Comment by General Pentheusson to the High Masters' Commission on the War in the Magisterial Republic of Mip, speaking of the Landsteader troops who climbed Spy Hill:
"They went up recruits, I think . . ."
Outside the General's tent, the morning had turned cool, as a light rain fell. For me, wrapped in my greatcoat, it was a merciful change from the week of heat we had endured. However, for the enlisted men, it was a different matter. Many of them had lost their greatcoats in the week's fighting, and they were currently without tents, since our supply train had undergone problems in fording the Potomac. As Fairview and I paused to give new orders to our lesser officers, I could see, out of the corner of my eye, enlisted men shivering as they tried futilely to light cooking fires with damp wood. There was little for the men to cook, in any case; our supplies were now limited to ration-biscuits and canned oyster-juice.
It shouldn't have been like this. Our orders, from the Commander-in-Chief himself, had been to travel as swiftly as possible to Fort Frederick to break the siege. But our General was a slow, methodical man; he had dilly-dallied, giving the Mippites ahead of us time to prepare their defense.
After Fairview and I had given our lesser officers their orders and left them to make their preparations for the upcoming attack, I said to Fairview, "I'm beginning to think that there are advantages to the Mippite system of electing its army officers."
Fairview chuckled as he used his fingers to comb out some drops of rain from his tawny beard. I had often teased him about his determination to go against current fashion by wearing a full beard. As far as I could tell, the beard had never been any disadvantage to him in attracting admirers, either female or male.
Now he said, "At least our army permits its commissioned officers to rise in rank. You or I could get a promotion on the field this time. Shall we make a wager?"
I chuckled. Fairview and I made wagers on everything: on which of us would be promoted first, on how many of the enemy we would kill – even on how many of our own men would die in battle, though we took care not to talk about such gambling in our men's presence. None of this was meant with any seriousness. It was a game – a way to pass time during the tedium between exciting battles.
"What do you think of the General's plan?" I asked.
Fairview raised his right eyebrow in an elegant arch. "What do you think?"
"It could work."
"Perhaps. But what are we trying to accomplish?"
"To hold a hill of strategic importance. If we have field guns up there . . ."
"Yes, if we have guns," Fairview interrupted. "Do you notice how, amidst all his plans, the General didn't mention when he planned to send the big guns up to the summit?"
"Blast!" I exploded. "You should have said something to him."
Fairview shook his head as he settled his helmet's brim over his brow, in an attempt to shield himself from the rain. "He was growing obstinate, toward the end. I'll ask him later today, when he's in a better mood."
"He's never in a good mood," I responded, my own mood turning black. I'll admit that the General wasn't the worst officer we had served under – I reserved that title for the officer who had tried to forcibly separate Fairview and me, back when we both served in the Ninth Landstead's navy, in our youth. That particular officer was long dead, killed during the bloody naval battles between the Ninth Landstead and the Eighth Landstead.
Speaking of which . . .
We turned. Tice had taken shelter under a chestnut tree; his pipe glowed in the darkness of that shelter. His face was too shadow-grey for me to read his expression.
Fairview could be blunt when necessity arose. "Tice," he said, "can we count on you in this battle?"
Tice paused to draw in a breath of smoke before replying. He was a large, stocky man – not the sort of man you'd expect to be a scout, which was how he had started his army career. Before that, he had served in the navy; most Landsteaders did, at one time or another, since all of the landsteads border the Bay. We have the finest navies in the Midcoast nations. I wish I could say the same about our armies.
It was during our naval years that Fairview and I had first met Tice. Now Tice contemplated his pipe, saying, "We go back a long ways, gentlemen."
"We do," Fairview agreed quietly.
"Back in those days, you two were just a couple of harum-scarum university lads – all full of jests and wild threats, the way boys often are. It was amusing to watch your posturing." He stroked his pipe-stem carefully. "Amusing, that is, until you sunk half my battle fleet."
We said nothing. All the tension of the landstead rivalries was present at this moment – the tension that had caused foreign nations to deny that we Landsteaders would be able to hold together our military alliance. Even our landsteads' political alliance, which had lasted nearly two thousand years, was forever on the point of breaking.
