Army of Glacierheart, Eastmarch Province, and First Brigade (Reinforced), Glacierheart Province, Republic of Siddarmark
The listening device deployed onto the shoulder of Bishop Militant Cahnyr Kaitswyrth’s tunic was far too small for the unaided human eye to see, but it was capable of remarkable sensitivity, and Merlin Athrawes leaned back in his chair in far-off Siddar City, where darkness had already fallen, listening to its take.
“I’m fully aware of the dispatches from Captain General Maigwair,” Kaitswyrth snapped, glowering across the chart table at Bishop Gahrmyn Hahlys, Bishop Tymahn Scovayl, and Colonel Wylsynn Maindayl.
Hahlys’ and Scovayl’s expressions went simultaneously (and almost instantly) blank at the words “captain general,” and Colonel Maindayl’s lips tightened. The colonel was the equivalent of Kaitswyrth’s chief of staff. He looked as if he wanted to object to where his superior was headed, but he glanced from the corner of one eye at the iron-faced upper-priest in the Schuelerite-purple cassock of an Inquisitor standing at Kaitswyrth’s right elbow and clamped his jaw.
Kaitswyrth glared at his three subordinates for a long, fulminating moment. He’d never been what someone might call a patient man, yet it was unusual for him to show his frustration this clearly and at the expense of divisional commanders like Scovayl and Hahlys. For that matter, it was unusual—not unheard of, but unusual—for him to vent his ire on Maindayl this way.
Of course, he’s under just a bit of stress at the moment, Merlin reflected with a thin smile. Pity about that.
“All right,” Kaitswyrth continued in a somewhat calmer tone once he’d assured himself that no one was going to venture to argue with him. “I understand your concerns, and I understand the Captain General’s concerns, but we’re in nowhere near the kind of dire straits Bishop Militant Bahrnabai’s dealing with. Of course it’s going to turn around and bite all of us on the arse when winter sets in, but at the moment, we have a secure supply line clear back to Dohlar through the Charayn Canal; he doesn’t. And there’s no way the heretics’ Shan-wei-damned—” He paused, obviously seeking the word he wanted, then grunted. “No way those smoking, demonspawn, Proctor-inspired, cannon-proof armored ships of theirs are going to get around into our rear and knock that canal out. Besides, we’ve got over two months’ worth of supplies backed up between here and Aivahnstyn! I know we’re going to have to pick a place and camp there all winter long, once the supply situation really starts to bite. And I know we’re going to have to allow time to get the men under roofs, not just canvas, when we do. But it’s only the end of July, and Vicar Zhaspahr’s right about the need to maintain as much pressure on the heretics as we possibly can before the snow stops us.”
Interesting that it’s “Vicar Zhaspahr” but “Captain General Maigwair,” isn’t it? Merlin reflected. Listening to him, you’d never guess they’re both members of the Group of Four … and that Maigwair’s Kaitswyrth’s commanding officer according to the Army of God’s table of organization.
“I also know Bishop Militant Bahrnabai got hurt badly by the heretics’ new weapons.” Kaitswyrth’s eyes swept his listening subordinates’ faces. “On the other hand, they came at him without warning and took him and his people completely by surprise. Not only that, but aside from their new rifle design, we sure as Langhorne didn’t see any of those ‘new weapons’ when we overran the heretics’ redoubts, did we?”
“No, My Lord,” Maindayl said after a moment. “With all due respect, though, I think we do have to remember that the heretics in those redoubts were Siddarmarkian regulars and heretic Marines. The indications are that we’re up against the heretics’ army now, and from the reports about what happened to Bishop Militant Bahrnabai’s army, their equipment list isn’t the same.”
It took courage to argue, even diffidently, with Kaitswyrth, Merlin conceded. Especially with Sedryk Zavyr, Bishop Militant Cahnyr’s special intendant, standing there with an expression like a green persimmon fig. Kaitswyrth glowered at his chief of staff for a moment, but then he inhaled and made himself nod.
