MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THE GLORY ..."
It started off with a deep bass, the men picking up the words, their voices echoing across the plains. Ramrods clattered in fouled muskets, cartridges were run home, pieces were raised, bayonets poised.
He clicked open his carbine, sliding a last round in, and cocked the hammer.
The breeze was blowing fair and clear, the standards fluttered in the wind.
There seemed to be a far-off place now. It wasn't here. No, it was Antietam again. The young terrified officer standing there, looking like a lost boy. He had watched him grow, grow to lead a regiment, an army, an entire world.
The son he never had, the son in fact that he now did have. That was enough to leave behind.
"He has loosed the fateful lightning . . ."
"God keep you, son."
The nargas sounded. . . .
THE LOST REGIMENT #3
TERRIBLE SWIFT SWORD
William R. Forstchen
A ROC BOOK
Published by the Penguin Group
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First Printing, February, 1992 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
Copyright William R. Forstchen, 1992 All rights reserved
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If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen properly. It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book."
For Eleanor Wood. It's wonderful to have the best agent in the business; it's even better when that agent is also a close and trusted friend.
For Joel Rosenberg, who has always been there as an adviser for so many tough questions both personal and professional.
And finally, for L. Sprague and Catherine de Camp, who inspired me so many years ago with their wondrous tales and more recently with their friendship, which I shall always cherish.
A special thanks goes to Professor Dennis Showalter, who helped with many an obscure and difficult question regarding logistics. A general acknowlegment should go out as well to my professors and fellow graduate students with the history department at Purdue for their advice and encouragement. Finally, a long overdue acknowledgment to Dean Miller for all those lunchtime conversations that wove together the world of academia with the universe of science fiction and fantasy.
Somehow it had all gone too easily this time. He waited expectantly, sniffing the air, as if one could actually catch the scent of the Merki on the wind. The air was damp with the sea. Coiling vapors rose around him in the darkness, the only sound the gentle lapping of the waves on the rocky shore.
Where were the cloud-flyers, and the patrolling galleys dogging their flanks?
It just wasn't right, and yet he was close, too close now to turn back.
Hamilcar Baca, exiled leader of the Cartha, leaned against the prow of his galley, nervously stroking his oily black beard, intently watching the darkness to the west.
"There it is," a rower whispered, pointing to the flash of light winking in the gloom. It disappeared, then flashed twice more.
"That's it," Hamilcar whispered. He nodded to the signalman beside him who, facing aft, unsheathed his lantern, flashing the all-clear to the flotilla of ships a league further out to sea.
"Take us in," Hamilcar whispered, feeling somewhat foolish for speaking softly.
If Merki were waiting, he thought, they would know we are here, loud voices or not. He looked up at the double moons, one rising in the east, the other fat and gibbous on the western horizon. The sea was a crisscross of shadows highlighting the ships, which drifted ghostlike through the patches of fog.
The rowers dropped their blades, the muffled oars dipping into the light chop of the Inland Sea. The late-night mist swirled and eddied, glowing dimly with the moonlight and the reflected lights of the city of Cartha, half a dozen miles to the south. The fishing village ahead was dark, quiet.
It would be the largest rescue attempted so far, and the one most important to his heart. It was strange to come back to his own shore, a fugitive, slipping in and out to rescue a lucky few from the Merki pits.
Two years ago he had been king. To be certain, he knew the Merki were coming, but what concern was that in the end, for as a noble he and all those close to him were exempt. Certainly he had harbored dreams of rebellion—who hadn't?—especially when word came of the Yankees' decision to fight the Tugars. How he had coveted the few weapons they offered in trade, gazing upon them in the night, and wishing that somehow he could forge such things as well and cast the Merki out!
He shook his head sadly with the memory. Yet I sold my soul again he reflected, when the Namer of Time had arrived at the gates, bearing a warning not to resist.
He cursed the uncaringness of Baalk, who had blinded him thus, and in the end led him to this destruction. I became their tool, he thought bitterly, and in my cowardice lost everything. And now I skulk through the night, hoping against hope to save a precious few.
To his amazement Keane had stood by his promise, keeping none of them as prisoners, and offering a safe haven for any who would fight the Merki.
It was an offer he'd had to take. When the Oqunquit had gone down he had hesitated for a moment between swimming to the west bank and the Merki lines, or swimming to the east and capture. He had thanked Baalk a thousand times that he had gone east, for the Merki would surely have sent him to the pits for the defeat they had suffered.
Twice in the last forty days he had run down the Inland Sea, the first time leading six ships, which had brought back nearly five hundred refugees. The second time, with twelve ships, they had saved a thousand, but the damned cloud-flyers of the Merki had found them and sunk two of the galleys on the way back.
Yet in coming back both times he had proven something—that he was committed to the alliance— and now Keane had given him forty galleys and two gunboats to offer some form of protection. There was even a regiment of Suzdalian infantry with him, acting as rowers, but also armed with muskets, with four-pound guns mounted on swivels for use against the cloud-flyers. If Andrew had offered such an arrangement on the first trip he would have felt they were along as a guarantee of his return; now he saw it as the offer that it was, armed protection to help him get the families of some of his men out of Cartha.
They had not seen the cloud-flyers all the way down—the cold winds of autumn had most likely kept them in their sheds—and he could only pray that this time they would escape unscathed.
Two lanterns appeared on the shoreline, marking the area between which the galleys could safely approach and land. His hands felt damp, sweaty.
The feel of a musket was still unusual, the wood hard and ungiving compared to the leather-wrapped hilt of his blade. But a musket could kill a Merki at a hundred paces, a sword could not.
Hamilcar looked over at the leadsman, and waited.
"Ten feet, eight feet."
The beach was visible at last, marked by a thin ripple of white from the low curling waves washing ir. from the sea.
The boat lifted slightly, racing in on curling wave, scrapping over the gravelly beach.
Leaping over the side, musket held high over his head, Hamilcar waded in, men pushing ahead of him with weapons raised. It could still be a trap. All they needed was for one person to find out and to sell the information to the Merki in return for an exemption.
A low cry rose up from the beach, and he tensed. A woman appeared, running into the water, carrying a child under either arm. More and yet more appeared, and within seconds wild shouts of joy were shattering the darkness as hundreds swarmed down to the single boat.
The voice drifted down from the beach.
A shadowy form emerged out of the darkness. A lantern was unhooded, shining into his eyes and blinding him.
"Thank Baalk!" the man cried, and in obeisance went down to his knees in the surf.
Hamilcar smiled as he pulled Elazar, his oldest friend from childhood, back to his feet. Elazar had been raised beside him from infancy—they had even been born on the same day. It was through him as well that he had learned discipline. For his little crimes of childhood it was Elazar that had been beaten, since it was forbidden to strike one of the royal line. He had learned forbearance soon enough: Actions that he would have risked if the punishment were to be his alone he had never dreamed of doing out of fear for his friend.
"Elazar, just what in the name of Baalk and all the gods is going on here?" Hamilcar roared, looking in amazement at the mass confusion of the mob that was pouring out of the village and into the surf.
"It got out of control!" the man cried, tugging at his graying beard, his eyes rolling in fear. "Word spread through the city of your coming back; thousands of people have been pouring into the countryside. It seems like the Merki are taking everyone for the pits. Tens of thousands of others are being driven to make yet more weapons of war. There is talk they will invade the Rus lands come the spring, and they are preparing."
"Damn all of it," Hamilcar growled. This time it really was out of control. Nearly twelve thousand of his men had been captured in the war against the Rus and Roum. Nearly all had elected to take Keane's offer of sanctuary. He had promised to get as many families as possible out from under the Merki rule. Several hundred men had volunteered to slip back into Cartha to round people up and get them down to the coast. The Inland Sea had turned into a battleground as a result. Individual ships foraying out, hitting the coast at nightfall and running back towards Suzdal the following morning burdened down with refugees.
Yet a slow but steady toll was being exacted as well. The Merki air machines would come floating in on the still air of dawn. If a ship was sighted by them it was as good as dead.
"If this many people found out, the Merki must know as well," Hamilcar said, looking nervously at the shouting crowd, which was now pouring down to the beach.
"We were smuggling people up here as planned," Elazar replied, "and then this afternoon it started— hundreds of people coming out of Cartha."
"No sign of them. But they are coming." And he nodded to a man standing behind him.
Hamilcar turned his attention to what appeared to be a Rus standing expectantly behind Elazar, the man looking vaguely familiar. His once blond hair had gone to streaks of gray. He was lean of build, obviously inured to harshness, yet his dress was not of a peasant but was made of rich cloth, the tunic even trimmed with threads of gold. The cut was vaguely like that of the traditional Rus tunic and crosshatched leggings, but the tunic was slit up either side to make it more comfortable for riding.
"Rus?" Hamilcar asked warily.
"Once, but long ago, a full circling gone," the man replied in the tongue of the Merki, the words sounding strange, guttural, and vaguely obscene coming from the lips of a human.
"A pet of the Merki shield-bearer Tamuka," Elazar said coldly. "He came here shortly before you arrived, saying that the Merki were coming."
"Before Shagara disappears," the Rus stated, nodding towards the gibbous moon to the west, "they will be here."
"Why are you telling us this?"
"I wish to return to my people. In exchange I brought you the warning of the Merki closing in, and some additional information as well."
"What information?" Hamilcar asked, looking over at Elazar.
"He wouldn't tell me," Elazar replied, looking at the Rus with contempt.
"I left him for you to decide," Elazar whispered in Carthinian. "Never trust one who had been with them for a circling as a pet—they will eat the flesh of their own people to survive. Most likely this bastard's eaten the leavings of the pits, the flesh of his own race. I heard they force them to do that."
Hamilcar looked at the Rus closely. The man stood before him, calmly staring straight back, his blue eyes wide. There was no fear.
"What information do you have, then?"
The Rus smiled.
"The Merki and the Bantag Qar Qarths will meet at the next moon feast to discuss peace. I know the details of what will be offered, and when they will attack, but will reveal that only to the one called Keane, after I am safely returned."
"Damn them all!" Hamilcar hissed, and he looked coldly at the pet.
"Well, did you eat flesh?" Hamilcar asked, clumsily forming the Merki words.
"I survived," the Rus replied, looking straight ahead as if offering no apology.
Hamilcar grunted with disdain.
"Yuri Yaroslavich, goldsmith of Suzdal." This time he spoke in Cartha, looking over at Elazar as if to indicate he had understood every word spoken.
The man said the words proudly, his Suzdalian accent returning in a clear tone.
"Go to the boat," Hamilcar said, his lips curling in disgust. "I'll take you back for your own people to judge."
The man bowed slightly, and headed into the water.
"He's too oily," Elazar said, loud enough for Yuri to hear. The man ignored his words and kept on going into the surf. "Why would he leave the security of being a pet to throw in with us?"
"Patriotism," Hamilcar growled cynically.
"Unlikely. Cut his throat and throw him overboard. Would you trust someone who had eaten human flesh? I'd cut his heart out and jam it down his throat to choke on. It's what we've always done to pets who try to hide with us. They are unclean."
He looked over to where Yuri was pushing his way aboard Hamilcar's ship and spat on the ground.
"And you were the one with the soft heart."
"After what I've seen," Elazar whispered, "my heart is of stone."
Elazar nodded in the direction of a fishing shack. Pushing his way through the crowd, Hamilcar ran up the beach, while shouting for his staff to signal the other boats in.
He felt as if he were running against the tide, the swarm of people streaming down to the beach slowing his advance to a maddening crawl. Cursing and shoving, he edged his way through the mob.
The door of the shack was open, several of his old soldiers who had snuck back in to Cartha weeks before standing in front of the shack as guards. At his approach they bowed low and stepped back.
She seemed almost to be an illusion. When he had left for the campaign against the Roum and Rus, he had felt that somehow he would never see her again. Pushing his way through, he reached the door as she flung herself into his arms.
"I never dreamed of seeing you again!" she sobbed, pressing herself tightly against his breast. He let his musket drop to the ground.
He felt a tugging at his sleeve and, reaching down, he swept Azruel up into his arms. The little boy squealed with delight, pulling at his father's beard and snuggling up against his broad chest.
"They said you were dead, but I didn't believe them!" Drasila whispered, her voice choking with tears.
"How did you escape?" Hamilcar asked, even as he anxiously looked back at the clamoring mob sweeping behind him toward the beach.
"It was Elazar. The day word came of the defeat he managed to sneak us out of the palace and into hiding. We just missed you the last time you were here. We almost didn't get out this time. The Merki have started the Choosing."
So the bastards were going to feed off Cartha flesh anyhow. He had expected it all along: The exemption for everyone he knew was conditional on defeating the Rus.
In a way he should be cursing Keane, Marcus, all of them, for if only they had submitted and been beaten none of this would now be happening. And yet he could not, for as Keane had said to him, if the situation had been reversed would he not have fought as well? The only real enemy was the Merki.
"My lord, we best get moving."
Hamilcar looked back at Elazar, who stood anxiously behind him.
"It got completely out of control this time—there were thousands of people on the road here. The Merki have to know."
Hamilcar nodded, and with Arzeul still in his arms he bent over, picking up his musket. With Drisila clinging to his side he started to press his way back through the crowd. He could sense a rising edge of panic to the mob.
"How many boats did you bring?" Elazar asked, keeping his voice low.
"It's not enough."
"I can see that," Hamilcar replied sharply. He tried to push his way through the crowd but saw that it was useless. Rank held no advantages here in the dark, as thousands pushed into the water, struggling to reach the boats that were now drifting in out of the darkness.
As each ship came in it was surrounded, people clinging to the sides, jamming up against the oars, threatening in more than one case to simply roll the galley over.
And then above the clamor of the mob he heard the sound which he dreaded the most, the high clarion call of a Merki nargas, war trumpet of the Horde.
A momentary hush came over the crowd, as if disbelieving that death had suddenly called out its warning.
The nargas sounded again, echoing across the beach, counterpointed by dozens more, sounding their call in a vast ring about the village.
"The Merki!" It was a shriek of terror, picked up in an instant by thousands of voices.
Helpless, Hamilcar felt as if he would be borne under by the crush, as by the thousands the panic-stricken crowd surged down to the water.
A ripple of explosions flashed in a vast ring. Seconds later the solid shot and exploding shell smashed into the mob, foaming the water and cutting bloody furrows through the crowds.
His ship was so maddeningly close, with Githra, the ship's captain, standing atop the prow, cupping his hands and screaming for his leader. The ship was less than a score of paces away, yet hundreds were packed between him and safety.
"Hang on to me!" Hamilcar screamed, as he felt Drisila's hand slipping from his. He tried to turn back to her. She looked at him, eyes wide with panic, and as if in a nightmare he felt his grasp upon her slip away.
"Save Azreul!" she screamed. An obese woman pushed between them, desperate to claw her way through. With his now free hand Hamilcar struck her, trying to push her quivering form aside. Her eyes mad with fear she clawed back, trying to fight past him to the water.
The mob surged, picking Hamilcar off his feet. The fat woman fell, shrieking in anguish. More and yet more tripped over her body, climbing over her and kicking her into the gravel.
Drisila was gone.
"Mama!" Azreul shrieked, trying to claw his way out of Hamilcar's arms. Hamilcar clutched the boy tightly, raising the child above the crush while Azreul wailed for her mother.
Above the mad confusion the nargas continued to cry out. The Merki artillery lifted its range, bursting shells over the water in their eagerness to cripple the ships, as if the people upon the beach were no longer worth the effort.
A ripple of shots snapped out from the ships—the Suzdalian musketmen firing over the heads of the crowd in a desperate bid to hold them back.
Githra was looking straight at him.
"We must get to the boat!" Elazar shouted, trying to push him forward.
"Drisila!" he roared, trying to fight his way back up the beach.
"My lord, get Azreul to the boat!" Elazar shouted.
The survival of his only living child suddenly forced out all other thoughts. He turned aside, pushing back toward the ship, clawing his way through the mob. A contingent of sailors were over the side of the ship, waving their swords, trying to keep the crowd back, the water already pink from their efforts.
A shell detonated almost directly over the ship, snapping with a glowing brilliance, and as if by some divine guidance its breath cleared an opening in the crowd, as bodies dropped into the surf. Hamilcar leaped forward, holding Azreul over his head with both hands, the child screaming with terror.
The ring of sailors stepped past him and he held the child up to the side of the ship, Githra reaching down and sweeping the boy up on board. There was a dull snap of sound and, stunned, Hamilcar looked at the quivering arrow buried in the side of the ship. An instant later a sheet of feathered death rained down, rattling against the ship and striking dozens. Men tumbled back into the vessel, others over the railing and into the mob.
"Get on board!" Githra shouted.
Hamilcar turned away.
From the corner of his eye he saw the flat of Elazar's blade coming down.
The blow slammed him up against the side of the ship.
"Get him aboard!" Elazar screamed.
Stunned, he struggled weakly, as he was half pushed and half dragged into the ship. A continual hail of arrows swept down, the barbed points acting as prods, driving the mob into an hysterical frenzy.
He tried to regain his feet, but stronger hands forced him back down, a coil of rope going over his shoulders. The world was a dizzy confusion, a blurred memory of a wide-eyed man hanging to the side of the ship, swordsmen screaming with an inner torment as they struck down their own people, wild shouts of panic, a severed hand clinging to the railing, and then ever so slowly the ship backing away, rolling low on the water.
And the nargas continued to cry out. Coming up to his knees he felt Elazar holding him tight, preventing him from standing. Several ships were trapped on the beach, one of them on its side, the oil from a lantern having spilled out, the bow of the vessel engulfed in flames that illuminated the nightmare. The beach seemed to be a shifting, writhing mass, as if it were a single living creature twisting and rolling in agony.
The closing ring of Merki was visible, dim shadow-figures towering in the streets of the village. He could imagine their gloating joy. After all, they were harvesting cattle, runaway cattle who would all be condemned to the slaughter pits. Those who had died tonight would be on their tables by morning.
Drisila . . .
Bristling with rage, he looked back at Elazar, who said nothing, his bearlike arms holding him down.
The rowers struggled at the oars, the men toward the bow powerless to move what with each blade jammed by desperate hangers-on. The cries of the thousands left behind rolled across the ocean like the mournful night-dream voices of the damned. A deeper boom snapped across the waters, the thunder of the heavy shot from the supporting ironclads rippling across the water. It was an impotent gesture.
Hundreds of flaming arrows arced through the air, adding their light to the madness. Merki cannon that had pushed down to either side of the village churned the water with shot. In the shadows he saw a galley riding low, and then ever so slowly roll over on its side, going down at the bow. Suzdalian rowers and the refugees on board spilled out into the surf.
Another galley appeared out of the darkness, swinging in close. Maybe Drisila is on another ship, he thought, even as the coldness within screamed at him not to dream. Few of the ships had even touched land, their captains holding back from the crush. As far as he could tell, his was the only one to get back out.
"Hamilcar?" The cry came from the closing ship.
"He's safe!" Githra shouted. "We run back for Suzdal!"
He wanted to protest, yet he knew that his voice would break with sobs, and so said nothing.
Azreul came up to his side, whimpering, and he gathered the child into his arms, crushing him tight against his chest as if he could blot out the memory his five-year-old mind would forever carry.
"She'll be with us later," he choked, looking over at Elazar, as if his old friend could somehow still work a miracle.
"She's a smart girl, young and strong," Elazar whispered. "I know her, she wouldn't stay with the mob. She'll most likely swim out and come back in to shore when it's safe."
Already the cries on the beach were growing more distant. Knowing what he would have to order, he looked up at Githra.
"We got a late start in, as is," Githra said softly. "We have to run—their air machines will be up before dawn, and there'll be no wind this morning. If we order any ships to swing back in they'll get mobbed by the people in the water, and the Merki guns will tear them apart."
Numbly he nodded, unable to voice the commands.
If peace was brewing between the Merki and Bantag he had to get word back to Keane, for this would change the balance against them even further. He saw Yuri sitting in the middle of the ship, eyes closed as if lost in serene thought. He was tempted to run the bastard through, so he looked away.
There is no hope left here, he realized, his heart tight, a bitter bile burning his throat.
When all of this was done the Cartha people would be but a memory, for whether the Merki won or lost would not matter for the Cartha people— they would be used in the war until all were dead. Even if he went back to them, his death offering would not change a thing. Keane was right in that: This would be a war to the finish between the Hordes and all humans on this world. But why did it have to be here? Could it not all have waited until after the Hordes had passed, letting some other people pay the price?
"Take us home," Hamilcar whispered.
Githra looked at him curiously, the single word sounding so strange. Hamilcar looked up at the man.
Tayang, Qar Qarth of the Bantag Horde, leaned back upon his throne and smiled.
"There has not been a moment such as this since the forgotten grandsires of our grandsires met two hundred circlings ago, to divide between us our paths across the everlasting steppe."
Muzta, Qar Qarth of the tattered remnants of the Tugar Horde, sat in silence, looking over at the third Qar Qarth here this morning.
Jubadi gazed upon Tayang with barely concealed hatred.
"Yet you and I met less than two years before,"
Jubadi finally replied, as if each word tasted of bitterness, "and you violated the blood pledge of protection and tried to kill me."
"You knew what you were doing," Tayang retorted. "Your Vushka Umen slaughtered ten thousand of mine in reply. How do I know that they will not strike even now?"
"Each of us has an umen here," Muzta interjected. "Ten thousand of our finest. A circle, for three days' ride in every direction on this border between Merki and Bantag lands, is cleared of all living things— Tugar, Merki, Bantag, and even cattle. No one will kill another today."
Muzta looked from one to the other. Both had approached him, offering threats and promises, if only he would order his umen to swing over and aid in the destruction of the other.
He had been tempted, to be sure, but he knew as well what it would mean for all of them in the end. Even Jubadi realized that, or at least his shield-bearer Hulagar did. A curious idea, he thought. As a Tugar he had his advisor, old Qubata, but not even Qubata could exert such influence the way a shield-bearer of the Merki could. It was said that a shield-bearer strove not only to protect the life of his lord, but that if need be, for the sake of the clan, and if the Qar Qarth proved to be unworthy, he would take it as well.
Such a system seemed to be madness to him. What was a Qar Qarth, if not the ruler of all his clans with no one above him? For was it not said, "As Bugglaah ruled the choosing of death, so shall a Qar Qarth rule all who are living?"
Hulagar caught his look and held it for a brief moment. What did the shield-bearer think of all of this? But the look was inscrutable, as if he were gazing through him.
"And though you are the weakest," Tayang said quietly, breaking Muzta's thoughts, "here you are the strongest."
Muzta bristled inwardly. Yet again, another Qar Qarth was taunting him.
"If either of you had faced the Yankee weapons first, then it would be you who saw his horde destroyed, and now sat before the other two as a pauper."
Tayang laughed softly but Muzta could sense the wariness, for what he had said was in a way true. He had nothing left to lose. What could be taken from him now was nothing, therefore Jubadi and Tayang would never join together at this kurata, the meeting of Qarths, to slaughter him. For a brief moment it was he who held power over the other two. Yet if he should betray one or the other, their hordes were still numberless and would hunt what was left of his nearly defenseless people across the entire world until vengeance had been taken. The umen with him was barely all he could scrape together for this meeting—nearly all the rest were buried before the human city of Suzdal.
Jubadi held up his hand to Tayang, as if in warning.
"Don't laugh so loudly," he said softly. "Too many of our dead will not take your mirth so lightly."
"Tugar dead, Merki dead, what are they to me?" Tayang replied, but Muzta could see the quick upward glance of his eyes to the peak of the yurt, where malevolent spirits were said to enter through the smoke-hole.
"It will be Bantag dead soon enough," Jubadi said, "if we do not reach agreement."
"And that is a concern of yours?" Tayang retorted.
"It is a concern for all of us—Merki, Tugar, and Bantag."
Startled, Muzta looked over at Jubadi's entourage of clan Qarths, who sat beneath him in a circle around his throne of cattle bones. A Merki came to his feet, looking up at his Qar Qarth. He was slender of build, hair a shaggy brown, eyes dark and full of cold purpose and knowledge, more like those of a serpent than of a hunting tiger. His armor was simple: chain mail of black steel, the coverlet over it adorned with a white circle on black silk, trousers of browned leather faced with metal strips to protect his thighs. Over his shoulder was the round, oversized bronze shield of his office.
There seemed to be a look of surprise in Jubadi's eyes, that one who served beneath him would dare to interject his thoughts at this moment when three Qar Qarths had come together. Jubadi looked down at him, as if weighing a decision, then nodded almost inperceptibly. The Merki stepped forward.
"I am Tamuka, shield-bearer of the royal heir, the Zan Qarth Vuka."
He had seen this one before. He could only hope that he had the strength to control Vuka, for if ever there was one who was not fit to be a Qar Qarth it was he. Muzta could see the wary look in Vuka's eyes as Tamuka strode to the middle of the yurt.
"Is your tongue so weak it cannot speak for itself?" Tayang asked, looking over at Jubadi.
"Perhaps I can form the words best for all of us," Tamuka said. "I am not Qar Qarth, concerned with my power and that of my horde. The three of you are guided by your ka, the spirit of the warrior, as is fitting for those who rule. But all of you here know that the shield-bearers of the Merki, those born to the White Clan, are guided by the tu, the ka-tu shaped by the inner spirit."
"I have heard of this," Tayang said, his voice betraying a hint of curiosity.
"Though to allow such as you to have influence would never happen with the Bantag," he added quickly, looking over at Muzta. "Nor the Tugar Hordes as well, I would assume."
"And perhaps if I had listened more to one whom I suspect was guided by the ka-tu," Muzta replied, "all that has happened would not have been, and it would be the cracked bones of the Yankees that bleached in the sun rather than that of the Tugars."
There were certain moments in one's life, he had come to learn, which are relived a thousand times; and each reliving is a torment, filled with a desire to somehow go back into time, to change an action or even a single word and thus prevent all the anguish that had come since. Two such moments had come in his life. One from so long ago, a moment in his inner life with a consort long gone, the other as Qar Qarth. Qubata had stood before him, counseling against a headlong attack against the Yankees; and he had ignored him. And Qubata was dead, as were nearly all who had charged into the battle that day.
"Listen to him," Muzta said. His voice carried such force that Tamuka turned, a glimmer of acknowledgment in his eyes.
Tayang looked over at Muzta and then let his gaze drop on Tamuka.
"Speak then, one who does not live by the ka spirit of the warrior."
Tamuka gave a nod of acknowledgment, ignoring the insult of not being called a warrior, and stepped into the ceremonial circle of gold cloth in the center of the yurt, the marking place where truth must be spoken.
"All of us have fought," he began softly, turning to look at the three gatherings of Qarths and Qar Qarths. "Bantag against Merki, Merki against Tugar, and before the great kurata which divided the world,
Tugar has fought even against the Bantag. I could recite the honors we have all gained, the grievances we all bear, the deaths across two hundred circlings we wish to revenge.
"These are the things which drive our spirits, which give us the thrill of the charge, the singing of the ka within as we ride against each other, chanting our songs of battle. It is the fullness of what it means to be one of the Hordes."
He smiled for a moment, as if recalling a pleasant memory.
"It is what makes us alive, for without a foe, how else may one measure oneself and one's ka?" All nodded in agreement, murmuring to themselves about the intelligence of his words.
"And now, at least for this moment, it is all meaningless."
Tayang stirred uncomfortably, but remained silent.
"Cattle have been the source of life. They have come through the tunnels of light, the portals our ancestor gods built which once gave them the power to walk between the stars. The working of it is a mystery we do not understand, something we have lost. The tunnels of light seem now to be a thing of their own will, pulling all through who are near them, opening and closing at different times and bringing to Valennia many strange things.
"It was a good thing our ancestors made—at least in the past it was a good thing. It brought the cattle to this world, many of the plants which have taken root, the animals of the woods and steppe, and it brought us the horse which set us free to ride the world."
"Yes, that at least is good," Tayang mumbled, and the entourage of the three Qar Qarths nodded in agreement, as if they had somehow been responsible for what he had said.
"The horse has given us freedom, has enabled us to own all of Valennia, riding forever eastward toward the rising sun. We who were once few, living in the fastness of the Barkth Nom, the mountains that are the roof of the world, became masters of wherever our mounts could ride.
"The cattle we bent to our will, for as we grew in numbers and started our everlasting ride we found some of them already here. And then more came, and yet more. It seems that whatever world they come from beyond the stars they must breed like carrion flies, and thus spill out of the Tunnel into this world.
"We have seen that they are the same and yet different—some of white skin, others brown, yet others black, their tongues different, their customs different as well. Our grandsires in their wisdom learned to place them about the entire world. The cattle built their cities, which they love to hide within. They brought with them yet other beasts to eat, and planted the fields. Their numbers grew, far faster than our own. Yet we learned something else as well. We learned that their flesh is good, and we came to harvest them along with the food that they prepared for our coming. And most importantly of all, they freed us yet more from labor, which is beneath the dignity of those who are of the Horde.
"They freed us so we could do that which is most worthy of all who are of the Horde. They freed us from labor, from want of food, so that we could war against each other and thus gain honor."
He paused for a moment, and saw the self-satisfied nods of agreement.
"We are fools."
"You dare to say that before me?" Tayang roared, coming to his feet.
Tamuka looked about the yurt.
"All of us—Tugar, Bantag, and yes, my own Merki—are fools!" Tamuka shouted, turning and facing each group with his hand extended, pointing accusingly.
"Is your dog mad?" Tayang snarled. "Silence him, Jubadi, or I'll do it myself!"
"For the moment at least, he speaks with my voice," Jubadi replied.
Tayang shifted uncomfortably, looking over to Muzta for support.
"Let him continue," Muzta whispered.
Tamuka looked up at Tayang. The old Qar Qarth cursed softly and then finally nodded.
"I am not speaking now as Merki," Tamuka said, turning to face Jubadi and bowing with an air of apology. "I speak as one of all the Hordes."
Muzta looked at Jubadi with surprise. He saw a sharp look of disdain cross the features of the Zan Qarth Vuka, and just as quickly disappear.
There is tension there between the two, Muzta realized; more than tension, almost a hatred. Tamuka did not seem to notice. He closed his eyes and looked up, as if his gaze could somehow pierce the golden covers of the yurt and reach into the night beyond.
"There is a distant wind, a memory, a soft calling of what we once were," he whispered. "It is like turning back to one's own youth, to a dream of what was, and what can never be again. It is a chant unto the sky of evening, the breeze sighing through the high grass of summer, the musty smell of the earth in the spring. It is riding alone at night, the great wheel lighting one's path, the endless sea of the steppe rolling on forever before our gaze. To awake before dawn, and to ride up to a high place, and to raise your voice in praise as the sun lifts into the sky, its light flashing across the winter snows, the world turned crimson with flashing fire . . .
"That is what we are."
His voice was low, filling the tent. It was as if he chanted the words, and Muzta closed his eyes and flowed away with the words, sharing the memories.
"It is the moment of the ka, when your gaze lifts up and behold, you are one of ten thousand, riding stirrup-to-stirrup, a vast line sweeping across the steppe, the war cries rising to the heavens, the thundering of the hooves; living or dying does not matter, all that exists is to be there in that moment. And you know that if you should live for five circlings, a hundred years, you will never forget the thrill of that charge.
"That is what we are."
He paused, and all were silent.
"These are the moments we have all shared, it is part of all of us, it is why I can say I speak not as Merki, but as one of all the Hordes.
"The cattle will destroy all of that forever. It shall never be the same again."
There was a grumbled response to his words. Muzta felt uncomfortable—he had been lulled by the chant, which now had changed to a cold voice of warning.
"They have given us the freedom to be such, and now they have the power to take it away.
"The cattle have changed. They have learned not only to think like us, but beyond us. They will destroy us and this world shall be theirs, if we do not change as well. We must end, at least for the moment, what we are, if we wish to save ourselves. Though you see it without honor, it is the cattle of the north who are the true enemies, what we do between each other is for now without meaning. If we do not settle this issue, in the end it will destroy us, and they, the lowly cattle, will inherit the world."
There was a low murmuring from the dozens of Qarths sitting beneath the feet of their leaders. Some had grasped the hidden meaning of his words, but only a few; the rest gazed at him in confusion or disdain.
"For a moment, I found I could listen," Tayang growled. "Now your words are like the buzzing of flies on offal."
Tamuka waited for the angry retorts to die away.
"My lord Jubadi is even now building weapons of war. Or should I say, we have cattle who are building them for us."
"Like your last folly, which they destroyed!" Tayang laughed.
"I was there and you were not, Tayang Qar Qarth," Tamuka retorted. "I saw what you have only heard. I know what you have not even yet to dream in your darkest nightmares.
"I saw cattle who fought with a discipline that rivals our own. I saw cattle who charged in to battle, shouting their hatred of us, willing to die, dreaming but to take but one of us with them.
"I remember a time when one of us alone could have ridden into a city of ten thousand of them and they would have submitted, baring their throats. Now I tell you that in the north they wait with their cannons, guns, ships, swords, their bare hands. If we kill ten of them to our one, still we will lose in the end. Because if their infection of hatred spreads east, south even unto the realm of the Bantag, you too will see the fields littered with the corpses of your warriors. For the seed of the cattle is strong, and they spread about our world by the millions.
"You say there is no honor to fight them. Listen well to my words, Tayang, all of you. Honor or not, you will be just as dead from their bullets, and they will laugh as they shovel you into the ground."
He lowered his voice.
"They will laugh as they shovel our entire race into its final grave."
Tayang shifted uncomfortably, taken aback and yet unable to respond, for he could see the look in the eyes of his Qarths, his clan leaders, who sat in silence, their attention fixed on Tamuka.
"Fighting these new cattle is like wrestling with the Ugrasla, the great serpents of your own forests. You grasp them, you think you have held them down, and then they slip through your hands and coil about you.
"We built the weapons of the cattle, or should I say that we had cattle build them for us, and it took us a year. The Yankees then built weapons as good in one tenth that time, and weapons that were even better.
"We build a weapon that can shoot flame and lead, killing a man at fifty paces, like the one you saw before this meeting. They then build one that can kill at two hundred, simply by changing the shape of the bullet and cutting grooves inside the barrel.
"We must learn to build these things on our own, with our own hands."
"You call for those with the ka to labor?" Tayang snarled. "Perhaps this thing inside you called the tu would be a spirit more willing to do such demeaning labor, but not a warrior."
And those in the yurt, all except Muzta, nodded in agreement with Tayang's words.
"We must free ourselves of cattle if we wish to remain free at all," Tamuka replied defiantly.
"To be slaves digging in the mountains for the black iron, to pour out our sweat by the forges, that is not freedom, that is the life of cattle," Jubadi said quietly, though obviously disturbed by Tamuka's words.
Tamuka paused, as if searching for the right words.
"We live without changing, they live in order to change."
"And you are telling us to change," Muzta said, filling the silence.
Tamuka nodded in reply.
"If we wish to survive we must make change a part of our lives, casting aside what was for what is."
"Forever?" Muzta asked.
"At least for now, at least until this thing is settled, but even then it will never be the same again."
"And why not?" Tayang interjected. "I still do not see it as a concern even for us."
"I laughed when I first heard of the discomfort of the Tugars," Jubadi said. "My laughter is silent now."
The Qarths of the Bantag Horde looked up to their lord, waiting for his reply.
"What is it that you want, then?" Tayang asked, "You who speak for the Qar Qarth of the Merki."
"Annihilate them all," Tamuka said coldly.
"Kill all the cattle?" Tayang replied in shock. "You are mad. They raise our food, they make all that we have. They fashion our clothes and armor, they forge our swords, fletch our arrows, and make our bows. They raise the grains, the lower forms of meat that we eat, and they are the noble food that fills our stomachs. If we follow your mad plan, then what are we to eat, Merki? Grass?"
"Do not slay them, and in twenty years, when we ride again to this region, it will be they who ensure that we will feed the grass."
Muzta sat back in silence. Until this moment he had thought that the problem that the Yankees had presented could be contained. That in the end, even if it took twenty years of riding yet again around the world, they would return and have their vengeance.