Suddenly, in the darkness under the tree, Tice's craggy face broke into a smile. "Frankly, gentlemen, if I must be on a battlefield with you again, I'd far rather be on your side. You can count on me to protect your backs."
I let out the breath I hadn't known I was holding. Fairview said lightly, "And we'll do all we can to protect you and your men. However, you've ten years' more experience than we do in the army. I hope you'll be willing to give us advice, should we need it."
Tice stepped out from under the tree, tapping his ashes to the ground and grinding them underfoot with his boot. "First piece of advice: Go to bed. It's much easier to fight a battle when you've rested. Both of you have rings under your eyes."
"Are you planning to take that advice yourself?" I challenged him.
"I wish I could." His gaze drifted eastward. "I've persuaded the General to let me scout the hill this afternoon. I only wish I had time to send scouts further east."
"A recent map would help." Fairview adjusted the angle of his helmet; the rain was beginning to lighten to a drizzle. "If the General sent up an observation balloon . . ."
"I suggested as much to the General," replied Tice.
He said nothing more, so we could both guess how his suggestion had been received. We were all silent for a minute, until the silence was interrupted by a series of booms.
We turned to look east, but it was impossible to see far in the drizzle. Fairview shook his head. "The enemy certainly has its big guns there somewhere. I wish I knew where."
"At least they aren't shelling the camp presently," said Tice. "A brief respite. Gentlemen, if you will excuse me . . . "
I waited until Tice was well out of earshot before asking in a low voice, "Do you think we can trust him?"
Fairview shrugged. "Can one ever trust an Eighth Landsteader? Tice and his men have a reputation for honor. I suppose we'll see tonight whether they live up to it."
I looked sharply at Fairview. "You think the mounted infantry will lead us into an ambush?"
"Tice does seem to have taken great care to ensure that he would be in charge of the scouting." Fairview took out a cigarette, studied it, and then threw it away with a gesture of disgust. "Now I'm as bad as the war-fiends of whom the General is always complaining. The General is right about this much: we need to trust our allies in this war. If the Dozen Landsteads fall once more to quarrelling amongst one another—"
"—we'll lose this war." I sighed heavily. "The General is leading us, Tice is scouting for us, the Mippite guns are hidden somewhere. . . . I don't like the odds we're facing."
"Think of the women and children at Fort Frederick." Fairview spoke softly. Like me, he was unmarried, and knowing him, he would not have fathered any illegitimate children. But he had been raised by his grandmother after his mother died of influenza and his father died in an earlier war between the Ninth Landstead and the Sixth and Seventh Landsteads. He had a high opinion of his grandmother and of all women and children and creatures that are in need of help.
Which was probably why Doyle was with us, rather than at the bottom of the Bay, where he deserved to be.
I furrowed my brow, thinking. Fairview's estimate of women was high enough that I wondered sometimes what was preventing him from marrying. But since I lived in fear that Fairview would ask me the same question, I had never raised the topic with him. Not that there would have been anything strange about my answer. After all, friendship is a bond as strong as marriage. Our friendship was unusual only insofar as Fairview and I had not created other bonds in our life. Most of the officers in the Allied Armies were married or were sharing their beds with their soldier-servants . . .
If you were a Mippite, you'd probably be screwing up your face in disgust at this point. I've heard that Mippites are so dedicated to the principles of egalitarianism that they've recently passed a law that forbids sexual relations between men of different ranks. In the Dozen Landsteads, we all had a long laugh when we heard of that law. For us, it makes no sense to have sexual relations, except with someone of lower rank. Would you really want a wife who had veto power in your marriage? Or would you really want your bed-service given to you by a man who could dictate at what time of day you held your dinner?
But Mippites, with their endless talk of love-mates and the joys of equality, are oblivious to all this. That was one of the causes of strain between our nation and theirs: our clear superiority in understanding proper social relations.
Fairview and I were Landsteaders through and through, and I suppose that, in the ordinary way of things, we would each have taken one of our men to bed, or perhaps would have married. But circumstances had always been against us.
We had first met when we were young boys, living on the same block of Balmer, the harbor capital of the Ninth Landstead. We'd attended the same boarding school – one that discouraged its students from choosing liegemen until after their university years.
