The longboat cut through the darkening purple of the waves toward the shore of the bay. Senior Lieutenant Antin M'lewis crouched in the bows, his eyes flickering restlessly as the muffled oars beat behind him. No way of telling if the barbs were waiting for them . . . probably not. He looked up for a second; low scudding clouds, and a wet breeze from the east, overland. Rustler's weather, they called it at home in Bufford Parish. Home to the only men in Descott County, or so his Pa had told him the first time he took him out to try for some of Squire Rahmirez's sheep. It had been Squire Rahmirez got him into the Army, too, after the little matter of those two riding dogs he'd sold him. Well, good Spirit bless, did the man think he'd bought them, to be selling them at that price? Good-hearted of him to sponsor M'lewis's enlistment, though. "The Army will be the making of you, me lad," he'd said.
Truer words never passed yer teeth, Squire, M'lewis thought, and spoke under his breath:
"An' if you treat a barb to a dose a' cleanin'-rod He's like to show ye everthin' he owns When he won't produce no more, summat water on the floor Where yer hear it answer hollow to yer boot When the ground begins to sink, shove yer baynet down the chink—"
"Jist some ol' Army musik," M'lewis said.
The keel grated on sand, very quiet. He turned to look at the other boats, half a dozen, with the tethered dogs swimming alongside. None of them made any sound as the men leaped overboard with their rifles over their heads and led the animals up beyond the high-water mark before crouching down beside them. M'lewis slapped palms with the petty officer in charge of the detail—to whom he had been careful to lose money as yet unpaid—and vaulted over the bow, running quickly through the shallow water before too much could soak into his boots. His dog followed with the reins in its mouth, silent-trained, and they all ran crouching up to the lee of the ridge six hundred meters inland. It was good to feel solid land again; the last night had not exactly been a storm, but the wind had been up high enough.
"All right," he whispered, as the others crowded round; there were twenty-two, not forty as battalion legend had it. I has me standards, he thought ironically. "Ye bastids all know yer assignments," he said. "One last word. Yer here t' scout, not finger. Any one a yer stops to lift a shiny pretty or a skirt, better run fuckin' fast an' far."
His hand blurred, and suddenly the man across from him was gasping, hands clawing up to his neck at the coil of wire that had whipped around it. Then he froze, his eyes rolling down in a frantic effort to see the knife-point pricking just above his belt-buckle.
"Fast an' far, because I'll be behind him wit' me little friend here t' take yer breath away. That means ye partic'lar, Dommor Alleyman. Comprene?"
M'lewis flipped the toggle and unwound the wire, patting the man on the cheek. "Good. When th' fightin's done, ye'll all have more gold 'n yer can carry, more likker n' ye can hold, 'n big-titted barb princesses spreadin' wide and askin' fer it. Until then, do yer fuckin' jobs!"
Silent nods, and then they dispersed; two began to put up the big tripod-lantern that would flash directions to the fleet and guide them in safe to the center of the bay. M'lewis smiled to himself; he had chosen them all well. Most were old neighbors—some even from Hole Canyon, his family's subdistrict—and they all had a professional's deep respect for a really successful operator. He pulled the pocket compass out of its case at his belt and took a reading. Surprising how few men realized the value of tricks like that. Gentry-doings, they'd say. How did they think the gentry got on top in the first place?
"Thissaway," he said to the six with him, straddling his dog. "Go."
The felt-muffled surfaces of the stirrups made no sound as he slipped the toes of his boots into them. Well, I'm gentry now. Of sorts; his sons would be Messer-class . . . Keep yer mind on business, ye butthead, he told himself. The dogs moved off, paws almost silent in the deep soft dust of the road, spaced out to ten-meter intervals. Messer Raj's business. A shooting Star of a man, and if you hitched your cart to his harness he'd draw you along. Or you'd go over with him in a crash.
M'lewis smiled into the warm summer night. They were coming up on a hut, and lantern-light leaked through the warped shutters.
"Dicinsyn, Felodez," he whispered. "Around the rear. No killin'." Time to find out some local news, then on to that well the map marked.
* * *
"Yer map's not bad, but sommat incomplete, ser," Antin M'lewis said. "Anyways, no concentration of barb sojers anywhere within three hours' ride. Hardly spotted a man under arms; no Squadrones t' speak of."
