Chapter 1: We Won't All Be Coming Back
The year 403, the seventh month. (The year 1896 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
Words spoken by the field-cornet of the Mippite forces at Spy Hill, to his soldiers before the battle:
"Citizens of the republic, we're now going in to attack the enemy, and we won't all be coming back. Do your duty and trust in your gods."
It was the incident with the white spaniel which gave Fairview and me our first hint that we hadn't been total blockheads to bring along Doyle.
I have to explain that we hadn't yet reached Spy Hill. Between Spy Hill and our camp to the west lay farmland. We'd marched through the farmland practically on tiptoe, hidden by the mist and the night and our own efforts to suppress all sound. We held our breaths when we reached Big Pool Road, which runs from southwest to northeast, parallel to Spy Hill. There was no way to avoid the road; going any further south or north would bring us up against the encampments of the Mippite soldiers. So our two lines of troops marched ever so softly across the road lined by Mippite farms, any one of which might sound the alarm and spoil our surprise attack.
It didn't help that the night was so black that we couldn't see our hands before our faces. I'd already spent three hours searching for one of my companies that had lost its way. By the time I arrived back, the rest of my men had fallen asleep, exhausted from the week's battles. Waking them had taken yet more time.
Now the moon was out, lighting the white mist around us. It was when we were just past the farmyards, and barely beginning to let out our breaths, that Doyle decided to have a chat.
"Bloody stupid way to attack the 'siegers of a fort," he announced to me cheerfully. Even though the mist dimmed the moonlight, I could see the outline of his slumped shoulders and could imagine his scowl. "The Mippite soldiers are camped on top of this hill, while the fort is miles away, so what're we doing scrambling over rocks in the middle of the night? It don't make no sense. All of us fellows say so. But you officers, you don't pay us no mind. Nobody wants us enlisted men around – we know that."
"All of us fellows" were Doyle's perpetual, invisible backing for his grumbles. It wasn't Doyle's grumbles that bothered me; I'd learned to ignore them long ago. It was the fact that he was voicing them aloud.
He'd at least had sense enough to whisper; otherwise, I've no doubt that the other soldiers in my battalion, all of whom were on edge, would have jumped on him in a heap in their eagerness to be the first to gag him. But I'd made the mistake, at the beginning of this night, of telling my men that they could whisper a quick word to me during our attack on the hill "if it's important." I'd forgotten that Doyle held a different definition of "important" than the rest of the world.
To jump on Doyle myself, satisfying though the act might be, was unfortunately below the dignity of a colonel. I gestured to Canton, my soldier-servant, but he was busy looking nervously at the cows we were passing. The cows watched us go by without emitting a single moo.
"So what me and the other fellows say is, this ain't no way to run a war. Cramming us all into them tiny boxcars, making us swim across a right big river, then ordering us to wriggle on our bellies for a mile or three. It ain't natural. It ain't dignified. See, me and the fellows got our standing to think of. We can't be acting all low, or the fellows in the 1st Ninth will be all after us—"
"Doyle." It was the colonel of the 1st Battalion of the Ninth Landstead's Fusiliers; he had been marching at the head of the line of soldiers nine yards away from ours. The fact that he had been able to hear Doyle at that distance was a bad sign. He leaned over and whispered to Doyle, "If you do not remain silent until we win the summit, your colonel and I will rethink our promise not to chain you and throw you into Balmer Harbor." He gave Doyle one of his pleasant smiles.
"You don't got to be like that." Doyle sunk into one of his sulking tones. "We fellows know when we ain't wanted." Then he fell back into his place in my line and was mercifully silent.
I gave Fairview a smile of thanks. He whispered in my ear, "We should have drowned him before we let him come on this expedition."
I began to snort with amusement, then caught myself in time. I gave him the slight shove that had meant – ever since we were boys – "We'll talk later, the grown-ups are listening."
But we were too late. The General had fallen back. I could hear his glare as he said, "Did I, or did I not, give orders for absolute silence during this attack?"
His voice was far louder than Doyle's had been. The cows we were passing stirred restlessly. My own men stirred even more restlessly at seeing their colonel reprimanded in public.
"I'm sorry, sir." I knew enough to confine my reply to a whispered apology.
Fairview, though, tended to lose his common sense when I was the one being reprimanded. "Sir, one of Colonel Rook's men—"
"Colonel Rook is responsible for the actions of his men." The General raised his voice further. I wondered at what point Colonel Tice, who was assigned the job of guiding our force up the hill, would fall back and join the dispute. A cow, nervous, backed into the cow behind her.
