There was frost on the ground, Morrow noted, which should have been unknown in this part of Atlantis. The southern coast of the country was just a few leagues south, and this was supposed to be warm, fertile farmland. Instead it was just dirt. Cold dirt. Her horse was picking at the odd tuft of grass that still grew here and there, but without much enthusiasm. How was an army supposed to march without forage anyway? Supplies only took them so far, at least travelling as light as they were. But she wasn’t in charge – she wouldn’t even know where to start with deciding what to do with two-thousand-odd soldiers. It still disturbed her that Albrihn seemed to have much more confidence in her though. By her side rode Hasprit. He was looking over his shoulder, frowning at the hill they’d just ridden down. “So, when you said patrol…”
He scratched under the cord of his eye patch. “I thought we were just going to ride around the camp a little. Get the lay of the land.”
“The commander told me to send out a long-range patrol to find Saffrey’s army.” She pointed over the next line of hills. Beyond there was a vague smudge of smoke against the pale blue sky. “Looks like campfires to me.”
“He told you to go?”
“He told me to send two riders, no more.”
“Yeah, see, send is the key word there. You’re the captain now.”
“So, you’re supposed to delegate.”
She shrugged. “I’m the fastest rider in the Seventh. You’re my best man, fates help me, so I decided it should be the two of us.”
Hasprit shook his head, but he wore a good-natured smile. “Serving under you is going to be interesting, Morrow.”
“You’ve served under me for years.”
“Yeah, but you used to have the captain to…you know…rein you in a bit…”
Morrow held up her hands. “See? Everyone else knows I’m not cut out for this – could you maybe let the commander know? He apparently has absolute fucking faith in me.”
“We all do, Morrow. You know that.”
“You should have been made captain.”
“Me?” he scoffed. “I’m no leader.”
“You’re a sergeant.”
“Exactly. And sergeants are a different breed, right? A career sergeant is a noble thing. Look at old Loban back at the barracks. Sergeant all his life, and who has more respect in the regiment than him?”
“Yeah, but Hasprit, the key difference between you and him is that you can’t cook for shit.”
“It’s never too late to learn…”
“I’ve tasted your cooking. There isn’t enough time in the bastard world.”
Hasprit grinned. “All right then. But you know I’m not cut out for command. Not real command.”
“Well, you’re going to have to be. I’m promoting you to lieutenant. Effective immediately.”
He wheeled his horse around to block her path and held up a warning finger. “Now, hold up there…”
“You said you wanted to be lieutenant when we were talking the other night!”
“Right, but then you made the very good point that we’re barely even a company these days. You don’t need a lieutenant.”
“The commander insisted.” She manoeuvred her horse around his and rode onwards.
Hasprit guided his mount into a trot to draw up beside her again. “He asked you to promote me?”
“No, he asked me to promote someone. He said it was important.”
“As I understand it, he wants to rebuild the Seventh.”
He brightened up. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. When all this is done,” she waved vaguely towards the smoke over the horizon, “he told me he wants to reinforce us with veterans. Maybe not all cavalry either. He’s talking about a mixed formation. An honour guard, maybe.”
“Him I suppose.”
“Does he need an honour guard?”
Morrow shrugged again. “If he’s going to marry the Empress…”
“Fucking hell. I’m not wearing fancy parade armour. Have you seen those palace guards? They look like fucking peacocks.”
“Oh come on,” she said, sidling her horse towards him and reaching out to tickle his chin, “I think you’d look handsome with feathers on your helmet.”
He grabbed her hand, and then levelled a warning finger at her. “Don’t push it!”
“Unhand me,” she said, pulling free with a broad grin, “I’m your captain!”
“Fucking hell,” he said again, shaking his head. “But…that’s good. The Seventh will ride again, right?”
“Exactly. And that means a lieutenant, and sergeants to command the squadrons. You think I should promote Gena and Windhael?”
“Probably.” He itched under his patch again. “Honestly, there isn’t a man or woman among us doesn’t deserve it.”
“I agree. So we’ll form the core of whatever unit Albrihn has in mind.”
“Sounds like it’ll be…interesting.” Now he peered across the hills. “But it’s all going to depend on how this turns out.”
“Same as always.”
