Canto of Blood
by M. Keaton
"At least I'm safe from them here," growled Ria, twisting to allow her aide de camp, Shadis, to reach the buckles on her torso plate.
Michelle shrugged then added, "A bureaucrat never looks for a general among the troops." Beside her, Jen snorted at some private humor and resumed her work. The coterie's barracks filled with the dull rasp of the whetstone as she fought to work the latest notch from her blade.
"Got it," grunted Shadis, jerking his head at the younger Markus. The two lifted and Ria shrugged free of the last of her formal armor.
"Fools, the lot of them," Ria spat. "With the possible exception of Labon, I doubt they could drown kittens, let alone fight a war."
"Ah, well, that's not completely fair," interjected York, the coterie's oldest and only non-Mirish member. A refugee of Myr-Kun, his right to stand among them was unquestioned. "Jen, pass me that oilcloth. Teloras is na´ve but remember, this is his land. A cornered rat is always dangerous. And the Duke, he's no battlefield hero, but his tactics are sound."
Jen tossed the rag to York. "Yes. It takes a really strong man to advocate scorched-earth and poison on someone else's fields."
"Still a good strategy," countered Markus. "Who we need is Agrigax."
"I swear that idiot general he sent instead is a political rival sent here to die," hissed Ria, bitterly.
"Probably," agreed Shadis. "But if we have to fall back to Tal, we'll all be glad the old king stayed home. I'm going out for more water."
"I'll come too," volunteered Markus. "Chief, I'm going to have to replace this buckle."
Ria nodded absentmindedly and waved them from the room. She slumped into a chair and clenched her right eye until it watered, fighting the temptation to scratch the itching scar.
"Still bothers you?" asked York.
"Got sweat in it. Annias says it's healing nicely."
Jen gave up and slid her blade back into its scabbard. "What's the verdict on surcoats?"
Ria held up her hands to the heavens in supplication. "The Taltherans are still arguing with each other. Each merchant house wants the job but they all want paid for it, too. We're in the middle of the largest war of this century and they're trying to turn a profit. Even if I was willing, we don' t have the gold to pay them."
"Give them wood," came a cheerful voice behind her, followed by the closing of the outer door. "Make wooden coins instead of gold. Tell them each coin can be exchanged after the war."
"Dworkin the economist," mocked Jen as the newcomer worked to get free of his light chain. "And how, dear shining boy, are we supposed to make arrows if you use all the wood for money?"
"Rocks then, even script," Dworkin responded, pulling off his shirt and tossing it into the corner. "I swear, Chief, we have to get lighter armor or we'll all sweat to death."
"I'll remember that when a Sinari spear lays open that over-exposed chest of yours," answered Ria. "Good idea, though. Where'd you get it?"
"The wooden coins? Back in the imperial days, Mir used to do it to the local merchants all the time. Rapes the local economy, especially if you default later. But, hey, wins the war."
"Aren't you supposed to be on duty?" Ria asked.
Dworkin nodded. "Aelric and I traded shifts. He wanted to be on with the twins."
"Aelric, Learado, and Raphael on duty together. I feel safe," teased York. "Those two are going to die to their own bravado."
"I agree." Ria rolled her head from side to side, listening to her neck crack. "That's why I'm leaving you and the twins behind to anchor Michelle when we go into the field."
"What? Oh no, Chief, I."
"Stow it, York. I need three and your experience balances their puberty." Ria paused as strong hands began to rub her shoulders. "Reese! Ah--thanks," she stammered, trying to cover her surprise. She had long since given up trying to convince the Eerith to stop sneaking up on people.
"Sun's going down, evening's coming on. Let's take a walk," he suggested in a tone she knew brooked no argument.
"Damn you, Reese. I didn't even get my boots off," she growled and stood. "Jen, make sure the twins make curfew."
As she left the building, Dworkin's raucous laughter was answering Michelle' s comments on "Mother Jen."
"Kids," Ria groused and scratched at the swelling beneath her eye. "They still see this all as a game."
"They're serious enough. Let them be," said Reese. "The closer and more familial a coterie is, the better they work."
"You at the Council meeting today?"
"Didn't have to be; you were there. I was speaking with other interested parties."
"The Fist? Ah, always the Eerith way, both ends to the middle."
"With forty thousand Cedonian troops already in place, anyone who thinks Therani will have national sovereignty after this war without outside help is either a fool or just not paying attention."
"Assuming there is an after." Ria raised a hand to acknowledge the post guard's salute. "What have you found for me?"
"More questions than answers, I'm afraid. Burning back the fields slowed the advance, but it looks like they didn't take the bait on the poisoned grain in the storehouses. The scholar-scouts will confirm that either tomorrow or the next day."
"Good discipline," mused Ria.