“You’re right about that, Wylsynn,” he acknowledged. “And while it may not seem that way to certain people”—he frowned at Scovayl and Hahlys—“I really am aware of that fact. But even if they’ve got everything Wyrshym told us about, we’re not stuck in a damned valley with no flanks and no choice but to go straight at the enemy.” He thumped the map on the table between them, showing his army’s position in the slice of Eastmarch Province between Glacierheart and Cliff Peak … and the very heart of the Ahstynwood Forest. “The Glacierheart Gap’s over a hundred and fifty miles wide, for Langhorne’s sake! And at absolute worst, the heretics have—what? Ten thousand men? Let’s be generous and grant them fifteen thousand! That’s only a hundred men per mile, and a lot of it—most of it—is covered with trees where their damned long-ranged rifles aren’t going to help them very much, now are they?”
Maindayl looked back at him for a moment and Merlin wondered if he was contemplating pointing out how those same trees hampered Kaitswyrth’s own mobility. If he was, he thought better of it and nodded, instead.
“Well, there’s this to think about, too,” Kaitswyrth growled, thumping the map again. “Right now we’re sitting in the middle of the woods stuck on this damned river like a prong buck sliding down a slash lizard’s gullet. I don’t know about you, but I sure as Shan-wei don’t want to spend the winter sitting out here freezing my arse off. And I especially don’t want the heretics to be able to make whatever preparations they want in front of us while we wait for the icicles to melt off our noses. Look.”
His finger traced the line of the Daivyn River through the Glacierheart Gap to Ice Lake.
“At the moment, that bastard Eastshare’s line of supply is absolutely secure all the way from where he’s sitting back to Siddar City. But we’re only seventy-two miles from Ice Lake, and we’re less than two hundred and eighty from Saithor if we continue straight ahead across the lake and down the Graywater. For that matter, we’re less than a hundred and eighty miles from Tairys itself! You think taking out the provincial capital wouldn’t knock the heretics back on their heels, whatever they’ve managed to do to us in the Sylmahn Gap? I’d love to get that far in—or far enough to send a few thousand cavalry to burn the snakes’ nest to the ground, anyway!—but I’ll settle for punching across Ice Lake. If we can control the point at which the Graywater flows out of the lake, we’ll have our hand around Glacierheart’s throat at the start of the next campaigning season.”
Now that, Merlin thought sourly, is true enough. I imagine Eastshare would have a little something to say about it, but Kaitswyrth’s right about how ugly this could get if he manages to get past the Duke. I wish to hell we had one of the ironclads on Ice Lake right this minute!
“We’ve got over a hundred and fifty thousand men, including the Loyalist militia units we’ve picked up,” Kaitswyrth said, tapping the map more gently but even more emphatically. “They can’t afford to hold a position too far up the river from the lake for fear we’ll get around behind them and cut their line of retreat the same way we did to the first batch of heretics. If we hit them head on and simultaneously hook around to threaten their rear, they’ll have to retreat, and once we push them back to the lake, they’ll be pinned against it, and without all these damned trees getting in our way. I’d love to see them trying to load all of their troops onto barges under fire! And if they try to retreat around the shore of the lake without any cavalry, we’ll be able to get around them easily and force them to stand and fight in the open. So I don’t want to hear any more about all the reasons we should stand fast where we are. At the very worst, we’re going to take some casualties and we’re going to use up some of those two months’ worth of supplies sitting on the river. At best, we’re going to drive far enough forward that we’ll be clear of the Glacierhearts and into the lowlands when next spring rolls around. And in the meantime, we’ll kill a lot more of these heretic bastards. Is that clear?”
His chief of staff and both divisional commanders nodded, and he nodded back—a curt, confident jerk of the head.
“That’ll be all, then. I want plans for the movement by tomorrow night. Dismissed.”
* * *
Well, that isn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, Merlin reflected, climbing out of his chair and crossing to the window to look out across Siddar City’s lights. The thunderstorms of the last few days had passed, leaving the air clean and cool, and the lights gleamed cleanly against the dark. There weren’t very many of them and they weren’t very bright by the standards of the Terran Federation in which Nimue Alban had grown up, but they were enough to show the lines of the city’s major thoroughfares, at least. He gazed down at them, his expression moody.