Well, after we'd attended university – together, of course – we'd been too busy with naval battles to worry about such matters. That was half a lifetime ago; the battles had continued for many seasons.
Finally the war with the Eighth Landstead had ended, and we had returned to civilian life. Fairview was appointed as the pilot on an ocean steamship; I took a position as quartermaster on the same steamer. With duties that sent us away from land for most of the year, our marital prospects appeared poor, but certainly this would have been the time for us to choose liegemen for our beds.
And perhaps we would have, if keeping track of Doyle's activities hadn't occupied all our time.
Now I said heavily, "Yes, the women and children. Fairview, the General told me a few days ago that the Landsteaders at that fort are nearly at the point where they must eat horseflesh to survive. Landsteaders are dying every day there – we must find a way to help them."
"There's no question that we must," replied Fairview. "The only question is whether the General has chosen the best way. —Yes, Davey, what is it?" He paused to speak to his apprentice-aged messenger.
"Excuse me for interrupting, sir. This just arrived for you." Davey offered him an envelope.
"Our faithful postmen." Fairview took the envelope and held it up to the strengthening sunlight as the drizzle turned to mist. "We can't break through to Fort Frederick, yet somehow the postmen can reach us with our mail. Do you suppose we could hire them to improve communications in the army? —Thank you, Davey. Have you rested yet?"
"I've tried, sir." The lad wriggled his shoulders uncomfortably. "It's hard, with those guns . . ." As he spoke, there was another boom in the distance.
"They're not shelling us," Fairview pointed out. "They're probably trying practice shots, attempting to gauge the distance to some target. Have some food, have some rest – we'll be moving out again tonight."
"We will?" Davey peered up cautiously at him. "Will you be taking me with you, sir?"
His voice sounded anxious; no doubt he had heard that I had ordered my own messenger-lad not to leave his sickbed until we moved camp again. Would that I could have issued the same orders to all the soldiers in my battalion who were ill from our week's work.
Fairview smiled at Davey. "Of course. I depend on your services. Now go have a bit of leisure – that's a good lad."
Watching Davey skip away, I said, "Hark the adoring look he gave you. He has a mash on you."
Fairview laughed as he slit the envelope open with his penknife. "Half the men in my battalion do. 'Fairview, Fair of View . . .' I've heard what they call me. —Ah, grandmama is as appropriate as always."
"She sent you another battle prayer?" I looked over his shoulder at the letter.
Fairview nodded. "'May we be prepared at all times to meet our Fates—'"
"Inappropriate, you mean," I grumbled. "Do you really think that any soldier who serves under the General can claim to be prepared?"
I gestured with my hand as Fairview pocketed the letter. As it happened, we had halted near the medical men, who were in the process of supervising the loading of their equipment onto a wagon. The doctors and their assistants would be coming with us, of course, although most of them would remain at Ammippian Springs, where the field hospital would be set up.
The Queendom of Yclau had been distinctly miserly in lending us soldiers, but the queendom had at least lent us some of its doctors – and that was a gift worth keeping, given that Yclau had the finest physicians in the Midcoast nations. These particular doctors had come from a military hospital in the far southwest of Yclau. They had brought with them an ambulance corps trained to remove wounded men from the field during battle, as well as a group of men from one of Yclau's overseas colonies, who were being trained as stretcher-bearers. The colonials would not be expected to enter the battlefield themselves; in the upcoming battle, they would be given the lesser job of carrying the wounded down the hill and delivering water up to the edge of the summit.
Except . . .
I frowned, gave a quick glance at Fairview, and found that he was frowning too. Fairview looked at me, saw the hesitant query in my eyes, and nodded. We both strode forward.
Healer Mahone was in the midst of supervising the striking of the field hospital's tent; he looked up with a faintly irritated expression as we interrupted him. "Colonels? I am rather busy—"
"Where is your ambulance corps, sir?" I waved my hand toward the remainder of the scene: Yclau doctors, Yclau assistants, and colonial stretcher-bearers and water-carriers. No Yclau ambulancemen.
Healer Mahone's expression of irritation increased. "Your General has sent my ambulancemen away – without my authorization – to serve as support for the Commander-in-Chief's other troops. He told me – after he had sent them away – that my colonial stretcher-bearers would be sufficient for the upcoming fight."