"Too good," Reese replied, and they walked the postern in silence until they had passed the next sentry.
"What's the word on the surcoats?"
"Stalemate, but Dworkin had an idea that might change that."
"Wooden coins on an exchange?"
Ria raised an eyebrow in surprise. "How'd you know?"
"I was there the first time," Reese answered. "We need those colors. It's always the small things in war. The faster we can get those troops thinking in terms of us, them, and their own regiment instead of which country they came from to begin with, the better."
"I tried your idea about reassigning the commanders and having them drill across national lines. That didn't even get past the Council."
"Everyone. Mostly Cedonia and Taltheran. Taltheran's military structure will not even let us split up the separate armies."
"Then they'll die," said Reese simply.
"Aye, but not alone. Teloras is willing to do anything I ask to save his people and Labon is a bloody genius. I've half a mind to make him Field General over Cedonia and Taltheran as well as Milakanur."
"Ha! The Duke would have an apoplexy."
"Want me to kill him?"
Ria laughed under her breath. "Five years ago, I'd have been shocked by the suggestion. Now, I've already considered it."
"Five years ago, you weren't Warlord."
"True. But no, I don't want him killed. He's difficult because he's good. If he didn't know his business, I wouldn't have half the trouble with him that I do. Just the opposite, he's a good tactician. The problem is, he's not fighting the same war as I am."
"None of them are, except maybe the Dun-Ri and Labon. Taltheran is just playing to keep the wolf from his own door but if the Sinari turn south, he' ll pull out in a heartbeat. The rest are positioning themselves to divide up the spoils after the dust clears."
"Milakanur is just as guilty. The only difference is that they are going to take their piece out of the Sinari proper instead of from their former allies.
"And," corrected Reese, "Labon has faced the Sinari before. Unlike the others, he believes we can lose. Honestly, I think the others view this as just a prelude to the real fighting with each other. It's inconceivable to them that desert barbarians might best them."
"But they aren't desert barbarians anymore, are they?" Ria sighed. "I miss Hisinvol. He was a vicious, tough bastard, but he was human."
Reese stopped his measured stride and, grasping her shoulder, turned Ria to face him as he spoke. "Ria, I have seen professional armies overrun positions and overextend themselves into a counterattack. I've seen the regiments of Old Cedonia fall apart sacking a city because they started looting before securing their position. I have seen veteran soldiers cross burned fields and fall to eating poisoned food even as their commanders screamed for them to stop. What I have not seen is the Sinari do any of these things. Forget that they are nomads; these people have better discipline than a professional corps."
He released her and resumed their walk, speaking calmly over his shoulder. "Your Cedoninian advisors are telling you that we only face a fraction of the Sinari force and that most of those have low morale. It's a reasonable assumption if we were facing a normal army. This isn't. This is jyhad, a god's war lead by the god himself. No, right now, even the conscripts are caught up in the holy fervor. No loses, no mistakes, no hesitation-if this were a war with conventional motivations, I'd say we were witnessing the birth of the next empire."
"What do you mean by 'conventional motives'?"
"I don't know this for certain, but if I were to guess, I'd say that the garrisons left behind at each city are no more than the absolute minimum to hold the supply lines. I haven't seen anything so far that indicates the Sinari care about holding the land they take. This seems to be all about getting to a city, holding it long enough to get what they need, and moving forward again. The Sinari are moving less like an army and more like a swarm of locust."
Ria raised a hand to the sentry as they passed then told Reese, "I don't see what you're getting at."
"I'm not sure myself. Think: if you were going to conquer the Wyr basin, how would you do it?"
Ria shrugged. "I'd take Myr-Kun and sweep the river south.no! No I wouldn' t! That's backwards! I'd cut south into Tal and move out, with Myr-Kun last. I'd hold from Tal to Wyr before any of the others could mobilize. By then, they'd be hard pressed to get to Myr-Kun before I did and to do it, they would either have to force-march across the desert, fight up my flank along the river, or put to sea in the storm season. Even then, they would have a nightmare supply line and, with luck, I could hit Myr-Kun right before the storms and cut up the reinforcements from inside their own city. By taking Myr-Kun first and then coming inland, they gave us this united army on a silver platter. That's insane!"
"Unless they wanted it that way."
Ria considered that before replying. "If you didn't care about casualties and thought you could win, it makes sense. A complete defeat here breaks the back of almost every kingdom in the basin. Problem with that is, if that's your goal, you garrison your route heavily because too much relies on holding the port of Myr-Kun and the Wyr River. You don't think that is the case, so, what else can it be?"
"What if this war is objective-based rather than territorial? The Sinari took Myr-Kun first because they had to, to get the Mirror. Once they have it, they strip the city and move on."
