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Off to the north and west, an army loyal to King
Avram marched through crumbling northern defenses
in Peachtree Province toward the Western Ocean. Due west, in Parthenia Province, another southron army loyal to Avram laid siege to Pierreville. If the great fortress fell, Nonesuch, the capital of the rebel Grand Duke Geoffrey—he called himself King Geoffrey, a title no one but his fellow traitors acknowledged—would also fall, and in short order.

General Hesmucet led the soldiers marching through Peachtree. Marshal Bart led the soldiers besieging Pierreville.

Doubting George? Doubting George sat in Ramblerton, twiddling his thumbs.

The war between brothers in the Kingdom of Detina was deep into its fourth year now. When King Avram ascended to the throne, he'd let the world know he intended to make citizens of the blond serfs who labored on the nobles' great estates in the northern provinces. And Geoffrey, his cousin, had promptly led the nobles—and the rest of the north—into rebellion, declaring Avram had no right to do any such thing.

A few southron men, reckoning provincial prerogative more important than the true succession—or sometimes just wed to northern women—had thrown in with the uprising against Avram. And a few northerners, reckoning a single Kingdom of Detina more important than holding the serfs in bondage, had remained loyal to the proper king, the rightful king. Lieutenant General George was one of those men. Geoffrey had promptly confiscated his estates in Parthenia.

That was how the game was played these days. Duke Edward of Arlington, who commanded Geoffrey's most important force, the Army of Southern Parthenia, had had his estates close by King Avram's Black Palace in Georgetown. Avram had confiscated them as soon as his soldiers overran them in the early days of the war.

I got the same punishment for being loyal as Duke Edward did for being a traitor, George thought. Is that fair? Is that just? 

"I doubt it," George said aloud. He used the phrase a lot, often enough to have given him his nickname. He was a burly man in his early forties, with a typical dark Detinan beard, full and curly, that gray was just beginning to streak.

He muttered to himself: not words, but a discontented rumble down deep in his throat. The Lion God might have made a noise like that when he contemplated chewing on the souls of sinners.

"No good deed goes unpunished," Doubting George said when the mutters turned into words again. He'd done as much hard fighting as any southron officer in the war. If it hadn't been for his stand, there on Merkle's Hill by the River of Death, the whole southron cause in the east might have unraveled under the hammer blows of Count Thraxton the Braggart's sorcery.

And what was his reward? How had a grateful kingdom shown him its appreciation for all he'd done, for all he'd sacrificed?

More words emerged: "Here I am in Ramblerton, twiddling my gods-damned thumbs."

Ramblerton was the capital of Franklin. It lay by the bank of the Cumbersome River, in the southeastern part of the province. Doubting George might have been farther out of the fight down in New Eborac City, but not by much. He'd done the work, and others had got the glory. The war looked well on the way toward being won. He was glad of that. He would have been even gladder to have a bigger part in it.

A sentry stuck his head into Lieutenant General George's office. "Beg your pardon, sir," he said, "but Major Alva would like to see you, if you've got the time."

"Oh, yes, I've got the time," George replied. "By the Thunderer's beard, to the seven hells with me if I can think of anything I've got more of."

The sentry withdrew. A moment later, Major Alva came in. He looked preposterously young to be a major. But, for one thing, a lot of officers in this war were preposterously young. And, for another, he was a wizard, and so an officer at least as much by courtesy as because he was expected to command soldiers in the field.

Major Alva, in fact, was short on just about everything that made soldiers what they were. His gray wizard's robe hung from his scrawny frame. His beard hadn't been combed any time lately. He plainly needed to remind himself to salute Lieutenant General George.

But he was also far and away the best wizard in Doubting George's army—maybe the best wizard in any southron army. Before the war, southron mages had done most of their work in manufactories, which didn't suit them for battle magic. Wizards in the north had worked hard to keep the serfs in line and overawed, which did. In the early years of the war, northern prowess at wizardry had helped hold back southron numbers. Now . . .

Now Doubting George hoped it wouldn't any more. Nodding to Alva, he said, "What can I do for you, Major?"

"Something's going on," Alva said. Lieutenant General George folded his arms across his broad chest and waited. Alva was swarthy, but not swarthy enough to keep his flush from showing. "Uh, something's going on, sir."

Back in the days when Alva was a mere lieutenant, he wouldn't have had the faintest idea what George was waiting for. Now he knew, though he still plainly thought the idea of military courtesy absurd. George didn't care what Alva thought. He cared what Alva did. "Do you have any idea what's going on, Major, or where it's going on?" he inquired.

"Something to do with the traitors . . . sir," the wizard answered.

"I had suspected that, yes." Doubting George's voice was dry enough to make Alva flush again. "I doubted you'd have come to me with news of a barge wreck on the Highlow River—although you never can tell."

"Er, yes," Major Alva said, visibly off-balance. Like a lot of mages, he conceived of generals as a stiff, stodgy lot. Evidence to the contrary, which Doubting George gave now and again, flustered him.

"And how do you know what you think you know?" George asked.

With a lot of wizards, that would have spawned an endless epistemological discussion. There was one vice, at least, of which Alva was free. He said, "I feel it in my bones, sir."

George would have thrown most wizards out of his office after an answer like that. With some, he wouldn't have bothered opening the door first. He paid Alva a high compliment: he took him seriously. "What else can you tell me?" he asked.

"Not much, sir, not yet," Major Alva said. "But the northerners are stirring, or thinking about stirring. And when they come, they'll come hard."

"Best way," Doubting George agreed, which flustered the young wizard all over again. George went on, "Do you think you could find out more if you did some serious sorcerous poking around?"

"I don't know for certain, sir," Alva replied. "I could try to find out, though."

"Why don't you do that, then?" George said. "Report back to me if you find anything interesting or important." Alva was one of those people you needed to remind of such things. Otherwise, he was liable to forget.

He nodded now. "All right. I'll do that. Snooping is fun. It's not like General Bell has any wizards who can stop me." He certainly owned all the arrogance a good mage should have.

"Good enough," George said. "You're dismissed, Major."

"See you later," Alva said cheerfully, and touched the brim of his gray hat as he might have back in civilian life. Doubting George coughed. Major Alva turned red again. Little by little, George kept on persuading him he was a soldier. In even smaller increments, the lessons took. Mumbling, "Sorry," Alva gave him another salute. He coughed again. Alva's stare held nothing but indignation. "Now what?"

"'Sorry, sir,'" George said, as if to a four-year-old.

"'Sorry, sir,'" Alva repeated, obviously not sorry in the least. "What the hells difference does it make?"

"Magic has rituals, eh?" George said.

"I should hope so," the young wizard answered. "What's that got to do with anything, though?"

"Think of this as a ritual of the army," George said. "You don't need to salute me because you like me or because you think I'm wonderful. You need to salute me because you're a major and I'm a lieutenant general."

Alva sniffed. "Pretty feeble excuse for a ritual—that's all I've got to say."

"Maybe. Maybe not, too," Doubting George said. "But I'll tell you this—every army in the world has rituals like that. Every single one of 'em. If there ever were armies without those rituals, the ones that do have 'em squashed the others flat. What does that tell you?"

It told Alva more than George had expected it to. The mage's foxy features shut down in a mask of concentration so intense, he might have forgotten George was there. At last, after a couple of minutes of that ferocious thought, he said, "Well, sir, when you put it that way, you just may be right. It almost puts you in mind of the Inward Hypothesis of Divine Choice, doesn't it?"