"Bring that lantern over here!" Raj called over his shoulder. The landing was going surprisingly well, considering that it was night and there was a moderately stiff onshore breeze. At least the transports had not had to tack their way in.
The coal-oil lamp was the bull's-eye type; Raj took it and clicked open the shutter to illuminate the map. M'lewis crouched. He had burnt cork on his face and hands, and a black bandanna around his head. The map was copied from originals more than a century and a half old. The gross terrain features would be there, but the most valuable parts of the Ordinance Survey, the houses and field-boundaries and woods, would have changed drastically.
"Thisshere ridge"—his finger pointed inland, to their west—"don't have the houses over the edge what's marked, ser. Jist a couple'a huts. I got two, three men in each. Land over t'ridge is all split up inta little fields croppers work fer th' barbs. I got a couple, they talkin' pretty free. Don't love them barbs, nohow. Then here"—he touched a spot marked with the symbol for an inn—"'tis a village now. Mondain by name. 'Bout two hundred houses, rubble wall shoulder high. Not hardly no problem. Some militia; we kin take it an' use it fer a base right off, yer gives the word, Messer Raj."
Raj thought, turning again to look at the bay. With both moons down, the night was pitch-black, and the beach was milling chaos. Lights darted back and forth on the water, and he could see a dull red glow from the funnel of a steamer, but the running lights of the vessels were out by his order. This was far too close to Port Murchison for safety; only twenty-five kilometers, one day's forced march and less than that for a ship. As he watched another transport ghosted in, the long rumbling crunch of its keel bedding in the sand ending in a louder crackle as its prow struck a ship already ashore. There were yells of fury ending in the thwack of a rope's end on a bare back, and the moaning whimper of a frightened dog.
"No," he said. "First things first; we'll get this sorted out." He leaned forward and slapped the little ferret-faced man on the shoulder. "Good man. Excellent work." He looked up. "Captain! How many of your company ashore?"
Foley stopped in mid-stride. "All of them, sir," he said. "Gerrin's in the next boat; we've got about half the dogs in. Bloody hell getting them over the rail in the dark."
"Good; get two platoons up on the ridge. There are some of the Scouts in those two hovels on the ridge. Relieve them, get up there, and lay me out a perimeter defense. I'll feed men up as they arrive. Now, M'lewis. What I want you and your scouts to do is get me some farmers. And their wagons; collect them, tell them they'll be paid—no, pay them, for whatever spare supplies they'll bring in."
"Already done, Messer Raj; figgered we couldn't nohow leave 'em t' run off to the barbs after they'd seen us."
"Good. Put a dozen wagons aside—"
Menyez came by, with a pair of infantry battalion-commanders in tow. "Sir," he said. "It's going according to plan, but Dinnalsyn says we can forget about the guns until tomorrow or until we can get the floating pier up, whichever comes first."
"Fine. That transport?"
"Rock under the sand; broke her spine. Hopeless."
"There's some good in everything; get some fatigue-parties breaking her up for fuel. Warm or not, I want the men dry; dig fire-pits, no big blazes."
Raj turned back to M'lewis "—and leave them half-full. Fodder, for choice, hay, anything like that." He gave the map a last glance and stood, considering. Men with banners were forming up on the beach, a few hundred meters between each, calling—
"3rd Chongwe! 3rd Chongwe!"
"88th Seyval! 88th Seyval!"
Out of sight of his men for a moment, Raj rubbed his temples, his knuckles rapping against the rim of his helmet. The landing was a complete ratfuck. A thousand Squadron cavalry—the personal retainers of a single major landowner—could slash the force into bloody windrows at the edge of the surf.
How are we doing, Center? Raj thought bitterly.
better than expected, Center replied.
Raj stiffened in surprise; the machine voice sounded almost jovial.
if the enemy reacts perfectly, both in making a plan on the basis of statistically-insignificant intelligence and in execution of that plan, then they could successfully attack us tonight. in that case, i will begin to believe in a god myself. A pause, perhaps a heartbeat long. theirs.
More than half the 5th had already gathered around their standard; he came up to it himself just in time to see Gerrin Staenbridge wading up from the surf, sopping water from head to foot and sneezing.