Ria nodded. "Makes sense with what we know. Presuming then that the cities of the Wyr basin were taken to restock and provision along the way instead of for any territorial value, then the real question is: Where or what are they after next?"
It was Reese's turn to shrug. "I have no idea. I just wanted to make sure we were both thinking the same way. From here, it's out of our hands. That side of the war is up to the sage and the scholar. What we take from it is the knowledge that the Sinari can't bypass us because they can't afford an enemy at their back and they need Unnirand to regroup and stage from; and that they are willing to throw away a lot of bodies to get what they want because they don't need to hold what they take after the war."
"Sin-Alb is using the Sinari as a hammer and is perfectly willing to use them up," agreed Ria. "As long as they win, it doesn't matter how many on either side die. And, if we fall back and they change direction, we have to chase them down and get in the way again."
"So, we might as well risk it and hold here as long as we can, because at least this is a battlefield of our choosing," Reese concluded for her.
"Thanks, Reese. I needed cheering up." The sarcasm was lost on the Eerith. "How long do we have?"
"A week, maybe less. What next, oh mighty Warlord?"
"Next.next I think we stop playing with diplomats and act like a Warlord for a change," she said calmly, then sprinted to the next sentry before Reese could stop her.
"I want the ranking members of the War Council back in chambers in twenty minutes. Get your C.O." she ordered. "Reese can stand your watch until you get a replacement."
"But, Madam Warlord, sir, they'll be asleep by now."
Ria pulled back her lips into a predatory grin. "Then they shouldn't be hard to find."
She was able to ride the emotional energies of frustration and fear until things were too far along to change her mind, and then Ria simply refused to second-guess herself. Right or wrong, she was a soldier, not a politician, and it was time to start acting like one.
Sometime after she had reached the council chamber, Reese had found a replacement for the sentry and had appointed himself head greeter for the emergency meeting. She was grateful, as she brooded undisturbed at the opposite end of the chamber, but his tact was.Finally she admitted to herself that Reese had no tact. With very few deviations, the conversations she overhead were remarkably similar.
"What's this all about?" an indignant voice would demand; and Reese would explain.
"Shut up and sit down or I will break your arm."
The end result was that everyone was upset but at least they were all equally upset and more than a little unsettled.
Ria was roused from her thoughts by a loud, deliberately false, cough. When she looked up, Labon said softly, "We're all here, Warlord."
She took a moment to steady herself, glanced around the room to insure herself that everyone was, in fact, present, and began.
"We have less than seven days before we face a foe which has the capacity to overwhelm us by numbers alone. We need every man, woman, or child that can hold a weapon with us if we are to have a chance of winning. You all know this, but I wanted you to hear it again so that you can put what I'm about to say in its proper perspective."
She took a deep breath and pronounced in a firm tone, "If you are not prepared to follow my orders, to the letter, without question, then get out now. Take your troops and leave. Spare the rest of us your disruptions and stop wasting our resources. Leave! Am I clear on this?"
Despite a wave of nervous shuffling and muttered complaints, she was pleased, and a little surprised, to see that no one moved to go.
"Could I get the leader of the Taltheran forces to stand up? Good. As I understand it, each of the merchant armies and the Royal Army have their own leaders and chain of command."
"That is correct."
"And King Agrigax then placed you as an overall commander of these forces."
"Indeed." Ria heard a touch of pride in the reply and almost regretted what she was about to do.
"And, despite this direct commission from your King, various factions of your army refuse to accommodate my supply requests and, by your own admission, some of these forces may not be counted upon to actually commit to the field of battle."
"Ahem--regrettably, this is also true, Warlord."
"Very well, then. You are discharged for general incompetence. You may either return to your King and tell him of your failure or you may report to a Taltheran commander of your choice and take service in whatever position they see fit to assign."
She deliberately turned her back and ignored the explosion of voices in the room. She hoped that Eubatrosa would be able to douse the political fires she was setting. When the chamber had quieted, she resumed speaking, her back still to the assembly.
"In a few minutes, I'm going to appoint my field generals. After that, I will deal only with them. It will be their responsibility to make sure that my commands are carried out and that vital information is passed to me. I can't personally command over one hundred thousand troops, nor do I wish to. These generals will be charged to take whatever actions they feel are appropriate to carry out my commands.
"Before I name my generals and dismiss you, there are things I want everyone to hear and understand. We are at war. In war, one man's faults can result in the death of a hundred men or more. Refusal to obey a direct order is punishable by death. Likewise, if one of my generals should encounter a situation where they feel that a lack of compliance by an individual places our war efforts in jeopardy, that general can have them executed. We can debate morality later. For now, we are at war and I'll strangle you myself before I let one man's pride cost us one life on the battlefield. If you can't accept this, leave. Now." Ria forced herself to wait for agonizing minutes before she turned. If desertions occurred, they would be done under the cover of night. She was sure her forces would be smaller come the dawn, but she still half-expected some to leave publicly now. None did; she fought not to show her relief as she turned to address the room.
