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Midst Toil and Tribulation: Chapter Eight
Last updated: Thursday, June 7, 2012 23:00 EDT
Year of God 896
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Old Charis,
Empire of Charis
“I hope they don’t get hammered too hard crossing The Anvil,” Cayleb Ahrmahk said somberly.
The Charisian Emperor stood looking out across Howell Bay from the tower window with one arm wrapped around his Empress. His right hand rested on the point of her hip, holding her close, and her head nestled against the side of his chest. Her eyes were as dark and somber as his, but she shook her head.
“They’re all experienced captains,” she said, watching the thicket of sails head away from the Tellesberg wharves. There were over sixty merchant galleons in that convoy, escorted by two full squadrons of war galleons and screened by a dozen of the Imperial Charisian Navy’s fleet, well armed schooners, and twenty-five more galleons from Erastor would join it as it passed through the Sea of Charis. It was the third convoy to sail from Tellesberg already — the sixth, overall, counting those which had sailed from Emerald and Tarot, as well — and it was unlikely they were going to be able to assemble yet another in time to be much help. Besides, there simply weren’t enough foodstuffs in storage in Charis, Emerald, or Tarot to fill another convoy’s holds. It was a miracle they’d found as much as they had; counting this convoy, they’d sent well over five hundred galleons, carrying a hundred and forty thousand tons of food and over a quarter million tons of fodder and animal feed. It was, frankly, an almost inconceivable effort for a technology limited to sail power and small, wooden-hulled vessels, but it still hadn’t been enough, for there’d been a limit to how much preserved and fresh food was available. Indeed, prices in the three huge islands had skyrocketed as the Crown and Church poured every mark they could into buying up every scrap of available food and sent it off to starving Siddarmark. The cost had been staggering, but they’d paid it without even wincing, for they had no choice. Not when she, Cayleb, and their allies could actually see the hundreds of thousands of people starving in northern Siddarmark.
“They’re all experienced,” she repeated. “They know what the weather’s like this time of year. And your sailing instructions made it clear they were to assume the worst.”
“There’s a difference between knowing ‘what the weather’s like’ and knowing you’re headed directly into one of the worst gales in the last twenty years.” Cayleb’s voice was as grim as his expression. “I’ll lay you whatever odds you ask that we’re going to lose at least some of those ships, Sharley.”
“I think you may be being overly pessimistic,” a voice said over the transparent plug each of them wore in one ear. “I understand why, but let’s not borrow any guilt until it’s actually time to feel it, Cayleb.”
“I should’ve delayed their sailing. Just three or four days — maybe a full five-day. Just long enough for The Anvil to clear.”
“And explain it how, Cayleb?” Sharleyan asked softly. “We can track weather fronts — do you want to explain to anyone else how we manage that? And without some sort of explanation, how could we justify delaying that food when everyone in the Empire — this side of Chisholm, anyway — knows how desperately it’s needed?”
“For that matter, Cayleb,” Merlin Athrawes said over the com plugs, “it is desperately needed. I hate to say it, but any lives we lose to wind and weather are going to be enormously outweighed by the lives we save from starvation. And” — his deep voice turned gentle — “are the lives of Charisian seamen worth more than the lives of starving Siddarmarkian children? Especially when some of the children in question are Charisians themselves? You may be Emperor, but you’re not God. Do you have the right to order them not to sail? Not to risk their lives? What do you think the crews of those galleons would’ve said if you’d asked them whether they wanted to sail, even if they’d known they were going to encounter the worst storm The Anvil has to offer, knowing how badly the food they’re carrying is needed at the other end? Human beings have faced far worse dangers for far worse reasons.”
“But they didn’t get to choose. They –”
Cayleb cut himself off and waved his left hand in an abrupt chopping gesture. Sharleyan sighed and turned to press her face against his tunic, wrapping both of her own arms around him, and they stood that way for several seconds. Then it was his turn to inhale deeply and turn resolutely away from the window and those slowly shrinking rectangles and pyramids of canvas.
The turn brought him face-to-face with a tall silver-haired man, with a magnificent beard and large, sinewy hands, wearing an orange-trimmed white cassock. The dovetailed ribbon at the back of his priest’s cap was also orange, and a ruby ring of office glittered on his left hand.
“I notice you didn’t have anything to say about my little moodiness,” the emperor told him, and he smiled faintly.
“I’ve known you since you were a boy, Cayleb,” Archbishop Maikel Staynair replied. “Unlike Sharley and Merlin, I learned long ago that the only way to deal with these self-flagellating humors of yours is to wait you out. Eventually even you figure out you’re being harder on yourself than you would’ve been on anyone else and we can get on to more profitable uses of our time.”
“You always have such a compassionate and supportive way of dealing with me in my hour of need, Your Eminence,” Cayleb said sardonically, and Staynair chuckled.