"Evening, Raj," he said cheerfully. "Stepped out of the boat into a bloody sinkhole."
They slapped palms. "Glad to see you. As soon as the next wave of men and dogs are ashore, take the 5th inland to the ridge; Foley's setting up there. Dig in, and push out some patrols, men who won't fall over their feet in the dark. M'lewis has supplies and wagons coming in; I want everyone who can to have a hot meal and at least a couple of hours' sleep. I'll send some infantry up, relieve you eventually. Staff meeting one hour before dawn."
"Got it," Staenbridge said. Then he looked beyond Raj's shoulder. "Ah, Messa Suzette. More radiant than ever," he said.
Raj turned; Suzette was in her riding clothes, linen and leather looking stained with salt
"You flatter, Gerrin."
"Not in the least," Staenbridge said; he smiled warmly and raised the extended hand to his lips for a brief moment. "Not being as blinded as most men by the exterior, I can see better within."
Some of the rest of the household came up behind her. Fatima first; the nurse and her son were back on the ship, until the beachhead was secure. She had a cork-insulated flask in her hands, and began pouring cups for Suzette and the Companions.
"Ahh, nectar," Raj said; it was hot black kave, sweet and with a dash of brandy. The Southern Territories were dry enough that even an early-summer night could be chilly, and there was a sea breeze.
"Gerrin," she said, with a mock pout. "How come you kiss her hand and not mine?"
"Because, mother of my son, you are an imp and she is a very great lady. Sahud!" he finished, raising his cup.
"Health," they replied.
"Where's our good Administrator?" Raj went on, looking over the papers Thiddo had handed him. "Outstanding, Thiddo. All right, bivouac them. One company up to the ridge; Gerrin will assign the sectors."
A fleeting hardness went across Suzette's face as she shrugged and answered her husband. "Still puking his guts out on the flagship, while Admiral Ghardineri runs around looking at the sky and tearing out his hair," she said. Then she smiled and took a deep breath of the damp, chilly air. "It's much nicer here."
Raj threw back his head and laughed. The stars were very clear through the gaps in the clouds. Suddenly he felt bright, almost transparent, at the cusp of a moment more rare than diamonds.
"A night landing in a high wind, on hostile soil, with a battle to fight tomorrow. Not enough sleep, or intelligence . . . maybe all the Squadron's hosts roaring down on us."
"You can throw a party, Whitehall, I'll say that for you."
They looked at one another, grinning, and touched fists in a pyramid.
"Well," Suzette went on, "Fatima and I will scare up those priests and Renunciates and get the infirmary open. There'll be enough broken legs and smashed hands from that," she said, nodding out to where yard-arms were being used to lower nets of supplies to men standing waist-deep in the surf.
* * *
"Men, ammunition, dogs, food, and medical supplies in that order, Captain," Raj said patiently. You ruddy imbecile, he thought. Patience was like a millstone that could crush out results if you gave it time. The young man looked harassed and bewildered and out of his depth, here under the curving stempost of the ship.
"Yessir. I see, sir."
I hope you do, Raj thought. "So that's why we have to push this ship off even though it's still partly loaded. The wheeled transport and tents can come ashore when we're more secure. See to it—"
A voice spoke at his elbow, more insistently when he made shooing motions. He turned; the torchlight was dim, but—
"Admiral Gharderini," he said resignedly.
"General, we must stop this—stop this unloading immediately!"
For a moment Raj stared at him, then looked up and down the crescent beach. Firelight provided more visibility now, but the operation was just getting into high gear. Soldiers with guardia armbands were getting most of the ordinary soldiers off the beach and to their unit bivouacs quickly enough, though that often meant pushing a way through the working parties carrying supplies up to the piles just above the high-water mark; stiff, grumpy dogs were led up out of the surf, their heads held high. A torch hissed as one stopped and shook himself in a spray like a salt thunderstorm. The dogs would have to be watered, and soon, or they would be very unhappy indeed. Unhappy five-hundred-kilo carnivores were bad news anywhere, and worse than that on a crowded sandspit in the dark with fifteen-thousand-odd men trying to find their unit assembly areas. There was a freshwater spring just under the ridge inland. . . .
