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By Heresies Distressed: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 07:44 EDT



A cotton silk plantation,
Barony of Dairwyn,
League of Corisande

    “So, they’re finally on the move,” Sir Koryn Gahrvai murmured.

    He stood on the shady veranda of the cotton silk-planter’s house his staff had commandeered for his headquarters. The house — obviously that of a wealthy man — was finely furnished, if on the small side for the headquarters of an entire army. On the other hand, a back corner of his mind reflected, his “army” was on the small side for anything one of the great mainland realms like Harchong or Siddarmark would have used that particular noun to describe.

    And at least Cayleb’s army seems to be even smaller than mine is. That’s something, at any rate.

    “How reliable are these reports, Alyk?” he asked in a louder voice, looking up at the handsome, splendidly dressed man standing beside him.

    Gahrvai had known Sir Alyk Ahrthyr, the Earl of Windshare, since boyhood. They’d been good friends for many years, and there was no one Gahrvai would rather have at his side in a fight. Unfortunately, for all of his pugnacity and undeniable courage, Windshare wasn’t the most brilliant man Gahrvai had ever met. He took his responsibilities seriously, he had a seemingly boundless store of physical energy, and he was the most superb horseman Gahrvai had ever seen. Give him an enemy across an open field, a saber in his hand, and a troop of cavalry at his back, and he was invincible. He was a little shakier where the reconnaissance and screening aspects of the cavalryman’s profession were concerned, however, and his natural preference when faced by an enemy position was to attack first and figure out what the odds had been for his after-battle report. On the other hand, he’d taken enough hard knocks to be aware of his own weaknesses.

    “I think they’re very reliable,” he said now. “My lead regiment’s had them under observation since they left Dairos. We haven’t been able to keep scouting parties operating along their flanks since they headed into the woods, but we’re still falling slowly back in contact with their advance guard. From the route they’ve taken so far, they’re definitely headed for Talbor Pass. And you were right, they don’t seem to have much cavalry of their own.” Windshare sniffed. “If it came down to a straight fight between my troopers and theirs, we’d be done before lunch.”

    “But it isn’t going to do that, is it, Alyk?” Gahrvai asked, and Windshare shook his head gloomily.

    “Probably not. Although,” the earl brightened noticeably, “if you and Charlz manage to break their formations, my lads and I will be delighted to finish them off for you.”

    Gahrvai smiled, but the smile faded into a frown as he considered one, in particular, of the dispatches Windshare’s cavalry screen had sent back to him.

    “What do you make of this, Charlz?” he asked the man lounging back in a commandeered chair on the other side of the improvised map table. Gahrvai tapped the offending dispatch with an index finger, and the other man shrugged.

    “Pretty much what you do, I expect,” Sir Charlz Doyal said.

    He was several years older than Gahrvai or Windshare, and he owed his present position to the fact that he was one of Prince Hektor’s favorites. On the other hand, he’d become one of the prince’s favorites because of his penchant for accomplishing difficult tasks. The tall, rangy, dark-haired Doyal was more noted for indolence than physical hardihood, but he had all of the intellectual sharpness Windshare often seemed to lack. His role as Gahrvai’s senior artillery officer suited him well, and between the two of them, he and Windshare normally formed a remarkably effective sounding board for Gahrvai’s strategy sessions.

    He was also, however, unfortunately fond of the occasional cryptic comment, and Gahrvai made a rude gesture in his direction.

    “Perhaps you’d care to be a bit more specific?” he suggested.

    “It’s exactly what your father discussed with us,” Doyal said with a shrug. “We went for the short-barreled guns; from what Alyk’s scouts are telling us, the Charisians went for longer tubes. It doesn’t sound like their field guns are built to exactly the same pattern as naval guns; the barrel length is too short for that, assuming the scouts’ estimates are accurate. But they’re longer than ours are, and that means they’re going to outrange us, that’s for sure. Whether that range advantage is going to make up for how much lighter their shot are going to be is more than I could tell you at this point, though. There’s simply no way to know before we start actually shooting at one another, unfortunately.”

