A commentator's reflection on the events at Spy Hill:
"The unquestioning subordination of the private judgment, the self-sacrificing obedience prescribed by the military code of duty, presuppose a certain minimum of intelligent direction on the part of those in supreme command. If that is wanting the moral foundation of the code is undermined; there comes a point at which the system breaks down, when insubordination becomes excusable, perhaps even necessary."
Maybe Fairview and I should have realized, on the morning before the attack, what role Doyle was likely to play in our future. At the time, however, our minds were filled with seemingly higher matters.
They say that this is the operating principle of the Fates (in whom Fairview and I have always firmly believed, despite the fact that such guiding forces are much out of fashion these days). The Fates blindfold men to keep them from seeing what is coming next, and then the Fates mislead men's thoughts into dwelling upon matters of lesser importance.
I can hear your outcry, so I hasten to say that the matter of lesser importance which occupied my mind that afternoon was not the upcoming attack on Spy Hill. No, what clogged my thoughts that day was how to keep from strangling my commanding officer.
We sat there, the four of us: three officers from the General's brigade, while the fourth officer, Tice, had been loaned to the General by the Commander-in-Chief. We were all sitting in the General's tent, drinking his wine and smoking the cigars he had offered us when we first arrived. Nobody could accuse the General of being less than gracious toward his officers – at least, not when we were exchanging civilian civilities.
"Fort Frederick," he said that morning, pointing to a spot on the map. "That is our objective, gentlemen."
The four of us leaned forward, as though we had not already known our objective when we boarded the army train at Balmer City that would carry us west. The map was evidently out of date; the tiny dot on the map that represented Fort Frederick had been relabelled "Compassion Life Prison" in a newer hand.
Puffing at his pipe – he had declined the cigar – Tice said, "I can't imagine how the Seventh Landstead's army got itself penned into such a tight place."
"They were trying to free the prisoners there," the General replied, stating the obvious.
"But there aren't any prisoners at Fort Frederick," interjected Spearman, who, as head of the Allied Armies' Engineers, rarely spoke in these discussions, other than to ask technical questions.
"Except ours," murmured Fairview, passing me a biscuit. I dunked the hard biscuit into my tea in order to soften it to the point where I wouldn't break a tooth while biting into it. Rations were short.
"We know that now," responded the General, beginning to show his well-known exasperation with subordinates. "But the Seventh Landstead received misleading reports. Fort Frederick was still a prison until a short time before the war began; there was every reason to believe that it still held thousands of prisoners."
"In other words, the Seventh Landstead's army fell into the Mippites' trap," Tice interpreted. "Pass the biscuits, Rook – there's a good fellow."
I did so, checking carefully afterwards to see whether my hand was still attached to its wrist. Tice always wore a scabbard at his belt that held his bayonet.
Perhaps with his mind also dwelling on such matters, the General said sharply, "It is no longer the Seventh Landstead's army that is endangered, Tice. The danger lies to several thousand soldiers in the Allied Armies of the Dozen Landsteads. Our landsteads agreed to this wartime alliance because we could see that, if the Mippites succeed in destroying one landstead's army, all of us in the Dozen Landsteads are endangered."
"Granted," said Tice briefly. "The Seventh Landstead was a dunce, so we're saving its army's skin, for the sake of the common good. And then?"
"Then we go further west, to free the prisoners in western Mip." The General relaxed back in his field-chair, having made his point. "Meanwhile, the rest of the Allied Armies will attack Mip from the east and free the prisoners there." He pointed to a separate map showing the Mippite capital, where a dot was labelled "Mercy Life Prison." "The Seventh Landstead's objective was a good one, even if their army acted overly hastily."
Fairview and I exchanged looks, wondering whether we had ever been so young and naive as our General. True, the Mippites had foully abused their convicts over the decades – including, in recent months, a Seventh Landsteader who died from a vicious beating at the hands of his guards.
But given how little the individual landsteads cared about each other's welfare, would they have gathered together to wage war against another nation if they had not envisioned a higher goal?
Not defense. Gold. The Magisterial Republic of Mip had become the economic engine room of the Midcoast nations. Whoever controlled Mip, controlled Mip's treasuries.
Even so . . .