"There is an onshore storm coming, I am sure of it," Gharderini said, making a hand-washing gesture. "I can smell it. We cannot let the fleet be caught on a lee shore! Embark the men—we can beat off the coast and sail right into the harbor at Port Murchison, they'll never suspect on a night like this, and the fleet will be safe behind the breakwaters."
For a moment Raj simply stared at the naval officer. When he took the smaller man by the elbow and steered him several steps into the darkness, it was more gently than he had first intended. Gharderini was afraid for his ships, not himself, and he was a competent seaman; he'd done a pretty good job of getting everything here. The problem was that he was focused on his own aspect of the task, not taking in the big picture—which was Raj's responsibility, sure enough. His responsibility to make it clear to Gharderini, without an open quarrel, which would be bad for the men, bad for morale.
"Listen to me, Messer Admiral," Raj said, facing the man. His hand was on the other's shoulder, his saber-hand, and he used willpower to prevent it dosing like a mechanical clamp through the Admiral's deltoid muscle. "That doesn't matter." Gharderini bleated. "The fleet is expendable; the troops are not. If worse comes to worst, beach your ships and get the crews ashore. We can fight as long as we have the soldiers and their dogs and rifles." Although the Spirit knows I'd appreciate having my artillery ashore. Dinnalsyn was moving mountains getting a temporary pier rigged, but it was man-killing work.
"Lose the fleet?" Gharderini said, with a tone much like that of a man just asked whether he would like to eat his children. "Ground the warships?" The steamers were much more heavily built than the transports, but grounding their rams in a surf would mean having them pounded to bits in short order.
"If necessary," Raj said. Then he thrust his face into the naval commander's. "Do—you—understand—me?"
Gharderini pulled himself free and stumbled clear.
It would have to do. Damn, I wish I had time to get him on-side, Raj thought. Now, what was I doing before that damned interruption—It was going to be a long night and a longer day.
* * *
Several of the men at the fire had started up. Two more walked out of the shadow, rifles leveled at the cloaked figure. Raj let the hood slip back, and the men halted, gaping.
"Suh!" the corporal said, springing erect.
"No need, not tonight, men," Raj said, walking forward into the light of the fire. The soldiers were infantry, he could tell from the blanket-roll packs some of them still had slung. He returned the noncom's salute. "Mind if I warm myself at your fire a little?" he said.
There were awkward murmurs; he sank into a crouch and warmed his hands at the coals glowing in the pit they had dug in the sand while they shuffled and sank back to the ground. He looked around the little encampment. Two sections, sixteen men; they'd laid out their shelter-halves as groundsheets, and stacked their rifles regulation-wise, in tripods with the helmets hanging off them like grotesque fruit. Down by the beach unloading went on, but more slowly; most of the men were ashore, and only some of the dogs and the heavier supplies waited for dawn. A pier of longboats covered with planking had been rigged, braced with cable, and a jib-boom crane was lowering a field piece onto the seaward edge of it. It swayed and dipped under the weight, but the waiting crews were running it forward as soon as the wheels touched wood, a sound like thunder over the loosely fastened planks.
There was a pot of bean soup bubbling on the fire, and a stack of flatbread laid out on somebody's blanket-roll next to a helmet full of small ripe apricots.
"Just stopped by to see you lads had what you needed," he said. "Water all right?"
From the lack of conversation before he walked in, they'd been sitting and worrying.
"Yes, suh," the corporal said. "Got a length o' sausage 'n summa ham fuh d'pot. 'N other stuff."
Raj took out a packet of cigarettes and handed them around. One of the soldiers broke his in half and tucked the other part behind his ear before lighting it.
"I really hope you paid for it all, too," Raj said. The troops nodded, although the older man who had broken his cigarette frowned slightly.
"Yas, Messer General, suh. Seems a might waste a' money, it do. Weuns doan' see much cash-money."
"Well, lads, think of it this way. The most of you were croppers, before you went to follow the drum, right?" They nodded, a circle of ox-eyed faces still struck with awe to see the general within arm's reach. "These farmers here, they're not our enemies. They're croppers too, only for heretics who don't worship the Spirit of Man of the Stars, as we do—and as the peasants here do, too. No, they have to pay tithe to the heretic church at peril of their souls, and hide their priests like rabbits. On top of all that, they don't need us to come and steal their pigs and chickens, do they? We're here to set them free, not afflict them."