Too bad Kaitswyrth couldn’t simply go ahead and panic. And he’s an idiot for trying to assume Eastshare doesn’t have every weapon Kynt used in the Sylmahn Gap. Or maybe it’s less a matter of idiocy than the fact that he understands exactly why Clyntahn insisted on redesignating his force as “the Army of Glacierheart” and Wyrshym’s as “the Army of the Sylmahn.” Sort of underscores what he thinks should be happening, doesn’t it? And Kaitswyrth’s a lot more likely than Wyrshym to try to give it to him whether it makes sense or not.
Unfortunately he’s not that far off on the numbers in front of him, and he’s less than a hundred and eighty miles from the Graywater, whether he circles north or south around Ice Lake. He could do that kind of distance in less than two five-days if there wasn’t anyone standing around to shoot him when he tried.
And if he managed to cut Eastshare’s supply line the way HMS Delthak and HMS Hador had cut Bishop Militant Bahrnabai Wyrshym’s, Eastshare truly would have no option but to retreat. Despite the superiority of his weapons, he couldn’t ignore the outflanking potential of a hundred and fifty thousand men.
Time for Seijin Ahbraim to pay the Duke another visit, I think. Although first I’d better have a word or two with Nahrmahn. And—he consulted his internal chronometer—with Cayleb, now that he and Sharleyan are off the com for the evening.
* * *
“Your Grace, I apologize for disturbing you, but you have a visitor.”
Ruhsyl Thairis, the Duke of Eastshare, looked up as Corporal Slym Chalkyr, his batman of many years, admitted Captain Lywys Braynair to his command post workspace. The CP was a solid log and earth bunker, tough enough to resist a hit even from one of the Imperial Charisian Army’s six-inch angle-guns, as befitted the nerve center of Eastshare’s position. His engineers had also placed it with careful consideration of fields of fire, though, and the light of the duke’s lamps gleamed dully on the rifles racked along one wall.
Now Eastshare raised one eyebrow at his youthful, red-haired aide.
“And what sort of visitor would that be, Lywys,” he inquired, and Braynair smiled.
“The sort you told me you always wanted to see, Your Grace. A friend of Seijin Merlin’s, I believe.”
“Ah?” Eastshare stood. “Seijin Ahbraim, is it?”
“Yes, it is, Your Grace,” another voice—this one a tenor—said, and Ahbraim Zhevons stepped past Captain Braynair. He was as plainly dressed as ever, brown hair pulled back in a short, clubbed braid, and he bowed to the duke.
“It’s good to see you,” the duke said, extending his right hand to clasp forearms with the newcomer. It wasn’t something he would have done with a lot of commoners, but Ahbraim Zhevons wasn’t your ordinary run of commoner. Despite the fact that he’d never claimed the title officially, there was no doubt in Eastshare’s mind that he was as much a seijin as Merlin Athrawes.
“On the other hand,” the duke continued as he released the seijin’s arm, “you’re not in the habit of just dropping by for a casual conversation whenever you’re in the vicinity. I thought you’d returned to Siddar City?”
“To be precise, Your Grace, I don’t think I ever said I had any intention of returning to the capital,” Zhevons pointed out. “Admittedly, I didn’t expect to be back here in less than two five-days, but plans change. Unfortunately.”
“Unfortunately how?” Eastshare’s eyes narrowed.
“I think our friend Kaitswyrth is about to get a bit rowdy. And unless I’m badly mistaken, he’s thinking in terms of flanking you out of position. Did you know they’ve rechristened his command ‘the Army of Glacierheart’?”
“Ambitious of them,” the duke said dryly.
“I imagine it’s Clyntahn’s subtle hint about which direction it’s supposed to be headed, and I suspect Kaitswyrth’s taken it to heart. I think he’d really like to drive you right back into the lake, but he’s probably ready to settle for getting control of the lake and driving you back on Saithor and Tairys.”
“He is, is he?” Eastshare showed his teeth. It wasn’t a smile. “My people and I might just have a bit to say about that.”