Doubting George gaped at him. "Not that gods-damned daft heretical notion!" he exclaimed. On the far side of the Western Ocean, back in the mother kingdom, the land from which the Detinan colonizers left for their newer world, a mage who called himself Inward had proposed that the gods let beasts compete over time, those better suited to whatever they did surviving and the others failing to leave offspring behind. Every priest in the civilized world immediately started screaming at the top of his lungs, the most common shriek being, With an idea like that, who needs gods at all? 

"It makes a lot of sense, if you ask me," Alva said. George had long known his wizard lacked conventional piety. He hadn't known Alva followed the Inward Hypothesis. As far as he was concerned, the wizard who'd proposed it had known what he was doing when he chose a false name. Now Alva went on, "You said it yourself, sir. Armies that develop these rituals survive. Those that don't—don't."

He hadn't even been insubordinate this time. He'd left Doubting George nothing to do but repeat, "Dismissed."

Major Alva saluted. "A pro-survival ritual," he said thoughtfully. "I won't forget." And out he went.

Doubting George drummed his fingers on his desk. He'd scorned the Inward Hypothesis from the moment he first heard about it. But now, though he hadn't even known he was doing it, he'd argued in favor of what he'd thought he scorned. What did that say? Nothing good, he was sure.

If I hadn't tweaked Alva about saluting, he wouldn't have tossed a firepot at my thoughts. George sighed. Alva hadn't even meant to be inflammatory. As far as George was concerned, that made the wizard more dangerous, not less. "What am I going to do with him?" he wondered aloud. Asking was easy. Finding an answer wasn't.

And what am I going to do if the northerners really are up to something? he wondered. That was about as puzzling as what he would do with Major Alva. The problem was, he didn't have all the men he needed. General Hesmucet had gone traipsing across Peachtree toward the Western Ocean with all the best loyal soldiers in the eastern part of the Kingdom of Detina. He hadn't expected the northerners to be able to mount much of a challenge here in Franklin. If he was wrong . . .

"If he was wrong, gods damn it, I've got my work cut out for me," Doubting George muttered.

He scowled. That would do for an understatement till a bigger one came along. Among the men Hesmucet had taken with him were a good many from the wing George had commanded on the campaign that ended up seizing Marthasville. The soldiers Hesmucet hadn't taken made up the nucleus—the small nucleus—of the force George had here in Franklin.

Along with those men, he had garrison troops scattered through countless fortresses in Cloviston and Franklin. They guarded not only towns but also the glideway line that kept men and supplies moving. That meant they were scattered over the two provinces—one of which had stayed in the Kingdom of Detina but still furnished soldiers to Grand Duke Geoffrey's army, while the other had tried to leave but was, after a fashion, reconquered—and not in the best position to fight if they had to.

I'd better concentrate them, Doubting George thought gloomily. Then his scowl blackened as he shook his head. If I do, Ned of the Forest's unicorn-riders will play merry hells with the glideways. Ned of the Forest was no ordinary commander of unicorn-riders, no ordinary raider. When he hit a glideway line, he didn't just damage it. He wrecked it. His troopers and mages knew their business altogether too well.

Doubting George shrugged. Keeping the glideway lines intact mattered less than it had earlier in the year. Hesmucet's men weren't tied to them for food and firepots and crossbow bolts any more. They were living off the country now, living off the country and by all accounts doing well. Raids against the glideways would still be a nuisance. They wouldn't be a disaster.

That decided Lieutenant General George. He hurried over to the scryers, who had their headquarters next door to his own. When the gray-robed mages looked up from their crystal balls, he said, "Send word to all garrisons of company size and above: they're to move at once, to concentrate here at Ramblerton."

"Yes, sir," the wizards chorused. Unlike Major Alva, they knew how to obey orders. Also unlike him, they were utterly ordinary when it came to sorcery. Doubting George usually thought Alva's talents outweighed his shortcomings. Sometimes, though, he wondered.

* * *

Lieutenant General Bell looked down at himself. The northern officer was a big, strong man, with a bushy beard and a face that for years had put men in mind of the Lion God. These days, he looked like a suffering god. His left arm hung limp and lifeless at his side. He'd been with Duke Edward of Arlington and the Army of Southern Parthenia down at Essoville when he'd taken the crippling wound. And later that same summer, here in the east at the River of Death, a stone flung from a catapult had smashed his right leg, which now ended a few inches below the hip.

He was not a man much given to whimsy, Lieutenant General Bell. Nevertheless, surveying the ruins of what had been a redoubtable body, he nodded to Ned of the Forest with something approaching geniality and said, "Do you know what I am?"

"What's that, sir?" the commander of unicorn-riders asked.

"I am the abridged edition," Bell declared.

That brought a smile—a cold, fierce smile—to Lieutenant General Ned's face. "I reckon we ought to see what we can do about abridging us some o' those stinking southrons," he said, a northeastern twang in his voice. Unlike most high-ranking northern officers, he held not a drop of noble blood in his veins. He'd been a serfcatcher before the war, and enlisted as a common soldier when fighting between the two halves of Detina broke out. He'd risen to his present rank for one reason and one reason only: he was overwhelmingly good at what he did.

Bell knew perfectly well how much he needed such a man. He said, "With your help and the help of the gods, Lieutenant General, I look forward to doing just that."

"Good," Ned said. "A pleasure to have a man I can work with in charge of the Army of Franklin."

"Yes." Bell nodded. "I was wounded, I think, when you had your . . . disagreement with Thraxton the Braggart."

"Disagreement, hells. I was going to kill the son of a bitch," Ned said matter-of-factly. "He had it coming, too. But did you ever run across a miserable cur dog not worth wasting a crossbow bolt on? By the Thunderer's beard, that's Thraxton. So I let him live, and I daresay the kingdom's been regretting it ever since."

"Er—yes," Bell said. Count Thraxton's patronage, along with that of King Geoffrey, had got him the command of this army when Geoffrey sacked Joseph the Gamecock outside of Marthasville. Joseph hadn't fought the oncoming southrons; he'd stalled for time instead, hoping to make King Avram and his folk weary of the war. Bell had fought—and Marthasville had fallen. Bell remained convinced that wasn't his fault. Coughing a couple of times, he added, "You are . . . very frank."

"What's the point of talking if you don't say what you mean?" Ned returned. He leaned forward. "Now, then—what do you mean to do about the southrons down in Franklin?"

"General Hesmucet has marched west—he's off the map," Bell said, and Ned of the Forest nodded to show he followed. Bell went on, "Not only has he marched west, he's taken all his best soldiers with him. That leaves nothing but odds and sods to hold Franklin and Cloviston. All we've got to do is win once, maybe twice, and we can get all the way to the Highlow River. What could stop us?"

Ned's eyes gleamed ferally as he thought about that. "You're right. And wouldn't Avram look pretty with egg all over his ugly mug? Thinks we're licked, does he? Thinks we're flat? Well, he'd better think again."

"That's right. That's exactly right. I think we're going to get along just fine together, Ned," Bell said.

"You tell me what to do. If I can, I will. If I can't, you'll hear all about the reasons why, I promise you," Ned said.

Bell was his superior. Bell was also, or had also been, a ferocious fighting man in his own right. He'd never been one to encourage insubordination. Even so, he didn't demand immediate, unquestioning obedience of Ned of the Forest, as he would have from anyone else. He just nodded and said, "Yes, we'll get on fine."

