Army of Glacierheart, Eastmarch Province, and First Brigade (Reinforced), Glacierheart Province, Republic of Siddarmark
The listening device deployed onto the shoulder of Bishop Militant Cahnyr Kaitswyrth’s tunic was far too small for the unaided human eye to see, but it was capable of remarkable sensitivity, and Merlin Athrawes leaned back in his chair in far-off Siddar City, where darkness had already fallen, listening to its take.
“I’m fully aware of the dispatches from Captain General Maigwair,” Kaitswyrth snapped, glowering across the chart table at Bishop Gahrmyn Hahlys, Bishop Tymahn Scovayl, and Colonel Wylsynn Maindayl.
Hahlys’ and Scovayl’s expressions went simultaneously (and almost instantly) blank at the words “captain general,” and Colonel Maindayl’s lips tightened. The colonel was the equivalent of Kaitswyrth’s chief of staff. He looked as if he wanted to object to where his superior was headed, but he glanced from the corner of one eye at the iron-faced upper-priest in the Schuelerite-purple cassock of an Inquisitor standing at Kaitswyrth’s right elbow and clamped his jaw.
Kaitswyrth glared at his three subordinates for a long, fulminating moment. He’d never been what someone might call a patient man, yet it was unusual for him to show his frustration this clearly and at the expense of divisional commanders like Scovayl and Hahlys. For that matter, it was unusual—not unheard of, but unusual—for him to vent his ire on Maindayl this way.
Of course, he’s under just a bit of stress at the moment, Merlin reflected with a thin smile. Pity about that.
“All right,” Kaitswyrth continued in a somewhat calmer tone once he’d assured himself that no one was going to venture to argue with him. “I understand your concerns, and I understand the Captain General’s concerns, but we’re in nowhere near the kind of dire straits Bishop Militant Bahrnabai’s dealing with. Of course it’s going to turn around and bite all of us on the arse when winter sets in, but at the moment, we have a secure supply line clear back to Dohlar through the Charayn Canal; he doesn’t. And there’s no way the heretics’ Shan-wei-damned—” He paused, obviously seeking the word he wanted, then grunted. “No way those smoking, demonspawn, Proctor-inspired, cannon-proof armored ships of theirs are going to get around into our rear and knock that canal out. Besides, we’ve got over two months’ worth of supplies backed up between here and Aivahnstyn! I know we’re going to have to pick a place and camp there all winter long, once the supply situation really starts to bite. And I know we’re going to have to allow time to get the men under roofs, not just canvas, when we do. But it’s only the end of July, and Vicar Zhaspahr’s right about the need to maintain as much pressure on the heretics as we possibly can before the snow stops us.”
Interesting that it’s “Vicar Zhaspahr” but “Captain General Maigwair,” isn’t it? Merlin reflected. Listening to him, you’d never guess they’re both members of the Group of Four … and that Maigwair’s Kaitswyrth’s commanding officer according to the Army of God’s table of organization.
“I also know Bishop Militant Bahrnabai got hurt badly by the heretics’ new weapons.” Kaitswyrth’s eyes swept his listening subordinates’ faces. “On the other hand, they came at him without warning and took him and his people completely by surprise. Not only that, but aside from their new rifle design, we sure as Langhorne didn’t see any of those ‘new weapons’ when we overran the heretics’ redoubts, did we?”
“No, My Lord,” Maindayl said after a moment. “With all due respect, though, I think we do have to remember that the heretics in those redoubts were Siddarmarkian regulars and heretic Marines. The indications are that we’re up against the heretics’ army now, and from the reports about what happened to Bishop Militant Bahrnabai’s army, their equipment list isn’t the same.”
It took courage to argue, even diffidently, with Kaitswyrth, Merlin conceded. Especially with Sedryk Zavyr, Bishop Militant Cahnyr’s special intendant, standing there with an expression like a green persimmon fig. Kaitswyrth glowered at his chief of staff for a moment, but then he inhaled and made himself nod.