Yet what would they meet in twenty years? Tamuka now drew the picture in his mind with a clarity that he had once turned to Qubata for. He had seen the Yankee machine that moved upon the land while breathing smoke. He had thought it curious at the time. But with such a thing the Yankees could, in a day, cross a distance that would take a week by horse.
"This Yankee machine, this machine that moves on land . . ." Muzta said.
"They call it a 'train,'" Tamuka replied.
"Yes, a train. If we, all of us, continue our ride eastward, when we return in twenty years they will have built these machines to unite a hundred of their cities against us. That is why it is your concern as well, Tayang. Ignore it now, and when your son brings his horde back to this place, a cattle army as numberless as the stalks of grass upon the endless sea of green will be arrayed against you, their armies moving ten days of ride in one."
Tayang looked down from his throne at the one Muzta knew must be the heir.
"Then what do you want of us?" Tayang finally replied.
"Peace, so that the entire might of the Merki Horde can march against the Yankees in the spring."
Tayang laughed softly.
"And in return?"
"An end to their threat," Jubadi said forcefully.
"Am I a fool? What of these new weapons? I have heard how Merki can even fly. What of that?"
"It is true," Jubadi said. "We can fly."
There was a murmur of disbelief from the clan Qarths surrounding Tayang.
"It is true," Muzta replied. "I have seen the sky-riders, machines made by the Merki that can fly."
"How?" Tayang asked, unable to contain his curiosity.
Tamuka looked back at Jubadi.
"One of the Yankee traitors knew the secret of making an invisible air that enables one to float."
"Wind from his backside, most likely," Tayang said, laughing coarsely.
"A deadly wind that explodes when fire touches it. It is trapped inside a vast tent sewn together into a bag, and when filled it floats away. Beneath the bag we took machines found in the barrows of ancestors from before the circling. The rotted wheels of the carts were removed, and blades that spin in the air were fashioned to push the floating tents of the light air from place to place."
"The burial carts that move without horses?" Tayang asked.
"You violated the graves of ancestors. It will be your curse," a voice from behind Tayang snarled.
Jubadi looked at the shaman, waiting for Tayang to discipline one who had not been invited to speak, but the Qar Qarth did nothing. Jubadi bristled at the insult.
"The curse has struck several," Tamuka interjected. "Their hair fell away, they vomited blood and died. But others have not been stricken, a sign that not all the ancestors are angered, that they are pleased that we use these things to break our common enemy."
Jubadi stared at the shaman, who made the gesture to ward away evil as he backed into the shadows.
"With these machines we may fly over the Rus, even to the Roum lands, to spy, to drop weapons that explode. Even now I make more of them and will not stop, for it is the one thing the Yankees have not forged."
"Yet . . ." Tamuka whispered softly, his voice not heard.
"The curse will be on you, not I," Tayang said, though it was obvious he was curious to see this strange wonder.
The shadows in the tent were growing darker, the red light streaming in from the western flap fading away. A high piercing call rose up from outside the yurt, the cry of the watchers, announcing the setting of the sun. All fell silent, the three Qar Qarths rising from their thrones to face west, the Qarths about their feet dropping to their knees in the same direction.
"O light of the world!" the watchers cried. "Journey now into the night lands of the everlasting sky. Bring unto our sires, and our sires' sires, the words of our praise. Shine thy face upon the land of the dead, and then return in thy glory yet again."
The last thin shaft of light shimmered on the horizon, spreading out into a broad band. There was a momentary flash of green and all cried aloud with joy, for it was a good sign, a portent of favor to all who saw it.
The green flash faded away, the voices of the three umens arrayed on the hills rising up in exaltation at the omen.
The three Qar Qarths turned away as the western flap was closed, and lit torches were brought into the yurt, pushing back the gloom. The circular brazier near the center, where Tamuka stood, was piled high with sweet-scented wood which filled the tent with its smoky perfume. Tamuka looked at it with pleasure. Those who rode the central steppes would go at times for months without seeing a wood fire, cooking with knotted grass, dried dung, or the branches of a thorny bush rich with an oil that caused an acrid, smoky flame.
Tayang, nodding with satisfaction as if he had somehow caused the omen, sat back down and looked over at Jubadi.
"You want peace, then?"
"You want me to give you peace, so you can take these cattle weapons, master them, and one day turn them against us."
Muzta could see the look of exasperation on Tamuka's face.
"Thinking like that will be the end of us all!" he shouted angrily. "It is the cattle who are the enemy. First it was the Rus, now the Roum, beyond them all the cattle throughout the world will hear of what has happened. Already the vermin who crawl before us, the wanderers, have spread the word of the rebellion a full season beyond our furthest outriders.
"There is only one answer left. Give the Merki peace, that they may turn their full strength against those led by the Yankees. If that is allowed, we shall slay them."
He hesitated for a moment, as if knowing the reaction to what he would say next.
"Then kill every last cattle upon this world. Cleanse ourselves of them. Only then can we return to what we were."
"Kill our own cattle!" Tayang roared, caught somewhere between rage and incredulous disbelief. "And who will feed us?"
"We will feed ourselves, as our grandsires did."
Tayang shook his head.
"And dig in the dirt! You are mad."
Muzta could see the looks of agreement on the faces of Tayang's followers.
"Shield-bearer, you no longer speak what I wish," Jubadi said quietly. "All I ask is peace to bring the Yankees to their knees, to make them again cattle or to slay them, nothing more."
"I speak as my tu demanded," Tamuka replied, not backing down.
"Then at least give Jubadi peace," Muzta interjected, before Jubadi and Tayang were diverted by Tamuka's words. "Let him exterminate all the cattle who have been infected by these new ways."
"And what of the weapons? You still have not answered that."
"When we defeated the Yor we destroyed their weapons," Jubadi said, "for our grandsires knew that the power of such things that could turn another to dust would end us all. We must do the same again. When they are defeated, we will destroy all vestiges of what they are."
Tamuka looked back at Jubadi.
"Cattle have come through the Tunnel since the beginning of time. They will continue. And what if they are even more dangerous than the Yankees?"
"That is not my concern for now," Jubadi replied sharply, the tone of his voice indicating that he would not tolerate such challenge from one who was the not his own shield-bearer, but merely one of his son's.
"The guarantees?" Tayang replied.
"Guarantees," Jubadi retorted, looking past Tamuka. "In the spring I wish to ride north with the new guns—forging, even as we speak, the new flying machines—and all my umens and end them once and for all. I will lose many warriors in this, but we have learned much. In the end we will defeat them. Perhaps I should be asking guarantees of you."
Tayang laughed and shook his head.
"What do I get for not striking you?"
"A third of all the guns we make this winter, and all the cattle of Cartha who know how to make such things once the cattle war is done," Muzta interjected, looking over at Jubadi. "Give him that."
"The Cartha are mine, the guns mine."
"There will be more than enough of the guns in the spring. Captured Rus, or even the Roum who have learned of these things, will replace whatever Cartha are traded away. When the Yankees are at last defeated, the two of you can agree then to destroy the weapons together, so that we may ride as we once did and fight with bow in hand."
The two Qarths looked at Muzta.
"Perhaps it is an idea to start with," Tayang said craftily.
"None of you have heard," Tamuka said, his voice filled with sadness.
The three Qar Qarths paused.
"Chances are we will defeat them, at least for now," Tamuka said, "but all of you still dream that the world will be as it was. You do not see that a war has started which will end only one of two ways. This world will either be a place of the Horde, or it will be of cattle, but never again will it be both. That is what the three of you should be speaking of today."
"My concern is to defeat the Yankees!" Jubadi roared. "Do you doubt that we can do that, shield-bearer?"
"No, my Qarth," Tamuka replied, "but just remember this: They will try to change how things are done yet again. We will most likely bear them down, in a war that will bleed both of us white. We will fill
our tables with their corpses, and even their leader Keane will be led before us. We shall make a scattering of bones of what were once their cities.
"It is just that we will never be the same afterwards. Remember that warning. The three of you will argue now for days, over whether it shall be three guns in ten, or four. Whether it shall be five hundred Cartha cattle or five thousand.
"We will leave here and none will trust the other. That is our greatest danger, not the cattle whom we will kill in the spring. Kill them all, my lords, kill every last one upon this world without mercy. Then we can enjoy the sport of killing each other again, and not before. If you do not do this, in the end it will be they who shall hunt us into the ground."
Without waiting to be dismissed Tamuka bowed low to the east and west, and with head held high, he walked out of the yurt.
There was a quiet stirring as each looked uncomfortably to the other. Muzta looked over at Jubadi. He could see the Qar Qarth of the Merki was disturbed, though whether it was in anger or agreement he could not tell.
"Did you say half of all guns?" Tayang said.
Muzta looked back and saw the smile lighting the leatures of the Qar Qarth of the Bantag.
Feigning indifference to Tayang's words, Muzta reached over to the tray by his side and took up a morsel of boiled cattle flesh and chewed slowly.
All was now clear to him: There would be a difficult path for the Tugars to weave between the three forces of Bantag, Merki, and cattle.
Tamuka was right at least in his prophecy of the war. Rivers of blood would flow come spring, as each maneuvered according to his own plan. Yet with the weapons being forged even now by the cattle slaves in Cartha, and with the new machines that could fly,
Jubadi would most likely win. The cattle were simply too few to stand against such strength.
Yet the trick was to survive. And as he ignored the haggling between the other two, a thin smile finally crossed his features.
"Bring him back in," Andrew said, without looking back at the door.
He opened up the stove and pushed another lo into the fire. The first real chill of autumn was settling in, and outside a cold rain was slashing against the windowpane. The grandfather clock in the corner ticked softly, and he found a sense of threat in the sound: each second a click, measuring off th precious time. It was funny, he thought, how a clock sounds as it ticks away. The sound is barely notic until one is alone. It is a reminder of mortality, of time passing, slipping through one's fingers, its voice loud, remorseless, unstoppable.
He looked back out the window. It was dark nearly two in the morning, Kathleen and the baby asleep upstairs, the house silent except for the creaking of the wood as a gust of wind swept outside, and the ticking of the clock.
He looked back at the clock.
How long do we have? he wondered. They will not come with winter—they don't have the weapons, there isn't enough food to support a horde three rimes the size of the Tugars, and there was their war with the Bantag that delayed them. No, it will be in the spring when the grass is up, that they will come.
He drew the imaginary lines in his mind, not eve needing to look at the map. The Potomac River hundred miles to the southwest—he smiled at the name. They were fixing such names to all the places of their new world, as if to make it feel like the lost home of fading memory.
Always fight an enemy outside your own territory if possible, but beyond that the Neiper could never be held for long. The Merki could move upstream through the woods, following the river as it turned cast. They'd be on our flank, cutting in east of Vazima. Rough terrain there, too rough for a rail line. Flank us, and fall into Rus from behind, and then the finish. No. Last time all we had to hold was Suzdal, now we have all the Rus, the alliance, the rail line to Roum. We can't hole up again—Suzdal can't hold everyone, they would starve us out if we even attempted to try.
No, it had to be the Potomac, even though Hans was against it. Hold them out there, out on the edge of the steppe. Build a line like Bobbie Lee did at Petersburg: trenches, earthen bastions, traps, and entanglements. Make it so strong that they'll bleed white against it. And then hold out till they finally get sick of it and leave.
Yet why am I unsure? he wondered.
There was a soft knock on the door to the parlor.
He heard him walk in, but waited a moment before turning. He could hear the soft breathing of the man, and there was a momentary chill, as if a fetid air lingered about him, the smell of the pits.
"You know everyone, including my own people, would be happy to see you driven out—or even better, receive the punishment of the outcast."
"I offer no apologies." The voice was cool. Suzdalian in accent to be sure, with the broad rolling vowels, but tinged with the guttural pronunciation of someone used to the language of the Hordes.
Andrew turned and looked at the man.
"To eat the flesh of another human . . ." Andrew whispered.
"It was that or die," Yuri replied. "Any who are pets are forced to do it—it is their way of forever separating us from our own kind. I wanted to live."
Andrew tried to imagine how he would react if caught thus. There was the Donner Party, the men of the Essex who had gone so far as to draw lots as to who would be clubbed and eaten, the son of the captain being one of the flesh offerings. For this is my body . . . Blasphemy! He pushed the thought away.
The haunted lives the survivors must have led, the breaking of the most forbidden of taboos: Eat not the flesh of your own kind.
"It is easy to say, to think, in the comfort of this room, that you would not," Yuri said, the slightest of smiles crossing his pale features. "And then you see it, the moon feast, the victims led in struggling, the shrieks of agony, the convulsions of the dying, and the taunts of the Merki, the golden spoons flashing in the torch light. The eyes of the tortured victims going dark. Then they look at you, and they thrust the platter beneath your eyes.
" 'Eat,' they taunt," and he whispered the words in Merki, " 'eat, or you shall be next.' "
He looked into Andrew's eyes.
"I wanted to live. . .." He paused. "I couldn't stand the terror in the eyes of the moon offerings, I could not imagine my own skull being thus ripped open while I was still alive. I could not face the horror of the ending, my own skull open, the shaman pouring the golden flask . . ."
His voice faded away, the slightest of tremors passing through him.
"And so I ate. . . ."
Andrew said nothing. There was a perverse sort of fascination in listening to this. The cool horror of gazing into something obscene and yet not turning away, being compelled by the fascination of the for« hidden, the grotesque. While his wife and child slept above him he listened, as if Lazarus had come back from the gates of Hell to speak.
The second time it was not as hard, for after all, when one is already damned, one cannot be damned even further for one's iniquities. And finally, I didn't even notice what was upon the plate, it was a part of my existence in hell. I was one of them. After a time, I no longer cared."
"So why did you leave?" Andrew asked.
"One never forgets the whispering of the waters of home, the smell of one's hearth, the voices of One's people, the laughter of children when one was a child. Yankee, you must know that—I have heard tell of your Maine."
The word stabbed through him. Maine. Home. The streets of Brunswick, the tight Yankee drawl of his friends and neighbors, the lazy mornings teaching a class in springtime, when the world was alive with the scent of apple blossoms, the calling of the loons on a summer iake in the woods near Waterville (that was magic on moonlit nights), the waters of Merrymeeting Bay filled with the geese of autumn, the surf crashing on a rocky shore. It flooded back into his heart.
He nodded, lowering his head for a moment, his heart heavy, throat tight.
"Even if you drive me out, even if I am condemned and killed, still I will have seen Suzdal one more time, that is enough."
"If that was the only concern," Andrew replied, "I would not even be speaking to you now."
"I realize that," Yuri said, his voice soft and controlled. "You can't decide the rest of me, the truth or lies of what is locked in up here," and he pointed lo his head.
Yuri looked around the room with frank curiosity, an inquisitiveness that Andrew found interesting. He looked over at the clock, and then questioningly back at Andrew.
"A machine for the measuring of time."
"So much has changed," Yuri said. "Twenty-one years ago I left here, to go to Cartha and trade in foolish trinkets of gold. When I departed Ivor was not yet boyar, my wife was still young and not yet dead, my city .. ."
He shook his head and looked about the room.
"Not yet changed by all you had done."
"My entire life, because I thought of a mere profit to be gained by going south, was shipwrecked on the eastern coast, and there taken by the Merki as they rode out from Cartha. Now, twenty-one years later, I am back."
He sighed, as if realizing the folly of dreams.
"You know that we have no one who has ridden with the Merki for a full circling," Andrew said, carefully watching Yuri's reactions, "no one who has seen them as you have."
"They usually kill their pets at three moments," Yuri replied, his voice distant. "All but the most cherished are destroyed when the sacred mountains of Barkth Nom are first sighted. Next, if there is the death of a Qar Qarth."
"And all but the most trusted when one's home land is again near," Andrew interjected.
"Only the most trusted."
"Were you trusted?"
"I served Tamuka, shield-bearer to Zan Qarth Vuka, heir to Qar Qarth Jubadi va Ulga of the Merki Hordes," Yuri announced, and there was a note of pride in his voice. "I fashioned for him the gorget of gold that even now he wears, and the bindings of the sacred writings of names. I taught Tamuka, Shield-Bearer of the White Clan, the language of the Rus.
"Yes, I was trusted. I was shown with pride as speaker of a dozen tongues, master of the fashioning of precious gold; I was allowed to wear the gold collar of the pet of the shield-bearer," and he absently touched his neck, ringed by a faint line of calluses.
"There are some who say that you were sent here to mislead us, to spy, to learn what would be needed it this land was to be taken."
"I came with word of the meeting of the three Qar Qarths."
"We would have found out soon enough without your help."
Yuri laughed softly.
"Then kill me," he whispered. "I have seen my home again, though all turn their faces from me. My wife dead, my sons grown to manhood only to die in your wars."
He paused for a moment, looking straight at Andrew. He looked down at a gold ring on his finger and absently ran his thumb over it, then looked hack up at Andrew with cold eyes.
How many parents look at me thus? Andrew suddenly wondered. Yuri's eyes cut into him, and he felt an uneasiness. This one had a power to him, a coolness and self-assurance that he could not quite grasp. How could one who had lived on the edge of the pits, had seen the horrors and lived thus as a slave, be so inwardly calm?
"I offer all I know, Andrew Lawrence Keane of Yankee Maine. If I betrayed my people the day I look their flesh, it is easy to betray those who made me thus."
The two were silent, the clock ticking, its voice again loud, filling the void.
Yuri looked over at it.
"The voice of time," he said with a chuckle. "A curious machine. You know, you don't have much time left, and when they come it will be like a storm out of hell."
Andrew nodded, still uncommitted.
"Believe me, Jubadi has spent countless hours learning of you. He has the traitor Hinsen, and those few Yankee sailors of the great ship who are still prisoners and have traded their honor for their lives. Jubadi spends much time creeping into your mind, you have no means of learning his."
Andrew looked up at the mention of Hinsen's name. It carried now as much dark meaning as the name Benedict Arnold, a name to be spit out with disgust. He was the only one who could have told them how to make hydrogen for their machines, and much more.
"Did you see Hinsen?"
"Many times. Groveling before Jubadi, promising much, telling him all of your means of fighting, the formations used, the way you think, the way you lead."
"And the others?"
"Most of the Yankee sailors, the Suzdalian sailors, are dead, some refused to help, others tried to run. But there are still a handful who remain. There are the other sailors, the ones who spoke your language and were from the southern sea. They took one of your steam land machines back to Cartha, but when word came of your victory they slipped away."
He chuckled softly.
"They stole one of the iron ships that Cromwell was making but was not ready for the war. Several of the Suzdalian and a couple of the Yankee sailors went with them. They went south, and have not been heard from. Jubadi was furious."
He paused for a moment.
"He killed five thousand who lived along the waterfront as vengeance."
Too bad they didn't run north, Andrew thought. The engines in Cromwell's boats, though crudely made, were of a solid design. Again he cursed the man for holding back his knowledge when it was needed the most.
"Cromwell? What ever happened?"
"Moon feast. It was said he died well."
Andrew said nothing. Though a traitor, he could pity anyone doomed to such a fate. Even though driven against his will, Yuri was a traitor as well. He had to be totally loyal, elsewise they would have slain him years ago. Twenty years with them must have left their mark.
"We've had too many traitors," Andrew said softly, looking straight into Yuri's eyes.
"Use me, and I will tell you what they fear. I will tell you of Jubadi, of Vuka, of Shaga, and of Tamuka."
The names, rattled off, sounded dark and full of menace, and he suddenly realized just how little he really knew of his enemy. They were a faceless mass, a dark seething entity of dread, like the shadowy demons of the apocalypse. Yet he knew nothing of them—who they truly were, how they thought, and what they dreamed. This was the first voice out of that darkness that might tell him.
He knew as well that not one of the Rus he had spoken to this evening had said a word of trust for this man. A few remembered him from before his disappearance, a merchant despised even then. A man now with the scent of burned flesh on his lips.
A man who had betrayed his own kind to save his life, a life thus rendered worthless and without hope of redemption. The more humane demands were simply to drive him out, but all the Rus, even Kal, wanted the punishment for a runaway pet: cut his tongue out, jam it down his throat, and tie him to the city wall as he choked to death. It was the old punishment set down by the Tugars and Merki for a runaway, yet it also spoke to a dread of one who had lived so long with the hordes that he might now have become like them and turned traitor to his own race.
Again there was the silence, the clock ticking out the seconds, the minutes, and hours until the horde would return. Outside, the cold autumn rain sounded softer, different, and he looked out the window to see the first heavy flakes drifting down, freezing against the glass.
He looked back at Yuri.
"Sit down, Yuri Yaroslavich. We need to talk."
"My dearest love, your precious daughter and I are thinking of you longingly."
He smiled at the memory of her letter. When he was still a professor at Bowdoin he would have scratched "longingly" out from any student's paper. But from Kathleen it was endearing.
Six weeks now, or was it seven? He could hardly recall the days since he had last sat before the fire, holding Maddie in his arms, Kathleen by his side, the fire crackling before them.
A gust of icy wind swept across the open steppe, driving needlelike slivers of frozen rain before it. Mumbling a curse, Colonel Andrew Lawrence Keane pulled his battered kepi down low over his eyes. Damn hats, they never were worth anything. Whatever fool back in the War Department had authorized them for the Union Army had never stood out in a driving rain, or marched beneath a blazing Virginia sun. He had never been a stickler over regulation uniforms, and most of the men from the 35th Maine had tossed the ridiculous cap aside at the first opportunity, adopting the broad-brimmed, high-crowned Hardee, which did a splendid job of keeping rain, snow, and sun off of one's face. But as the commander of the regiment he had always complied with army regulations, even here. Old habits certainly die hard, he thought, with a sad shake of his head. Now he was Secretary of War and Vice-President of the Republic of Rus, and yet still he wore the old battered uniform of a colonel in the Union Army of the Potomac.
Did that proud army still march? he wondered, feeling a tug of nostalgia. It would be what year now back there . . . ? Funny, he didn't even think of it as home anymore. Home was here, the city of Suzdal, the Republic, and the world of Valennia.
Almost four years now, so it'd be late 1868. No, most likely all the boys had gone home by now, the war over. The long swaying columns of blue, the circling fields of campfires, the serpentine river of men flowing over the countryside had disappeared by now, the hundred thousand parts drifting back to their homes, to loved ones, except for the dead. Except for the survivors of the 35th Maine, exiled here, wherever here was.
He remembered a march a couple of days before Gettysburg, when a thunderstorm had rolled over the columns. The sky turned a dark black-green, illuminated by forked tongues of fire. He had paused atop a low ridge and looked back, the column snaking across the valley. With each electric blue flash it seemed as if twenty thousand muskets had picked up the light, reflecting back Thor's bolts of war, blinding the eyes with their brilliance. The rain had come, drowning the world in darkness, and yet they had marched on, shimmering in the flashes of light, an electric body of blue swaying toward their final destiny.
He could remember the sound of their voices, the songs drifting down the marching columns, the laughter floating with the evening air, the triumphant shout as they rushed to victory, the paeans rising to the heavens, the rattle of drums in the distance, the haunting call of the bugle hovering over all when night finally came. Where were they now? Where are we?
He looked up as he so often did, always thinking that they were somewhere out there, beyond the Great Wheel, obscured now by the driving storm. Was the old country safe? he wondered. Lincoln would be finishing up his term, and the memory of his old hero brought a sad smile. His second term would be ending soon, hopefully over a United States that was whole.
"The old country," that was how he thought of it now, the same way Hans spoke of Prussia, Pat of Ireland, Emil of Hungary. Yet this was different. He had transplanted something of America here—"the United States of Rus," they called it now. They were molding it into a memory of home. At least in the woods beyond Suzdal it did in a way feel like home, like Maine, especially in the winter when the vast forests were still and draped in a crystalline white mantle. He could let it all drop aside, at least in those rare moments when he would ride north into the woods to be alone. It was so much like the land he'd grown up on—the boulder-strewn woods, the towering pines, the sharpness of the icy wind.
God, how I miss Maine, he thought sadly. There was a time when he'd been nothing more than a professor of history at Bowdoin, in the quiet, tranquil backwaters of life, giving his lectures, reading in the library, walking the rocky beaches, and yet always dreaming of something beyond. That, he knew, was the lure of being a historian, the dreaming of what had been and the imagining that somehow, someday, one could play such a part. And when the bit part in the vast drama of the war had been offered he'd rushed to it, never realizing all that he'd be leaving behind. Winning his dream, he had lost a dream.
Of course, I never could have imagined this, he thought with a sad smile: the last trip aboard the Oqunquit, the awakening in this nightmare world. Funny, now he found himself dreaming that somehow it could all come back, that he might awake as if from a dream. But then, he reflected, I would lose everything—Kathleen, the baby, Emil, Pat, Hans, Kal, and the strange pulse of power that this world has given me—as if I alone were shaping the destiny of an entire people. But at least there, before I left, I knew what peace was.
Peace. He mulled over the word, letting it drift through his mind. Over two years of war against the rebs, and nearly twice that here. It was leaving its mark: Though he was just barely forty, his hair was flecked with gray, his face lined and creased. He thought of himself as he was, the day before Antie-tam, and he seemed now to have been a child then, before the "seeing of the elephant," as the veterans called a recruit's first battle. Could he ever have been so young?
Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, he silently clicked off the names, Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, the Peasant Rebellion, the First Tugar War, the Roum campaign, the naval battles before Suzdal, the incessant skirmishing of the winter campaign in the Shenandoah Hills, and now the next one, whatever its name would be—and in his gut he knew it was coming.
He turned his back to the rain and looked southward toward the vast open steppe, but there was hardly anything to be seen in the storm-swirled mists of early dawn. But he knew what it looked like, the vast open spaces that he found vaguely disturbing.
Was it because of the land, the endless, low, rolling hills that seemed to go on forever, so alien to one from New England? Or was it because of the threat that he knew waited out there, coiling up in its power, waiting for the weather to break and for the first grass of spring before it struck?
He knew they were coming, that was as undeniable as the rising of the bloodred sun. The intelligence that the bitter and near mad Hamilcar had returned with, from his raids down to Cartha, in a desperate bid to save at least some of his people, bore that out. The refugees coming back with him had told of the incessant preparations, the foundries turning out cannon and yet more cannon. Vast sheds were going up just on the other side of the Shenandoah Hills to house the flying machines. The Horde had wintered through at Cartha, nearly three quarter of a million of their people going into the pits as the Horde marshaled its strength, the umens maneuvering through the winter, practicing with their new weapons, freed from fighting against the Bantag, who even now were reported to be moving farther east.
The refugees also told of the feasting, of the hundreds of thousands who had been led to the slaughter pits. The age-old saying that "but two in ten would die for the tables of their masters" had long since lost any meaning, as if the Merki planned to devour all humans in their path.
They were coming, he realized, and this time it would be a fight to the death for one or the other, it would be a war of annihilation.
"You know, if Emil saw you out here like this, he'd die of apoplexy."
Andrew turned back into the driving rain and saw Hans Schuder standing behind him, a look of reproach in his eyes.
Andrew said nothing and turned away.
"How's the fever?" Hans asked, coming up to stand beside him.
The mention of it made him realize just how sick he still felt. Despite Doctor Weiss's drive for sanitation, which had nearly eradicated the disease in Suzdal, typhoid was still a fact of life in army camps. He fought to suppress a shiver.
"Son, why don't you get back into your quarters where you belong? The train will be pulling in shortly, and you should be resting."
Andrew smiled sadly and looked over at his old mentor. Hans Schuder's dark eyes looked up at him through a face riven with deep-set lines, wreathed in a beard that had gone over to a bushy gray. Hans shifted uneasily, favoring the right leg a bit, the reminder of a rebel sniper before Cold Harbor. They both bore the souvenir of their profession, and for a brief moment he felt as if he could almost flex the fingers of his left hand. "The ghost limb," the old soldiers called it. Even though the arm was gone just above the elbow, there were times when it felt as if it was still there. He would absently reach out to touch the empty sleeve, half expecting that the long-lost limb, buried at Gettysburg, had somehow returned from the dust of another world.
He felt the compulsion but pushed it aside, little realizing that all those around him knew that when he was lost in thought his right hand would drift over to hold the rounded stump.
He looked back to Hans and smiled weakly.
Though Hans was commander of the Suzdalian army, like him the sergeant major still wore the insignia of his old rank on the threadbare blue jacket, hidden now under a cracked and aging poncho. Hans had been with him since the beginning, shepherding him along, teaching him the business of command and killing, and then stepping back to see the man he had created forge a new nation and offer a hope of liberation from the suzerainty of the hordes.
I just needed some air, Hans," he finally said, breaking the silence. "I'll get back inside in a couple of minutes."
Hans sniffed the wind, like an old dog trying to pick up a scent.
Hacking around to southwest, it'll be rain soon, most likely warm up a lot by the end of the day."
"The last snow of the season, I expect," Andrew replied absently.
The storm had come on hard the afternoon before, catching everyone by surprise, burying the first pale green hints of spring and blanketing the world with a thick swirl of heavy wet snow. He wished it had gone on forever, covering everything in a blanket so deep that neither man nor horse could move. Every extra day gave them just that much more time to prepare. But it was already what he would have considered to be mid-April back in Maine. This storm would most likely be the last of it. Within the month the steppe would be knee-deep in grass. It was most likely green already on the other side of the Shenandoah Hills fifty miles to the south, which was the forward picket line, beyond which was the realm of the Merki.
The ice on the Potomac had broken two weeks ago. He could hear the river rushing by, thick and heavy with the muddy runoff of spring. A hundred yards down the slope the water was lapping at the edge of the forward rifle pits, rushing over the rocky bottom of the ford. He could imagine the position— heavens knows, he had spent enough months looking at it. This was the first ford, forty miles up from the sea, the river running broad and deep from he down to the sea.
Yet all that line had to be held as well, thou thinly manned at the moment. The river was full shoals, which made the maneuvering of ironcla impossible except at the mouth. Leave it empty and they could get across—there were reports they had built hundreds of lightweight boats which could used for pontoon bridges. Forty miles of trench and bastions had to be constructed along that sector straight down to the sea.
To his right, for another sixty-five miles up in the forest, there were a dozen more fords, each faced with heavy fortifications, in places three lines deep. By midsummer, though, the situation wou change, unless it poured every day, something th he had prayed for nearly every night. When the river dropped, becoming a muddy stream duri the dry summer, the entire line nearly down to t sea could be crossed. But by then there would three more corps ready for action, while at the same time the Horde would be forced to disperse across a wide area to feed their mounts when the summer grasses thinned out.
We'll still have the rails and they won't, thought, as if seeking an inner reassurance; the rails are our only hope in this. He could draw the line his mind, going out of Suzdal, up to the Neiper Ford, down the west shore of the river and leavil the woods after thirty miles at Wilderness Stati< and coming straight down to here. The line th forked, running parallel to the river down to t sea, and in the opposite direction running northw along the river up to Bastion 110 set nearly ten mi back into the woods. At Bastion 100 another rail line ran straight back east along the edge of the woods for ten miles, and then turned up the broad trail, the path used by the Tugars all the way to the Neiper Ford. It was a vast circle of rail, over three hundred miles of it, hastily laid down during the fall and winter. A strategic gamble that had consumed over fifteen thousand tons of light ten-pound-to-the-foot rails.
And straight ahead were the Shenandoah Hills.
O Shenandoah, I long to see you.
The snow was most likely even heavier back home, back in Suzdal. He could imagine her by the fire, nursing Maddie—Madison—Madison Bridget O'Reilly Keane, a long name for fifteen pounds of squalling humanity, and the thought of it filled him with a cold aching pain. All he wanted was to lie down by the stove in the parlor, to take an entire day of nothingness, other than his daughter, Kathleen, and quiet solitude.
He started to shiver.
"Son, let's get back inside; the train will be coming in shortly."
Andrew looked over at Hans. He had gone for some time without calling him "son." It was funny, but it felt almost strange now. Hans was still the mentor, the father figure from the beginning. With linns by his side he had carried the crushing responsibility of running first a regiment, and then an entire war effort. He felt far distant from the young professor of history who had gone, wide-eyed like a boy, to see a war. It was now nearly impossible to define himself as someone's son.
Hans smiled sadly.
"You know, I never had a son of my own. Married to the army too long, I guess."
Andrew nodded, saying nothing.
"I'm getting old, Andrew."
"We all are."
"No, it's beyond that. I'm not talking about the rheumatism, the eyes that don't see quite as sharply, the game leg. It's just that I'm tired. Now I know what they mean by 'old soldier.' "
He hesitated for a moment, looking off into the swirling mist.
"I've got a bad feeling about this one, son," he whispered.
Hans looked up at Andrew, as if startled by his own admission.
"It's just that no matter how hard we try, they keep coming at us. Each time they're stronger smarter—it's like it will never end."
Andrew felt an inner shiver, beyond the cold beyond the weakness of the typhoid. Hans had been the rock upon which he had built his own strength as a leader. And now the rock was shifting away.
Hans fell silent, as if embarrassed.
"Go on," Andrew said quietly, "I need to hear this."
"I haven't said a word for months, but I feel the need now, before the others come up for this final conference. You know I didn't care for this Potomac line idea."
"I'm sorry we disagreed," Andrew replied.
The debate had been bitter at times, when they had started planning for this war more than a year ago. The first goal was to build the rail line to Roum—in that they had been in full agreement. Without the link to Roum there was no chance they could stand against the Hordes. But Hans wanted to try to hold onto the Neiper, even though the terrain north of the first ford was a nightmare for the building of a rail line to provide support. They had spent endless nights, pouring over the rough maps their survey teams had worked up. There was no fallback if the Neiper failed, he had argued. The Potomac front is on the steppe, terrain for their cavalry, Hans had replied, a front of a hundred miles far to long for them to hold with strength. In the end he'd had to order it. Hans had cursed soundly, but then saluted and thrown himself into the task. This was the first time in months that the debate had cropped up again.
"We can't afford to lose even a single battle, while even if they lose the entire war they'll still be back for more," Hans finally replied, saying each word slowly, as if they carried an actual weight and form.
"We defeated the Tugars, and it damn near destroyed us. Then they send the Cartha and we win it by a hair's breadth. Now we face them again. How many did that Yuri say, forty umens? Four hundred thousand warriors armed, with over four hundred field pieces and maybe twenty thousand muskets. They're capable of flying, while we've yet to get a single powered ship off the ground.
"The first time it was against bows and lances and they damn near took us, the second time against ironclads, and now, with nearly three times the strength of the Tugars, artillery like ours, and those damn flying machines."
He shook his head and fell silent.
The flying machines. At least they wouldn't be up today. At last count there were over twenty of the things. One had been brought down, or rather something had caused its engine to stop. The machine had drifted far out into the steppe between Suzdal and Roum, and finally had crashed when the cigar-shaped bag of hydrogen that supported the engine and the engineers' compartment burst into flames. What they had been able to sift out of the wreckage was the most troubling revelation of the winter.
The first people to approach the scorched machine had fallen sick within hours and died within days. It was fortunate, Andrew realized, that Ferguson, the engineering genius who had done so much to save all of them, had not been nearby. He would have crawled over the wreckage to learn the mystery of their engine, which apparently could fly for days without fuel. Before he got there Emil had passed up a firm order to keep him back, and to have the machine buried. Half a dozen more had died in carrying out that order.
Just how they had obtained the mysterious engine was an enigma. It was obviously far in advance of anything they had managed to create. During the winter, when Ferguson and several others had come to his home for an evening visit, they had agreed that any topic related to the forthcoming war was forbidden for the night. It had been an evening of pleasant diversion, of speculation about the world and how it had come about. Ferguson had gone so far as to suggest that perhaps the tunnel of light was a machine, drawing a comparison to electricity traveling through telegraph wires. If his speculation was true, then who had built it?
If such things were hidden on this world, what else might the Merki have access to?
"Ferguson will get us in the air," Andrew said quietly.
"Whistling in the wind will work for the others," Hans replied, a note of irritation in his voice, "but I don't need the reassurance."
Andrew leaned against the side of the parapet, Hans joining him. Meditatively, he chewed slowly on a precious piece of tobacco and spat over the side.
"Just how the hell are we going to get out of this one?" Hans whispered, as if to himself.