    “You’re right; that is what I was thinking,” Gahrvai admitted.

    “Koryn, I know I always prefer going straight ahead and damn the consequences,” Windshare said. “And I know that more than once I’ve managed to land myself up to my arse in slash lizards by doing just that. But I’ve got to say, they’re coming to us on our terms. I think we’ve got to hit them, and hit them hard.”

    Gahrvai nodded. Windshare’s awareness of his own weaknesses, as well as his strengths, was one of the better things about him. And he was right — his tendency to charge straight ahead had led him to the very brink of disaster more than once. Not just on fields of battle, either, and Gahrvai’s lips tried to twitch into a smile despite the seriousness of the current moment as he recalled some of the dashing earl’s other misadventures. Windshare’s rakish good looks, added to his . . . impetuosity and taste for the ladies, had led to at least one duel (fortunately without any fatalities on either side) and generally kept him in constant hot water for as long as anyone could remember. Indeed, there’d been occasions in their shared youth when he’d very nearly taken Gahrvai into amorous disaster with him, as well.

    But this time Alyk had a point, Gahrvai thought. The whole reason for advancing this far from the Dark Hills was to attack the Charisian invaders as quickly and as vigorously as he could and, if possible, drive them straight back into the sea.

    Of course, another reason for attacking them is to find out just how badly we’ve underestimated whatever new capabilities they’ve developed for their Marines, as well as their navy, he reflected.

    He looked back down at the map. He’d advanced with no more than a third of his total force, and he wondered again if he’d been wise to do so. The problem was that the roads through the Dark Hill Mountains weren’t very good. That was especially true of the smaller, flanking roads, and while the royal highway itself wasn’t too bad, there was a distinct limit to the number of troops which could be moved rapidly along it without using those flanking roads. Worse, that cramped cluster of roads was his only really reliable supply line, as well, now that Dairos was firmly in Charisian hands. He could probably have gotten a larger percentage of his forces forward, but only at the expense of making it extraordinarily difficult to keep them fed and supplied with ammunition and weapons once he had them deployed.

    Not to mention just how ugly things could get if that many men suddenly found themselves trying to retreat simultaneously. He gave a mental shudder as he imagined the scenes of chaos, congestion, and panic which were all too likely to ensue under those circumstances. But does worrying about what would happen if I have to retreat mean I’m going into battle already half-defeated in my own mind? Is thinking about it prudence or cowardice?



    It was amazing all the ways a man could find to doubt and second-guess himself. And whatever the limitations of the roadways in his own rear might be, the road over which the Charisians were currently advancing was even worse, in many ways. So if they were the ones who had to retreat . . . .

    “I think you’re right, Alyk,” he heard himself saying. “And if they’re kind enough to keep coming to meet us, especially without an adequate cavalry screen of their own, then I think we should plan on greeting them right about here.”

    He tapped a symbol on the map, then bent closer to peer at the name.

    “Haryl’s Crossing,” he read aloud.

    “Ah?” Doyal climbed out of his chair and leaned forward, studying the map.

    The town Gahrvai had selected wasn’t very large. Its total population, including the outlying farm families, probably didn’t exceed four thousand, and many of them had found urgent reasons to be elsewhere once armies began heading in their direction. It sat directly on the Talbor River, which flowed out of the mountain gap of the same name, where the royal highway crossed the stream on a stone bridge. The artillerist considered the terrain east of the river thoughtfully for several seconds, then nodded.

    “It looks reasonable to me,” he agreed. “This might be a bit of a problem if things don’t go smoothly, though.”

    He indicated the single stone bridge.

    “There’s what looks like a fairly big wooden bridge down here, to the south, at Haryl’s Priory,” Gahrvai countered, waving his finger at another map symbol, this one representing a substantial monastery. It lay south of Haryl’s Crossing and on the western side of the river, where the foothills of the Dark Hill Mountains began to rise. “There are fords north of the priory, as well, according to the map, at any rate.”

    “Let me see it,” Windshare requested. He bent over the map, lips pursed, then looked back up at Gahrvai.