"Men are dying in Fort Frederick," Fairview pointed out, tapping his cigar over the General's silver ashtray. "However foolish the Seventh may have been in allowing its army to be trapped in Fort Frederick, the Seventh's soldiers are Landsteaders. They don't deserve to die of hunger and thirst, killed by foreigners."
There was a grudging acknowledgment of this from the rest of us, in the form of gruff grunts. Leaning forward, Spearman rested his chin on his fists, asking, "How bad is the situation at Compassion Prison, I mean Fort Frederick, sir?"
"Very bad," replied the General with a sigh. "They have no wells there – they depend on rainwater, and this month has been exceedingly dry. The reports they've managed to heliograph out tell of soldiers dying in the dozens from thirst, hunger, disease. Civilians too – a few Landstead nationals who live in this area took refuge with them. There are women and children in the fort."
This news roused all of us. "We must rescue them!" declared Fairview, thumping his fist on the table that held the maps.
"But how?" asked Spearman, always concerned with the practical details.
The General, pedantic as usual, pointed to the map again. "Fort Frederick. Originally built as a military fort, here in western Mip during the early years of Vovimian settlement in this area, as protection against raids from the settlers from the First Landstead who were making their homes in what eventually became eastern Mip. When the First Landstead broke from the other landsteads and renamed itself as the Queendom of Yclau, the fort became a military prison during the Thousand Years' War between Yclau and Vovim, in their dispute over who would control the land of Mip. When the Magisterial Republic of Mip won its independence from both nations, the military prison was converted into a civilian facility for life prisoners. It was recently abandoned and is being used as a fort again, by our besieged countrymen." The General leaned back in his seat at the end of this tedious recital of facts we all knew.
Fairview, ever polite, tried to make some use of the recital. "How strong are the fort's defenses, sir?"
"Strong enough to have kept the Seventh Landstead's soldiers protected during these months of the siege. Unfortunately, the fort is easier to protect than to break out of. It is on a hill, of course, but the area surrounding the hill is now controlled by the Mippite forces. There is a mountain range directly to the east—" The General pointed to the right of the fort, where the map abruptly turned blank. "The Commander-in-Chief has judged that it would be difficult to attack from that direction. We've already tried an attack from the south, as you know. That leaves the west."
Tice was frowning as he leaned over the map. "I see that the mapmaker has marked Compassion Prison with its most recent name, Fort Frederick. I take it that means this is a recent map?"
Spearman had a sudden coughing fit. Fairview and I bit down smiles. The style of the lettering made clear that the map was very old indeed, as Tice must have known when he asked his question.
"Ah . . . no." The General twiddled his cigar, keeping his gaze turned away from Tice. "I believe that this is a reproduction of an ancient map made by a Landsteader surveyor who accompanied the Vovimian explorers on their early expeditions to these parts."
"That would be why the map shows nothing east of Fort Frederick?" Picking up his glass of sherry, Fairview kept his expression carefully neutral.
"Yes," replied the General, clearly missing the import of the question. "But to return to what I was saying before: We are attacking the Mippite besiegers from the west. Unfortunately, as you know, our big guns are not well placed at the moment."
There was a collective sigh from all of us as we stared gloomily at the map. The General had hit upon a matter that we could all agree upon.
One would think that a nation which had treaties with all of its neighbors would be in a position of safety. True, the Dozen Landsteads was now at war with one of those neighbors – the Magisterial Republic of Mip – but our treaties with the Queendom of Yclau and the Kingdom of Vovim, which required them to lend us military aid if we were attacked, should have held true.
The trouble was that Yclau and Vovim both had similar treaties with Mip. Moreover, there was some dispute by foreigners as to which nation was the aggressor in this conflict: Mip or the Dozen Landsteads.
The result was that Yclau and Vovim had refused to lend us either troops or arms. Since the Dozen Landsteads owned the Balmer & Vovim railroad, we had been able to send troops by train through Yclau and Vovim territory, disembarking our soldiers immediately south of the Potomac River, which forms the border between southern Vovim and western Mip. When it became clear that an attack at Fort Frederick from the south would not work, we had politely requested permission from the government of Vovim to place our artillery on the Vovimian mountains directly south of Fort Frederick.