"The flying machines?" Andrew said, realizing that this was but one small part of the issue. "Fergusonis working on this caloric engine idea; we'll be in the air within the month."
"I mean everything."
Andrew felt shaken. Hans had always been the one source of strength, the quiet reassurance standing in the background. Like the best of all possible mentors he had first taught and then at least stepped aside, though he was always there when you really needed him, if for nothing more than an approving nod.
Damn him, Andrew thought quietly, I need him now, and instead he needs me.
"We'll fight them here on the Potomac line. We've got the beginning of a line back at Wilderness Station, and then if need be on the Neiper River itself."
"They outnumber us at least six-to-one, Andrew, and they have the mobility of the horse. All of them are mounted, something we don't have."
"You heard John Mina's assessment," Andrew replied. "That's four hundred thousand horses that have to be fed, at least sixteen million pounds of grass a day. Their forage problem will be a nightmare. Damn them, if they had any sense they would have hit this winter, coming in on foot if need be, but at least in that they're predictable. The Horde lives by the horse."
"When they hit, it will be a hurricane," Hans said quietly. "Now I know how the rebs felt. No matter how many of us they killed, we kept on coming. We were one of the worst-led armies in history— McClellan, Burnside, Hooker—and yet we kept on coming."
"You're saying we're going to lose this one," Andrew replied, trying to hide the weakness in his voice.
Hans looked over at him and smiled wearily.
"This time be prepared for anything, son. Be prepared to lose here, at Wilderness, even Suzdal. Be prepared to go into the woods after everything is gone- All they need is to beat this army once, and we have no reserves. Oh, I know the Roum are drilling, but they've only had six months, and half of their divisions will be armed with smoothbores since we can't make the rifles fast enough."
"You really believe this, don't you?" Andrew asked quietly.
Hans, his features set hard, came closer to Andrew.
"You've got the touch of the gods on your fori head," Hans said, "a killing god who's never known defeat. Perhaps the taste of defeat is occasionally good for a man—too much victory leaves him weak in certain ways.
"Maybe it's how I trained you. I'm cautioning you that it won't be easy this time around. You'll have to think like you never have before, because if the army starts to unravel it will be you alone who cat pull it back together. The Rus are exhausted from four years of war—they won't have the same wild eyed fervor they did back the first time. I think the Merki will know that and play upon it. This one is going to be hell."
"And you're telling me that you've lost hope."
"I'm just far too tired of it all," Hans said, and as he did so Andrew for the first time truly realized that his friend was getting old. There was the slightest catch of frailty in the sergeant's voice. "You know, I thought that by now I'd have retired out. I was thinking of heading west, out to California, there was good land there—maybe marry and set up a business, a tavern or something."
Andrew laughed softly.
"You, a shopkeeper? You're a soldier, Hans; hell I imagine you've been a soldier since the beginning of history, and a hundred years from now you'll still be one. You're the eternal sergeant."
"I'm only human, Andrew."
"Somehow, those people back there"—and Andrew pointed behind him—"think differently, both of you and of me."
"That's the problem, Andrew, I'm not."
"And myself?" "You can't afford to be anything other than what you are; that's what I trained you for, that's what fate cast you to be."
"Small comfort," Andrew whispered. "It's not my job to comfort you anymore, you're beyond that. Let any frailty show in what's coming, and it'll all unravel. God help us, we're going to need that from you."
"And you, sergeant," Andrew whispered. Just who do I turn to now? he wondered, his insides feeling numb. Just where do I continue to find my strength?
"I'll try," Hans whispered. "I'll put on the bravado. I'll continue to knock their heads together when it's needed, I'll fight to my last breathe, but this time, Andrew, I'm starting to feel the cold chill of their coming for us and .. ." His voice drifted away into silence as he turned and looked back out across the parapet.
The thin shriek of a whistle, muffled by the storm, disturbed his thoughts, and he looked over at Hans. "That should be them." He looked back over at Hans. A bitter gust of wind came up, driving a cold thread of water down his back. It set him shivering. "Damn it, son, I came out here to drag you back in before they arrived! There's going to be hell to pay now."
Hans reached over, and with a clumsily gruffness threw his arm around Andrew's shoulder, turning him away from the trenches and back into the driving storm. A vent of steam came swirling out of the mist, filled with the damp smell of wood smoke. Lik a ghostly shadow of a fire-breathing dragon stirring out of the past, the engine drifted into view, th bells ringing weakly against the voice of the storm. Just beyond the railroad siding Andrew could see the low silhouette of the blockhouse complex, whic: was serving as his field headquarters. It was an ill lighted and smoke-filled place, and he steered instead for the single passenger car behind the engine. Beyond this was a row of flatcars, burdened down with twelve-pound field pieces fresh from the mills. Six flatcars, laden with twelve guns, their caissons and limbers, a weeks' worth of casting for NapoIeons. Damn, there simply weren't enough guns.
Gaining the car, he looked it over with affection. It was the presidential car, covered with the usual Rus wood carvings, its side emblazoned with a Gilbert Stewart-like representation of the signing of the Constitution of Rus. He could pick himself out i the group, standing beside Kal, both of them slightly larger than life-size. Larger than life-size, that's what they want to believe in.
Gaining the steps to the car he climbed up, struggling to control the weakness in his legs. The door above him was flung open.
"Hans, what the hell are you doing, letting him run around like this?"
"Doctor Weiss, I'm quite capable of looking after myself, without Hans playing nursemaid."
"Like hell," Emil sniffed angrily, coming out onto the platform to help him aboard. "You're as pale a ghost."
Emil pressed his hand to Andrew's forehead, a clucking noisily he led Andrew into the car, while shooting a chilly stare of reproach at Hans.
The stuffy warmth of the room was a shock, and he felt the perspiration beading on his forehead. His hand shaking, he started to fumble with the buttons of his old and worn army overcoat.
"Let me give you a hand."
Andrew looked down as Kal—President Kalencka--stepped up to him, the crown of his stovepipe hat barely at eye level.
"One hand a piece for both of us; we should be able to manage this," Kal said cheerily, looking up into Andrew's eyes.
"I've got a packet of letters from Kathleen, the last one pressed into my hand not four hours ago," Kal said, as he dextrously worked the buttons loose, while Hans helped Andrew slide the rain-sodden wool jacket off.
Andrew looked around bleakly, and nodded his greeting to the group. Overhead, scurrying across the roof of the car, he heard the footsteps of the telegrapher, hooking into the line, followed seconds later by the rattle-tap of the telegraph key in the small office in the forward part of the car, tapping out the connect signal, reestablishing communications for this small group, the architects of human resistance against the unmeasurable might of the Hordes.
"You've lost weight, Andrew."
Well, you certainly haven't put much back on yourself, you thick-headed Irishman," Andrew replied, forcing a smile.
Pat O'Donald came up, grasping Andrew's hand. They both looked at each other appraisingly. Pat's recovery from the stomach wound had taken far longer than expected, a process not helped by his sneaking out whenever possible to violate Emil's injunction against vodka. There was a standing order to every tavern keeper in Suzdal to refuse service, an order that had resulted in at least one bar's being broken up by an explosion of Pat's less-than pleasant temper when denied strong drink.
"You had us worried, me bucko," Pat said, helping Andrew over to the conference table in the forward end of the car. "That damn doctor"—he looked over at Emil—"wouldn't allow a one of us to come see you."
"Quarantine serves two purposes," Emil replied defensively, "to keep the disease from spreading, and to protect the patient from fumble-fingered visitors pawing at him and breathing their drink-laden breath in his presence."
Pat mumbled a good-natured curse in Emil's direction and went around the table to settle back into his seat.
Andrew looked around at the rest of the smiling group.
"John, how's the family?"
"Well sir, first baby on the way."
John Mina said the words matter-of-factly, the way he always did when talking of anything beyond his work as Secretary of Commerce and Industry, the logistical genius behind the organization of an industrial state to support a modern army.
"Dimitri, how are things in Roum?"
The old soldier, chief of staff to Vincent Haw thorne's Army of the Roum Alliance, came stiffly to attention even as Andrew motioned for him to relax.
"As well as can be expected, sir," he replied, hill voice a little too loud.
Pat chuckled and looked over at the gray-haired Rus, who had volunteered as a private in Hawthorne's original company and had risen alongside the young Quaker to prominence.
"You're sounding like an artillery man, Dimitri— a bit deaf and loud-voiced."
Dimitri smiled and said nothing. Beside Dimitri was Julius of the Graca, a former slave of Marcus's household and now Consul of the Plebian Council. Andrew smiled at the man, who looked around a bit self-consciously. It was good politics of Marcus to send this man as a liaison. Far too much needed to be done in Roum to spare either him or Vincent, and the sight of a former slave representing Roum was heartening. The bicameral government of Roum--a senate for the patricians and a house for the plebs—was less than satisfying to the radical republican elements of Roum and Rus, but Vincent's plan, Andrew realized, was the best one for a quick transition to wartime emergency status while setting the groundwork for what would come later—if they ever pulled through this. Vincent had argued that the economic revolution of industrialism would soon render the patrician class all but obsolete, in much the same way that the House of Lords had atrophied in England. Though Julius was still a complete novice, lacking the far more cunning skill of Kal, he would learn soon enough. But for the duration of the present military emergency it was obvious that Kal and Marcus would have near dictatorial powers, with Andrew acknowledged as being above them in all things military.
He had noticed a curious thing that his men had created. He had always refused to promote himself, feeling it to be a foolish bit of vainglory, while Hans, Pat, Vincent, and more than forty others had been elevated to brigadier general or above by his orders. Yet he was still a colonel. But of late they had worked around that behind his back. There were lieutenant colonels to be sure, but, if promoted to regiment command, Hans kept the man's rank the same until he moved up to brigade command and earned his first star as a brigadier. There was but one colonel now in all of Valennia. So the title of colonel, like it or not, had been changed to the highest rank.
Andrew looked over at Bullfinch, sporting an eye patch like a pirate of old. The boy had recovered completely from his terrible wounding in the battle of Saint Gregory, as the great encounter between the two fleets was now known, referring to the local name for the point off of which the two fleets had clashed. He had to admit that, horrible though the wound was, it had made the boyish lieutenant into an almost rakish-looking character, who had his hands more than full with the Rus girls who seemed to be forever following the young admiral of the fleet. We damn near all seem to have earned a wound or two in our profession, Andrew thought dryly.
Next to him was father Casmar, prelate and supreme court justice, wrapped in simple black robe without adornment and nodding a smile.
"Your health is improving?"
"Thank you, father, I'm feeling better."
"When word came of your illness," Kal saw approvingly, "Father offered a high mass everyday for your recovery."
"Your prayers carried their strength to me." Andrew replied openly.
"To be honest it was a prayer for all of us, for without you, my dear friend, we would truly be lost"
Andrew did not reply, unable as always to say any thing in response to such a statement.
In the far corner of the room Andrew saw Chuck Ferguson, with Jack Petracci by his side. The young engineer, the driving force behind so many of the technological innovations, was as bright-eyed asalways, as if ready to spring yet more miracles upon them. He thought back to young Chuck as he had been in the early days of the war, the old war with the Army of the Potomac. He had felt the man to be the least likely of good soldiers. More often than not he was on sick call, recovering from yet another bout with one of the myriad of camp illnesses. When not in the hospital he had struggled along on the march, and by the end of the day, more often than not, sergeant Barry or one of the others was carrying his musket. And yet he had doggedly refused to quit. More than once Andrew had offered him a place in the rear with a quartermaster unit, and Chuck had always replied indignantly that he would do his part. Thank God he had stayed and survived, Andrew thought, as he smiled at the soldier who, since coming to this world, had not fired a shot in anger but had done more than perhaps all of them put together to save them from the feasting pits of the enemy.
Lastly there was Hamilcar, who seemed almost to be standing in the shadows. Kal and Hans had objected loudly to his being present, but Andrew had insisted. Only seven months ago this man had been an enemy who had come close to defeating them. And yet now he might be one of the keys to winning. Nearly forty thousand Cartha had been relocated to Suzdal, settling down along the coast on the frontier between the Republic and Roum. Their raids back to their homeland, to rescue their people, were a constant harassment of the enemy and a valuable source of information. He wanted Hamilcar to fully realize that his people were being accepted into the alliance, that technically Cartha was now considered an allied city under enemy occupation. Of course if Marcus had come it would have been impossible, so deep was the enmity between Roumand her former enemy. Though Hamilcar's hatred of the Merki was now evident, Andrew knew for certain that the man's grasp of Rus was rudimentary at best, and he would not be around after this initial session, when maps and other secret information were laid out on the table.
"Gentlemen, we've got a long couple of days ahead of us," Andrew said quietly, "so let's get started.
He nodded appreciatively to the young steward who came out of the tiny galley next to the telegraph office, bearing a trayload of heavy earthenware mugs, filled with the traditional Rus brew of dark fragrant tea. The steward looked over at Emil, who gave an approving nod, before setting a mug down before Andrew.
"Off that damn broth, at last," Andrew said with a sigh.
"Just be careful," Emil replied. "Not too much. And be sure to eat something with it."
Andrew felt no need to argue with the doctor, as a second steward deposited a wooden tray of dark bread, liberally spread with a thick coating of fresh cheese. It was a rare treat for the Rus, since the first war had killed off most of their livestock, which after three years were just starting to get their numbers back up. Kal always made it a point of spreading a table that was no better than what the common working families of Rus enjoyed, and more than once Andrew had found nothing more than bread and butter that bordered on being rancid on his plate.
"It keeps us from becoming boyars," Kal would remind them. It was also damn good politics, Andrew realized as well.
Andrew wrapped his hand around the mug, letting the warmth seep in, and, raising it to his lips took a sip, a smile of contentment crossing his features.
It was the first tea he had tasted in nearly a month. This had been his second bout with typhoid, and this time he had half believed it was going to kill him.
He took another long sip, the tea jarring his senses awake. Setting the mug down, he looked around the table.
"John, why don't you start with an overview of things."
John Mina pulled open a folder and looked up at the group. The papers in his hand were never really neccessary, for the facts and figures danced through his mind without ceasing.
"Production is slowing somewhat. It's what we talked about before. Morale is down. It's been nearly three years nonstop, and two major wars with a third on the way. Our illness rate was up, for starters."
"To be expected in the winter," Emil said almost defensively, "and still a whole hell of a lot less than if we hadn't put in clean water and sewers."
"No one's doubting your efforts, doctor," Kal said gently. "We couldn't have accomplished what we have without your work."
"I was just pointing out a fact," John replied. "Nothing more, doctor."
Emil said nothing, but Andrew could see that his old friend somehow took disease as a personal affront.
"For artillery we have three hundred and ten light four-pound guns, a hundred and twenty twelve-pound Napoleons, and twelve guns of the new ten-pound Parrott-rifled pieces, firing percussion shells."
"For the navy and coast defense we've got forty-two of the seventy-five-pound carronades, twenty long seventy-five-pounders, the captured pieces from Cromwell's fleet, and fifty of the swivelmounted four-pounders for the galleys.
"We've mounted sixty of the four-pounders and a dozen Napoleons on carriages with high elevation to use against the balloons; in a pinch we could remount them for ground work.
"We're turning out just under two hundred Springfield-type rifles a day, and another two hundred smoothbores of the old flintlock variety on the old assembly line in Rus. The Roum works are just starting up a couple dozen smoothbores a day, and two four-pounders a week. That should really pick up in the next month."
"Just under twenty thousand percussion rifles firing our old .58-caliber minie balls, another forty thousand flintlocks converted to .69-caliber minie ball rifles, and thirty thousand flintlock smoothbores. If we hadn't lost nearly eight thousand guns in the naval battles we'd be in a lot better shape."
"It's not bad," Andrew said. "Enough for sixteen divisions, five and a third corps, along with garrison troops and home guard militia."
"Still, that will only leave us ten divisions for this front," Andrew replied. "We need to keep a full corp of three divisions stationed in Roum, in case they hit from that direction, and a corp in reserve in Suzdal to move either east or west. That's sixty thousand men for a hundred miles of front. They'll still outnumber us nearly six to one out here."
"Another month will give us another corp," John replied.
"Barely trained," Hans interjected, and he looked over at Dimitri.
"We have nearly forty thousand men in training." Dimitri said. "Not more than ten thousand have weapons at the moment—the field batteries are practicing with logs mounted on wagons. It'll be at least two months before the 7th Corps can be sent up."
"They won't give us the time—we heard the reports from Hamilcar." Andrew said, nodding over to the Cartha commander, who, though he had learned some Rus, turned inquisitively to his translator at the mention of his name.
"Within the month," Hamilcar said haltingly in Rus, "when horses can eat grass here. They will ride immediately after the next moon feast; the Moon of New Grass Riding, they call it."
At the mention of the moon feast the group fell quiet, each now knowing the details as told by Yuri to Andrew. Andrew looked over at Hamilcar. Perhaps fifty thousand of his people would die that night.
"They have the damn air machines to keep tabs on us, and we don't," Pat said, a note of bitterness in his voice.
"We'll get to that later," Andrew said, aware that Chuck and Jack had been taking far more than their fair share of criticism on that score.
They had grown complacent, expecting to have the technical edge on their opponents, and the fact that the enemy had been able to launch balloons that could not only fly, but could travel at will in any direction, had left all of them in a state of shock.
Throughout the winter, whenever the weather was good and the wind was down, Merki air machines, ugly cigar-shaped vessels, had roamed the sky at will, keeping watch on the building of the fortifications and repeatedly bombing Suzdal. The first attack, only a day after the victory over the Oqunquit had made a shambles of the powder mill, and the repeated air assaults, though more of a nuisance than a serious threat, had wrought a stunning impact on Rus morale, the former peasants looking at the Merki machines with dread. Two raids had reached even as far as Roum, bombing the navy yard and setting a long string of precious boxcars on fire with a rain of small projectiles that burned rather than exploded.
Andrew leaned back in his chair and looked at the map of the Potomac front spread out on the table.
"What's the situation in your department?" Andrew asked, looking back over to John.
"Rations are the easy part—thank god, harvest last fall was better than expected. Bob Fletcher has been working miracles as quartermaster for the armies. We've got one hundreds' days worth of salted beef, pork, and even that damned whale meat the Roum like so much, stockpiled for the army. There's enough hardtack for a year. Throughout Rus supplies are good right through to harvest time.
"As long as we stay near a rail line we're in fairly good transport shape. As of this morning, we have sixty-eight locomotives and just under seven hundred cars. We can move two corps from here to Roum and back without much delay. Our reserve corp on this front has all trains ready, and transport for the other two corp can be moved up quickly. Our copper wire supply is good, so is the zinc for hydrogen, and lead is up—we've taking to rewrapping the iron ball cartridges we were forced to produce last fall, and replacing them with lead rounds.
"Replacement timbers for all major bridges are in place, and we've made up a number of precut sections for emergency repairs on the lines.
"Shortages are still plaguing us in cast iron and steel. Rails are damn near still warm when they're getting laid, precision tools, especially for building up an arms center in Roum, are scarce, the men to make them even scarcer. Saltpeter is still the bottleneck for powder; we've turned over every manure pit and outhouse in Rus. If it wasn't for Roum we'd be finished.
"Is there any way to up production on our muskets?" Hans asked, bringing the conversation back to its original starting point.
John shook his head.
"We were starting a works in Roum—it might get up to maybe seventy-five a day by the end of the month. Remember that just before the Tugar War we were only doing a hundred a day. The trouble is that we've had three years to train our workers here, but we're starting from scratch with the Roum. It's the old problem: We could detail more men from Rus to go out to Roum to train these people, but it hurts our production here, while it will take months to up the lose and come out on the positive side."
"Can we spare some more people from our own factories?" Kal asked.
"We've already sent two hundred to train the Roum." John replied. "Take any more out, and production here will slide even further."
Andrew looked over at Kal, who sat back quietly, absently fingering a button on his jacket, a habit he had whenever he was making a decision.
"Send another fifty," Kal said quietly, raising his hand to stop any objection from John.
Julius, listening to Dimitri's translation, nodded his thanks. It was part of the alliance game, Andrew realized; they'd lose a couple of hundred weapons a week on this end, but hopefully gain it back on the other side.
"Can we take the men out of the specialized weapons areas?" John asked. He looked over at Chuck, who immediately stirred, as if ready to spring to the defense of what was another of his pet projects.
"They might seem like a waste now," Chuck said angrily, "but it's through things like that that we might get an edge."
"What progress have you to show?" Andrew asked quietly.
"I've got half a dozen of them running at the moment. General Hawthorne suggested that we make some Whitworth sniper guns. Those are already under construction. The first one finished two day ago. I brought one along if you'd like to see it."
Andrew nodded his acquiescence without comment
Chuck stepped over to a gun cabinet set agai the wall and opened it, pulling out a long leathe case. Almost lovingly, Ferguson laid the case on th table, opened the top, and drew the weapon out.
There was a whistle of approval from Pat, an Hans stirred out of his chair to come over for closer look.
"We didn't have any type of original to go on, Chuck said, almost apologetically.
"Superb piece of work," Hans whispered, extending his hand and then looking over to Chuck, who gave a smiling nod of agreement.
Hans picked the long-barreled weapon up.
"Just over twenty-five pounds," Chuck replied.
"The gun's nearly five and a half feet long, th barrel forged out of our best steel. It's got a hexagonal bore to it."
"A what?" Kal asked, looking at the gun with certain nervous curiosity.
Chuck motioned for the gun, which Hans surrendered reluctantly. He laid the gun back down o the table, the barrel pointing down the table for Kal to see.
"The inside of the barrel is not round, it's six sided."
Going back to the gun case, he pulled out a finely crafted, oversized cartridge box of black leather Opening it up, he broke a paper seal and pulled out a single bullet, shaped like a long bolt, blunt at both ends, six-sided, the sides set at a very slight angle to the long axis of the shot.
"This was the hard part of the job. We had to cut the barrel perfectly, six sides, with a tight rotation, just over a revolution and a half down its length. The bullet, forty-five caliber and over an inch and a half long, had to be cast the same way, fitting to nearly a thousandth of an inch. It's the finest precision job we've ever done."
"Fifty skilled workers for four months to turn out just this first gun," John sniffed coldly.
"We've learned a hell of a lot in the making," Chuck replied defensively. "This taught fifty workers to become precision craftsmen and toolmakers, unlike anyone we've trained so far."
"A lot of good it'll do in the next sixty days," John retorted.
"What's the range?" Andrew asked quietly.
"We've yet to train anyone to really handle it well," Chuck replied.
He pointed at the telescope mounted down the entire length of the barrel.
This still needs adjusting—laying the silk threads in for the crosshairs has been a devil of a job. I've worked up a sighting gauge to help a man judge distance, then we've got to teach him how to adjust for wind and even for whether it's a humid day or not. It'll take time before this beauty gets matched to someone who really knows how to use it."
"Back in our old war," Hans said, "I heard of a sniper dropping a reb general at a mile with one of those things."
"Old Uncle John Sedjwick, 6th Corps commander, got hit in the head at eight hundred yards by a reb sniper using one of those," Pat said, looking at the gun with approval.
"That'll be a hell of lot of good against a charging Horde, when it takes five minutes to load the damn thing back up," John replied. "Boring out a hexagonal barrel is a bloody waste of men and time."
Andrew looked over at John.
"I told him to give it a try six months ago," Andrew said quietly. "Not everything pans out, but it's still worth the gamble."
"Do you want to continue with it?" John asked.
Andrew looked at the weapon for a long moment.
"How many do you have on the line?"
"This was a custom job, sir—no line yet. Just two more finished with this one, but they're not as good.
"Hold on to them for right now," he said quietly. "You did a good job, but if one of your well-trained people can train fifty Roumans to turn out musket it's going to help a lot more. That's where we'll get the people to send to Marcus."
Chuck said nothing, as if wanting to save his points for later arguments.
"What else do you have for me in your report?" Andrew asked, knowing there'd have to be a surprise someplace or it wouldn't be a typical effort by Chuck.
"We're finished making the molds from Sergeant Schuder's Sharp's carbine, and the machines to mill them. In another three months I could start turning out a small run of breech-loading carbines based upon the model."
"And what else?"
"We've got a hundred revolvers a month coming out for our officers—they're almost as good as our own Colts. Good God, sir, I'm jumping patents like mad out here!" He chuckled to himself.
"Tell him about those damn Gatlings," John snapped.
"Gatlings?" Andrew asked, raising a quizzical gaze at Chuck, who looked over angrily at John.
"Mr. Ferguson, I don't recall this in any of our conversations."
"I wanted to, sir, but you kept saying to stick to the basics, and John over here wouldn't let me get a word in edgewise any time I wanted to bring it up."
"I am your immediate superior," John replied sharply, and immediately Andrew could see that there had been some bad blood between the two regarding this issue. When they had first started the building of their army, a regiment at a time, contact had been a lot closer and far more intimate. But now the numbers had increased beyond their wildest dreams of three years ago. Well over a hundred and fifty regiments had been mobilized, with another sixty planned over the next two months, as Roum manpower finished training and came on to line units. The system was becoming far too complex for him to ever keep an eye on everything.
"Go on and explain it, Chuck," Andrew finally said quietly, looking over at John to still any complaint.
"Well, sir, I think it's a hell of an idea," Chuck said enthusiastically. "Now, I've never seen one of them, I don't think any of us has, but this damn crazy dentist out in Indiana had made the darn things, and I remember how General Butler even brought a couple to use during the Petersburg campaign. So I started to do some sketching. It's a simple enough weapon. Six barrels that are rotated by a crankshaft, just like a giant revolver. Each barrel has it's own breech, and as it turns the breech opens and receives a round from an ammunition hopper. The individual barrel and breech continue to turn, and as they do so the bullet slides into place, the breech plug closing behind it. A cam snaps off the firing pin when the barrel is at the bottom, and then as it rotates back up the breech slides open and the spent cartridge is ejected. Hand-cranked, it can put out a couple of hundred rounds a minute."
Chuck looked around the small room and was met with silence. Andrew found himself intrigued by the idea—it was something he had heard about, but never really considered.
"We've got an ammunition shortage as is—it's just a hundred and fifty rounds per man. We can burn that up in two major engagements and then we'll be out," John interjected. "We lost a hell of a lot of our stocks in last summer's campaign, a lot more when the powder mill was bombed, and you're talking about one machine burning up in ten minutes the volley power of an entire brigade."
"It's concentrated firepower," Chuck replied.
"Tell him the rest," John said sharply.
"Go on, Mr. Ferguson. You know I've backed you in damn near everything else."
"Well, I started to thinking, sir."
"You always do," Pat said with a smile, which sent a ripple of appreciative laughter around the table.
Chuck smiled in acknowledgment.
"Steam-powered, sir, it's a natural. Take the gun up to eight or nine barrels to stand the heat of rapid fire, hook the crank to a steam engine, and I could rip it up to a couple of thousand rounds a minute. I was thinking about it in terms of the enemy balloons. Sure we fired on them, we even put a cannon shot through one, but it was still able to get back home. With a steam-powered Gatling gun, we could tear that thing apart in a matter of seconds. Against a Horde charge it's tear them to shreds at six hundred yards."
Andrew looked back at John, who was shaking his head in disagreement.
"Pipe dreams," John replied. "I'd love to believe this one, Ferguson, but you failed to mention that you're talking about copper cartridge, rim-fired ammunition. We've got all our silver nitrate and fulminate of mercury going into percussion caps for the Springfield rifles and revolver ammunition. You're talking about hundreds of thousands of rounds of the stuff, and the horde will be at us in less than thirty days. You want to divert hundreds of workers into a project that won't even see light untill the end of this year at earliest. You've got a lot of highly skilled people needed elsewheres."
"At least let me try?"
We don't have time, Chuck," Andrew said reluctantly.
He saw a flicker of anger on Chuck's part that was directed at John. But there was no getting around the current crisis: A thousand guns now would be worth far more than all the Gatling guns in the world a year hence.
We could field an army of a quarter of a million men if we only had the weapons."
"And we don't," he said quietly, looking out the window, where the storm had gone over completely to rain.
It's closed, Chuck," Andrew said softly. "But do you have anything else?"
"Just the rocket idea, but John's not too wild about that one either."
"He's only doing his job, Chuck," Kal said soothingly. "We're running a race, and General Mina is responsible for logistical support. If I don't have the supplies that we need, especially weapons, it'll be his neck—it'll be all our necks. You've worked a lot of miracles, and after we win this one I'll look for some more. Now tell me of this rocket thing."
"It's just that I started thinking. We know they're making artillery, and lots of it. We'll have somewhere around four hundred guns when this war gets started; if anything, the problem is not the guns but getting enough horses to move them and their ammunition limbers. A battery of six of the four pound guns needs eighteen horses, a battery of twelve-pound Napoleons or the new three-inch rifles needs over one hundred horses—that's where the big shortage is. Rockets could give us an edge.
"They're terrible things," Pat interjected. "Back early in the war some of the boys from the 24th New York Battery were given 'em. They had a devil of a time: The damn things couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, and every once in a while the demon things would turn around and come straight back at our own lines."
"I know that," Chuck responded hurriedly. "But we won't be shooting at a barn, it'll be the entire damn Horde. I was figuring we'd make them about three feet long and six inches in diameter. They'll weigh out at around twenty pounds each; with a ten-pound exploding spherical-case round, it should have a range of nearly three thousand yards.
"The advantage is tremendous when it comes to weight. A Napoleon with its limber weighs over a ton. We could load one hundred rockets on to a wagon for the same weight. Fire that into an umen and you're bound to hit something."
"And the ones that come back?" Pat asked.
"We duck," Chuck said quietly.
Pat shook his head. Andrew looked over at his artillery chief, deferring to him for a decision.
"Easy to say, but you've never had one come back at you." Chuck bristled slightly.
"I was in the charge at Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor, sir," he said quietly, "I know what it's like to face enemy artillery fire. Even if one in ten come backs at us, the other ninety per cent will play hell with the enemy."
"You know, laddie, you might have something," Pat said reluctantly.
Chuck looked expectantly at Andrew.
"Have you tried any yet?" Hans asked.
"Well, sir, it kind of got away from us."
"Blew up an outhouse five hundred yards behind us--a beautiful shot," Jack Petracci interjected.
"Thanks for the help, Jack," Chuck mumbled quietly.
Andrew shook his head, laughing softly.
"Go ahead then, see what you can come up with. But I want something that can at least hit the broad side of a barn—and the one you're aiming at."
"That's fifteen pounds of powder per shot," John replied. "That's worth seven Napoleon rounds."
I think we can spare a couple of hundred pounds for starters," Andrew said. "Concentrate on that, keep the revolvers coming, but the carbines, sniper guns, and Gatling guns are on hold."
"Now, to the airships?" Kal asked.
Andrew nodded in agreement. Chuck cleared his throat nervously.
"We've built three large sheds in the forest north of Roum to house them. So far the Merki haven't flown near that area. If they catch us on the ground at this stage, one torch dropped from the air will finish us. We've got three bags done, and another four under way in Roum. It's still the engine."
"What about theirs?" Kal asked.
Chuck shook his head.
"It's buried where it fell."
"And you haven't gone poking around?" Andrew asked.
"I'm curious, but not that crazy, Chuck said quietly.
"There had to be some poison in it," Emil interjected. "We got that one report that several of the Merki who had been flying that ship earlier have died horribly, their hair falling out first. Those two Merki that crawled away from the wreck were vomiting blood, and everyone of our people who went up to the machine after it crashed got sick, with six of them now dead. Same as the Merki—hair falling out, vomiting blood. The poor fellows that buried some of them are still in the hospital, or in their graves."
"The damned thing is in the ground, and let it stay there!" Father Casmar said sharply. "It's a cursed devil tool."
"I'll not argue that one," Chuck replied.
It was just lucky, Andrew realized, that the ship had come down far out in the countryside, and that the effects of whatever was inside had become known before Ferguson had gotten to it—though the deaths of the peasants were tragic nevertheless. Emil had theorized that it might be some sort of arsenic poisoning, explaining the hair falling out and the vomiting, but why would arsenic be locked up inside a machine that without any visible source of fuel could power the Merki balloons about the sky? The power they utilized was tremendous, and coming out of an engine that reportedly could be lifted by one person.
"How soon will we be flying?"
Chuck looked over at Jack, as if searching for support.
"I'm not sure, it all depends on the engine. Weight is everything."
"Maybe you should have stuck to a proven design," Andrew asked.
"Sir, we never would have gotten anything effective into the air. A steam engine weighs a hell of a lot, and not just the engine but the water and coal along with it. A caloric engine is the way. Ericsson built one nearly thirty years ago. Rather than water it runs on superheated air—that cuts a lot of weight right there. We've figured out how to boil the oil we found out in the Caprium province and convert it into a form of coal oil—I think it's like kerosene. It'll weight a fraction of the coal and with as much power locked up; it's a hell of a fuel."
"And the last two engines exploded," John replied wryly.
"Look, John, just whose side are you on?" Chuck snapped peevishly.
"I'm the one allocating the resources and labor!" John retorted heatedly. "You've got at last count over a dozen projects going, God knows you've most likely got more hidden away I'm not even aware of, and it's tying up thousands of workers. I need the basics: guns, guns, and more guns, and the ammunition to feed them!"
"Do you want powered aerosteamers, or don't you?'" Chuck snapped, looking straight at Andrew.
The tension was rippling through all of them, the unrelenting stress of repairing the damage from the naval war and preparing for the next attack. Just the replacing of the lost locomotives and the damaged rail line had set them back two months. It was wearing them all down.
"We need something to counter the Merki machine," Kal replied soothingly.
"It's got to be caloric," Chuck announced, as if the debate were closed, "otherwise we'll have to make balloons twice as big just to lift one man and machine. It'll be too damn big, and with so little power it'll barely move. In fact, it'll be downright dangerous in anything other than a dead calm."
"Lift is the key thing," Jack Petracci said quietly speaking up at last. "My last balloon, the one we lost in the Tugar War, could raise just over two hundred and sixty pounds on a cold day. Ferguson and I did a little experimenting and found that gravity here's about eighty-five percent of home's, so we have a little advantage there.
"We've floated two aerosteamers so far, neither one with engines. On a cold day, with the engine running, we figure the lift is nearly eight hundred pounds, enough for an engineer to steer it, another engineer to run the engine, drop some small bombs or operate a telegraph if tethered."
"How fast will it go, and what's the range?" Hans asked.
Chuck shrugged his shoulders.
"It'll be a mystery to me until we actually fly one. This is a whole new field for all of us. I did change one part of the design, which I think will help."
"And that is?" John asked.
"We'll still use the hydrogen for lift, in two bags one forward and the other aft. But in the middle i'm putting another bag hooked into the exhaust smokestack of the engine. We start the engine, the hot air goes into the bag and up we go. Cut the engine and back down. We've got the hot already, so why not use it?"
John looked over to Jack for a response.
"It's dangerous," Jack said quietly. "If a spark ever gets into tbe bag and starts a fire, it's good-bye."
"The kerosene isn't like coal or wood, it'll be spark-free," Chuck said. "We've heard the Merki are having problems getting up and down, and more often than not they're venting a lot of gas, forcing them to keep refilling the bags after every flight. We'll have some leakage, to be sure, but nothing gets vented unless it's an emergency. Once we seal up our bags and inflate them, they'll stay that way."
"We'll have to trust your judgment on this," Andrew replied.
"You mean / will," Jack interjected, trying to force a smile. "I'm the damn test engineer for the thing."
Just make sure it stays that way, Chuck," Andrew said forcefully. He knew Ferguson had a penchant for being the first one to play with his new toys, but this entire venture was far too risky to hazard the world's best inventor and engineer.
Chuck gave an almost wistful smile, but he knew better than to argue. His own staff of young aspiring engineers had received strict orders from Andrew to protect their precious leader, an action that Ferguson bridled against but knew there was no hope of resisting.
"To other things now," Andrew said, looking over to Hans.
"The fortification lines are almost complete," Hans said, rising from his seat to point out the positions outlined on the map.
