Check out Like a Mighty Army, the latest in David Weber’s Safehold series, coming February 18th from Tor Books!
For centuries, the world of Safehold, last redoubt of the human race, lay under the unchallenged rule of the Church of God Awaiting. The Church permitted nothing new—no new inventions, no new understandings of the world.
Then awoke Merlyn Athrawes, cybvernetic avatar of a warrior a thousand years dead, felled in the war in which Earth was lost. Monk, warrior, counselor to princes and kings, Merlyn has one purpose: to restart the history of the too-long-hidden human race.
And now the fight is thoroughly underway. The island empire of Charis has declared its independence from the Church, and with Merlyn’s help has vaulted forward into a new age of steam-powered efficiency. Fending off the wounded Church, Charis has drawn more and more of the countries of Safehold to the cause of independence and self-determination.
The wounded Church is regrouping. Its armies and resources are vast. The fight for humanity’s future isn’t over, and won’t be over soon…
YEAR OF GOD 896
Army of Glacierheart, Eastmarch Province,
First Brigade (Reinforced), Glacierheart Province, Republic of Siddarmark
The listening device deployed onto the shoulder of Bishop Militant Cahnyr Kaitswyrth’s tunic was far too small for the unaided human eye to see, but it was capable of remarkable sensitivity, and Merlin Athrawes leaned back in his chair in far-off Siddar City, where darkness had already fallen, listening to its take.
“I’m fully aware of the dispatches from Captain General Maigwair,” Kaitswyrth snapped, glowering across the chart table at Bishop Gahrmyn Hahlys, Bishop Tymahn Scovayl, and Colonel Wylsynn Maindayl.
Hahlys’ and Scovayl’s expressions went simultaneously (and almost instantly) blank at the words “captain general,” and Colonel Maindayl’s lips tightened. The colonel was the equivalent of Kaitswyrth’s chief of staff. He looked as if he wanted to object to where his superior was headed, but he glanced from the corner of one eye at the iron-faced upper-priest in the Schuelerite-purple cassock of an Inquisitor standing at Kaitswyrth’s right elbow and clamped his jaw.
Kaitswyrth glared at his three subordinates for a long, fulminating moment. He’d never been what someone might call a patient man, yet it was unusual for him to show his frustration this clearly and at the expense of divisional commanders like Scovayl and Hahlys. For that matter, it was unusual—not unheard of, but unusual—for him to vent his ire on Maindayl this way.
Of course, he’s under just a bit of stress at the moment, Merlin reflected with a thin smile. Pity about that.
“All right,” Kaitswyrth continued in a somewhat calmer tone once he’d assured himself that no one was going to venture to argue with him. “I understand your concerns, and I understand the Captain General’s concerns, but we’re in nowhere near the kind of dire straits Bishop Militant Bahrnabai’s dealing with. Of course it’s going to turn around and bite all of us on the arse when winter sets in, but at the moment, we have a secure supply line clear back to Dohlar through the Charayn Canal; he doesn’t. And there’s no way the heretics’ Shan-wei-damned—” He paused, obviously seeking the word he wanted, then grunted. “No way those smoking, demonspawn, Proctor-inspired, cannon-proof armored ships of theirs are going to get around into our rear and knock that canal out. Besides, we’ve got over two months’ worth of supplies backed up between here and Aivahnstyn! I know we’re going to have to pick a place and camp there all winter long, once the supply situation really starts to bite. And I know we’re going to have to allow time to get the men under roofs, not just canvas, when we do. But it’s only the end of July, and Vicar Zhaspahr’s right about the need to maintain as much pressure on the heretics as we possibly can before the snow stops us.”
Interesting that it’s “Vicar Zhaspahr” but “Captain General Maigwair,” isn’t it? Merlin reflected. Listening to him, you’d never guess they’re both members of the Group of Four… and that Maigwair’s Kaitswyrth’s commanding officer according to the Army of God’s table of organization.
“I also know Bishop Militant Bahrnabai got hurt badly by the heretics’ new weapons.” Kaitswyrth’s eyes swept his listening subordinates’ faces. “On the other hand, they came at him without warning and took him and his people completely by surprise. Not only that, but aside from their new rifle design, we sure as Langhorne didn’t see any of those ‘new weapons’ when we overran the heretics’ redoubts, did we?”
“No, My Lord,” Maindayl said after a moment. “With all due respect, though, I think we do have to remember that the heretics in those redoubts were Siddarmarkian regulars and heretic Marines. The indications are that we’re up against the heretics’ army now, and from the reports about what happened to Bishop Militant Bahrnabai’s army, their equipment list isn’t the same.”
It took courage to argue, even diffidently, with Kaitswyrth, Merlin conceded. Especially with Sedryk Zavyr, Bishop Militant Cahnyr’s special intendant, standing there with an expression like a green persimmon fig. Kaitswyrth glowered at his chief of staff for a moment, but then he inhaled and made himself nod.