    “I’ve got a report somewhere about this wooden bridge,” he said. “It’s not in very good shape, if I’m remembering correctly. We could probably get infantry across it, but only a lunatic would try to take cavalry or artillery across. On the other hand, I think my scouts also indicated that the river is pretty shallow along here, where the map shows your fords. I know we could get cavalry across even without the bridge, although I wouldn’t want to make any promises about infantry without doublechecking. And we definitely don’t want to take any of Charlz’ artillery across this thing.”

    “Do any of Sir Farahk’s militiamen know the area well enough to provide us with more information?” Doyal asked.

    “I can check,” Windshare replied. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they do, though. They’ve been remarkably helpful so far.”

    The earl sounded almost bemused, as if he still found it peculiar that the Baron of Dairwyn’s men had been so useful. Gahrvai wondered if part of that was because of how . . . unsoldier-like the baron’s militia were. They were obviously civilians who intended to go back to being civilians as soon as they possibly could, and they didn’t care who knew it. At least equally obviously, some of them, like the inhabitants of Haryl’s Crossing, would have preferred to be somewhere else. Anywhere else, if it came to that. But they appeared to feel a degree of loyalty to their baron which was rarely seen, and their assistance not simply as guides, but as go-betweens for the army and the local farmers, as well, had been invaluable. No farmer ever really wanted to see an army — any army — marching through his district, and unhappy locals could create all sorts of problems if they put their minds to it. So far, at least, the ability of Dairwyn’s men to put a friendly face on Gahrvai’s army had kept that sort of thing from happening. Whether it would remain effective once the two sides came to grips and combat started turning fertile fields into wastelands was an entirely different question, of course.

    And one to which the answer is almost certainly “no,” Gahrvai thought sourly.

    “I’m sure they’ll have some useful additional information,” he said aloud. “Please do check with them.”

    Windshare nodded, and Gahrvai returned his attention to the map.

    “I take your point about the bridge, Charlz,” he said reflectively, folding his arms while he contemplated the terrain once more. “And fighting with a river in your rear is usually considered a bad idea, even when you don’t have to worry about getting artillery across a single bridge. Still, if we take up a position on this side of the river, then whoever’s in command over there is going to stop on his side and send back for reinforcements. Which means we’d have to fight our way across the river to get at him.”

    “It also means he’d have to fight his way across to get at us,” Doyal pointed out. “And the longer he stays put out here, the longer your father and Prince Hektor have to get more troop strength transferred to us.”

    “Unless Cayleb decides to just sit here with a part of his army and demonstrate how determined he is to attack us while he’s actually loading all the rest of his troops back aboard his transports to strike directly at Manchyr,” Gahrvai replied. “And as for getting more troops to us, how are we going to feed and supply them all through Talbor Pass? That’s over twenty-five miles of narrow road and bottlenecks, especially as you get towards the eastern end. We could feed our entire army through the western half, but I doubt we could support more than thirty thousand men on this side of the mountains. Not if they’re going to have to sit in one place for very long, at any rate. We’d run out of forage pretty quickly, and somehow I don’t think even Baron Dairwyn would be able to keep the local farmers friendly once we’ve eaten all their cattle, trampled all their crops, and emptied all their granaries.”



    “And seduced all their daughters,” Windshare added with a grin. “Besides, we’re supposed to do it my way — you know, charge straight in and smash everybody up instead of trying to get fancy.”

    “And hitting them on their side of the river will at least give us a chance of catching their advance guard and cutting it up in isolation,” Gahrvai agreed with a nod. “If Alyk’s scouts are right, they can’t have more than a couple of thousand men — five thousand, at the outside. We’ve brought over twenty thousand with us.”

    “And how many of them are still west of the river at the moment?” Doyal countered.

    “If everyone’s where they’re supposed to be — and you know as well as I do how likely it is that none of our movement orders managed to go astray for a change — we’ve got roughly fourteen thousand, including seven batteries of your field guns, either east of the river already or close enough to be there by nightfall. That ought to be enough to take care of five thousand Charisians, especially since they seem to have only three or four batteries with them.”