"Good." Ned gave him a sloppy salute he found himself gladder to have than many neat ones from lesser officers. The commander of unicorn-riders ducked his way out of General Bell's pavilion. Bell wasn't sorry to see him go. The commander of the Army of Franklin looked like a suffering god because he suffered—on account of both the ruined arm he still had and the ruined leg he no longer owned. The leg might be gone, but its ghost of sensation lingered, and that ghost was in constant, unending torment.

Working awkwardly with his one good hand, Bell opened the leather pouch he wore on the belt that held up his dark blue pantaloons (one leg, of course, pinned up short). He pulled out a little bottle of laudanum and yanked the cork with his teeth. Then, tilting his head back, he took a long pull from the bottle.

Odd-tasting fire ran down his throat. Laudanum was a mixture of brandy and poppy juice. If it wouldn't kill pain, nothing would. Only two things were wrong with that. One was, sometimes even laudanum wouldn't kill the pain Bell knew. The other was, he'd been taking the stuff ever since his arm was ruined at Essoville. After close to a year and a half, he needed much bigger doses to quell his agony than he had at first. By now, the amount of laudanum he took every day would have been plenty to kill two or three men who hadn't become habituated to the drug, or to leave six or eight such men woozy.

After he put the laudanum bottle away, Bell waited. He remembered the strange, almost floating sensation he'd got from laudanum when he first started taking it: as if he were drifting away from the body that still suffered. No more. Now laudanum was as much a part of his life as ale was part of a farmer's.

Little by little, the anguish receded in the dead arm and the missing leg, the leg that didn't seem to know it was missing. Bell sighed with relief. Laudanum didn't fuzz his wits any more, or make him sleepy. He was sure of that. He was just as sure he would have had trouble thinking without it. The few times the healers had run short of the drug—the north didn't have enough of anything it needed, except men who despised King Avram—he'd suffered not only from his dreadful wounds but from the even more dreadful effects of giving up laudanum.

He shuddered. He didn't like to think about that. As long as he had the drug, he was still . . . at least the shadow of a fighting man. So what if he couldn't bear a shield? So what if his stump was too short to let him sit a unicorn unless he was tied to the saddle? He was still a general, and a general who'd kept the surviving chunks of the Army of Franklin intact despite everything Hesmucet's superior force had done to destroy them. He still had bold soldiers, and he could still strike a savage blow. He could—and he intended to.

That sentry stuck his head into the pavilion. "I beg your pardon, sir, but Brigadier Patrick would like a moment of your time, if you have it to spare."

"Of course," Bell said expansively. As the laudanum made him feel better about the world, how could he refuse?

In strode Patrick the Cleaver. "Top o' the day to you, General," he said, saluting. The young brigadier's voice held the lilt of the Sapphire Isle, where he'd been born. After a career as a soldier of fortune, he'd crossed the Western Ocean to fight for King Geoffrey. He'd risen swiftly. Bell reckoned him among the finest wing commanders in northern service.

"What can I do for you now, Brigadier?" Bell asked, returning the salute. Yes, Patrick the Cleaver was one of the finest wing commanders in northern service. Bell doubted he would ever rise above the rank of brigadier, though. Even by Detinan standards, Patrick was devastatingly frank. Earlier in the year, he'd suggested that Geoffrey arm blond serfs and use them against King Avram's armies. Geoffrey had not been amused. No one else had had the nerve to make that suggestion since.

"What can your honor do for me?" Patrick repeated. "Why, sir, you can be after telling me when we set ourselves in motion against the gods-damned southrons."

"Soon," Bell said soothingly. "Very soon."

"And when exactly might 'soon' be?" Brigadier Patrick inquired. "Sure and we shouldn't be letting 'em set themselves to meet us, now should we?"

"I don't intend to do anything of the sort," Lieutenant General Bell said. He also didn't intend to order the Army of Franklin into motion right this minute. Laudanum filled him with a pleasant lassitude, almost as if he'd just bedded a woman. Since the drug made it harder for him actually to bed a woman, that was just as well.

"Well, if you won't let those southron spalpeens set themselves, when are we to move?" Patrick the Cleaver demanded. "For would it not be a fine thing to be having the Army of Franklin in the province of Franklin once more? Better that nor hanging about down here in Dothan, I'm thinking."

"Yes, and yes, and yes," Bell said. "Yes, but how can we move till we gather supplies? Harvest time is long past. We can't live off the country. Whatever we eat, we'll have to take with us. The mages won't be able to conjure it up—that's certain. And we need more than food, too. Too many men in this army have no shoes on their feet. They're wearing pantaloons and tunics they've taken off of dead southrons—either that or they're wearing rags. We have to be ready before we march. Winter isn't far off, and it can get cold down in Franklin."

Brigadier Patrick mournfully clicked his tongue between his teeth. "Mighty fine does this sound, your Generalship, sir, but are you sure there's sense to it? For won't the southrons, may they find themselves in the hells or ever the gods know they're dead, the scuts, won't they be mustering and resupplying faster nor we could ever hope to? If I was in charge of this army, now, I'd—"

That was too much for Lieutenant General Bell's always fragile patience. "You are not in command of this army, Brigadier," he said in a voice like winter. "Nor are you ever likely to be. And you know why, too."

"I do that." Patrick matched him glare for glare. "I'm not in good odor in stinking Nonesuch, is why, the reason being I was man enough to tell King Geoffrey the plain truth, the which he cared to hear not a bit."

"Put pikes and crossbows in the hands of our blond serfs?" Bell shook his head. "We can't win the war with such so-called soldiers."

"The gods-damned southrons use 'em, and too many of our own brave lads dead in the dirt they've stretched," Patrick said. "You tell me we can't win the war with such soldiers? Well, I tell you this, Lieutenant General Bell, the which is the gods' own truth: we can't win the war without 'em. And that said, your Excellency, gods give you a good day." He bowed stiffly and stomped out.

"Miserable bog-trotting hothead," Lieutenant General Bell muttered. No, it was no wonder at all that Patrick the Cleaver would never enjoy a higher command.

Bell reached for his crutches. He got one under his good shoulder and used it to help lever himself upright. Then he put the other one under his bad arm. That shoulder still hurt despite the laudanum. Making it bear some small part of his weight only made it hurt worse, too. If he hadn't been a man who could stand pain, he would long since have cut his own throat or fallen on a sword.

Moving like an inchworm, one hitching step at a time, he made his way out of his pavilion. His sentries, surprised to see him outside, stiffened to attention. He ignored them. He wanted to look at the encampment. It didn't look much different from others he'd seen: a place full of tents and soldiers and lines of tethered unicorns. The woods of southern Dothan blazed with autumn colors around the campground. The day was bright and clear and crisp, without a cloud in the sky.

But he could see the differences when he looked for them. As he'd told Patrick the Cleaver, too many of his men wore gray pantaloons and sometimes even tunics captured from the southrons. That didn't just mean they couldn't get enough uniforms of the proper color, though they couldn't. It also meant that, in battle, the rest of his soldiers might start shooting at the wrong men.

That was why he'd issued an order that captured pantaloons and especially tunics had to be dyed King Geoffrey's indigo blue. A couple of kettles boiled and bubbled in the camps, with men taking out their newly dyed garments with sticks. Bell nodded in somber, leonine approval.

Here came some of Ned of the Forest's unicorn-riders. Bell eyed them.