"From the Inland Sea to the Great Forest we've laid out a hundred and ten miles of fortifications along the banks of the Potomac. In sections around the fords the lines are three deep. An outer line halfway down the bluffs, then the main line atop the bluffs, and then a reserve line to the rear protecting our rail tracks.
"Granted, in some areas it's a bit thin, especially where sections of the river, at least through the end of the spring flood, will be impassable. But every mile there's an earthen fort which can be held as a strong point. The ones facing the fords are bigger, usually holding a couple of batteries, projecting bastions, and interlocking fire fields. If they should come that way, the Potomac will turn red."
"If," Kal said emphatically. "What is your current assessment?"
Hans leaned back and looked over to Andrew.
"From the mouth of the Inland Sea, up to a good forty miles inland, is safe. The flood plain is two miles wide for a good part of that. It means they'll have to cross open ground, and cross the river under fire the entire time from the bluffs, which we command."
"The threat from the sea?"
"Our spy reports"—he looked over emphatically at Hamilcar—"indicate that we'll have the edge at sea. If they try and do an end run, our fleet will be there to meet them."
"But their air power," John said sharply.
"That's why we need our own aerosteamers," Hans replied, looking over at Chuck. "Their bombing of land targets is more a nuisance then anything else, but they are taking a toll of galleys and they'll know where we are, and we won't. They'll be able to see how we've positioned our troops, have maps made of our fortifications, and when they hit they'll know far more of us than we do of them."
Hans walked down the length of the table and stabbed the northwest flank with his stubby finger tracing the line where the fortifications went into the forest for ten miles to finally end atop a steep-sided ridge, the line then turning back east at a right angle for several miles.
"They'll come against us up here."
"That's where our fortifications are strongest," Andrew said, almost as if to reassure himself. "The entire section is reinforced with log blockhouses, ditched and faced with abatis as well."
"Yet this is where they'll hit," Hans said emphatically. "We have to have a flank somewhere, and that's where the blow will land."
Into the forest?" Kal interjected, "Hans, we've been going over this since last fall. It would mean the Merki would have to backtrack in an arc of several hundred miles. The woods are pathless, except for our own line of fortifications. That flank is secure."
"A flank is still a flank," Hans replied. "We've built these defenses almost too well. But we had to. We're nearly a hundred miles out into the steppe down here. If they break through anywhere along our front, their mobility would destroy us. So we fortified to the teeth, and now they'll go for the flank. If they take it, two days of hard riding would get them up to the ford where we first met the Tugars, and from there they're bound to jump the Neiper further up river."
"You still want us to abandon our forward position and fight on the Neiper, don't you?" Pat asked.
"Our gunboats can hold the line up to the ford," Hans said. "Beyond that we can hold the river line with two corps for fifty miles into the forest beyond."
"It's fighting on our home territory," Andrew said quietly. "Lose anywhere, and the enemy is inside our land. If they flank Suzdal, we'll be cut off from Roum and the rest of our country."
"We might be fighting that way anyhow," Hans replied, his voice full of warning.
"The amount of rail construction we've done down here, if the same effort had been applied to running a line along the Neiper for a hundred miles north of the ford, we'd be secure."
"We went over that a year and a half ago," John replied sharply. "That terrain is murderous for rail construction, nothing but hills and marshy gullies, It's a wilderness, worse than the one in Virginia. The Merki will get tangled in it if they ever get that far."
"And besides," he added quietly, "what's done is done."
Andrew felt the old sense of exhaustion seeping in. Since the end of the naval war every moment had been consumed with preparing for this next conflict. He had decided over two years ago that their defense against the Merki, if they should move against Rus, would be a forward one, attempting to block the enemy before he got anywhere near home territory. All of his thinking had been predicated upon this basic principle of avoiding war on one's own land at all cost. Hans had been in full agreement at the beginning, but starting in mid-winter he had begun to grow cautious, and now he was finally coming down on the other side.
Andrew knew that the typhoid had sapped his strength, leaving him feeling weak psychologically as well as physically. But beyond that was the deep seated fear that had been gnawing at him all along that no matter how much they did, the Merki, now armed with modern weapons, would be too much for them, and that everything attempted would in the end result in ruin.
"What you're saying here is that we can't hold them on this front," Andrew said quietly.
Hans looked around the room and nodded.
"Then where the hell will we hold them?" Pat asked. "If they gain the Neiper, sooner or later they'll flank us above the ford and jump between us and the Roum, wilderness or not, no matter what John says."
He looked over at Julius, who was intently listening to the debate, nodding in understanding as a translator explained the rapid-fire conversation.
"We must stand together," Julius said. "It is like our facies: one stick alone and we are broken, three united and we will stand."
"Suppose they don't strike here at all, but move on Roum instead?" Kal asked rhetorically, knowing that that question had been debated endlessly and was still up in the air.
"Difficult. If they send everything, we could always move against Cartha and liberate what is left," Andrew replied. "Beyond that it'll double their distance of march, and we'll still be in their rear. Going through us and then on to Roum is the direct route, otherwise it'll be a campaign of over fifteen hundred miles.
"Sherman did it on foot," Andrew continued. "But we've already laid that plan to rest. From what we've heard the Merki are afraid to give us another year, so the campaign will come straight at us."
"Our patrols down through the narrows in front of Cartha show they have moved at best one umen, maybe two, across the channel," Hamilcar said through his translator.
"Give me another year," Chuck interjected, "and they'll regret it."
Andrew nodded and smiled. What he wouldn't give for another year, or another five years. But then it was always that way, there was never enough time.
"We can expect at least some sort of feign run up the cast side of the Inland Sea towards Roum. Fifth corps will stay in Roum, while the 4th is positioned in Rus as our strategic reserve. When 6th and 7th Corps under Vincent are fully mobilized in Roum, we'll shift them as need be. Undoubtedly they'll feign in that direction at the very least, but I want to focus on what we do here. For the last six months we've invested all our strength in fortifying this line."
Andrew looked back at Hans.
"I'm merely saying it as I see it," he replied sharply. "And I'm telling you that when they hit they'll come at us with everything. They're under time pressure, just as we are. That Horde is huge--it's a vast eating machine of horses and of Merki and if they stop they'll starve to death. John, what's the quartering ability of horses for this type of land?"
"Well, as near as we can figure," John said quietly, "it comes out to something like twenty-five acres to support one horse for a year on grassland. Now that's for year-round, mind you. In late spring you could most likely graze twenty of them on an acre for a day or two, but you'd need a good two weeks or more before you could use that again. So, doing some rough figuring, the settled area of Rus is about the size of Maine, about thirty thousand square miles or so. It could barely see the Merki through a season—and that's just for the horses, mind you, as to what they eat." He fell quiet.
"The Tugar Horde was a third their size," Hans said quietly, "and starvation was getting to them as well by the time the siege ended, and there was a hell of a lot of Rus territory where they controlled the harvest. Jubadi is no fool, we've seen that already. He knows he'll have to strike and break us before summer even sets in, and he needs to get all the way to Roum before fall and break them as well, otherwise he's finished.
"That's why I'm worried. I hate it when I'm fighting an enemy who might be every bit as desperate as I am, or more so. The rebs showed us that: Those bastards were kicked into the ground, and they still kept coming back for more."
"We can't forget that we are desperate," Hans said quietly, "but never forget that Jubadi knows us—Muzta and the Tugars did not. He's desperate, and he'll not make the same mistakes."
Andrew sat back in his chair, looking around the room, which was quiet except for the clattering of the telegraph key in the next room.
Too much had gone into their bid to fight it out here. To pull up now would shatter months of careful planning, and perhaps shatter the morale of the Rus as well, who were faced with the prospect of lighting a third war in as many years on their own territory. If the position here failed, Merki siege guns would be on the Neiper within the week, ready to reduce Suzdal. He would have to hazard the fight on the Potomac line, and yet as he looked at his old mentor he had a gut-coiling sense that the old man was right. No matter what they did, chances were they would lose.
"We fight it out here as planned," Andrew said quietly.
Hans looked at him and nodded, a sad smile lighting his features, as if a sentence had been pronounced that he had known all along was inevitable.
"Deployment will stand as before," Andrew said, and he could see a sigh of relief from John, who had based months of logistical planning on the Potomac defense. Pat shifted noisily in his chair.
" 'Chief of Artillery' sounds mighty grand," Pat sniffed, "but bejesus, Andrew, that sticks me back in Suzdal with the reserves."
"I need you back there, Pat. We've got Schneid commanding 1st Corps as our front line reserve, Barry in command of 2nd here on our left flank, and Tim Kindred commanding the 3rd Corps on the right flank. They're all old 35th men. Alexi Alexandrovich is in command of the 4th, back as mobile reserve. He's good, but I want you to keep an eye on him nevertheless. As Chief of Artillery you'll still hold higher rank. Fifth corps is under Marcus and back in Roum, and when 6th comes on line under Hawthorne in Roum it'll go wherever the action is, chances are to move under you."
"We've got two full battalions, twelve batteries assigned to each corps," Hans interjected, "with six battalions, over a hundred and fifty guns in reserve, under your direct command. What the hell more could an artilleryman ask for?"
"To be at the front where the action will be," Pat complained.
"The front may be in your lap soon enough," Hans said quietly.
"Mr. Bullfinch, what's the latest from you?" Andrew asked, finally breaking the uneasy spell.
The young admiral brightened.
"Fifteen ironclads, ten mounting two guns, the other five with four guns, ready for action, sir, along with over a hundred galleys."
"And the Oqunquit?"
His bright features dimmed.
"She might serve as a floating battery, sir, but it'll be months before you see her under steam again. Getting her side blown in and then rolling over made a mess out of her. We're still working on the boilers, but without Cromwell, or his old engineers, I'll have to admit they're damn near a mystery to me."
"Chuck?" Andrew asked hopefully.
"Complex pieces of machinery, sir. I'd have to spend some time on them, both of the boilers were cracked when we brought her back up. There's a lot inside that ship we just don't have the tools for yet."
"Do what you can, Mr. Bullfinch," Andrew said quietly.
Andrew sighed as he looked over at Emil.
"Making chloroform as fast as I can. Andrew, on the conservative side a full-blown war with those beasts will create thirty or forty thousand casualties. We're low on silk—all of it had gone into the balloons. John's given priority to high-grade steel for instruments, but the best instruments in the world are useless in the hands of a bumbler. I've got to train a couple of hundred surgeons and a thousand nurses. Your Kathleen has the nurses' school well organized, and she's teaching the first batch of Roum surgeons herself. The trouble is, I had maybe twenty good people trained in field surgery by the end of the Tugar War. There's only so much I can do with books and lectures, but those men and women will have to learn the theory and test it out lor the first time in the field.
"There's only one way to teach amputation, and that's to do it. Amputations around here are precious few in peacetime, just several a month."
"Thanks to you," Casmar interjected. "That carbolic acid spray, and your sterilizing, have cut infections to a fraction of before. The dead flesh, your gangrene, is not near as common now."
Emil nodded a thanks, his pride showing. Kathleen had kept him abreast of the doctor's work, rendering a revolution to the Rus he had never thought possible. Emil's lectures in the surgery school were Idled with his new theories: Boil all instruments and bandages, wash in diluted carbolic acid between each examination or procedure, work to clean out the wound and spray yet more carbolic acid.
Though resources were stretched beyond the limit, Andrew had agreed to a drastic increase in medical assistants. Back in the old war against the rebels Emil had been the only surgeon, with one assistant for a regiment of five hundred men. He was demanding that the number of surgeons be doubled, and that three assistants serve with each unit. A special train of fifteen cars for moving wounded had been constructed, over John's near hysterical protests. Fully equipped hospitals were already in place in Suzdal, Novrod, Kev, and Roum, with tentage for a field hospital for three thousand men. Yet like everything else, this, Andrew realized, though an improvement over the old, was still not enough as far as Emil was concerned.
"Most of my people will perform their first operation in the field, where there'll be fifty others waiting for treatment. Damn it, there's no way for me to know who will be good at it and which ones will throw up and pass out the first time they see a boy brought in with his guts hanging out."
He shook his head.
"God help those poor boys who get taken into them first. . . ."
Andrew could see that the thought troubled the old doctor, who shuddered at the sight of dirty hands and had gained a reputation in the Army of the Potomac as a crank, with his constant ravings about asepsis surgery and his mentor Simmelweiss.
"We've all got to do what we can," Andrew said, leaning back in his chair and nodding a thanks as an orderly poured another cup of hot tea.
It was going to be a long day, a very long day, Each point would have to be gone over in detail. A meeting with all corps and division commanders for the Potomac front would be next, and after that the entire hundred-and-ten-mile line would be visited over the next two days for yet another survey.
He looked over at Hans. The old sergeant was lost in thought, staring out the window, which was washed with the rain now driving in from the west. A gust of wind howled outside, forcing a draft ofsmoke back down the stove chimney. For some reason which he found troubling, the smell of the wet smoke reminded him of that endless night with Suzdal in flames, and that last desperate charge across the square.
He tried to push the thought aside, remembering the letter from Kathleen.
Longingly . . .
But the memory of her would not form. No, there was the fire, and then the darkness of a river of corpses, the air thick with the smell of damp smoke and death.
Why did I think of that now? he wondered, and the thought filled him with a cold, lingering dread of what was to come.
Shaduka rode low in the evening sky, its ruddy glow drifting in and out behind the high, drifting clouds, which for a moment were silhouetted like spirits caught in an ethereal glow. But then, after all, it was the Night of Spirits.
His rhythmic breathing slowed, and again he was aware of the incessant drumming that echoed from ten thousand circling fires. He let his gaze drop froom the quiet contemplation, the Shadta, the trance-walking, to Shaduka. From the high prominence, the camping place of the Golden Blood, ruling clan of the Merki Horde, he looked across the endless steppe to the west. To the far horizon, and for five days' ride beyond, the vast assemblage was spread, the low flickering of the horse-dung fires sending smoky coils, like rising ghosts, into the evening sky. And that was but a small part of their power, but ten of the sixteen clans of the Merki Horde, spread out across the vast lands of the Cartha, eating their fill, fattening their horses on the early spring grass, coiling in their strength for the campaign to come.
He turned his head, looking southeast. The dark low walls of Cartha lined the shore of the Inland Sea. For two seasons he had been encamped here and he shuddered inwardly with disgust, escaping it only to fight last season against the Rus cattle, and then to attend the meeting of the three Qar Qarths. Beyond that he had barely known a moment alone, the joy of a swift mount beneath him, the wind blowing in his face. Instead he had been trapped in their stinking buildings, choked with cattle sweat, smoke, and the blazing fires of the foundries. There was not a secret of them he did not now understand. The places of cattle were fit but for a wintering season, a place to gather one's offerings. Indeed they had corrupted his people, forcing them to remain thus in one place.
"Pak thu Barkth Nom, gasc yarg, gasc verg taff Ulma Karzorm. [From the place of our fathers, come, light, come, guardian of the night Ulma Karzorm.]"
Smiling, Tamuka rocked back and forth, turning his gaze to the east as the high singsong chant of Sarg, eldest of the shaman spirit walkers, called out the prayer of greeting to Ulma Karzorm, second light of the midnight sky. The chant echoed down the slope of the grass-covered hill, picked up and echoed yet again by the spirit walkers of the clans and then of the tribes, hundreds of voices rolling across the endless steppe.
A red glow shimmered on the horizon, spreading outward in a dark flat line, rippling across the waters of the Inland Sea. Though places of water were vaguely disquieting, a moon-rise over water still held him with its beauty; it reminded him of Barkth Nom, the lights of the night sky reflecting off the glacial walls.
The band of light expanded outward, and the chanting of Sarg was washed out by the commingling of a million voices, roaring like a storm across the steppe, the cry of exultation at the rising of the second light in its bloodred fullness. Yet he did not join in.
"Gasc yarg, gasc verg taff!"
The storm of voices soared to the heavens, tearing into his soul as if they were brands of fire. As if wretched from the very womb of the world, in a bloody birth of fire, Ulma Karzorm broke free from the horizon, its red orb rising, shimmering. His breath felt as if caught and slowing, ever slowing into one final drawn-out sigh that would stretch into eternity.
The night cry of the Horde thundered about him, yet it was but a whisper. The soul of Ulma Karzorm filled him with her bloody vision, the sky turning to liquid flame, rising higher and yet higher.
The banishing of the darkness, and he smiled at the thought. If there was to be a banishing it would be through blood, a bathing of the world in a sea of blood. The still waters of the sea appeared to him to be like an ocean of that rich-smelling liquid. He knew that the ancestors were somehow speaking unto him as the vision formed. But whose blood?
A deep thunder punctuated the drifting cries of the horde, rippling across the steppe with a steady cadence, stabbing the night with tongues of hot white explosions. Startled, he looked down, and in the plain before the city he saw the flashes string toward him. A thunderclap snapped from the top of the hill behind him, the concussion fluttering the hair at the nape of his neck. The artillery of the Horde fired in greeting to the rising of the moons of the month of Cagarv, the traditional day of stirring to ride again for another season.
Their thunder bothered him. The contemplation and fasting, the chanting of the shamans, the first cry for Shaduka, and then the great exultation for the appearance of Ulma Karzorm, these were the traditions of the Horde. But now they had even taken the guns of the cattle into that tradition, as if the voices of the Merki crying to the spirits of their ancestors were not enough, that the thundermakers had to be used as well to evoke their attention.
Tamuka, shield bearer, snorted with disgust. He stirred, looking about. Hulagar, shield-bearer to the Qar Qarth Jubadi, was looking at him, and nodded as if in understanding.
"The contemplation was disturbed," Hulagar sighed.
Tamuka did not reply.
"Come, they will start without us," Hulagar said, and with a creaking of joints and leather armor the shield-bearer stood up, offering his hand to Tamuka, who rose to join him, the two hoisting the oval bronze aegis of their exalted offices, swinging the shields into the harness over their right arms' shoulders.
"It was a moment of wonder, nevertheless," Hulagar said, looking toward the twin moons and then to the soaring fires across the open steppe beyond the cattle city of Cartha.
To the far horizon the fires now glowed. Once before, while spirit-walking, he had soared above the encampment and gazed down upon it as if from a great height, seeing, as the spirit ancestors would see, the power of the Merki filling the vastness with their light.
"I hope our fathers' fathers look down upon such a moment when again the horde stirs next spring to begin its ride," Hulagar whispered.
"They shall," Tamuka said, his voice distant.
Hulagar looked over at Tamuka and smiled, his fangs glistening in the moonlight.
"It is unseemly for the two shield-bearers of the loyal blood to be late," Hulagar said, and putting an affectionate hand on Tamuka's shoulder the two started up the hill.
The scent of the fresh green grass and flowers rose up with every step, cutting through the cool night air. In the moonlight the carpet of white petals of the etor, the wild flowers of spring that came after the first blooms of lavender and yellow, had been turned to deep red by the light.
The scent could not fail to evoke memories of the yearly stirrings gone by when, coming out of winter, the Horde had moved at last. The foaling season ended, the yurts were raised back onto their horsedrawn platforms, and as one the horde embarked eastward yet once more, the warriors spreading out in search of wild game, or swinging either north or south, toward Tugar or Bantag depending upon whom war would be waged against that year.
The great cry had died away, replaced by the singsong calling of the chant-makers, the incantations of the shamen, and the shouts of delight for what was to come. There were the other voices as well—over fifty thousand it would be this night—for each circle of yurts would have several and already he could hear their cries.
Reaching the crest of the hill, the great yurt ol the Qar Qarth was before him, its golden cloth illuminated by a hundred torches, the inside a sea of light as bright as day, shouts of laughter echoing from within. The entrance awning was raised high, on poles encrusted with gold and precious gems that twinkled like stars. Encircling the tent were the guards of the one hundred, the elite chosen of the Vushka Hush, first umen of the Horde, their ceremonial armor of silver flickering in the torchlight, nocked bows riding upon their backs, scimitars drawn, points resting upon the ground.
Passing through the circle of guards they were closely watched, but none spoke. For the hundred who were vouchsafed with the highest honor of guarding the Qar Qarth made a sacrifice to attend as they did upon their ruler: Their tongues were drawn out, since they stood present even at his most secret of conversations.
The two fires before the entrance into the vast yurt blazed wildly. Pausing, Tamuka bowed first to the west, and then to the other three quarters, before passing between the flames and on into the tent.
"Ah, I thought we would have to wait."
"I am honored that you would contemplate such a consideration," Hulagar replied, bowing low to the raised dais upon which Jubadi sat, with Muzta, Qar Qarth of the Tugars, to his right, and the heir Vuka to his left.
"Join me," Jubadi announced, "both of you."
Tamuka hid his pleasure before the circle of clan chieftains who gazed at him with envy, and he knew as well with a touch of fear. His opening speech at the meeting of the three Qar Qarths had opened the way for the agreement of peace between Bantag and Merki, ending a war of over ten years that had come close to crippling the horde. It had given them the breathing space needed for what was next contemplated.
Stepping unto the dais, Tamuka moved to the side of the circular table around which Jubadi, Muzta, and Vuka sat. Hulagar moved to the left of Jubadi, settling down onto the ground by his side. For a moment he hesitated, then he seated himself beside Vuka, the Zan Qarth whom he was sworn to aid and protect.
"I chose the fare myself," Vuka said, looking over Tamuka with a disarming grin that Tamuka returned.
"Then we shall fare well," Tamuka replied smoothly.
Since the day of the defeat before the cattle city of Suzdal he had stood by this one's side, fulfilling his obligation as shield-bearer; but it did not mean that he had to like the heir, or even more importantly to respect him as one worthy of his rank. In his heart he knew that Vuka had murdered his brother, and by the killing of the only other blood descendant of Jubadi had thus kept himself from the execution that should have been just his reward.
If it had not been for Vuka they would have taken the cattle city of Roum, yet beyond even that fault it was obvious that Vuka was not fit to lead th« Horde. He vacillated between insane audacity in a moment of passion and acts that could be interpreted as cowardice in his moments of contemplation. Yet Jubadi now refused to see this, interpreting foolhardiness for bravery, and deceitfulness in the shrewdness required of a Qar Qarth. Jubadi could not see that the direct heir, the one legitimate son acceptable to the clans, was guilty of fratricide committed to save himself, though the rumors were whispered in all the tents. Hulagar, as befitted a shield-bearer to the Qar Qarth, had spoken of this suspicion, and had nearly paid with his life. If the injunction which made the person of the shield-bearer sacred had not been in place, Hulagar would have lost his head before the accusation had even been half spoken.
A terrified shriek of anguish filled the tent, and, looking up, Tamuka saw their meal coming in, dragged along by two of the tongueless ones, Sarg Qarth, eldest of the shamen behind them. This one was male, well built, with the dark tanned skin of the Cartha. The human screamed in terror—most of them usually did—and Tamuka viewed the display with disgust, while many of the clan Qarths laughed gruffly, hurling taunts. Servants came out from behind the dais, opening the table up like a scissors that was hinged only on one end. The cattle was pushed forward, his guards now grabbing hold of his arms and legs, lifting the writhing form into the air. Sarg Qarth came up to the side of the table and, bowing low, directed the guards as they pushed the cattle's head into the clamp. This was tightened down, holding him firmly in the center of the table, and closed back so that only the head was above the board while the rest was pinned beneath.
The cattle struggled and shrieked, trying to turn its head, but the clamp was tight. Its arms and legs underneath thrashed and kicked.
"He'll bruise his flesh," Vuka said, shaking his head, and the clan chieftains laughed appreciatively.
Other offerings were brought in to the lower tables, so that the tent was filled with wild shrieks of terror. Tamuka looked at them with a vague sense of disgust. The least they could do would be to sing a death chant, to take this with some dignity, rather than to beg so pitifully. It only aroused in him a sense of loathing, a desire to be done with it and get on to the main course.
Sarg Qarth, as eldest of the shamen, now set to work. The other shamans stood beside the lower tables, waiting for this most important of auguries, which would apply to the entire horde, to be performed.
The curved blade flicked out from his belt and he held it before the cattle's eyes, at the sight of which the cattle shrieked even louder. It was good sign— he did not weep or, worst yet, swoon—and all took this with barks of approval. With a deft single motion the scalp was cut across the forehead, above the ears and around to the back of the head, straight down to the bone, and there were more grunts of approval for Sarg's skill. To nick an ear would mean the hearing of bad news, the accidental gouging of an eye would mean to behold an evil sight, if it fainted evil would arrive without warning, which of course would apply to all of the Horde.
Sarg leaned over the head, which was tossing back and forth violently, watching the pattern of blood fall.
"It is to the north," Sarg announced, and there was an expectant pause, for all knew that was the direction they would ride. But whose blood was being foretold?
Now came the most delicate part of the ceremony. Sarg Qarth reached into the long slender pouch by his side and drew out the curved saw. Though rivers of blood were running into the cattle's eyes he could still see the blade and knew what it meant. A howling shriek of pleading rose from his lips.
"It will be theirs," Sarg announced, and more than one of the clan chieftains leaned back, raising a roar of triumph.
There was now an expectant hush as Sarg mumbled his incantations, passing the saw around the cattle's head in a circular motion. With the lightning action of a striking serpent Sarg grabbed hold of the cattle's head with his left hand and, leaning over, cut into the bone above its right ear—a difficult maneuver which Tamuka could not help but admire. The cross-over cut was an act of bravado that only the most accomplished would attempt, especially for this, the most important of divinations. If he should fail in cutting correctly the auguries would be bad, and there was silence, except for the rasping of the blade and the hysterical screams.
Sarg's arms knotted with the effort. Several strokes, pink foamed bone spraying out, then shifted further back, cutting again, working his way around. The cries of the cattle suddenly grew weaker and there was a murmuring. After all, many of them did faint at this point, for they were only cattle, but it would be bad if this one should suddenly die, ending the ceremony before the final auguries had been obtained. Not once did his saw break through into the brain, but always stopped just at the edge.
The cutting continued, and the table was soon covered with a circle of bone chips and pink splattered loam. Sarg cast the saw aside and ran his fingers up underneath the cut scalp, refusing to lower himself by taking direct hold of the skull. For after all, only the youngest of shamans removed the skull in such a manner, still not sure that they had cut through all the way around and thus wanting a firmer grip when they pulled. On rare occasions a shaman would pull upward and only the scalp would come away. Though the augury was bad, Tamuka remembered seeing it and finding the entire thing to be vastly amusing: the humiliated shaman holding nothing but a bloody hunk of hair while the cattle appeared to be wearing a white cap. Such a mistake had been performed on the Yankee Cromwell, who had said nothing throughout, his eyes wide with some inner madness that had rattled the shaman as he'd performed his duties.
But for Sarg such things were unheard of. It seemed to require no effort at all as he raised his hands up, the top of the skull separating away with a barely audible pop. Barks of appreciation filled the yurt, counterpointed only by the wails of terror from the other cattle, who were clamped into their tables in such a way that they could behold what was in store for them.
A gurgling groan escaped the cattle's lips and he was still. Sarg looked down upon him as if insulted, and leaning over he lightly slapped the cattle's cheeks, setting the skull down before his eyes, which came back into focus wide with terror.
The brain was still sheathed with a gray fibrous layer. Cutting at the back Sarg peeled the layer up, as if removing the skin from an overripe fruit, to reveal the gray convoluted folds beneath, a gush of light-colored water running down the side of the cattle's head.
Sarg peered at the convolutions of the brian, the arteries pulsing, chanting softly, and after a long moment looked up at Jubadi.
"There are many rivers to cross, some pulsing with red blood, others with blue. I see fires of yellow and dark hidden paths."
He drew closer and then pointed.
"There! It floats above the coils of the brain, a white fleck, like the great ships that float on air. I see many of them, moving some to the east, others from the west. I see fire coming up to them. The blue, the color of the Yankee, is spreading over the gray field of death."
He looked up at Jubadi.
"It will be victory."
Wild shouts greeted his words. Tamuka joined in, even though in his heart he found doubt that the future could be thus foretold. For except in the rarest of moments, the divinations all sounded the same. But there was no feeling of kinship between those who walked as he did with the mysteries of their tu and those who read the brains of the cattle. The readers viewed the shield-bearers as rivals, while those of the white clan felt that though there was much that was truth in the shaman ways, there were truths revealed to the white that the divinators would never have revealed unto them.
Sarg then drew a long needle out of his pouch and held it above the convoluted mass of gray. Mumbling a quiet chant he slipped the needle in. The cattle's teeth started to chatter, strange words escaping its lips. The needle was withdrawn and inserted again. This time the legs started to kick, and then the arms. With an ease almost bordering on arrogance Sarg performed the Ujta Eag, the Spirit Dancing, his demonstration of how to snatch the animal spirit of the cattle and have it perform to his will. As he slipped the needle in, his whispered commands were acted out by the cattle. The yurt was silent, even the other cattle watched in silent horror, at the demonstration of the skill of a master divinator.
As Sarg turned to look back at the chieftains he revealed a smile of inner satisfaction at a task well done, as the assembly pounded the tables with their lists, more than one of them obviously nervous at the unnatural powers thus demonstrated. Sarg nodded to Jubadi and, kneeling down by the side of the table, placed his ear to the cattle's mouth.
Jubadi, standing up, leaned over the table, taking up a golden spoon which sliced into the cattle's brain where the forehead used to be. The cattle groaned, its legs kicking spasmodically. Jubadi chewed softly on the repast and then scooped again, and yet again, going deeper in. The cattle's teeth started to chatter, a gurgling hiss escaping its lips. The spoon went deeper, cutting in. Jubadi nodded to his comrades around the table. Tamuka lifted the golden spoon set before him, and leaning over he carefully scooped up a mouthful, careful not to dig down below the level of the cut. The brain was warm, melting in his mouth after a few chews. He scooped up some more, his spoon clicking against the others, grunts of approval echoing around him, the chieftains and their retinue at the lower tables watching in silence, more than one with moistened mouth eager for their own meal to begin. Sarg watched them, smiling, listening to the murmuring pleas of j the cattle drifting away as his mind was devoured, its eyes going wide in panic as vision disappeared, as f the essence of his thoughts and soul were consumed. The shaman's hand shot out, directing them to stop. Assistants came forward, unsnapping the table and levering it back.
Sarg took hold of the cattle's hands and drew him up to his feet.
The yurt was quiet as Sarg came around behind the cattle, the fingers of his right hand going into the cavity of the skull. The cattle started to shudder, its now sightless eyes rolling, a trickle of drool running down its chin. With a ghostlike shuffle it stepped forward.
Even the other cattle were silent, eyes wide with horror at the spectacle of the shaman leading the walking corpse.
"So shall all the cattle be led by our Qar Qarth!" Sarg announced, and there were barks of approval at his words, and also for the fearful power he now displayed in leading one whose mind had already been consumed. The cattle was led to the center of the yurt and stopped, Sarg holding it up from behind as it swayed, mindless, a breathing corpse.
A young shaman came forward and, bowing low, presented Sarg with a golden flask and a flickering taper. The shaman poured the contents into the open skull and with eyes raised to the heavens called upon the ancestors in the ancient tongue of his order. He touched the flaming taper to the skull.
Screams of terror escaped the other cattle as a coiling tongue of fire rose up from the open skull, as if the cattle were wearing a towering crown of blue and yellow flames wreathed in oily smoke. With a grin of satisfaction Sarg stepped back, the cattle motionless, flames licking up from his open head, his sightless eyes rolling, convulsions trembling through his body. Tamuka felt a shiver of fear no matter how many times he witnessed the ritual—there was something ghastly about a mind, even a cattle mind, being thus consumed inside a flaming skull while it was still alive.
The oily flames flickered, exuding a dark cloud. As if his legs had turned to jelly the cattle finally started to sag, Sarg looking about the yurt with satisfaction that his sacrifice had remained standing for so long. The cooking of the brain inside the open skull continued, even as acolytes grabbed the still trembling body and dragged it back to the table. The cattle was hauled onto the table, and even as the flames continued to flicker Jubadi reached in with his spoon and scooped out the cooked delicacy, nodding with approval while Sarg placed his ear to the cattle's lips in case there were any final words. Vuka, with a usual show of bravado, took up a hunk that was still flaming and swallowed it, the chieftains shouting their approval.
Curious, Tamuka held the dying cattle's sightless gaze, looking into its dark eyes as it returned to the soulless dust. He watched without emotion as the eyes slowly rolled back in their sockets and the clenched jaw went slack. Sarg stood back up, a quizzical look on his features.
"Did he say anything?" Jubadi asked, nervously.
"He said two would die; he said it in our own tongue," Sarg whispered.
Jubadi looked around the table and at the clan chieftains.
"It is bad; it is of your own table," someone whispered.
"Two will die," Hulagar replied. "Rus, and the Roum—who else could it be?"
Tamuka could see a look of relief cross Sarg's features, replaced in an instant by hatred that he had been saved by one of the white clan. Yet he nodded in agreement.
"Victory will be complete, as the auguries say." Sarg announced, as if he had divinated it himself.
The tension slipped away into cries of lust for battle. With a wave of his hand, Sarg indicated that the other shamans could begin the rituals at each of the lower tables now that the most important one to decide the fate of the entire horde was completed. Criers went out of the tent, their voices rising, announcing to the waiting Horde the augury of good fortune. A thunder of voices echoed across the plains.
Shrieks of pain and terror filled the tent as the other shamans set to their work, while Tamuka leaned over, scooping out a large spoonful of his favorite food. The cooked brain was neither too firm nor too watery, dissolving after several seconds of chewing, and the five at the head table quickly scooped the cranial cavity clean, their spoons clinking against each other as they jokingly raced to empty out the last drops of gray pink slush. Vuka, unable to contain himself, finished by running his fingers on the inside and then licking them.
The smell of meat filled his nostrils, and he looked up to see dozens of servants come into the tent bearing platters heavy with roasted limbs, trays overflowing with cracked bones, marrow oozing out, pies of liver and kidney covered with a golden crust, long links of sausages fried to a dark brown, and heavy cauldrons of blood soup and delicate sweetmeats covered with dark sugar.
Servants unclasped the table and dragged the corpse out, wiping the floor beneath him before scattering fresh-scented grass and flowers down and then clamping the table shut again. Within seconds the eating board seemed to groan under the weight of the meal spread out before them. Reaching for a long section of leg bone, Tamuka grunted with delight as he broke it open with his teeth and then used the marrow as a dip for the heavy, grease-coated sausages. There was little to talk of—one did not waste breath on speaking when a long day of lasting was being broken at last.
Chant-singers stood in the dark corners of the vast yurt singing of the noble lineage of the Merki, starting with Puka Taug Qarth, the father ancestor who had first led his people through the portal of light, and then of the countless begetting of generations afterward, their song accompanied by the low, hair-raising groan of the single-string strummer, the strident sounding of the nargas, the great war horn, and the incessant rolling of the chant drums. The cries of the last of the offerings finally drifted away, the open skull flickering with fire. The members of its table looked about with pride, for to have the last crier was a good thing, while those of the yellow clan looked downcast, for their offering had expired before the skull even had been lifted. Low curses were hurled as the shaman slinked out of the tent to hide his shame. Following the older form of the ritual, the table with the last to die had the now empty skull filled with oil and reignited to provide a lurid light for the feast, the body underneath the table a source of raw meat which could be sliced off during the course of the meal.
More servants came in, bearing great platters of thinly sliced meat, drawn from the bodies that had been alive but moments before, the raw flesh of the Moon Offering. With a ceremonial flourish Jubadi held a sliver aloft and then cast it into the smoking brazier set at the foot of dais, an offering to the ancestors.
Leaning back, Tamuka scooped up a handful of the raw flesh, nodded with pleasure at the full-grained texture of the meat, and dipped it into the marrow. He ate the repast with relish. Tankards of fermented horse and cattle milk were brought in and set down, the clan leaders exclaiming noisily over the rich brew, tossing their heads back to drain the draughts in a single long gulp, their voices rising, barking, laughing, shouting ribald taunts to each other.