    “Unless they speed up a lot, most of their column won’t be here until late tomorrow morning. Maybe not even until early afternoon,” Doyal pointed out. “We could get almost everybody across by then, if we worked at it.”

    “No.” Gahrvai shook his head. “There’s no point wearing the men out — not to mention probably getting a lot of them lost — marching around after dark. Besides, fourteen thousand men and thirty-five guns ought to be enough to get the job done. Piling in still more men would only cramp our mobility. And if four or five-to-one odds aren’t enough to get the job done, I don’t want to complicate things if we have to retreat.”

    Doyal and Windshare both looked at him as if they weren’t quite certain they’d heard him correctly, and he snorted sourly.

    “Let’s do this my way,” he suggested. “We’ll see what happens. If they bring up more strength of their own, then I’ll think seriously about putting still more of our men across the river before we attack. But if they’re as short on cavalry as they seem to be, then their scouting has to be spotty, at best. They probably don’t have a clue how many men we’ve already managed to concentrate in front of them. If we can keep it that way, keep them confident enough that they don’t stop their advance guard where it is until they can reinforce it, I think we can hit them tomorrow morning. With any luck at all, we’ll roll right over them and smash them up quick and dirty.

    “To be perfectly honest, that’s what I expect to happen. But let’s not forget that everybody ‘expected’ Duke Black Water to smash up Haarahld’s navy, too. I don’t see any way they could be hiding some sort of ’secret weapon’ from Alyk’s cavalry, but I’m not going to rush to any potentially unfortunate assumptions, either. This will let us test the water without getting in too deep. If we’re right, we crush their advance guard, and Alyk’s cavalry gets to spend the afternoon riding down and sabering fugitives. If it turns out that they do have some horrible surprise waiting for us, we lose at worst a fifth part of our total force.”

    Windshare looked moderately rebellious, but he nodded without further argument. Doyal cocked his head, contemplating the map once more, then shrugged.

    “I think you’re probably worrying more about surprises than you need to,” he said. “On the other hand, given your reminder about what happened to Black Water, I can live with a little over-caution. Better that than the reverse, at least! And to be honest, I’d prefer to blood my gunners under the most benign conditions we can arrange. I think they’re ready, but none of them have ever been under fire as a unit before.”

    “I think they’ll do just fine, Charlz,” Gahrvai said. “Believe me, my ‘over-caution’ doesn’t have a thing to do with any concern over the quality of our troops. Especially of your gunners.”

    “I never thought it did,” Doyal assured him. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t something else to bear in mind, though.”

    “I’d like to spend some time this afternoon actually looking at as much of the terrain as possible,” Gahrvai continued, turning back to Windshare. “I’ll need a cavalry escort. You wouldn’t happen to know a good officer to put in command of it, would you, Alyk?”

    “As a matter of fact, I would,” Windshare told him with a grin, then glanced at Doyal. “Would you care to come along with us, Charlz?”

    Windshare’s tone was more than half-teasing, given Doyal’s well known aversion to any unnecessary physical activity. To his surprise, the older man promptly nodded.

    “As a matter of fact, I’d like to check my impressions from the map against the actual terrain. There are a couple of places that look pretty close to ideal for artillery deployment. I’d prefer to make sure they really are good positions before I order my people into them, though.”

    “Excellent!” Gahrvai said approvingly. “Charlz, show Alyk the spots you particularly want to see. I’ve got to go draft a couple of dispatches for Father and the Prince before we go wandering off. Alyk, once you and Charlz have discussed where we need to go and what we need to see, make sure we really do have an adequate escort. I’m not feeling especially vain this afternoon, but it occurs to me that if the army loses its senior field commander, his cavalry commander, and the closest thing we have to a genuine expert on field artillery, it wouldn’t be the very best possible beginning to our campaign, would it?”

    “If we let that happen,” Doyal said with a smile, “the only good thing I could see about it would be that all three of us would be safely dead, which would at least spare us from your father’s analysis of all the truly stupid things we must have done to bring it about.”

    “And what exactly in my record to date convinces you that I’m not fully capable of doing truly stupid things if I put my mind to it?” Gahrvai inquired.

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