If this continued, we'd have a stampede on our hands soon. I was struggling with a way to speak up to the General – Major-General R. Talbert Pentheusson, son-in-law to our Commander-in-Chief, and the youngest man of his rank in the Allied Armies of the Dozen Landsteads – and tell him that he should shut his bloody mouth and let more experienced veterans of older wars handle matters he was incompetent to handle . . . But of course I couldn't say anything like that. So I tried saluting silently, hoping he would follow suit where silence was concerned.
I don't know whether he would have, for at that moment, we heard the white spaniel.
Perhaps it was a child's pet, though it was large enough to serve as a watchdog. Certainly it seemed to feel that this was its mission. It was yipping at the top of its lungs, darting in to nip at the heels of my men, then dashing away and yipping some more.
The cows looked ready to flee. The farmhouses were still close behind us.
"Shoot him," ordered the General, sounding understandably concerned at this turn of events.
I refrained from reminding him that our rifles were unloaded, by his orders. Instead, I pointed out the reason for the empty rifles: "A rifle-shot would wake the locals, sir."
"Well, bayonet the cur, then! Do something!" The General edged out of the way as the dog tried to nip at his heels.
One of my soldiers – Lexington, I think it was – threw a rock. It missed the dog and hit the General squarely on the thigh. Amidst the General's far-too-loud curses, Doyle darted forward.
"I'll take care of this," he announced to all the officers present. "Here, girl. C'mere, girl. That's a good girl."
I didn't ask him how – in the darkness and the mist – he could tell that the spaniel was a bitch. The spaniel, half-hidden in the fog, had paused and was staring at Doyle. Then she made up her mind and trotted happily up to where Doyle crouched, his hands outstretched.
Doyle fondled her ears; she consented to this, blessedly silent. Fairview, always quick off the mark, had obtained a bootstring from his soldier-servant; Doyle gently wrapped the string around the dog's neck and led the little guard away, making soothing noises to it.
"Fine," said the General, huffing his frustration. "We continue. Colonels, make sure your men are silent from this point forth."
I could still hear Doyle crooning at the dog in the distance. I declined to make any promises. The General walked forward, muttering about insubordination.
I exchanged looks with Fairview. He leaned over and whispered, "Maybe we could toss him in the harbor."
I suppressed a roar of laughter that would have awoken every Mippite within cannon range.
Chapter 2: The System Breaks Down
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.
Chapter 3: They Went Up Recruits
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.
Chapter 4: Let Us Not Give Way
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.
Chapter 5: Are, I Hope, Secure
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.
Chapter 6: Can Barely Hold My Own
Heliograph dispatch to the Commander-in-Chief at 8:30 AM, from the officer commanding the Allied forces at Spy Hill:
"Am exposed to terrible cross-fire; can barely hold my own; water badly needed. Help us.
"Fifteen hundred yards: rifle-fire, coming from Fairview Mountain," said Fairview, flat on his belly with his spy-glass to his eye. "Pom-poms, also from Fairview Mountain – about twenty-five hundred yards from us. The shell guns on Fairview Mountain are about two miles away. Directly north from the knoll: machine-rifles. And that eastern ledge that's just below the summit has several dozen Mippites shooting up at us."
Fairview, the steamer pilot, had the best eyes of anyone I knew, and the best ears too. Even so, I said, "Below us? Are you sure?"
I had to shout; we both did. All around us came the scream of shells and the scream of men being hit by shells and rifle-fire. Fairview didn't waste words; he handed the spy-glass to me and pointed to a rock further down the slope.
I took the spy-glass reluctantly. The news was depressing enough as it was, for the Mippites' rifles could hit us easily from Fairview Mountain, while our rifles simply weren't accurate at that range. As for the Mippites' pom-poms, I longed to wring the necks of whichever penny-greedy bureaucrats had decided that the Landsteader armies didn't need the Vovimian-manufactured automatic cannons. The Mippites had promptly bought every pom-pom.
Sighing, I looked through the spy-glass. For a moment I saw nothing. Then there was a flicker of motion, a discharge, a bullet whizzing past my ear.
"Blast!" I handed the spy-glass back to Fairview. "They must be within a hundred yards of us." I looked around, but Canton wasn't in view; in any case, this called for a conference. "I'll tell the General," I informed Fairview and scrambled out of the trench before he should demand we flip a coin to decide who left.
Not that the trenches made a bloody bit of difference, as far as I could tell. As Spearman had hinted to the General, shallow trenches are little better than no trenches at all. From the knoll to the north came the rattle of the Mippites' machine-rifles, and the result was like watching a lawn mowed; bullets landed in a strip down the trench to the north of me – not the one I had just left, thank goodness. I could hear Fairview shouting orders behind me.
Closing my ears to the screams of the unfortunate men in Tice's left-flank trench, I scrambled forward on hands and knees, unwilling to rise high enough that I should become a handy target. I heard a scream above me – not from a man – and fell flat on my belly, hiding my face in my arms.