Hasprit fell silent for a moment. Then said, “All right, so best case scenario…”
“Best case scenario, we smash Saffrey, send his army running with their tails between their legs. A few months mopping them up, throw some of his commanders in the dungeons, accept oaths from the defeated officers, restore peace to Atlantis.”
“How’d you mean?”
“Well, the way I see it, who’s left to fight after that?”
“There’s always someone,” Morrow said, a little uncertainly.
“Of course. Bandits, other rebels, whatever.”
“He doesn’t need to build a new army for that.”
Morrow looked at him. “Who said anything about a new army?”
“Think about it: think about how we got here, how light we travelled. And all this talk of reforming the Seventh? He’s planning a new model of warfare. Mixed formations, light troops, speed over strength. Rykall’s heavy cavalry? Thing of the past. Mark my words.”
“Maybe,” she said.
“So that’s not for fighting rebels, is it? He’s thinking long term. Once Saffrey’s put down, then the real war begins.”
“The hyen-a-khan,” Morrow said grimly, “that’s what he’s planning for.”
“How many times did we see them run circles around armies in the mainlands? How many times did they ambush us?”
“All this,” he continued, sweeping an arm around to take in the entire landscape, “it’s all a test, to see if he can run the militia this way.”
“But he doesn’t run the militia – he’s one of, what? Fifty commanders?”
“Empress’s consort ain’t gonna take orders from some commander.” He tapped his nose. “You mark my words: every soldier in Atlantis will be saluting to him in a few months. Privates to commanders.”
“I suppose so.” Morrow snapped at her horse’s reins. “None of that matters right now though. We’ve got a job to do.”
“Right you are, captain,” Hasprit said, pressing his fist to his shoulder.
“I’m your loyal lieutenant, aren’t I? I got to set a standard for the other troops under your illustrious command.”
“I’ll never hear the end of this, will I?” She cantered on ahead, gradually climbing upwards. For all the jokes, she had a lot on her mind. Everything was changing so fast. A few months ago she wasn’t much more than a mercenary, reaving across the mainlands, fighting for whoever would give them the gold to feed their horses and maintain their gear. Scouting out strange barbarian countries, gathering fame and plunder in the name of the distant Emperor. Now it was all…political. Her captain, one of her closest comrades, was now someone important, and he seemed determined to drag the rest of them up with him. What had she done to deserve that? She was just a soldier. She didn’t like it when things got serious. And that made her think of Tayne again. She liked the captain a lot. And they were the same rank now. It was almost a sign. But she’d never had any intention of settling down. She knew how to fight, not how to make a home. They were both soldiers. How could two soldiers, in different regiments, possibly have a relationship? They might not see each other for months at a time.
She shook her head, pushing away those thoughts. What did it matter? She had a job to do, and as she crested the hill, it came sharply into focus – literally. Immediately she turned her horse around and galloped back down the hill. Hasprit looked at her in confusion. “What?”
“I see their camp.”
She drew up and slid out of her saddle, just beside a bare grey bush. “We’ll tie up the horses here and go on foot.”
“Because if we ride up onto that hilltop, we’ll be seen.”
Hasprit squinted up at the smoke. “Wind’s coming from the west, but that smoke’s a fair way off.”
“They’re already breaking camp.”
“That smoke’s hours old.”
“I’m not following, captain.”
She gestured frantically. “All that smoke is miles away. Miles and fucking miles.”
He frowned. She could almost see his mind working. “But if it’s far away…it must be…I mean…”
“Huge. Absolutely fucking huge.”
His eyes went wide. “How many of them are there?”
“On foot,” she repeated, “we go on foot.”
Several minutes later, they scrambled over the lip of the hill on their bellies, soaking their uniforms in dew from the rapidly-melting frost. Morrow clutched a spyglass in one hand which she began extending even as Hasprit looked in wonder at the sprawling camp below them. “Fuck me…”
“No thanks,” she said absently, putting the end of the glass to her eye.
“There’s thousands of them!”
“I reckon at least fifteen thousand.”
Hasprit shook his head. The entire valley was filled with tents, wagons and the dark shapes of soldiers going about the business of packing up. They didn’t seem to be in any rush. The Forest of Ixion was just visible to the north. Their vanguard would almost certainly be under its eaves by dusk, but it would take the rest of the army much longer to catch up. The column would trail for miles. Morrow scanned the camp, trying to get a feel for what they were up against. “Looks like a lot of peasant levies,” she said, “that’s good.”
