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Canto of Blood
by M. Keaton

 

Opus 1b

"Stop fidgeting," hissed Shadis, standing behind Ria, looking forward. "At least you get a chair."

"Aides don't get tired," she snapped back, rolling her shoulders in a vain attempt to shift her armor into a more comfortable arrangement.

The Duke of Caladyn laughed softly beside her. "The people must have their ceremony, even if it kills us."

"We should have taken a cue from Labon and just not shown up," agreed the Dun-Ri beside him and Ria laughed in spite of herself. Even knowing the exhausting ride that the general was making, she would still have traded places with him to get off the parade stand.

For no greater cause than boosting morale, the three commanders and their aides spent the entire morning watching each of the reformed regiments pass in review. As much as she hated the ceremony and the tedium, this would be the last opportunity for anything resembling festivities for a long while. Even Reese, who resented even the smallest waste of time, had been forced to agree that the intangible gains outweighed the lost day of training, especially considering the news that awaited their troops at day's end. On the other hand, Ria mused to herself, Reese did not have to sit on the wooden planking all day either.

Labon, with Reese as escort, had chosen the Sinari over the hazards of the parade grounds. The two had ridden out at sundown the previous night to meet with the scouts and, as Labon phrased it, get the lay of the land. Unlike most of their forces, the scouts would not be pulled back across the Wyr. Without the ability to come and go quickly and quietly, the scouts would be rendered ineffective. Theoretically, they would still be supplied and reporting through the merchant armies securing Pran. In actuality, it might be a long time before the scouts and their commander could meet face to face again.

"That's the last of them," the Dun-Ri observed, and Shadis responded by collapsing full length on the boards of the parade stand. The other aides were not so flamboyant, but they were quick to sit. Ria was equally quick to relinquish her section of the split rail bench and walk on stiff legs.

"Gods, what a torment," Teloras muttered. "After that, the Sinari don't seem so bad." He was answered with a smattering of forced laughter. In the rest of Unnirand, soldiers and civilians alike were taking the remainder of the day as an opportunity for a celebration while their unit commanders would be making their way back to the parade grounds for the day's final briefing.

"Back to work," sighed Duke Caladyn. Ria followed his gaze to see a haggard Labon making his way toward them. A night and a day spent in the saddle appeared to have taken its toll on the weary Milakanur.

The Dun-Ri braced his feet on the stand's lip and extended his arm to pull Labon up onto the platform. "You look tired."

Labon nodded. "Long night. We had to play cat and mouse with a Sinari scouting party."

Ria let out a low whistle. "They're close, then."

"Two days, maybe less. Their scouts and ours are starting to look at the same fields. No confrontations yet, but it's just a matter of time."

"And their vanguard?" Like most large armies, the Sinari troops were moving in three blocks-vanward, center, and rearward-with supply trains and camp followers closely in the rearward wake.

Labon shrugged, then added, "They seem to stay close to the main force. The Sinari have an unusually high ratio of mounted to foot, though. I still expect them to pull away as they get closer and cast their nets."

"And the Van itself?" Teloras asked.

Labon hesitated for a beat before answering. "Well over one hundred."

Ria cursed roundly. "Is it possible that they've overweighted their vanward?"

"No. We can't get close enough for reliable estimates, but the dust trails themselves make it fairly clear that the center is at least twice that." Labon sat down heavily on the planking and sighed. "They're about half again as many as we though."

Shadis clambered back to his feet. "Does that change our stance?"

Ria shook her head. "Not in the short term, and we really didn't have a coherent plan after that anyway."

"Steward!" the Dun-Ri shouted from the edge of the parade stand.

"Sir!"

"How many unit commanders have reported back?"

"Somewhere over two thirds." A moment later the steward added, "Looks like all the major companies have reported, Sir."

"I'm going to start. If we wait for every petty chief to wander back, we'll be here until midnight," Teloras told Ria and she nodded in agreement. Even though it was her army, they had decided early on that the Dun-Ri was best suited for delivering the daily briefings.

"What about Annenayea?" Ria asked, turning back to Labon.

"It's there, big as life and twice as ugly. My scouts say it's been consistently moving above the vanward cohort."

"Well," she sighed, "If Sin-Alb is going to put in an appearance in this war, let's hope he holds off one more fight."

