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"Those sons of bitches!" Major Thersites shouted in a perfect transport of rage. "Those idiotic, gods-damned sons of bitches! What in the hells have we got generals for in the first place, if they can't keep things like that from happening?"
Captain Ormerod had never seen him so furious. He wished Colonel Florizel were still commanding the regiment; Florizel was gentleman enough to keep his annoyance under control. He was also gentleman enough to tell the officers under him why he was annoyed. Cautiously, Ormerod asked, "What's gone wrong now, sir?"
"I'll tell you what's gone wrong," Thersites snapped. "The great mages and mighty scholars who command us have let the stinking southrons put a decent supply line back together, that's what. How are we supposed to starve those buggers out of Rising Rock if they can bring in as many victuals as we can?"
"Oh, dear," Ormerod said, in lieu of something a good deal stronger. "How did that happen?"
"How? I'll tell you how," Thersites growled. "All our bright boys were sound asleep, that's how. They hit Brownsville Ferry from east and west at the same time, and ran our soldiers right out of there. Of course we never expected it. Why would the southrons want to keep themselves fed?"
Maybe he was right about how the unfortunate event had happened, maybe he was wrong. He was, as always, so full of bile against those set above him that Ormerod had trouble trusting his own judgment there. But Thersites was surely right about what the southrons' advance meant. "We have to push them back," Ormerod said.
"You can see that." Thersites didn't have any trouble with Ormerodhe outranked him. "I can see that. But can the great philosophers over on Proselytizers' Rise see that? Not bloody likely!" He spat in fine contempt.
A couple of hours later, though, Earl James of Broadpath came riding up to the base of Sentry Peak on a unicorn that would have done better hauling a winery wagon. "Come on, you lazy good-for-nothings," he called. "We've got some southrons to clear out east of here."
"How did they get there in the first place?" Thersites asked him.
"Pulled a march on us, caught us by surprise," James of Broadpath answered. "It's war. These things happen. What matters is whether you fix them or not. Get your men ready to fight, Major."
"Yes, sir," Thersites said. James nodded and rode on. Thersites turned to Ormerod. "You heard the man. Let's get ready to move."
"Yes, sir," Ormerod said, as Thersites had before. "Who will take our place here?"
"I have no idea, Captain," the regimental commander answered. "But I'm not going to worry about it, either. I hope the big brains will see they need to move somebody else in if they move us out. I hope so, but you never can tell."
With that something less than ringing reassurance, Ormerod had to be content. He hurried back to his own company, shouting for the men to line up ready to march. "What now?" Lieutenant Gremio asked in some exasperation. "Are they going to throw us at Rising Rock? They're asking for us to get slaughtered if they do."
"No, it isn't that," Ormerod said, and explained what it was. He added, "Remember what happened to Dan of Rabbit Hill and Leonidas the Priest. Criticizing the commanding general isn't smart."
"Getting ourselves in this mess isn't smart, either," Gremio retorted. "If I see that someone is an imbecile, should I keep quiet about it?"
"I don't know. Should you?" Ormerod said. "Thersites certainly hasn't. Do you want to be just like him?"
As he'd thought it would, that gave Gremio pause. The barrister from Karlsburg grimaced and said, "All right, Captain, you've made your point. And this is something that needs doing, no doubt about that. Will anyone replace us here?"
"I don't know," Ormerod said. "Nobody bothered to tell me." Gremio grunted and rolled his eyes.
Ormerod's company was the second one ready to march. That spared him and his men the rough side of Major Thersites' tongue. "This isn't a ladies' social, Captain," Thersites snarled at the commander of the last company to assemble. "If you don't care to run the risk of getting shot, you shouldn't have come along in the first place. You could be back in Palmetto Province happy and safe, you know."
"Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir," the luckless company commander said through clenched teeth. Colonel Florizel would never have used him so; Colonel Florizel was a true northern gentleman. Major Thersites, as far as Ormerod could see, was a first-class son of a bitch. But, with Florizel wounded, he was also the regimental commander, and the company commanders had to put up with him.
"Let's go," Thersites said. Off went the regiment, along with several others from the slopes of Sentry Peak. Ormerod wondered if they would have enough men to shift the southrons. He couldn't do anything about that except wonder. When he wondered out loud, Gremio said, "They've been getting plenty of reinforcements. Where are our fresh troops coming out of the east? Or anywhere else, for that matter?"
"Haven't seen 'em," Ormerod answered, just as the regiment began to move. He raised his voice: "Come on, men! We can do it! Forwardmarch!" What a liar I'm turning into, he thought, not having the faintest idea whether they could do it or not.
"We should have come this way weeks ago," Gremio said. "If we had, we really could have starved the southrons out."
"What did I tell you before?" Ormerod asked.
"If you want to report me to Thraxton the Braggart, go right ahead," Gremio said. "He's sent away better officers than the ones he's kept, with the possible exception of Leonidas the Priest."
Ormerod didn't want to report him to Count Thraxton. For one thing, he'd have to report him through Major Thersites, and Thersites said worse things about Thraxton than Gremio ever had. For another, Ormerod wanted nothing more than to close with the southrons and to drive them out of the north. Here he was, finally getting his chance. He just shook his head and kept marching.
It wasn't going to be easy. The closer he got to the southrons' positions, the more obvious that became. Avram's men were taking advantage of every fence and clump of trees and tiny hillock they could. Whoever was in charge of them plainly knew his business.
And they had unicorn-riders, too, men who galloped out, shot their crossbows at the advancing northerners, and then hurried away before anything very much could happen to them. It was like getting stung by gnats, except that some of the stings from these gnats killed.
"Where's Ned of the Forest when we really need him?" Lieutenant Gremio said.
"Off to the Great River," Ormerod answered. Gremio's expression was eloquent.
As the northern force approached the enemy line, engines opened up on them. The engines opened up a little too soon, as a matter of fact, almost all the stones and bursting firepots falling short. Ormerod felt better to see that: it was nice to know the southrons could make mistakes, too.
In a great voice, Major Thersites shouted, "Form line of battle!"
"Form line of battle!" Ormerod echoed to his men. Veterans, they knew how to go quickly from column into line, where raw troops would have been all too likely to make a hash of the job. And, he saw, they would have a good, solid screen of pikemen in front of them. That would help. If anything helped, that would help.
Someone off to one side winded a horn. Ormerod knew the horn calls, too. "Forward!" he shouted, along with the other officers in the force James of Broadpath had collected. Forward the men went, roaring like lions with the northern battle cry that often seemed worth a couple of regiments all by itself.
But the southrons were not inclined to give up without a fight the positions they'd taken. Some of their engines had started shooting a little too soon. That had let Geoffrey's men form their battle line without harassment. But as that battle line rolled toward the enemy, more stones and bursting firepots took their toll. A couple of repeating crossbows began scything down soldiers in blue.
When they got here, they brought everything they needed to stay, Ormerod thought. I wish we were able to do that more often.