“You’re right about that, Wylsynn,” he acknowledged. “And while it may not seem that way to certain people”—he frowned at Scovayl and Hahlys— “I really am aware of that fact. But even if they’ve got everything Wyrshym told us about, we’re not stuck in a damned valley with no flanks and no choice but to go straight at the enemy.” He thumped the map on the table between them, showing his army’s position in the slice of Eastmarch Province between Glacierheart and Cliff Peak… and the very heart of the Ahstynwood Forest. “The Glacierheart Gap’s over a hundred and fifty miles wide, for Langhorne’s sake! And at absolute worst, the heretics have—what? Ten thousand men? Let’s be generous and grant them fifteen thousand! That’s only a hundred men per mile, and a lot of it—most of it—is covered with trees where their damned long-ranged rifles aren’t going to help them very much, now are they?”
Maindayl looked back at him for a moment and Merlin wondered if he was contemplating pointing out how those same trees hampered Kaitswyrth’s own mobility. If he was, he thought better of it and nodded, instead.
“Well, there’s this to think about, too,” Kaitswyrth growled, thumping the map again. “Right now we’re sitting in the middle of the woods stuck on this damned river like a prong buck sliding down a slash lizard’s gullet. I don’t know about you, but I sure as Shan-wei don’t want to spend the winter sitting out here freezing my arse off. And I especially don’t want the heretics to be able to make whatever preparations they want in front of us while we wait for the icicles to melt off our noses. Look.”
His finger traced the line of the Daivyn River through the Glacierheart Gap to Ice Lake.
“At the moment, that bastard Eastshare’s line of supply is absolutely secure all the way from where he’s sitting back to Siddar City. But we’re only seventy-two miles from Ice Lake, and we’re less than two hundred and eighty from Saithor if we continue straight ahead across the lake and down the Graywater. For that matter, we’re less than a hundred and eighty miles from Tairys itself! You think taking out the provincial capital wouldn’t knock the heretics back on their heels, whatever they’ve managed to do to us in the Sylmahn Gap? I’d love to get that far in—or far enough to send a few thousand cavalry to burn the snakes’ nest to the ground, anyway!—but I’ll settle for punching across Ice Lake. If we can control the point at which the Graywater flows out of the lake, we’ll have our hand around Glacierheart’s throat at the start of the next campaigning season.”
Now that, Merlin thought sourly, is true enough. I imagine Eastshare would have a little something to say about it, but Kaitswyrth’s right about how ugly this could get if he manages to get past the Duke. I wish to hell we had one of the ironclads on Ice Lake right this minute!
“We’ve got over a hundred and fifty thousand men, including the Loyalist militia units we’ve picked up,” Kaitswyrth said, tapping the map more gently but even more emphatically. “They can’t afford to hold a position too far up the river from the lake for fear we’ll get around behind them and cut their line of retreat the same way we did to the first batch of heretics. If we hit them head on and simultaneously hook around to threaten their rear, they’ll have to retreat, and once we push them back to the lake, they’ll be pinned against it, and without all these damned trees getting in our way. I’d love to see them trying to load all of their troops onto barges under fire! And if they try to retreat around the shore of the lake without any cavalry, we’ll be able to get around them easily and force them to stand and fight in the open. So I don’t want to hear any more about all the reasons we should stand fast where we are. At the very worst, we’re going to take some casualties and we’re going to use up some of those two months’ worth of supplies sitting on the river. At best, we’re going to drive far enough forward that we’ll be clear of the Glacierhearts and into the lowlands when next spring rolls around. And in the meantime, we’ll kill a lot more of these heretic bastards. Is that clear?”
His chief of staff and both divisional commanders nodded, and he nodded back—a curt, confident jerk of the head.
“That’ll be all, then. I want plans for the movement by tomorrow night. Dismissed.”
Well, that isn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, Merlin reflected, climbing out of his chair and crossing to the window to look out across Siddar City’s lights. The thunderstorms of the last few days had passed, leaving the air clean and cool, and the lights gleamed cleanly against the dark. There weren’t very many of them and they weren’t very bright by the standards of the Terran Federation in which Nimue Alban had grown up, but they were enough to show the lines of the city’s major thoroughfares, at least. He gazed down at them, his expression moody.
Too bad Kaitswyrth couldn’t simply go ahead and panic. And he’s an idiot for trying to assume Eastshare doesn’t have every weapon Kynt used in the Sylmahn Gap. Or maybe it’s less a matter of idiocy than the fact that he understands exactly why Clyntahn insisted on redesignating his force as “the Army of Glacierheart” and Wyrshym’s as “the Army of the Sylmahn.” Sort of underscores what he thinks should be happening, doesn’t it? And Kaitswyrth’s a lot more likely than Wyrshym to try to give it to him whether it makes sense or not.