“Would you really prefer for me to get all weepy-eyed instead of kicking you — respectfully, of course — in the arse?”
“It would at least have the virtue of novelty,” Cayleb replied, his tone dry, and the archbishop chuckled again. Then he cocked one eyebrow at the imperial couple and gestured at the small conference table set under one of the skylights set into the tower chamber’s sloping roof.
“I suppose so,” Cayleb sighed, and escorted Sharleyan across to it. He pulled out her chair for her, then waited until Staynair had seated himself before taking his own place.
“It’ll be nice when you get home, Merlin. I can’t throttle you properly when you’re so far away,” he remarked to the empty air as he sat, and it was Merlin’s turn to chuckle.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he promised, “and you can throttle away to your heart’s content. Or try to, anyway. And the trip’s been worth it. We’re never going to get over the hole Mahndrayn’s left, but Captain Rahzwail’s turning out to be pretty impressive himself. Even more impressive than I’d expected, really. In fact, I wouldn’t be too surprised if he turns out to be a candidate for the inner circle in the not too distant.”
“Rushing it a bit, aren’t you?” Cayleb asked quizzically, and Merlin — perched like a cross legged tailor atop one of King’s Harbor Citadel’s crenellations — shrugged.
“I didn’t suggest telling him tomorrow, Cayleb,” he pointed out mildly. “I’m simply saying I think he has the . . . resiliency and flexibility to take it in stride. And given his new post, it would certainly be useful.”
“Not as useful as telling Ahlfryd would be.” Sharleyan’s voice was unwontedly sharp, and Cayleb looked at her. “I understand all the reasons for not telling him,” the empress went on in that same edged tone, “but we’ve told others who even the Brethren agreed were greater risks than he’d ever be, and there’s not a more trustworthy man in the entire Empire!”
“Besides which, he’s your friend,” Staynair said gently. Her head whipped around, anger flickering in her eyes, but Staynair met them with his normal calm, unflurried gaze.
“That has nothing to do with my estimate of how useful it would be to have him fully integrated into the inner circle, Maikel,” she said, her tone flat.
“No, but it has quite a bit to do with how guilty you feel for not having told him.” Staynair gave his head a slight shake. “And how disloyal you feel for not having managed to convince the Brethren to trust him with the information.”
The empress’ eyes bored hotly into his for another handful of seconds before they fell. She looked down at her own slender, shapely hands, so tightly folded on the table before her that their knuckles had whitened, and the archbishop reached out to lay one of his own far larger hands atop them.
“I understand, Sharley,” he told her softly. “But don’t forget, Bryahn was his friend, too, and it was Bryahn who recommended against telling him. And you know why, too, don’t you?”
Sharleyan never looked up, but, after a moment, she nodded ever so slightly, and Staynair smiled sadly at the crown of her head.
Sir Ahlfryd Hyndryk, Baron Seamount, was quite possibly the most brilliant Charisian naval officer of his generation, and he’d become one of Sharleyan’s favorite people during her original visit to Charis. In fact, virtually every one in the slowly growing circle of Charisians who knew the truth about the Terran Federation and the monumental lie which underlay the entire Church of God Awaiting knew him and held him in deep affection, although he was closer to Sharleyan than to anyone except, perhaps, Staynair’s brother, Domynyk. No member of the inner circle questioned his loyalty or his intelligence. But Bryahn Lock Island had been right to fear his integrity . . . and his outrage.
In another time and another place, Ahlfryd Hyndryk would have been called a geek, and he had all of that breed’s impatience with subterfuge and dissimulation. Sheer love of knowledge and impatience to rebuild the technology the Proscriptions of Jwo-jeng had denied to Safehold so long would have been bad enough, driving him to press the limits of what was being introduced, perhaps too hard and too fast. But his wrath at the way the entire population of the last surviving world of humanity had been lied to, been robbed of the stars themselves, would have been even worse. Lock Island had feared that the combination of impatience and fury — and the awareness of how desperately Charis needed every advantage it could find — would have pushed their brilliant, adaptive problem solver into too openly challenging the Proscriptions, defying the doctrine of the Church of God Awaiting, even denouncing the Church itself as the monstrous lie it was. And if that happened in the midst of the Charisian Empire’s war against the Group of Four . . . .
Merlin gazed out over the blue water of King’s Harbor, at the swarm of ships covering the surface, the hive of activity, so much of which had resulted directly from Seamount’s fertile imagination and compulsive energy, and his sapphire eyes were cold. They dared not risk revealing the truth about the Archangels, the Church, Langhorne’s Rakurai and Armageddon Reef. Not yet. Not when such revelations would play directly into the Group of Four’s denunciation of them all as lying, blasphemous servants of corruption. And so, if it had turned out Seamount was a threat to the secret they all guarded, that threat would have to be removed . . . permanently.