Wishing, as usual, did him very little good. All he could do was trot forward, roaring at the top of his lungs and urging his men on. The sooner they closed with the southrons, the sooner the engines wouldn't matter any more. And the enemy didn't have enough engines to stop the charge coldhe gauged such things with the practiced eye of a man who'd gone toward a good many strongly held positions.
Now he was close enough to see individual southron soldiersand they were close enough to start shooting at his comrades and him. A few of them had yellow hair under their gray caps. Was one of them Rollant, his runaway serf? I should have killed him, back there near the River of Death.
A few field engines had come along with the northerners' hastily mustered force. A stone landed among the southrons, and suddenly there was a gap, three men wide, in their line. More soldiers in baggy gray pantaloons strode forward to fill it.
With a buzz like that from the wings of an angry hummingbird, a crossbow quarrel zipped past his head. They started shooting, too, shooting as they advanced. The waiting southrons were bound to be more accurate, but some of the bolts from the advancing northerners struck home, too. A gray-clad soldier threw up his hands and pitched over backwards.
Ormerod yanked his sword from its scabbard. Before long, this work would be hand to hand. "King Geoffrey!" he yelled, and let out another roar.
"King Avram!" the southrons shouted. That only made Ormerod more furious. That they should want to be ruled by someone who would twist the ancient laws and customs of Detina all out of shape was bad enough in and of itself. That they should want to force Avram's rule on the part of Detina which wanted nothing to do with him was much, much worse, at least to Ormerod's eyes.
"Provincial prerogative!" he cried.
"Freedom!" the southrons yelled back.
"How is it freedom when you want to take my gods-damned serfs off my gods-damned land?" Ormerod demanded. He didn't get an answer to that, or at least not a carefully reasoned one. His regiment and the southrons collided, and the argument between them went on at a level much more basic than words.
He stabbed a southron in the shoulder. The fellow howled like a wolf and twisted away, blood darkening his tunic. The men of Ormerod's regiment and the southrons pounded away at one another with shortswords and with crossbows swung club-fashion. They kicked and bit and punched and wrestled and cursed one another as they grappled.
"Come on, boys!" Ormerod yelled. "We can do it!"
But more southrons, some armed with crossbows, others with pikes, came up to help hold back King Geoffrey's men. More northerners came forward, too, but not so many: for one thing, the southrons seemed to have more men on the spot, and, for another, their engines did a better job of hindering the advance of the northern reinforcements.
Back and forth the fight swayed. If the northerners could drive their foes back to and over the pontoon bridge, the southrons' supply route to the east would break once more. If not . . . Ormerod preferred not to think about if not. All he thought of was the man just ahead of him and, after that son of a bitch fell to his sword, the next closest southron. He stormed past the body of the soldier he'd just slain, shouting, "King Geoffrey! Provincial prerogative forever!"
Then, to his horrified dismay, a new shout rose off to the flank: "Unicorn-riders! Southron unicorn-riders!"
His men and the men close by all howled in alarm. A compact group of soldiers had little trouble holding unicorns at bay, but the beasts and the warriors aboard them could be dangerous to men in loose order, especially when those men were already fighting for their lives. He saw a couple of men in Geoffrey's blue break off their struggle with the southrons and speed toward the rear.
"No!" he cried. "Stand your ground! It's your best chance!"
But they would not listen to him. And they were the first of many. Before long, it wasn't a matter of driving the southrons back over their pontoon bridge. Rather, the struggle was to keep the enemy from turning victory into rout.
Cursing, Ormerod had to fall back or risk getting cut off from his comrades and captured or killed. He shook his fist toward the east, toward the unicorn-riders who'd ruined his side's chance for a win. A moment later, he was cursing even louder and more sulfurously.
"Stand!" he shouted. "Stand, gods damn you! Those aren't unicorns! Those are a bunch of wagon-hauling asses, and you're a bunch of stupid asses for letting them panic you like this! Stand!"
His men, King Geoffrey's men, would no more stand their ground than they'd listen to him. They thought they knew what had happened, and they weren't about to let facts bother them when their minds were made up. They streamed back toward Sentry Peak.
Ormerod kept on cursing, which did him no good whatever. And then, hating himself, hating his men, and hating the asses most of all, he joined the retreat. "We've got trouble here," he growled to Lieutenant Gremio. He wished Gremio would have argued, but the other officer only nodded.
There were times when Lieutenant General Hesmucet wondered why his parents had named him after the blond chieftain who'd fought the Detinans so ferociously during the War of 1218. When he was a boy, he'd had endless fights because of his name. Now that he was grown to be a man, he found it more useful than otherwise: people remembered him on account of it.
And he aimed to be remembered. He looked back at the long column of men in King Avram's gray he led. They'd started out from their base by the Great River when news of the disaster north of Rising Rock reached them. Now, at last, after much travel by glideway and a good deal of marching, they'd come east to Rising Rock to help General Bart defend the place against the traitors and drive them out of Franklin and back into Peachtree Province.
Hesmucet took one hand off the reins of his unicorn and scratched his close-cropped dark beard. Even after two and a half years of war, he found the idea that the northerners were traitors to the Kingdom of Detina strange. When Geoffrey declared himself king in Avram's despite, Hesmucet had been provost at a military collegium up in the north. His friends there had tried to persuade him to fight for Geoffrey, but he hadn't been able to bear the thought of tearing the kingdom apart like a chicken wing. He'd gone south once more to take service with Avram, and none of the northerners had tried to stand in his way.
His aide-de-camp rode up to him and said, "Sir, we're coming up to the battlefield by Brownsville Ferry."
"Yes, I can see that for myself, Major Milo; thank you," Hesmucet said. "I didn't think those bodies scattered over the ground had got there by themselves."
Major Milo flinched a little. Anyone who dealt with Hesmucet had to deal with his sharp tongue. "It was a noble victory," the aide-de-camp said. "Two noble victories, in fact."
Hesmucet shrugged. "It was a battle. Battles are hells on earth, nothing else but. We may need to fight them, but we don't need to love them."
Milo said, "If you don't mind my saying so, sir, that strikes me as an . . . unusual attitude for a soldier."
"I don't mind your saying sowhy should I?" Hesmucet replied with another shrug. "But I know the kind of business I'm in. Do you think a garbage hauler expects to stay clean as he goes about his job?"
Milo must have thought he'd gone too far. His voice was stiff as he said, "We don't haul garbage, sir."
"No, indeed." Lieutenant General Hesmucet waved at the field, and at the twisted, bloated, stinking corpses lying on it. The motion disturbed a few ravens close by. They flew up into the air with indignant croaking squawks. "We don't haul garbage, Major. We make it."
His aide-de-camp pondered that, then shook his head, rejecting the idea. Hesmucet laughed quietly to himself. Major Milo came from a family with noble blood, and naturally looked on war as a noble pursuit. Hesmucet had a different view: to him, war was what you needed to do when the fellow with whom you were arguing wouldn't listen to reason. You hit him, and you kept on hitting him till, sooner or later, he fell over. Once he went down, he wouldn't argue any more.
