to hear your view." Thraxton's tone suggested he was about as pleased as he would have been at an outbreak of cholera. "I must remind you, however, that King Geoffrey has entrusted command of this army to me. I needs must lead it as I reckon best."
"Even when your view is dead against that of every general serving under you?" James of Broadpath persisted.
"Even then. Especially then. I do not command this army for the sake of being loved," Thraxton said.
"I believe it, by the gods!" Baron Dan muttered.
Thraxton filed that away for future vengeance. Aloud, though, he said only, "What I command for is victory. And I have won a victory."
"So you have," Earl James said. "You could win a greater one. You could win a victory that would restore King Geoffrey's hopes here in the east, a victory that would give us a good chance to take Franklin away from the southrons and might even let us get back down into Cloviston. You could do that, your Grace, or you could fritter away what you've already won. The choice is yours."
"I have already made the choice," Count Thraxton said. "I have made it, and all of you seem intent on evading it. But you shall obey me, or you shall be dismissed from your commands. It is as simple as that, gentlemen."
James of Broadpath threw his hands in the air. "Now that I'm here, I begin to see how the armies of the east came to be in the straits in which they find themselves. Have it your own way, Count Thraxton. By all the signs, that matters more to you than anything else."
Thraxton started to tell James just what he thought of him, but the burly officer from the Army of Southern Parthenia paid no attention. He turned on his heel, all but trampling Leonidas the Priest, and stormed out of the headquarters. Baron Dan of Rabbit Hill followed. Leonidas held his place, but his expression was mournful. He said, "I believe you would be wiser to think again on the choice you have made."
"And I believe you're a gods-damned old idiot!" Thraxton shrieked, his voice and his temper breaking at the same time. Leonidas bowed stiffly and followed after James and Dan, his red vestments flapping around his ankles. Thraxton shouted again, this time for runners, and began giving the orders he thought right.
As Baron Ormerod trudged south, he could tell that the company he commanded was following in the wake of a beaten army. The wreckage and the stinking, bloated bodies of men and beasts by the sides of the road showed that Guildenstern's men had worried about nothing but escape as they retreated from the River of Death to Rising Rock. Seeing the southrons in disarray should have left him happier than it did.
He wondered why he was so glum. When he spoke aloud of his worries, Lieutenant Gremio said, "I don't think that's very hard to figure out, sir."
"No, eh?" Ormerod raised an eyebrow. "Suppose you enlighten me, then."
He'd intended it for sarcasm, but Gremio took him seriously. Trust a barrister, Ormerod thought. But then Gremio said, "You're unhappy for the same reason I'm unhappy. You're unhappy for the same reason half the army's unhappy: you think we ought to be sliding in east of Rising Rock, too."
And Ormerod, in the face of such obvious, manifest truth, could do nothing but nod. "That's right, by the gods!" he burst out. "If we can all see it, why in the seven hells can't Count Thraxton?"
"What Thraxton sees are the holes in our ranks," Gremio said, and Ormerod nodded again. Major Thersites remained in command of the regiment for the wounded Count Florizel, and, after two days of hard fighting on the slopes of Merkle's Hill, a much-depleted regiment it was, too. Gremio added, "And, by what I've heard, Thraxton thinks the southrons will run right out of Rising Rock if we poke them a little."
"Gods grant he's right," Ormerod said. But, after marching on for a couple of paces, he added, "The southrons don't much like running. Things'd be a lot easier if they did."
"I am aware of this," Gremio said. "I am also aware that we did hurt them badly. I hope that will outweigh the other."
"It had better." Ormerod tramped on. "After all we did, after all we went through . . ."
"I don't know what we can do but hope," Gremio said. He trudged along for a while without saying anything more. Ormerod thought he had no more to say. But then he did continue: "It shouldn't have been like this."
Ormerod just grunted and kept on going. He'd figured that out for himself. They marched through Rossburgh, which the southrons had abandoned not long before. Some of the people in the little town cheered them. Others jeered: "Why aren't you getting out ahead of the southrons instead of just following along in back of them like a pack of hounds?"
"You see?" Gremio said. "Even the villagers can see what Count Thraxton can't." He shrugged a melodramatic shrug. "Who would do better, though? Not Leonidas the Priest, not unless I miss my guess."
"No. He's holy, but . . ." Ormerod said no more than that. He needed to say no more than that. After a few steps and a longing look at a tavern, he added, "Ned of the Forest might be up to the job."
"He might be up to it, but he'd never get it," Gremio said. "He has no birth to speak of. How many noble officers would obey a jumped-up serfcatcher?"