“They won’t hold. But I see lots of cavalry, lots of drilled infantry. Look at how they’re forming up already.”
“Aye.” Morrow turned her spyglass where he was pointing. A company of Chronusi heavy infantry in plate mail and carrying tall shields were already in a marching column, bristling with spears. She couldn’t hear the beat of their drum, but she could imagine it, as well as the shouts of their sergeants as they strutted up and down the flanks, berating their soldiers. Some things in war were constants.
“That must be Saffrey’s tent,” Hasprit said.
“What? Where?” She lowered the spyglass and squinted at the suddenly distant mass of soldiers. In the centre of the camp was a cluster of grander tents, and one especially gaudy one in the centre. She looked through the glass again. “Yeah, that’s him,” she murmured. The pavilion was huge, supported by so many poles that it looked more like a canvas castle crowned with pointed turrets than any sort of temporary structure. It was lavishly decorated, and two flags flew from the central point: the Atlantian flag and, below it, the banner of Chronus. On other points were smaller flags, one for each Province, even Talos. She relayed this information to Hasprit.
“Then he must’ve already declared himself Emperor, the bastard.”
“Looks like it. No wonder he’s managed to recruit such a big army.”
“We should get back to camp…”
“Hold on a second.” Someone was riding up to Saffrey’s tent. All the guards on duty in this central region of the camp – it reminded her of the Imperial Enclave in Atlas – gave them a wide berth. The horse was large and white, and the man that slid smoothly from the saddle not much different. His skin was as pale as milk and he wore a sort of heavy kilt decorated with a plaid pattern. Another piece of the same cloth was slung over one shoulder, holding the whole barbaric ensemble together and he wore a long curved sword at his waist. His hair was bright red and he wore it in a long braid that hung down to the small of his back. It took her a moment to see how large he was – a Chronusi guard stood close enough for her to compare them, and she started. He towered over the Atlantian and, as he turned his head, she could see his face was hard and cruel, with piercing green eyes. “Fucking hell,” she murmured.
She handed the spyglass over. “That fellow just rode in on the white horse. Take a look at him.”
Hasprit did so and then whistled. “Now ain’t he a big bastard?”
“He looks mainlander to me.”
“Aye. Ankhari if I’m not mistaken.”
Morrow nodded. “Yeah, now you mention it.” Ankhar was a country in the far west of the mainlands, one of the few places they hadn’t visited, but they’d met a few of the tribesmen fighting as mercenaries elsewhere. They were fierce warriors and skilled horsemen, with a dire reputation. They were feared as much for the atrocities they committed against the people they conquered as their prowess in battle. No doubt some of it was mere exaggeration, but if even half of it was true…
Hasprit passed her back the spyglass. “If he has a whole warband of them, those heavy infantry could be the least of our problems.”
Morrow’s gaze roved across the whole camp. She saw no more pale warriors. “I think it’s just him. But who knows?” She went back to the Ankhari, who was now approaching Saffrey’s tent. Two guards stood at the entrance, but made no move to bar his way, and he ducked straight in seemingly without announcing himself. “This makes no sense. Saffrey hates mainlanders. He’s an Isolationist, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know shit about politics, captain.”
“Me neither. But it still seems odd. A mainlander champion in an Atlasian army. Can’t square that.”
“It can’t be for his tactical acumen. No Ankhari could command a force like this.”
“I agree. My guess is he’s there to kill someone.”
Morrow dropped the glass and looked down at the enormous camp. The Ankhari used those curved swords with deadly skill, and they believed a contest of blades was holy – an offering to their bloodthirsty god or some such. If one of their warlords had crossed the sea to fight someone, it must be a formidable swordsman indeed. “Albrihn,” she said, “he’s here to kill the commander.”
“We’d better get back.”
“An army that size,” Rykall insisted, “is most vulnerable at night. We wait for them to make camp again and we strike in the darkness. No matter how many there are, we’ll scatter them to the winds.”