Unicorn-riders in the Army of Southern Parthenia were aristocrats one and all, their mounts the finest they could provide. They took pride in grooming the beasts, not just to keep them clean and healthy but to make them look as smart as possible before going into battle.

By contrast, Ned's men looked like so many teamsters. Their uniforms were even shabbier than those of Bell's crossbowmen and pikemen. Slouch hats held the sun and rain out of their eyes. Their unicorns were in good enough condition, but nothing special. They didn't look like men who'd been able to keep all of eastern Franklin and Cloviston in an uproar behind southron lines, or like men who'd routed a southron army three times the size of their own in Great River Province. But they had. No matter what they looked like, they could fight. Bell had to respect that.

Overhead, a hawk flew south. Bell took it for a good omen, hoping it meant the Army of Franklin would succeed when it did move south. He would have been more nearly certain had the beast been a dragon. The dragon was Detina's emblematic animal, the kingdom flying on its banners a gold dragon on red. To difference his men from those of Avram, Geoffrey had chosen a red dragon on gold.

But dragons had been rare in western Detina even when the colonists from across the Western Ocean used iron and unicorns and sorcery to seize the land from the blonds then inhabiting it. A few of the great beasts were still said to survive west of the Great River, but Bell had never seen one. In the lands far to the east, in the Stony Mountains beyond the steppes, dragons not only survived but flourished. That did Bell no good with the omens, though.

He shrugged a one-shouldered shrug. Even that hurt. But then, what didn't? Omens or no, he—and the Army of Franklin—would march south.

* * *

Corporal Rollant liked garrison duty. He'd spent a lot of time putting himself in positions where strangers could kill him: at the battle by the River of Death, storming up Proselytizers' Rise, and all through the campaign from the southern border of Peachtree Province up to Marthasville. No, he didn't mind being back here in Ramblerton, well away from the fighting, at all.

Most of all, he enjoyed strolling—or rather, swaggering—along the streets of Ramblerton in his gray uniform with the two stripes on his sleeve showing off his rank. Northerners, men and women who would gladly have left the Kingdom of Detina when Grand Duke Geoffrey proclaimed himself king in the north, had to get out of his way in a hurry, for along with the uniform he wore a shortsword on his hip and sometimes a crossbow slung on his back.

They got out of his way as they would have for any ordinary Detinan soldier. If they hadn't, he and his comrades would have made them sorry for it. He was one of King Avram's soldiers, yes, but not an ordinary Detinan. Ordinary Detinans were swarthy, with dark eyes, dark hair, and, on the men, dark beards. Rollant was a blond, an escaped serf from Palmetto Province who'd fled south to New Eborac and made a good living as a carpenter till taking service with others from his city, from his province, to help liberate all the serfs in the north from their bonds to the land and to their feudal overlords.

That would have been bad enough for the Detinans of Ramblerton. Serfs in arms had been their nightmare ever since their ancestors overthrew the blond kingdoms of the north. Because they'd easily won those wars, they professed to believe blonds couldn't fight. The gray uniform on Rollant's back argued against that.

But the stripes on his sleeve were what really made the locals shudder. One of those locals called, "You there!"—not to Rollant, but to his friend Smitty, a common soldier walking at his side.

"You talking to me?" Smitty asked. He was as ordinary a Detinan as any ever born, but for a silly streak.

"Well, who else would I be talking to?" the Ramblertonian demanded.

"Oh, I don't know." Smitty donned an expression of exaggerated idiocy. "You might be talking to my corporal there. He's got more rank than I do. He's the company standard-bearer, and I'm not."

The man from Ramblerton shuddered. "He's a blond!"

Smitty looked at Rollant as if he'd never seen him before. "Why, by the gods! So he is!"

"By the gods is right! It's against nature, that's what it is," the local said. "What do you do when he gives you an order?"

After grave consideration, Smitty answered, "Well, most of the time I say, 'Yes, Corporal,' and I go off and do it. Isn't that right, your Corporalship?"

"Not often enough," Rollant said gravely. "But most of the time, yes, that's what you do. That's what you'd better do." He tapped the stripes on his sleeve.

"I know it." Smitty looked fearful. In confidential tones, he told the Ramblertonian, "He beats me when I disobey. He's terrible fierce, he is. You wouldn't want to mess with him, believe you me you wouldn't."

Animal. Rollant read the word on the local's lips. But the fellow didn't have the nerve to say it out loud. What he did say was, "It's a disgrace to the Detinan race, that's what it is." He walked off with his nose in the air.

"How about that?" Smitty said. "How do you like being a disgrace to the Detinan race?"

"Me? I like it fine," Rollant answered. "But I thought he was talking about you."

"Was he? Why, that son of a whore! Of all the nerve," Smitty said. He and Rollant both laughed. Rollant looked back over his shoulder. The Ramblertonian's back had got stiffer than ever. The blond laughed again.

But the laughter didn't last. By proclaiming he intended to release the Kingdom of Detina's blond serfs from their feudal obligations and ties to the land, King Avram had also, in effect, proclaimed they were, or could at least become, Detinans like any others. The whole of the north set about forming its own kingdom and went to war sooner than admitting that possibility. Even in the south, blonds had a hard time of it although legally on the same footing as real Detinans. Rollant had seen that for himself as a carpenter. He'd had to be twice as good as his competitors to get half as far.

It was worse in the army. Detinans prided themselves on being a warrior race. They also assumed blonds couldn't fight. Smitty had told the local he obeyed Rollant's orders. And so he did—most of the time. A lot of his comrades had been less willing after Rollant won the promotion he would have had long since if his hair were properly black, his skin properly swarthy.

Of course, if his hair were properly black, his skin properly swarthy, he never would have had to flee from Baron Ormerod's estate because he wouldn't have been bound to the land in the first place. Detinans didn't think about such things. Why should they? They didn't have to. They weren't bound, as his people were.

"How do you suppose that bastard would like working somebody else's land his whole life long?" Rollant asked Smitty. "How do you suppose he'd like his baron flipping up his wife's skirt, and nothing he could do about it if he wanted to keep his head on his neck?"

"Oh, he wouldn't have to worry about that," Smitty said.

"Ha!" Rollant said. "Just shows you've never been a serf."

Smitty shook his head and repeated, "He wouldn't have to worry about that." Only when Rollant started to get angry did he condescend to explain himself: "Any woman he could get would be too ugly for a nobleman to want."

"Oh." Rollant felt foolish. "All right. You got me there." He laughed, a little sheepishly.

The true Detinan flag, King Avram's flag, gold dragon on red, flew above the keep at the heart of Ramblerton and on important buildings throughout the town. Displaying false King Geoffrey's reversed banner was illegal as could be. Several Ramblertonians languished in jail for letting their patriotism outrun their good sense. As far as Rollant was concerned, they could stay there till they rotted.

When he'd been back on Baron Ormerod's estate, he would have reckoned Ramblerton the grandest town in the world. No more. After New Eborac City, it seemed small and only half finished. Not a single street was cobbled. All of them were dirt: dusty in the summertime, muddy now that winter was on the way. People flung their slops wherever they pleased, which meant the place stank even worse than it would have otherwise. And, toward the north, Ramblerton just petered out, clapboard houses gradually giving way to woods as one low ridge after another marked the land's rise from the banks of the Cumbersome River.

"No, not so much of a much," Rollant muttered.

"What's not so much of a much?" Smitty asked him.

"This place," he answered.

