Written dispatch to the Commander-in-Chief at 6 AM, from the officer commanding the Allied forces at Spy Hill:
"We got up about four o'clock, and rushed the position with three men wounded. There were some Mippites, who seemed surprised, and bolted firing a round or so, having one man killed. I believe there is another somewhere, but have not found him in the mist. The latter did us well, and I pushed on a bit quicker than I perhaps should otherwise have done, lest it should lift before we got here. We have entrenched a position, and are, I hope, secure; but the fog is too thick to see, so I retain the engineers for a bit longer. My men attacked in fine style. I had a noise made later to let you know that we had got in.
"R. Talbert Pentheusson."
"Way I figure it," said Doyle, pausing to lean on his shovel, "the officers have all forgotten 'bout the cycle."
It was dawn; the air around us was milk-white with mist. Most of the soldiers, having spent the remaining night resting from our climb, were lingering over their morning rations. After consulting with Spearman, I'd sent a few of my own men to take over the trench-digging duties of the sappers, who were exhausted after their own night's work. The sappers were taking their morning meal now, while my men grumbled about being deprived of their breakfast.
The director of their grumbles was clear enough.
"Now, we was all officers once," said Doyle, continuing to idle at his task. "All of us. Stands to reason. They tell us in chapel: we all rise up, and we all go low down, just like boats bobbing in the Bay. And when we're up, we done got to remember that we'll be down one day. But these officers, they're forgetting. They're thinking, 'We have blue uniforms, so we'll always be the best.' But they won't. They'll die, and they'll become us."
The other men nodded; they'd all stopped work now to listen to Doyle. "Honey boy, you got the right of it," said Lexington, one of my best privates, who had been one of my best watermen in past years. "Ain't nobody knows what they'll be in the future. Ain't nobody knows what they've been in the past—"
"'Less they seen it," added Fulton, wiping his forehead with a dirty handkerchief. "Cycle forward and cycle back."
"I'm telling you." Doyle nodded vigorously. "Them officers, they ought to be plain feared, knowing they'll be enlisted men in some future life. Even if they don't see cycle forward or cycle back, they got their faith, right? They know that the cycle of rebirth will bring them low some day."
There was a murmur of agreement all around as several men laid down their shovels. I surmised that it was time I took official notice of the strike. Stepping forward, I said, "I couldn't agree with you more, Doyle."
"Hey?" He twisted around, looking confused.
"We all go down, and we all go up," I said. "And the determinant of whether we go up is whether we do our duty." I turned my scrutiny on the other men, who looked abashed. Lexington quickly picked up the shovel he'd laid aside. He was a good man, though easily led into trouble by other soldiers, for he was an orphan; he considered the men in my battalion his only family.
Doyle merely shrugged. "But what if the officers ain't doing their duty to care for us? Why should we follow their orders then?"
There was a pause again as the trench-digging party awaited my answer. I could see that some of my other men were listening in.
"Why," I said, "if we're given an order by an officer who fails to do his duty, we just keep doing our own duty, which is to obey orders. Then, in the next life, when we're above that officer, we can order him to dig trenches."
Doyle scowled. The other men laughed. Fulton shyly offered me a drink from his water bottle. I waved away his offer with a smile. I didn't want to tell him that I was worried about the water arrangements. There was no spring on the summit; Spearman had sent several of his engineers to the western foot of the hill to ascertain whether any water could be found there.
Still scowling, Doyle finished the trenchwork assigned to him, threw down his shovel, and stalked off to a nearby bush. A moment later, when I glanced back at the bush, it was shaking.
I looked quickly around, but Davey was watching the signalmen as they set up their station near the western crest, my messenger-lad was safely tucked into his cot at the camp, the General's messenger-lad rarely strayed from his side, and Tice had no messenger-lad, for Eighth Landstead soldier-servants did double duty as couriers.
To my thinking, all of the other soldiers here were welcome to let Doyle show him his "guidebook," if they wanted. But the men digging the trenches showed no inclination to follow Doyle into his hideaway. They were whispering amongst themselves; finally Fulton got up the courage to be their spokesman.
"Sir," he said, "may I ask you a question?"
"Certainly," I replied, bracing myself for whatever demands Doyle had convinced them they should make.
"Why don't they just give up, sir?"
"They?" I raised my eyebrows in a not-very-credible imitation of Fairview.
"The Mippites, sir. See, we got thousands of soldiers—"
"Twenty thousand," contributed Lexington, who was always ready with exact numbers, having tallied many an oyster barrel in his day.
"And the Mippites got—" Fulton looked to Lexington.
"Two thousand men," said Lexington promptly. "And we've got fifty big guns, while they've got seven. We've had some bad luck so far," he said, phrasing the General's bungling politely. "But we're sure to win this battle today. Stands to reason, as Doyle would say. So why don't the Mippites just give up?"