Our request was sent to the King and his Parliament. Parliament debated the matter. The King met with his advisors. We drummed our fingers while the Mippites, awaiting our second attack, began to entrench.
Have you heard of entrenchment? It's a military technique invented by the Vovimians, though used only on a small scale by them. The Mippites, on the other hand, have brought the art of entrenchment to perfection – which gives the lie to the common notion that they are a peaceful people with no standing army and little experience in firearms. In actual fact, every Mippite is trained as a soldier from boyhood onwards. Mip's civilian army is a formidable force.
At any rate, we eventually received an answer back from the Vovimians. They would allow us to plant our big guns on their land . . . not across from Fort Frederick, but five miles further west along the Potomac, at a mountain across from the mouth to Mip's Licking Creek.
Our gunners are skilled, but not so skilled that they can fire a gun and have its shells land five miles away, on encampments that they cannot see because of all the intervening hills. We sourly accepted Vovim's offer, though, since we knew we would receive no better.
"I have good news," said the General. All of us perked up. We could use good news, after a week like the last one. "You see this mountain that's to the northwest of Fort Frederick?" The General pointed at the map, and we all leaned forward to look, even though we all knew what mountain he meant. As of the previous night, we were camped at the southern foot of that unnamed mountain. "The Commander-in-Chief has just sent word that he has succeeded in clearing this mountain of all the Mippite forces. The Mippites have withdrawn their big guns from the mountain."
"Thank the Fates," murmured Fairview. The rest of us shared his sentiment. Those guns had ground our troops to grains of sand, ever since we crossed the Potomac for the second time. In theory, our own guns should have been able to put theirs out of commission, since our guns were within range of that mountain. In fact, the Mippite gunners continued to shell us, no matter how hard we attacked their guns.
"Now that we control that mountain, we will be able to bring our big guns onto its slopes," the General said, pointing out the obvious again. "The Mippite gunners have withdrawn somewhere east." He waved in a vague manner at the blank portion of the map.
"Then we have a clear road to Fort Frederick?" Being an engineer, Spearman was not always entirely clear as to army maneuvers. Which was just as well; Spearman's naive questions put the General in a good mood, since the General could actually answer such questions.
"Alas, no," said the General. "We still have the forces surrounding Fort Frederick to contend with."
"Exactly where does their line of defense begin, sir?" asked Fairview, leaning over further to stare at the blank spot on the map. As he did so, his face came into full illumination from the lamp. It was a young face for a man of middle age; Fairview seemed immune to the wrinkles and sunspots that plagued the rest of us. His movements were graceful, though that might have been due to his years as a waterman, balancing himself on tilting boats.
On the other hand, I'd spent most of my life as a waterman too, and I was still waiting for that moment when grace and fair looks would descend upon me.
"The Mippites who retreated are somewhere beyond Ammippian Springs." The General pointed at a tiny town on the map that marked the crossroads between Big Pool Road and the east-west highway of the Magisterial Turnpike, which ran all the way from the ocean bordering the Dozen Landsteads to the inner nations of the continent. That makes it sound impressive; in fact, this portion of the turnpike was a dirt road.
"Do we control Ammippian Springs, sir?" asked Tice. He had leaned back in his chair after a quick look at the map, having undoubtedly memorized it from the first moment he saw it.
"We do, as of last night," the General replied with satisfaction. "There were some Mippite soldiers there, but we chased them off. The local residents fled with the Mippite army. Unfortunately, we don't control the turnpike beyond that point. There's some sort of mountain here—" He gave a vague wave of the hand toward the portion of the map that was east of our own unnamed mountain. "They may have fled there. Or perhaps they have joined their comrades in the encampments surrounding the fort. We don't know."
This was tedious; at this rate, the General would spend a week showing us the map and telling us what he didn't know. I decided to replace his rowboat slowness with the swiftness of a skipjack. I pointed to the map, saying, "What about this ridge that's to the southeast of our camp, sir?"
"Stone Quarry Ridge," Spearman read aloud from the map.
"That is the ancient name for it," the General said. "However, it is better known as Spy Hill."
Tice's gaze, which had been centered on his pipe, flicked over to the General. "Spy?"
"Spy Hill, Lookout Hill . . ." The General shrugged. "The name varies, depending on how you translate the Vovimian words. The hill received its name from the fact that, when the early Vovimian explorers reached this far, they climbed the ridge and saw the mountains that led into what is now eastern Mip."