“I swear to you, Sharleyan,” he said now over the com, softly, “the instant I’m certain it would be safe to tell him, I will.” He smiled crookedly. “It won’t be the first time I’ve, ah, overridden the Brethren, if you’ll recall. And if I do it and it turns out I was wrong about the safety factor, I’ll drag him off to Nimue’s Cave and pop him into one of the cryo units until it is safe to turn him loose again.” He watched through the SNARC remote perched on the ceiling above the conference table as the empress looked up with a sudden, astounded smile, and he chuckled softly. “I don’t have room for many people,” he told her, “but Ahlfryd’s one of the special ones. If we end up telling him and it turns out we shouldn’t have, he deserves space in the cave. Besides, that way we’ll know he’s still going to be around when we’re able to begin rebuilding our tech base openly!”
“I hadn’t thought of that.” Cayleb sounded more than a bit chagrined.
“Well, you didn’t exactly grow up with technology, now did you?” Merlin shrugged. “On the other hand, I’d really hate to do that, because he’s so damned useful where he is. You do realize he’s come up with more original departures, even without access to Owl, than Ehdwyrd?”
“Fair’s fair, Merlin,” Staynair pointed out. “Ehdwyrd’s deliberately picking his spots carefully — and giving someone else credit for them whenever he can.”
“Oh, I know that, Maikel. I’m just saying Ahlfryd’s a mighty impressive fellow to’ve come up with so many ideas, and inspired so many of his assistants — like Mahndrayn — to come up with ideas of their own. He’s taken even the ones I’ve ‘steered’ him into and run with them, generally to places I didn’t expect him to get to without at least another few nudges. The truth is, Bryahn was right about that, too. He’s doing exactly what we need done even without Owl, and he’s teaching an entire generation of Navy officers and the civilians working with them to use their brains, push the envelope, and explore the possibilities.”
“So now that we’ve all made me feel better,” Sharleyan said in a tart tone much closer to normal, “perhaps we should go ahead and deal with the original agenda for our little get together?”
“As always, your wish is our command, love.” Cayleb smiled at her across the table, and she kicked him gently in the knee under it.
“Such a brutal, physically abusive sort,” he mourned, and she stuck out her tongue.
“However,” he continued more briskly, “you have a point. Especially since the rest of you have also made me feel better — sort of, anyway — about sailing the convoy despite the weather. So, Maikel. Your impressions?”
“I think . . . I think Stohnar is going to make it through the winter,” Staynair said slowly, his expression far more somber. “For several five-days I was afraid he wasn’t, especially when the Temple Loyalists in Mountaincross tried to push through the Sylmahn Gap.” He shook his head. “It didn’t seem possible he could stop them.”
“He wouldn’t have without ‘Aivah.’” Merlin’s own expression was as grim as his voice. “Those extra rifles — and the men trained to use them — are what made the difference. That and the food we were able to ship in.”
“The food he didn’t know was coming,” Sharleyan said softly. “I think he’s aged ten years since this started.”
“Probably,” Merlin acknowledged. “And I think he’s going to be a long time forgiving himself for some of the calls he’s made, but thank God for that military background of his. Without it, he wouldn’t‘ve made them, and in that case, Maikel’s right — the Temple Loyalists would’ve come through the Gap into Old Province.”
Heads nodded around the table. Greyghor Stohnar had recognized the absolute necessity of keeping his enemies locked up behind the Moon Thorn and Snow Barren Mountains at any cost. If the Group of Four’s adherents had broken out of Mountaincross Province, they would have opened a direct invasion pathway from the Temple Lands into the most densely populated province of the entire Republic . . . and to its capital. He’d had to hold that mountain barrier, and so he had . . . even at the expense of sending desperately needed food from the starving families of Siddar City to the troops fighting in the snow and freezing cold of the Sylmahn Gap.
Eastern Siddarmark was far more densely populated than its western provinces, and the southeastern provinces were even more heavily populated than the more northern ones, thank God. Still, there were well over seventy million people in the portion of the Republic which remained under his control, and the timing of Clyntahn’s uprising — and its deliberate attacks on food supplies and the transport system — had been catastrophic. Westmark, Tarikah, New Northland, northern Hildermoss, western Mountaincross, and the South March were major centers of the Republic’s agricultural production, and all of them had been taken by the rebels or were (at best) disputed battlefields where no one was worrying much about farming. Crop-burning rebels had done major damage to the harvests in Southguard, Trokhanos, Cliffpeak, and Northland, as well, before they’d been subdued in those provinces. The lord protector had lost over a third of the Republic’s best cropland and twenty-five or thirty percent of its normal winter food supply, and the disruption of the revolt had sent enormous numbers of refugees streaming into areas which wouldn’t have been able to feed even themselves adequately. Starvation and disease — disease brought on by the breakdown of sanitation in the refugee camps, despite the Book of Pasquale‘s stern injunctions, and the weakened resistance of human beings getting perhaps half the calories they actually needed — had stalked the Republic like demons, and that was the background against which he’d had to choose whether or not to reinforce and supply the field army driving into eastern Mountaincross, slogging ahead through snow and ice to reach the outnumbered, starving troops somehow clinging to the crucial mountain gap.