All around him, my men were nodding. I paused as I tried to think of a way to answer my men's question without revealing my own fears. From where I stood, facing south, I could see, out of the corner of my eye, a gold disk swimming in the mist: the sun, beginning to rise above the horizon.
"Well, Fulton," I finally replied, "do you know who is leading the Mippite forces here?"
Fulton shoveled out another scoop of dirt before coming up with the answer. "General Starke, ain't it, sir?"
"And who is General Starke? —Anyone?" I looked around at the other men.
As I might have expected, Biddle was the one to reply. He had married above himself, with the result that his wife and children were much better educated than he was. A modest man, he took great pride in the accomplishments of his wife and children. His wife had taught him to read and write, so he was usually better informed than the other men, who depended on their officers to supply them with information on political matters. Fiddling with the chain of his engraved wedding pocket-watch now, he said, "General Starke . . . would that be Duke Starke, sir?"
"Prescott Starke, Duke of Howard," I agreed. "General Starke's estate is in eastern Mip, but he has blood ties with the aristocrats in this area – all of the Mippite aristocrats are related to each other, if you trace their lines far enough back. Not only that, but Lord Starke's cousin is a magisterial seat – what we would call a High Master," I added, seeing the men's blank looks. "All of this territory we've been travelling through is like a landstead, with its own High Master and its own lesser masters – elected officials, since the Mippites abolished hereditary titles at the time they founded their republic, but the old aristocrats still hold loyalty. All of the Mippites we're facing in battle today have ties of faithfulness to General Starke or to his relations. General Starke's nephews both lead commandos, while his younger brother—"
"So the Mippites think we're trespassing," interrupted Fulton. Fulton was earnest, eager to please, and forever breaking military protocol. He would apologize with great sincerity afterwards for his error, and then make another mistake the next day. My men loved him, as they would have loved a youngest brother; he was the favorite of my battalion.
I remained silent a moment, to alert Fulton to the fact that he should not interrupt his colonel. He dipped his eyes and murmured an apology. The other men drilled their gazes into me, daring me to punish him.
But I was fond of Fulton also, in a distant sort of way, so I said, "Exactly so, private. From the Mippites' point of view, we have invaded their home – worse, we and our armies in the east have invaded their dukes' homes. Hence their eagerness to escort us back over the river."
The men chuckled. Judging that they were now in a good enough mood to finish their work without delay, I said, "So let's make sure we're well entrenched. Hurry now to finish. And remember – we all get our opportunity to rise to higher ranks. Let's be as faithful to our officers as the Mippites are to theirs. Obedience to orders is the way to win this war."
"A proper speech to give one's men," murmured a voice in my ear as my men turned their attention back to their work. "But is it the truth?"
I looked over at Fairview. He was covered with dirt from inspecting the central, main trench. I glanced at the right flank's trench – my own trench, which was to the right of Fairview's main trench. My trench was no deeper than Fairview's – just a light scratching in the ground, shielded by a few rocks.
"How many prayers do you know?" I replied.
He laughed, wiping his hands clean on the cloth that his soldier-servant had just handed him. "By this time in life? A thousand prayers for safety in battle. How are matters going here?"
"We're almost finished." I waved my hand toward where my men were industriously completing the right flank's trench, other than Doyle, who had returned from the bush to harangue the other enlisted men for following the orders of officers who didn't care about them. I glanced around, but Doyle's sergeant had walked over to the dressing station to check on arrangements there for the care of the wounded. I noticed, with a wince, that the General had ordered the dressing station placed to the north.
Fairview noticed the wince and said in a low voice, "It may be all right. We may be imagining the worst."
"Better that, than ignoring the possibility of the worst. —All right, Canton," I said to my own soldier-servant. "You can have your breakfast now. Just send word first to the General that we're nearly finished here. —Where is Tice?" I asked Fairview.
Fairview pointed his thumb. "Gone to beg the General again to let him send out scouts."
I looked toward the General's rock. Tice was talking animatedly; the General looked stone-faced.
I sighed and turned away. "Everything's ready where you are?"
"Everything's fine," replied Fairview; then, seeing my men nudge each other knowingly, he sighed too. "Come see," he suggested.
I don't know how it is in other nations' armies. I've heard that the Mippites, all egalitarians at heart, would hardly blink if a private chewed out his colonel, or if a lesser-ranked colonel failed to address a higher-ranked colonel as "sir."
Matters work differently in the armies of the Dozen Landsteads. True, we no longer have tens of thousands of different words for soldiers' ranks, each word invented especially for one man. I was no longer "Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Roman Rook, Ranked Just Below Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Fairview." We'd given up such complex titles, because they confused foreigners.