"Any noble who tried disobeying Ned would be sorry afterwards," Ormerod said, which didn't mean he thought Gremio was wrong. Though only a minor noble himself, he didn't like the idea of obeying a jumped-up serfcatcher, either. But thinking of serfcatching made him notice Rossburgh in a way he hadn't before. He was just about out of the place by then, but that didn't matter. Turning to Gremio, he asked, "You notice anything funny about this town?"
"Aside from its being the place they made the woodcut of when they wrote the lexicon entry for `the middle of nowhere,' no," the barrister answered.
"Not enough blonds," Ormerod said. "Hardly any blonds at all, in fact. They must have run away with the southrons."
"Nothing we haven't seen before," Gremio said, though that wasn't strictly true. Thraxton's men hadn't often been lucky enough to recapture land from which the southrons forced them. The serfs had shown their opinion of living under King Geoffreythey'd shown it with their feet. Ormerod didn't much care to see that opinion expressed.
The regiment encamped a few miles south of Rossburgh as the sun slid below the horizon. Major Thersites prowled from one fire to another. When he came to the one beside which Ormerod and Gremio sat, he said, "Well, even if the general doesn't know what in the seven hells he's doing, maybe things will turn out all right. Maybe." Thersites didn't sound as if he believed it.
Even though Gremio and Ormerod had been saying very much the same thing, it sounded different in Thersites' mouth. They'd said it with regret. Thersites spoke with relish, as if he'd expected nothing better from Thraxton and the other nobles set over the army. Ormerod said, "We have to think they're doing the best job they can."
"If they are, gods help us all," Thersites said. "If I wanted a rock garden outside my house, I know whose heads I'd start with. If these are the best we can do, I reckon we deserve to lose the war."
"Why go to war, then, sir, if you feel like that?" Ormerod asked. He was too weary to want a quarrel with his bad-tempered neighbor.
"Why? I'll tell you why. On account of the southrons are worse, that's why," Thersites replied. "But that doesn't make what we've got in charge of us any too bloody good. I hate having to choose between thieves and fools, I purely do, but we've got more fools in fancy uniforms than you can shake a stick at. I'd like to shake a stick at some of 'em, and break it over their heads, too."
Contempt blazed from him. Part of it was contempt for the southrons, part for the army's higher officers. And part of it, Ormerod realized, was contempt for him and people like him. He fit into the neat hierarchy of life in the north. Thersites didn't, even if he called himself a noble and lived like a noble. He was one who'd forcibly kicked his way into the picture from the outside, and still felt on the outside looking in.
Before Ormerod had the chance to think about what he was saying, he blurted, "You remind me of Ned of the Forest."
Lieutenant Gremio stirred beside him, plainly unsure how Major Thersites would respond to that. And Thersites in a temper was nothing any man in his right mind took lightly. But the new regimental commander only nodded. "Thank you kindly," he said, and bowed to Ormerod. "Ned's a man, by the gods. He doesn't need any blue blood to make him a man, either. He just is." He bowed again, then went off toward another campfire.
"Well, you got away with that," Gremio said once he was out of earshot. "I wasn't sure you would."
"Neither was I," Ormerod answered. "Thersites is . . . touchy."
"Touchy!" Lieutenant Gremio rolled his eyes. "Thersites is a fellow who hates everybody that's better than he is: everybody who's handsomer, or who has more silver, or who has bluer blood. And since there are a lot of people like that, Thersites has a lot of people to hate."
"He doesn't hate Ned," Ormerod pointed out.
"No, I see he doesn't." Gremio spoke with exaggerated patience. "You got luckyNed's everything he wants to be."
"But Ned hasn't got any noble blood at all." Ormerod didn't think Thersites did either, not really, but nobody liked to say anything about that, not out loud. Thersites' temper was most uncertain.
"And he's a brigadier without it," Gremio said. "And he got the chance to tell Count Thraxton off right to his face, if what they say is true. All Thersites can do is grumble behind Thraxton's back. He'd probably give his left ballock to be Ned of the Forest."
"I'd give my left ballock to be back on my own estate, with no more worries than a serf running off every now and then." Ormerod sighed for long-gone days. "I didn't know when I was well off, and that's the truth."
"Gods curse King Avram for overturning what was right and natural," Gremio said. "We couldn't let him get away with it."
"Of course not," Ormerod agreed around a yawn. "Not if we wanted to stay men." He lay down, rolled himself in his blanket, and went to sleep.
Breakfast the next morning was hasty bites of whatever he had in his knapsack. Count Thraxton might not have pursued the southrons so swiftly as Ormerod would have liked, or down the path he reckoned proper, but Major Thersites pushed the regiment hard. It was almost as if Thersites intended to drive General Guildenstern's army out of Rising Rock all by himself.