Unfortunately he’s not that far off on the numbers in front of him, and he’s less than a hundred and eighty miles from the Graywater, whether he circles north or south around Ice Lake. He could do that kind of distance in less than two five-days if there wasn’t anyone standing around to shoot him when he tried.
And if he managed to cut Eastshare’s supply line the way HMS Delthak and HMS Hador had cut Bishop Militant Bahrnabai Wyrshym’s, Eastshare truly would have no option but to retreat. Despite the superiority of his weapons, he couldn’t ignore the outflanking potential of a hundred and fifty thousand men.
Time for Seijin Ahbraim to pay the Duke another visit, I think. Although first I’d better have a word or two with Nahrmahn. And—he consulted his internal chronometer—with Cayleb, now that he and Sharleyan are off the com for the evening.
“Your Grace, I apologize for disturbing you, but you have a visitor.” Ruhsyl Thairis, the Duke of Eastshare, looked up as Corporal Slym Chalkyr, his batman of many years, admitted Captain Lywys Braynair to his command post workspace. The CP was a solid log and earth bunker, tough enough to resist a hit even from one of the Imperial Charisian Army’s six-inch angle-guns, as befitted the nerve center of Eastshare’s position. His engineers had also placed it with careful consideration of fields of fire, though, and the light of the duke’s lamps gleamed dully on the rifles racked along one wall.
Now Eastshare raised one eyebrow at his youthful, red-haired aide. “And what sort of visitor would that be, Lywys,” he inquired, and Braynair smiled.
“The sort you told me you always wanted to see, Your Grace. A friend of Seijin Merlin’s, I believe.”
“Ah?” Eastshare stood. “Seijin Ahbraim, is it?”
“Yes, it is, Your Grace,” another voice—this one a tenor—said, and Ahbraim Zhevons stepped past Captain Braynair. He was as plainly dressed as ever, brown hair pulled back in a short, clubbed braid, and he bowed to the duke.
“It’s good to see you,” the duke said, extending his right hand to clasp forearms with the newcomer. It wasn’t something he would have done with a lot of commoners, but Ahbraim Zhevons wasn’t your ordinary run of commoner. Despite the fact that he’d never claimed the title officially, there was no doubt in Eastshare’s mind that he was as much a seijin as Merlin Athrawes.
“On the other hand,” the duke continued as he released the seijin’s arm, “you’re not in the habit of just dropping by for a casual conversation whenever you’re in the vicinity. I thought you’d returned to Siddar City?”
“To be precise, Your Grace, I don’t think I ever said I had any intention of returning to the capital,” Zhevons pointed out. “Admittedly, I didn’t expect to be back here in less than two five-days, but plans change. Unfortunately.”
“Unfortunately how?” Eastshare’s eyes narrowed.
“I think our friend Kaitswyrth is about to get a bit rowdy. And unless I’m badly mistaken, he’s thinking in terms of flanking you out of position. Did you know they’ve rechristened his command ‘the Army of Glacierheart’?”
“Ambitious of them,” the duke said dryly.
“I imagine it’s Clyntahn’s subtle hint about which direction it’s supposed to be headed, and I suspect Kaitswyrth’s taken it to heart. I think he’d really like to drive you right back into the lake, but he’s probably ready to settle for getting control of the lake and driving you back on Saithor and Tairys.”
“He is, is he?” Eastshare showed his teeth. It wasn’t a smile. “My people and I might just have a bit to say about that.”
“I don’t think he’s going to come straight at you, Your Grace.”
“And I don’t think he’ll have any choice but to come straight at us, Master Zhevons. This is an excellent position you picked for us. The woods to either side of it are far too thick for him to get formed troops through, and his cavalry’s going to be useless here. And you might want to remember that both the river—and the high road—pass right through the middle of our lines. He’s not getting around us unless he’s prepared to cut entirely new roadways far enough out from the high road that we can’t bring them under fire from here with the angle-guns. Which should keep him busy until, oh, sometime around this time next summer.”
The duke did have a point, Ahbraim Zhevons—who didn’t particularly resemble Merlin Athrawes, thanks to the reconfigurable nature of lastgeneration PICAs—acknowledged. The Ahstynwood Forest clogging the Glacierheart Gap consisted mostly of old-growth Safeholdian species, with very few terrestrial interlopers. Some of those trees were six or even ten feet in diameter—some of the scattering of titan oaks were better than twice that size—and God only knew how deep their roots went. Worse, the oldgrowth forest was penetrated by broad tributaries of second-growth scrub that interspersed dikes of much smaller, far more densely spaced trees and underbrush, and Safeholdian underbrush was even worse than the Wilderness had been back in the ancient American Civil War. Old Earth had never had wire vine, whose thorns made an excellent substitute for barbed wire, or fire vine, which was just as combustible as its name suggested and poisonous, to boot. Kaitswyrth’s Army of Glacierheart wasn’t going to be cutting any roadbeds through that anytime soon.