Several asses had been put out to graze among the unicorns. Hesmucet pointed their way. "What's that in aid of?" he wondered aloud. "They're supposed to be kept off by themselves."
"Shall I find out, sir? I see some of our men nearby there," Major Milo said. He might be prissy, but he was conscientious.
And Hesmucet had had his bump of curiosity tickled. "Yes, why don't you?" he said, and rode off to one side of the track so his men could keep moving while he waited. Milo trotted his unicorn over to the soldiers watching the foraging beasts, spoke briefly with them, and then came back toward Hesmucet. To the general's surprise, his aide-de-camp wore a grin. "What's so funny?" Hesmucet called.
"Well, sir, it seems those asses are unicorns, in a manner of speaking." Sure as hells, Major Milo was grinning.
"They sure look like asses to me." Hesmucet was a man for whom what he saw, and only what he saw, was real.
But now Milo laughed out loud. "Oh, but sir, those asses are brevet unicorns. They broke loose from their wagons during the last fight, and they helped panic Geoffrey's men, so they've been promoted for the duration."
"I see." Hesmucet laughed, too. "I quite like that, Major. Already more brevets in this war than you can shake a gods-damned stick at."
Detina's regular army, its professional army, was tiny. Through most of the kingdom's history, its main role had been to subdue the wild blond tribes in the far east. But now both King Avram and Grand Duke Geoffrey had recruited vast hosts to enforce their vision of what Detina ought to be. A man who'd been a captain in the regular army might command a division these days. He'd be breveted a brigadier or even a lieutenant general.
But, unless his sovereign chose to confirm that rank among the regulars, he'd go back to being a captain when the war finally ended, if it ever did, with only a captain's pay and only a captain's prospects, and very likely with all his chances for glory behind him forever. Hesmucet knew a good many human asses breveted up beyond their proper rank, so why not the kind that went on four legs as well? Who could guess what sort of unicorns they'd make?
"Well, I hope they enjoy their privileges," he said, and used the reins and the pressure of his knees to urge his own veritable unicorn forward to the head of his army. Major Milo stuck close by his side. There ahead lay the pontoon bridge Bill the Bald had stretched across the river. The unicorns' hooves thudded on it. Shading his eyes with his hand, Hesmucet could see Rising Rock ahead.
"There'll be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth among the traitors when they find out we're here," he said.
His aide-de-camp nodded. "They haven't been able to keep reinforcements out, and they haven't been able to keep supplies out, either. I think they're going to be sorry before very long."
"So do I," Hesmucet agreed. But then he checked himself. "Of course, General Guildenstern no doubt thought the same cursed thing. Still, General Bart will have a lot more to throw at the northerners than Guildenstern didand he'll do a better job with what he's got, too, unless I miss my guess."
As if to underscore his words, the troopers he led began marching over the bridge that led toward Rising Rock. Their footfalls were a dull thunderHesmucet glanced up to the sky, thinking of the might of the Thundererthat went on and on and on. No traitors were about to hear that sound, but it would have brought only dismay to them if they had.
General Bart met Hesmucet at the eastern outskirts of Rising Rock. "Good to see you," Bart said, a broad smile on his face. "Now we have the old team back again."
Hesmucet clasped his superior's hand. "Good to be here, sir. We've always whipped the traitors when we fought them together. I don't see any reason why we shouldn't do it again."
"I hope you're right." Bart eyed the long columns of men in gray tunics and pantaloons tramping into Rising Rock. "Now that you're here, now that Thraxton can't starve us out of this place any more, we're going to give it a try, anyhow."
"We've beaten Thraxton before. We can beat the son of a bitch again," Hesmucet said. Bart frowned slightly: not so much a turning down of the mouth as a vertical line between his eyebrows. He was as hard-driving a general as any, but he had little taste for harsh language.
But he was also willing to make allowances for Hesmucet he wouldn't have for most officers. "I think our chances are good," he said. "Doubting George could have held Rising Rock against Thraxton the Braggart by himself, provided only that Thraxton didn't cut off his victuals altogether. We've got his armyhe has command over what was Guildenstern's whole forceand the divisions Fighting Joseph brought from the west (if Duke Edward sent James of Broadpath here, we could afford to bring men east, too), and now you're here as well. When we hit, we'll hit hard."
"That's what the whole business of war is all about, sir," Hesmucet said.
"I am glad you're here, by the gods," Bart said. "When it comes to matters of fighting, we think alike, you and I. There's no one better than Lieutenant General George for receiving a blow from the enemy, but he's slower than I wish he were when it comes to striking. And as for Fighting Joseph . . ."
Voice dry, Hesmucet said, "I don't expect King Avram is brokenhearted at having an excuse to send Fighting Joseph out here to the east, a long way away from Georgetown and the Black Palace."
"I don't expect you're wrong." Bart's voice was dry, too. "I don't suppose he could have tried a usurpation after losing at Viziersville this past spring, but I don't suppose he was very comfortable to have around just the same."
"No doubt that's so, sir." Hesmucet leaned forward in the saddle. "Will he give you trouble?"
"He may," Bart answered. "He thinks of glory for himself first and everything else afterwards. He always has; it's the way the gods made him. He will try to seize as much independent command as he possibly canthat's the way the gods made him, too. But he will also fight hard. I know that. He didn't get his nickname for nothing. I don't mind him getting some of what he wants, so long as he gives me what I want."
Hesmucet chuckled. "Well, sir, if any man can keep asses and unicorns in harness together, you're the one." He snapped his fingers. "And speaking of which, did you hear about the asses breveted as unicorns?"
"I did indeed," Bart said. "By all accounts, they deserve their brevets a good deal more than some two-legged officers who've got them."
"I thought the very same thing," Hesmucet said. "I wouldn't be surprised."
"Come into the city now," Bart urged. "I'll show you the enemy's dispositions north and west of here, and we can start planning how best to strike them."
"Nothing I'd like better, sir," Hesmucet said. "Is it true that Ned of the Forest isn't leading the traitors' unicorn-riders any more? I heard that, and I believed it because I wanted it so much, but is it so?"
Bart nodded. "It is. Thraxton, you know, will quarrel with anyone."
"That he will," Hesmucet said. "I'm not sorry he quarreled with Ned. I don't know where Ned's gone"
"Off toward the Great River, I hear, while you were coming this way," Bart told him.
"Is that a fact?" Hesmucet said. "Well, our unicorn-riders over there can try to get rid of him. I don't think we'll ever have peace in Franklin or Cloviston till Ned of the Forest is dead. But to the hells with me if I'm sorry we won't be facing him here. He'd make bringing supplies into Rising Rock a much tougher job than it is now, and you can't tell me any different."
"Nobody ever could tell you any different about anything," Bart said. "That's one of the things that makes you a good soldier."