Smitty wasn't a city man. He came from a farm outside New Eborac City, and hadn't liked going into town even when he'd had the chance. He shrugged now. "Just one more place we've got to hold on to," he said.

"I should hope so!" Rollant said. "I'd like to see the gods-damned traitors try to take it away from us. They'd be sorry to the end of their days, by the Lion God's fangs."

He swore by the Lion God, the Thunderer, and the other gods of the Detinan pantheon. He believed in them. He worshiped them. His own blond ancestors had had gods of their own before the Detinans crossed the Western Ocean and took this land away from them. He still knew the names of some of them. He even believed in them, after a fashion. Worship them? He shook his head. They'd let his ancestors down when those ancestors needed them most. If he was going to worship gods, he wanted to worship gods who delivered.

"We ought to head back to camp," Smitty said.

"That's true." Rollant kept on walking.

Smitty laughed. "I know why you don't want to leave. You want to keep showing off in front of the traitors."

Rollant thought that over. Solemnly, he nodded. "You're right. I do."

But, when Smitty turned back, he followed. Doubting George's army held more people than Ramblerton, and sprawled over a wider area, too. If it weren't for riverboats on the Cumbersome and all the glideway lines that came into the area, the army would have starved in short order. As things were, a swarm of blond laborers—runaway serfs—unloaded boats and glideway carpets and heaved crates and barrels into ass-drawn wagons that would take them exactly where they needed to go.

The laborers were working harder than they would have if they'd stayed on their liege lords' estates. Plainly, they didn't care. They were doing this work because they wanted to, not because they had to. Rollant understood that down to the ground.

He eyed the asses with a certain mournful sympathy. His ancestors had tried to use bronze axes and ass-drawn chariots against the thunderous unicorn cavalry of the Detinan conquerors. They'd tried, they'd fought bravely—and they'd gone down to subjection a whole great segment of Detina had taken enough for granted to be willing to fight rather than see it abridged in any way.

As they neared the encampment, Rollant pointed ahead. "Something's going on."

"Sure is," Smitty agreed. "Whole camp's stirring like a beehive just before it swarms."

"Where the hells have you two been?" Sergeant Joram growled when Rollant and Smitty reached their company. "We're marching inside of an hour."

"Marching?" Smitty said. "How come? Where are we going?"

Rollant was content to let Smitty ask the questions. Joram could have made his life as a corporal difficult, if not impossible. He hadn't done that. But he wasn't any great lover of blonds, either. Rollant stayed out of his way as much as he could—which was also, on general principles, a good thing to do with sergeants.

"We're going up toward the Dothan border," Joram answered now. "Doubting George has given John the Lister a whole wing's worth of men, and we're part of it. Seems like General Bell may be getting frisky up there, so they need us to make sure he doesn't kick up too much trouble."

"What's he going to do?" Smitty said scornfully. "Invade Franklin? After all the lickings he took over in Peachtree Province, he hasn't got the men for that, I wouldn't think."

"Nobody much cares what you think, Smitty," Sergeant Joram pointed out.

"By the gods, somebody ought to," Smitty said hotly. "I'm a free Detinan, and my ideas are just as good as anybody else's—better than some folks' I could name. How's Bell going to invade Franklin if he couldn't stop General Hesmucet, Thunderer love him, from marching across Peachtree Province? He didn't even try."

Had Rollant been so insubordinate, he was sure Sergeant Joram would have raked him over the coals on account of it. He was only a blond, after all. But he'd also seen that Detinans were passionate about freedom (about their own freedom, anyhow; that blonds weren't free seemed to bother most of them very little). They insisted on doing and saying what they wanted when they wanted to, and didn't care what might spring from that. It made them difficult soldiers.

With such patience as he could muster, Joram said, "I don't know how Bell's supposed to invade Franklin with what he's got, either. That's our job—to go down toward the border and find out. And if he's dumb enough to try it, we're supposed to give him a good boot in the ballocks to slow him down. What do you think of that?"

Smitty mimed giving somebody a good kick. Maybe it was Bell and the traitors he led. By the way his foot was aimed, maybe it was Sergeant Joram, too.

"Come on," Rollant said. "Let's get ready to move."

They didn't have a whole lot of getting ready to do. They were veterans; throwing what was essential into their rucksacks took only minutes. Everything that wasn't essential had long since been lost or left behind. Rollant had tea, crossbow bolts and strings, hard bread and smoked meat, a skillet made from half a tin canteen nailed to a stick, and a couple of pairs of socks his wife, Norina, had knitted and sent from New Eborac City. He carried more bolts on his belt, and a water bottle in place of the canteen that had long since split. Smitty's gear was similarly minimal. They both slung their crossbows on their backs and were ready to march.

Rollant had one more piece of equipment to carry. He went to take the company banner from its shrine. Offering a murmured prayer—if he'd had wine or spirits in the bottle, he'd have poured a libation—he plucked up the staff and proudly brought it to the front of the company. Standard-bearers were always targets; he'd taken the job by seizing the banner and keeping it from falling when his predecessor was hit. He made a special target, being not just a standard-bearer but also a blond. He didn't care. As far as he was concerned, the honor outweighed the risk—and the way he'd taken up the banner and gone on afterwards had won him promotion to corporal, no easy thing for a blond to win.

"Good day, Corporal," said Lieutenant Griff, the company commander. Griff was young and skinny and weedy, with a voice that sometimes cracked. But he was brave enough, and he treated Rollant fairly. The company could have had a worse man in charge.

"Good day, sir." Rollant saluted. "Ready when you are."

Griff returned the salute. He was punctilious about military courtesy. "We'll be moving soon, I'm sure. Not everyone is as swift as we are."

"Too bad for the others," Rollant declared.

"I like your spirit, Corporal," Griff said. "You make . . . you make a good soldier." He sounded faintly surprised at saying such a thing.

Ordinary Detinans often sounded faintly—or more than faintly—surprised when they said anything good about a blond. More often than not, they left such things unsaid. That Lieutenant Griff had spoken up pleased Rollant very much. He saluted again. "Thank you, sir!"

"You're welcome," Griff replied. Horns blared just then. All through the ranks, men stirred. They recognized the call to move out. Griff smiled at Rollant. "Raise that banner high, Corporal. We've got some marching to do."

"Yes, sir!" Rollant said, and he did.

* * *

Ned of the Forest turned to one of his regimental commanders as he led the long column of unicorn-riders south. "Feels good to be on the move, doesn't it, Biff?"

"Yes, sir," Colonel Biffle answered. Gray streaked his beard. Ned's beard remained dark, though his hair had some gray in it. "I just hope we can hit the southrons a gods-damned good lick, that's all."

"So do I," Ned said. He was a big man, and a quiet one till he got in a temper or found himself in battle. Then nothing and no one around him was safe. He wore his saber on the right side, where a lefthanded man could draw it in a hurry. He also carried a short crossbow and a sheaf of bolts.

He'd had the crossbow for years. The hilt of the saber was wrapped in leather, not with the gold or silver wire some officers a good deal less wealthy than Ned affected. Unlike a lot of northern nobles, he didn't fight because he loved war and glory. He fought because he'd chosen Geoffrey over Avram, because he wanted to do everything he could to aid his choice, and because he'd turned out to be monstrous good at war. But, to him, the tools of the trade were only tools, nothing more.

"We can lick the southrons, can't we, sir?" Colonel Biffle asked. "We've whipped 'em plenty of times, after all."