“I’m not saying he can’t try to work small parties of infantry around us,” Eastshare went on, stepping across to the map of his heavily fortified position hanging on the bunker wall. Major Lowayl, his senior engineer, updated that map on a daily basis, and the duke regarded it with the sort of gleaming eye a miser reserved for piles of gold bars. “But he’s not going to storm this position without paying cash for every inch of it, and I’ll stack my lads up against his in the bushes anytime. I’ve got two entire battalions of scout snipers out there just waiting for his patrols. If his scouts want to stick their heads into that hornets’ nest, they won’t be taking very many reports home with them again.”
Zhevons managed not to wince, although it wasn’t easy. The Safeholdian “hornet” was over two inches long, and if its venom was less dangerous to most humans than it was to native Safeholdian lifeforms, somewhere around ten percent of the human race still experienced an extremely violent and potentially deadly allergic reaction to it. Like the terrestrial insect for which it had been named, it was capable of multiple stings… and unlike the terrestrial insect, it instinctively attacked its victims’ eyes first, which made the duke’s simile particularly appropriate, given the scout snipers’ training.
“I’m glad you approve of the position, Your Grace,” he said after a moment, “but I’m beginning to wonder if my own enthusiasm might not’ve pulled you a little too far forward. You’ve got sixty miles of river between you and the lake. Can you cover that much distance well enough to be sure he doesn’t get batteries into position to close the river against your barges?”
“I can’t be certain he won’t try it,” Eastshare conceded, “but I can guarantee he won’t enjoy what happens when he does. Colonel Celahk’s been working on a little something to keep the spider rats out of the woodwork.”
Zhevons cocked his head. Colonel Hynryk Celahk was Eastshare’s senior artillerist. A native Old Charisian—and an ex-naval officer, to boot—he had a deep and abiding love for things that went “boom.”
“Let’s just say that if they want to try to get six-pounders—or even twelve-pounders—into position against the Colonel’s preparations, they’re welcome to make the effort. Even if they force us to retreat downriver, I’m pretty sure Hynryk can convince them to keep a respectful distance from the bank while we do it.”
“I see.” Zhevons rubbed his chin for a moment, then nodded. “It sounds like I may’ve been worrying unduly.”
“No, not unduly, Master Zhevons,” Eastshare said. “We’re outnumbered better than ten-to-one. Against those kinds of numbers, there’s no such thing as a truly secure position. But I will say friend Kaitswyrth really, really won’t enjoy what it would cost him to push us out of these entrenchments. To be honest, though, I didn’t expect him to try after what Kynt did to Wyrshym—especially after how badly Brigadier Taisyn already hurt him—so your warning certainly doesn’t come amiss. And, while I’m being honest, I might as well admit that he’s got at least two months of campaigning season left. If he thinks he has a realistic chance to push us out of the Gap, he’d be a fool not to take it before the snow begins to fly. So I was probably overly optimistic about what he was likely to do. So optimistic he might actually have managed to surprise us without your visit.”
“I rather doubt that.” Zhevons smiled. “Nice of you to let me down easy, though, Your Grace.”
“You are a friend of Seijin Merlin’s,” Eastshare pointed out with an answering smile. “I’m always polite to friends of Seijin Merlin’s.”
His smile turned into something like a grin, then vanished, and he crossed his arms, contemplating the terrain map beside the diagram of his fortifications.
“Actually,” he said after a moment, “it’s possible I have been a little too overconfident. Lywys.”
“Yes, Your Grace?” the young captain responded.
“Go tell Major Lowayl I need to speak to him. I’m afraid he’ll have already turned in for the evening, so apologize for waking him.”
“At once, Your Grace.” Captain Braynair touched his chest in salute, bowed politely to Zhevons, and hurried off, and Eastshare glanced at Chalkyr.
“I think we need some hot chocolate, Slym.” He smiled slightly. “It may be a longer evening than anyone except Master Zhevons expected.” “Aye, Your Grace. And might be you’d like a plate of san’wiches to keep it company?”
“That wouldn’t be a bad idea at all,” Eastshare approved, and the gray-haired corporal braced to a sort of abbreviated attention and withdrew.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to stay, Your Grace,” Zhevons said apologetically. “I have somewhere else I have to be, and making this detour’s put me behind schedule for getting there.”
“I understand.” Eastshare nodded. “And, again, thank you for the warning. I promise we’ll put it to good use.”
“All I could ask, Your Grace.”
Zhevons bowed and followed Chalkyr out of the duke’s workspace, but he’d left another of his microscopic listening posts behind. By the time he’d performed his customary seijin’s vanishing act into the surrounding forest—and begun reconfiguring his PICA into Merlin Athrawes while he headed for his stealthed recon skimmer—Major Lowayl had appeared in Eastshare’s doorway looking improbably spruce and awake.