"I don't know about that, sir." Hesmucet plucked at his beard as he pondered. "I have my doubts, in fact. You have to keep your eye on the enemy every minute, or else he'll make you sorry."
"That's not what I meant," Bart said. "Of course you keep your eye on the enemy. But you do what you want to do; you don't do what he wants you to do. You always try to make him dance to your tune." He laughed. "I try to do the same, the only difference being that I can't recognize my tune even if a band starts playing it right in front of my face."
"Ah." Hesmucet ignored the feeble joke, whose like he'd heard before, to bring his wit to bear on the essence of what Bart said. "I think you're right. That's the way you've run your campaignsI know that for a fact."
"All but once, when Ned got into my rear as I was coming north along the Great River," Bart said. "Ned fights the same way, and when he hits a supply line, it stays hit, by the gods. I had to pull back. It was that or starve."
"But you went north again later, after Ned rode off somewhere else," Hesmucet said. "Ned left. You stayed. And you won: King Avram holds every inch of the Great River these days, and what Geoffrey wanted to be his realm is torn in half."
"If you keep moving forward, if you make the foe respond to you, good things are pretty likely to happen," Bart said. "And if you keep your army together. General Guildenstern is a brave officerno one ever said differentlybut he split his in three pieces, and he's lucky worse didn't happen to it. I make plenty of mistakes, but I won't make that one."
"No, I don't suppose you would, sir," Hesmucet said. "You haven't made many mistakes, not that I've seen." From many men, that would have been flattery. He made it a simple statement of fact, and wouldn't have said it if he hadn't believed it.
"Thank you kindly," Bart told him. "Now would you care to ride into Rising Rock with me?"
"I would indeed," Hesmucet said, and into the town they rode without the least concern for whose rank was higher than whose.
Count Thraxton was not a happy man. Count Thraxton rarely was a happy man, but he found even more reasons for gloom than usual when he peered east from Proselytizers' Rise toward Rising Rock. Oh, on the surface things looked good enough. King Geoffrey had sustained him in his command. He'd got rid of the officers who'd libeled him to the king. Everyone who led men under him was either loyal to him or knew how to keep his mouth shut in public.
And yet . . . He knew the grumbling went on. He didn't need any great skill in magecraft to understand that. His officer corps might be cowed, but it was not satisfied. The only thing that would satisfy his officers was marching into Rising Rock. And how was he supposed to manage that?
You should have done it after we beat the southrons by the River of Death. He could still hear his officers bleating like so many sheep. He looked up into the heavens, toward the mystical mountain beyond the sky where the gods lived. "You tell me, Thunderer; you tell me, Lion God: how was I supposed to make my army move fast when the enemy had just shot one man in four?" he said. A sentry gave him a curious look. His glare sent the man back to dutiful impassivity in a hurry. If it hadn't, Thraxton would have done a great deal more than just glare.
The gods didn't answer him. They never did. That might have been one of the reasons he was always so melancholy, so bad-tempered. The gods speak to an idiot like Leonidas the Priest. He says so, and I believe him. But they will not speak to me, not face to face. What does that say about Leonidas? What does it say about me? Even more to the point, what does it say about the gods?
A messenger came up to Thraxton. "Excuse me, your Grace," the fellow said. "I have here Earl James of Broadpath's report on the failed attack against the southrons by the Brownsville Ferry a few days past." He held out a couple of sheets of closely written paper.
"Thank you so much," Thraxton said, accepting the papers with a sour sneer. "I shall be fascinated to learn how the brilliant Earl James, schooled under the even more brilliant Duke Edward, explains away the ineptitude that kept him from success."
"Eryes, sir," the messenger said, and left in a hurry.
Thraxton needed hardly more than a glance at the report to see how James exculpated himself: partly by blaming Leonidas the Priest, and partly by complaining he hadn't had enough men to do the job Thraxton had set him. Thraxton's sneer grew wider. You don't think it's so easy when you're in command, do you? But you expected the sun and moon from me.
All at once, his revulsion against James swelled to the point where it was more than he could stand. He shouted for a messenger. The one who came running looked suitably apprehensive. "Let the illustrious James of Broadpath know I require his presence at his earliest convenience," Thraxton said.
"Yes, sir." The runner trotted off to do Thraxton's bidding, obeying without fuss or back talk. If only the rest of the Army of Franklin would do the same.
James of Broadpath came, but in his own sweet time. It was a couple of hours before he guided his big, ungainly unicorn up to Count Thraxton's headquarters. When he slid downto the poor beast's obvious reliefhe saluted and said, "Reporting as ordered, sir."
"So you are," Thraxton said. "Good of you to do soat last." James glowered, but could only glower. Thraxton went on, "I have a new task in mind for your wing, your Excellency." One that will get you out of my hair for some time to come.
"Sir?" James of Broadpath said.
He was giving Count Thraxton as little as he could; Thraxton saw that at once. Go ahead, James, wriggle on the hook as much as you care to. It will do you no good. "As I said, I have something special for you, your Excellency, and for the soldiers you brought here from the magnificent Army of Southern Parthenia."
By the way he said it, he reckoned that army something less than magnificent. James heard that, but could only frown as he replied, "I shall endeavor to do anything you may require of me, your Grace."
"So you showed by the Brownsville Ferry," Thraxton said, for the pleasure of watching James scowl and fume. "What I have in mind this time, however, is a more nearly independent command for you."
"Ah?" James of Broadpath said. Thraxton didn't smile, though another man might have. The fish was nibbling at the hook. After plucking his bushy beard, James went on, "Tell me more."
Hooked, sure enough, Thraxton thought. Aloud, he said, "Whiskery Ambrose has been making a nuisance of himself for some time now, southwest of us in Wesleyton. I purpose detaching your force from the Army of Franklin and sending you forth to lay siege to him there or to drive him from our land altogether."
Earl James frowned. "I see the need for doing it," he said at last, "but I have to say, your Grace, that I question the timing."
"How do you mean?" Thraxton always bristled when anyone questioned him.
"Do you really want to detach a large part of your force when the southrons are bringing fresh soldiers into Rising Rock?" James asked. "If you were going to send me against Wesleyton, you might have done better to try it just after we won at the River of Death."
"Back then, you were all for my moving men east of Rising Rock, not to the southwest," Thraxton reminded him in tart tones.
"I was all for your doing something, your Grace," Earl James said. "I was all for your doing anything, as a matter of fact. Sitting in front of Rising Rock frittering away the time does King Geoffrey's cause no good."
Count Thraxton glared at him. Sacking James of Broadpath wouldn't be easy. Thraxton didn't care to squabble with Duke Edward of Arlington, who was even more likely than he to have the king's ear. But he could send James away. He couldand he would. "I judge a move against Wesleyton to be in our best interest at this time. Too many would-be betrayers in western Franklin take aid and comfort from having Whiskery Ambrose and his army close by."
"That's so," James said. Had he denied it, Thraxton would have called him a liar on the spot. Most of Franklin was and had been strongly for Geoffrey, but the mountainous west, where there were few estates of any size and only a handful of serfs, remained a hotbed of Avramist sentiment.
