Words spoken by the field-cornet of the Mippite forces at Spy Hill, to General Starke:
"Let us struggle and die together. But, brother, let us not give way an inch more to the Landsteaders."
The words whispered by Tice rippled through the ranks like a ripple across the Bay, each soldier passing on the order to the man beside him. All around me, men pulled their bayonets from scabbards and attached the blades to the ends of their rifles.
Fairview and I did the same. We had advised the General that, with his scouting experience, Tice should be in charge of the initial attack on the Mippite soldiers. As promised, Tice had visited Spy Hill that afternoon, and he had used the final hours of daylight to sketch a map of the prominent features of the western hillside. This he had used to accurately guide us to this point, at the western edge of the summit. Tice's scouts, who had crept up the hill while their officer was making the sketch, reported that there were only a few dozen Mippite soldiers at the summit.
A small group of soldiers is just as capable of killing a man as a large one. I had my usual feeling in the moments before battle, of being on the point of whirling into the never-ending cycle of death, transformation, and rebirth. All around me in the darkness, I could hear whispered prayers, and I could guess that many of our soldiers were using their thumbs to trace circles of rebirth onto their own foreheads.
I wondered whether the Mippite soldiers were doing this as well, as they kept their lonely watch. Many of them shared our faith.
Imagination is a disadvantage to a soldier. I was still musing upon the Mippite soldiers' fear when a shout came from ahead, in the Mippite tongue: "Who's there?" As a result, I might well have been caught off-guard; but Fairview, having brought his line close to mine during this final stretch of the march, pulled me to the ground. Beside me and behind me, I heard the thump of several hundred soldiers dropping to their stomachs, in accordance with Tice's prior instructions.
A split second later came the crackle of the Mippites' rifles and pistols, like fire spreading across sun-dried grass. Bullets whizzed over our heads. We waited until the clicking of the bolts told us that the Mippites had emptied their rifles and pistols. Then—
"The Bay!" cried the General, and we surged forward.
The taking of the summit was quick and relatively bloodless; the Mippites, faced with the sight of over a thousand enemy soldiers, wisely fled.
"Three of my men are wounded," reported Tice afterwards as Doyle lit a shuttered lantern for us. "Also, one of theirs is dead. I think we chased all the rest away."
I nodded. Nearby, at the instruction of the General, our men were giving three cheers – the easiest way to alert the Landsteader soldiers who had remained at the foot of Spy Hill that we had won the summit.
"Sir," said Tice, saluting as the General approached, "would you like me to send my scouts forward to check the remaining lay of the summit?"
The General shook his head. He was smiling broadly for once, waving his cap against his face as though to disperse the light drizzle that had soaked us to the skin. "Time enough for that, once the mist lifts. I think one of the Mippites escaped further along the summit; I don't want your scouts, blinded by the mist, to run into Mippite rifles."
"Sir, with respect, it would help to know—"
In retrospect, I should have cut to the quick and said, "We can't be sure we've won the summit until we see where the summit lies." Instead, my attempts to contradict the General with circumspection worked against me; the General took on that familiar look of obduracy. He snapped, "That's enough talk. I've made my decision, Colonel Rook. Major Spearman—" He turned to address the engineer, who was silently listening to this conversation. "Have your men start the entrenchment."
"Yes, sir," Spearman replied patiently; I could hear his sappers already at work nearby, digging trenches along the lines he had immediately laid out, once we won the summit. "May I ask, sir, where the sandbags are?"
"Sandbags?" The General looked blank.
"We passed a pile of them on the way out of our camp," Tice reminded him.
"You told me, sir, that each of the men on this march was to carry a sandbag, but I don't see any evidence of the sandbags." Spearman fingered the chain of his wedding pocket-watch, that tiny movement being the only sign of the extent of his concern.
"I—" The General choked on the next word. It was undoubtedly "forgot." But he regained his composure quickly and said with firmness, "I decided they weren't necessary."
"Yes, sir?" Spearman kept his voice mild. "Well, we'll make do with what materials we have. I'm afraid that most of the rocks here are too big to be moved, but they're also too small to form shelter. We'll just have to dig deep enough to form an adequate protection."
I glanced over at one of the sappers. He had dug only a few inches, but already he was cursing at the rock below the surface.
Doyle, who had never learned to keep quiet during officers' conferences, said, "There's a right big stand of rocks over here for your own shelter, General."
"Facing which way?" I asked quickly.
Doyle grinned. "Best ways of all: northeast. You want to come see it, General?"
"Yes, show it to me," said the General with vague approval.
I looked over at Fairview, who had just joined us. He shook his head gravely. Even Doyle had grasped the dangers that might come from the unexplored north and east. Why couldn't the General grasp this?
"Hmph," said Spearman, providing an inarticulate commentary on the conversation. "I'd best get back to work."
I looked around. In the small area that was lit by the lamp, I could see my men, resting now that the summit was won. They'd have been better put to use in digging the trenches, but there were no sandbags and no shovels or picks except the ones that had been carried by the sappers, and my men's entrenching tools were inadequate for digging in this hard ground – I'd tested the tools myself, in the minutes following our attack. Besides, most of the enlisted men were too bone-weary to move.
"Ain't no way to run a war," said Fairview in my ear, imitating Doyle. I laughed and went off to consult with Spearman over whether any fresh water could be found on this hill.