But within the Dozen Landsteads, such ranks still exist. When I first joined the Ninth Landstead's military forces after university, I was tattooed with a number that represented my rank in the Ninth Landstead's military: the thirteenth minute of the sixth hour of the first day of the seventh month of the sun-cycle of the year in which I joined. Fairview's tattoo showed that he was two minutes higher-ranked than I was. We had flipped a coin to decide which of us stood before the other in the recruitment queue.
When the decision was made for a war alliance with the other landsteads, there had been a tedious process of cross-checking rank records with the other landsteads to determine that nobody held the exact same rank. Nobody did; the recruiting offices of the various landstead military forces deliberately stagger their schedules to prevent anyone from joining the military at the exact same moment that anyone else does. As a result, I was still ranked directly below Fairview; no other officer in the Allied Armies was ranked between us.
Not that any of this had ever made any difference to Fairview and me. We made our decisions the way we always had: jointly. Sometimes, in the darkness of night, I had wondered what would happen if one of us was promoted in the field. But in the daytime, I had a bigger problem to worry about: Doyle.
Thanks to Doyle's insinuations, everyone in our brigade joked that Fairview and I made our decisions jointly because we were love-mates. Thankfully, the General, unlike other officers we'd suffered under, had not objected to our companionable manner of working. These days, our problems arose from the reactions of our men. Disconcerted by our unconventional manner of sharing responsibilities, but unwilling, through their loyalty, to rebel in any overt form, Fairview's men and mine turned their bewilderment into satire. Everywhere Fairview and I went these days, there were winks and sniggers and stares. The only thing worse would have been if we had presented the men with actual proof that Fairview and I did more than share a tent in a chaste manner.
I wondered sometimes – on those same dark nights – whether affairs might have gone differently between Fairview and me if we hadn't made the mistake of adopting Doyle as our pet troublemaker. Certainly our friendship had satisfied us to the full in the past. Any man who thinks that friendship is not true love has never possessed a true friend.
But men spin in the cycle of transformation and rebirth. Nothing stays still; all changes. The scientists in the First Landstead are proving this to be true, with their talk of evolution.
If Doyle had not been there, turning the love between Fairview and me into a source of filthy jokes, what evolutions might have occurred in our lives? Where would we be now, if we had been spared Doyle's presence?
As I walked across the summit with Fairview, I turned my attention back to the trenches. Though the trenches were exceedingly shallow, Spearman had laid them out properly, with one long main trench and two shorter trenches jutting back diagonally from the main trench, like the wings of a barn swallow in flight.
We'd had some discussions about those trenches. Tice was considerably senior to Fairview and me in army years, and so, by right of rank, Tice ought to have received the honor of holding the main trench. That was what the General had planned.
But Tice had demurred when the time came to position our men, saying that the greater privilege lay in holding the left flank's trench to the northeast, since this was the direction from which an attack was most likely to come. Fairview and I were skeptical about Tice's motives. Now, as my officers paced up and down amongst the enlisted men, I tried to figure out how Tice's position would be an advantage to him, if he chose to betray us Ninth Landsteaders to the Mippites.
But it was true enough that Fairview's men were better suited for the main trench. In conformity with last-minute orders from the General, Fairview had brought six companies of his battalion with him, while I had brought only two, and Tice was accompanied by a mere one hundred of his men. Tice's Mounted Infantry and my 2nd Ninth fit nicely into the shorter wings of entrenchment, while Fairview's men were able to spread out in the main trench.
Not that there was much room for spreading; the men were as tightly packed in the trenches as sardines in a tin. I wondered uneasily where the General would put the reinforcements, should they be needed. As the dawn brought milk-white light to the mist, it had become clear that the Mippites had left behind very few of the stone shelters they favored for defensive purposes. As Spearman had said, the rocks on this hillside were mainly too heavy to move. There was scarcely a tree or bush here; the hill had evidently been cleared at the time it was made a quarry. Though the old quarry had disappeared, the vegetation had not returned. Perhaps this hill was kept as a sighting post in peacetime.
What all this meant was that our ill-made trenches were practically the only thing protecting us from any Mippites who chose to attack us – that, and the height of the hill. We would at least be in the favorable position of looming over the enemy.
As we reached the main trench, I bent down on one knee to inspect it. The stone breastwork that Spearman's sappers had built in front of the main trench – and in front of the right-flank and left-flank trenches – reached no more than a hand's span toward the sky.