“You wanted me, Your Grace?”
“Yes, I did.” Eastshare moved back to the wall map and tapped it. “What would you say if I told you I had word Kaitswyrth is planning a frontal attack—with some flanking efforts thrown in for good measure—to force us to retreat?”
“I’d say he needs a good Bédardist to restore him to his senses, Your Grace,” the youthful major—he was better than twelve years younger than Eastshare—replied with a smile.
“The sort of confident attitude a general likes to see,” Eastshare approved. “But a prudent general tries to think about even unlikely things. So, I’m thinking that there are a couple of ways I’d like to tweak our main position. And I want you to pick one of your best engineers and send him back with a suitable workforce—get on the semaphore and talk to Archbishop Zhasyn; if he could scare up a few thousand of these Glacierheart miners and tell them to bring their picks and shovels it couldn’t hurt—to Ice Lake. I want a fortified bridgehead where the Daivyn flows into the lake. If we do have to fall back under pressure—or even if I just decide it would be a good idea to shorten our line of communications—I want a hard defensive position covering the approaches to the lake.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Lowayl pulled out his pocket notebook and began writing.
“All right, once you’ve taken care of that, I want another fatigue party up here, on the northern end of our position. If I were Kaitswyrth and I was serious about bashing us out of the way, I’d seriously contemplate trying to get around onto the high road to assault Haidyrberg or at least get behind our right flank. And if it should happen he is thinking that way, I’d like to be in a position to discourage him. So, I’m thinking—”
Merlin Athrawes listened to the two army officers as he climbed the extended ladder into the recon skimmer, one hand checking the black dagger beard extruding itself to adorn his chin while his facial features resumed their normal configuration, and smiled.
Ahstynwood Forest, Southwest of Haidyrberg, Westmarch Province, Republic of Siddarmark
There’s something up ahead, Sergeant,” Private Pahloahzky announced, and Platoon Sergeant Nycodem Zyworya tried not to grimace.
Shyman Pahloahzky was barely seventeen, with a severe case of acne and blue eyes which had seen far less than he liked to pretend they had. He’d been increasingly nervous since Bishop Militant Cahnyr’s army had bloodied itself against the heretic redoubts, and he’d adopted an occasionally irritating swagger in an attempt to disguise it, but he genuinely tried hard to be a good soldier, Zyworya reminded himself.
“And what would that be, Shyman?” he asked after a moment.
“Not sure,” Pahloahzky admitted. “I saw something move in one of the trees up there, though. It was too big for a squirrel or a tree lizard.”
Zyworya bit his tongue against a caustic recitation of all the things bigger than squirrels or tree lizards which might be found in an unconsecrated forest like this one.
“I see,” he said instead. “Well, in that case, I think you’d better tell Lieutenant Byrokyo about it.”
“Uh, yes, Sergeant.” Pahloahzky swallowed audibly at the thought of facing the lieutenant, and Zyworya hid a smile.
“He’s right back there,” the noncom offered, pointing back along the trail 2nd Platoon’s lead squad had been following, and Pahloahzky went trotting back towards the center of the platoon. Zyworya watched him go, then raised one eyebrow at the private’s squad leader.
“You think he actually saw something, Hagoh?” Zyworya asked, and Corporal Raymahndoh Myndaiz shrugged.
“I know damned well he saw something, Sarge.” The corporal grimaced. “I didn’t see it, though. Langhorne only knows what it may’ve been—including the kid’s imagination—and he ain’t telling me.”
Zyworya’s lips twitched, but he shook his head reprovingly. “You know how Father Zhorj feels about taking the Archangels’ names in vain, Hagoh.”
“Who’s taking anybody’s name in vain?” Myndaiz retorted. “I just said he wasn’t telling me what Shyman might—or might not’ve—seen, and he isn’t.”
Zyworya shook his head again, then turned to follow Pahloahzky.
Lieutenant Byrokyo, 2nd Platoon’s commanding officer, was barely two years older than Pahloahzky, less than half Zyworya’s age, and he still carried a hint of adolescent awkwardness around with him, but that was about the end of any similarity between him and the private. Byrokyo was selfconfident, educated, and bookish, and he would have made an excellent schoolteacher somewhere.
And he also happened to be one of the Army of Glacierheart’s better junior officers, in Zyworya’s opinion.
“—big was it, Shyman?” Byrokyo was asking as he came into earshot.
“I’m not sure, Sir,” Pahloahzky admitted… probably more readily than he would’ve admitted it to one of the platoon’s noncoms, Zyworya acknowledged. Young or not, Byrokyo managed to be approachable without ever undercutting his own authority. “I only saw it for a second or two, and the light’s really confusing with all those leaves and shadows.”
“But it was definitely up in the titan oak?”
“And it went higher when you saw it?”
“You can show the Platoon Sergeant which tree and how high up it was?”