That wasn't going to happen, no matter how much Thersites and Ormerod might want it. Guildenstern had too many men in the town, and they sheltered behind formidable field fortifications. But those works to the north and west of the town weren't quite so formidable as they might have been.
"Look, boys!" Thersites called, pointing ahead. "I don't think those sons of bitches have a single man up on Sentry Peak."
"If they don't, we ought to get up there and take it away from them," Ormerod said, excitement in his voice no matter how tired he was.
Major Thersites needed nothing more to spur him into action. Maybe he wouldn't even have needed Ormerod's push, though Ormerod had his own strong opinion about that. But now Thersites' nod was as sharp and fierce a motion as a tiger turning toward prey. "Yes, by the gods," he said softly, and then raised his voice to a full-throated battlefield shout: "My regimentto the left flank, march!"
Some of his men let out startled exclamations. They didn't obey quite so fast as they would have moved for Colonel Florizel. But move they did, scrambling up the steep slopes of Sentry Peak toward the rock knob's summit a couple of thousand feet above the town of Rising Rock. And not a single southron soldier shot at them or even tried to roll a rock down on their heads.
Ormerod enjoyed himself, scampering like a mountain antelope and leaping from one boulder to another with a childlike zest he hadn't known he could still muster. If he fell during one of those leaps, he would be very sorry. All the more reason not to fall, he told himself, and leaped again.
He wasn't the only one whooping like a little boy, either. Half the company, half the regiment, squealed with glee as they climbed. And, once Thersites had shown the way, the regiment wasn't the only force scaling Sentry Peak. No one above the rank of colonel had ordered the ascent, but it made obvious good sense to everyone near the foot of the mountain.
Panting more than a little, Lieutenant Gremio said, "I do believe I would have fallen over dead if I'd tried to make this climb back before I took service with King Geoffrey's host. It's made a man of me. I spent too many years peering at law books. No more."
"No, no more." Ormerod hadn't wasted his time with books before Geoffrey raised his banner in the north. He'd worked on his estate, worked almost as hard as the serfs whose liege lord he was. But he was a fitter, harder man after two and a half years of war, too.
When he reached the top of Sentry Peak, the first thing he felt was surprised disappointment: he wanted to keep going up and up and up. But then, as he looked around, that disappointment drained away, to be replaced by awe. He murmured, "You can see forever."
For the first time, he grasped one of the reasons the Detinan gods lived atop Mount Panamgam: the view. There below Sentry Peak lay Rising Rock, with a loop of the Franklin River thrown around it like a serpent's coil. Beyond Rising Rock, the flatlands of the province of Franklin stretched out endlessly, green of farm and forest gradually fading toward blue. He wondered if he could see all the way across Franklin and into Cloviston to the south.
If he turned around and looked back the way he'd come, there lay Peachtree Province. If he looked straight west, those distant mountains beyond Proselytizers' Rise had to belong to Croatoan. And there to the northeast lay Dothan, where the blonds had had one of their strongest kingdoms before the Detinans arrived, and where, as was true in his own Palmetto Province, they still outnumbered folk of Detinan blood.
But his eye did not linger long on the distant provinces. Instead, it fell once more to Rising Rock. "If we can get engines onto the south slope of Sentry Peak here," he said, "we can almost reach the town itself, and we can surely reach the southron soldiers in those field works down there." He pointed to the trenches and breastworks near the base of the mountain.
"General Guildenstern was a fool for not letting this place anchor his line north of the town," Gremio said.
"You're right," Ormerod agreedhe could hardly say Gremio was wrong, not when he'd just come out with such an obvious truth. "But that doesn't mean we can't take advantage of him for being a fool."
"No, and we'd better," Lieutenant Gremio said. "If we didn't have a fool commanding our own army, we'd be over there" he pointed east "astride the southrons' supply line instead of here just outside of Rising Rock."
"Maybe Count Thraxton had some reason for doing things the way he did." Ormerod tried to make himself believe it. It wasn't easy.
Gremio killed his effort dead: "Of course Thraxton had a reason: he's a chucklehead."
Ormerod looked down at Rising Rock, tiny and perfect and almost close enough for him to reach out and touch it. "Maybe we can starve the bastards out anyway. Here's hoping." Gremio's look said he would sooner have had something more solid than hope. So would Ormerod, but he made the most of what he had.
Even though Earl James of Broadpath could heave his bulk up to the top of Sentry Peak and peer down into Rising Rock, even though Count Thraxton's men also held the peak line of Proselytizers' Rise, he was furious, and he made no effort to hide it. "Idiocy!" he boomed at whoever would listen. "Nothing but idiocy!"