"Of course we can," Ned said stoutly. "Of course we have. And of course we will." He didn't like the doubt in Biffle's voice. He didn't like the doubt in his own heart, either. The raids he'd led had kept the southrons off-balance in Cloviston and Franklin and in Great River Province, too. He'd sacked fortresses—once, his men had turned on and slaughtered a couple of hundred blonds at Fort Cushion when they didn't yield fast enough—and wrecked glideways. He'd ridden into southron-held Luxor, on the banks of the Great River, and come within inches of capturing the enemy commander there. He'd heard that General Hesmucet, as grim a soldier as the south had produced, had said there would be no peace in the east till he was dead.

By the gods, I'm not dead yet, he thought.

But he felt no great assurance when he looked back over his shoulder at the force General Bell had scraped together. Even with his own unicorn-riders added in, this was a sad and sorry remnant of the army that had smashed the southrons at the River of Death—had smashed them and then failed to gather up their men who were trapped at Rising Rock in northwestern Franklin. Ned muttered under his breath, calling curses down on the sour, empty head of Count Thraxton the Braggart. Comparing what he could have accomplished with what he'd actually done . . .

Ned muttered under his breath again. He didn't want to think about that. The more he did think about it, the angrier he got. I should have killed him. He'd had his chance, but he hadn't done it.

Biffle said something. "Tell me again, Biff," Ned said. "I was woolgathering, and I missed it."

Colonel Biffle grinned. "I hope you were dreaming up something especially nasty for the stinking southrons."

"Well . . . not exactly," Ned said. Biffle had been along when he had his run-in with Count Thraxton. Even so, he didn't tell the regimental commander he'd been contemplating the untimely demise of somebody on his own side. "Let me know what's on your mind. I'm listening now, and that's a fact."

"I said, I don't like the look of those clouds there." Biffle pointed to the southwest.

His attention drawn to them, Ned of the Forest decided he didn't like the look of those clouds, either. They were thick and black, and spreading over the sky with startling speed. No sooner had that thought crossed his mind than the first harbinger of the wind that carried them reached him. It felt wet and cold, a warning winter was on the way.

"We ought to step up the pace," he said. "Best to get along as far as we can before the rain starts coming down—because it will."

"Yes, sir," Colonel Biffle said, but his voice was troubled. A moment later, he explained why: "We'll get a long ways in front of the pikemen and crossbowmen if we do, won't we, sir?"

Except in the heat of battle, Ned was a man who seldom cursed. He felt like cursing now. Relentless motion was what he depended on to win his battles. However much he depended on it, though, he couldn't use it now. A sour laugh helped him make the best of things. "When you're right, Biff, you're right. We've got to stay with 'em, sure as sure."

He hated that. He felt tethered. He wanted to range freely with his unicorn-riders, to hit the southrons where they least expected it. At the head of the riders, he could do that when they were on their own. When they were also the eyes and ears for the rest of the army, he couldn't, or not so easily.

The wind got stronger and colder and wetter. Before long, the rain he'd foreseen started falling. It was a hard, chilly rain, a rain that would have been snow or sleet in another few weeks. Even as rain, it was more than bad enough. For a little while, it laid the dust the unicorns—and the asses drawing the supply wagons, and the wagons' wheels—kicked up from the roadway. But then, when it kept falling, it started turning the road to mud.

Ned of the Forest still didn't curse. He felt like it more than ever, though. His unicorn began to struggle, having to lift each hoof out of the thickening ooze with a separate, special effort. What his unicorn was doing, he knew every other unicorn was doing as well. They wouldn't be able to go fast now, no matter how much they wanted to.

As Ned yanked his hat down lower to help shield his eyes from the rain, Colonel Biffle said, "Other trouble with this is, it plays merry hells with the crossbowmen's bowstrings. If we do bump into the southrons now, it'll be swords and pikes, mostly."

"Yes," Ned said discontentedly. That wasn't the sort of fight General Bell's men were likely to win. In almost every battle, the southrons could put more men into the field than could King Geoffrey. If both sides could only chop and thrust, who had the edge? The one with the most soldiers, surely.

Down came the rain. Come on, Thunderer, Ned thought in annoyance. You're supposed to be on our side, aren't you? We need good weather to get where we need to be before the southrons know what we're up to.

The Thunderer, of course, did what he wanted to do, not what Ned of the Forest wanted him to do. Lightning flashed. A few heartbeats later, thunder rumbled in the distance. Another lightning bolt crashed down. This time, the thunder came quicker and sounded louder and closer.

"They say you don't ever want to hear thunder the same time as you see lightning," Biffle remarked.

Ned nodded; he'd heard that, too. But . . . "Who are they?" he asked. "The ones who lived?"

"I suppose so," Colonel Biffle said. "I never really thought about that till now." His chuckle was a little uneasy.

"You've always got to think about these things," Ned said gravely. "The more you believe just because they say it's so, the worse things will go wrong if they turn out to be a pack of fools—and, a lot of the time, they do. The only things you ought to take on faith are the gods."

Biffle nodded. But then, with another chuckle, he asked, "Why even take them on faith?"

Ned scratched his head. He'd believed himself a freethinker, but doubting the power of the gods? That had never occurred to him. At last, laughing uncomfortably himself, he answered, "Don't take 'em on faith if you don't want to. The way they show themselves in the world, you don't need to."

"No, I suppose not," Biffle agreed. Lightning flashed again. Through the boom that followed, the regimental commander added, "Pretty hard not to believe in the Thunderer when you hear that, isn't it?"

"I should say so," Ned replied.

It started raining harder. The drops drummed and hissed off the ground, off growing puddles, off the unicorns and men. Ned had to lower his head to keep the rain from soaking his face. He did some more muttering. His riders and the footsoldiers who made up the rest of General Bell's army could keep going forward in such weather, but the supply wagons wouldn't have an easy time. Neither would the catapults and the repeating crossbows that made charges across open country so expensive.

"Captain Watson!" Ned called, pitching his voice to carry through the rain. When he had to, he could make his voice carry through almost anything. "Come up here, Captain, if you please. I need to speak with you."

"Coming, sir!" Watson called back. A moment later, his unicorn rode beside Ned of the Forest's. Colonel Biffle drew off a little way, so as not to eavesdrop; he was polite as a cat. Saluting, Watson asked, "What can I do for you, sir?"

Ned eyed him with more than a little affection, which only showed how things could change. When Viscount Watson first joined his unicorn-riders, Ned had thought himself the victim of somebody's bad joke. The alleged commander of engines had been a beardless nobleman of twenty, surely too young and too well-bred to know what he was doing or to be much use in the field. A couple of years of hard fighting had proved otherwise. Watson still couldn't raise much more than fuzz on his cheeks and chin, but Ned no longer cared. He could handle catapults and repeating crossbows and the men who served them. Past that, nothing else mattered.

Now Ned could ask, "Will your toys be able to keep up with us?" and know he would be able to rely on the answer he got.

Captain Watson nodded. "Yes, sir. I'll make 'em keep up, by the gods. If I have to, I'll unharness the asses hauling them and put unicorns in the traces instead. If that doesn't do it, soldiers hauling on ropes will keep the carriages moving."

"Good man," Ned said. "That was what I wanted you to tell me."

Grinning, Watson said, "You don't ever want to hear no from anybody."

"Not from anybody in my command," Ned agreed. "Not from anybody I'm relying on."