“I don’t think he’s going to come straight at you, Your Grace.”
“And I don’t think he’ll have any choice but to come straight at us, Master Zhevons. This is an excellent position you picked for us. The woods to either side of it are far too thick for him to get formed troops through, and his cavalry’s going to be useless here. And you might want to remember that both the river—and the high road—pass right through the middle of our lines. He’s not getting around us unless he’s prepared to cut entirely new roadways far enough out from the high road that we can’t bring them under fire from here with the angle-guns. Which should keep him busy until, oh, sometime around this time next summer.”
The duke did have a point, Ahbraim Zhevons—who didn’t particularly resemble Merlin Athrawes, thanks to the reconfigurable nature of last-generation PICAs—acknowledged. The Ahstynwood Forest clogging the Glacierheart Gap consisted mostly of old-growth Safeholdian species, with very few terrestrial interlopers. Some of those trees were six or even ten feet in diameter—some of the scattering of titan oaks were better than twice that size—and God only knew how deep their roots went. Worse, the old-growth forest was penetrated by broad tributaries of second-growth scrub that interspersed dikes of much smaller, far more densely spaced trees and underbrush, and Safeholdian underbrush was even worse than the Wilderness had been back in the ancient American Civil War. Old Earth had never had wire vine, whose thorns made an excellent substitute for barbed wire, or fire vine, which was just as combustible as its name suggested and poisonous, to boot. Kaitswyrth’s Army of Glacierheart wasn’t going to be cutting any roadbeds through that anytime soon.
“I’m not saying he can’t try to work small parties of infantry around us,” Eastshare went on, stepping across to the map of his heavily fortified position hanging on the bunker wall. Major Lowayl, his senior engineer, updated that map on a daily basis, and the duke regarded it with the sort of gleaming eye a miser reserved for piles of gold bars. “But he’s not going to storm this position without paying cash for every inch of it, and I’ll stack my lads up against his in the bushes anytime. I’ve got two entire battalions of scout snipers out there just waiting for his patrols. If his scouts want to stick their heads into that hornets’ nest, they won’t be taking very many reports home with them again.”
Zhevons managed not to wince, although it wasn’t easy. The Safeholdian “hornet” was over two inches long, and if its venom was less dangerous to most humans than it was to native Safeholdian lifeforms, somewhere around ten percent of the human race still experienced an extremely violent and potentially deadly allergic reaction to it. Like the terrestrial insect for which it had been named, it was capable of multiple stings … and unlike the terrestrial insect, it instinctively attacked its victims’ eyes first, which made the duke’s simile particularly appropriate, given the scout snipers’ training.
“I’m glad you approve of the position, Your Grace,” he said after a moment, “but I’m beginning to wonder if my own enthusiasm might not’ve pulled you a little too far forward. You’ve got sixty miles of river between you and the lake. Can you cover that much distance well enough to be sure he doesn’t get batteries into position to close the river against your barges?”
“I can’t be certain he won’t try it,” Eastshare conceded, “but I can guarantee he won’t enjoy what happens when he does. Colonel Celahk’s been working on a little something to keep the spider rats out of the woodwork.”
Zhevons cocked his head. Colonel Hynryk Celahk was Eastshare’s senior artillerist. A native Old Charisian—and an ex-naval officer, to boot—he had a deep and abiding love for things that went “boom.”
“Let’s just say that if they want to try to get six-pounders—or even twelve-pounders—into position against the Colonel’s preparations, they’re welcome to make the effort. Even if they force us to retreat downriver, I’m pretty sure Hynryk can convince them to keep a respectful distance from the bank while we do it.”
“I see.” Zhevons rubbed his chin for a moment, then nodded. “It sounds like I may’ve been worrying unduly.”