"They saw the Dozen Landsteads' territory, in fact." Fairview frowned as he stared at the map. He was no doubt thinking, as many of us had thought since the beginning of this war, that if we could regain control of the territory that had been ceded by Yclau – but which had once been part of the Dozen Landsteads – then our territory would be large enough to make our nation a true rival to Yclau and Vovim.
The creases in the General's forehead deepened as the General glared at Fairview. Generals are not supposed to glare at officers who point out nothing more than simple facts that schoolboys could recite, but this was General Pentheusson, and we were used to his refusal to accept the necessity of this war. Now he said, as he had so often said, "The goal of this war is to release the trapped Landsteaders and free the abused prisoners, Colonel Fairview. Nothing more. The Magisterial Republic of Mip has been a sovereign nation for longer than you have been alive, and our presence here is not intended to change that. Frankly," he added, setting aside his cigar, "I would far rather that our dispute with Mip was settled by diplomats, in a peaceful manner. We must hope that our diplomatic office continues its hard work."
I managed to refrain from rolling my eyes. Every bloody time we had a council of war, it ended like this: with the General preaching that we shouldn't go to war. The Fates know that I wasn't one of those war-fiends whom the General railed against; I wasn't seeking excuses to go to war in order to annex Mip. But a Landsteader had been cruelly killed by the Mippites, his fellow Landsteaders had naturally sought to release any other Landsteaders who were imprisoned by the Mippites, and matters had developed from there. We were at war; we might as well accept it and continue with our job.
"Spy Hill," Fairview reminded the General gently. "Do we control it yet?"
"Not yet," said the General. At his tone, we all stiffened and looked at one another.
Tice cleared his throat. "That is our immediate objective?"
"That is our objective tonight, gentlemen. Look here." The General pointed to the map again. "Spy Hill is located between this mountain we control and Fort Frederick, which is to our southeast. The hill is a ridge that runs from the southwest to the northeast. On the eastern side of the hill are the Mippites. We are camped to the west. Now, there are only two ways around that hill: to the north or to the south. We dare not take the northern route: though we control Ammippian Springs, which is located near the northern tip of Spy Hill, it's likely that the Mippites are awaiting us just down the Magisterial Turnpike, at the foot of this mountain to the northeast of Spy Hill—" He waved his hand again at the blank part of the map. "And at the southern tip of Spy Hill is Big Pool. We have already seen how heavily defended that town is."
"So we must go over Spy Hill," Tice concluded.
"We must go atop it, and we must seize it," the General concluded. "We don't know how many Mippite soldiers are encamped there, but however many they are, we must drive them off. Once we gain control of that hill, we will have the strategic advantage, since we will be overlooking the Mippite encampments surrounding Fort Frederick." Satisfied, the General permitted himself a small smile.
"What about the Mippite guns?"
The General's smile faded. "I don't understand your question, Colonel Rook."
"You said that the Mippites had withdrawn their big guns, sir," I reminded him, with perhaps not as much patience as Fairview would have shown if he had voiced the obvious. "Where have they withdrawn the guns? Will their artillery be within range of Spy Hill?"
"No doubt we will learn that, once we are atop the hill."
Spearman uttered something that sounded like a suppressed groan. Fairview rubbed his eyelids. Tice tamped down the tobacco in his pipe with vigorous motions. I tried again, pointing to the map. "What about this knoll that's located next to Ammippian Springs, just north of Spy Hill? Do we control it? Has it been cleared of Mippites? It's within firing range of Spy Hill."
There was a warning note to the General's tone which I chose to ignore. "We don't even know what the terrain is like past Spy Hill. Don't you see, sir, we could be walking into a death trap!"
The General was now wearing his lock-him-up-for-three-weeks-with-bread-and-water expression. Before he could speak, though, Fairview quickly intervened. "What do you wish the attacking party to do, once it has seized the hill, sir?"
This simple question seemed to catch the General off-guard. He looked as blank as the right-hand side of the map for a moment, and then his expression cleared. "It has got to stay there."
We waited. The General said nothing further.