Watson nodded again. He already knew that. Nobody who served under Ned of the Forest could help knowing it. Ned would have been an impossible commander if he hadn't driven himself harder than he drove any of his men. They knew how hard he worked at war, and did their best to match him.

Something up ahead, half seen through the curtain of rain . . . Ned leaned forward, peering hard. It had been a white something, which meant . . . "Was that a southron scout on unicornback there, sneaking off into the woods before we could get a good look at him?"

"I didn't see him, sir," Captain Watson answered. Colonel Biffle shrugged to show he hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary, either.

Wheep! Ned's sword came free from its scabbard. "I'm going to have a look," he said. "If that is a southron, I don't aim to let him get back and tell his pals he's seen us." He spurred his unicorn forward.

Most commanders would have sent out scouts to hunt down an enemy. Ned didn't think like that, and never had. He was as good a fighting man as any he led. He'd been wounded several times, and had close to a dozen unicorns killed under him. As he rode toward the woods now, he leaned forward and a little to one side, using this mount's body as a shield in case that southron had a crossbow aimed at him.

Ned laughed softly. If the fellow did see him and tried shooting at him, he might not have much luck. In weather like this, bowstrings soon turned soggy and useless.

When Ned reached the woods, he slid down off the unicorn and tethered it to the branch of an oak. He could move more quietly and less conspicuously on foot. That southron—if there had been a southron, if Ned hadn't been imagining things—had gone in a couple of hundred yards from where Ned was now. Ned hurried forward, flitting from tree trunk to tree trunk like one of the ghosts the blonds believed to haunt the wilderness. Ned didn't believe in those ghosts, though he did want to send that southron's spirit down to the hells.

A flash of white—was that the enemy soldier's unicorn? Ned of the Forest drifted closer. Yes, that was the unicorn, and there sat the southron, still mounted. Fool, Ned thought. You'll pay for that. The gray-clad soldier had sword in hand, and no doubt felt very safe, very secure. What he felt and what was real were two different things, as he'd soon find out.

With a wordless bellow making do for a battle cry, Ned rushed him. The southron cried out, too, in horror. He had to twist his body awkwardly to meet Ned's attack, for the northern commander of unicorn-riders approached on his left side, and he, like most men, used his right hand.

Swords clashed. The southron managed to turn Ned's first stroke. The second laid open his thigh. The third tore into his belly. He shrieked. His blood poured down the unicorn's white, white flank. Ned of the Forest pulled him out of the saddle and finished him with a thrust through the throat.

That done, Ned sprang onto the unicorn's back. It snorted fearfully and tried to rear. He used his weight and the reins and the pressure of his knees to force it down again. Then he rode it back toward his own men, pausing to reclaim the animal he'd tethered before going hunting for the scout.

The troopers cheered when he emerged from the rain riding one unicorn and leading another. They knew what that had to mean. "Scratch one southron," somebody called, and the rest of the riders took up the cry. Ned waved, pleased with them and pleased with himself.

"Looks like you were right, sir," Colonel Biffle said.

Ned shrugged. "He got careless. The gods won't help you if you don't give 'em a chance."

"I expect you're right," Biffle agreed.

"You bet I am." But then Ned started thinking about some of the things King Geoffrey had done, most notably leaving Count Thraxton in command much too long, till far too much of the east was lost. The gods won't help you if you don't give 'em a chance. He wished he hadn't put it quite like that.

* * *

Captain Gremio squelched through mud that threatened to pull off his shoes with every step he took. The road would have been bad any which way. It was even worse because Ned of the Forest's unicorns had chewed it into a quagmire before any of General Bell's footsoldiers marched down it.

"Come on! Keep it up! We can do it!" Gremio called to the soldiers of the company he commanded. The men from Palmetto Province slogged along in no particular order. But they did keep moving. Gremio didn't suppose he could ask for more than that.

One of the soldiers grinned a wet, muddy grin at him. "You going to send us to jail if we don't?" he asked.

Back in Karlsburg, Gremio had been a barrister. That made him unusual among northern officers, most of whom came from the ranks of the nobility. Baron Ormerod, whom he'd replaced, had owned an estate outside Karlsburg. But Ormerod was a year dead now, killed in the disastrous battle of Proselytizers' Rise. Gremio had led the company since he fell.

He knew he couldn't be too sensitive when soldiers teased him. If he were, they'd never give him any peace. He managed a grin of his own as he answered, "Not likely, Landels. My job back there was keeping people out of jail, not putting them in. Of course" —he stroked his bearded chin— "for you I might make an exception."

Landels laughed. He had to, for the men around him were laughing, too. Show you had a thin skin and you would pay and pay and pay.

Colonel Florizel, the regimental commander, rode up on a unicorn. No one held that against him; he had a wounded foot that had never healed the way it should have. "How are things, Captain?" he called.

"As well as can be expected, sir," Gremio answered.

Florizel nodded, apparently satisfied, and rode on. He hadn't asked the question that most needed asking, at least to Gremio: how well can things be expected to be? Like most soldiers in General Bell's army, Florizel seemed to think everything was fine. After all, the Army of Franklin was moving forward again, wasn't it? Soon it would reenter the province for which it was named, wouldn't it? How could anything be wrong when that was so?

Some people—a lot of people, evidently—had no sense of proportion. That was how things looked to Gremio. A lot of people had trouble seeing what lay in front of their faces. The realm Grand Duke—now King—Geoffrey had fought so hard to form was in trouble. King Avram's men held the whole length of the Great River, cutting Geoffrey's kingdom in half. General Hesmucet, against whom the Army of Franklin had fought so long and so hard, was cutting a swath of destruction through Peachtree Province as he marched toward the Western Ocean, with no one able to stop him or even to slow him down very much. The Army of Southern Parthenia was trapped in Pierreville, with no chance for Duke Edward of Arlington to break free.

Gremio sighed. General Bell loudly proclaimed that his move south would set all the new kingdom's troubles right. Gremio hoped he knew what he was talking about. The barrister-turned-soldier didn't believe that. He was trained to examine evidence and see where it led. He didn't believe, but he did hope.

"Come along! Straighten it up!" Sergeant Thisbe called. "Look like men, gods damn it, not a shambling herd of goats!" Thisbe's light, true tenor pierced the noise of the rain like a rapier piercing flesh. Unlike those of most Detinan men, Thisbe's cheeks were bare of beard. The soldiers, as soldiers often will, paid more attention to their sergeant than they did to a captain.

Trouble seeing what lay in front of their faces . . . Gremio laughed, though it wasn't really funny. How long had he had trouble seeing what lay in front of his face? Only the whole war, up until a couple of months before. If Thisbe hadn't been wounded, Gremio knew he would still be a blind man. He also knew Thisbe wished he still were a blind man.

"How are you feeling?" he asked the sergeant.

"Just fine now, thanks," Thisbe answered. "You see? I didn't need to go to the healers after all."

"You were smart not to, Sergeant," Landels said. "Those bastards will help somebody every now and again, but they bury more than they cure."

"I was smart not to, sure enough," Thisbe said. The sergeant's eyes were on Gremio. He knew just what those words meant, or thought he did. Landels and the other ordinary soldiers marching down the muddy road didn't.

All I have to do is open my mouth, and Thisbe is gone from this company, Gremio thought. He and the sergeant both knew that. He could see some excellent good reasons for speaking up, too. On the other hand, the company would lose far and away its best underofficer if he did. And Thisbe would hate him forever, too.