Suppressing a sigh, I said, "I'm sure they will be, sir. They've been well-trained, I'm certain."
"Mm." The doctor glanced at three of the dark-skinned colonials nearby. One of them – evidently the head of the stretcher-bearer corps – was showing the other two how to place a wounded man onto a stretcher without causing him unnecessary pain. Healer Mahone said, "Perhaps, perhaps. But you never know, with these colonials."
He didn't bother to lower his voice. The head stretcher-bearer glanced at him briefly, then turned his attention back to his men.
"Are you in need of any supplies, sir?" Fairview asked politely.
"No, no." Healer Mahone waved his hand, looking harassed. "We have sufficient medical supplies . . . and I promise you, with the help of your engineers, we will see that enough water reaches your wounded."
"Don't forget about water for the rest of us," I said in an attempt at jocularity.
"Yes, yes." The healer waved his hand again. "The distribution of the remainder of the water falls into your own province . . . but we will have whatever water is available sent up by mules."
He gestured toward the colonials. I saw the head stretcher-bearer's cheek twitch at this indirect reference to his service, but he continued to give instructions steadily to his men.
"Well, all seems ready there, at least," observed Fairview as we walked away.
"Assuming those colonials do know any civilized behavior." I paused to look toward the edge of the camp, which ended at the Magisterial Turnpike. There was little to see beyond the camp.
Two weeks before, we had attempted to attack the Mippites directly by fording the Potomac River close to Fort Frederick, at the town called Big Pool. As could have been predicted beforehand – indeed, many of us did predict it, quite loudly – the attack was a disaster. The Mippites had most of their forces entrenched in the area around Fort Frederick; the enemy simply picked off our men as we tried to cross the river.
After our retreat back into Vovimian territory, the Commander-in-Chief – who had ordered the disastrous attack upon Big Pool – had recrossed the Potomac further west, at Licking Creek, and then had split up our forces. His main body of troops, which he himself led, went off to create a diversion while our General was supposed to slip his troops quietly forward and attack the Mippites from the west.
Which might have worked if our General hadn't crept forward at an agonizingly slow pace, giving the Mippites time to entrench in new positions ahead of us.
From where we camped – at the foot of the unnamed mountain that the Commander-in-Chief had succeeded in clearing of Mippite guns – I could not see Spy Hill to the southeast of us; it was hidden by trees and by a rise of ground in front of us. Long and narrow, with a narrower summit – that was the hill we would climb tonight, if the map held any relation to reality. Tice should be able to give us a good survey of the western slope, if he was indeed on our side. As for what lay on the eastern slope . . .
Seeing my frown, Fairview said, "Still worrying?"
"Worrying about the lay of the land."
Fairview nodded. He was a steamer pilot; he knew the value of a good map. "There's a mountain to the east of where we stand now, which means it's to the northeast of Spy Hill – the General alluded briefly to that mountain, remember? I caught a glimpse of it during our attack on Big Pool. And I know its name, because one of our local guides was joking about it to me: Fairview Mountain."
My frown deepened. "How close is this mountain to Spy Hill?"
"I don't know; nor did I notice how high it was. I assumed at the time that surveys had already been done by the Commander-in-Chief's scouts." We walked a while further before Fairview said softly, "I don't think the greatest fault lies with the General, you know. The Commander-in-Chief is the one who appointed the General to his post. The Commander-in-Chief should have known that his son-in-law was too young for this assignment, and had too great a need to prove himself right, at the expense of his officers. And after the General acted too cautiously in the Battle of Big Pool . . ."
"That wasn't the Commander-in-Chief's fault."
"An officer is responsible for the actions of his men," Fairview replied primly, then grinned at me. "As we've both said on many occasions. Tice is right; we should be getting some rest. Our men have their orders now, so let's retire. We still have a few hours left before the troops need to assemble."
"Wait a bit." I looked around at the camp. Everything appeared as it had when Fairview and I had entered the General's tent. Men crouched wearily over campfires or simply slept on the ground. Thanks to the General's slowness, they'd been fighting every day now for a week and had received precious little time to sleep. Since most of the men had lost their greatcoats, they had nothing warm to lie under at night. Many of the men wore the same clothes, unwashed, that they'd worn since they crossed the Potomac a second time.