Caldrons of hot blood, freshly drained, were set at each table, the warriors eagerly shoving at each other, dipping in their now empty tankards, more than one of them grabbing hold of the iron bucket, snatching it away from his rivals and tipping it up, the hot sticky foam running down their faces, splashing off the leather armor. Howls of protest greeted the strongest, and it was good that nothing more than cutting knives was allowed, or there would have been more blood, Horde blood, splashing.
Jubadi, as was his right, took the bucket without a struggle and drained off but half, and in a show of diplomacy offered the rest to Muzta who took the drink, finishing it in silence.
The frenzy of eating slowed and long sonorous belches echoed about the tent, acolytes of the shamans interpreting each as to the portents revealed, the warriors nodding approvingly since all were promised more horses, and offspring. The number of kills was not discussed, for after all it was cattle they were facing this year, and there was no honor, no raising of stature in the hunting of game, no matter how skillful or deadly their foes now were.
At last the sight of another kidney pie, browned sausage link, or finely broiled rib was enough to turn his stomach, and Tamuka leaned back from the table with a groan. There was some slight dishonor in being the first to finish, but as a shield-bearer he felt no need to worry about such trivialities. He saw a quick look from Vuka, a thin smile lighting the Zan Qarth's features, as if Tamuka had revealed some weakness. With a noisy display Vuka took up an entire leg bone and cracked it open with his teeth. Raising it up on end he sucked the marrow out, tossing the empty husk over his shoulder.
Fresh tankards of fermented milk were brought it, and taking the offered drink Tamuka merely sipped at the contents, letting the feeling of contentment settle in.
"We eat well at the table of our Qar Qarth! Ten circlings of life to our Qar Qarth Jubadi!" Gorn, chieftain of the clan of the three red horses cried, leaping atop his table and raising his tankard in salute. A mighty shout echoed up from the tent to be picked up by the wives, concubines, and children who had gathered outside the yurt. The cry echoed down from the hill, sweeping out to the vast encampment, hundreds of thousands of voices calling out the name of Jubadi.
Tamuka felt a cold shudder run through him at the voicing of such power, a mighty cry that shook even against the gates of the everlasting heavens.
Jubadi stood up, holding his arms out, his features alight with the effects of drink and of the power, and stepped up unto the feasting table. Chieftains of the clans stood, shouldering past each other, clamoring up unto the dais. Tamuka drew back.
Grabbing hold of the table they hoisted it up, platters of meat sliding off, with Jubadi standing in the middle. Warriors, who in their own right commanded umens of ten thousand now fought with each other for the honor of bearing their Qar Qarth. Table raised high, they carried him out of the yurt, through the high flaps, raised so that Jubadi did not have to lower his head to anyone or thing.
As he emerged from the tent the shouting across the vast plain rose up into a wild deafening thunder, a screaming chant.
"Qar Qarth, Qar Qarth, Qar Qarth!"
Tamuka looked over at Hulagar, whose voice was added to the thunder, and then behind him to Vuka, who stood in silence, tankard in hand, a look of lust in his eyes for the power thus displayed. And in his heart Tamuka felt the power as well, and struggle though he did with all the teaching of his clan, he felt it holding him with a desire stronger even than when Yuva the courtesan came into his tent for pleasure.
Startled at what he was feeling, Tamuka saw that Vuka was staring at him with a cold grin, as if the Zan Qarth had suddenly read the thoughts of the shield-bearer rather than the other way around.
He looked away.
Noisily the chieftains brought Jubadi back into the tent. His features flushed, Jubadi looked down at Hulagar and smiled.
"That is our power, that is the power of the Hordes!" Jubadi barked, and not waiting for the table to be lowered he leaped down to the dais.
"The cattle of the north, the Rus, the Roum will feed us until our bellies burst, until the grease pours out of our mouths when we turn our faces to the sun!"
Hulagar nodded, saying nothing.
And how many of ours will rot in the sun? Tamuka wondered. The plan was good—he had helped in the shaping of it, something unheard of for a shield-bearer—yet even Jubadi had now conic to admit his worth, knowing as he did of the ways of cattle war.
"Let not one of them be left alive, let us scorch the world of them," Tamuka said quietly, and his words caused Jubadi to turn.
Hulagar looked over at him, shaking his head as if in warning. Jubadi still wanted to believe that when their power had been cast down the cattle would again return to being docile slaves, ready to fashion what was needed, ready to offer their flesh for the tables of the Hordes, which could then continue their never-ending ride, to pursue undisturbed the hunt and the sport of war against their own kind.
"You have drunk too deeply, shield-bearer, to my son," Jubadi snarled, his voice heavy with menace. "We fight as I have directed, and we shall win as I have directed. When they are defeated they will be subjugated, but to slaughter all would destroy forever our way of life. Thus I have commanded, thus shall it be."
Tamuka bowed low, cursing inwardly at his folly for having spoken out of turn but guided by some inner voice which he could not deny, and which as shield-bearer he was expected to voice.
"I have drunk deeply," Tamuka replied, "but the voice within is not touched by drink."
Jubadi looked at him coldly.
"I shall retire," Tamuka said, holding his head low and backing down from the dais.
Turning at the entry to the tent he stepped out into the cool air, breathing deeply.
"Tomorrow we ride!" Jubadi roared, breaking the tension, and the exulting shouts of the chieftains drowned out the silence.
Tamuka walked between the fires of cleansing, bowing low to the four corners of the world.
Though he had withdrawn with honor it was obvious to those who stood outside that he had spoken words out of turn, for he was but shield-bearer to the Zan Qarth and not invulnerable to censor as was Hulagar. The vast assemblage outside the tent offered the half-bow that was befitting his rank, but none spoke to him. He was, after all, of the shield-bearers and thus held in superstitious awe, but it was obvious as well that he was not quite in favor at the moment.
At times of the Moon Feast the trading of words of anger was all too common. Dozens of the Horde would be dead before the night was finished as long simmering passions, inflamed by the surfeit of food and strong drink, finally exploded. Come the aching heads of morning, such arguments, more often than not, would be put aside or forgiven, but when it came to the anger of the Qar Qarth it was wise to avoid one in disfavor until his fate was decided.
Passing through the ring of the silent ones he walked into the darkness, back up the slope to where he had watched the rising of the moons. The hoarse cries of laughter, the rising songs of the chants, drifted out to him. Looking back down on the vast plain, the steppe was awash with light to the far horizon, the ceremonial bonfires to greet the rising of Ulma Karzorm now serving as the roasting pits of cattle, their speared bodies turning on the spits.
He could feel the coiling power of his people, the Horde that for hundreds of generations had ridden the world, rejoicing as they had down through the ages at the moon feasting of the spring grass, the marking of the time of the ride. There was but one moment that surpassed this, the day of the first moon feast before Barkth Nom, when all of the peoples gathered together at the foot of the mountain standing as one host, torches in hand, chanting the songs of praise onto the ancestors who dwelled on high, singing words of strength to the yet unnamed males who on that night would ascend the mountain lor the first time. He shivered inwardly at the memory of it: gaining the high place and looking back at the ocean of light below, each torch marking a soul, the combined light as bright as day, their voices rising like thunder to the high places.
He sensed that power now, looking out across the steppe. Tomorrow twenty-five umens, two of them Tugar, would turn northwest, followed three days later by seven more who would ride straight north through the hills. Two umens were already across the narrows, having crossed over during the last month, and would move to harass the Roum. The remaining five would stand as a reserve, kept back in case the Bantag decided after all to double back on their march and harry them from the rear.
It would work, it had to work, for there was no alternative. If the march north and east was blocked hut for a season, starvation would be staring at them by autumn. For that matter there was always the chance that the Bantag would shift north after all, cutting in front of their march a year further on. They had to break through, smashing all the way to Roum by fall, and then quickly move eastward for two seasons' march by the year afterward.
"His anger will cool, shield-bearer, it was merely the power of the drink."
Tamuka whirled around, nervous that someone had been able to approach him without being heard.
"It is a curious rank, your shield-bearer," Muzta Qar Qarth said, coming up to stand by Tamuka's side, a thin smile lighting his features at having caught him unaware.
Tamuka said nothing but bowed low, even though this was the Qar Qarth of the disgraced Tugar Horde.
"As I look back upon the things that were, I see a use for such as you, though if one had told me five seasons back that I would have need of someone who could speak to me, and I would be forced to listen, I would have laughed."
Muzta shook his head, looking down at his boots, kicking them absently through the grass.
"I did have one such as you—a warrior, though." He paused, a sad smile lighting his graying face.
"Qubata," he whispered. "He tried to tell me in the end, but I would not hear."
"His name was known even in our yurts," Tamuka said politely.
"From the moment he first heard of these Yankees, some inner voice seemed to warn him of what they might do. He tried to tell me of that . . ." he said, his voice trailing off, "but I would not listen . . ."
Tamuka said nothing.
"If I had heeded his words then, the Horde of the Tugars would still live in its power."
"And his words were?"
"I think in the end he believed that we should simply leave them, to go elsewhere, to make our strength stronger and wait for another day. To come perhaps even to an agreement."
"To make peace? That is what the hero of Orki counseled?" Tamuka asked, a note of sarcasm in his voice.
"Yes, the planner of victory at Orki," Muzta said, looking over at the shield-bearer.
"I was there," Tamuka replied. "Not old enough to draw a bow, but I was there."
"Killed in the stand of Qarth Barg, commander of the Yushin Umen."
"The Yushin, they fought well," Muzta replied,
"Not one of them lived, Tugar," Tamuka said, his voice cold. "I remember the calling of their death songs as they held the pass of Orki, drowned beneath your river of arrows. Ah yes, Qar Qarth, I still remember that moment."
"You still hate us for that," Muzta said, "though it was you who saved the council of the three Qar Qarths. And yet now I hear hatred in your voice."
"I hate the cattle more," Tamuka said. "My sire, all of the Yushin Umen now ride the everlasting sky. They died well, though I can hate you for that. But those who died against cattle? How will they ride, how will they sing of their death? First the cattle corrupted us, and now they slay us."
"How many Merki have they slain so far?" Muzta asked. "Five hundred, a thousand at most in last autumn's campaign and during this winter. I lost seventeen umens, a hundred and seventy thousand of my warriors. If anyone has the right to hate them, it is I."
Muzta paused, his features impassive as he looked at Tamuka.
"Though I forget, of course, the cattle also slew all the other heirs."
Tamuka looked into Muzta's eyes. Did he suspect? Were the quiet rumors about Vuka known even in the Tugar camp?
"I do not sense the hatred you should have for them," Tamuka said, deciding to shift the topic away from the death of the Zan Qarth's brothers.
"Oh, I hate them. I had promised myself long before that there would be a day when Keane would be my guest for the moon feast."
Muzta shook his head and smiled.
"He is as good as any commander of the Orkons or of your Vushka Hush. That was my biggest mistake. I underestimated him and those who followed him. For after all, I had said to myself, they are only cattle. You saw that yourself, in that fiasco of last year: in less than forty days they built a fleet to match ours, they deceived you and your cattle Cromwell when victory was actually in your hands. Keane outfought my own Qubata, and do not forget that it was Qubata who once outfought you and your entire horde, though we stood outnumbered two to one."
"Why are you telling me this?" Tamuka asked. "I am but the shield-bearer to the Zen Qarth. Speak these words to Jubadi, to his commanders of the umens and to the commanders of ten umens."
"Would they listen to a Tugar, to the leader of a people in disgrace for having lost to cattle?"
Muzta shook his head, laughing softly as he looked up to the great wheel that stood high in the night sky.
"There are times I still cannot believe it, that I lead my people thus to disaster, that I am now reduced to leading but two umens under the banner of your people, begging thus for a scrap of protection while the yurts of my clans are fifteen hundred miles away, defenseless, and hostage for our behavior."
Muzta stepped away from Tamuka, his gaze sweeping the vast assemblage, which resounded with the shouts of celebration, the cries of dying cattle, the song chants of the singers, the deep rumbling strength of the Merki Horde.
"They'll change you the way they changed us," Muzta said coldly. "When I was born into the yurt of my father the bow was placed in my hand—the first thing I grasped before clutching at the teat of my mother. When my one surviving son sires his firstborn, what shall be placed in his hand?
"Shall it be the tools of the cattle, the weapons they force upon us, the shrouds of the ships that fly the air, the hammer that beats at the forge, the rails of iron that their fire-breathing dragons ride upon?
"All these things the cattle force us to take if we are to survive," Muzta said quietly.
"That is why I say we must kill them all," Tamuka replied sharply, an edge of hard passion in his voice. "In order to save what we are, in the end we will have to destroy them. We will have to learn all that they know, smash them down, and then destroy any memory of cattle and their devices. Only then may we again wander the steppe as is our right."
Muzta shook his head, laughing.
"And who will feed us? We ride fat and bloated, we arrive at their cities in the autumn knowing that all that we shall need will be provided by them. And when they are gone?"
"We will again be the Hordes, with this world wiped clean. We will learn new ways, without the vermin of cattle who threaten to destroy us. We will learn to create our own food. There will never be peace between us. Jubadi is wrong to believe that we can simply defeat them here and then all will be as it was."
Angry with himself for having voiced a direct opposition to his Qar Qarth in the presence of one outside the Merki, he turned away with an angry growl.
"If I mentioned that you spoke these words to me," Muzta said quietly, "you would die. For if one of my trusted advisors did such to me I would cut him down with my own blade." "Then do it," Tamuka snapped, not bothering to look back.
"It is safe with me, shield-bearer," Muzta whispered.
Tamuka knew he should offer thanks, for after all the Qar Qarth of another horde at this moment held his life in his hands.
"And your Zan Qarth Vuka, would he ever listen to your words?"
Tamuka looked back.
"Do not expect to bribe me with my life, Tugar."
"There is no intent. Your life is yours, I have no desire to hold it."
Tamuka nodded finally.
"Is your Zan Qarth ready to lead if Jubadi should fall now?" Muzta asked quietly, as if speaking to himself. "You might believe your Jubadi to be wrong when it comes to the question of how to manage the cattle when the war is won. But neither you nor I may deny that he is a worthy warrior. Overconfident, yes, against these Yankees, but capable. But your Zan Qarth?"
Vuka as Qar Qarth? It was what he had trained a lifetime for, picked above all others to stand at the side of the next leader of the Horde. Vuka was useless. He would rush in headlong, the same as he did in the streets of Roum, the same as this Tugar did. There would be no such art as Jubadi was using.
And he was the murderer, of his own flesh, of that he was certain.
"He will be ready," Tamuka replied, his voice cold.
"But of course." And Muzta smiled, his teeth glistening red in the moonlight.
"I must return to the tents of my warriors," Muzta said. "It will be a long ride tomorrow."
Tamuka bowed low as the Qar Qarth turned, his cattle-hide cloak rustling in the night air, sending up a swirling scent of flowers and fresh spring grass.
A light mist was starting to rise, casting a ghostly shadow as Muzta disappeared into the night.
Drawing yet farther away from the great yurt of Jubadi, Tamuka drifted into the night, the mist rising up out of the ground and embracing him with chilly hands.
Settling down on the ground he stretched out, letting the fog wrap around him. It glowed faintly from the twin moons drifting opaquely through the night sky.
His breath started to come in short staccato bursts, faster and yet faster, a continual motion of drawing in and rapid exhaling. A gradual tingling started at his finger tips, coiling up through his arms, knotting into his chest, and then ever so gently his gaze lost its focus. His breath came at longer and yet longer intervals, until it seemed as if he were already dead.
He could feel his tu, the spirit of the shield-bearer, stirring within, ready to leap forth, to rise into the night sky, to seek the voices of the ancestors, and he followed it outward, so that the vast and rolling steppes seemed to race beneath his soul.
Faces drifted before him, his sire laughing with the joy of battle in his fiery eyes, and he felt that joy. And there was Yourga, his master of the hidden paths, whispering to him to turn away from his ka, the spirit of the warrior, and to delve instead into the soul of tu, that of the shield-bearer.
Do not be driven by the ka, let it pass beyond your heart, beyond your soul, be Merki and yet be not, he warrior and yet be guide to the warrior ka, the spirit of the Horde, for it is thus that all of us shall survive.
And even as he wandered he chanted the hidden words of the tu, but the ka called. A host galloped past, warrior souls racing across the midnight sky hearing the voices of those who still rode upon the endless sea of grass. He could see them as well, the vast spread of the Horde, on this the eve of spring riding and of war.
Spirits raced past him, through him, riding the everlasting ride of the everlasting sky. And yet he could see others moving closer and yet closer, moving in, spreading outward, hedging about them.
The spirit-riders turned, drawing back, their shouts of triumph stilled.
Cattle stood upon the horizon, waiting, cold gleams of hate in their eyes.
Could they come thus even here? Tamuka wondered. In the end would cattle cross even through the gates of fire to the very realms of the everlasting sky?
Yet surely it could be so. For when Merki cast down Tugar upon the grassy sea below, then was it not so that, in the everlasting sky above, Merki would then drive Tugar? How else could it be, for were not all things but reflections of others, the victory granted in one place strengthening the spirits above? The strength of the spirits in turn giving power to the ka of those below?
The spirit-riders turned, gazing upon him as if he were somehow responsible for this abomination. The voice of his father, of all the Yushin Umen who had died in glory, as noble as any might wish, all of them were silent, their gazes intent upon the northern horizon.
He thought for a moment of his pet, wondering, knowing. That alone was his design, known by no other. That had been a masterful bending, a training without the cattle pet even being aware, sending him forth yet inwardly knowing what he would do. At least in that was the hidden plan within the plan.
His ka now realized all which would have to be done, even as the spirit of the shield-bearer, the very power which allowed him thus to travel without form, to learn the inner knowledges, rebelled. And he watched in silence as Yourga, the master of the white clan, master of all who had trained beneath him as shield-bearers, wept.
Yuri stirred uncomfortably in his sleep. Again the dream, the nightmare returning. Half-awake for a moment, his composure dropped and the tears filled his eyes, clouding the light of the moon showing through the window of his room. It was called his home, yet it was a prison nevertheless. Still, it was a place where he was safe from those who would kill him out of hand, the outcast, the flesh-eater, the pet, the one despised. They allowed him a semblance of freedom, yet there were always the guards, passing the lazy days in a village far beyond Novrod, where none knew him. Yet always they were with him, watching him.
Keane. He was almost awake as the thought formed. Keane must know why he was here. Keane had sent him here, saying it was to protect him, to keep him alive. Alive for what?
He blinked the tears away. Keane knew, Tamuka knew as well; he could feel their voices inside of him. Both were playing out some mystery, and he was in the middle. Were his actions now his own, or was he the illusion of someone else's designs?
Tomorrow would be like the day before. Like all the days before, except for those rare moments when, late in the evening, he would be taken to one of their machines that rode on iron rails, to visit Keane and talk. And then he would be brought back here, alone. He wanted for nothing. Yet he wanted for everything.
He closed his eyes, sleep drifting back gently, softly. Again, as consciousness fell away, the inner calling stirred through his dreams.
Choking with laughter, Andrew wiped the tears from his eyes.
"But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet, bejesus, is the sun."
Pat, engaged in a dramatic piece of overacting, delivered the lines in his thickest brogue, convulsing the Yankees in the audience with gales of laughter. As he stumbled through several of his lines the audience cheered him on, prompting him when needed.
"O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"
Bob Fletcher appeared on the balcony, dressed as a Rus peasant girl, wearing a horsehair wig that came down to his knees. The Rus and Yankee audience exploded with laughter and Bob gave a cheerful wave, blowing kisses, while Pat, with one knee bent, looking up imploringly, hands clasped together.
Romeo and Juliet was a favorite with the Rus, and though the words were being delivered in English, so conversant were they with the famed scene that more than one shouted the words in unison in their own tongue.
Reaching the climax of the scene, Pat scrambled up a conveniently placed ladder to plant the legendary kiss. He closed his eyes, leaning forward, and
Bob turned around, presented his more than ample backside, and the scene blacked out.
The theater was rocked with hysterical laughter.
"Mixing Chaucer with Shakespeare," Kathleen said, holding her sides.
"Thank God Pat and a couple of other boys had copies of Shakespeare in their gear," Emil said, between gasps of laughter.
The earthier humor certainly would not have played to a mixed audience back home, even though outrageous parodies of Shakespeare were all the rage there, but the Rus obviously loved it, calling for several encores before the next act appeared.
The next scene was far more serious, a vignette from Macbeth played by several Rus actors, the main character now portrayed as a mad boyar, the audience sitting spellbound at his death scene, applauding wildly when his body was dragged off. Macbeth, played by the young Gregory, who had survived his now legendary ride to deliver the news of Andrew's planned return from Roum, appeared for a curtain call.
"That boy could be another Edwin Booth someday," Kathleen said approvingly. "Did you ever see him play?"
"At the Astor in New York," Emil replied, "though I preferred his father as King Lear."
"Papa loved the Booths," Kathleen said, her voice suddenly filled with nostalgia.
"I didn't care for the youngest," Emil said, "too full of himself; a bit too much madness in that one's eyes."
"Maybe you have to be a bit mad to be an actor," Andrew said quietly.
A troupe of jugglers appeared on stage, the audience cheering them on at first but booing loudly, and with obvious relish, when the act did not progress beyond the simplest of routines. When one of them missed a throw, hitting his partner on the head with a club and knocking the man over, the audience broke into wild cheers of delight, the crestfallen team retreating to a barrage of heckles.
Several patriotic tableaux were next, starting with the signing of the Constitution of Rus, then the driving of the rail spike completing the MFL & S line to Roum, which drew a rowdy cheer from the railroad workers. Then came the killing of the traitorous senator Mikhail, his staged appearance drawing curses and hisses from the audience. Mikhail was shown groveling in cowardly fashion, a Merki standard behind him to clearly identify his loyalties, the Rus soldiers looking at him with exaggerated gestures of contempt. The staged tableau broke the traditional frozen form by the single action of a gun firing. Mikhail fell over and the audience broke into cheers. The final presentation was the triumph of the Rus over the Tugars, based upon a highly popular illustration in Gates' Illustrated Weekly paper. Part of the stage was filled with soldiers looking heroically off to a far horizon, the rest of it piled high with Tugar bodies. The staging even included a wind machine off in the wings, a propeller powered by hand crank which allowed the flags to flutter. The audience broke into a spontaneous rendition of "The Battle Cry of Freedom," sung in Rus, climaxed with wild c heering as the tableau team broke their rigid poses to accept the ovation.
The next act came out—a Rus choir singing several of their traditional love songs—and the entire audience joining in with enthusiasm. The love songs finished, the group started a round of songs brought to this world by the Yankees, and the audience sang along, a fair number of them weeping openly, especially when "All Quiet Along the Potomac" started.
It jarred Andrew back for a moment, for the song had cropped up again during the winter, a strange ironic pull from the old world. It was followed in turn by "When This Cruel War Is Over."
The two songs worked their old effect, with many of the veterans around him, including Emil and Kal, unashamedly wiping away their tears.
Andrew sat in the shadows of the presidential box, his hand in Kathleen's. She had always denounced such ballads as syrupy sentiment, but he could feel her hand pressing tightly into his.
Weeping sad and lonely, Hopes and fears how vain, Yet praying, when this cruel war is over, Praying that we meet again.
He tried not to look over at her, but he couldn't help himself as the chorus, singing in the deep Rus bass, picked up the final refrain. They said nothing, just looking at each other in the shadows. She had once said that she would never marry him, that she could not bear the anguish of another love going off to war like her first fiance, never to return. Yet she had reached out again.
It was thirteen days since the twin full moons. They must be coming by now. It could be tonight that his brief visit home would finish—definitely before the end of the week.
"I love you," he finally whispered, the only words he could bring himself to say.
She leaned her head on his shoulder, pressing his hand in tight between her breasts.
"You must come back," she said, her voice barely audible as the chorus continued. "I couldn't bear life without you."
He said nothing, not wanting her to hear the choking of his voice.
As the song ended most of the audience was silent, a few clapping weakly.
The theater darkened and Gregory appeared alone on the stage, dressed in the blue uniform of a union colonel, his left sleeve pinned up. Andrew looked around uncomfortably. Kathleen squeezed his hand and, feeling embarrassed, Andrew leaned back in his chair so that no one outside the box could see him.
Behind Gregory there was a flash of smoke, then flames appeared and behind the flames a backlit curtain was filled with the shadows of men marching. A nargas sounded, sending a chill down Andrew's spine, its strident call filling the hall, many in the audience shouting, some in anger, others in discomfort and fear. There was a rattle of simulated musketry, a deep kettledrum booming like cannon fire, bugles in the orchestra sounding the charge.
It was all quite effective, as good as anything he had ever seen on the stage, and Andrew felt strangely moved. The effects died away as if the battle were still being fought in the distance, the flames licking up behind Gregory.
"Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more!" he began, his voice low, melodious, and filled with power.
Andrew felt a deep stirring as the young Rus officer continued to recite from Henry V.
But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair Nature with hard-favour'd rage;
The boy's voice increased in pitch, rising to be heard as the rattle of musketry grew louder, the flames rose higher:
"And you, good yeomen.
Whose limbs were made in Rus, show us here The mettle of your pasture: let us swear That you are worth your breeding, which I doubt not:
For there is none of you so mean and base That hath not noble lustre in your eyes. I see you stand like grey-hounds in the slips, Straining upon the start, the game's afoot: Follow your spirit; and upon this charge, Cry, "Kesus and Perm for Rus, our Republic, and mankind!"
There was a moment of silence, and then as if a dam had burst the audience was on its feet, roaring its approval. Gregory turned to face the presidential box and, coming to attention, he saluted, not dropping his hand.
"Go on," Emil prompted, urging Andrew to stand up.
With tears in his eyes Andrew came to his feet, his knees feeling weak. He came to attention and saluted Gregory, and then turning to face the audience saluted them as well. The ovation rose to a sustained thunder.
It seemed as if a lone voice called out the words at first, to be joined within seconds by all those in the hall: "Mine eyes have seen the glory. . .."
Andrew joined in, his voice barely a whisper. He felt an arm go around his waist. Looking over her head he saw Kal standing beside her, his features drawn and solemn, hat over his heart.
The song died away, followed by yet another ovation. Andrew bowed his thanks to the audience and to all the actors who had come out on stage to join in "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and left the box, stepping out a side exit of the hall to avoid the crowd.
It was a warm spring night and he breathed deeply, enjoying the fresh air after the smoke-filled stuffiness of the music hall. The crowd pouring out the front exits started up the hill toward the village green of the Yankee settlement, where an outdoor ball was still in progress, the faint strains of the music drifting along the street.
"The men have been planning that one for weeks," Pat said, coming out the backstage exit and wiping the greasepaint off of his face with a dirty handkerchief.
Andrew nodded his appreciation, still unable to reply. Kal and Emil stood beside him with approving grins.
"Rather embarrassing," Andrew finally whispered.
"Well, the boy was your orderly before he became a hero with a Congressional Medal of Merit, and an actor to boot. He remembered your saying how much you loved Henry V, and he wanted to do it."
Gregory came out the back door, still dressed in the blue uniform of a colonel of the 35th. Seeing Andrew, he nervously came to attention and saluted.
"I hope you liked it, sir."
Andrew stepped forward and patted Gregory on the shoulder.
"Embarrassed the hell out of me, but I loved it-Thank you."
The boy grinned with delight.
"How's that chest wound, son?" Emil asked.
"Fit as can be, sir. I just got my orders to report back."
"Assistant Chief of Staff for Hans Schuder is a tough job, Gregory. You'll do all the real work and get none of the glory."
"Actually, sir, I was hoping for a field command," Gregory said.
"Take it easy for a while, son. You did your part last time—it's a miracle you lived."
"Your horse Mercury saw me through it, sir; all I did was ride along."
"Give yourself a little more time to heal, get some experience with Hans, and we'll see about a field assignment in a couple of months."
"Thank you, sir!" The boy grinned with delight.
He backed away, saluted again, and then dashed off to where a girl, dressed in a simple peasant dress, waited in the shadows.
Andrew grinned as the two disappeared, arms around each other, the boy talking with animated excitement.
"Shall we go back to our place for some tea?" Kathleen asked. She paused for a moment to look over at Pat, who stood before them, looking rather ridiculous with streaks of makeup smeared into his red beard. Bob Fletcher stood behind him, still in a dress, grinning over his performance.
"And maybe a bit of the cruel," she whispered in a lilting voice, while giving Pat a conspiratorial wink.
"Now, Kathleen?" Emil interjected.
"Good heavens, Emil, too much abstinence might kill the poor suffering man."
" 'Tis true," Pat groaned. "I need a fortifier after the humiliations I suffered on the stage."
"Well, you volunteered for it," Emil replied. "Chief of Artillery behaving such."
"All in good fun," Kal said approvingly. "It shows none of us are too caught by our titles. Anyhow, a touch of the cruel, as you say, sounds most welcome."
The party stepped around to the front of the theater, exchanging pleasantries with the last of the crowd who had lingered to offer their best wishes and congratulations on the performance.
The theater was something new to the Rus, who before the arrival of the Yankees were more used to the occasional novelty acts and troupes of singers in the great square during market days, or to morality plays, usually of a somber nature, performed on the steps of the cathedral.
The love of Shakespeare, and parodies of him, of minstrel-styled shows, melodramas of the most overwrought kind with such titles as Her Love Betrayed, or the Boyar and the Peasant Girl, all interspersed with some of the more traditional Rus singing, was yet another touch of Yankee culture, translated and blended into Rus society. Two privates from the 44th New York, one of whom had briefly worked with a Traveling Tom show, had formed the theater group, obtaining backing to build a five hundred seat auditorium which was filled nearly every night.
Rivals had already opened a second theater near the end of last year on the north side of town, scrounging up leftover lumber and opening with a successful thirty-night run of The Merchant of Venice, translated into Rus and retitled The Boyar of Novrod, with Shylock recast as a former boyar. Though John had complained about the disappearance of some necessary resources and the waste of time spent on the theater, Andrew had wholeheartedly approved of the venture, suspecting that if anything it was John's Methodist sensibilities that were far more offended. He had agreed with John, though, that for now Julius Caesar would have to be censored for diplomatic reasons, as far as Marcus and the Roum were concerned.
Leaving the theater the group walked up the hill, following the last of the crowd. Andrew looked heavenward, soaking in the lingering warmth and enjoying the stars overhead. For an entire day he had managed to forget the pressure. There was really not much more he could do. The army was in place, the pickets fifty miles forward in the passes. This evening represented one final brief moment away, the first time home since the typhoid bout. The group laughed gaily about Pat's performance, the artilleryman joining in the fun with several rude comments about Bob.
They walked toward the village green, drifting through the shadows. Many of the homes facing the square were still lit. In the center of the square, under the octagonal band shell, the band was playing a quadrille and couples swayed in the shadows. There had been a review and open-air ball for the men of the 35th and 44th and their ladies, which had continued even while the theater performance had gone on. Couples passed them in the shadows, with soft voices whispering, some in Rus, a few in Latin or Carthinian, others in English, some in a blending of all four.
The band struck up a quickstep and the couples, many not sure of the steps, laughed and danced about the shell, their shadows flickering in the torchlight.
Andrew stopped to watch them.
"Gentlemen, the house is open," Kathleen said quietly, "Pat, you know where the vodka's hidden."
"And be quiet," Kal interjected, "or my Ludmilla will come storming down on the lot of you for waking the baby."
Pat bowed a thank-you to Kathleen, and the small group who had fallen in with them crossed the green, weaving their way through the dancers.
"Reminds me of '64," Kathleen said, watching the dancers with a wistful smile.
"How's that?" Andrew asked.
"Second Army Corps held a ball on Washington's Birthday. It was a poignant, wonderful night, all the fine young officers and their ladies. They danced the night away, a final night of romance."
"And three months later there was the Wilderness."
"Let's not think about it now," Andrew whispered.
She looked up at him and smiled.
"No, let's not."
He extended his hand, and she drifted into his embrace as the music shifted back to a waltz.
He had always felt clumsy when dancing, and yet for this moment they seemed to flow together, drifting across the green with all the young soldiers, the old veterans, the smiling girls shining with love, the wives with tears in their eyes. All seemed to know, yet all were caught, at least for that moment, in the dream that time would stand still for them, that the dance would go on, the music lingering forever. That this moment would become the reality, that the dream would hold off the darkness approaching from the south, at least until dawn. The couples swayed through the shadows and the band played on, its gentle sound drifting up to the stars.
Kal stood alone, watching them, holding his hat, head bowed as if in prayer, the grass beneath his feet damp with tears.
The dream had a soft, gentle quality to it, as if it floated on a breeze-wafted cloud. The field was green, the rich intensity of green that came only in the warmth of high spring, when every breath was ladened with the scent of life. It seemed to stretch on forever, a floating sea of green, the high stalks of grass wavering, shifting their color as the shadows of clouds drifted past like whitecaps flowing across a windswept ocean.
Somehow she felt aware that, after all, it was a dream. Curious, it wasn't here. No, this wasn't Valennia, it was back in the other world, back on Earth. She felt herself young, a girl again, fifteen. That's where she had seen this, out in Illinois, her father engineering the building of the rail line to Galena, the prairie a vast ocean marching to the far horizon.
If she but turned around he would be behind her, smiling his sad, distant smile. She could smell his tobacco, the faint scent of his afternoon brandy.
God, it was so beautiful, so unlike the stuffy closeness of Boston.
Is this a dream? It had to be. Daddy was dead, fifteen years was half a lifetime ago, but it all felt so real at this moment.
Why am I doing this, why am I dreaming this?
"Beautiful, is it not, Kathy darlin'."
She felt a cold shiver—it was Daddy's voice, and tears instantly clouded her vision.
"It's a dream," she whispered.
"Is it?" He laughed softly.
Now she remembered. This was her spot, the low knoll that she had found after Mama had died. It was where she was buried, just outside of town. She'd come here everyday to sit by her grave, to talk to her, to look out across the endless prairie, to find some comfort—and now she was back.
"I'm scared, Dado." Even as she spoke she heard her voice as that of a young girl, slipping into a touch of the brogue she had worked so hard to press out.
"You have every right to be scared," he whispered. She felt the gentle touch of a hand on her cheek, and she started to tremble.
"You're dead." She choked on the words.
"Not really, not for my Kathy darlin'. Nothing can part that cord, here or there. I'm always with you, Kathy my angel."
Without looking back she reached behind, and felt his hand touch hers.
The wind swept past, sighing, the high grass rustling, golden flowers filling the air with cool scent.
The voice was gentle, different, as if from another land.
She felt the hand squeeze lightly and then, as if made of gossamer, the fabric of her dreams unraveled.
A soft ticking echoed. Insistent voices rushed in. A distant boom rattled, window panes shaking.
With a start she sat up, and there was a single arm around her shoulders. Another boom snapped, followed by two more, closer. There were the scents of wool, horse, and leather, and a voice whispered in her ear, "It's all right, darling, just another air attack on the factories."
A high, insistent cry now brought her fully awake. Andrew was sitting on the bed, his arm around her, rocking her back and forth. He was home, he had been since yesterday. There was the dance last night, they had danced the night away, and then afterwards . . . That's why she was sleeping now, in late morning. It had been such a long, wonderful night, the first time in nearly two months.
The cry was now a drawn-out yell for attention, and through her tears she saw Maddie sitting up on the bed beside her, scared by the bombing and the artillery fire sending up a reply, arms outstretched to be held. They must have fallen asleep together after Andrew had left.
The dream? She knew there had been a dream, but it was already fading even as she tried to cling to it. Reaching out, she pulled Maddie into her lap, so that all three of them were together.
Andrew wrinkled his nose slightly.
"I think our angel needs a change," he said quietly.
"You mean it's time for me to change her," she replied teasingly, even as she loosened her gown to allow the child to nurse, an action that elicited an immediate sigh of contentment and silence.
"We'll take care of it later," Andrew said, shifting closer and cradling the two in his lap.
Even as she continued to nurse Maddie reached up and clasped one of her father's golden uniform buttons in her hand, round eyes shifting from Kathy to him.
The booming continued, and just on the edge of hearing one could make out the low insistent humming of the airships, as they started to swing back over the city. Nervously, Kathleen looked toward the window, but Andrew reassured her.