"We'll be on our bellies if anyone shoots at us," said Major Arundel, Tice's second-in-command, who had come over to see how the other two battalions were doing. "Still, these stones are solid enough. They should do their work in shielding us, since the Mippites will have to shoot at us from far down on the slope. We should be able to kill any attackers before they come near enough to harm us." He glanced over his shoulder. Tice had evidently given up on swaying the General; he had stepped away from the General's rock, disgust on his face. To my dismay, I saw that the General was sitting in his field-chair now, smoking a cigarette and reading a book of poetry.
"I heard a rumor that his father forced him into the army," said Arundel, shaking his head. "He didn't want to be a soldier at all; he wanted to work for peace between Mip and the Dozen Landsteads, through the High Masters' diplomatic office."
"Even so," said Fairview, "he knows how to shoot a gun. I've seen him."
"Oh, yes, sir; he received military training in school," said Arundel. "But knowing how to fire a gun and being willing to do so – that's another matter."
Too many of Fairview's men were listening in on us; it would not do for them to think we had no faith in our General. I said stiffly, "It's not the General's job to shoot guns. His job is to issue orders."
"That's so, sir," said Arundel, saluting me in acknowledgment of my reprimand. "If you'll excuse me, Colonel Fairview, Colonel Rook – I should be getting back to my men."
"Prayers," murmured Fairview as he knelt down beside me to look at the shallow trench. It went down barely a foot before the sappers had hit rock.
"How many prayers do you know?" I tried to smile.
"Oh, plenty." Fairview turned to accept a sip of water from Davey, who was holding Fairview's water bottle. "When we joined the navy . . . Do you remember that day?"
I nodded. "I was just remembering. We flipped to see who went first in line."
Fairview laughed. "Did we? I'd forgotten that, after all these years. Well, the night before we joined, I went to my grandmama and asked her what advice she had for me. My grandpapa had been a soldier, and I thought she might have overheard him talking about military matters before he died."
"Indeed?" I relaxed back onto my haunches. Around us, the enlisted men were tidying up after their breakfasts, while their officers checked to see that everyone's rifle was loaded, everyone's extra ammunition was at hand. In the dressing station, doctors and their assistants carried out final preparations. There was no sign yet of the stretcher-bearers and water-carriers, though I knew that Fairview had sent orders for their arrival, after he discovered that the General had neglected this task.
Fairview nodded, pushing back his helmet. The morning sun was growing brighter; an occasional bird flew past us, chirping brightly. Otherwise, all I could hear was the equally bright chatter of our men. "She taught me as many battle prayers as she could recall, and then she said, 'Alec my boy, the most important thing to remember is to put your affairs in good order before you go into battle. It's no use worrying about your affairs, once battle has begun. You need to do beforehand everything that needs to be done. The Fates get awfully annoyed at you if you arrive in afterdeath and tell them you've forgotten to do something. It's like leaving a stove fire going when you depart the house."
Fairview's messenger-lad put his hand over his mouth to smother his titter. I laughed outright. "And have you followed her advice?"
Fairview gave a quirk of a smile. "I suppose not. I've always been poor at tending to needed tasks."
"You're not the one who needs to make that confession." I frowned as I glanced back at the right flank. All seemed in order among my soldiers; the officers, good men, had noticed the brightening light and were urging the enlisted men into position in the trenches. It occurred to me, as I looked around, that Fairview's men were already in position, as were Tice's.
It was true enough, that Fairview and I made decisions jointly. But I had always been a bit slower than him in thinking matters through. The result of this was that, time after time, Fairview had acted first, and I had followed in his wake. It was the only flaw in our otherwise flawless friendship.
I looked over at Fairview again, and was surprised to see that he too was frowning. "Is something on your mind?" I asked. With one hand, I indicated the scene before us.
"The fighting, you mean? No. We've done everything we can to prepare, given our orders. It's just . . . Well, this isn't the place to talk about it, I suppose. Big ears." He looked over at Davey, who had been leaning in to listen. The lad blushed and ducked his head. Fairview laughed and patted him on the shoulder.
"Sir!" It was Branchwater, Fairview's second-in-command. "The mist is lifting!"
Fairview and I rose to our feet. Everywhere, despite the orders to entrench, men were standing up, trying to peer through the pale veil that was lifting as we watched. Whiteness turned to green and brown; I saw spread before us the lower ground that led to Fort Frederick. It was dotted with soldiers, many of them clustered near a creek at the foot of Spy Hill. Some of the soldiers below were already climbing.
My eyes rose further up. To the northeast I could see a magnificent range: the highest mountains I'd spied yet in Mip. And to our left, barely six hundred yards away, was the knoll to the north of Spy Hill. Light glimmered on rifle barrels there.
"Sweet blood," whispered Fairview. It was a prayer.
Then came a boom from Fairview Mountain, and the creek shook. Every man on the summit fell to his stomach.
The Mippite gunners had found us.