“You’re right about that, Wylsynn,” he acknowledged. “And while it may not seem that way to certain people”—he frowned at Scovayl and Hahlys—“I really am aware of that fact. But even if they’ve got everything Wyrshym told us about, we’re not stuck in a damned valley with no flanks and no choice but to go straight at the enemy.” He thumped the map on the table between them, showing his army’s position in the slice of Eastmarch Province between Glacierheart and Cliff Peak … and the very heart of the Ahstynwood Forest. “The Glacierheart Gap’s over a hundred and fifty miles wide, for Langhorne’s sake! And at absolute worst, the heretics have—what? Ten thousand men? Let’s be generous and grant them fifteen thousand! That’s only a hundred men per mile, and a lot of it—most of it—is covered with trees where their damned long-ranged rifles aren’t going to help them very much, now are they?”
Maindayl looked back at him for a moment and Merlin wondered if he was contemplating pointing out how those same trees hampered Kaitswyrth’s own mobility. If he was, he thought better of it and nodded, instead.
“Well, there’s this to think about, too,” Kaitswyrth growled, thumping the map again. “Right now we’re sitting in the middle of the woods stuck on this damned river like a prong buck sliding down a slash lizard’s gullet. I don’t know about you, but I sure as Shan-wei don’t want to spend the winter sitting out here freezing my arse off. And I especially don’t want the heretics to be able to make whatever preparations they want in front of us while we wait for the icicles to melt off our noses. Look.”
His finger traced the line of the Daivyn River through the Glacierheart Gap to Ice Lake.
“At the moment, that bastard Eastshare’s line of supply is absolutely secure all the way from where he’s sitting back to Siddar City. But we’re only seventy-two miles from Ice Lake, and we’re less than two hundred and eighty from Saithor if we continue straight ahead across the lake and down the Graywater. For that matter, we’re less than a hundred and eighty miles from Tairys itself! You think taking out the provincial capital wouldn’t knock the heretics back on their heels, whatever they’ve managed to do to us in the Sylmahn Gap? I’d love to get that far in—or far enough to send a few thousand cavalry to burn the snakes’ nest to the ground, anyway!—but I’ll settle for punching across Ice Lake. If we can control the point at which the Graywater flows out of the lake, we’ll have our hand around Glacierheart’s throat at the start of the next campaigning season.”
Now that, Merlin thought sourly, is true enough. I imagine Eastshare would have a little something to say about it, but Kaitswyrth’s right about how ugly this could get if he manages to get past the Duke. I wish to hell we had one of the ironclads on Ice Lake right this minute!
“We’ve got over a hundred and fifty thousand men, including the Loyalist militia units we’ve picked up,” Kaitswyrth said, tapping the map more gently but even more emphatically. “They can’t afford to hold a position too far up the river from the lake for fear we’ll get around behind them and cut their line of retreat the same way we did to the first batch of heretics. If we hit them head on and simultaneously hook around to threaten their rear, they’ll have to retreat, and once we push them back to the lake, they’ll be pinned against it, and without all these damned trees getting in our way. I’d love to see them trying to load all of their troops onto barges under fire! And if they try to retreat around the shore of the lake without any cavalry, we’ll be able to get around them easily and force them to stand and fight in the open. So I don’t want to hear any more about all the reasons we should stand fast where we are. At the very worst, we’re going to take some casualties and we’re going to use up some of those two months’ worth of supplies sitting on the river. At best, we’re going to drive far enough forward that we’ll be clear of the Glacierhearts and into the lowlands when next spring rolls around. And in the meantime, we’ll kill a lot more of these heretic bastards. Is that clear?”
His chief of staff and both divisional commanders nodded, and he nodded back—a curt, confident jerk of the head.
“That’ll be all, then. I want plans for the movement by tomorrow night. Dismissed.”
* * *
Well, that isn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, Merlin reflected, climbing out of his chair and crossing to the window to look out across Siddar City’s lights. The thunderstorms of the last few days had passed, leaving the air clean and cool, and the lights gleamed cleanly against the dark. There weren’t very many of them and they weren’t very bright by the standards of the Terran Federation in which Nimue Alban had grown up, but they were enough to show the lines of the...