It was a decision he’d had to make long before any response to his frantic pleas for help could possibly come back from Tellesberg. He’d had no idea how soon — or even if — the first relief convoy from Charis could reach him, yet he’d made it anyway, sending every man he could spare, and the precious food to feed them, under his own first cousin’s command And Sharleyan was right: it had aged him overnight. It had engraved deep lines into his face, streaked his dark hair with thick swathes of iron gray, and turned his cheek bones hard and gaunt. Not by itself, but in conjunction with all the other decisions he’d had to make and the knowledge of what was happening to the Republic’s citizens where he couldn’t reach them at all, couldn’t do one single thing about the privation and terror being visited upon them.
Greyghor Stohnar was a strong man, but he’d sat in his pew in Siddar Cathedral with his face buried in his hands, shoulders heaving, as he listened to the joyously tolling bells and wept in gratitude when that first convoy sailed into Bedard Bay. The schooner sent ahead to tell him it was coming, delayed by The Anvil’s quixotic headwinds, had arrived less than twelve hours before the convoy itself, and the Charisian seamen aboard those galleons had labored until they collapsed, unloading sack after sack of Charisian and Emeraldian rice and yams and corn, Tarotisian potatoes, carrots, and apples. Swaying cask after cask of preserved fish, pork, beef, and dragon out of their ships’ holds and into the lighters alongside or the wagons waiting in endless lines along Siddar City’s wharves. Lightering ashore the milk cows sent to replace those which had been slaughtered in desperation as the fodder ran out and the people starved, and the fodder to keep at least some of the surviving farm animals alive.
Foods like rice and yams were virtually unknown in the Republic, but mothers with pinched, gaunt faces had stood for hours in biting wind and cold, soaking rain to take home a few pounds of the exotic Charisian foods which would make the difference between their children’s lives and deaths. And as any galleon was emptied, it turned, setting sail back towards Charis, more often than not with a cargo of orphans or the sick to be delivered to Charisian orphanages, hospitals, and monasteries.
It was the largest relief effort in Safehold’s history, tying up almost a quarter of the empire’s total merchant fleet. The repercussions of that on trade and military logistics scarcely bore thinking upon, yet it had sent enough food to feed over a million and a half people at least a thousand calories a day and keep almost a half million desperately needed farm animals alive for three months. Three months in which Charis, Tarot, and Emerald would double the land they had under cultivation and labor gangs throughout eastern Siddarmark would put seed into the ground anywhere it wasn’t too frozen to plow.
Too many had died anyway, and more would die still, but Siddar City wasn’t the only place Charisian convoys had landed their life-saving supplies. Trokhanos Province, Malitar, Windmoor, Rollings . . . Charisian ships had been everywhere, landing lifesaving supplies wherever they could find a few fathoms of seawater.
There were those who wondered how even monarchs as legendary for their foresight as Cayleb and Sharleyan Ahrmahk could have known to begin organizing that relief effort five-days before the first messenger from Siddarmark ever reached them. Most accepted Maikel Staynair’s explanation — totally honest, as far as it went — that Charisian agents had begun to suspect Clyntahn’s intentions well before the “Sword of Schueler” struck. For the diehard Temple Loyalists, there was a simpler more acceptable explanation, of course — one supplied and endorsed by the Inquisition. They’d long since decided that in addition to all the blasphemies and heresies the world knew about, Cayleb and Sharleyan had sold themselves to Shan-wei — Cayleb in return for his demon familiar Merlin Athrawes and the sorceress Sharleyan in return for the power to steal the hearts and minds of even the godliest men and seduce them into Shan-wei’s evil — so of course they could foresee the future, as well.
Frankly, there was more truth in that explanation (in Safeholdian terms, at least) than Merlin really cared for, but the vast majority of Siddarmarkians didn’t care how Cayleb and Sharleyan had known. No, what they cared about was that the House of Ahrmahk had begun assembling those convoys of food and medical supplies long before they’d been asked to, and that they’d sent them to the Republic with no strings attached. No demand for payment, for alliances. No political conditions or stipulations. The Empire and Church of Charis had simply sent everything it had the hulls to move, and that was why a strong man had sat in a cathedral and wept as his capital’s church bells rang out the news that even in a world gone mad, there was a realm and a church which simply sent what it had to those who needed it so desperately.