"We expect to engage the Sinari before the end of the next two days," the Dun-Ri was saying. "What they expect to find, what they should reasonably encounter, is the Unnirand bridge burned to the water line and the lot of us crouched inside our dykes and trenches, prepared for siege.

"We are not going to be reasonable. Our preparations are incomplete and, as a united force, we are woefully undertrained. More to the point, the Sinari seem to be driving for a specific destination. There is no reason not to expect that, if they believe it feasible, they will leave a fraction of their forces behind to keep us penned in and continue to drive west and south. I shouldn't need to remind you that such an advance would be against cities effectively unguarded and hopelessly outmanned.

"With this in mind, we must do two things. We must halt their advance while retaining our localized mobility. And, we must convince the Sinari that we are sufficiently aggressive and capable to require them to defeat us before they continue their advance.

"That is correct, gentlemen: we have to take an army not yet ready to fight and stall the Sinari advance without appearing to favor a defensive posture.

"As we see it, there is only one way to do that. We are going to hand the Sinari the first appreciable defeat of this war! We are going to sting them so deeply that they will not rest until this hornets' nest is burned to the ground!" The Dun-Ri paused until the scattered cheering ended.

"He could have chosen a better analogy," whispered Shadis in her ear and Ria fought not to smile. She could not fault the enthusiasm, but she was not sure if getting burned to the ground was actually a sound military objective.

"Specifically," Teloras continued, "Using core troops from those regiments which were previously stationed together, we will engage the Sinari vanward forces and inflict incredibly high casualties before falling back across the bridge to Unnirand. We will then, and only then, destroy the bridge to delay the Sinari until the Wyr settles into its banks.

"Let me repeat: Only a portion of our regiments will engage the Sinari. The remainder will be assigned defensive positions around the city. It is reasonable to assume that the Sinari may have troops on this side of the Wyr River in small numbers.

"Let me also repeat: It is not our intention to route the Sinari vanward. We will inflict as much damage as possible before falling back to a more defensible position. It is imperative, however, that we strike a decisive, offensive blow against our enemies and for the people of Qaiyore!"

Under the cover of a new wave of cheers, Caladyn leaned to Labon and commented, "Five to one. We need to hit them for at least five to one casualties."

"Not going to happen," Labon replied. "Maybe three but no way we can hit five."

"A gentlemen's wager? Say, fifty pieces of silver?"

"A trifle. Done."

"Quiet!" commanded the Dun-Ri when the crowd refused to calm. "Now-for this operation, the following units must present themselves in a state of readiness."

As he began to list forces, Ria stopped listening and began to plot her personal assault on the chief's mess and then her bed.

***

The morning was cool and a low fog blanketed the lowlands at the edge of the Wyr floodplain. The once rolling woodlands had been stripped bare and, in places, gouged by wagon ruts, spiked berms, and shallow ditches. It would be several years before the forests and fields of the Wyr basin recovered from the war, if ever.

Despite the chill, Ria had managed to steal a few hours of sleep, some of it in full armor and on horseback. One of the first things Reese had taught her was a soldier sleeps when he can and eats when it's offered.

The Sinari outriders had skirmished briefly with the outer guard ring before they realized there was a much larger force cloaked in the fog. Smaller, faster bands had probed the edges most of the morning, scouting the unexpected resistance. The United forces had moved enough troops across the Wyr to secure their position the morning after the Dun-Ri's last briefing, following with their main force throughout the remainder of the day, and, as it turned out, most of the night. Their greatest concern, that the bridge would be a bottleneck while moving the troops, had turned out to be unwarranted. The real delay was dunking heads into water troughs until the previous day's cobwebs were washed from overindulgent heads. In spite of the discipline problems, Ria had been pleased. Learning that the bridge was indeed wide enough to move entire cohorts across at a trot had been a significant relief. After that, it would take more than a few drunks to ruin her mood.

The Taltherian Royals would probably take the worst of the Sinari assault but there was no avoiding it. In order to succeed, especially in light of the Milakanur plan, the right forward had to be anchored by a reliable heavy infantry, and that meant the Royals. The heavy infantry was dug in behind a waist-deep berm which formed an arching 'L' around the forward right corner-eight thousand men to hold what would probably be the pivotal point in the battle. Caladyn had fought to command them personally until Ria had pointed out that she needed him with the cavalry even more.