"Well, then," Thraxton said, as if it were all settled.
But James of Broadpath persisted, "They can't hurt us here. A screen of unicorn-riders could keep Whiskery Ambrose away if he got a rush of brains to the head and tried to move on Rising Rock. Ned of the Forest was doing fine there. Shouldn't we settle more important business in these parts before we go on to the less?"
"I want Wesleyton taken," Thraxton said. "I want Whiskery Ambrose killed or chased away. And, your Excellency, it is my express command that you undertake this campaign against him." Because, your Excellency, I want you and your carping criticism as far away from me as possible.
James of Broadpath gave him a precisely machined salute. "Yes, sir," he said, no expression whatever in his voice. "When is it your express command that my force and I should leave for Wesleyton?"
"Day after tomorrow," Thraxton answered. "Go down there, settle with Whiskery Ambrose, and return once he is beatenbut not until then. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, sir," James said, as tonelessly as before. "And if you are attacked while I'm operating against Wesleyton?"
"I assure you, your Excellency, this army is capable of defending itself," Thraxton said. "Our positions are as strong as the craft of field fortification allows them to be. Do you deny that? How could an enemy possibly hope to sweep up the slopes of Proselytizers' Rise with fierce, alert soldiers shooting at him from the top?"
"I don't know, your Grace, and the gods grant that we need never find out," James replied. He saluted Count Thraxton. "If you would have me go, sir, I shall, and do what I can for the kingdom."
"Good," Thraxton said, which earned him another sour look from the officer from the Army of Southern Parthenia. Muttering something his bushy beard muffled, James of Broadpath mounted his burly unicorn and rode away.
Once he was gone, Thraxton called for two more runners. To one, he said, "Tell Roast-Beef William I would see him at once." He told the other, "Order Duke Cabell of Broken Ridge here immediately." Both messengers saluted and went to do his bidding. Thraxton enjoyed nothing more than sending men to do his bidding.
Roast-Beef William, who'd taken over for Leonidas the Priest, reported to Thraxton fast enough to keep even that sour-tempered soldier reasonably sweet. His other nickname was Old Reliable; he'd written the tactical manual on which both Geoffrey's army and Avram's based their evolutions.
"What can I do for you, sir?" he asked now. His fondness for big chunks of meat had given him his more common sobriquet, but he also had a red, red face.
"I would sooner wait for the duke," Thraxton replied. "Then I need say this only once." Roast-Beef William just shrugged and nodded. He got on well with almost everyone. He got on well enough with Thraxton, which proved the point if it wanted proving.
Cabell of Broken Ridge strode up to Thraxton's headquarters only a couple of minutes later. He now commanded the wing Dan of Rabbit Hill had led before. Count Thraxton had hesitated more than a little before naming him to the post, not least because his blood was higher than Thraxton's. When old King Buchan died, there'd been some talk in the north of raising Cabell to the throne, though Geoffrey soon solidified his claim to rival Avram. Cabell seemed content as one of Geoffrey's officers. Thraxton, who was never content himself, mistrusted that, but found no better choice despite his misgivings.
"At your service, your Grace," Cabell said now, bowing courteously. He was a darkly handsome man with a round face and long, dark mustachios that swept out like the horns of a buffalo.
"Good," Thraxton said. Cabell hadn't got there fast enough to suit him, but hadn't been so slow as to disgrace himself, either. And Thraxton was much more cautious about offending a duke than he would have been with an earl or a baron or a man of no particular breeding like Roast-Beef William.
"What's in your mind, sir?" Old Reliable asked now.
"I have ordered James of Broadpath south and west to strike against Whiskery Ambrose at Wesleyton," Thraxton answered. "After he has beaten Ambrose, he will return here or strike farther south, as opportunity presents itself."
"That's a bold strategy, sir," Cabell of Broken Ridge said.
"Bold, yes. Bold but risky." Roast-Beef William plucked at his graying beard. "We could find ourselves in trouble if the southrons strike while James is away. Dividing your force in the face of the enemy . . . It's how Guildenstern came to grief, you know."
"But Guildenstern did not know where we were." Thraxton pointed down toward Rising Rock. "We see everything the southrons do at the moment they do it. They cannot possibly surprise us."
"With our position, we can hold them anyhow," Cabell said.
"I hope you're right, your Grace," Roast-Beef William said.
"Of course I am." Cabell of Broken Ridge had no doubts whatever.
Thraxton always had doubts. More often than not, he had doubts about the men who served under him. He said, "We can hold, and we shall hold, provided that my wing commanders stay alert to any movement the southrons might seek to prepare." He spoke as if expecting to discover Cabell and Roast-Beef William snoring in their tents: if he couldn't find a quarrel any other way, he would make one.
Roast-Beef William only shrugged; he never had been a quarrelsome sort. But Duke Cabell, predictably, bristled. "Why did you pick us to command the wings, if you didn't think we could do what you wanted?" he demanded.
Hearing the question made Thraxton regret his choice. He snapped, "That's my concern, not yours."
"Gentlemen! Gentlemen!" Roast-Beef William said in some alarm as Thraxton and Cabell glared at each other. "Remember, gentlemen, the more we fight among ourselves, the happier General Bart will be down there in Rising Rock."
Duke Cabell of Broken Ridge nodded and half bowed. "That is well said, sir, and I shall try to take it to heart."
"If my subordinates were more subordinate and less insubordinate, we should not have these problems," Thraxton said. Roast-Beef William coughed gently, from him as strong as a string of oaths from another man. Thraxton turned his scowl on the other officer, but the man called Old Reliable looked back out of steady and innocent eyes, and Thraxton was the first to look away. He gave a slow, reluctant nod. "As you say, William. The point is well taken."
"Thank you, sir," Roast-Beef William said. "And I know one other thing we should do."
"And that is?" Thraxton's voice got some of its usual rasp back. If Roast-Beef William presumed to try to give him orders . . .
But the wing commander said, "Sir, we should pray to the Thunderer to keep the weather good, so we can go on watching Rising Rock," and Count Thraxton found he had to nod.
Earl James of Broadpath and his men marched south and west out of Rising Rock in the midst of a driving rain. The autumn had been mild up till then. "Just my luck," he muttered under his breath, as rain beat down on his broad-brimmed traveler's hat. "Just my fornicating luck."
"Sir?" said an aide riding nearby.
"Never mind," James replied. "Just talking to myself. In the temper I'm in, I'm the only one I'm fit to talk to."
His heavy-boned unicorn squelched along. When the rain first started falling, he hadn't been sorry; it would lay the dust on the road. But, of course, more than a little rain was worse than none at all when it came to movement, for it quickly turned roads to bogs. This one was well on the way. And James of Broadpath rode at the head of the army. Once some thousands of footsoldiers had churned up the mud, how would the asses and unicorns hauling supplies and siege engines fare? None too well, and James knew it.