The others nodded, although the old sweat looked a little skeptical. "We'll be fightin' tomorrah, then, suh?"
"Probably, fellow soldier. And the day after: but not tonight; you'll have time for a meal and some sleep. It was only the thought of the barbs attacking us when we came ashore that had me worried; but the Spirit was with us. That's why we have to act with justice, lads; the Spirit won't fight for an army that doesn't." More nods, round-eyed and solemn with agreement.
"Messer Raj, suh," one of the young soldiers said. "Kin Ah ask a question, suh?" At Raj's smile and nod, he plunged on. "It's muh ma, suh. Mah pa's dead, 'n if Ah was to die . . . she'd be hard put to it without mah guvmint-farm. She worries 'bout me sumthin' awful, she do."
Raj slipped his notebook out and jotted briefly. "Don't worry, lad . . . Private Dannal Huiterrez, isn't it? Spirit preserve you, but if you fall we'll see the campaign bonus and your share of any plunder gets sent to your family. I'll have a note sent her, by the way; it's a good son thinks of his mother, and she should know."
And I should know why the officers of the 88th Seyval Infantry haven't attended to that, he thought to himself. He sighed and stood, butting out the cigarette.
"Spirit of Man of the Stars with you, boys. Get your rest."
"Spirit bless ye, Messer Raj!" they chorused; there was a buzz of excited talk as he left. Much better than brooding silence, he thought.
The next campfire he stopped at was some distance away; a group of the 5th Descott. Some of them were cleaning rifles or putting a last edge on a saber or bayonet, or just leaning back against their saddles watching the chickens they had turning on an improvised spit over their fire. One man was strumming at a guitar:
"Listen to 'em callin'—callin' with all their might All a summer's evenin', and halfway through the night— Donna—"
The music broke off as he strode up; you needed a different approach with County men.
"Hello, dog-brothers," he hailed them. "Wouldn't happen to be wine in that water, would there?"
* * *
Mondain woke early, like any farm town; it had perhaps two thousand souls, almost all of them land workers. A gong was ringing from the little church of the Spirit of Man of This Earth; by far the minority congregation in the village, but by law the only one allowed to have bell or signal. Woodsmoke rose from chimneys, or through the smokeholes of houses too humble for that. Most of Mondain was narrow lanes partly cobbled and partly packed dirt, between houses of peeling whitewashed adobe. A few houses near the central well were more substantial, multiple rooms around small patios, although the exterior of the Star Spirit church was deliberately humble. Men rose yawning, to eat the morning gruel prepared by women who had been up for an hour or better. The smell of kave came from a few of the better-off households: the priest, a notary, the headman, and the single half-breed Able Hand who was the Squadron's only representative in town. Riper smells came from middens, compost heaps, and the honeybuckets of the night-soil collectors, taking their contents toward the gate and the farmers' fields that would receive it.
At the gate, grumbling fieldworkers waited for the militia guards to open the woven-lath doors, leaning on spade and hook and bill; the militiamen were freeholders or artisans, but the laborers had walking to do before their day's work on nearby estates. Beyond, the narrow dirt road wound away into the fields, dusty olives and figs near the village, with reaped wheat and barley beyond. A dozen or so carts were waiting to enter the village, high-wheeled and vividly painted, mostly loaded with alfalfa fodder for the town's few oxen. It was a brilliant early-summer morning, last night's unseasonable wind and cloud gone, still crisp but with a hint of the heat that would turn afternoon into a white blaze.
"'lo, Danyel," Aynton Mugirez said to the first farmer outside as he leaned against the midpoint of the gates to swing them open. "Spirit bless." He was corporal of town militia; no great honor, but it brought a little extra blacksmith's work his way, paid in hard coin.
The farmer mumbled nervously; from the loose hay behind him a rifle was poked firmly against the base of his spine. He chucked to the oxen and they walked forward with the stolid, swaying pace of their breed, the ungreased wooden axles protesting. Farmworkers crowded past, and the wheeled traffic within waited impatiently in side lanes. The militia leaned their backs against pounded rubble of the town wall, waiting for the second gong that would send them to home and bed, free for another month of the irksome duty barely worth the tax remission. Wagon followed wagon, until half were through the gate and curving down the lane. It was then that the militia corporal grew suspicious. The farmers driving the carts were very quiet; Mugirez's eyes widened, as he thought of the tricks bandits sometimes played.