All of this I'd expected. What was missing was one man who could be guaranteed to be at the center of our camp, complaining loudly about our conditions.
"Doyle," said Fairview, having reached the same conclusion I had while I mused. "Where is he?" He pulled out his spy-glass, which he always kept close at hand, and swiftly used it to give the camp a sweeping inspection from all angles.
"Somewhere making trouble," I surmised. "Let's go find out where."
Our search eventually took us to our tent, where our two soldier-servants were sitting cross-legged on the ground, smoking as they played dice with each other. They scrambled to their feet as we arrived.
"Where is Doyle?" Fairview demanded.
Fairview's soldier-servant looked blank. "I don't know, sir. I've been in the tent, putting your belongings in order."
"Canton?" I addressed my own soldier-servant, who had a guilty look on his face.
"Sorry, sir. I didn't realize you'd assigned him work, sir. He went by a few minutes ago. He was headed toward the bushes." He pointed to the eastern edge of camp.
"The bushes?" I said blankly. Doyle was not the sort of man who bothered to hide his private parts when he made water.
Quicker than I to catch on, Fairview asked, "With whom?"
The guilt increased in Canton's expression. "Your messenger-lad, sir."
"Canton!" I shouted.
"I'm very sorry, sir." My soldier-servant indeed looked almost green with guilt. "I thought . . . since it was a member of another battalion . . . and you were with the General . . ."
I caught Fairview's look and sighed. "Canton, next time you see Doyle making trouble, either deal with it yourself or find his sergeant."
"But he's your pet." Stiles mumbled it under his breath.
Fairview gave his soldier-servant a cool look. "What was that you said, Stiles?"
Stiles took a deep breath before saying, "We were given to understand, sir, that Private Doyle was under your special protection. Was that incorrect?"
"Protection?" I roared.
Fairview put a hand on my arm. "Colonel Rook and I recruited Doyle, Stiles, but he receives no special privileges. If anyone else is under that misapprehension, please correct them. Rook, we shouldn't waste time here." He pulled me away from the scene.
"Protection!" I muttered as we headed toward the bushes. "Pet! Bloody blades, he's as sweet a pet as a sea nettle. The number of stings he has given us—"
"Shh." Fairview slowed as we reached the bushes. It was easy to tell which was the correct bush. It was rustling.
On a nod from Fairview, we both darted in. Fairview emerged holding Davey gently by the arm. I emerged clutching Doyle's back collar.
"What the bloody blades do you think you're up to, Doyle?" I shouted. "Taking a messenger – an apprentice of sixteen sun-cycles – into the bushes with you!"
Doyle looked blank for a moment, and then brightened. "I was showing him my guidebook."
I began to swear at him. Fairview, perhaps to shield the lad from my language, took Davey aside and began speaking quietly to him.
"You and your bloody guidebook!" I concluded, shaking Doyle. "The number of times on this campaign that you've used that guidebook as an excuse for ill behavior—"
"Oh, but it was important, Colonel!" As usual, Doyle managed to maintain a guileless expression. "I found in the book an ancient monument my old boat-master once told me about—"
"You cannot read!" I shouted it in his face.
Doyle gave his expression – well-perfected – of an innocent child being hurt. "It's a picture. My captain had described the monument to me. See?" Right on cue, he thrust the book at my face.
Fairview returned without his messenger-lad. "No harm done. Davey was too innocent to understand Doyle's motives. I've solemnly warned him against going into isolated places with men who promise to show him their guidebooks or etchings or whatever else they have on hand."
"My guidebook, yes!" Doyle eagerly thrust the book toward Fairview's face.
"Doyle . . ." I said in a warning voice.
"It's no good, Rook." With a grin, Fairview took the book from Doyle. "You know he's not going to leave us alone until we look at whatever he wants us to see."
Sighing, I let go of Doyle's collar and leaned over to glance at the picture. It was indeed a halftone reproduction of a photograph of one of the ancient monuments that litters the Midcoast nations. The frieze on the monument showed an ancient battle – I could tell that from the war chariots and from the armor that protected the soldiers. On the left side of the picture, a charioteer, accompanied by his assistant, was pointing a spear at a bearded man who already appeared dead, for he was lying motionless on the ground.