"Glideway," he said, again more to himself than to anyone else. "We have to get to the glideway port at Grover. Once we do, we'll be all right." Grover was thirty miles away: less than two days' march in good weather, considerably more than two days' march through muck.
How much more, James soon discovered. His weary, filthy men got into the little town in northwestern Franklin on the fourth day out from Proselytizers' Rise. He rode to the glideway port there. At the port, he discovered that none of the glideway carpets he'd been promised were anywhere about.
At that point, he lost his temper and began bellowing like a bull just before a sacrifice. His roars routed out a buck-toothed clerk who looked like nothing so much as a skinny, frightened rabbit. The poor clerk's terror meant nothing to James. "Where in the seven hells are my carpets, you son of a bitch?" he roared.
"Sir, I don't know anything about them," the clerk quavered.
"Well, the Lion God rip your throat out, why don't you?" James said. "If the fornicating glideway clerk doesn't know where the devils my stinking carpets are, who the devils does?"
"All glideway carpets in the military district of the Army of Franklin are under the personal control of Count Thraxton, sir," the clerk said.
James of Broadpath clapped a hand to his forehead. "He was supposed to send them here, or enough to let my ragtag and bobtail deliver some sort of attack on Whiskery Ambrose up in Wesleyton. How in the hells am I suppose to deliver any sort of attack on him if half my men drown in the mud before we get to Wesleyton?"
"I wouldn't know about that, sir," the glideway clerk said primly. "No, sir, I wouldn't know about that at all. If you want to find out about that, sir, you'd have to take it up with Count Thraxton his own self."
"I thought I bloody well had, before I started for this miserable, stinking hole in the ground of a village," James snarled. The clerk looked furiousin a rabbity sort of waybut James was too irate himself to care a copper for his feelings.
At that moment, a scryer came up to James and said, "Excuse me, your Excellency, but I've just received a message from Count Thraxton's scryers, inquiring as to where we are and asking why we haven't made better progress toward Wesleyton."
James of Broadpath stared at the sorcerer. His expression must have been something to behold, for the fellow drew back in alarm. "He complains that we haven't got closer to fornicating Wesleyton?" he whispered.
"Yes, sir," the scryer answered.
"Oh, he does, does he?" From a whisper, Earl James' voice rose to a deep-throated rumbling roar, rather like the precursor to an earthquake, that sent both the scryer and the glideway clerk backing away from him in alarm not far from terror. "He does, does he? Why, that . . ." James proceeded to express his detailed opinion of Thraxton's ancestry, likely destination, and intimate personal habitsmatters on which he had nothing save opinions, but those strongly held ones.
"Shall I . . . respond that we're doing the best we can, sir?" the scryer asked when his fulminations finally faded.
"No, by the gods," James said, his outrage kindling anew. "Get your fornicating crystal ball. I'll tell Thraxton what I think of him and his nagging myself, to the hells with me if I don't."
"Get it!" James shouted, and the scryer fled. When he returned, he had the crystal ball with him. "Good," James said grimly. "Now get me that two-faced son of a bitch, so I can talk with him face to face to face." He laughed at his own wit.
Looking distinctly green, the scryer murmured the spells he needed to activate his crystal ball. An image appeared in it. It wasn't Thraxton's, but that of his chief scryer. James' scryer spoke briefly to him, then said, "Count Thraxton is not available, your Excellency. He's plotting strategy with Roast-Beef William and with Duke Cabell. The scryer says it's urgent."
Elbowing aside his own scryer, James stared at the fellow who served Count Thraxton. "Plotting, indeed," he ground out. "He is plotting against me, and you're welcome to tell him I said so."
"Your Excellency, I am certain you are mistaken," the scryer back by Proselytizers' Rise said smoothly. "Count Thraxton wishes you every success."
"Count Thraxton wishes I would jump off a cliff," James of Broadpath retorted. "Why did he send me out without any proper help on the glideways here?"
"I'm sure that's an oversight on the part of someone else," Thraxton's scryer said.
"Are you? I'm not," James answered. "Who controls routing for the glideways in this part of the kingdom? His Grace does, his Grace and no one else."
"Why would he want you to fail, your Excellency?" the scryer asked. "There's no sense to it, as you'll see if you think about things for just a moment."
"No, eh?" James sounded thoroughly grim. "Why would he send me forth without arranging the glideways unless he wanted me to fail? He has to know I need them; whatever else he is, he's no fool. And why would he order me to hurry without giving me any possible chance to do so? To put himself on the record as hustling me along, that's why. Of course, nothing about the glideways is on the record, is it?"
"I'm sure I wouldn't know, sir," the scryer answered. "I am not privy to Count Thraxton's thoughts."
A lot of those thoughts surely went through him to the officers Thraxton commanded. Even so, James had trouble getting angry at the fellow. He would not have wanted a scryer who blabbed his ideas to the world at large. Still . . . He took a long, deep, angry breath. "You tell Count Thraxton for me that I want to see enough glideway carpets to move my army get here to Grover pretty gods-damned quick. And you tell him that, without those carpets, I can't move against Whiskery Ambrose in Wesleyton. I can't, and I won't. Have you got that?"
"I certainly do, your Excellency," Thraxton's scryer said. "The count will hear of this."
"He'd bloody well better," James rumbled. He made a sharp chopping gesture to his own scryer, who broke the mystical link between the two crystal balls.
Eyes wide, his scryer asked, "Would you really stop the advance on Wesleyton, sir?"
"Of course I would," James growled. "How in the hells can I go on with it unless I've got glideway carpets? If these rains keep up, we'd be a fornicating month getting there by road, and we'll all starve by the time we did." He knew he was exaggerating. He also knew he wasn't exaggerating a great deal.
He got his glideway carpets. They started coming in the next day. That surprised him. He hadn't expected them in the least. Maybe Count Thraxton had some vestigial sense of shame after all. No sooner had that thought crossed James' mind than he shook his head. He wouldn't have bet anything on it that he couldn't afford to lose.
Loading men and unicorns and wagons and engines onto the carpets was another adventure, especially since the rain kept fallingand especially since Thraxton the Braggart kept haranguing James for more speed. James made a point of having his scryer tell Thraxton he was busy whenever the general commanding the Army of Franklin asked for him. Had he spoken with Thraxton, he knew what he would have saidand he knew the other man would not have cared to hear it.
At last, several days after it should have, James' force started southwest down the glideway. Even that went more slowly than it should have. James didn't know why. The mages claimed the wretched weather had nothing to do with it. But when James bellowed, "What in the seven hells does, then?" they only shrugged and shook their heads.
And, of course, they couldn't simply take the glideway straight to Wesleyton, climb off the carpets, and come out fighting Whiskery Ambrose's men. The southrons were in possession of the glideway for about the last third of the distance to Wesleyton. As soon as James' men got down to the Little Franklin River, the glideway journey was over. They had to go back to being soldiers again.