There was an edge of realpolitik to it, of course. No one in Charis could be blind to the gratitude and goodwill that relief effort had bought the Empire. Yet that truly hadn’t been the primary reason Cayleb and Sharleyan had mounted it. A highly desirable second wyvern to hit with the same stone, yes, but Merlin knew that food would have moved north across Safehold’s stormy seas even if they’d known no alliance, no treaties of mutual aid, would ever come of it.
Not that anyone was going to complain — assuming Staynair was right and Stohnar and the Republic survived the winter — over what had come of it.
“There’s no question in my mind that Stohnar’s going to agree to the draft treaty terms when they get to Dragoner,” he said now. “There’s not a thing in them that doesn’t track exactly with his own offer of alliance, and frankly, without us, he doesn’t have a chance of holding off the Group of Four.”
“Especially not with that army Rahnyld’s about to send over the border into the South March,” Cayleb said grimly. “Oh, and let’s not forget that ‘voluntary’ free passage for Desnairian troops Trynair’s about to extort out of Silkiah, either.”
“Agreed.” Merlin nodded, his eyes watching as a trio of war galleons made sail, standing slowly out of King’s Harbor into the broader, darker waters of Howell Bay for gunnery practice. “Clyntahn and Maigwair are at least smart enough to know they have to go for a quick knockout, before we can intervene effectively.”
“How long do you think?” Cayleb asked. “Another month?”
“Probably.” Merlin’s expression was thoughtful. “It might be a little longer — thank God Rahnyld’s army doesn’t have its own equivalent of Thirsk! They’re getting themselves organized faster than I could wish, though, even without that. Desnair’s going to be at least another four or five five-days behind that, unless they do go ahead and ferry a Desnairian invasion force across Salthar Bay to support the Dohlarans.”
“Not going to happen.” There was no doubt at all in Cayleb’s tone. “Rahnyld trusts Mahrys about as far as Clyntahn trusts me. Even if the Group of Four gives him a direct order to pass Mahrys through his kingdom, he’ll drag his heels harder than Sharley ever did when the ‘Knights of the Temple Lands’ ordered her to help Hektor burn Charis to the ground! He’ll argue — and with some justification, really — that he doesn’t have the bottoms to move that many men, or the logistic capability to support them all through Dohlar. And he’ll spin it out long enough that by the time he’s done, Mahrys will have his invasion route through Silkiah cleared, instead At which point, it’ll still take another month actually get any Desnarian troops into Siddarmark.”
It was possible Cayleb was being a bit overly optimistic, Merlin thought, but overall he agreed with the emperor’s analysis, and Sharleyan was nodding firmly.
“That’s good,” Staynair said. “Unfortunately, unless I’m mistaken, that still means Emperor Mahrys is likely to be invading the Republic before Duke Eastshare can get anywhere near enough of the Army into Siddarmark to stop him. And then there’s King Rahnyld, of course.”
“True,” Cayleb said in a harsher, darker tone. “That suggestion we send a message from Zhevons was a good one, Merlin. But even with Kynt to do the planning and prodding, the thought of marching an army through Raven’s Land to the Passage of Storms obviously doesn’t really appeal to Eastshare. And I’m not surprised it doesn’t, to be fair. Even if the Raven Lords decide to actively cooperate rather than harassing him every step of the way, any army he force-marches across those so-called roads is going to be more than a little ragged by the time it finally gets to Siddarmark. At which point, I might add, it’s going to be at the wrong end of the Republic to stop Dohlar or Desnair.”
“I know, but it would still get them there faster than we could move them the full distance by sea. This time at least. And every mile he marches them west is one less mile a transport will have to cross. Even if he only gets them as far as Marisahl before we can start getting transports to him, it’ll cut his arrival time a lot. And if he gets as far as, say, Malphyra Bay, we can cut the number of transports he needs in half because of the reduced turn around time for the round trip. Especially if he keeps on marching west with the second echelon of his army while the first one’s en route aboard ship. He can be in Marisahl forty days after he crosses The Fence, if he pushes hard, and in Malphyra in another twenty. And we wouldn’t have to send him across to Rollings Province once we got him aboard ship, you know. There’d be time to pick another destination if it seemed like a good idea.”
Cayleb grunted unhappily. The instinctive understanding of the huge logistical advantages conferred by oceanic transport was bred into the blood and bone of any Charisian monarch. The notion of sending an army or large amounts of freight overland instead of by sea was as foreign and unnatural to them as trying to breathe water, and all of those Ahrmahk instincts were insisting that it had to make far more sense to send any expeditionary force from Chisholm to Siddarmark aboard ship. They were persistent and clamorous, those instincts, and usually they would have been right. Unfortunately, the situation wasn’t exactly “usual.”