Some of Count Thraxton's officers did their best to shush him. "Your Excellency, nothing good can come of these constant complaints," one of them said.
Another was blunter: "Thraxton is liable to turn his magecraft your way, your Excellency, if you don't restrain yourself."
"Let him try, by the gods," James rumbled. "I'm warded by Duke Edward of Arlington's personal mage. I think Duke Edward's mage should be a match for just about anyone, don't you?" The colonel who'd warned him only shrugged and went away. James of Broadpath also shrugged. Thraxton was a mighty sorcererwhen everything went right. Had things gone right for him more often, James wouldn't have needed to come east with his division from the Army of Southern Parthenia.
And most of Thraxton's officers agreed with James, regardless of what their commander thought. Dan of Rabbit Hill and Leonidas the Priest had both backed him when he pushed Thraxton to make a proper pursuit. He had no doubt Ned of the Forest agreed with him, too, though Ned was fighting southwest of Rising Rock right now, holding off Whiskery Ambrose's effort to come to General Guildenstern's rescue from the direction of Wesleyton. And a good many lower-ranking officers had sidled up to him to say they regretted how things had turned out after the victory near the River of Death.
None of which, of course, mattered a counterfeit copper's worth. Thraxton the Braggart commanded the Army of Franklin, and what he said went. King Geoffrey had his victory in the east. Whether he would have more than that one victory, whether he would have everything it should have brought, remained very much up in the air.
"I don't care how fancy a mage Thraxton is," James complained to Brigadier Bell. "He has all the vision of a blind man in a coal cellar at midnight."
Bell looked up from the cot on which he lay. His usually fierce expression was dulled by heroic doses of laudanum. Even so, pain scored harsh lines down his cheeks and furrowed his forehead. Under the blanket that covered him, his body's shape was wrong, unnatural, asymmetrical. I believe I would sooner have died than suffered the wounds he's taken, James thought.
The laudanum dulled thought as well as pain. Bell's words came slowly: "We should be on our way to . . ." He groped for the name of the town. "To Ramblerton. To the provincial capital. We shouldn't be stuck here outside of . . . of Rising Rock." Even drugged and mutilated, he too could see what James of Broadpath saw.
"There's no help for it, Bell," James said sadly. "He is the commander of this army. He gives the orders. Even if they're stupid orders, he has the right to give them. I've argued till I'm blue in the face, and I had no luck getting him to change his mind. If you've got any notion of how to get him to do what plainly needs doing, I'm all ears."
He was just talking; he didn't expect Bell to come up with anything. What with the horrible woundgods, Bell couldn't even have fully recovered from the mangled arm he'd got down in the south less than three months beforeand the potent drug, that Bell could talk at all was a minor miracle. The other officer looked up at him from the cot and spoke with terrible urgency: "Let the king know, your Excellency. If the king knows, he'll do what needs doing."
Gently, James shook his head. "Remember, Count Thraxton is Geoffrey's dark-haired boy. If it weren't for Geoffrey, Thraxton wouldn't have held his command out here even as long as he has."
He wondered if Bell even heard him. "Let the king know, James," the wounded man repeated. "The king has to know."
"All right," James of Broadpath said. "I'll let him know." He didn't mean it, but he didn't want to upset poor Bell. The wound might still kill him, or fever might carry him off. No point tormenting him with refusals at a time like this.
But then, as James left the tent where Bell lay, he plucked at his beard in thought. Coming right out and speaking to King Geoffrey would surely fail; he remained convinced of that. Even so . . .
"How could I be worse off? How could we be worse off?" he murmured, and hurried away to the pavilion the scryers called their own.
One of the bright young men looked up from his crystal ball. "Sir?"
"I want you to send a message to Marquis James of Seddon Dun, over in Nonesuch," James of Broadpath said.
"To the minister of war? Yes, sir," the scryer said. "You will, of course, have cleared this message with Count Thraxton?"
"I don't need to do any such thing, sirrah," James rumbled ominously, and tapped his epaulet to remind the scryer of his own rank.
"Yes, sir," the fellow saidhe was just a first lieutenant, an officer by courtesy of his skill at magecraft rather than by blood or courage. Technically, he was in the right, but a lieutenant technically in the right in a dispute with a lieutenant general would often have done better to be wrong. The youngster had the sense to know it. Licking his lips, he bent low over the crystal ball. "Go ahead, sir."
"To the most honorable Marquis James of Seddon Dun, Minister of War to his Majesty King Geoffrey, legitimate King of Detina: greetings," James said, declaiming as if speaking to the minister of war face to face. "May I take the liberty to advise you of our conditions and wants. After a very severe battle, we gained a complete and glorious victorythe most complete of the war, perhaps, except the first at Cow Jog. To express my convictions in a few words, our chief has done but one thing he ought to have done since I joined his army. That was to order the attack. All other things that he has done he ought not to have done. I am convinced that nothing but the hand of the gods can help us as long as we have our present commander.