James of Broadpath hoped Whiskery Ambrose would come out and fight him with his whole army. He'd fought Ambrose when the southrons attacked the Army of Southern Parthenia, and Duke Edward had crushed him without any great effort. Ambrose was unquestionably brave. Having said that, one said everything there was to say about his military virtues. If he'd attacked the position Duke Edward had taken for the next hundred years, all he would have done was kill every southron man born of the next several generations. In the field, in a standup fight, James was sure he could beat him.
But Whiskery Ambrose refused to give James a standup fight. His unicorn-riders and a few footsoldiers skirmished with James' men, delaying them, falling back, skirmishing again, and again retreating toward Wesleyton. James, who had been frustrated from the very beginning of this misbegotten campaign, soon felt ready to bite nails in two.
Lacking nails, he also felt ready to bite in two the captured southron captain who was brought before him. "Gods damn you, why don't you sons of bitches fight?" he shouted into the man's startled face.
"Sir, you'd have to ask General Ambrose about that," the captain said.
"To the hells with General Ambrose," James said. "If he is a general, why doesn't he come out and give battle?"
The captain raised an eyebrow. "If you're such a fine general, why don't you make him?" James glared at him. The southron looked back steadily enough. He went on, "General Ambrose has orders to hold Wesleyton, and that is what he intends to do."
Cursing under his breath, James sent the prisoner away. Whiskery Ambrose always followed orders to the limit, presumably because he couldn't come up with any better ideas on his own. Had he been ordered to drive James away, he would have bravely done his bestand played straight into James' hands.
As things were, James had no choice but to press on despite wretched roads and worse weather. He had his orders, too, and he had Count Thraxton back outside Rising Rock nagging him ahead through the scryers. They faithfully delivered all of Thraxton's messages. James ignored some and answered those he couldn't ignore. He didn't want Thraxton to be able to make a case that he'd been derelict.
"I know where the dereliction lies," he told Thraxton's chief scryer. "King Geoffrey will know it, tooyou mark my words."
"King Geoffrey and the count are intimate friends," the scryer answered. "You slander Count Thraxton at your peril."
"I fail to tell the truth about him at the kingdom's peril," James retorted. "And his Grace is the greatest slanderer left at large."
"Shall I convey that opinion to him?" the scryer asked acidly.
"Why not?" James said. "He already knows my view of him, and his of me is unlikely to go lower."
"Very well." The scryer did his best to sound ominous. James of Broadpath laughed in his face. The scryer mouthed something that was surely not a compliment. A moment later, the crystal ball in front of James went dark.
He laughed again. He'd had the last word, and he hadn't even said anything.
In spite of everything, he got his army moving again the next morning. The men went forward with a will. They thought they could take Wesleyton. They thought they could do anything. Under Duke Edward, they'd proved they could time and again.
Can they do it without Duke Edward? James wondered, and then, even more to the point, Can they do it under me? He was going to find out. He'd always longed for independent command. Now he had it, even if not quite under the circumstances in which he'd wanted it.
That afternoon, his little army came up against the outworks around Wesleyton. He looked from them to the keep at the heart of the town, then let out a long, sad sigh. One glance was plenty to tell him Whiskery Ambrose had orders much easier to obey than his own.
After Rollant's regiment helped drive the traitors back from the Franklin River and helped open the way for supplies and for the forces led by Fighting Joseph and by Lieutenant General Hesmucet, it had little fighting to do for a while. That suited him fine. He and Smitty made their tent as comfortable as they could, adding scrounged extra cloth to make it more wind- and waterproof and piling up springy, fragrant pine boughs on which they could lie snug and warm in their blankets.
Rollant was sitting in front of the tent spooning up mush mixed with salt pork from his mess tin when somebody not far away let out a cheer. His head whipped around. Several more people started to whoop and holler. A moment later, Rollant did, too.
Smitty stuck his head out of the tent. "What in the hells?" he said. "How am I supposed to write a letter to my folks if you're yelling your fool head off?"
"Captain Cephas is backfor good, this time, looks like," Rollant exclaimed. "See? There he is."
"What?" Smitty said, this time in an altogether different tone of voice. Then he started cheering, too.
The wounded officer made his way through the company, shaking hands with all his men. He remained thinner and paler than Rollant remembered, but he was back, and that was all that mattered. "Good to see you, sir!" Rollant said.
"Good to be seen, believe me." Cephas' hand went to the right side of his ribcage. "For a while there, I didn't think anyone would see me again." He clasped Smitty's hand after Rollant's, and asked him, "Are you still raising trouble?"
"Every chance I get, sir," Smitty said proudly.
"Good. Keep it up," Cephas said with a grin, and went on to the next tent.
Smitty looked about ready to burst with pride. Rollant said, "Remember, now, he won't tell you that when Sergeant Joram brings you up before him."
"Spoilsport," Smitty said. After a moment, he added, "I can think of one man in the company who isn't happy to see the captain again."
"Who, Lieutenant Griff?" Rollant shook his head. "You're wrong, Smitty. I saw himhe was grinning fit to burst."
"So he was," Smitty agreed. "But he's not the fellow I meant. It's Hagen who isn't happy to see Captain Cephas back, and that's because Corliss is."
"Oh." Rollant glanced toward the serfs he'd brought in from just outside of Rising Rock. Sure enough, smiles wreathed Corliss' pretty face. And, sure enough, her man scowled at Cephas' back. "I don't like that," Rollant said. "I don't like that one bit, as a matter of fact. That could be trouble. It could be a lot of trouble."
"You're repeating yourself," Smitty remarked. "Not only that, you're saying the same thing over and over."
"Well, what if I am?" Rollant said. "I'll tell you something elseonce. I wouldn't want to be Captain Cephas if he does start messing around with Corliss, or even if Hagen just thinks he is."
"You're worrying too much," Smitty said with a dismissive wave. "Gods above, Rollant, Hagen is only a" Several words too late, he broke off. Even with his swarthy skin, his flush was plain to see.
Rollant took off his cap and displayed his own head of blond hair. "Just in case you'd forgotten, I'm only a serf, too. Only a runaway serf, come to that. If you want to take me across the lines to my old liege lord, you'd put some gold in the pockets of your pantaloons."
"Oh, shut up," Smitty said. "I didn't mean it like that. You've proved you're a man, by the gods."
"And Hagen hasn't?" Rollant was unwilling to let it go. "Is that on account of the color of his hair?"
"Gods dammit, it's on account of he's not a soldier." Now Smitty was starting to sound angry, too. "Anybody who's no soldier and tries to take on one of us'll be sorry he was ever bornbut not for very long, because it's the last thing he'll ever do."
That held some truthenough to melt some of Rollant's anger. Not all of it, though. "How long are blonds going to have to keep on proving themselves in Detina?" he asked bitterly. "We didn't invite you black-bearded bastards to sail over here. How long are we going to stay strangers in our own land?"