Between the bearded man and the spear stood a clean-shaven man, weaponless. The spear pointed in his direction; the horses reared; fearlessly, he stood his ground—
—the horses reared; I hesitated. Was Fairview dead? Was it worth my while to risk my own life for a dead man?
The spear came closer. I ran forward, placing my body between the weapon and my lover—
—I caught my breath. Looking up, my eyes met Fairview's. There was sweat on his face. I wondered what he had seen.
"There!" said Doyle cheerfully. "Wasn't that worth showing off? Don't I got the right of it?"
"Doyle." Somehow, Fairview managed to break his gaze from mine. "If Colonel Rook or I catch you showing off your guidebook to any other underaged member of this army, we will carry out our original plan to chain you up and dump you in Balmer Harbor."
As on the first occasion he spoke these words – when we had discovered Doyle, not for the first time, pilfering supplies on the steamer where we all worked – Doyle turned pale. Our threat never failed to evoke this response from him; I suspected that, like most watermen in the Dozen Landsteads, he couldn't swim and therefore had an inordinate fear of drowning.
By tomorrow, he'd have forgotten the threat, as he always did. But by tomorrow, we would be in battle. Please the Fates, that would keep him out of trouble for one day.
Fairview, seeing Doyle's temporary commitment to good behavior, handed him back his beloved guidebook. "Return to your company, Doyle," he said. "Your officers have new orders for you. Your colonel and I need to head to bed."
At these careless words by Fairview, Doyle's appearance returned to normal. He looked at Fairview, then he looked at me, and then he sniggered.
"Go!" I roared. Doyle slipped away, stealing looks back at us. As soon as he reached another soldier he knew, he grabbed the man's arm. Faintly from the distance, I heard the words, "Colonels' bed." The other soldier looked at us and burst out laughing.
Normally I would have winced. But at the moment I had a bigger worry than Doyle's filthy jokes about our supposed bedding arrangements. I was wondering what I should say to Fairview about what we'd seen.
It was not the first occasion in my life when one cycle of time had touched another. Some people go through a lifetime without ever experiencing cycle forward or cycle back, but for me such moments of awareness had been frequent. Always cycle forward, always visions of my future with Fairview. It was one of the things that had often given me strength in battle: the knowledge that I had a future with Fairview. I would see him sitting beside me, or lying on the other bed opposite me, smoking his cigarette and exchanging jokes with me. On several occasions I'd seen him lying on the ground, staring dreamily up at the sky; we had apparently been having a day out getting grubby on his gunning skiff, for his beard was dirty, his shirt torn, his face cloud-dappled under a midday sun.
Fairview said softly, "Fairview Mountain . . ."
I looked quickly at him. "You think that battle took place near here?"
Fairview started walking forward. "According to the halftone's caption, yes. The mountain was named after the bearded man whom the other soldier – a man named Crow – ran forward to save."
Crow was the ancient word for Rook. I felt a shiver cover my back. "Did the guidebook say anything more about that?"
"No. I suppose that we can do a little research when we get home. . . . Well, here we are."
We had reached the tent. I could hear our soldier-servants inside, making last-minute preparations for our sleeping arrangements. They were joking about what re-arrangements would occur once their colonels were alone together.
I had no doubt that the jokes originated from Doyle. He had spread his suspicions all over the camp. Everywhere Fairview and I went these days, we encountered jokes – mainly good-natured, because our men knew of our honor, so most of them could not believe that Doyle's insinuations were true. But the insinuations made for a good jest.
"Well," Fairview said again.
"Well," I repeated.
We looked at each other. I was wondering whether he had seen the same thing I had, and whether he had noticed that, in our past lives, we had been love-mates to each other.
"Well, I should double-check on my men," said Fairview.
"I too," I said quickly. I turned my back and began to walk away in as nonchalant a manner as I could.
Already, I was regretting my hesitation at the tent flap. If I had entered the tent immediately, all would have been well. But I had given Fairview time enough to hear the jokes and to think about our cycle back, and in doing so, I had embarrassed him. That was cruel of me. Fairview was the finest friend a man could have, and the finest battle-companion.
I dared not risk doing anything that might break our friendship.