There was an awful crash above me, and then, far more terrible, the sound of metal striking rocks, like a deadly rain. The screams were starting again. I waited tensely, but felt nothing more than a fiery line across the back of my hand.
I raised my head finally. The first thing I saw was blood welling out of my hand, from where shrapnel had slashed it. Cursing, I rolled over and managed to pull out my handkerchief, then used my teeth and my good hand – my shooting hand – to wrap the handkerchief around the wounded hand.
All around me was shrapnel, along with the shattered remains of the men who had experienced the explosion of a shell. Near me was the severed head of Canton. I turned my eyes away, struggled to regain control of my stomach, and then scrambled to my feet and ran. Trying to travel by hands and knees through a field filled with shell fragments is as good as suicide.
As I'd predicted, I became the new, favorite target of the Mippites. By the time I reached the General, I'd lost my rations packet; it had been shot off my belt. I collapsed behind the rock where the General huddled, along with his soldier-servant and his wide-eyed messenger-lad, who was just finishing writing down a message for the signalmen. The lad looked at what lay between him and the signal station, gulped, and then scrambled out into the deathly field.
The General took no notice of his messenger's departure. Sweat covered the General's face, which had gone pale. He was clutching his book of poetry and staring at the mangled remains of Tice, who lay nearby.
"Sir," I said in a voice that trembled only slightly, "I have a report for you on the enemy positions." I rattled off the information that Fairview had given me.
The General continued to stare at Tice's corpse.
"Sir, if we ask the Commander-in-Chief to send word to our gunners, I believe they can put the machine-rifles on the knoll out of commission – our big guns are within range. . . . Sir?"
The General raised his gaze finally. His eyes were wide, like that of a warhorse which smells blood for the first time. "Return to your men," he said.
"But sir, about the knoll—"
"I said, Return to your men!" He shrieked the words. His voice was nearly hidden by the booming of the Mippite guns.
"Well?" said Fairview, pausing in the midst of giving half a dozen orders to his subordinate officers, who were gathered around him.
I didn't bother to keep my voice low this time. "He wouldn't listen to a bloody word I said!"
Fairview paused, not to consider what to say next, but because we both had to flatten ourselves at that moment as another rake of rifle-fire went by us. "Tice?"
"Dead. Spearman is wounded; I saw him being carried off the hill by his men."
"Well, then, it's just us left. —Stiles, inform Major Arundel of Colonel Tice's death and tell him that he's in charge now of the left flank. Branchwater, have your men close up that gap caused by the shell-deaths; if the Mippites on the hillside below us attack at bayonet range, the center is where they're most likely to charge. How much water do we have?"
Fairview's cool enquiry brought me back to my senses. "Not enough. —Gillingham." I turned to my own second-in-command, who had followed me to the main trench. "Have the men save their water for the wounded. I don't know when we'll be getting our next supply. Also, they're to hold their fire unless they actually see something worth shooting at. Our ammunition won't last forever."
"Here." Fairview had been scribbling in his notebook while I spoke; he tore off the page and handed it to Davey. "Give this to the signalmen. Have them send it to the Commander-in-Chief at once."
Davey didn't so much as blink, good lad that he was. "Shall I say that our General handed this to me?"
"Send it without a name; if anyone asks, the General is currently incapacitated. —For how long?" he asked in an undertone as Davey darted away.
I shook my head wordlessly.
"We need him in charge." Fairview glanced around as his officers scattered, returning to their companies. "I'll go this time."
"We both will. I gave orders to my officers on my way back here. I've done everything I can for the moment."
We found the General standing at the farthest end of the left flank's trench, staring down at the mangled, moaning men there.
"Sir, get down!" urged Fairview. Like me, he had wriggled the final yards to the General on his belly; the rifle-fire had intensified, and the Mippites were showing what fine marksmen they were. One Mippite rifleman in particular – a field-cornet, I judged from what I had glimpsed of his ragged hat, which was rank-coded blue – seemed to bring down a man on our side every time he fired his rifle.
The General ignored us. Again. "I've sent a message to the Commander-in-Chief, requesting water," he told one of the moaning soldiers, who was clutching what I recognized as our General's own water bottle. "You'll just have to wait, I'm afraid. —Here." He leaned over to offer his cigarette to the man.
It was a ridiculous scene. The General should have been issuing orders, not handing out cigarettes to dying men. But in that moment, as I witnessed the man who had wanted a quiet diplomatic job step out of the safety of his rock in order to comfort a dying man, I felt the first stirrings of admiration toward Pentheusson.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a blue cloth blur as the Mippite officer steadied his rifle. The rifle roared.