"Now to our wants. Can you send us Duke Edward? In an ordinary war I could serve without complaints under anyone whom the king might place in authority, but we have too much at stake in this to remain quiet now. Thraxton cannot adopt and adhere to any plan or course, whether of his own or of someone else. I pray you to help us, and speedily. I remain, with the greatest respect, your most obedient servant, James of Broadpath."
"Is that . . . all, sir?" the scryer asked. James of Broadpath nodded brusquely. The scryer had another question: "Are you . . . sure you want me to send it?" James nodded again. The scryer didn't; he shook his head. But he murmured over the crystal ball, then looked up. "All right, sir. It's on its way." By his tone, he thought James had just asked him to send an earthquake to Nonesuch.
James hoped the scryer was right. As far as he was concerned, an earthquake was exactly what this army needed. But all he said was, "The minister of war should hear my views." He strode out of the scryers' tent.
In striding out, he almost collided with Baron Dan of Rabbit Hill and Leonidas the Priest, both of whom were striding in, grim, intent looks on their faces. "Oh, by the gods!" Dan exclaimed. "Don't tell me he's got you, too?"
"Don't tell me who's got me for what?" James asked.
Dan and Leonidas both started talking at once. Leonidas used language James would not have expected to hear from a hierophant. But he was the one who calmed down enough to give a straight answer: "Count Thraxton has ordered us removed from our commands, may he suffer in the seven hells for seven times seven eternities."
"He's done what?" James of Broadpath's jaw dropped. "He won't move against Guildenstern, but he will against his own generals?"
"That's the size of it, your Excellency," Dan said bitterly. "That's just exactly the size of it. And if he thinks I'm going to take it lying down, he can bloody well think again. King Geoffrey will hear of this."
"He certainly will," Leonidas the Priest agreed. "And so will the Pontifex Maximus back in Nonesuch. Thraxton needs to be placed under full godly interdict."
"What on earth made him sack both his wing commanders?" James asked, still more than a little stunned.
"We have the sense to see that this army should be doing more than it is, and we have had what the Braggart reckons the infernal gall to stand up on our hind legs and say so out loud," Dan of Rabbit Hill replied. "As far as Thraxton is concerned, that amounts to insubordination, and so he sacked us."
"Which is why, when we saw you here, we wondered whether you had suffered the same fate," Leonidas said. "You have also seen that Count Thraxton's conduct of this campaign leaves everything to be desired."
"He hasn't got round to me yet." James felt almost ashamed that Thraxton hadn't got round to himor was the Braggart holding off because he properly belonged to the Army of Southern Parthenia, not the Army of Franklin? "But I just sent a message to the minister of war expressing my lack of confidence in Thraxton as a leader of this host."
"Huzzah!" Baron Dan slapped him on the back. "Here's hoping it does some good. Here's hoping someone back in Nonesuch starts paying attention to the east. Someone had better. Without it, King Geoffrey has no kingdom."
"Well said," James told him. "That's just why Duke Edward prevailed on Geoffrey to send me hither. The victory a few days ago opened the door for us. But we still have to go through it, and Rising Rock stands in the way."
"It shouldn't," Leonidas the Priest said. Even he could see that, and he was hardly a soldier at all. "We should have pursued the southrons harder, and we should have flanked them out of it. Why didn't we?"
"Because Thraxton's an imbecile, that's why," Dan of Rabbit Hill snapped.
James was inclined to agree with him; no other explanation fit half so well. He said, "This army can still win, with a proper general at its head. I asked the minister of war for Duke Edward."
Dan whistled softly. "Do you think we'll get him?"
"Not likely," James answered with genuine regret. "King Geoffrey wants to keep him between Nonesuch and the southrons. He figures his capital is safe as long as Duke Edward's there, and he's probably right."
"Still, it is a telling cry of distress," Leonidas the Priest observed.
Now James nodded. "Just so. That's why I sent the message. If it doesn't draw King Geoffrey's eye to this part of the front, I don't know what will. If it doesn't draw his eye hither, I fear nothing will."
"That must not be," Leonidas said. "True, we can lose the war if Nonesuch falls, and Nonesuch is not far north of the border with the southrons. But we can also lose the war in these eastern parts, and Count Thraxton in his arrogant idiocy is doing everything he can to make that unhappy result come to pass."