A well conditioned infantry army could make perhaps forty miles a day marching overland, assuming it didn’t have to stop for niggling little details like, oh, foraging for food or allowing its draft animals to graze. Of course, grazing in Chisholm or Raven’s Land in winter wouldn’t have been very practical, even if it wouldn’t have subtracted several hours a day from the army’s marching time. Since grazing wouldn’t be practical, an army with an overland supply route could count on adding its draft animals’ starvation to all of the other minor inconveniences it confronted. A transport galleon, on the other hand, under average conditions, could make between two hundred and three hundred miles a day, up to seven times the distance that army could cover on its own feet, and without losing the dragons and horses and mules its transport would depend upon once it reached its objective to starvation and sickness.
But Eastshare had very few transports available in Chisholm. In fact, he couldn’t have squeezed more than a very few thousand men aboard the ships he had, and he couldn’t put even that many of them aboard ship until he collected those ships in one spot. And that spot would have to be on the east coast of Chisholm, so even after he put the troops aboard, he’d still be over twelve thousand miles — and forty-seven days — from Siddar City.
He could probably commandeer a few more transports from Corisande, but not very many. Certainly not enough to make any real difference. The only place he could get the amounts of troop lift he required would be to request it from Old Charis, and even with the most favorable winds imaginable, it would take a dispatch vessel over a month to reach Tellesberg from Maikelberg. Even after it did, it would take Cayleb and Sharleyan several five-days just to divert ships from the Siddarmarkian relief efforts and get them gathered together. Given how dire conditions in the Republic were, they couldn’t possibly justify pulling galleons out of the relief convoys until they’d been officially asked for, since there was no way even monarchs with their reputation for foresight could know Eastshare was going to need them. And, on top of all that, it would take at least a month and a half — more probably two months — for those galleons to reach Chisholm once they’d been collected and ordered to sail.
Those unpalatable facts had left Eastshare and Green Valley with very few options for moving troops rapidly into Siddarmark, and it was the duke, not the baron, who’d come up with the most radical solution. Green Valley had been prepared to suggest it if necessary, but that hadn’t been necessary, which said some truly remarkable things about Eastshare’s mental flexibility.
He didn’t have the troop lift to move a worthwhile number of men, but he did have enough sealift to move quite a lot of supplies, especially food and fodder, and those two commodities were the Achilles heel of pre-industrial armies. An army which had to forage for food — and fodder — as it went (even assuming the season and agricultural productivity made that possible) did well to make ten miles a day, and it wreaked havoc on any civilian population in its path simply because it stripped the land bare as it went. But without that requirement, and with the ability to feed draft animals on grain and prepared fodder rather than requiring them to graze on grass, an army was limited only by the hours of daylight it had in which to march and the quality of the roads before it.
So Eastshare had sent off his dispatches to Tellesberg and begun concentrating the garrisons stationed throughout western Chisholm on Ahlysberg, the military city which had been built to support The Fence, the fortified frontier between the Western Crown Demesne and Raven’s Land. It was the westernmost of Chisholm’s true seaports, and its magazines and storehouses were well stocked with food, boots, winter clothing, and food. The galleons he’d been able to lay hands on in Cherayth and Port Royal were already loading additional food and supplies in Chisholm’s eastern ports; within no more than another five-day or so, they’d be setting sail for Ahlys Bay. And from there, theoretically, at least, they would be available to leapfrog along the southern coast of Raven’s Land, supplying a fast-moving army as it marched west overland.
The Chisholmian Royal Army had always emphasized physical conditioning and training in every sort of weather. It wasn’t unusual for an Army battalion to find itself ordered, with no previous warning , to fall in with full field packs and two days’ iron rations for a sixty mile march through February snows — or, conversely, June heat — and the Imperial Charisian Army hadn’t changed in that respect. Assuming the Raven Lords were as amenable as usual to subsidies (it would never do to call them “bribes”), and that Bishop Trahvys Shulmyn couldn’t convince them otherwise, Eastshare and Green Valley could theoretically have marched clear to Iron Cape, probably making good their forty miles per day, despite the narrow, snowy roads. Of course, it would have taken them several months, given the distances involved, but it was only forty days’ march from The Fence to the city of Marisahl (the nearest thing the Raven Lords had to a capital), on Ramsgate Bay, while another twenty days’ march would take them to Malphyra Bay, eight hundred miles farther west. That was still a long way from the Republic, but the voyage time from Tellesberg to Marisahl was less than half that of the time from Tellesberg to Maikelberg, and from Marisahl to Rollings Province by sea was only fifteen days. From Malphyra to Rollings was under ten days.