He didn't know which of those worried him more. That he didn't know worried him all by itself. That he didn't know was, in fact, one of his better arguments for talking things over with Colonel Florizel.

He'd thought so for weeks. No matter what he'd thought, though, he'd kept quiet up till now. That he'd kept quiet worried him, too. He stole a glance at Thisbe. Thisbe, as it happened, was looking at him. The sergeant kept trying to pretend the wound and everything that followed from it had never happened. Gremio had gone along with that up till now. He knew it couldn't last forever, though.

How would it break down? What would happen when it did? He had no idea. Sooner or later, he would find out. Meanwhile . . .

Meanwhile, he kept marching through the mud. As long as he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, he didn't have to think about anything else. Sometimes, even for a barrister, not thinking came as a relief.

Darkness fell earlier every day. Getting a fire started with wet wood wasn't easy. "Where's a mage when we really need one?" somebody grumbled.

It was, Gremio thought, a good question. The north had held on as long as it had in this war because its mages were generally better than the ones the southrons used. Being better for battle magic, however, didn't necessarily mean being better for small, mundane tasks like starting fires.

Gremio looked around. He didn't see any blue-robed mages around, anyhow. He had no idea what they were doing. His mouth twitched in what wasn't quite a smile. A lot of the time, they had no idea what they were doing, either.

Some of his men still carried half-tents that they toggled together to give them shelter from the rain. More, though, had long since abandoned such fripperies or had never had them to begin with. Gremio's mouth twisted again. Tents weren't the most important thing on his mind right now. A lot of his men had no shoes. That was a far more urgent worry.

Eventually, by dousing wood with oil that wouldn't be used on wagons now, the soldiers got some smoky fires going. They huddled around them, trying to get warm. Some poked bare toes toward the flames. Gremio pretended not to see. The only way those men would get shoes again would be by taking them off dead southrons.

Along with his men, he toasted hard biscuits over the fire. Toasting made the weevils flee, or so people said. Gremio hadn't noticed that much difference himself. Every so often, something would crunch nastily under his teeth when he bit down. He'd learned to pay little attention. Weevils didn't taste like much of anything.

Smoked and salted beef accompanied the biscuits. No bugs got into the beef. Gremio suspected that was because they couldn't stand it. Every time he choked down a bite, he wondered who was smarter, himself for eating the stuff or the bugs for having nothing to do with it. He feared he knew: one more thing better left unthought about. But marching made a man hungry as a wolf. If you didn't eat all you could, how were you supposed to keep moving dawn to dusk? You'd fall over dead instead. Gremio had seen men do it.

Thisbe said, "Another day or two and we'll be back in Franklin."

"Seems only right, since we're the gods-damned Army of Franklin," a soldier replied.

"That's what it says on the box, anyways," another soldier said. "But this'll be the first time in almost a year we've really been there—since the stinking southrons ran us out after Proselytizers' Rise."

Low-voiced curses, and some not so low-voiced, made their way around the campfire. All the men who'd been with the regiment then still felt the Army of Franklin had had no business losing that battle. The southrons had swarmed straight up a steep cliff, right at everything King Geoffrey's men could throw at them. They'd swarmed up—and the northerners had run away, leaving the field to them.

"A regiment of men could have held that line," Thisbe said, exaggerating only a little, "but a whole army didn't."

"Thraxton the Braggart's spell went wrong." Gremio spread his hands, as if to say, What can you do? And what could they do—now? Nothing, and he knew it only too well. "The spell was supposed to fall on General Bart's men, but it landed on us instead. We didn't run because we were cowards. We ran because we couldn't help it."

"Well, to the hells with Thraxton, too," Landels said. "Scrawny old sourpuss never did lead us to anything that looked like a victory."

Heads bobbed up and down. Gremio and Thisbe nodded along with the ordinary soldiers. Blaming Thraxton the Braggart meant they didn't have to blame themselves. But they knew they'd fought as well as men could. Thisbe said, "The one time we had as many men as the southrons—when we fought 'em at the River of Death—we whipped 'em. And then Thraxton threw that away, too."

More nods, some angry, others wistful. If they'd laid proper siege to Rising Rock, if they'd starved General Guildenstern's army into submission . . . If they'd done that, the whole war in eastern Detina would look different now. Could they have done it? One man in four at the fight by the River of Death had been killed or wounded. Thraxton hadn't thought they'd had it in them. Maybe he'd been right. But if they couldn't follow up a victory, what were they doing fighting this war? No one seemed to have an answer for that.

A runner with his hat pulled low to keep rain out of his eyes came splashing up to the smoky, stinking fire. "I'm looking for Captain Gremio," he announced.

Gremio got up off the oilcloth sheet he'd been sitting on. He wondered why he bothered with it, since he was already good and wet. "You've found me."

"Colonel Florizel's compliments, sir, and he's meeting with all his company commanders in his pavilion," the messenger replied.


"Yes, sir—as fast as all of you get there."

"I'm on my way." As Gremio walked toward Florizel's tent, he reflected that that was one way to tell Geoffrey's men from Avram's when they spoke, for most of the differences between their dialects weren't great. But, while men in the northern provinces said all of you, those in the south had a separate form for the plural of the second-person pronoun, with a separate set of verb endings to go with it.

Sentries in front of Florizel's tent saluted as Gremio came up. The regimental commander was a stickler for the forms of military politeness. Returning the salutes, Gremio ducked inside.

He was glad to find only a couple of the regiment's other nine company commanders there ahead of him. "Good evening, your Excellencies," he said—both of them were barons, not that either was liege lord to much of an estate.

"Good evening," they answered together, an odd mix of caution and condescension in their voices. They were nobles, and Gremio wasn't, which accounted for the condescension. But he was not only a barrister but had more money than either one of them even if he didn't own land. That accounted for the caution.

One by one, the rest of the company commanders came in. They were noblemen, too. Gremio and they exchanged the same sort of greetings he'd given their fellows. When the last captain squeezed into the pavilion, Colonel Florizel said, "Gentlemen" —he nodded to Gremio, as if to make sure Gremio knew he was included among that elect group— "I want you to convey to your men the certainty that we can yet win this war."

"Hells, don't they already know that?" demanded Captain Tybalt, one of the two who'd been there ahead of Gremio. He had courage to spare and a temper hot as dragonfire, but no one had accused him of owning a superfluity of brains. He went on, "Of course we'll lick the gods-damned southrons."

It hadn't seemed like of course to Gremio for a very long time. While he tried to find some way to say that without actually coming out and calling Tybalt an idiot, Colonel Florizel said, "We're getting entirely too many desertions. Spirits are down. Some of the soldiers seem to think we're bound to lose. We have to fight that. We have to fight it with everything that's in us. Do you understand?"

Some of the soldiers have the sense of ordinary human beings, Gremio thought. But Captain Tybalt didn't seem the only company commander astonished at the idea that his men might need encouragement.

"Do you understand?" Florizel repeated.

"Yes, sir!" the captains chorused. Gremio made sure his voice was loud among theirs. He knew he would have to carry out the order. He also knew a lot of the men he led would laugh at him when he did. They hadn't given up hoping they would win, but more than a few had given up expecting it. He'd given up expecting it himself.

"Very well, gentlemen. Dismissed," Florizel said. "And remember, I want no more desertions from this regiment."

"Yes, sir," the company commanders said again. Again, Gremio made sure his voice rang out. He also wanted no more desertions. He knew better than to expect or even hope for that, though.


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