"We aren't the only ones muttering, I'll have you know," Dan of Rabbit Hill told James. "Some fewsome more than a fewof the brigadiers under us are circulating a petition amongst themselves, expressing their lack of confidence in the Braggart."
"Are they?" James said, and Dan and Leonidas both solemnly nodded. James shook his head in slow wonder. "We are spending as much of our substance fighting amongst ourselves as we are against the gods-damned southrons, and we have less to spare than they do."
"True. Every word of it trueand every bit of it Thraxton the Braggart's fault," Baron Dan said. "And yet we beat the foe at the River of Death. We could have won a bigger victory, and we could have won another victory afterwards. But did we?" His dismissive wave proclaimed what Thraxton's Army of Franklin had doneand what it had failed to do.
"We didn't." Leonidas the Priest stated the obvious. "I shall pray once more to the Lion God to look more kindly upon usafter I protest my dismissal. If you will excuse me, your Excellency . . ." He pushed past James of Broadpath and into the scryers' tent.
"I still have that to attend to myself." Dan of Rabbit Hill also bowed to James. "I hope to have the chance to discuss these things with you at greater length when we both have more leisure and when we both find ourselves in a better temper . . . if such happy days should ever come."
"May it be so," James said. "We shall have a great deal to discuss in those happy daysof that I am certain."
"Indeed." Ducking past him, Dan followed Leonidas into the tent.
"A great deal to discuss," James repeated, this time to himself. Everything had gone just as he'd hoped it would. His men had let Thraxton win a smashing victory against General Guildenstern, a smashing victory that turned out not to be quite smashing enough.
He looked south and east toward Rising Rock. Driving the southrons out of the city now wouldn't be easy, wouldn't be cheap, and might well prove beyond the power of Thraxton's army. Besieging them would have been easier had Thraxton thrown a proper line around the place when he had the chance. Which left . . . James cursed. He had no idea what it left.
Riding for all they were worth, the southrons hurried off toward the southwest, where Whiskery Ambrose still held Wesleyton. Had they been on dogs instead of unicorns, their mounts would have had their tails between their legs. Ned of the Forest whooped to see them flee before him. If he'd had even a few regiments of footsoldiers to go with his riders, he might have taken Wesleyton back from the southrons.
Captain Watson's little collection of siege engines had, as usual, kept right up with the rest of Ned's riders. Watson sent a last couple of firepots after the retreating southron riders. One burst between a couple of unicorns and drenched both them and the men aboard them with flames. Ned whooped again. "Good shooting, by the gods!" he shouted. "Real good shooting."
Watson waved to him. "Thank you, Lord Ned."
"Thank you, Captain." Ned was ready, even eager, to give praise where it was due. And Watson, even though he couldn't raise a proper crop of whiskers yet, was as praiseworthy a soldier as Ned had found. "Those fellows won't be bothering us again any time soon."
A scryer rode toward him, calling, "Lord Ned! We've got orders from Count Thraxton, sir!"
"Do we?" Ned rumbled; orders from Thraxton the Braggart were the last thing he wanted right this minute. But, with the scryer's having made that public, he couldn't very well ignore themnot unless they're really stupid, he thought. With a sigh, he said, "And what does the count want with us?"
"Sir, we're ordered back to the rest of the army, north and west of Rising Rock," the scryer told him. That wasn't so bad; he'd been intending to rejoin the main force soon anyhow. Then the scryer lowered his voice and went on, "Some powerful strange things are going on back there right now, if half of what the fellow who sent the order to me said alongside of it is true."
"Is that a fact?" Ned said, and the scryer solemnly nodded. The cavalry commander asked the next question: "What kind of strange things?"
"Well, he didn't exactly know, sirnot exactly," the scryer said. Ned glared. When he asked a question like that, he expected a proper answer. Flushing under swarthy skin, the scryer did his best: "From what he says, everybody who's in command of anything is screaming bloody murder at everybody else."
"Is that a fact?" Ned of the Forest repeated. The scryer gave him a nervous nod. Ned forgot the man in front of him. He plucked at his chin beard, thinking hard. At last, he said, "So I'm not the only one who reckons we should ought to have done more to get the southrons out of Rising Rock, eh?"
"I don't know anything about that, sir, not for sure I don't," the scryer said. "I'm just telling you what I heard from the fellow back there."
"All right." Ned let him off the hook. Turning to the trumpeters who always accompanied him, he said, "Blow recall."
The unicorn-riders reined in in some surprise; Ned of the Forest wasn't in the habit of breaking off pursuit so soon. They'd whipped Whiskery Ambrose's men, but they hadn't crushed them. Colonel Biffle asked, "What's up, sir?"