Tice uncurled from his position of lounging. He said in a mild voice, "No doubt the General is planning to place some of our big guns on the summit of Spy Hill, so that we can defend ourselves against the Mippite guns."
For a moment more, the General looked blank; then he nodded slowly. "Yes. Yes, I will be discussing that with the Commander-in-Chief when we speak next. Any other questions? Major Spearman, you haven't spoken yet."
I closed my mouth, which I had opened for another protest. Looking apologetic, as he always did whenever he questioned the General's plans, Spearman said, "Stone Quarry Ridge."
"Yes?" The General surreptitiously eyed the rest of us, to see whether we understood the remark, but for once, we were as much at a loss as he was.
"Stones, sir," Spearman explained. "If the hill was once used as a quarry, it must be stony. How stony? You'll be wanting trenches, no doubt."
"Trenches, yes." The General relaxed again, finishing off the last of his sherry. "And defense shelters as well. Stones will provide material for shelters, will they not?"
"That depends on the size of the stones, sir," replied Spearman. "And stones might make the digging a bit difficult."
"Well, we'll deal with that when we get there. Gentlemen," the General added as he rose to his feet. "I appreciate your concerns, but until we actually stand on that hill, I cannot answer questions about fiddling details. Our first job is to reach the summit. Await your orders, please." He spoke firmly, no doubt having seen me open my mouth again.
Sighing, I gave up and rose to my feet, in order to position myself at attention. Most officers in the modern world pass on their orders in written form, but the General preferred the old-fashioned method of issuing his orders by speech. I privately suspected this was because it made it easier for him to deny afterwards that he'd issued disastrous orders.
"Now, then," he said as he watched the four of us line up as best we could in the confined space of his tent. "I have discussed my plans with the Commander-in-Chief, and he has agreed to all of them, so these orders come, not from me, but from the Commander-in-Chief. I will now read aloud the orders he has issued."
I saw Fairview arch his right eyebrow. This was new. At least there was some hope that, if events went wrong at Spy Hill, Fairview and I wouldn't be blamed; we could refer back to the written orders that the Commander-in-Chief had issued.
Standing slightly stooped, so that he could read the orders in the wavering lamplight, the General read aloud, "'The Commander-in-Chief has decided to seize Spy Hill. The operation will be conducted by Major-General R. Talbert Pentheusson, who will detail two battalions of his own brigade: the 1st and 2nd Ninth Fusiliers, headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Fairview and Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Roman Rook. To these will be attached about one hundred men of Lieutenant-Colonel Tice's Mounted Infantry and a half company of the Allied Engineers. Rendezvous just east of the encampment at 9 p.m. Men must be kept concealed from the locals. One hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition and one day's complete ration will be carried by the men. All horses to be left at the Allied Engineer bivouac—' You'll have to walk, Tice."
It was a moment before any of us realized that this was the General's attempt at a joke. Then Tice twisted his mouth slightly. "Yes, sir. No doubt I and my men will manage the march without our horses."
Looking peeved that his witticism had not been properly appreciated, the General went on: "'Men will carry entrenching tools in stretchers. Men will of course carry filled water-bottles, and should be cautioned that a refill may be difficult. The Commander-in-Chief will arrange that the ambulance corps and stretcher-bearer corps send detachments. No ambulance to be nearer than the Allied Engineer bivouac till daylight. Signed, Enoch Lombard, Commander-in-Chief of the Dozen Landsteads' Allied Army.' That is all, gentlemen. You are dismissed."
I opened my mouth, but the General had already turned away. Quicker-witted than me – or perhaps simply more sly – Tice said, "I should like to try one of those cigars of yours after all, General, if I might. The aroma from them is quite tantalizing."
"Certainly, Tice." The General's voice turned warm. "Gentlemen, I believe you know your way out? Tice, have a look at where these came from. The Second Landstead produces some of the finest cigars in the world. It's a shame that its tobacco production is forever being interrupted by the warfare between the Second and Third Landsteads. . . ."
The General was no longer paying attention to the rest of us. His soldier-servant, standing at alert outside, had opened the tent flap so that we could exit; Spearman was already ducking under the flap. I exchanged looks with Fairview, but he shook his head slowly. Sighing yet again, I followed Fairview out of the tent. Behind us, Tice was beginning to speak to the General in a low voice.