The Squadron lords were supposed to scour bandits out of the hills and wild woods. Some attended to it, others ignored anything that did not threaten their rents. Some actively connived at outlaw gangs, as long as they raided a neighbor's estates: Most outlaws were of Squadron blood at that, broken men or ones who'd lost their lands. Bandits, Mugirez thought. Rape, fire, the best young people dragged off for foreign slave markets, the survivors starving without the seed corn and plow-beasts, and the rents for the masters would be abated not one sentahvo. He stepped toward the nearest wagon, raising his musket.
"Hoy!" he shouted. "Stop them—"
A figure catapulted from the hay. The militia corporal leveled his musket and pulled the trigger. Whang, and the other's rifle swept it aside; the ball thumped into hard-packed dirt. The blacksmith roared and tried to club his weapon, but the follow-through stroke drove the steel-shod butt into the side of his head with force enough to send him reeling back. It was only as he slid down the wall clutching his bleeding head that he noticed the men exploding out from the wagon-loads of fodder were dressed in uniforms—blue jackets and dark-red pants.
* * *
M'lewis held his aiming-point on the militia, grouped in a frozen tableau, half-rising from their resting positions. Rick me fer an ijit volunteer, he thought bitterly. I had t'go 'n have ideas. Mother M'lewis didn't raise no volunteers. . . .
"Drop it, drop it, drop it," he shouted. The words were comprehensible enough; Sponglish and Spanjol were closely related tongues, and many simple words were very similar. The leveled rifles spoke volumes more, and the taut grins of the dark hard-faced men behind them. "Nobody gets hurt if yer drop 'em!"
The muskets clattered to the ground; the soldier winced at the weapons' rough treatment, and one hammer did click home. The flint sparked against the frizzen, but the musket misfired. Shouting grew and died in the immediate area as the ones under the menace of the guns backed up against the nearest wall and froze. A murmur ran among them: Gubernio Civil. Civil Government, the fabled overlords their great-grandparents had known. Awe touched their faces, growing when the man beside M'lewis unfurled the blue-and-silver Star banner of Holy Federation. A few raised their hands in prayer or touched amulets.
Other Scout parties were on the wall elsewhere around the town. M'lewis nodded at one of his men, who raised a small rocket on a stick and struck a match.
* * *
" . . . come to set you free," Raj concluded, hooking his thumbs through his belt. He was standing on the steps of the headman's house, the only stone structure in the village, and it gave him a good vantage.
The people of Mondain stood silently in the little plaza of their town; all of them, save for the sick and two-score This Earth heretics, under guard in their chapel. They were not that different from a crowd of central-province peons back home; dressed in unbleached cotton pants and shirts, holding their floppy straw hats respectfully at their chests. Women in blouses and skirts of the same fabrics; both sexes mainly barefoot, and smelling fairly strong. Taller and lighter-skinned than most in the east, although lives spent working under the sun could hide that. Very old legend spoke of migrations from different worlds—or countries, it was unclear which. Tekhanos, Sonoras, and Pairhagway back home; Hargentin, Hespanya, and Hile out here.
"No soldier will steal or kill," Raj went on, keeping it simple. His Spanjol was book-learned, and probably hard for these peasants to understand. "They will pay for everything they need, in good silver." That brought a stir, and an incredulous murmur. The concept of armed men paying for their food was strange. "If any causes harm, tell an officer, and the criminal will be punished. Let us pray to the Spirit of Man of the Stars."
He made a gesture with one hand, and the local Star priest came forward with the 5th Descott's chaplain beside him. They raised their staffs of office and began to chant a hymn, one of the most ancient of the Star faith; the peasants joined in, showing more enthusiasm than they had for the speech. Religion was something they understood very concretely, and they knew no public service had been held in their faith since the Squadron came. A few of the older villagers were in tears, weeping with joy as the soldiers joined in the song.
I hope tears of joy are the only ones I bring you, Raj thought. But I sincerely doubt it.