So if Eastshare was truly prepared to put his troops into motion as soon as possible, without direct orders from Sharleyan and Cayleb, and when he had no way to be certain his request for transports to be dispatched to Raven’s Land despite winter storms and ice floes, would be honored by the monarchs with whom he hadn’t even discussed moving troops to invade a sovereign realm in the middle of winter, he could cut a minimum of two months from the transit loop. He’d have enough shipping to keep his men supplied as they marched along the coastal roads, but he wouldn’t have enough troop lift to move them across the Passage of Storms. On the other hand, by reducing the total length of the sea passage by how far west his men could come on their own feet, he’d effectively reduce the number of transports needed for the voyage simply because they could make the round trip with half his men, then return for the other half, far more quickly than they could make the voyage clear from Chisholm.
If Eastshare was willing to take that gamble, the Imperial Charisian Army could have upwards of sixty thousand men — possibly as many as seventy-five thousand — in Siddarmark long before Clyntahn or Maigwair would have believed was possible. Perhaps not soon enough to stymie the general assault everyone knew was coming, but certainly earlier than anyone on the other side could have anticipated.
“Ruhsyl will do it,” Sharleyan said almost serenely, her eyes as confident as Cayleb’s had been when he was analyzing Rahnyld of Dohlar’s motives and actions.
“Are you sure?” Cayleb’s tone wasn’t a challenge, only a question. “I know he’s sent his message to Mairisahl and he’s already got the first divisions on the march, but he hasn’t said a word to any of his generals about moving anywhere beyond Ahlysberg. I’d say it’s pretty clear he’s still thinking at least as much in terms of making the entire trip by sea.”
“Only because he hasn’t heard back from the Raven Lords yet,” Sharleyan replied, and shrugged slightly. “He’s hedging his bets, and you’re right that he’d much rather have a guarantee of free passage from Shairncross and the Council. I think that’s one reason he’d just as soon not start moving towards The Fence until he does hear back from Shairncross, actually. God knows the Raven Lords are a prickly, stubborn bunch, even without the religious aspect of it all! The last thing he’d want would be to look as if he were massing troops on their border to cow them into meeting his demands. Even if the Council agreed to grant him passage, those stiff-necked clansmen would consider it their sacred duty — in more ways than one! — to delay him any way they could if they thought the Council had caved in to threats. And he doesn’t trust Lord Theralt as far as he can spit, either. But he’d be staging through Ahlysberg and its stores magazines no matter what, and I’m sure he’s at least keeping the possibility of taking them all the way from Ahlys Bay to the Republic by sea in the back of his head, if something untoward happens. After all, the thought of marching through Raven’s Land, in the winter, against guerrilla opposition would be enough to give anyone pause! But in the end, he’ll do it anyway, if it comes down to it.”
Cayleb couldn’t quite expunge the doubt from his expression, but Sharleyan only looked back at him with a small, crooked smile.
“There’s not a man alive whose loyalty and judgment I trust more than Ruhsyl Thairis’. It’s obvious he understands how important it is to get troops into Siddarmark as quickly as possible, and knows you and I will never leave his troops hanging at the end of an unsupported supply route. He won’t worry about whether or not we’ll approve or disapprove; he’ll only worry about whether or not it really is the fastest way to get his men where they have to be.”
Cayleb gazed at her for a moment longer, then nodded in acceptance and agreement.
“That still leaves what’s going to be going on in the western Republic before he can possibly get there, though,” he pointed out after a moment.
“All we can do is all we can do,” Merlin said, his tone more composed than he actually felt. “Paitryk Hywyt’s going to land over five thousand Marines in Siddar City next five-day, and Domynyk’s combing out every additional Marine he can find.” He grimaced. “Admittedly, there aren’t as many of them as there were before we transferred so many to the Army after the Corisande campaign, but if he drafts them from every galleon in Home Fleet and scours Helen Island down to the bedrock, he can probably turn up another six thousand or so. And he’s prepared to draft seamen, as well.”
It was Cayleb’s turn to grimace, and Merlin chuckled.
“All right, I’ll admit they’re going to be out of their natural element. But you may have noticed it’s a bit hard to find a coward amongst them even when you need one, and I’ll take our seamen over most people’s trained soldiers any day. Even if we can’t stop Rahnyld dead, I expect we’ll be able to slow him down. And with a little luck, his troops are going to react . . . poorly, shall we say, the first time they meet shrapnel shells.”
“And at least most of the Marines will have Mahndrayns,” Cayleb agreed, his grimace segueing into a thin smile, edged with sad memory, as he used the term. The decision to name the Charisian Empire’s new breech-loading rifles after Urvyn Mahndrayn, the brilliant, murdered naval officer who’d come up with the design, had made itself without anyone quite knowing how. It was as fitting as it was inevitable, though, and even though the new rifles weren’t available in the numbers anyone would really have preferred, they were going to come as a nasty surprise to the Group of Four and their allies.