"Eight of them, this time. Don't worry, they're after the mills and the rail bridge."
He kissed her lightly on the forehead and she snuggled back into his lap, cradling Maddie in her arms.
"Still early in the morning?" she sighed.
She had a half-memory of his leaving before dawn, tucking Maddie in alongside of her, promising to be back by dark.
Tense, she looked up into his eyes.
"I'm going back up to the front in an hour."
She didn't want to ask, there had been the promise of three days. She didn't want to believe any of it, that it would never happen, that the darkness would turn away and disappear, far out into the flowing steppes.
"It's started," Andrew whispered.
"You're getting better at it, sir."
Chuck Ferguson grimaced, knowing that the locomotive engineer's compliment was a lie. Somehow he had never quite mastered the technique of playing out a song on the steam whistle. The engineer took hold of the cord, and with the skill of a virtuoso tapped out the opening bars of "Dixie." Chuck smiled at the obvious delight the old Novrodian experienced at showing off his ability. It was a strange little incongruity, but the unofficial anthem of the rebellion was far catchier and easier to play than the "Battle Hymn." Each of the engineers had his own signature tune; the pious a hymn, the ribald an obscene ditty, the patriotic one of the war songs carried over by the Yankees. Mina had long since given up his argument about each playing of a tune wasting x amount of steam, which equaled so many hundreds of cords of wood a year.
The pounding clatter of the tracks changed in tone and, stepping to the side of the cab, Chuck leaned out. The border marker signifying the entry into Roum territory shot past, and they were on the trestle. Most people found the crossing of the Sangros to be somewhat unnerving, the four-hundred-foot-long trestle shuddering beneath them as the engine and cars behind it thundered across. But he gloried in it.
The damn thing was a wonder—six hundred miles of track between Roum and Suzdal, six major rivers, dozens of smaller tributaries, the fifteen-hundred-foot ridge of the White Hills beyond Kev, and the long, undulating roll of the open steppes beyond that, all the way here to Hispania on the western border of the Roum. All of it by his design.
It was as if God had given him a vast world to play with, to let his imagination build whatever it desired. Granted, it was all bent to the war effort, ever since that terrible day when the Tugar Namer of Time had arrived before the gates of old Fort Lincoln, revealing to all of them the dark truth of what this world represented.
He had given them the machines to beat them, and by damn he would do it again. But beyond that he could not contain the inner joy the power given unto him had provided. Bill Webster had created the financial system and beginnings of capitalism, Gates his paper and books, Fletcher the food supply, and Mina ran all of them as chief of logistics, but, damn it, he had the machines.
"Someday we'll run this railroad clean around the world," Chuck announced, looking back at the engineer.
"I heard there's mountains east of here so tall they reach to the stars," the Novrodian said quietly.
"You'll see 'em. By god, we'll blast a tunnel right through them."
Chuck smiled and shook his head, then slapped the engineer on the back.
"A hole under the ground!" We won't go over the mountains, we'll go under them!"
The engineer looked at him with an incredulous gaze.
"Trust me," Vincent laughed. "Someday you'll point this train eastward, and a couple of months later come back straight into Suzdal. We'll ring the world with iron and call it our own."
"If we beat the Merki," the engineer said quietly.
"We'll beat 'em, I'll see to that," Vincent responded.
The fireman stepped past Vincent, swinging open the iron door into the boiler, heaving another log in, and slamming the door shut.
The hollow clattering of the trestle faded away, to be replaced by ten more solid rumbles of hard ground. The engineer eased back on the throttle, giving three quick blows to the whistle to signal the brakemen to their stations atop the swaying cars. Reached forward, and with a quick jerk of the wrist, he started the bells to clanging with the rhythmic harmony so beloved by the Rus. Even in the cab of the engine there were the little artistic touches—the handle of the throttle cast like a bear's head, the woodwork adorned with curlicues of the woodman's chisel, the three bells tuned to sound in pleasant concord.
The engineer pulled the throttle back, nodding to the fireman to tap the brake. Leaning out the side of the cabin, Ferguson saw Hispania station straight ahead, the mudbrick and limestone walls of the ancient city on the rise beyond. An entire new town had sprung up beyond the wall in the last year. It had started with rough cabins to house the labor gangs for the bridge and rail line. It was followed by machine sheds, sidings, warehouses, and a roundhouse, all of which were surrounded by a rough earthen fort thrown up during the brief Roum campaign and now strengthened as a major fallback point on the line if Roum should ever be threatened again. A line ran up north from the city, using one of the original two-and-a-half-foot engines from the first days of the MFL & S railroad, converted to the new three-and-a-half-foot gauge. The line ran past the silver mines, and from there on into the vast north woods, a dozen miles beyond to where a powder mill and Chuck's work station were now located, safely removed from the prying eyes of the Merki air machines.
With bells ringing, the engine drifted into the station. It was aswarm with activity. Smiling, Chuck nodded a farewell to the engineer and fireman and clamored down the side of the locomotive. The engineer treated them to a quick rendition of "Dixie," and the voice of the stationmaster announcing their arrival was drowned out by the song.
The station was a touch of Rus in an alien land, but no one could mistake that they were in Roum. The laborers at the water tank and wood yard wore the tunics of Roum freemen, freemen who but last summer had still been slaves.
The sign swaying from the side of the station, in Rus, English, and Latin, announced that the line had entered the territory of the state of Ruom and that all local laws were to be obeyed.
A stone pillar was set in the middle of the platform before the rough board station. The pillar was shaped to look like a bundle of faeces, atop which was the eagle, or what passed for an eagle on this world, which to Chuck seemed more like a fat turkey vulture with blue feathers.
The voices were a cacophony of Latin, mingled with shouts of Rus. Vents of steam shot out from the engine, driving the spectators back, and the engine shuddered to a halt.
Leaping down from the cab, backpack over his shoulder, Chuck waded into the crowd. At least it smelled better, he realized, and he found himself scratching, longing for a good Roum bath. Perhaps that would be one habit the Rus might learn to good use.
Smiling, Vincent saw Jack Petracci wading through the crowd, a bevy of aides pushing in behind him.
After the conference Jack had returned, while he had stayed on in Suzdal for another week to inspect some of the changes in the factories and troubleshoot a host of problems. He'd left the city with a major migraine headache as a result.
Back to the real work, Chuck thought with a smile. The thunder of the engine, the talking of shop with the engineer, had served to clear his head. Out on the steppe he had opened the machine up to what he figured was damn near forty. If the track bed had been better than the emergency rush job of last year, he could have gone even faster. The headache was gone, washed out by the pounding pistons, the hissing steam, and the wind in his face.
From out of the first car he saw the plebeian consul Julius alighting, the workers cheering at the sight of him. The diminutive, dark-eyed man smiled nervously, and his smile broadened with delight as a young woman with black, waist-length hair pushed through the crowd and leaped into his arms.
"The old boy doesn't have the style of Kal," Jack said in English. "Kal would come off with a quick joke and some pressing of the flesh, kiss a couple of babies, and then go down to the water tank and want to pitch in."
"He'll do for starters, but it's Marcus running the show," Vincent replied absently, unable to take his eyes from the lithe body of the woman who now stood by Julius's side, her arm around his waist. "These people will learn some good Yankee politicking soon enough."
Julius, seeing Chuck, motioned for him to come over. Snapping to attention, Chuck saluted.
"A wonderful machine," Julius announced.
"Thank you, sir."
"I understand the need for secrecy, but would it be possible for myself and my daughter to see what is inside the great building?"
Jack cleared his throat nervously. The workers involved in the project lived as virtual prisoners in barracks inside a separate stockade. Chuck realized there was a certain foolishness to it—the shed could contain only one thing, and what that was was an open secret, but only those people, and the workers at the powder mill, were allowed to pass beyond the silver mine on the spur line going north.
"Your train will be leaving in ten minutes, sir," Jack replied a bit too hurriedly.
"Daughter, sir?" Chuck asked.
Julius smiled at the look in the young man's eyes.
"Olivia, good sir," she whispered quietly, a smile broadening her features.
"I think it would be all right," Chuck replied nervously, and then looked over to the schedule board.
"There'll be another train into Roum in eight hours. You can run up with us, and take the afternoon train back down here to the station."
Jack sighed, but said nothing.
The girl smiled at him with delight, and he pointed to where the diminutive engine known as "The Old Waterville," the second engine ever made on this world, waited for its passengers. She was dwarfed by the Malady class engines running the main line from Suzdal to Roum, which could haul five times her weight at well over twice her speed. The "Waterville," her gilded letters on the cab slightly tarnished with age, held a certain nostalgic appeal for him as he walked up to her.
She seemed like nothing more than an oversized steam kettle with a tiny cab on her back, the wheels jutting out too far from the conversion from two-foot to three-and-a-half-foot gauge. She seemed more like a toy now, yet he felt a fondness for her, as if three years since she was built represented a gulf into a far less complicated age. After riding at the helm of the Malady, the heaviest of the MFL & S's engines, it was strange to be back to where it all had started.
The engineer, checking a bearing, turned around and saluted at Chuck's approach.
"How's she running?"
"A bit wheezy, sir, cylinders will need repacking soon, but she's still got some of her old heart." With a gloved hand he affectionately patted the side of her boiler.
Chuck looked over at the clock tower next to the station. The Malady let go with a long blast of her whistle, and with tolling bell started out of the station. Late passengers ran out of the station, some with a handful of bread or a bag of dried fruit, and raced down the platform to leap on board.
The Malady was no sooner out of the station heading on to Roum than the train waiting on the siding, pulled by the City of Hispania, let go with a long blast. The switchmaster looked up at the telegrapher, who leaned out of his office and hoisted up a green ball, the signal that the road west was cleared to Orono station and the Penobscot crossing a hundred miles up the line.
The switchmaster opened the way, and the engineer, leaning out of the cab, waved a salute. The engine started forward, pulling a string of fifteen boxcars packed with enough hard bread and salt-pork rations to feed the army in the field for several days.
Chuck watched with a swelling of pride. Andrew might be providing the leadership and vision to help them win this war and ensure the survival of the Republic, but without railroads they wouldn't stand a ghost of a chance against the Horde. It would be railroads that would win or lose this venture, more than any other factor.
He had heard more than one railroad man say that if the war against the rebs had started ten years earlier the Confederacy most likely would have won, that it would have been impossible to conquer a country bigger than all of Europe without rail lines to move and supply the armies. Well, the same stood true here: The alliance, supplies, and the mobility against horse-mounted warriors could be matched only by steam.
The train started across the Sangros, her whistle playing out the "Hymn to Kesus."
"Petrov Petrovich at the throttle," the Waterville's engineer announced. "He's getting good at that tune."
The engineer looked back at the clock.
"Time to leave, sir."
Chuck smiled, feeling tempted to climb up into the cab. But there was something he had suddenly found a bit more interesting than the engine, so he went back to the single passenger car, mounted behind four hopper cars loaded down with sulphur for the powder mill.
Chuck could see his dozen odd aides chomping at the bit to get his attention, ready to deluge him with hours' worth of technical questions, but for the moment his attention was focused on Olivia as he helped her into the narrow passenger car.
The Waterville started up, its boilers sounding like an angry tea kettle compared to the deep throaty roar of the Malady. The train started out of its siding, clicking through an intersection leading into the roundhouse, where several engines were being overhauled.
The light ten-pound rails of the spur line rode up and down over the landscape with no attempt at grading. The earthen walls surrounding the warehouses and rail yard drifted by to the left, the ground around the fortification a mad warren of deadfalls. Originally he had wanted to put the shed inside the warehouse area, but the danger of it, and the need for some form of security, had forced him to agree with Keane that it would have to be built far beyond the town.
The bone-jarring ride carried them northward, out beyond the old cultivated fields that had supplied Hispania, past the outlying plantations of the wealthy, and onward until the distant forest seemed to be marching down out of the high hills. The high grassland started to give way to hills clumped with towering pines, which filled the air with a fresh brisk scent that Chuck found all so reminiscent of home. The track swung in along the high bluffs, looking down on the Sangros River, and the noise of its passage stirred up a flock of noisy ducks. By the thousands they took flight, and he watched them with amusement and a sense of envy as well.
Farther up the river, a long raft of logs was slowly making its way downstream to the sawmills at Hispania, the river men waving as the engine rattled past.
Another turn in the line dropped the train down into a narrow valley, across a rickety trestle, and then up a long slope covered with ancient trees. They were into the forest.
The world seemed to change in an instant—the air was cooler, damp, rich with the smells of spring, the dark gloom a welcomed change from the glare of the open steppe. Rus, just north of Suzdal, was like this, and so was Maine. He loved the open steppe, where the twin rails went straight for a hundred miles, the lines vanishing into one like the single-point perspectives he had learned to draw in school, but this felt far more like home.
The train pulled its way upward into the hills, passing occasional open stretches of fields and scatterings of trees, but ever so gradually it felt as if the forest were closing in, growing thicker and darker. The going was slow, for the track had been laid down at times in tight turns, to weave past a rough stretch of ground or stands of trees too thick to be cut down and instead simply bypassed.
Chuck kept looking over at Olivia, who cheerfully returned his somewhat longing gaze, but he found himself unable to think of anything to say. Now, if she'd only ask a question about the train, or one of his projects, but she sat across from him as if expecting the man to make the first move. So he kept a nervous silence while his staff chafed, not feeling comfortable discussing technical questions in front of a stranger, even if he were the plebeian consul. He spent long minutes in silence, looking out the open window as the forest drifted past. He'd sneak a look back at her, then gaze out the window again.
The long rise completed, the train passed a vast open area piled high with thousands of cut timbers. Julius looked at them with curiosity.
"All the bridges on the line have duplicates hidden right here," Chuck explained. "If raiders should burn a bridge, the way they did the Kennebec crossing last summer, we can move these timbers down and in a couple of days have the bridge up again—we're not going to be caught like last time. The lumber is pre-cut, numbered, and just needs to be fit in place."
"Who thought of this?" Olivia asked.
He wanted to lie, but couldn't.
"Hermann Haupt, back on the old world. Raiders kept burning our bridges, but it was said he could build them back faster than the rebs could light matches."
Chuck fumbled in his pocket and pulled a lucifer out. Several of his staff looked slightly horrified.
"Don't worry, I was going to dump them out before we got there," he said quickly.
He struck the match into a flame, and Olivia looked at him as if the match, far more than the very train she was riding on, were a miracle.
The engine started to slow, and dropping down the side of a boulder-strewn slope it slid to a stop.
"All out!" Chuck announced, standing up and banging his head on the low ceiling. With an embarrassed curse he got out of the car and extended a hand to Olivia. She took it and held on for several seconds after alighting.
A track followed off from the switching into the woods, weaving its way around trees too large to be dropped, while the engine and its five cars were poised to continue straight ahead once the passengers were off.
"No engines up to where we're going today—too dangerous what with the sparks," Chuck announced.
"But the powder mill. It goes up to there, why not to the sheds?" Julius asked, pointing straight up the line.
"The powder mills are safe. We're just being cautious today since the wind is up slightly from where the track runs straight into the shed," Chuck replied, surprised for a second that Julius knew about the other secret hidden up here.
After the Merki air attack of the previous summer, Mina had pointed out that to rebuild anywhere in Rus would have been to reinvite attack on one of their most crucial and vulnerable industries. There was another logic as well, since the sulphur and, far more importantly, the saltpeter resources of Roum were virgin territory. So the mill had quietly been constructed out here, while a fake plant, which had been repeatedly attacked, had been constructed near Novrod.
Leading the way, Chuck moved alongside the track. Olivia let her hand slip away, but kept by his side. The track made a sharp turn to the left after a hundred yards through the heavy forest, and coming around the bend Chuck came up short, a childlike grin of delight brightening his features.
The balloon shed, constructed of rough-cut boards and nearly forty feet high and over a hundred and fifty in length, stood before him in the clearing. A second and third one stood behind it, with a fourth already under construction on the far side of the stump-littered field beyond. Floating in the middle of the first shed his latest weapon hovered, as if ready to take wing at any moment.
Jack looked over at him and smiled.
"We finished the inflation two days ago. So far there don't seem to be any major leaks. It's just a question of waiting for the engine to be mounted, and we're ready to fly."
"We were waiting for you to start the test run."
Chuck nodded absently as he walked forward, all else forgotten. The doors of the hanger were wide open, the louvers above the shed also propped open to allow any errant wisps of the dangerously explosive gas a way out.
"And this will fly?" Olivia asked.
"Of course. If those damn beasts can do it, so can we. Just give us a little time, and we'll push them out of the air."
As if approaching an altar, Chuck walked into the rough-board hanger, the long, sausage-shaped balloon hovering above him.
"Any problems with inflation?"
"One of the wooden interior support struts in the aft part of the rear bag shifted, cutting through the fabric, but we got it fixed," Jack replied.
Chuck nodded. He had argued that rather than simply be a loose bag of gas, the aerosteamer—as he was already calling it—should have a rigid interior structure onto which the double layer of silk would be stitched. The Merki balloons lacked this feature, relying on internal pressure to stay rigid, and he had noticed their tendency to wobble and bulge in flight.
The frame was of nothing more than thin strips of a bamboo-like wood, lashed together into a long, basketlike frame, but it thus required a lot more lift. Still, the balloon looked far more solid. Walking down the length of the shed, Chuck stopped in the middle of the balloon and peered up into a round hole cut directly above him. The inside of the balloon was lost in darkness, but he could imagine the vast frame rising above him. All that was needed now was to install the engine underneath the hole. The exhaust heat would go straight up. providing the necessary lift and the control for maneuvering. The gas bags of hydrogen fore and aft would provide the rest of the buoyancy. It still made him extremely nervous to be hooking a steam engine to a hydrogen balloon, but there was no other alternative. He had heard about helium gas, but how in the world it was to be found, captured, and processed was totally beyond him. If it hadn't been for Jack's past experiences with the circus, and his knowledge of how to bathe zinc shavings with sulfuric acid to make hydrogen, no one on this world would now be Hying. He could remember Hinsen's hanging around while Jack had been working on the project, and could only surmise that the traitor had given the secret to the Merki. The hatred that thought triggered disturbed him, and he pushed it aside. For him this war was not about hatred. It was a question of outthinking a foe.
Walking down the rest of the length of the shed, he pointed out the details of the balloon to Julius, knowing that Olivia was soaking it all in.
"The engine is the final stage," Chuck said, and leaving the rear of the hanger he led the group across the stump-littered field. In the distance a busy crew of workers was swarming over the latest hanger going up. Trees dropped in the clearing were going straight into the steam-powered sawmill, which was safely operating downwind from the field.
In the center of the clearing half a dozen four-pounders were set, the barrels now mounted on yokes that would allow the weapons to be swung up to a vertical position, their crews coming to their feet as the group passed. Similar emplacements were going up around all the key industrial sites in Rus and Roum. A number of hits had been scored on the Merki ships, but except for the one crash they had yet to bring the enemy down. He paused for a moment to look up at the high watchtower. On a clear day they could see all the way to Roum, seventy miles away. Only the week before a Merki ship had hit the city and then ventured northward, as if to scout, but had then turned back just south of Hispa-nia. It had been a near thing. One firebomb on the hangers would have destroyed an entire winter's work.
The doors of the log cabin work shed were open, revealing an interior lit by kerosene lamps, and Chuck led the group in. A team of Rus mechanics gave him a cheery greeting as he went through the crowd, patting men on the back, firing off questions and quips. With obvious pride he walked up to the small engine resting on a workbench in the middle of the room. The air was heavy with a thick, oily smell, which Chuck seemed to breathe in with relish.
"It's powered by coal oil," he announced, looking over at Julius, who shook his head in confusion.
"From the oil that bubbles out of the ground at Caprium and Brundisia. We boil the oil, and get a fluid out of it that burns hotly." He nodded to a barrel off to one side of the shed, and to the lamps hanging overhead.
"Weight is everything for the aerosteamer. The oil holds a lot more energy than coal, and more importantly, it burns clean. We don't have to worry about any sparks. The exhaust from the engine will fill the middle portion of the bag. When we want to go up we close the top vent, when we want to drop we simply open it up. Now the engine was the tough part. . . ." He went into his subject with relish, not even realizing that Julius and Olivia were smiling politely, barely able to understand his Latin and totally lost as to the subject.
"A regular steam engine just weighs too much, and beyond that it needs water, lots of it. So I figured we'd go with a caloric engine. John Ericsson back home built the first one about thirty years ago."
He looked at Julius closely.
"John Ericsson?" Chuck asked. He said the name as if invoking the name of Cincinnatus. "He was the fellow who built ironclad ships."
Julius nodded politely, and Chuck smiled.
"Well anyhow, rather than using steam for power, he used superheated hot air to drive the pistons."
Chuck went over to the engine on the table and lightly patted the boiler, which was already heated up.
"Hot air rushes into the pistons, and as it expands it cools, with a jet of hot air coming in on the other side to drive them back. The pistons start cranking the drive shaft, which then turns this."
He stepped behind the machine and pointed to a wooden blade propeller, nearly a dozen feet across with four vanes.
Chuck looked over at Jack, and his smile did little to ease a growing tension.
"Ready for another try?"
"Feyodor, the fit on pistons?"
"Rebored to a thousandth-of-an-inch tolerance. Overall weight for the machine is down to just under five hundred pounds," the young machinist, several years Chuck's junior, replied in a voice of authority. Chuck patted him on the back. The boy first had been trained as a toolmaker, when they had begun the mass production of muskets. But Chuck soon realized he had that rare innate ability of the born craftsman, and he raised him to be the chief mechanic for this most demanding project so far. His only problem was that Feyodor had an identical twin, Theodor, blessed with the same skills, and it was ofttimes impossible to tell the two apart.
"Then let's start her up."
Going over to the throttle he tentatively grabbed hold, hesitated for a second, and then nodded over to Feyodor.
"It's your toy," Chuck announced, after what was obviously a bit of an inner struggle.
Grinning, Feyodor stepped forward and grabbed hold of the throttle, then opened it up a notch.
Puzzled, Chuck opened the boiler, peered through the glass door, and reached over to open up the fuel supply. The small smokestack shimmered with heat.
With a gentle sigh the twin cylinders moved ever so imperceptibly.
Feyodor looked over at Chuck, who nodded in agreement as the young mechanic clicked the throttle back another notch. The stroke of one of the pistons reached out to its maximum as the other pulled in, and the machine seemed to hang there.
Chuck reached out to grab hold of the small flywheel attached to the drive shaft and spin it. With a hissing chug the cylinder went through the rest of its stroke, returned, extended, and returned, the propeller cranking over slowly on the end of the shaft with a soft, whistling sigh.
Smiling, Feyodor clicked the throttle back further, and the machine set into a slow, steady, hissing hum.
"Let's move it to the measuring table!" Chuck shouted.
Assistants rushed up, grabbing hold of the corners of the iron sheet that the machine was bolted down on. Picking it up and holding it high overhead so that the propeller wouldn't strike the ground while it was still slowly cranking, they carried it farther back into the shed, placing it down on another table that was covered with grease.
Chuck went around to the end of the table closest to the whirling propeller. Ducking low, he hooked a restraining cable to the side of the engine and another to a spring-driven scale.
"Everyone else out of the building!"
Jack came up to Chuck's side and grabbed hold of him by the arm. "Then you're going out, too. Keane gave explicit orders that you were never to be in any dangerous position."
Chuck shook his head.
"God damn it," he laughed, "I outrank everyone in this room! Now get out!"
"I'm staying," Jack announced, and the other assistants and workers nodded in agreement.
"All right then, we all stay!" Chuck shouted, nodding for Feyodor to open the throttle up.
The propeller, which had been windmilling over with a soft steady thump, started to shift into a blur, Feyodor's clothing whipping out around him. The hissing of the hot-air engine rose in tone to a demonic shriek, shimmers of heat rising off it, the forced-air exhaust puffing and filling the room with the oily smell of burned kerosene.
The hum of the propeller rose to a trembling roar, and with a shout of exaltation Chuck pointed to the engine as it started to slide forward, restrained only by the cable attached to the scale.
"Over a hundred pounds of push, and climbing! Give it all she's got, Feyodor!"
The Russian pushed the throttle full over, and the workshop was filled with the howl of the engine and propeller.
"Over three hundred and going up! By damn, we've got it!"
Chuck stepped back from his position between the propeller and the engine and started over to where Julius and Olivia stood wide-eyed, backed up against the wall.
Chuck turned and stood in numbed astonishment as the engine seemed to leap free from the workbench, driven forward by the thrust of the whirling propeller. It all happened far too fast for him to react, as the propeller hit the edge of the workbench and disintegrated, filling the room with a howling tornado of splinters. Something knocked him behind the knees and he was down on the ground.
Shouts of panic echoed, and a coal oil lamp, hit by part of a propeller, smashed, exploding in flames.
The mad cacophony of noise gradually died away, to be replaced by the shouts of workers rushing in from the outside carrying buckets of sand. The engine, now over on its side, was still chugging away, a machine gone berserk that simply refused to quit. A river of flame poured out from its upended fuel tank.
Chuck felt light-headed. A warm trickle was running down into his eyes, and he was unsure of how he had wound up on the ground.
He looked down to his legs and saw Olivia clinging to his knees, realizing that it was the girl who had reacted while he had stood dumbstruck, knocking him down just as the propeller had exploded.
She crawled up beside him, wiping the blood from his eyes. He started to sit up, but she forced him back down with a strength he found surprising. An excited crowd was gathering around him, while the engine continued to howl away and others fought to put out the flames. Feyodor, coming back to his feet, snapped the throttle down and the machine wheezed to a halt, the hot metal ticking.
"It works, damn me, it really works!" Jack shouted, kneeling down by Chuck's side.
Grinning, Chuck looked up at him.
"That was a three-hundred-pound spring scale!" Chuck replied excitedly. "It just snapped the damn thing and took off, pushing the whole contraption right off the table!"
"It's enough. We'll be flying with that thing," Jack announced.
"We've got extra propellers. Let's rig a new one on, and see how long the darn thing can run."
"It almost killed you, and you want to start it up again!" Olivia said angrily, a flash of anger showing at this boyish enthusiasm. It was a miracle no one had been killed.
He looked up into her eyes and suddenly felt rather weak, after all.
The gaze held for a long moment until, from the corner of his eye, he saw a young boy from the telegraph office standing in the smoke-filled room, breathing hard, a scrap of paper in his hand. The boy's features were pale, his lip trembling.
Somehow there was no need to be told what the message said.
"We better get back to work," Chuck said quietly, the childlike joy of the moment before, the lingering look of Olivia, now forgotten.
"No, damn it! You've got to come in high, you bloody idiot!"
Vincent Hawthorne turned as the sergeant's voice boomed across the drill field. The words were in a barely understandable Latin, but he had come to learn that, no matter what era it was, or upon whatever world, a sergeant enraged at a bumbling recruit would always sound the same.
The Rus sergeant snatched the musket away from the trembling recruit, snapping the weapon down so that the blade was poised at his stomach.
"Have you ever seen a Tugar?" the sergeant roared.
"On the crosses."
Vincent winced inwardly. After the long winter and early spring the Merki corpses were now nothing more than raven-pecked remnants of sinew and bone, though still wafting with the faint odor of death. The skull of one showed the cracked holes of the six rounds he had pumped into it. Marcus had left them there as a reminder, though in his heart Vincent felt that the gaping white jaws were still echoing with a taunt, reminding him of what he had become.
"Well, damn my bloody eyes!" the sergeant snarled. "I've seen them alive"—he started to lapse back into Rus—"coming at us in the thousands, bellowing their war cries."
He paused for a moment to point dramatically to the ugly scar that had turned his features into a perpetual grimace, mouth split open far too wide, half a dozen teeth missing.
"I was with the bloody damned 5th Suzdal, got this at the Battle of the Pass I did, so, damn my eyes, I know what I'm talkin' about!"
He turned a malevolent gaze on the company.
"They'll come at you like a wall, a mountain, unstoppable except for this!" he cried, and he held the bayonet point up.
The recruits had not understood a word he'd said, but none dared to challenge him.
"Come in too low," he shouted, thrusting the bayonet in toward a recruit, who jumped back, "and you'll go right under their balls.
"Remember, they're eight, nine feet high. Look out for the downward strike of their sword. But they're a bit slower than us, so wait for that stroke. Dodge the strike, and before he can recover come in low and then thrust upwards, up high. Stab high"—he shifted back into a thick Latin—"up into their belly, which will be staring you in the face!"
"Then twist,"—he rotated the bayonet—"and withdraw!"—he yanked the gun back.
He threw the musket back at the recruit, who looked humiliated and red-faced, as if ready to burst into tears.
"Perm and Kesus help him," Dimitri said softly.
"The weak ones will die," Vincent replied coldly.
"I just hope they don't drag us all down in their dying."
Somewhat startled, Dimitri looked over at Vincent as he nudged his mount into a slow canter, continuing across the drill field, moving in the direction of an entire brigade that was lined up practicing. Vincent sat erect in the saddle. He had finally learned to keep a good seat on the huge horse, though he still looked almost childlike from behind: narrow shoulders, five and a half feet in height, and not much above a hundred pounds.
It was a fair, cool morning, with a promise of true warmth by afternoon, a faint breeze picking up out of the west, rolling in from the open steppe. A whistle cut through the air, causing Vincent to turn in his saddle and look back over his shoulder to watch another train, pulling up out of the siding located just south of the city walls.
At the sight of his drawn features, Dimitri realized there was nothing childlike about the twenty-two-year-old general anymore, or if there was, it was deeply hidden. His once gentle face was cold, set with a hard stare, his gray-blue eyes distant, as if chiseled from ice. He had allowed a thin narrow beard to grow (more of a goatee that was trimmed to a point), matched by the tracing of a mustache. He no longer wore the old regulation kepi of the 35th, having replaced it with what he called a "hardee hat": wide brimmed and black, with a high crown. The hat shaded his features, giving him a distant air. Affixed to its center were two gold stars, matching the stars on the shoulder of his dark blue officer's jacket, trimmed with a double row of gold buttons. After taking command of the 5th, he had switched to the loose high-collared white tunic and canvas trousers of the Rus infantry. But that was gone now. He was the general of two corps in training, and he had the look of a professional killer in his eyes. He had changed.
"Twenty-third Roum," Dimitri said quietly, turning in his saddle to look at the train, "moving up to join 4th Corps reserve at Suzdal."
Vincent nodded absently. Five hundred good troops for the crucible of the Potomac front.
Vincent cursed silently, looking over at Dimitri, as if somehow the old Rus general were to blame.
"Just how the hell am I to form up two new corps, when the Colonel keeps bleeding off trained regiments as fast as I can turn them out?"
There had been a flurry of angry telegrams over the detachment of the 23rd and 25th to augment a full division of Roum troops at the front.
"You've got sixty-two other regiments in training," Dimitri reminded him, "plus the other thirty regiments of Marcus's corps."
"And less than a third of mine have weapons, and Marcus's are still ten percent under."
He shook his head, watching the train straining under its burden.
"At least the Roum have manpower to give; we're at the bottom of the barrel otherwise."
Thank God for the Roum, Vincent thought, as the train slowly gained headway up the long slope.
The manpower reserves they'd offered were finally starting to kick in. By midsummer, if we survive that long, he mused, the Roum army will outnumber the Rus, and then keep right on growing. His own 6th and 7th Corps would field twelve brigades in six divisions. Thirty-two thousand men, just under the total strength of the original Rus army that had met the Tugars.
The current Rus army fielded nearly a hundred and twenty regiments, with an average strength of five hundred, and over fifty batteries of artillery.
Every available man from sixteen to forty-five who didn't have a skill needed in industry was under arms at the front. Two of the four divisions in Suzdal were manning the factories, with a fifth detached division working on the rail lines or in the other factories. The Roum troops were forming up another division for the 4th corps, so it would have at least a standard combat size of three field divisions with a total of thirty regiments. All those not fit to serve were in the fields and factories, ready to be called as militia. It was as bad as the Confederacy— there simply wasn't anyone left. Without the Roum, the war would already be lost.
Andrew had already discussed with him the long-term political implications of that, if indeed there was a future. With the Roums having a three-to-one population advantage, the alliance had to be kept firmly intact, otherwise there could come a day when the forces of Roum might again pick up the habits of their distant ancestors and march out on the road of conquest.
But for right now the quality of Roum troops was marginal compared to the Rus who had fought through two wars, and had experience over four years of tutelage with the men of the 35th and 44th. Those who had survived were veterans.
If anything, it was Roum resources, he felt, that would decide the survival of the Republic even more than the men. Back beyond the tracks, out in the river Tiber, the new harbor area was swarming with activity. A coastal lighter had just tied in, laden down with several hundred tons of refined sulphur, all of it destined for the powder mill hidden above Hispa-nia or for the balloon works, for conversion into the sulfuric acid which, when combined with zinc, would create hydrogen gas.
Several galleys were out in the river, practicing rapid turns. In the one brief sea war fought since their arrival, galleys had been proven to be far too vulnerable to a good short-range musket volley, but they still served their purpose of harrying the Cartha coast, gathering intelligence, and picking up the thousands of refugees.
Other ships were tied in, bearing foodstuffs, hogs and cattle still on the hoof, cordage from the vast hemp fields that rose up out on the far eastern inarches, silk for the balloons taken from every noble's wardrobe, and traded for even into the southeastward lands of Khata, soon to be overrun by the Bantag.
Coal had been discovered below Capra to the south, and dirty colliers moved the precious rock up the coast, where along the east bank of the river a coking plant was converting the stone for use in the new blast furnace.
Beyond the furnace was the copper and wire-works, spinning out the desperately needed strands to fill the insatiable need for yet more telegraph lines and the millions of percussion caps required for muskets and shells. Next to that stood a tanning yard for accoutrements: belts, cartridge boxes, shoes, saddles, harnesses, right down to the patches that held the flints for the old muskets still in circulation. In Hispania, back up the line, mercury was being processed for the fuses and percussion caps, and a reserve rail maintenance shed had gone up, complete with all the tools required for the repair and overhaul of locomotives and rolling stock. In Cilcia, the fine sands along the beaches had been found to be superb for the making of field glasses, and next to that a bottle-making plant had quickly risen. The containers would be filled with wine from the presses, and preserved fruits and condensed milk to be used for the sick and wounded.
Inland, at Brindisia and Caprium, the oil wells were turning out several barrels of refined coal oil a day to power the airships, plus other products such as lubricant for the locomotives and the dangerously explosive benzene.
The locomotive drifted past, following the path laid out along the Appia Way, climbing slowly up over the last series of hills and then gaining speed as it clicked its way northwestward toward Hispania, then on to the Republic of Rus beyond.
Vincent looked at the forlorn souls sitting in the boxcars and hunched down atop supplies lashed to the flatcars. They looked smart enough, uniformed in white calf-length trousers and hobnailed sandals, with leather thongs crosshatching up to the knee. Their tunics, patterned on the Union Army sack coat, were dyed a dark tan—almost like Confederate butternut, Vincent thought—and their felt hats were broadbrimmed and the same color as the tunics. Some of the officers still sported the uniform of the old legion that had long since been disbanded, their burnished breastplates and crested helmets standing out as a strange incongruity for a modern army. Some of the men were wearing packs, but the majority were burdened down with the ubiquitous horse-collar blanket roll slung over the left shoulder, adding to their appearance as rebel troops. The regiment was one of the few Roum units armed with Springfield rifles, a fact which made him curse inwardly. It'd been hell getting the best weapons, and now they were being pulled out of his hands.
Unlike the Rus, they would not be fighting on their home soil, with an enemy at the gate. These men were traveling to a distant land over six hundred miles away. Though all the Roum knew what would happen to them if Rus should fall, still he wondered how well these men would fight when the time came and the first Merki charge came screaming in.
A memory flashed into his head for a moment: He was again holding the pass while the rest of the army retreated, a wall of Tugars on foot advancing at the run, chanting their deep guttural cries, the nargas shrieking, drums rolling, human skull and horse-tail standards held high. Blades flashing in the mist and smoke, the thunder of their advance like an approaching storm.