"Thraxton wants us back close to home," Ned told him. "And, from what the scryer says, there's some kind of foofaraw back at the camp. Maybe it's just as well he ordered us back. I want to find out what's going on."
"He'd better not try messing with you, Lord Ned," Colonel Biffle said.
Ned of the Forest hadn't thought of that. His hands closed hard on the reins. "You're right, Biff. He'd better not try that. He'd be one of the sorriest men ever born if he did."
But he did his best to stay cheerful as he rode back toward the Army of Franklin's encampment outside Rising Rock. Maybe Thraxton was finally deciding to try to get between the southrons and their supply base over in Ramblerton. Maybe it wasn't too late for him to do that.
But if that was the reason he wanted the unicorn-riders back, why were all the high officers screaming at one another?
He brought his men into Thraxton's encampment a little before sunset. He'd hardly dismounted before excited footsoldiers started passing gossip to his riders, gossip that quickly reached him: Leonidas the Priest and Dan of Rabbit Hill sacked, James of Broadpath screaming to Nonesuch, and every sort of story under the sun about Count Thraxton. Even Ned, who was inclined to believe almost anything of his commander, found the rumors swirling through the encampment hard to swallow.
And then a runner came up to him and said, "Sir, you are requested and required to report to Count Thraxton's headquarters immediately upon your arrival."
"Oh, I am, am I?" Ned said. "Why didn't Thraxton order me to come in to him before I got back?" The runner just stared in confusion. Ned sighed. "Never mind, sonny boy. Lead me to him. I'll follow you."
He hadn't bothered finding out where Count Thraxton now made his headquarters. It wasn't anywhere he much wanted to go. Thraxton proved to be inhabiting a farmhouse near Proselytizers' Rise: a prosperous farmhouse, by its colonnaded front. He doesn't do so bad for himself, Ned thought, no matter what he does to the poor army.
Maybe it would just be business. By the gods, I hope it'll just be business. Ned made his face a gambler's blank as he strode into the parlor. He drew himself up straight and saluted Count Thraxton. "Reporting as ordered, sir."
Thraxton, as usual, looked as if his belly pained him. Perhaps he even looked as if it pained him more than usual. "Ah, Brigadier Ned. I am very pleased to see you." If he was pleased, he hadn't bothered telling his face about it.
"What can I do for you, sir?" Ned asked. The sooner he was gone, the happier he would be.
"I am not pleased that you led your men so far afield while chasing Whiskery Ambrose's unicorn-riders," Thraxton said, pacing back and forth through the parlor and looking at the wall rather than at Ned of the Forest.
"Would you have been more pleased if they'd come down on us and rampaged all around?" Ned demanded.
"I would have been more pleased had your men been closer to my hand and more ready to obey my orders," the Braggart answered. What orders? Ned thought scornfully. If you'd had any halfway sensible orders to give, we'd be in Rising Rock by now. Thraxton went on, "Accordingly, I am detaching three regiments from your command and transferring them to the control of Brigadier Spinner, the cavalry commander for the division ledformerly led, I should sayby Dan of Rabbit Hill."
Ned most cordially loathed Brigadier Spinner. From everything he could tell, the feeling was mutual. "You can't do that!" he blurted.
"You are mistaken." Thraxton's voice came cold as a southron blizzard. "I can. I shall. I have." Relenting ever so slightly, he added, "These regiments will be returned to you after Spinner comes back from his planned raid east of Rising Rock."
"If you want my men, why in the seven hells don't you send me out?" Ned barked.
"Because if I send Spinner, I have some assurance he will do as I command and return when I command," Count Thraxton replied, more coldly still. "You have given me no reason for any such confidence. You may pick the regiments you wish to turn over to him." Another tiny concession.
Too tinyfar too tiny. But the order was legal. Ned knew that all too well. If he refused it, Thraxton would sack him, too. Choking back his furyhe wouldn't give the Braggart the satisfaction of showing ithe snarled, "Yes, sir," saluted again, and stalked out.
Had Brigadier Spinner been standing outside the farmhouse, Ned might have drawn sword on him. But the other general of unicorn-riders was nowhere to be seen. Still fuming, Ned of the Forest stomped back to his own men. Soldiers who saw him had the good sense to stay out of his way and not ask unfortunate questions.
He arrived among the unicorn-riders in the foulest of foul tempers. Seeing his visage, Colonel Biffle hurried over to him in some alarm, asking, "Is something wrong, sir?"
"Wrong? You just might say so, Biff. Yes, you just might." The whole story poured out of Ned, a long howl of fury and frustration.
"He can't do that," Biffle blurted when Ned finally finished.