Byrokyo looked at him thoughtfully, then glanced over his shoulder at the waiting Zyworya. The platoon sergeant shrugged and raised one hand in a “beats me” gesture, and the lieutenant smiled slightly.
“All right, Shyman,” he said. “Give me a minute with the Platoon Sergeant.”
Pahloahzky retired to a discreet, out-of-earshot distance in obvious relief and Byrokyo waved Zyworya closer.
“What do you think?” he asked softly.
“Sir, I think Pahloahzky’s a good kid who’s a little nervous and could be imagining things.”
“There’s a difference between ‘could be imagining things’ and ‘is imagining things,’” Byrokyo pointed out, and the platoon sergeant nodded.
“That there is, Sir. Which is why I sent him to talk to you about it.”
It was Byrokyo’s turn to nod, and he found the fingers of his right hand drumming on the scabbard of his sword. The truth was that serving with the Army of God was nothing like what he’d expected. It was his own fault, he supposed; he’d been so caught up in his books that he’d neglected to consider how shockingly different the reality his sagas recorded might be from the one that actually obtained. And none of those sagas had included the Punishment of Schueler, either. It was one thing when soldiers killed soldiers in battle—uglier and far more brutal than his scholarly imagination had ever suggested, but still different from the far worse things that happened after the battle.
His platoon was part of 1st Company of the Zion Division’s 1st Regiment, and Zion Division had been savagely hammered leading the assault that finally stormed the heretics’ Daivyn River redoubts. The division as a whole had lost over half its original strength in dead and wounded, and even though 2nd Platoon had been more fortunate than that, it had still lost nine of its twenty-four men. Ahtonyo Byrokyo had no intention of losing any more of them, because they were his men, men he’d known and led all the way from the Temple Lands. He was responsible for them, and it was better to be overly cautious than not cautious enough.
“All right,” he said. “We’re not going to jump at any ghosts, Nycodem, but we’re not going to take any chances, either. Take Myndaiz’ entire squad. Nytzah and I will hold here to watch your backs. Have Pahloahzky point out his titan oak to you, and send a couple of men around to the other side. Give it a good look.” He shrugged. “Even if it’s entirely his imagination, let’s treat it as if it weren’t. And make sure he knows we’re not just ignoring him. I’d rather have someone with an overactive imagination telling us about things that aren’t there than someone who expects to get kicked if he tells us about something he genuinely thought he saw and he just happens to be wrong.”
“Yes, Sir.” Zyworya sketched Langhorne’s scepter in salute, then twitched his head at the waiting private, and the two of them headed back the way they’d come.
Corporal Lahzrys Mahntsahlo of 3rd Squad, 1st Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 1st Scout Sniper Regiment, muttered an unpleasant word as the Army of God infantry trotted cautiously down the prong lizard trail. They were in open order—or as close to it as the trail’s confines allowed—and they looked damnably alert this time. He’d been afraid one of them had spotted him, but he’d been moving at the moment the fellow came around the bend in the trail. He wasn’t moving now, and he held very still, blending into the pattern of sunlight and leaves like a hunting mask lizard, concentrating on being invisible, brown eyes watchful among the lines of his green and black face paint.
The Royal Chisholmian Army had long emphasized the value of skirmisher-trained light infantry, yet Corporal Mahntsahlo wasn’t ashamed to admit that, Marines or not, the Old Charisian scout snipers had had quite a lot to teach those skirmishers. For example, the Chisholmians had never worried about actual camouflage. He wasn’t certain why not, yet there it was; the idea simply hadn’t occurred to them. On the other hand, it hadn’t occurred to any of the Mainland armies, either… and he was pretty sure nobody in the Army of God had figured out yet just how hard to see a scout sniper could make himself, either.
The rest of his team was even better hidden than he was, but it was also down on ground level, where the Church riflemen could get at its members. On the other hand….
The oncoming infantry halted, and two men trotted forward, leaving the trail and forcing a way through the last fringe of the blue leaf thickets, clearly swinging outward to circle around the base of the titan oak. Mahntsahlo’s heart beat a little faster, but he reminded himself that just because they were looking didn’t mean they’d find anything. Then he saw the gawky, skinny kid standing in the middle of the trail next to someone who wore the breastplate of a noncom with the three concentric rings of an AOG platoon sergeant. The kid was pointing to exactly where Mahntsahlo had been when he’d wondered if he’d been spotted. Fortunately, that was at least thirty feet lower than the scout sniper’s current position, courtesy of his steel climbing spurs.
He listened to the wind rustling the leaves and waited.
“And whatever it was, it was going higher, Sarge,” Pahloahzky said, still pointing up into the towering tree. He looked a bit sheepish, Zyworya thought, but he was sticking to his guns.