The three commanders were standing beneath a makeshift awning. Morrow and Hasprit stood to one side, having made their report of the enemy’s disposition. Albrihn was slightly annoyed that Morrow had gone herself, but he didn’t trust anyone more than he trusted her, and the information she’d brought back was detailed and thorough. Between them, on a fold-up table, was a map of this part of Chronus. Morrow had pointed to where Saffrey’s army was camped: in the valley just south of Ixion.
“They won’t halt their march on this side of the forest again,” Morrow said, then added belatedly, “sir.”
“I agree,” Hadrin said. “This was their last stop before the forest, I’ll wager. There’s no place for fifteen-thousand soldiers to rest up beneath those eaves. They’ll push right through.”
Albrihn nodded. “So the plan is unchanged,” he said.
“You haven’t even told us what this plan of yours is,” Rykall growled. He was stalking around beneath the awning. The clear morning had clouded over a few hours later, and now a relentless drizzle was pattering down. “How can two-thousand defeat more than seven times their number? This whole expedition is folly!”
“It’s simple,” Albrihn said calmly, leaning over the map. “We split into two forces.”
“Even more ridiculous!”
Hadrin rolled her eyes. “Carry on, Rayke.”
He pointed. “The main bulk of our army rides north as fast as possible, skirting around the edge of the forest.”
“That’ll take days!” Rykall sputtered.
“Not if we take our fastest horse. Hadrin, as our most experienced commander, you’ll lead this contingent.” Now he traced a finger to the south of the forest. “The rest take the enemy in the rear. According to my captain they have engines and baggage in abundance. They’ll be vulnerable, even with a rearguard. That’s where our heaviest troops will hit. Rykall: you and I will lead that contingent.”
“A rear attack?” He curled his lip.
“There’s no room to manoeuvre along the forest trail,” Hadrin said with a nod. Her eyes flicked across the map, calculating. “They’ll be trapped. My force attacks first; they form up to face us. The column will try to reform into blocks to repel the attack. While they’re all rushing forward, you and Rykall smash them from behind. They’ll be crushed.”
Rykall remained unconvinced. “A pitched battle in a forest? Suicide.”
“We’re light troops,” Albrihn reminded him, “we can advance in loose formation, come at them from the forest itself.”
“That’s no easy feat of organisation,” Hadrin said, “especially if it’s to be an ambush. No horn signals, no banners. Can you rely on everyone to do their part?”
“I believe so.” He turned to Morrow. “Captain, you’ll command one wing of Hadrin’s contingent. You have the expertise commanding light cavalry.”
Morrow’s eyes went wide and she opened and closed her mouth like a fish. “A wing…?”
“I’ll let the commander work out the details with you.”
“You intend to have the army work as autonomous units then?” Hadrin asked him.
“More or less. In one respect, Rykall’s idea was sound – we’ll be attacking by night.”
Rykall threw up his hands. “More madness!”
“It’ll be a forced match through the forest. They’ll be moving through the night.”
“They’ll never see us coming,” Hadrin smiled. “This could work.”
“It will work.” Albrihn stabbed his forefinger down into the centre of the dark area of the map indicating the Forest of Ixion. “We’ll light up the engines and the baggage, and the forward contingent will pull back. They’ll try to turn to the rear, that’s when your heavy cav strikes, Rykall.”
“No one else could have done this,” Hadrin said approvingly. “They’ll still expect us to be in Atlas.”
“It’s a decent enough plan,” Rykall finally acknowledged with a grudging nod. His big arms were folded across his chest. “What of this pale warrior though?”
“He won’t get anywhere near me. Or anyone else. I’ll be at the rear.”
“No,” Hadrin said, rubbing her jaw. “You should command the forward contingent.”
“Because you have the experience, just like your captain. That’s the toughest part of this plan to execute.”
“That’s why I put you in command there.”
She shook her head. “I’m no cavalry commander. And this is your battle. You should be there at the front. If something goes wrong at the back, you’ll be better placed to fight your way out. Rykall and I will take the rear.”
Albrihn considered. It did make sense. “Very well.” He turned back to Morrow. “Captain, we’ll put together an order of battle as we break camp. There’s no time to waste – I intend to attack tonight.”
The commanders, as well as Morrow and Hasprit, all straightened and saluted him. “Fates be with us,” Rykall murmured.
“Or better yet – fates be easy to cheat,” Morrow said.
Albrihn gave a wry half-smile. “You all have your orders,” he told them.