At the moment, however, the Imperial Charisian Marines actually had more of them than the Army. Virtually all of the conversions had been made here in Charis, in the newly completed Urvyn Mahndrayn Armory Ehdwyrd Howsmyn had constructed at the Delthak Works, his massive foundry complex on the shore of Lake Ithmyn, where the tooling existed and security could be maintained. The Army troops who — hopefully — would soon be marching through Raven’s Land, would be equipped almost exclusively with the old-style muzzleloaders, whereas the Marines (the majority of whom were based either in Old Charis, Tarot, or Emerald) had been close enough to Howsmyn’s facility to be reequipped with Mahndrayns as they left the workshop floor. There were several thousand more of them already crated for shipment, as well, however and Howsmyn’s workers were laboring with fiercely focused energy to convert still more of them. More thousands were leaving the workshop floors as new-build weapons, although that was slower than conversion of existing stocks. Hopefully, by the time Eastshare’s column could reach Iron Cape, enough of the new rifles would have been completed to be shipped to him and exchanged for his muzzleloaders, which could then be returned to Charis and converted in turn.
Or, more probably, simply handed over to the Siddarmarkian Army, whose troopers wouldn’t give a damn that they were “old fashioned.” Any rifle was one hell of a lot better than no rifle, and that was what the vast majority of the Republic’s troops had at the moment. And the sudden appearance of forty or fifty thousand Siddarmarkian riflemen would come as a nasty and unwelcome surprise to Zhasphar Clyntahn.
“I really don’t like doing all our logistic reorganization on the fly this way,” Cayleb’s unhappy tone spoke for all of them. “There’s too much chance we’re going to drop a stitch somewhere, even with Kynt tied into the com net. Simply running into more bad weather could throw everything out of gear at exactly the wrong moment.”
“That’s been true of everything we’ve done so far, love,” Sharleyan pointed out.
“Not to this extent,” Cayleb replied with an off-center grin. “I realize I have a reputation for impetuosity, but I actually have tried to make sure I had — What was that expression of yours, Merlin? ‘All my pigs and chickens in a row,’ was it? — before I leapt headlong into yet another reckless adventure.”
“I used the phrase once, Cayleb,” Merlin said with a certain asperity. “One time. It just slipped out that single time, and I’ve never used it again.”
“You can’t fool me, Merlin. It’s not just ‘a phrase’ at all, is it? Not really. It’s a cliché — that’s what it is. One that no one on Safehold ever heard of until you resurrected it out of the ash heap of history, where any decent soul would’ve left it.”
“I’m not the one using it; you are!” Merlin shot back while Staynair and Sharleyan looked at each other in amusement.
“But only because you inserted that accursed string of words into my innocent and untrammeled brain. It’s like . . . like one of those childhood songs you can’t get out of your mind. Like that stupid jingle you taught me back in the carefree days of my bachelorhood, the one about bottles of beer on the wall. I’m doomed — doomed, I tell you! Within five-days, a month at the outside, that same fatal phrase will slip out of my mouth in a formal audience, and everyone will think I coined it. Every hanger-on, every flatterer and sycophant, will start using it when he thinks I’ll hear about it. Before you know it, it’ll creep into common usage throughout the entire Empire, and future historians will blame it on me, Merlin — not you, where the guilt truly belongs — when it’s wormed its way inextricably into the very sinews of our language.” The emperor shook his head sadly. “To think that I’ll be remembered for that rather than for my prowess in battle.”
“Given the penalties for regicide, I feel very fortunate to be here on the island instead of there in Tellesberg at this moment,” Merlin said meditatively, and Cayleb laughed. Then the emperor’s expression sobered once more.
“Even if it does sound incredibly silly, the concept’s still valid,” he said. “And I’d feel a lot better if our chickens really were neatly in line behind our pigs before we started on all this.”
“We all would, Cayleb,” Staynair said serenely. “On the other hand, Sharley does have a point. This isn’t going to be any more of a scramble than the Armageddon Reef campaign was, and you’re in a much stronger relative position than you were then. Not to mention having acquired quite a lot of well-trained subordinates since then, all of whom know exactly what you and Sharley are going to expect them to do. It’s not given to mortal men and women to simply command success with the wave of a hand or a magic wand, and it’s always possible we simply aren’t going to be able to get enough troops into Siddarmark quickly enough to stem the tide. But if we don’t, it won’t be because we didn’t try, and that’s what God expects of us.” The archbishop smiled slightly. “He’s done pretty well by us so far, and I don’t see any reason to expect Him to do any differently now.”
“Neither do I, Maikel,” Merlin said from Helen Island. “You do remember that other cliché, though, don’t you? The one about God helping those who help themselves?”
“Indeed I do.”
“Then in that case, I think Cayleb and Sharleyan and I would like you to do the heavy lifting with God while we see about doing as much of that more mundane helping as we can.”
“I think that’s an entirely equitable division of labor, Merlin,” Staynair said with another, broader smile. “In fact, I’ve already started.”
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