"Dun Ri Teloras Fethoran, I need you to command the defense of Unnirand proper as well as our light infantry and conscript militias in the field. Most of these troops already serve under you as the Ther-Ri. The city's defense will be supplemented by the forces of the Burcany, Myr-Kun, the Fey, and those Mirish forces which I, myself, do not lead into the field. I would ask you to delegate this command as you see fit and concentrate your efforts on our forces in the field. With this in mind, I would also have you assume command of the Milakanur and Cedonian light infantry cohorts. Finally, I would have you transfer command of your scholar-scouts to Master Scourge Labon. Will you do this?"
"Thank you. Master Scourge Labon, I need you to command our heavy infantry and crossbowmen in the field. Most of these will be your own Milakanur troops supplemented by the heavy infantry of Cedonia and the Taltheran Royal Army. I would also have you take command of the Taltheran merchant house armies. Keep these forces from the field of battle proper and insure our supply lines. Finally, accept command of the Dun Ri's scouts and use them in conjunction with the Taltheran thiranth riders to keep us appraised of the Sinari advance. Will you do this?"
"Duke Caladyn, I have reassigned a large portion of your forces because I need you to concentrate on those specialty units which are Cedonia's heritage. I need you to command my light cavalry, heavy cavalry, longbowmen, and the various arcane artillery units. I realize this is an unusual mixture and that each of these is a separate challenge in and of itself. Will you, can you, take this responsibility?"
"Very well, gentlemen. I want each general to figure out the color schemes you will need to use to differentiate your units and pass these requests to General Labon. He will arrange delivery with the Taltherian merchant houses. You're all dismissed and I want to see my high command back here at sunrise. We'll begin drilling the new cohorts by tomorrow afternoon. From here on, there is only one army here-mine. Dismissed."
The room's occupants sat in a mixture of shock and confusion until Reese shouted, "You heard the Warlord! Dismissed!"
Ria retreated into the shadowed recesses of the room as the assemblage shuffled out, many of which did so very angrily.
"Bravely done," whispered Reese, suddenly at her side.
"I've made more than a few enemies today."
"And you've saved more than a few lives. We are warriors, not diplomats. Just concentrate on the job at hand. With luck, you'll have plenty of time to sooth injured prides after the Sinari finish trying to kill us."
It seemed a day for good news. Not only had Labon been able to get the merchant houses to accept the wooden coins, but the three generals had managed to arrange color schemes close to most of the regiments' original flags-close enough to be familiar; different enough to remind everyone that, at least for now, the old national rivalries were set aside. After the first two days of mixed drills, the new regiments seemed to have stopped fighting among themselves and even the off-duty brawling had trailed off.
It was Dworkin, however, who brought the best news of the day. Ria had spread her coterie members through the assembled forces, looking forward to the day when she would break the group up and each would lead their own coterie. Dworkin and Aelric had shown a natural affinity for scouting and intelligence work and Ria encouraged it, letting the two work almost constantly with Labon's scouts. The news was Labon's to tell, but Dworkin found her first.
"They burned the bridge at Hadrair!" he yelled, racing toward her across the practice range. "Hadrair burned their bridge and the Sinari didn't cross before the storms!"
"Where's Labon?" she shouted back, jogging toward him.
"Getting the Dun Ri and the Duke."
"Have them meet me in the map room," she ordered, her mind racing with the unexpected news. The fords to cross the Wyr were impassable during the run-off after the storm season. With the river swollen, even the regular ferries would not be able to cross for at least two more weeks, longer if it rained. If the forces at Hadrair had destroyed their bridge across the Wyr before the Sinari could cross, the only way for them to reach the city would be by crossing the bridge at Unnirand proper or waiting until the river lowered.
The Duke was already in the map room and Labon arrived seconds behind her, Dun Ri in tow.
"Our troop placement just got a lot simpler," Labon commented as he moved to stand over the table. "The Sinari, or at least their main force, are still on the south side of the river. We can engage them with the Wyr at our backs, hold as long as we can, fall back, sap our bridge, and buy a solid fortnight to prepare for their crossing."
"Any chance they'll bypass us and march on Pran?" asked the Dun Ri.
"No," answered Ria. "The river will not stay high long enough. We'd have them in a vice before they could break the city."
"Can we sap the bridge fast enough?"
"We'll put the mage artillery groups to work on it. Have them hold the bridge until we get back across then blow it apart. That'll keep them out of the main fighting until they have more experience. The Sinari don't have major spellcraft we'll need to counter, not that we've seen so far. I'll take my coterie just in case." Ria smiled to herself. "Gentlemen, we can do this."