The platoon sergeant scratched his chin for a moment, listening to wind rattle gently in the blue leaf’s waxy leaves and the distant voices of birds and wyverns. The narrow, twisting trail they’d been sent to scout actually straightened for the better part of two hundred yards as it passed the titan oak, and the densely growing blue leaf they’d been pushing through for the last half hour thinned out on either side as it entered the footprint of the titan oak’s deep shade. A thick carpet of leaves stretched away beyond the massive tree in a sort of green twilight, spangled with patches of sunshine that somehow found chinks in the high canopy. The leaf carpet piled up like silt against an occasional fallen tree trunk and it was still dotted with scattered clumps of the persistent blue leaf, but visibility was far better than it had been. On the ground, at any rate. If there was anything up that titan oak, he sure as hell couldn’t pick it out of the leaves and branches. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t something there, and he shrugged.
“Rifles ready,” he ordered, and unslung his own rifle.
Oh, shit, Mahntsahlo thought as he watched the Army of God infantry raise their rifles. He felt a spurt of panic, until he realized they weren’t aimed anywhere near his present position. The relief when he recognized that minor fact was almost painful, but—
“All right, Shyman,” Zyworya said. “You any good at baseball?”
“What?” The private blinked. “Uh, sorry, Sergeant! I mean, yeah… I guess. Played shortstop, usually.”
“Really?” Zyworya grinned. He hadn’t thought the kid had that kind of reflexes. “In that case, find yourself some rocks and start throwing them up in those branches.”
Great. Mahntsahlo suppressed an urge to shake his head as the first rock came arcing up and bounced off the titan oak’s bark with a sharp “thwack” of impact. The kid had a pretty good arm, and he was only about sixty feet up. The rocks weren’t likely to hurt a lot even if they hit him, but they also wouldn’t sound like they’d hit wood, either.
Those bastards are just likely to go ahead and fire, whether they actually see anything or not, if that happens, he reflected, which would be a bad thing. On the other hand, they may not even come close to me, and Captain Gahlvayo wants us to suck in as many of them as we can before they figure out we’re here.
He clenched his jaw, making himself breathe deeply and steadily. In the end, it probably came down to how persistent the damned Temple Boys wanted to be. Lieutenant Makysak would really prefer for him and Corporal Brunohn Sayranoh to give them a little more rope in hopes of getting the column behind them farther forward, but that had to be a judgment call, and the lieutenant trusted them to make the right one. For that matter, Mahntsahlo trusted Sayranoh to make the right one, and someone had to make it. If they only tossed a few more rocks and then moved on, everything would be just fine; if it looked like they were settling in for an extended effort, though….
Young Pahloahzky must’ve had a devastating throw to first, Zyworya thought, watching another rock crash up into the foliage. And the kid was obviously enjoying himself, too. It was pretty clear that whatever he thought he’d seen must have moved on by now—there’d been enough rocks up there to cause just about any critter he could think of to break cover! But he might as well let the boy have his fun, and the rest of the squad was grinning as widely as he was.
Another couple of rocks, he decided, and then we’ll—
The next rock thwacked into the titan oak’s bark and Pahloahzky stooped for another. The private was just straightening back up and Zyworya turned to tell him this would be the last one when something else cracked sharply.
That small turn saved Zyworya’s life. The half-inch rifle bullet which would otherwise have struck him squarely in the chest slammed into his breastplate at an angle, instead. It was still like being hit with a sledgehammer that drove him back three strides, and Shyman Pahloahzky clutched at his butchered face with both hands as the flattened, ricocheting projectile hit him below his right eye. He went down, hitting the leaves, his hands suddenly crimson while he screamed, and Zyworya’s head snapped up and to the right.
A cloud of smoke hung above one of those clumps of blue leaf in the Ahstynwood’s sun-and-shade spangled air. It was a good hundred and fifty yards away across the leaf carpet, and he couldn’t see a single sign of whoever had fired that rifle. But he didn’t have to see the shooter.
“Right flank—hundred and fifty yards!” he snapped. “Myndaiz, take first section and find his arse! Second section with me! Go!”
The corporal—he should’ve been a sergeant, but the platoon had received only six replacements, none sergeants, since the bitter fight to take the heretics’ redoubts—responded instantly. Five members of his understrength squad took the lead, swinging to the right and moving forward at a half run, bayoneted rifles ready, while the remaining five followed Zyworya, more slowly, prepared to engage with fire. The platoon sergeant heard Lieutenant Byrokyo’s voice behind him, snapping orders to Corporal Nytzah’s squad. His own brain was too focused on the task at hand to pay much attention to the lieutenant’s commands, but after so long together, he knew they were the right ones.
Pahloahzky was still screaming, and Zyworya found a corner of his brain marveling yet again at how slowly seconds could pass at moments like this. He’d never realized how flexible time really was until he’d spent an eternity in howling combat only to discover it had been less than fifteen minutes… or seen a score of men killed in the blink of an eye.