He looked back at a line of recruits, practicing to form into regimental square, and sergeants, some of them Roum but most of them Rus, bellowing out commands. The sun was out, breaking through the spring morning mist—a fine gentle day, in such contrast to the dark thoughts that clouded his soul.
They looked good enough, for men who had been at it for several months. How would they react when death was racing down at two hundred yards a minute?
"Did we ever look like that?" Dimitri asked, as if reading Vincent's thoughts.
Dimitri smiled softly. "Most of us couldn't tell our left from our right back when the old 5th was first formed. So you tied hay to one foot, and straw to the other. Hayfoot, strawfoot, that's how you drilled us."
"It's hard to remember now," Vincent said quietly.
"And your own Yankees, did they ever look like that?" Dimitri said, looking over at Vincent like a father who, all so quietly, was seeking to reassure a nervous son.
Vincent let a thin smile crack his features. God, how long ago had it been? The time before was actually starting to blur a bit. Yes, he must have looked like that once, a scared child, unsteady with amusket, not even sure if he could shoot, let alone stab someone.
The first killing? Novrod, the guard on the wall when he escaped. Funny, they were allies now, part of the same Republic.
The riot in the square was next, then the wars and blowing the dam. Fifty thousand had he killed with that? Maybe seventy or eighty. The morning after you could walk across the Neiper on Tugar corpses, the river was so thickly choked. The stench of death had hung in the air for weeks, and the banks of the river were still littered with skeletons.
"No, Dimitri," he whispered. "I can't remember ever looking like that."
"But you were. Perhaps even the Colonel himself looked like that once, a scared recruit on the point of tears."
Hard to imagine, Keane a new recruit, a lieutenant. The 35th once a mob of frightened, excited boys going to see the elephant for the first time, many of them wetting their pants when the first bullet whistled past.
"They'll learn when the time comes. The same way you did, the same way we did."
"Let's hope so, Dimitri; if they don't it'll be all our asses in the fire. The rebs at least took prisoners. One mistake with the Merki, and all of us are dead— all of us____"
His voice trailed off, a cold, distant look in his eyes. He nudged his mount forward, passing the regiment in square, snapping off salutes to the waiting officers, who came to rigid attention at his passing. Dimitri and the rest of his staff trotted behind him. Riding down the length of the field, he drew up before the brigade practicing large-unit tactics for the first time. Some of the faces were familiar. There was even an old hand from the 35th, a brigade commander now. Behind him fluttered a triangular flag, red with a white cross, for the 1st Brigade, of the 2nd Division.
It was a touch from the old Army of the Potomac, corps badges. The Greek cross for the new-formed 6th, and he looked over his shoulder at his own guidon-bearer proudly holding the square gold cross flag on a dark blue field, marking the presence of the corps commander.
Strange that it would be the cross for my unit, he thought, and he had a flashing memory of the dead Merki hanging in the forum. But the men of the 35th, remembering the old ways, had insisted upon their new army's carrying the same emblems of old.
"Strayter, good to see you."
Roger Strayter gave a friendly salute in reply. There had been a little getting use to for Roger. He had been an old hand in the 35th, having served with the regiment since Antietam, a deep furrow in his cheek a souvenir from Fredericksburg. They had known each other vaguely back in Vassalboro, Maine, and Roger had been something of a village roustabout, ready for a good prank. He doubted if Roger even remembered once chasing him down the street, threatening to thrash the "little Quaker boy." He wasn't going to remind him.
Roger had proven his mettle as a regimental commander and was now doing it again as a brigadier, but Vincent could sense the faintest touch of resentment in this towering six-foot giant with broad shoulders taking orders from a diminutive warrior who barely weighed in at a hundred and twenty.
"First day of brigade drill, isn't it?" Vincent asked.
Roger nodded, looking slightly nervous.
"Well, don't let me stop you then."
Roger turned away to face his regimental officers.
"Again! And god damn it, Alexi, your boys have got the furthest to run, so keep them in line!"
The men saluted and raced back to their command.
Vincent looked appraisingly at the long line. Three regiments were to the front in line, stretching across nearly four hundred yards, behind them two more regiments in column. The sight gave him a sharp thrill—at least the three regiments in front had muskets, which glistened in the morning sun. A wall of steel and flesh.
"Brigade!" the command echoed down the line. "By the right in line"—he paused for a second—"wheel!"
The man farthest to the right stayed anchored, the men to the far left breaking into a double-time run. Like a vast door on a hinge the line started to turn, swinging across an arc nearly a quarter of a mile across. The pivot continued and Vincent turned his horse about, riding in front and looking over his shoulder. He watched with a cold, appraising eye.
A gap started to open between the 2nd and 3rd regiments, curses echoing across the field as staff officers raced about, trying to swing the hole closed. The gap widened, with the men at the edge of it trailing behind. The line started to curve and ripple like a taut string going slack. Over the commands echoed the thunder of feet, the rattling of accoutrements, the hoarse cries of officers. The 3rd Regiment started to lose all cohesion, turning into an inverted V. Vincent looked over at Roger, who was scarlet with anger. The two regiments to the rear, in column of company front, at least held together, the deep blocks turning sharply.
At last the wheel was complete, stragglers were filtering back into the ranks, and all eyes were on Vincent, as if waiting for judgment.
With Roger in tow he cantered over to the 3rd
Regiment, where a Roum commander waited for the explosion.
"It could be better," Vincent said, his voice carrying over the line.
The commander said nothing.
"A damn sight better!" Vincent snapped. "This is a goddamned parade field, and you can't even hold your regiment together! If a Merki charge should swing into the army's flank, god help us if you're on the end of the line and we're forced to refuse our flank. It won't be a parade ground, it'll be dust, smoke, and men dying, and you're going to have to do it perfectly or we're all dead. You bastards won't last five minutes in a fight."
Angrily he jerked his horse around and rode off, Dimitri by his side. He rode in silence for some minutes and then finally looked at Dimitri.
"Well go on, say it."
"What should I say?"
"That I've never lost my temper before, that I've always won through quiet explanation and example—I know what you're thinking."
"You said it yourself, my general."
"I want them to be ready to kill Merki, to kill all those damned bastards."
He fell silent, cursing inwardly. Kill them all, that's what I want.
"I can't stand the thought of those men fumbling, losing, making a mistake that could cost us."
"Shouting at them is one way of doing it," Dimitri replied. "But I do remember, when you were my captain, you led far better the other way."
Vincent wheeled in his saddle. He knew the old man was right. Something was giving way inside— he had somehow lost the gentleness that had once been there in such abundance. He had lost it pumping rounds into a tortured figure on a cross, and loving the sense of power it gave him. God help me, he thought, will I ever get it back?
Or is there even a God to hear me?
He said nothing, riding on in silence with Dimitri lost in thought riding by his side.
Barely acknowledging the salutes of the various units that he rode past, he seemed to be floating in another world, a dark world of fire and war, his crisp uniform a mantle for this new embodiment of Mars.
From out of the west gate of the city a cavalcade of horsemen emerged, riding hard. In the van Dimitri immediately recognized Marcus. The standard of the patrician consul, an eagle on a field of purple, fluttered behind him.
Vincent reined in his mount, a twitch of excitement trembling across his cheek—something that Dimitri had noticed was becoming increasingly common.
Marcus, his features grim, pulled up beside Vincent.
"It's started—ten umens reported so far, moving towards the center of the Potomac front."
"God damn," Vincent mumbled, edging his horse around to look back to where the brigade was again practicing a wheel.
"Another three months before we're ready, and I'm stuck out here."
"The front to the south of us?" Vincent asked quietly.
"Still the same, nothing."
Vincent nodded almost imperceptibly.
"They'll come straight on. They've got those damn airships and we don't. They'll know what we're up to, and we won't know a goddamn thing.
"Damn them!" He slapped his thigh with a balled fist.
Marcus shook his head.
"We stay here, get ready, and wait as planned."
Vincent said nothing, but cursed inwardly. He had not wanted this assignment, but Andrew and Kal had forced it on him anyway. At least Tanya and the three children were safe here, six hundred miles from the front. No, he had not wanted this at all. Whatever was left of his soul had warned him against it, had counseled him to ask to be relieved of command, to work for his father-in-law at a desk job and contribute that way.
But that counsel was barely listened to, and everyday he had stared at the body on the cross, the body he had so joyfully killed. Everyday now he rode across this drill field, shaping his corps. He was a major general in command, of the same rank as the men he had once read about in Harpers' Weekly: Hancock, Sedjwick, Pap Thomas of Chickamauga, little Phil Sheridan. He smiled inwardly, knowing that he had even taken on some of Sheridan's outward trappings. Gates' Weekly Illustrated had run a woodcut picture of him on its front page when his promotion had been announced, and he had taken a secret delight in the image, right down to the Sheridan-like beard. And he knew he had taken on something else as well: the unrelenting desire to unleash a killing machine against the Merki.
And now the action was starting, and he was stuck six hundred miles away. He looked back to the west, as if he could somehow hear the guns.
"We'll be in it soon enough," he whispered.
Dimitri felt an inward shudder at his commander's voice, for it was the whisper of a lover eager for an embrace with death.
Jubadi Qar Qarth reined his mount in, turning in the saddle to look back at Hulagar.
The shield-bearer of the Merki Qar Qarth could but nod in agreement, for in spite of what his tu might direct, the ka spirit of the warrior could not help but be stirred.
Seen from atop the pass, the vast plains rolling northward were lit by the afternoon sun, the knee-high grass rich with the full bloom of spring. But it was not the beauty of the steppe that held him.
Moving in vast squares of black, ten regiments of a thousand each, the disciplined ranks of the Baki Hush Umen moved forward, debouching out of the high pass of the mountains, rolling forward like an unstoppable wave. Grinning with delight, Jubadi tossed the long-seeing tube over to Hulagar. Uncapping the bronze covers, Hulagar extended the tube to its full length. It felt almost toylike, but then, after all, it had been fashioned by the Yankee cattle, captured the previous fall, and presented to the Qar Qarth as a present.
Holding it to his eye, Hulagar scanned the vast plain. A block of a thousand had spread out to the right flank, extending out the skirmish line to cover the front of a dozen miles over to the next pass. Far to the right flank, barely visible on the horizon, were yet two more umens, and he knew that beyond them were yet two more clearing the pass right down to the sea.
Seven full umens advancing across a front of sixty miles—and that was but a fraction of their power. With joyful shouts a battery of guns came rumbling past, their crews lashing the horses as they crested over the final rise. Hulagar looked at them appraisingly. The carriages were roughly made, far heavier than ones fashioned by the cattle, but then, he tried to reason, we have limitless horses and they do not.
Far out forward, like bloated beetles hovering on the breeze, the airships floated, riding forward of the advance, scouting into the cattle lines, looking for any threat of surprise. At first he had not believed the machines would prove of any use, but now he knew differently. They had become the eyes of eagles, and their crews had even decorated them as such, painting winged outlines on the bottom of the gas bags and large eyes at the front. Even now thousands of cattle were laboring just beyond the other side of the hills to build new sheds for the air weapons.
Scanning to the left, the steppe rolled on undisturbed, except for a loose open order of skirmishers, riding like tiny dots across the sea of green. Lowering the telescope, he passed the instrument over to Vuka, who grunted with excitement.
"One good push and we might even break through here!" the Zan Qarth announced, his teeth flashing in a grimace of pleasure.
"The last thing we want," Jubadi said softly. "And besides, they know we are coming here. This is the butt of the head; it is the horn that counts."
He pointed to the toppled watchtower atop the ridge, looking down on the pass, and then to the long line of poles that marched in an arrow-straight line due north back to the cattle position fifty miles away. The poles were bare of the precious wire, proof that they had had enough time in their retreat to bring the copper back. That device was still a mystery. He had hoped to capture one of the wire-talkers intact so that the pets who worked with Hinsen and the other Yankee crewmen from the Oqunquit, who had been left behind on the campaign of last year, might decipher its secret.
Thirty-odd Yankee and Suzdal sailors and their families were still back in Cartha. Some of them had proven resistant to helping out, but after witnessing a moon feast most of them had proven willing enough. For cattle they lived in luxury: the best of foods, women of their choosing, all that they might wish for. The cattle sailors under the one called Jamie had been far more wily, disappearing after they had delivered the Yankee machine that rides on iron rails. They were of no account, and could be hunted down once this war was over.
Perhaps for Hinsen, and those who worked with him, he would even honor his promise to spare them if they continued to help in the making of weapons. At least the one called Hinsen had proven invaluable, giving them the secret of the flaming air that made the ships rise to the sky. He was a good pet.
Vuka, his mount restless, edged over to Hulagar and motioned for the far-seeing tube, which Hulagar handed over.
"When the time comes for our full weight, only then will we attack," Jubadi said, looking back at his son. "Remember that. If your enemy is fixed in one place then prepare your trap well, do it with cunning, and strike with the weight of a mountain and not before."
Vuka reluctantly lowered the tube to look over at his father.
Jubadi pointed off to the west.
"Our riders will take the passes from this side, leading the Yankees to believe the strength of our blow is coming through here and that the left is of no importance. They will cut the observation posts in these hills off from behind, preventing him from seeing what is moving on the other side. Forward from here he'll see the standards of twenty-five umens, when in fact there are only eight. Only then will we attack where we want, for now we must keep them busy; our right wing will be more than enough for that.
"We are not needed here. The Yankees were not so foolish to offer resistance in the mountains, as I had hoped. Now let us go to where it will be decided." Nudging his mount into a canter, Jubadi Qar Qarth turned and rode down out of the high hills, moving toward the northwest behind his advancing cloud of skirmishers.
"Remember what Bobbie Lee once said?"
Andrew lowered his field glasses and looked over at Hans, who was leaning against the side of the high watchtower, chewing meditatively on a plug of tobacco and keeping his hands busy by whittling with a pen knife on a frayed stick.
"It's good war is so terrible, else we would grow too fond of it," Hans replied quietly.
Andrew sighed, passing the glasses over to Hans and readjusting his spectacles, which he had pushed up onto his forehead.
"Funny, he was saying it about us when we went in at Fredericksburg. It must of been a grand sight for him."
"He wasn't stuck where we were. I remember it as
"Hell," Hans replied, taking the glasses and adjusting the focus. He then scanned the vast columns moving down toward the opposite bank of the Potomac.
The Merki maneuvered with a cold precision that filled him with admiration, coming forward in a vast checkerboard pattern, blocks of a hundred by ten deep, all mounted, each block riding horses of the same color, the umens screened a mile forward by skirmishers riding in open order.
Behind the columns of warriors, limbered batteries, spread out in open order, came inexorably forward.
"Once more into the breach," Andrew whispered.
He leaned over the side of the tower and looked down at the ground nearly a hundred feet below. For as far as he could see to either side, the entrenchments, earthen forts, and redoubts were lined with men, shouting excitedly and pointing out across the broad open river.
The telegraph key behind him started to clatter and he turned to watch as the boy copied the information down, tore off the sheet, and handed it over.
"From Barney down on the coast. Reports standards of four umens."
Hans grunted an acknowledgment and continued to scan the enemy line.
"But still nothing from the right," he said. "We've had them in sight since dawn and the left wing of their advance ends right here, less than halfway up our line. But their skirmishers are moving down the entire length of the Shenandoahs, screening straight back to the west."
"And?" Andrew queried.
"It's too pat. You know that as well as I do."
"Hans, it's over fifty miles of open prairie between here and the Shenandoah Hills. You can't hide a damn thing on them. We've counted fifteen umen standards so far, so it looks like it's coming straight in here."
"Could be an advance in echelon, refusing their left. I just wish I had one of them damned air machines," Hans snapped, nodding to where two Merki ships were ranging far behind to the rear of their position, and staying up high enough to keep out of the range of ground fire.
Andrew said nothing. Shading his eyes, he looked back out toward the enemy line.
"Getting across the river is going to be hell," Andrew said. "We've got thirty guns trained on this ford."
"They're coming straight in at our strongest point, and they know it."
Andrew watched the vast wave as it continued its advance. Suddenly the slow steady advance of the vast checkerboard formation quickened to a trot.
"By Jesus, I think they're going to charge!" O'Donald hissed, puffing hard. He had stuck his head up through the hatchway onto the platform, and was slowly climbing up to join them.
Andrew looked back over at Pat.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
"Came down to check on a reserve battery moving up," Pat said sheepishly, realizing that his excuse for coming up to the front was a slim one at best.
Andrew gave him a sharp look of angry reproach, then looked back at the Merki line.
"One damn hit on this tower and our entire command is gone," he said coldly.
A puff of smoke from across the river interrupted his thoughts. Long seconds passed until a faint concussion washed over the river. A geyser of water shot up in the middle of the turbulent water, and the shot skipped lazily on, slamming into the high mud bank.
Gunners in the battery down below looked up at Andrew expectantly.
"Let's get back down. I think the show is about to start."
This was the part he hated, but there was really no other way around the situation. Going to the side of the platform, he stepped into a small wooden cage. He then waved to the men below, who unhitched the rope from its stays and, running it through a windlass, quickly lowered Andrew back down to the ground. At the same time Hans and Pat made their way down the ladder. It was a convenience Mina had rigged up for Andrew, but he still felt rather foolish being hoisted up and down the watchtower like a sack of grain.
Running over to the side of the earthen battlement, he climbed up onto the top of the rampart and raised his field glasses. They were less than a mile away now, the undulating wall of horse warriors coming forward at a steady pace, horsetail standards to the fore, a strong skirmish line riding in advance a half-mile ahead. An advance line of scouts, who sat motionless on the far bank of the river a quarter-mile away, suddenly stirred to action, leaping up to stand atop their saddles, half a dozen of them raising red standards up high and waving them.
"They're marking the position of the ford," Andrew announced, unable to keep the admiration out of his voice at this display of cold professionalism.
The column of warriors started to shift so that three regiments of the checkerboard formation closed the space between them, presenting a front three hundred riders across.
Andrew could sense that all eyes were upon him. He looked over at the brigade commander in charge of the redoubts facing the ford and nodded without comment.
Within seconds the high clarion call of dozens of bugles cut the air. All along the earthen ramparts riflemen sprang to their positions, resting the barrels of their weapons along the wall. Gun commanders stepped behind their pieces, sighting them yet one more time, though they had practiced here for months in anticipation of this first moment.
Distant horns echoed and a faint drumming could now be heard, like the rumble of an approaching storm on the summer horizon. The line of skirmishers hit the opposite bank of the river, sliding down the muddy slope, their mounts neighing and kicking as they splashed into the still icy river.
"Hold your fire!"
The command echoed up and down the line. The men are following the drill so far, Andrew thought—no sense wasting good shot on a couple of hundred of the enemy when in another minute thousands would be in range.
The skirmishers pressed into the river across a broad front, those beyond the limits of the ford quickly sinking and turning their mounts about to struggle back to shore. The skirmishers within the half-mile front of the ford pressed in, raising red Hag-tipped lances up high, marking the path of the advance.
"Damn aerosteamers!" O'Donald announced, and Andrew turned to look over his shoulder to where O'Donald was pointing.
Three of the ships were coming down out of the north.
"Observation," Hans replied, not even bothering to turn back. "See our defenses in action."
The thunder was growing louder, washing across the river in waves. He could easily pick out individual riders now with his field glasses, and the sight of them sent a chill down his spine. The riders sat tall, bows in hand, burnished helmets glistening, human skull standards marking the lines. The commanders rode forward with scimitars raised, flickering in the red light of the afternoon sun. It was like the old time again, and suddenly Andrew's knees started to feel weak. God, it was starting all over again.
The first rank hit the edge of the river bank and went over the side, funneling in between the red pennant markers.
A scattering of shots echoed along the line, and angrily Andrew looked up as a sergeant ran along the battlement cursing at the top of his lungs. But the discipline held: The men waited, the few who had fired looking sheepishly about while they furtively reloaded.
The first line surged into the water, followed seconds later by another and yet another. Like small boats plowing into a sea the horses breasted the waters, churning the river into foam, slowing in their advance and yet still pushing on.
"Coming straight damn in!" O'Donald chuckled, rubbing his hands with glee. Stepping away from Andrew, he went over to the nearest gun and shouldered the sergeant aside. He grabbed the lanyard and leaned over for a second to check the aim. Satisfied, he stood back up.
The advance reached into mid-river, the water rising up over the stirrups of the riders, who silently urged their mounts on. An eerie silence settled over the field, neither side giving voice, the only sound the neighing and splashing of the horses.
A dozen ranks were now in the water, well over several thousand riders, and still they surged onward. The mounts were starting to rise back out of the river, some in water only as deep as their forehocks.
Andrew suddenly realized that he had been holding his breath, unable to exhale, the tension building to the exploding point.
The brigade commander leaped atop the rampart and raised his arm up, holding an oversized pistol to the heavens.
The first horse reached the opposite bank not fifty yards below them, struggling to gain a footing on the greasy slope.
A dull thump snapped through the air and the brigade commander leaped back down, the flare shell rising up over the ford.
Across a front a quarter mile long it seemed as if the very earth had exploded, as twenty-five hundred rifles and thirty field pieces fired almost simultaneously.
The river lifted up in a blinding spray of foam. Screaming horses rose heavenward, bodies tumbled over, ranks disintegrated as the hailstorm of iron and lead slashed into flesh and bone.
In an instant the muddy river took on a pinkish hue, the slaughtered shrieking in pain, the rumble of the shattering volley echoing across the river.
There was a strange moment of near silence along the line, as all paused to look at what they had accomplished by the simple pulling of a trigger, the yanking of a lanyard. Excited commands suddenly echoed out, and the clattering of thousands of ramrods slamming charges home rattled along the breastworks, as officers and noncoms excitedly urged the men on. Gun crews leaped to their pieces, swabbed out the bores, and pulled the sponges out. Loaders stepped up with powder charges and double tins of canister. There was the metallic clang of the rounds being shoved home, the sight of rammers leaping aside, the sound of gun commanders shouting for the crews to stand clear.
Individual shots started to ring out in a staccato punctuation. The best-trained fired first, followed seconds later by the growing roar of hundreds of weapons discharging nearly simultaneously.
O'Donald, shouting a joyful curse, yelled for his crew to stand clear, and with an emphatic pull jerked the lanyard of the Napoleon, sending a spray of nearly two hundred canister balls into the disintegrating ranks.
"Cease fire," Andrew said quietly, looking over at the brigade commander who nodded in agreement. The command was picked up and echoed down the line by bugle call. A desultory fire continued for a brief interval, O'Donald getting off one of the last shots after raising the elevation of his piece to spray the far bank with canister.
As the smoke lifted, a wild cheer rose up from the line. The ford was jammed with bodies, already spreading out, tumbling over in the current, and floating downstream in a swirl of muddy water and blood.
"Hundreds, we must of killed hundreds of the filthy buggers!" Pat exulted, coming back to stand by Andrew's side. The far bank was swarming with the survivors, who struggled out of the water, dragging their wounded with them.
"Why cease fire now?" Pat asked. "It's still canister range out there."
"Save the ammunition," Hans replied. "Save it for when we'll really need it."
"Hell, we smashed the bastards up right good!" O'Donald shouted, and his cheery cries were echoed by the thousands who lined the tops of the ramparts, as they shouted their defiant taunts at the enemy.
A distant whistling cut through the air and, looking up, Andrew saw a black dot dropping away from the belly of one of the aerosteamers, followed seconds later by two more dropped from the other ships.
The concussion of an explosion washed over the line. Looking to his right, Andrew saw three snaps of flame rising heavenward a couple of hundred yards away. The second bomb hit closer, tearing out a section of battlement and lifting a gun into the air. The third seemed to hover straight overhead, growing larger, its ugly scream rising in pitch, to pass over the fortress and explode along the muddy bank of the river, sending a torrent of mud erupting half a hundred feet into the air. The Merki aerosteamers turned about to run back to the south.
"Damn pains in the bloody ass," O'Donald sniffed. "It ain't a decent way of fighting."
Andrew turned and looked over at Hans, who had not even bothered to watch the bombing. His attention was still fixed on the other side of the river.
"They know damn well better than to have done that. The Tugars did it at the Battle of the Ford, and we choked the river with their bodies."
Andrew nodded in agreement. If anything, they had just proven this position to be completely unassailable. Not a single rider who had come within fifty yards of the north shore had lived to tell of the experience.
The riders on the opposite bank were drawing back, some shaking their fists in anger at the taunting jeers that still echoed along the line. All along the broad southern plain the advancing lines had halted just beyond the range of artillery, the riders sitting motionless. The sheer mass of numbers was stunning to behold as rank after rank drew up, standards marking formations, a vast pale of dust rolling across the plains.
Andrew nodded to Hans and Pat, then turned away and climbed down off the rampart. Waving his aides and staff aside, he stalked across the narrow confines of the earthen fort and out the sally port to the rear. Crossing the killing ground between the main line and the reserve position, he followed the trail through the series of entanglements until he'd gained the sally port into the next line. There the reserve troops who were standing atop the wall to watch the action cheered him as he approached.
Lost in thought, he barely acknowledged the shouts as he crossed through the second line to the log huts that served as his headquarters complex. Reaching the log cabin that served as his field headquarters, he went inside, his two friends following. He motioned for the telegrapher and other staff people to leave, then shut the door behind them.
"Of course we'll proclaim it a great victory, but it was the most asinine thing I've seen!" he snarled, collapsing into a chair.
Hans, going over to a side cabinet and pulling it open, produced a bottle of vodka and several glasses. Andrew waved him off, but Pat, grinning and ignoring Andrew's warning gaze, took the offered drink.
"Now, don't be doctorin' me, Andrew darlin'," Pat sniffed. "The hole in the belly is long since healed."
He grimaced slightly as the first shot went down, and then a cheery smile lit his eyes. Hans, after pouring a second drink for himself, sat down on the table opposite Andrew's chair.
"Now will you believe me?" Hans asked, his tired eyes fixed on Andrew.
"Fifteen umens, maybe twenty-five positioned here," Andrew replied.
"Leaving maybe twenty-five elsewheres."
"No sign of them on the right flank," Pat interjected. "This is as far up as they've come."
"And their pickets are pushing up the north slope of the Shenandoahs right now. By tomorrow night they'll be a hundred miles to the northwest, far beyond our flank.
"We still have a watch post hidden in the woods all the way out to the right," Andrew replied. "If they come that way you'll have more than a day's warning. We can shift our reserve divisions up to you in under six hours."
Hans was silent.
Andrew sat back and looked at Hans with a weary smile.
"I have three corps, forty-five thousand men, to cover over a hundred miles of front. You've got a full corps on your end already, Hans. If trouble brews on your side, we can move Pat's corps over your way."
Pat looked up from his drink.
"That'll strip the capital naked," Pat said quietly. "I thought we'd decided to keep that reserve in case of the worst."
"It might be the worst," Hans replied. "But damn it, Andrew, you know better than that. Always reinforce victory, but never commit a single man to a defeat. If we lose the right flank, by Gott don't send Pat up. You'll need his men to hold the Neiper."
"So you want me to leave one corps, fifteen thousand men, to cover nearly a hundred miles of front, and put two corps on the far right?"
"You could have repulsed that last attack with five hundred men—one regiment, not an entire brigade. What they did was just a demonstration; they knew they couldn't get across, but they wanted us to think that they damn well intend to try."
Andrew sat in silence, staring at his old mentor's drawn features.
There just wasn't enough; nowhere was there enough. He had found a damn near impregnabl position—at least as long as the river was up until the beginning of summer—but the line was so damn long he simply didn't have enough to cover it all. Something in his guts was telling him that Hans was right, to risk it all and put his strength on the right. He had half a dozen ironclads holding the river's mouth, so there was no possible way for the Merki to bring up boats to ferry their warriors across.
Yet he still had to picket the long stretches of front that extended for miles, for to leave them entirely naked was to court disaster. All the Merki needed to do was to get several hundred to swim across at night against an unguarded point, and within hours they could open a breech, throwing a pontoon bridge across to secure the position.
He had calculated and recalculated this problem for months. They had to hold here, or enemy artillery would be lining the Neiper.
"It stands," Andrew said quietly, looking straight into Hans's eyes. He suddenly felt a cold chill, as if somehow he had set off down a path from which there could no longer be any retreat.
Hans forced a smile.
"It's a tough decision either way, son," he said softly.
"Is it the right one?" Andrew whispered.
Hans cocked his head slightly, a frown crossing his features.
"And what did I tell you when you were the young captain?"
"Not so young anymore," Andrew reminded him.
"Make your decision and then live by it," Hans said, the hint of a fatherly tone in his voice.
"You made the best one you could. If it had been me instead of you, I might have made the same."
He hesitated for a moment, then poured another drink. Hans looked over at Pat, who in an uncharacteristic display of abstinence put his hand over his glass.
Hans shrugged good-naturedly and tossed the shot down. Standing, he went over to the corner of the room and hoisted up his Sharps carbine, which in spite of his general's rank was still his weapon of choice.
"I best be going back up the line to my position."
A flurry of shots echoed up from outside, then just as quickly died away.
"Never forget it, Andrew Lawrence Keane. Win or lose this one, but never doubt that you can command. Even if we should lose out here, if af terwards you ever doubt yourself, then, Mein Gott, you and everyone that follows you will die. I'd never forgive you for that when we meet in the next world."
Andrew came to his feet, suddenly filled with the desire to embrace his old friend, but he decided against such an outward show of emotion.
There was so much that he wanted to say, but a look from Hans stilled his voice. Nothing needed to be said; nearly eight years of serving together had taught each the finest nuances of the other, the slightest gesture conveying far more than words could ever gather and express.
"Take care, Hans."
"I'll see you after it's all over," Hans said. He turned in the doorway and started out.
"After it's over, you old Dutchman, the drinks are on me!" Pat shouted, his voice a bit too loud.
Hans looked back, a thin smile lighting his graying features. He shot a stream of tobacco juice against the side of the cabin.
"You'll do well, son," he said, his voice barely heard, and then he was gone.
* * *
Groaning, Andrew opened his eyes. A young orderly stood over his bed, holding a kerosene lamp in one hand.
"What is it?" Instantly he was awake, sitting up from his cot.
"Barney wants you, sir."
"You better come see, sir," the boy said, a touch of nervousness in his voice.
Standing up, he tugged at his rumpled uniform, motioning for the orderly to help him on with an overcoat.
The cabin was chilly, the fire in the stove having flickered down. A couple of the staff officers were sitting at the long map table, heads resting on their arms and snoring lightly.
Andrew went over and nudged one with his boot.
The boy stirred, then with a muffled curse sat straight up.
"Sorry, sir, dozed off."
"Obviously," Andrew said quietly.
Andrew looked over at the clock in the far corner of the room. Just before five; dawn in an hour and a half. The line should be standing, too, in another half-hour.
Going out of the cabin, he looked about. Shaduka was near to setting, its face casting a dull red glare along the battlements.
"At his command post," the orderly replied, pointing the way.
The early air was sharp, mingled with the scent of an army encampment: the usual smells of sweat, horses, badly cooked food, human waste, raw earth. The scent of home, Andrew thought.
The ground was damp with dew. Overhead the Great Wheel stood out dramatically in the high western sky, its fainter stars washed out by the moon but dramatic nevertheless.
Gaining the sally port he entered the fort, crossing the narrow parade ground and climbing the steps up to the battlement. Barney was leaning against the wall, but came to attention at Andrew's approach. Pat, who had yet to return to Suzdal, looked over at Andrew and nodded.
"Sorry to bother you, sir," Barney said nervously, "but I wanted you to hear this."
Andrew wanted to comment that the man could have called his division commander first, and then from there their old sergeant, Barry, who was now a corps commander, and so on up the chain of command, but he stopped himself from going into a petulant rage. Sometimes chains of command were a certain path to disaster.
"What is it?" Andrew asked, pulling the high collar of his jacket up to keep out the chill.
"Barney's right, Andrew," Pat said. "Just listen for a moment."
Andrew cocked his head, leaning over the battlement, the men around him hushed.
There was a faint, steady rumbling, the sound of hammering, and a murmur of voices, barely audible above the rippling tumble of the river as it flowed over the rocky ford.
"It started around midnight, sir. There've been several shots and once we heard a scream; it sounded human, sir. It's been giving me and the boys quite a stir all night."
Andrew looked over to the east. The sky was starting to modulate into the first indigo hues of dawn, but it was still deep night.
"Have the men stand to."
Within seconds the call to arms had sounded down the length of the line and echoed off into the distance. It was impossible to hear the noise from the other bank anymore, as men, grumbling and shouting, came to their posts to join the forces that had been tensely manning the line since midnight. He had been told that Merki tradition, like Tugar, was to abstain from night action, but the Tugars had finally broken that custom with near disastrous results in the Battle before the Pass.
The minutes seemed to drag out. An orderly came up with a hot mug of tea and a slab of cheese-coated bread. Andrew sipped the scalding brew leaning against the rampart, watching as the faint light started to rise like a curtain. The second moon rose to the southeast, its crescent now a couple of days from new.
The middle of the river was in hazy view. Wisps of fog drifted down with the current, the banks shrouded with hovering mists. The far bank was still shadowy, but it was obvious that somehow it had changed. Dim forms were visible, moving in and out of the mists. He raised his field glasses but the light was still too dim, the fog blocking the view.
Cursing quietly, he drained off the rest of the mug and motioned for the orderly to bring another cup for Barney and himself.
The sky to the east continued to brighten, turning scarlet. A lone nargas sounded from the far bank, followed seconds later by a rising thunder of drums and horns. Shadowy forms stirred, and then a low, bone-chilling howl echoed from the southern shore. A dissonant chant, rising and falling, the words indistinguishable but ever growing in volume.
"Prayer to the sun?" Andrew speculated. The professor in him was suddenly curious. Mohammedans prayed at dawn—was it the same here?
The chant continued to rise and fall, reaching a crescendo that coincided with a thin shaft of red light slicing across the steppe as the dull red orb of the sun broke the horizon.
The fog took on the appearance of pink foamy candy, obscuring the far bank, swirling and shifting. The full disk of the sun was at last above the horizon, its heat already radiating.
"A warm day coming up," Barney said.
"It'll burn this fog off quick."
Andrew trained his glasses back on the opposite shore. The fog shifted for a moment. Hundreds were on the far shore, indistinct forms shifting.
"People?" Barney whispered.
Andrew looked over at him.
"Your eyes are better than mine," Andrew replied, never quite sure if he saw better with his spectacles on or off when he was using a telescope or the field glasses.
"I think they're people," Barney said coldly.
The command from a high-voiced sergeant pulled Andrew's attention around.
Half a dozen men and women came splashing out of the mist, wading thigh-deep into the ford, waving their arms, their distant cries barely heard.
"What the hell?" Barney whispered.
The six continued into the river, running with the terrible, nightmarish slow motion of those wading through water. Andrew grabbed the field glasses back.
The water sprayed up around them, followed a couple of seconds later by the rattle of musketry. Four of them pitched over, thrashing and kicking. Andrew watched through his glasses, their features barely distinguishable, but he could sense the terror in their faces.
Another one tripped over, a long shaft sticking out of her back, and then the last went down, barely a quarter of the way into the river. Several Merki emerged from the mist, racing into the water and grabbing the nearest bodies.
A flurry of musket fire ripped down the line, the water around the three Merki splashing from rounds striking. One of the Merki spun around, grabbing its shoulder, and a defiant cheer rose up from the Rus. Two others continued in, scooping up the four bodies, one of which still struggled weakly.
"Breakfast," Pat said angrily.
The two retreated into the thinning mist, dragging their victims. Men continued to fire, and in annoyance Andrew looked back down the line as officers shouted for the men to save ammunition.
"It's starting to lift," an orderly whispered, his voice taut with excitement.
As if a curtain were being pulled back from a stage, the fog swirled into thinning wisps of smoke. Andrew felt his stomach tighten, and with clenched jaw he stood in silence. A growing murmur of curses rose up around him.
On the far bank, across the entire width of the ford, a heavy line of breastworks had gone up during the night, and in the ever-brightening light hundreds of shovels and picks could be seen, flicking up over the side of the earthen walls for a second, dirt flying and then disappearing again.