With anyone but Smitty, that would have put him in trouble. It was one step over the line, or more likely two. Before King Avram succeeded, Rollant never would have dared say such a thing to an ordinary Detinan: he would have been too likely to end up in gaol as an insurrectionary. But Avram had taken over the Black Palace promising to free the northern serfs from their bondage to the land and, by implication, to turn them into something like ordinary Detinans themselves. If that didn't let Rollant speak his mind every now and again, what ever would?
Slowly, Smitty said, "The more you look at things, the more complicated they get, don't they?"
It wasn't an apology, but it felt like a step toward one. Rollant said, "That's what this war is all aboutto make sure Detina doesn't stay the way it used to be."
"All I joined up for was to make sure Grand Duke Geoffrey didn't change Detina into two different kingdoms," Smitty said. "That's all most of us joined up for. This other business, it . . . just happened."
Rollant should have got used to being an afterthought in Detinan affairs. He should have, but somehow he hadn't. And, if blonds were an afterthought, why had the north tried to set up its own kingdom to keep them tied to the land?
He almost threw that in Smitty's face, too. Almost, but not quite. A blond who pushed too hard only ended up pounding his head against a wall. And most of Smitty's heart was in the right place. If not quite all of it was, when had the world ever been perfect?
Sergeant Joram strode by. He nodded to Rollant. "Nice day, isn't it?" he remarked.
Incautiously, Rollant answered, "If you ask me, it's chilly."
Sergeant Joram beamed. "Then you need some work to warm you up, don't you? Draw yourself an axe and chop firewood."
"Sergeant!" Rollant said, cursing having grown up in the milder autumns that prevailed down in Palmetto Province. He didn't think Joram was picking on him because he was a blond. Joram picked on people because he was a sergeant, and that was all sergeants were good foror so things seemed to common soldiers, at any rate.
Incautiously, Smitty laughed at Rollant's fate. Joram beamed at him, too. "Misery loves company," the sergeant observed. "You can chop wood, too."
"Have a heart, Sergeant!" Smitty howled. Joram went on his merry way. For a heartless man, he walked very well. Even the blond warriors who'd fought against Smitty's ancestors had surely known hearts were in short supply among underofficers.
"Misery loves company," Rollant repeated spitefully. What Smitty said to him was a good deal more pungent than have a heart. Smitty didn't have to waste politeness on a common soldier who was a blond to boot.
Mist shrouded the top of Sentry Peak and turned Proselytizers' Rise, off to the west, into a vague dark gray shape hardly visible against the lighter gray of the sky. Smitty, still grumbling at everything, said, "This stinking fog means we can't see what Thraxton the Braggart's up to."
"He can't see what we're up to, either," Rollant pointed out as his axe thudded into a log. "Which counts for more?"
"I don't know," Smitty answered. "But after what that old he-witch did to us there by the River of Death, I want to keep an eye on him every gods-damned minute of the day and night." He attacked the log in front of him as if it were Count Thraxton.
Rollant grunted with effort as he swung his own long-handled axe. Smitty had a point, perhaps a better one than he realized. To Detinans, magic was just another craft, just another skill. A man could be a fine mage in the same way as he could be a good cook. Rollant lived in that world, but wasn't altogether of it. Among his people, magic was more personal, more dangerous. He dreaded a man like Count Thraxton in a way Smitty didn't.
But when our magecraft met theirs, they smashed ours again and again, he thought. That must mean they're right, or closer to right than we were, mustn't it? However little he liked the idea, he supposed it had to be true.
He'd been sure Joram would come by to see how they were doing. The sergeant smiled sweetly. "Feeling warmer now?" he inquired.
"Just fine," Smitty said. Rollant didn't say anything. Joram might have turned whatever passed his lips into an excuse to pile more work onto his shoulders. Of course, if Joram was looking for an excuse to pile more work onto his shoulders, he could always just invent one.
But he said, "All right, boys, that will do for now. Get Hagen to haul it off to the cooks." He raised his voice to a shout: "Hey, Hagen! Got a job for you."
"What do you need, Sergeant, sir?" The serf treated Joram as if the underofficer were his liege lord. "You tell me what to do, I do it." He grinned. "Not only that, you even pay me to do it." He liked money. And Sergeant Joram had never bothered his wifeif Corliss was bothered.
"Take this firewood to the cooks," Joram said.
"Yes, sir, Sergeant, sir," Hagen said. Joram grinned, enjoying every word of that. Rollant did his best not to grin, too. His amusement sprang from rather different sources. He'd laid flattery on with a trowel a few times himself, or perhaps rather more than a few. He remembered getting out of trouble with Baron Ormerod more than once by pretending Ormerod was just this side of a god. The Detinan noble had eaten it up. What man wouldn't?
As the blond whom Rollant had brought in to the company picked up a big armload of wood, Rollant and Smitty quietly got out of Joram's sight, lest the sergeant find them something else to do. They were gone before Joram bothered to look for them. He could have yelled and called them back, but he didn't bother. He could pick on any common soldier in the company; he didn't need to concentrate on the two of them.
"He's not a bad sergeant," Rollant said.
"There are worse," Smitty allowed. "But there are better ones, too. Some of those bastards only want to sit around and get fat, and they don't make their men work any harder than they do themselves."
"I think you're dreaming," Rollant told him. "Serfs still tell the story of a kingdom out in the east someplace, where the blonds rule everything and they make the Detinans grow things and make things for them. It isn't real. I think most of the blonds who tell the story know it isn't real. But they tell it anyway, because it makes them feel good."
"Turning the tables, eh?" Smitty said, and Rollant nodded. Smitty pointed. "Who's the fancy new tent for? That wasn't here last night."
"Captain Cephas wasn't here last night, eitherhe was back in Rising Rock," Rollant pointed out, adding, "And you people say blonds are dumb."
Smitty thumped his forehead with the heel of his hand, as if to proclaim himself an idiot to the world at large. "Got to keep the captain feeling good," he said.
Someone came out of the fancy tent: Corliss, Hagen's wife. She looked as if someonepresumably Captain Cephashad just made her feel good; Rollant had seen that slightly slack smile on his own wife's face too many times after they made love to mistake it on another woman's.
Corliss hurried away, back toward her own, smaller, tent. Smitty pursed his lips to whistle, but no sound came out. That might have been just as well. He turned toward Rollant. "She's not trying to hide it, is she?"
"No." Rollant felt . . . He didn't know what he felt. How many blond women had had to lie down with Detinans since the invaders came over the Western Ocean? How many half-breed serfs remained tied to their noble fathers' lands? More than any man, blond or dark, could easily reckon.
He didn't think Cephas had forced himself on Corliss. He had no reason to think that. By all the signs, she'd been as eager as the officer. That should have made a difference. It didand yet, it didn't. What Rollant knew to be true had very little to do with what he felt.
As he had before, he said, "There's going to be trouble."
This time, Smitty picked his words with a little more care: "You worry too much, I think."
"Well, let's hope you're right," Rollant answered, which didn't mean he agreed with the other soldier. He wished he knew what to do. He wished he thought anyone could do anything.
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