Myndaiz’ section was halfway to the dissipating smoke cloud when a dozen more rifles fired. They were at least eighty yards south of the first one, stretched in an east-west line almost exactly at right angles to Myndaiz’ line of advance. Three of his five men went down instantly, and at least three rounds hit Myndaiz himself. The squad’s two survivors wheeled instinctively towards whoever had just massacred the remainder of its men… and a half-dozen more rifles fired.
The entire section was down, Zyworya realized sickly. Two of them were still moving, crawling painfully back towards him, leaving trails of blood behind them, and he couldn’t see a thing. The shooters had to be out there—he could see their smoke—but he couldn’t see them!
“Covering fire!” he barked, and three of the five men with him fired. They had no better target than the drifting smoke clouds, but whoever was behind those rifles had to be reloading—just as Zyworya was—and he wasn’t going to go charging further forward with only five men when at least four times that many were waiting in concealment.
He heard Byrokyo and Nytzah’s squad coming up behind him, pushing along the narrow trail between the encroaching banks of blue leaf, then flinched as several more rifles fired from a line extending at least fifty yards to either side of the first shooter’s position. Another man, this one from Myndaiz’ second section, stumbled backwards, ramrod flying from his hands, and collapsed with a bubbling moan, and Zyworya swore viciously. The blue leaf offered partial concealment, but it was about as effective as a sheet of paper when it came to actually stopping bullets, and the tactical situation sucked. Despite the relative openness of the woodland beyond the titan oak, the terrain was too broken for them to form any kind of properly ordered line, and advancing was going to be an ugly business if they couldn’t even see the heretics! But if they established a firing position here, right around the titan oak, and sent back to Captain Ingrayahn, the rest of the company could come up and—
Lahzrys Mahntsahlo bared his teeth.
He really wished the Temple Boys had simply walked on by his tree. Their persistence had knocked that on the head, though. The members of his squad, unable to see exactly how close the thrown rocks had been creeping towards his own position and with no evidence the enemy planned on moving on anytime soon, had opened the ambush quite a bit earlier than he and Corporal Sayranoh had intended. They’d planned to catch as much as possible of the AOG company on the trail; now it looked like they were going to have to settle for a single one of the AOG’s small-sized platoons.
On the other hand, the L-shaped “fire sack” had worked just fine. The Temple Boys still hadn’t realized there were two full squads of scout snipers hidden out there in what Baron Green Valley had dubbed “ghillie suits.” Mahntsahlo had no idea where the name came from, but he’d been astonished by how invisible one of them could make someone. It broke up the wearer’s outline in three dimensions, blending him seamlessly into almost any background once it was properly customized. Of course, it couldn’t hide the smoke when someone fired, but it was obvious the Temple Boys still hadn’t figured out how readily a Mahndrayn could be used from a prone position. Probably because they’d only gone up against them when they assaulted Brigadier Taisyn’s Marines in their entrenched position, he thought. Not having encountered them in the open—yet—they couldn’t truly begin to imagine all the advantages breech-loading offered. There were dips and hollows in any terrain, and the blind fire from the lead squad’s survivors was all going high, obviously looking for the riflemen they assumed must be standing to reload behind trees or one of the scattered clumps of blue leaf. There was, after all, a reason the scout snipers had concealed themselves near exactly those sorts of cover.
Of course, there was also a reason they’d chosen this particular spot for their ambush, and Mahntsahlo peered down, watching the rest of the Temple Boy platoon stacking up in the narrow, slot-like trail where the much denser thickets of blue leaf concealed them from the Charisian riflemen. He could’ve wished for a bigger bag, but every little bit helped.
The corporal waited another moment, then pulled the preposterously thin strand of braided steel thistle which had been dyed in suitable woodland colors to make it invisible against the thick, rough bark of the titan oak.
Nycodem Zyworya never saw the cord move. He had no way of knowing it was connected to the percussion cap-armed lock mechanism spiked to the ground in a concealing drift of leaves at the base of the titan oak. Nor did he know about the length of quick match leading away from that lock mechanism to the devices the Charisian Army had nicknamed “Shan-wei’s sweepers,” or simply “sweepers,” for short, hidden in the blue leaf on either side of the trail where 2nd Platoon’s survivors were bunched together.
On a planet called Earth, those sweepers might have been called “claymore mines,” instead. They were less efficient than their ancient ancestors because their designers had been limited to black powder rather than more sophisticated explosives, yet they were fully adequate for the task. Spaced twenty yards apart on center, each of the concave directional mines hurled five hundred and seventy-six .50 caliber shrapnel balls in a sixty-degree, cone-shaped blast pattern, and there were five of them on each side of the trail, set back twenty yards into the blue leaf to assure maximum dispersion. On average, each yard of the covered trail received forty-eight balls, traveling horizontally at just over fifteen hundred feet per second.
There were no survivors.
Like a Mighty Army © David Weber, 2014