Yet that was not the sight that disturbed him. They could dig all they wanted to on the other side—it really wouldn't make any difference, unless it was the Rus who wished to attack.
"The bloody bastards," Barney snarled, and Andrew nodded in silent agreement.
A broad mole, the beginning of an earthen dam, was already stretching out into the river, the ends of it protected by a heavy wooden wall, which even as he watched was pushed forward another couple of feet. The mole was aswarm with workers, hundreds of them, carrying wicker baskets on their shoulders. When they reached the end of the mole they dumped the rocks and dirt over the top of the barricade and then returned.
The workers were human—Carthas.
Sickened, Andrew looked at the men around him who were gazing at him, awaiting his pronouncement.
He called for a telescope, then waited as an aide brought one up. He extended the instrument and laid it down on the rampart wall, then crouched down for a better view than the field glasses could provide. Along the embankment dozens of Merki guards stood, bows and muskets poised, with half a dozen field pieces trained on the ever-growing dam, ready to pick off anyone who hesitated. Even as he watched a man threw his basket aside and leaped into the river at a run. He had barely made it into the water before he tumbled over. Guards appeared from behind heavy wooden barricades spaced along the mole, cracking whips, driving their chattel back to their task.
Raising the telescope slightly, he saw a long serpentine line of men and women stretching up over the embankment, weaving their way out to a low hill, a fair portion of which had already been carved out. They swarmed like thousands of ants.
"How far out would you say it is?" Andrew asked, not taking his eye from the telescope.
"A good thirty yards or more," Barney said quietly.
"Further up the river, sir," an aide said. Turning the telescope, Andrew pointed the instrument to the spot where the officer had pointed.
A couple of hundred yards above the ford another embankment had gone up along the bank of the river. Behind it Andrew could barely make out what appeared to be a long boom of logs, as well as several roughly made boats, each one with several boulders inside.
He stood back up and leaned against the parapet, trying to gather his thoughts.
"You say you first heard something around midnight?"
"It's two hundred and fifty yards across," Andrew said. "Thirty yards in six hours—maybe eight."
"They could get halfway across by tomorrow morning."
"The tighter they squeeze the river, the faster the current," Pat interjected. "They'll hit a point where as fast as they dump it in, it'll just get swept away."
"That's what the log booms and boats are for," Andrew said, pointing further up the river.
"Christ, it must of taken a hell of a lot of work to drag them things right over the mountains and down here."
"They've got the manpower," Barney said coldly.
"Get the mole out as far as it'll go, then push all of that into the river. Sink the boats across the rest of the opening, and create a logjam behind it."
"They'll be able to cross right downstream, getting below our heavy belt of fortifications," Barney said nervously. "If the dam holds for a couple of days, the entire front right down to the sea will be unmasked."
"God damn it!" Andrew snapped, picking his field glasses back up for another look.
"A simple plan, except for one thing," Pat said quietly.
Andrew lowered his glasses and looked over at the artillery man.
"You'll have to kill them."
Pat reached into his pocket and pulled out a plug of tobacco, then proffered it.
Nodding, Andrew bit off a small chew, the biting sting of the chew setting his already rapid heartbeat to racing.
He raised his glasses again to look back at the mole and the endless, bedraggled chain of slaves working upon it.
"They're Cartha," Andrew said. "They're prisoners of those devils."
"They're working for the enemy," Pat replied. "It's us or them, now."
Andrew looked at Barney, who stood expectantly, his features pale.
"Order the batteries to open fire; first round canister, then switch to case and solid."
The gunners standing alongside their weapons looked over at Andrew.
"Do it!" Andrew shouted. "If we don't, the Merki will be in our lines!"
The battery officers stepped up to their pieces and shouted commands with quavering voices.
The first gun kicked back. Andrew raised his glasses. The water before the mole sprayed into a foam. More guns started in. Bodies started to collapse, and the sound of high, piercing screams rent the air.
Panic broke out along the mole, the prisoners dropping their baskets and turning to run.
A snap of fire erupted from the battlement along the far bank, sweeping down dozens who were now caught between two fires.
"God damn their black souls!" Pat cried, pounding the rampart with clenched fists.
Bodies carpeted the mole. Andrew watched in silence, praying that it was finished, but in his heart he knew it was not. Merki appeared from behind their protective barriers, their arms working up and down, whips lashing out. The panic subsided and gradually the work resumed, the tortured victims running down the length of the mole, dropping the contents of their baskets and then running back. A burst of several shells bracketed the mole, tumbling a knot of men over and sending a lone Merki down. There was a moment of hesitation and then another Merki appeared, cracking his whip, driving the prisoners back to their task.
But those who had emptied their baskets and started to run back to shelter were not yet done with. A Merki appeared, then crouched low against the shelling and pointed back. The prisoners stopped and, reaching down, began to pick up the fallen bodies, dragging them back. Yet more dropped, and yet more appeared. A life for a single basket of rock and dirt.
Along the enemy rampart human bodies now started to appear—Merki standing up for a moment to hold up corpses, waving them tauntingly. One held a limp form up, while another sliced out with his scimitar, hacking an arm free and waving it aloft.
"The bloody bastards!" Pat snarled. "We're giving them their rations!"
Unable to contain his rage, Pat grabbed a rifle from a soldier nearby, shouldered the weapon, drew careful aim, and fired. The Merki with the arm suddenly ducked down.
"My eye isn't as good as it used to be."
Andrew turned away from the methodical carnage and looked over at Barney.
"Pass the word down. Batteries to keep up a slow, deliberate fire; it'll slow them down. Detail out some of our best sharpshooters and have them go for the guards. Otherwise, no one else is to shoot."
"What about night?" Barney asked.
"We can rig up the guns with marker sticks, so they can be aimed in the dark," Pat replied. "By the time they get halfway out the range will be nearly point blank for canister, and it'll be hell out there."
Tossing the telescope to an aide, Andrew turned away from the battlement and stalked back to his headquarters.
"Gently . . . That's it, a bit more to the left now!"
Trembling with excitement, Chuck Ferguson stepped back from the shed, watching intently as the crew, hanging on to the side cables, walked the aer-osteamer out of its hanger. The engineers' cabin, a simple wicker-basket affair, was strapped underneath and riding on a wheeled carriage.
Already he could see one major error in his plans. In the future he'd have to figure out a way to make the sheds rest on a giant turntable, so the hanger could be turned directly into the wind. There was only the slightest of breezes this morning, but it was enough to force the crew to struggle to keep the precious silken sides from scraping, and possibly tearing on the side of the hanger.
The midsection of the aerosteamer emerged, with Jack walking anxiously alongside the engineers' cabin and Feyodor behind him, making sure the propeller didn't touch the ground. As the tail end of the balloon emerged, Chuck motioned for the crew to let it windmill around. The tail porpoised for a moment, then stabilized.
For the first time, he now had the chance to look at the entire aerosteamer by the light of day. He stepped back. The lines appeared symmetrical, but it was hard to tell for sure. The frame seemed taut enough, but figuring stresses on it was somewhat beyond him. He hated to admit it, but this project was definitely going to be trial and error. The only problem was, an error would most likely prove to be fatal for whoever was aboard.
"All right, Feyodor, crank her up!"
The mechanic waved an acknowledgment, and leaning over into the small boiler he lit the pilot light. Everyone held their breath as the Suzdalian struck a match, even though Jack had assured the crew that since hydrogen was lighter than air, if there were any leaks the gas would go straight up and not down.
Chuck waited patiently for the boiler to heat up, stepping around to the side to check the middle bag, which would soon be filled with hot air. The silk sides hung loose, and then ever so imperceptibly started to flutter and grow taut, stretching out from the frame.
"It's starting to get lighter!" Jack shouted.
Chuck looked once more to the high watchtower. The pennant atop it was barely fluttering. When Chuck had caught the watchman's attention, the man waved down that all was clear, not a Merki ship anywhere in sight.
Turning, Chuck ran up to Jack's side.
Jack grinned and stepped over to the wooden frame that held the engine. Mounting directly behind the wicker engineers' chairs, he grabbed hold of the side and pushed down. Releasing his hand, the aer-ostemer floated back up again.
"The balance is working out perfectly. It's just starting to get positive buoyancy. Just another couple of minutes, and we're ready."
Chuck looked into Jack's eyes.
Jack tried to force a smile.
"So scared I'm glad I shit first before coming out here," he whispered in English.
"Let's just check the controls one more time," Chuck announced. Going over to the chief engineer's chair, he climbed in, and the aerosteamer sank back down on the wheels beneath the engine. Grabbing hold of a wooden lever with his right hand, he pushed it to the left and right, then looked over his shoulder to watch the rudder action. With his right hand he pulled another lever back and forth, then nodded in approval.
"The up-and-down rudder, left-and-right, are just fine. Now get in here, Jack."
Petracci climbed into the forward seat, while Chuck climbed into the one facing aft, toward the engine. Feyodor eyed him suspiciously.
"Just running through things one more time," Chuck said cheerfully. He reached over and checked to see that the fuel was full on, then grabbed hold of the throttle and cranked it down two notches. Ever so slowly the cylinders started to crank over, helped along at first by a quick push to the flywheel.
Still leaning out of his open chair, Chuck looked straight up to where the exhaust stack rose up into the bag overhead. There was a good four feet of clearance around the stack, and he could see the wavy shimmer of heat soaring upward. Pulling down on a heavy red cord he saw blue sky appear directly overhead on the top side of the bag, and yanking down on the black rope with his other hand the aperture closed.
"All set!" Chuck announced.
Jack leaned out of his chair and looked down to the ground just a couple of feet below.
"We're starting to get lift."
"Feyodor, give me that bottle of vodka."
The mechanic reached into his tunic and pulled the bottle out, passing it up.
Leaning out of the cab, Chuck swung it down against the bottom frame of the engine.
"I christen thee the Flying Cloudl" he roared, laughing with delight at having named his creation after a McKay clipper ship.
"Now cast off fore and aft! Jack, give her full up-rudder!"
"Colonel Ferguson, it's against orders!" Feyodor shouted.
"Hang the goddamn orders, I'm taking her up!"
Before Feyodor could stop him, he pulled the throttle wide open.
The gently turning blades shifted in seconds into a blur, the clearing echoing with their hum, which was counterpointed by the excited shouts of the crew. The hundreds of men and women who had worked months for this moment cheered wildly as the nose of the Flying Cloud started to pitch up.
The first seconds were pure exhilaration, but they quickly turned into pure terror as Chuck realized that the aerosteamer, though rising at the nose from the thrust of the engine, was at the same time dropping at the tail.
"Down rudder, Jack!"
Petracci, looking over his shoulder, his eyes wide with fear, slammed the rudder forward. A shudder passed through the ship and the nose started to come back down, the tail rising heavenward. At the same time the ship was gaining forward speed, moving across the narrow clearing hacked into the forest.
"God damn it, I'm the aerosteamer engineer!" Jack shouted, "I know what the hell I'm doing!"
The nose reached the horizontal position and started to pitch down again, while at the same time the ship started to turn. Jack pulled the up-rudder back, but for long seconds the nose continued its forward pitch. Finally it slowed, hesitated, and then started back up, the only thing saving them being the fact that the ship was rising up vertically from the hot air, and was now almost twenty feet off the ground.
"It takes time to react!" Chuck shouted, trying to be heard above the roar of the engine and propeller. "Push it down again before you want it to level out."
Jack nodded, even as the ship continued its swing around the clearing, and started to aim straight back toward the fifty-foot-high hanger. "Shit!"
The nose of the aerosteamer continued to climb, pointing higher and yet higher into the air, and Chuck suddenly realized he had forgotten something else. If he ever got back he'd have to install belts for the chairs, to keep from falling out. Letting go of the throttle he hung onto the side of the wicker chair, looking over his shoulder at the rapidly approaching hanger. The ship continued to climb, propeller humming, the crowd below now silent, looking up gap-mouthed as the aerosteamer seemed to skim straight up the pitched roof of the building and then continue on into the sky. A wild cheer erupted.
The high, towering trees beyond started to drop downward, and still they climbed, the nose seemingly pointing straight up. Ever so gradually, Jack eased the up-rudder forward so that the tail rose up and the nose dropped back down. The clearing fell astern.
Jack looked back over his shoulder at Chuck, who was staring at him, unable to speak.
"Just took a little getting used to," he said, his eyes still wide with terror.
Chuck reached into his jacket, pulled out a small flask, and passed it over.
Jack took a long pull and smiled weakly.
"You know I hate ballooning," he whispered.
"Well, you're the only poor bastard on our side that knows how," Chuck replied, trying to keep the shaking out of his voice.
He took the flask back and drained off the rest of the vodka, then settled back for a moment to let the racing of his heart drop away. And for the first time he looked around.
It was wondrous.
Already he could see as far as Hispania, and a toylike train crossing the Sangros River beyond it. The air was crisp and sharp, and the red sun hung just above the eastern horizon. The dividing line between the steppe and the forest marched off to either side, the fur-clad hills giving way to the vast sweep of open grasslands, the low folds of ground still buried in deep shadows.
A distant cry came up from below, and looking straight down Chuck saw the powder mill, hundreds of workers pouring out, pointing up excitedly, shouting with joy that at last their side was in the air as well.
"How high?" Chuck shouted.
"Five, maybe six hundred feet."
"Keep pointing her north into the wind."
Jack nodded, gingerly working the controls. The ship continued to porpoise and swing from side to side for some minutes, until Jack gradually learned that the slightest correction would get him where he wanted to go.
Working the red-and-black rope, Chuck kept an
eye on the ground, gauging the rate of rise and fall, while Jack kept the nose steady on the horizon.
"We got two ways of climbing and dropping!" Chuck shouted. "I think we can beat those bastards to hell, in that category at least."
The engine continued to chatter along, though all the time he had an eye on it. They had once run it for six hours straight without a hitch, but if it should fail now he wondered if they could stay aloft long enough to drift out over the steppe before landing.
The air was decidedly cooler, made even more so by the steady rush of wind around them. Yet another thing he had not planned for, and as he started to shiver he cursed himself for being so shortsighted.
A slight buffet ran through the ship, and Chuck felt his stomach tighten.
"Wind's picking up slightly," Jack announced, and Chuck could see a slightly green look on the face of his engineer.
"Feeling all right?"
Jack swallowed hard but said nothing.
"Well, maybe we ought to swing back in."
A visible look of relief crossed Jack's features, and with significantly more skill than he had displayed only a half hour before he maneuvered the ship into a gentle turn.
"We're way too high!" Jack shouted. "Maybe two thousand feet or more."
Amazed, Chuck spared the time for another look around.
It was godlike. On the southern horizon he could see the shimmering band of the inland sea, over seventy miles away, and far out over the steppe the distant smudge of two engines pulling their long trains westward. A vast flock of birds, heading north with the advancing spring, winged by, making the wide diversion around the lumbering creature that had risen to join them. Chuck laughed with childlike delight.
"A little more drop!" Jack shouted.
Berating himself for having lost sight of his task, Chuck pulled the red cord full open, leaning out of his chair to look straight up into the hot air bag and the hole of blue at the top.
The nose started to drop slightly, and with power still on Jack eased the ship into a dive, the wind picking up. Chuck looked back over Jack's shoulder and saw the clearing, which at first seemed impossibly small for such a big ship to land in, swarming with antlike creatures.
"I think we're going down a little too fast!" Chuck shouted, and before Jack could even respond he'd pulled the vent shut. But the ship continued to drop.
Jack started to ease the nose back up, yet the downward drop continued. With growing panic, Chuck realized that he must have spilled out nearly all the hot air left, and it would take several long minutes for it to build back up again.
"Bring it up!"
The ship continued to drop, even as the nose rose high and yet higher.
Chuck leaned out of his chair to peer over Jack's shoulder.
His friend's hands were white-knuckled on the controls, in a death grip, and his eyes were wide with fear.
The nose continued to rise, reaching horizontal and then pitching upward. The edge of the forest raced up, shooting past the nose. Chuck felt as if his heart were about to burst as he looked aft and saw the high-tipped trees spearing upward, then brushing astern by not half a dozen feet.
The ground continued to come up, and the nose continued to climb. The tail settled, and then with a lurch the ship slowed, the propeller pointing skyward, the hot air bulging the bag back out. Ever so gently the tail continued downward, coming to hover not half a dozen feet off the ground, crews racing to grab hold of the dangling tow lines.
"Kill the engine!" Jack shouted.
Chuck reached over and slammed the throttle shut even as Jack pushed the up-rudder forward. With tail now restrained by several dozen men, the nose started to come ever so slowly down. Dangling cables hanging from the sides of the ship were snagged, and with a barely perceptible bump the aerosteamer settled back to the ground.
"I think we need a little practice," Chuck whispered.
"It was nothing," Jack replied, stepping down from the ship to admiring cheers from the workers. He looked around with a weak smile, acknowledging their admiration, then promptly leaned forward and vomited.
Legs rubbery, Chuck climbed out of his chair and looked a bit sheepishly at Feyodor, who stood in silent rage at having been cheated out of the maiden flight.
"Mass production of aerosteamers, and training of engineers, starts today," Chuck announced.
Even as the crowd cheered Chuck felt his knees go weak, and he sank down to the ground.
He had done it, he had flown like a bird, and the trembling passed. Looking up at the ship, he silently analyzed what they had done right, and even more importantly what they had done wrong.
Let the heat control altitude, the propeller speed. Hover up till clear, slowly drop back down to land. It was that simple.
He looked over at Feyodor and smiled.
"Go get a couple of leather belts."
Feyodor looked at him coldly.
"Damn it all, man, go get the belts! I don't want you falling out of your chair! We're going back up in ten minutes."
A grin of delight creased Feyodor's face and he raced off.
Jack looked over at him weakly.
"Get your legs back, Jack. I'll be back in a half hour and then it's your turn again."
"I should have kept my mouth shut about hydrogen," Jack groaned. "No one would have been the wiser, and I'd be safe on the ground."
"Hell, you're the master aero-engineer," Chuck retorted. "If Andrew was to hear I flew he'd skin me alive, so you'd better get used to it. You'll be in battle with these soon enough. You're the lucky one."
Jack tried to force a weak smile, but he knew that he was certainly not cut out to be a hero of the air.
It had almost been too easy. They had waited in the forest for nearly a month, having long since abandoned their mounts, moving stealthily through the woods, finding the places where the wire ran as they had been told they would by those who rode in the sky.
Once the wire had been found, all that was needed was to wait until a cloud-flyer passed overhead flying a blue pennant, and that would be the signal to move at night.
They surprised the small outpost with almost shocking ease. The slaughter had been sharp and quick, the meal afterward a welcome reward after endless days of living without fire on tedious and dull rations of curded milk and dried flesh.
The clicking machine chattered into life without warning, and the Tuger turned, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and motioned for the wide-eyed cap-live to do his task.
"I have learned the clicking words too," the Tugar growled in barely understandable Rus. "Answer wrongly, and you'll end like this." Laughing gruffly, he held up the broiled leg of a cattle.
The wide-eyed prisoner, captured at the Kennebec station in last year's war, nodded weakly. There had been a time when he thought he might resist, that in a brief flash of signal he might send the warning, telling the army that the watch station on the far right flank was in enemy hands. Now he could only look blankly into the leering grin of the Tugar, his hands trembling.
He tapped out the signal for "all clear," and with a heart knotted in anguish he leaned back, sobbing softly while the Tugars around him laughed.
"Fist seemed strange."
The messenger looked over at the telegrapher, stilling a yawn.
"Didn't seem like Eugene."
"It's late, Stanislav, he's tired," the messenger said, stirring and pulling the pot of tea off the stove, motioning to ask whether the operator wanted his cup refilled.
Stanislav held his tin cup out, and with his drink refilled he leaned back in his chair.
"Seemed like someone else."
"Can't remember now," Stanislav said, blowing on the edge of the cup to cool it down.
"Think you should signal back?"
Stanislav sat for a moment, looking at the dark rafters of the ceiling, listening to the gentle ticking of the clock.
"Care for some honey in your tea?"
Stanislav looked over at the messenger, who was reaching into his haversack and producing a small earthen jar.
"Haven't had any in months."
The boy poured some into Stanislav's tea, and the telegrapher smiled his thanks.
He put his feet up on the desk as he sipped his tea, then drowsily listened to the ticking of the clock Ever so gradually he nodded into sleep.
In the early morning light Tamuka rode up to the encampment, marked by a flickering fire. Cresting a small rise, he looked back to the west. For as far as the eye could see the steppe was covered with the vast column—twenty-five umens, a quarter of a million warriors, the advance a half-mile wide and over twenty miles deep, the thunder of their passage like a storm as they splashed through the shallows of a broad, low stream.
Vuka, grinning with enthusiasm, leaped from his saddle, going up to join his father, who was leaning against a tree, watching the host in its passage.
Tamuka, bowing his acknowledgment, went over to join Hulagar.
"Going well?" Tamuka asked, taking off his helmet to run his hands through his mane.
"The raid hit as planned. It appears that we got this far undetected."
"They've surprised us before," Tamuka said cautiously.
"I think though we Just might have them this time," the shield-bearer of the Qar Qarth replied. "Their river defense is well built up to where the river forks. They built along the branch that turns north. They only have watch posts out on this branch a day's ride further out."
Tamuka nodded and reached around to his hip, where he found and uncorked a water bottle. Ho took a long swallow, wiping his lips with the back of his sleeve.
"The Vushka Hush?"
Tamuka looked over to where Jubadi sat, squatting on the ground over a map laid out before him.
Tamuka gave thanks inwardly that Jubadi had not agreed to the Zan Qarth's request to go with the Vushka. The Vushka, accompanied by a regiment of Tugars, had ridden more than two hundred miles farther to the west, departing ten days before the main column. Leaving their mounts, they had entered the forest four days ago, following a trail in the wilderness that had been blazed out in secret during the winter. It was an undignified act for one of the blood to go into battle on foot and the eleven thousand warriors had marched at a killing pace. But once the flank had been turned, their mounts would be brought up.
Hulagar went over to join his Qar Qarth, Tamuka following. Jubadi looked up, nodding a greeting to Tamuka, and he felt himself breathe easier. They had not spoken since the moon feast, and this was the first sign that whatever displeasure had been felt had dissipated. Tamuka saw Muzta standing to one side, and the Qar Qarth of the Tugars motioned for him to come over.
"I hear your warriors did well," Tamuka said politely, after bowing low.
Muzta chuckled lowly.
"Of course. The great forest might be strange to you, but it is the northern border of our realm."
Tamuka nodded in agreement. He found the looming woods to be dark and disquieting, as if carrying a vague threat in their sinister stillness. They seemed to hem in the world, and he looked into them with displeasure.
"My path-chanters can tell you every hill, every river crossing, every mountain pass, across this entire world for an entire circling, but a quarter-mile into those woods is a mystery. It is only here, and at Kyhmer on the other side of the world, that we must ride into them to avoid the seas."
Muzta paused, looking out across the steppe. Three winters back he had ridden this same land, coming forward at the head of his umens, ready to sweep up the Rus in what he thought would be a war of not more than a day—a minor diversion or sport. Only Qubata had thought differently; and now Qubata was dead.
What a world of change! Shading his eyes against the morning sun, he looked eastward. On the far horizon he could barely discern the sausage-like blur of a cloud-flyer, hovering in the sky, marking the outer line of skirmishers, pushed far forward to mask the advance. A battery of six guns clattered past, their crews lashing the sweating mounts, with a fresh team trotting alongside, ready to be hooked in if a horse should collapse and be consigned to the master of food.
Two horses a day, to feed a regiment of a thousand. Now they were slaughtering their own mounts to keep the army alive, until the hoped for hordes of prisoners had been garnered in.
How it had all changed! He kept his features fixed, revealing nothing.
"Still thinking of doom?" Muzta asked quietly.
Tamuka looked over at the Tugar and said nothing.
A clattering tapped through the glade, and Tamuka turned to where a circle of Tugars stood next to a wire-talking machine. A cattle sat on th ground, looking around in wide-eyed terror.
One of the Tugars said something to Rus, prodding the cattle with his boot. The cattle looked over at Tamuka for a moment, and he could sense the hatred boiling up.
Their gaze locked but for a second, and then the cattle placed his hand on the machine, the key starting to click a message back.
An instant later the cattle's head was on the ground, its legs kicking spasmodically.
"He betrayed us!" a Tugar snarled. "He sent the word 'trap.'"
Jubadi looked up from the map.
"Can you fix it?" he snapped.
Hesitantly the Tugar knelt down by the body, placing his fist on the key. He tapped out a message and waited.
There was no response. He looked back at Jubadi nervously.
"They must know," he whispered.
Cursing, Jubadi came to his feet.
"We can't wait. Signal the Vushka to attack. We move!"
A signaler, standing next to Jubadi, rushed out of the glade, shouting orders. Within seconds a mounted warrior held up a high pole, atop which was a bright red flag a dozen feet square, slashed with a white strip. Several miles to the east another flag shot up, and beyond that another, and then yet another. The command of Qar Qarth was racing eastward through the forest, to where the Vushka, long-concealed, waited for their orders to go in.
"So what do you think?" Andrew asked.
The hooded form drew closer, the thin trace of a smile on his features.
"It is as I expected. Remember, I suggested this might be their method," Yuri replied.
Andrew nodded almost imperceptibly.
"It's good to be out in the open again," Yuri said, "to smell the wind of the steppe, the scent of the blooming Kargak."
Andrew looked at the man. Kargak must be a Merki word. He didn't ask. This man was as much Merki as he was human.
"What you call protection is for me hell," Yuri said.
Andrew did not reply. Yuri was an outcast from his own people. He had ridden with the Merki, and even though it had been as a captive, he had been one of them nevertheless. He was an eater of human flesh, an untouchable.
He struggled with his own revulsion. He liked to think that if he were a prisoner he would die rather than submit. But the spark of life was strong. He tried not to think of the possibility.
Two days after Yuri had returned someone tried to stab him. Since then he had lived comfortably out in the countryside, but guarded and confined.
And now Andrew needed him.
"The steppe—it's home now, isn't it?"
"Twenty years, Keane. I've ridden around the entire world. I have seen Barkth Nom, the roof of the world, snow-clad, lightning dancing between its peaks. I have seen the vast plains of the Ur, where one rides for twenty days and the world is as flat as if it were spread out upon a table.
"When the Horde crossed up over the hills of Constan I stood atop the highest peak, and as far as the eye could see I gazed upon them in their multitude. I have ridden in grass so high that it crested above my head—an ocean of green wavering in the breeze, dotted with the heads of a hundred thousand warriors. I have seen the twisting storms, the green flashes of sunset, the world encased in ice, and fields of Kargak so red that the world seemed to be a carpet of scarlet.
"I've seen more than you who live in one place can imagine. I have lived like a Merki."
"And you found it to your liking," Andrew said. I
Yuri smiled again.
"If not for certain requirements for survival, who could not love it? Keane, every day that you awake you know what you will see when you step out your door. Days into months into years, always the same. I have forgotten more than you will ever see."
"And you have seen the feasts."
Yuri looked straight into his eyes.
"Yes, I have seen the feasts."
Andrew looked into his eyes. What had they really seen? As usual, Yuri's expression was emotionless, and Andrew had a flash memory of the contraband, the runaway slaves coming through the lines. They had had that same expression. The blank stare, not showing emotion in the presence of a white man, a man who could control them. That is how this one survived as a pet, a slave. He had conquered all feelings, all hates, all loves, standing with blank eyes to the horrors, remembering instead only the moments that had struck some inner chord of his heart. Yet nearly all the contraband held a deep and abiding hatred for their masters. Nearly all. There were some who, in that strange perverse relationship of slave and master, had come to love their owners.
He looked closely at Yuri. Was he one of those, after twenty years still loyal to those who ate the flesh of his fellow humans? Was he a plant, as Hans and Kal believed? Or was he now some poor tor-merited soul, cursed by his sins to be outcast from both the worlds he had known?
"There are times when you loathe me," Yuri said with a smile.
Andrew did not reply.
"I understand. Most of the time I loathe myself as well."
Andrew looked away from him, back toward the enemy lines.
"Tell me what will happen," he finally said, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
"Do you see that standard, the red pole with the cross tree?"
"Almost like a cross," Andrew said, swinging his field glasses toward where Yuri pointed.
"It's the standard of the Qar Qarth Jubadi. Twenty horsetails hang from the pole, one for each of the sub-clans of the Merki Horde. That means he is there."
"Or at least, it means that he wants you to think he is there."
Andrew looked over at Yuri, noticing from the corner of his eye his own guidon-bearer, holding the standard of blue cloth with the eagle of a colonel's rank emblazoned on it. The standard hung limp, and he suddenly wondered if letting his own people know his position had been such a good idea after all.
"What can we expect next?"
"Even when he is fighting a losing war," Yuri said, "the craftiness of Jubadi is legendary amongst his people. When he is not present they affectionately call him 'Vag Oge,' 'the Wily Fox.' I told you how two years ago he trapped the elite umen of the Ban-tag and annihilated it."
"That's his style—he likes to be at the front. If it wasn't for his shield-bearer, he most likely would have been killed by now."
" 'Pak qar numradg,' is more the term."
"What is it?"
"The Merki are ruled by Jubadi, the Qarth of Qarths, or Qar Qarth, leader of the Qarths or clans. The shield-bearer, a curious combination. He is part bodyguard, thus he carries the bronze shield and rides by his side in battle. But he is also part shaman and part advisor. He is the only one capable of speaking to Jubadi without fear. If the Qar Qarth proves to be completely incompetent he can even remove him."
Yuri nodded. "Curious. So he is as powerful as the Qar Qarth—in a way, more powerful."
"Not exactly. They believe that the few who are shield-bearers are ruled by a different inner spirit, what they call the tu. It renders them incapable of being a true warrior."
"Because they are trained to think, to reason, to guide, and never to act directly, all their energy being devoted to the guidance of their Qarth."
"The intellectual advisor, thus unfit for war," Andrew said, chuckling softly.
"I wonder what they would think of a college professor of history running a war," he whispered in English.
He looked over at Yuri.
"Tell me what Jubadi will do."
"The unexpected. You see that already, with the use of those poor bastards out there." He pointed to the mole, which even as they spoke was being swept by fire from the first line of fortifications.
"They know that will shatter you, killing your own, that it might even crack your loose alliance with Hamilcar. They are forcing you to waste your ammunition, knowing that at the same time you're helping to slaughter their rations for them."
As if to add weight to his statement, a battery of four-pounders fired a salvo, and a second later the opposite bank seemed to explode in a shower of spray and mud as the canister rounds slammed in.
"As I've told you before, his favorite field maneuver is 'the horns.' Both flanks ride far out while the center butts into the enemy and holds them; then the horns close in."
"Hard to do here," Andrew said.
"Remember, though, that the Merki are bound by tradition. Their world, at least as they see it, is one of unchanging change. It is the everlasting ride to the sun. Behind them, the endless generations of the ancestors, as it was, and as it shall be. Tradition, and the symbols of that tradition, are all."
A shell fired from the opposite bank hummed overhead, tracing a slow, lazy arc at extreme range, detonating a hundred yards away. Yuri flinched, looking slightly embarrassed as Andrew remained still.
"Not used to it," Yuri said sheepishly.
"No one ever really is. You just learn when you really need to duck."
"A terrible way to make war."
"The only way to defeat them," Andrew replied sharply. "You were talking about tradition. To use artillery must stick in their throat."
"They hate it," Yuri said with a chuckle. "Last year they thought they'd just use humans for the dirty work. Now they have to soil their own hands, and it's degrading. War to them is the bow, the lance, the scimitar, fighting against those of equal caste. Honor is even more the goal of war than conquest. That was the hardest thing for them, to fight a war against cattle."
The way he said the word "cattle" bothered Andrew—he seemed almost to spit it out, as if it were distasteful.
"Jubadi would like to think that when you are defeated, he can smash the weapons, the same way they did against the Yor more than a hundred cir-clings ago."
"Their chant-singers tell of a small group, shaped not even like us or the Merki. Their weapons shot light that melted all who tried to stand against them. Thousands died killing the few, and when it was done the weapons were cast into the sea."
"Beyond Constan," Yuri said.
Andrew nodded and said nothing.
"Will they attack with their strength here?" he finally said.
"You are asking me to guess. I was just a pet. I know not their plans, and it has been months since I escaped."
"You know how they think. You're the only man who has ridden with them for a circling and come back to tell us."
He looked over intently at Yuri. What he had started to consider for this man he had yet to discuss. The idea had started to vaguely form from the moment they had first met. He suspected why Yuri was here, the game within the game. He let the thought drop, focusing on the more immediate concern.
"What will they do?"
"What you don't expect."
"The flank, like General Schuder said?"
"If they can build that mole, the river will drop for miles. They might come straight across anyhow."
He pointed to the aerosteamer hovering above the front, like a malevolent hawk watching its prey. Its nose was pointed into the northerly breeze, the twin eyes and beak painted on the front giving it a cold, evil look.
"With that, they know exactly where your troops are."
Andrew nodded, saying nothing but cursing inwardly that their own efforts were going so slowly. Yuri had told him the first night how they had raided an ancient burial vault of their ancestors and uncovered the strange machines that now powered the enemy ships. The Yor, the burial vaults . . . what else was hidden on those endless steppes?
"Where will they hit? 'Mus kala bugth Merki, org du pukark calingarn Bugghaal.' "
"Enlighten me," Andrew said.
" 'Like the wind is the passing of the Merki, the goddess of death will roam where they have been.' "
"You're saying we will lose," Andrew said coldly.
"Keane, no matter how well you've planned, they have planned as well, I can assure you. It might be here, it might be far to your right, but they will come. Remember as well that the Tugars ride with them."
"Strange, isn't it?" Andrew replied.
"Muzta is in Hell. Humiliated, his umens dead, dragged like a beggar before Jubadi and offered a crumb from the feasting table. But he has told them all. They have learned from his mistakes, and are ready."
Andrew raised his glasses and looked back toward
the south bank, where another long line of fresh prisoners was being run up to the mole, the first of them already dropping from the smattering of rifle fire.
"You're a small comfort," Andrew replied sadly, watching the relentless slaughter on the opposite shore.
"I didn't come here to be a comfort. You didn't send for me to fill that task."
Andrew looked over at him, as he spoke again.
"You suspect you might lose, don't you?"
Andrew didn't reply.
"I came to tell you how to win even in your defeat."
Hans cursed silently, struggling to control his temper.
"You mean you suspected something last night and did nothing?"
Stanislav nodded weakly.
"And then today this word 'trap' came through."
"There was something afterwards, but it was clumsy, a slow fist: 'Nothing to report.' But I'm positive it wasn't our regular operator."
Hans looked over at Kindred, commander of 3rd Corps.
"Reports of skirmishers skirting the woods fifteen miles west of here," Tim said. "Our mounted pickets have been pulling back since yesterday."
Hans pulled on his rough beard, his eyes squinting shut.
"Maybe a skirmish party of Merki found the position," Tim said.
"It was well hidden," Hans objected.
He had learned long years ago, out on the prairie against the Comanche, to trust his gut instincts.
"Send a telegram down to Colonel Keane. Inform him that I suspect a move to my right."
The humming of an airship rose in pitch, but he ignored it while Kindred went over to the doorway to look out.
"It's flying a red pennant with a white stripe," Kindred said quietly. "That wasn't there before."
Hans raced to the doorway, shouldering past Tim and out into the enclosed parade ground of the bastion.
"Kindred, sound the alert!"
Climbing up to the bastion wall, Hans looked straight up to the aerosteamer riding high several thousand feet above the ground, the pennant fluttering down from the cab.
There seemed to be a strange silence hanging in the air, and then from the north, like a distant storm, a rolling boom of thunder came drifting down.
Hans ran over to where his command train waited, its engine venting a slow plume of steam.
"Get me up to Bastion 110!" he shouted, his staff running behind him, climbing aboard as the engine started northward.
Andrew had to control his rage, his guilt. They were doomed anyhow, and perhaps this was the greater mercy. But it didn't help.