“No, not unduly, Master Zhevons,” Eastshare said. “We’re outnumbered better than ten-to-one. Against those kinds of numbers, there’s no such thing as a truly secure position. But I will say friend Kaitswyrth really, really won’t enjoy what it would cost him to push us out of these entrenchments. To be honest, though, I didn’t expect him to try after what Kynt did to Wyrshym—especially after how badly Brigadier Taisyn already hurt him—so your warning certainly doesn’t come amiss. And, while I’m being honest, I might as well admit that he’s got at least two months of campaigning season left. If he thinks he has a realistic chance to push us out of the Gap, he’d be a fool not to take it before the snow begins to fly. So I was probably overly optimistic about what he was likely to do. So optimistic he might actually have managed to surprise us without your visit.”
“I rather doubt that.” Zhevons smiled. “Nice of you to let me down easy, though, Your Grace.”
“You are a friend of Seijin Merlin’s,” Eastshare pointed out with an answering smile. “I’m always polite to friends of Seijin Merlin’s.”
His smile turned into something like a grin, then vanished, and he crossed his arms, contemplating the terrain map beside the diagram of his fortifications.
“Actually,” he said after a moment, “it’s possible I have been a little too overconfident. Lywys.”
“Yes, Your Grace?” the young captain responded.
“Go tell Major Lowayl I need to speak to him. I’m afraid he’ll have already turned in for the evening, so apologize for waking him.”
“At once, Your Grace.” Captain Braynair touched his chest in salute, bowed politely to Zhevons, and hurried off, and Eastshare glanced at Chalkyr.
“I think we need some hot chocolate, Slym.” He smiled slightly. “It may be a longer evening than anyone except Master Zhevons expected.”
“Aye, Your Grace. And might be you’d like a plate of san’wiches to keep it company?”
“That wouldn’t be a bad idea at all,” Eastshare approved, and the gray-haired corporal braced to a sort of abbreviated attention and withdrew.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to stay, Your Grace,” Zhevons said apologetically. “I have somewhere else I have to be, and making this detour’s put me behind schedule for getting there.”
“I understand.” Eastshare nodded. “And, again, thank you for the warning. I promise we’ll put it to good use.”
“All I could ask, Your Grace.”
Zhevons bowed and followed Chalkyr out of the duke’s workspace, but he’d left another of his microscopic listening posts behind. By the time he’d performed his customary seijin’s vanishing act into the surrounding forest—and begun reconfiguring his PICA into Merlin Athrawes while he headed for his stealthed recon skimmer—Major Lowayl had appeared in Eastshare’s doorway looking improbably spruce and awake.
“You wanted me, Your Grace?”
“Yes, I did.” Eastshare moved back to the wall map and tapped it. “What would you say if I told you I had word Kaitswyrth is planning a frontal attack—with some flanking efforts thrown in for good measure—to force us to retreat?”
“I’d say he needs a good Bédardist to restore him to his senses, Your Grace,” the youthful major—he was better than twelve years younger than Eastshare—replied with a smile.
“The sort of confident attitude a general likes to see,” Eastshare approved. “But a prudent general tries to think about even unlikely things. So, I’m thinking that there are a couple of ways I’d like to tweak our main position. And I want you to pick one of your best engineers and send him back with a suitable workforce—get on the semaphore and talk to Archbishop Zhasyn; if he could scare up a few thousand of these Glacierheart miners and tell them to bring their picks and shovels it couldn’t hurt—to Ice Lake. I want a fortified bridgehead where the Daivyn flows into the lake. If we do have to fall back under pressure—or even if I just decide it would be a good idea to shorten our line of communications—I want a hard defensive position covering the approaches to the lake.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Lowayl pulled out his pocket notebook and began writing.
“All right, once you’ve taken care of that, I want another fatigue party up here, on the northern end of our position. If I were Kaitswyrth and I was serious about bashing us out of the way, I’d seriously contemplate trying to get around onto the high road to assault Haidyrberg or at least get behind our right flank. And if it should happen he is thinking that way, I’d like to be in a position to discourage him. So, I’m thinking—”
Merlin Athrawes listened to the two army officers as he climbed the extended ladder into the recon skimmer, one hand checking the black dagger beard extruding itself to adorn his chin while his facial features resumed their normal configuration, and smiled.
Copyright © 2014 by David Weber