The Royals were supported by longbowmen behind and the pikemen of the militia Conscripts to the side. A five hundred pace gap separated the pikemen from the massed light infantry on their left. Unlike the Royals, the general infantry was not entrenched. Where the heavy infantry was to hold position, the Regulars would need to move.

From her position behind them and on the crest of the small rise at the foot of the bridge, Ria could see Labon riding among his troops, trading ribald jests with his officers to keep morale high.

Roughly half of the available cavalry were behind the Regulars, poised to move forward through the gap or around the right flank. The remainder were similarly positioned on the left.

The Sinari would have a significant advantage in maneuverability, with almost half of their vanward composed of Catayarsh riders. Ria had no real idea how the smaller, faster Sinari mounted would deploy, so she had been forced to hold most of her own cavalry in reserve. The United riders might be slower but they were significantly heavier and better armored than the Sinari. If they could pin the Catayarsh riders or meet them in a charge, she had no doubt who would emerge victorious. She vainly hoped that the Sinari did not share her appraisal. The cat-riders had not yet faced any mounted resistance and Ria hoped they would learn their lessons the painful way.

On the rise leading up to the bridge was positioned what had been christened the Army of Observation. The army was small compared to the other cohorts on the field-four rows of bowmen fronted by eight ranks of pikes, both flanks anchored by a column of heavy billmen-but the Army of Observation had only two roles. Currently, they were to insure the main force was not cut off from their line of retreat and provide defense for Ria, her coterie, and the squadron of messengers she would need to communicate with the various units on the main field. Later, the Army of Observation would hold while the survivors of the main force limped back across the bridge.

She had no artillery, a fact which galled her no small amount. The Dun-Ri had fallen into the age-old misconception that the heavy engines were useful only for siege and Labon's engines had been left behind in Milakanur to insure his army could move fast enough to arrive in time to make a difference. The Cedonians, the logical choice to have provided artillery, had chosen not to, presuming that, with Mirish mages present, there would be no need for it.

That assumption had infuriated her-it was so wrong on so many levels, she had almost choked in frustration trying to explain why to her generals. Even if full coteries had been trained, the very idea of magi strolling across the battlefield, tossing fire and lightning around like a prince tossing coins to a crowd, was hopelessly na´ve. If for no other reason, she had almost shouted at them, than arrows-hit a catapult with a quarrel and it continues to fire; hit a mage and they die. Reese had pulled her teeth then, commenting from a shadowed corner: Arrow, rock, whatever is faster. It was hard to believe she had ever been that young.

She was roused from her thoughts by the approach of riders. She recognized the colors of Labon's scouts and saw, to her surprise, that Reese rode among them. She saw him shout something to the other scouts and break away to ride toward the Army of Observation. She kneed her gelding and rode to meet him.

"I though you'd want me to confirm," he said by way of explanation as he grew close. "The vanward has pulled away from the center and is forming up. We'll have our fight, and soon."

Ria grinned and nodded. One of her greatest fears had been that the commander of the vanward would wait for the center to move forward and join them before engaging. If so, the entire United force would be forced to retreat and all the preparations would have been for naught. As it was, they would face only the vanward as she had hoped. Her forces would still be outnumbered three to one, but this was a winnable battle if there were no surprises.

"Reese, go to Namurien on the bridge. He's the Mir commander. Tell him I want you to take over the magi on the bridge. He'll understand."

"As you will, Warlord. For Valor."

"No regrets." She clapped the Eerith on the shoulder and turned her mount back to her own command.

"Chief! Message!" called Shadis as she returned.

"Spill it."

"The Dun-Ri still insists that he will command the Conscripts personally but he has agreed with your, umm, suggestion that he do so from within the adjoining Royals."

"Good." The Dun-Ri was beginning to embody both problems Reese had warned her of in a young commander. Each Warlord, according to the Eerith, had wrestled with two quandaries of command which had no answer. The first she simply accepted and placed in the hands of the gods; a good leader was too valuable to risk in battle and too valuable not to risk in battle. It was the second which she was going to have to answer with the Dun-Ri, if they lived: How do you encourage initiative in your commanders without losing control of them? She needed the Dun-Ri to make judgement calls on the battlefield but she also needed him to follow orders. And to follow them where they were given; the man was developing a habit of complying in his own, sweet time.