"I told him the same thing, but I was wrong, and so are you," Ned said. "If he wants to bad enough, he bloody well can. That's what being a general is all about." He said something else, too, something his beard and mustache fortunately muffled. After a moment spent recapturing his temper, he went on more audibly: "The one reason I'll sit still for it at all is that he did promise he'd give me my men back once Spinner was done with them. If it wasn't for that . . ." His left hand dropped to the hilt of his saber.
"Whose regiments will you . . . lend to Brigadier Spinner, sir?" Biffle paused in the middle there to make sure he found and used the right word, the word that would not ignite Ned further.
"I was thinking yours'd be the one I keep for my own self," Ned replied, and Colonel Biffle preened a little. Ned of the Forest slapped him on the back, hard enough to stagger him. "He's a pile of unicorn turds, Biff, but there's not a single stinking thing we can do about it." He yawned. "Only thing I want to do now is sleep. When I wake up, maybe I'll find out Thraxton the Braggart was nothing but a bad dream. Too much to hope for, I reckon." He went into his tent.
When he woke up the next morning, Count Thraxton and what he'd done remained all too vivid in his memory. But, as he'd told Biffle, he couldn't do anything about the Army of Franklin's sour commanding general. What he could do was get himself some breakfast; his belly was empty as, as . . . Empty as Thraxton's head, he thought happily, and went out to get some food in better spirits.
He was sitting on the ground, eating fried pork and hard rolls and talking things over with Colonel Biffle, when a runner came up, saluted, and said, "Count Thraxton's compliments, sir, and he asked me to give you this." He handed Ned a rolled sheet of paper sealed with Thraxton's seal, saluted again, and hurried off.
"What's he want now?" Biffle asked.
"Don't know. Suppose I'd better find out." Ned broke the wax seal with a grimy thumbnail. He wasn't fluent with pen in hand, but he had no trouble reading. And Thraxton's hand, though spidery, was more legible than most. Upon due consideration, he wrote, I have decided that, with a view to the best interests of the Army of Franklin as a whole, your cavalry regiments shall in fact be permanently transferred to the command of Brigadier Spinner. Trusting this meets with your approval, I remain . . . He closed with the usual polite, lying phrases.
Ned of the Forest sprang to his feet, rage on his face. So did Colonel Biffle, alarm on his. "What's wrong, sir?" he asked, as he had so often lately.
"That lying son of a bitch!" Ned ground out. "I'm going to tell him where to go and how to get there, and I may just send him on the trip." He stormed off toward Thraxton's headquarters, Biffle in his wake.
An adjutant tried to turn him aside from Count Thraxton. He brushed past the man as if he didn't exist and roared into the parlor. Thraxton gave him an icy stare. "What is the meaning of this intrusion?" he demanded.
Ned of the Forest took a long, deep, angry breath. "I'll tell you what. You commenced your cowardly and contemptible persecution of me soon after the battle of Pottstown Pier, and you have kept it up ever since. You did it because I reported to Nonesuch facts, while you reported gods-damned lies. You have begun again your work of spite and persecution and kept it up. This is the second formation of unicorn-riders organized and equipped by me without thanks to you or King Geoffrey. These men have won a reputation second to none in the army, but, taking advantage of your position as the commanding general in order to humiliate me, you have taken these brave men from me."
He thrust his left index finger at Count Thraxton's face. Thraxton retreated into a corner and sank down onto a stool. Ned pressed after him. "I have stood your meanness as long as I intend to. You have played the part of a gods-damned scoundrel, and are a coward, and if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it. You have threatened to arrest me for not obeying your orders promptly. I dare you to do it, and I say to you that if you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path it will be at the peril of your life."
Thraxton said never a word. He sat there, pale and shaking, while Ned kept prodding with that finger. At last, snarling in disgust, Ned turned on his heel and stormed out of the farmhouse. Colonel Biffle followed. Once Biffle was outside, Ned thunderously slammed the door.
As the headed back toward the unicorn-riders' camp, Biffle remarked, "Well, you are in for it now."
"You think so?" Ned shook his head to show he didn't. "He'll never say a word about it. He'll be the last man to mention it. Mark my word, he'll take no action in the matter. I will ask to be relieved and transferred to a different part of the fight, and he will not oppose it."
"I hope you're right, sir." The regimental commander didn't sound convinced.
"I reckon I am," Ned said. "And if I chance to be wrong, I'll kill the mangy son of a bitch and do King Geoffrey a favor."
"Geoffrey won't thank you for it," Colonel Biffle said.
"I know," Ned answered. "Nobody ever thanks the fellow who kills the polecat or drains the cesspool or does any of the other nasty, smelly jobs that need doing just the same. But I don't think it'll come to that." He sighed. "By the gods, though, Biff, I wish it would."
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