There grows a compelling fascination, and in that fascination lies her power.
Once you have lain in her arms you can admit no other mistress.
You may loath, you may abominate, but you cannot deny her.
Even those who hate her most are prisoners to her spell.
They rise from her embrace pillaged, soiled, it may be ashamed.
But they are still hers.*
She is war.
*adaptation of a quotation by Guy Chapman
The Imperial View.
In a world not of our knowing and a time of change in a land consumed by conquest a story comes of a great struggle.
The autumn was marked by a flurry of letters. To and from the Imperial palace the correspondence had shuttled all spring and through the long hot summer. Now at last it had paid dividends and the full orders for the restructuring of the Armies of Latii could be distributed.
Latii was a land of borders, each of them constested. To the north the land was parched, quickly turning to desert. To the north east lay the lands of Mides, good fertile land inhabited by people of the same race as Latii even to the point of the two peoples referring to each other as of Milatan stock but seperated from each other by a civil war three hundred years in the making. A war that Latii would not let go, but from time to time was forced to as her neigbours fought back at Latiian expansion. Those neigbours to the south, east and west were of distinctly different races of peoples. To the west and south-west were the lands of Sia and Sur. Peoples of an ancient order, smaller in stature than Milatans but like them having a similar tongue to each other. These older peoples did not take kindly to their ancestral lands being invaded and much to the Emperor’s chagran violently resistant to those incursons. The peoples in the south, again of a different stock and language also fought back against what Latii saw as the natural conquest by a miliarlily philosophically and physically superior people.
To the east and west apart from minor skirmishes and opportunistic encounters the borders were stable. Sia had the moutains to her back, the foothills between not really worth the taking. Nul to the south-east was a diiferent kettle of fish, good land but protected by a hardy and capable people caught up with their own wars with the Sur. The Sur were tenacious and implacable. Strong and resourceful with castles and fortified towns marking the contested zone and a very capable military system to back those fortifications up.
The borders to the east and west may be quiet for now, not so those north-east and south-west. To the north was the constant irritant of Midean presence not accepting the authority of the Emperor and chipping away at Latiian land. To the south it was the Sur. Huge tracts of land that used to be Surian territory had come into Latiian control with Latiian farmers on the land but as the land raised so the resistance intnsified. Sur had bastions that needed to be broken, lesser beings that must be subjucated. Perhaps eliminated.
It had been noted in the Empirical Court in session on the 49th day, 5th sector of Emperor Raznakii's 17th year of reign, that the Emperor himself commented favourably on the successful final re‑acquisition of the northern Latiian district of Woneiia, and in particular the satisfactory subjugation of the city of Wonarr.
Responding to the assurance from Asadnii, Commander Army Group North, that the region was now reliably stable and secure, the Emperor expressed the desire to direct the attentions of his current favourite and victor of Wonaii, the Nakpotii Hapatkiiprii onto the rationalisation of his Southern borders. On hearing this, Ipokallii, Commander Army Group South immediately launched into a diatribe, explaining how the situation in the south, and particularly the region of Jalii, for that he knew was where the Emperor had been persuaded action must be met, was more stable than that in Woneiia. The conflicts of over a year ago were no more, the enemy had returned to their lines and stayed there. There was furthermore, no indication of renewed hostility and in his opinion a real threat no longer existed in that direction.
That view was as swiftly contradicted of course by Ipnanii, Lord of Jalii. Fuming verbally that the concept for it be acceptable that one of his towns, a part of his fief should remain in foreign hands appalled him. That the aggressive stance that had for so long secured the territory had been abandoned and that the Emperor's lands lay open to foreign incursion dismayed him. Arguing loudly that because since winter last, the enemy had chosen not to make profit from the situation was a circumstance of luck, and could not be relied on to continue. Evidence was strong, he continued, that even as they spoke a massive build up of the enemy's arms was under way. For himself, Ipnanii of Jalii had ordered every town fortified and raised extra militia for their defence. To contain and defeat the foe in the field however, he must rely only on Ipokaliis' Armies. He implored, no, begged the Emperor to action his desires and transfer the central might of Latii against the Sur. For if that were not done, and that right soon, there was a real risk that other councils of war would see a weakness and act upon it.
Ipokalii countered with the accusation that he saw none of this 'evidence', and if Ipnanii were truthfully in possession of such, why did he not present it to the Army Commander on the spot, that is to say, himself. Again, in Ipokaliis' opinion any military escalation would only exacerbate matters and set in train a series of events that would suck in ever more Latiian troops. Troops that by his estimate and experience would be sorely needed in the coming sectors and years exactly where they were now. In Woneiia.
At that point Raznakii the Emperor, halted what had become an open discussion.
"Enough !" He cried out. "Am I the Emperor of Latii, or minor Lord of some timid vassal province?"
Confusion was writ large, and those who saw it as answerable spoke "Latii !"
The word was taken up and became a shout. "Latii !"
Even then it grew into a cheer, an adulation. "Latii! Latii! Latii!"
As the cry threatened to overwhelm the room, the Emperor stilled it.
"Thus". The Emperor decreed, "Woneiia is won. Jalii is restive. Asadnii shall relinquish Hapatkiiprii and fifteen legions unto Ipokalii. These same shall march immediately and by the time of their arrival in Jalii a plan of action shall be provided to stamp the mark of Latii forever on those who inhabit the lands outwith our present borders."
As it was spoken, so was it done.
So at Imperial decree had the whole thing been done, but that somewhat previously;
It had all begun with Wonarr. That too had started with an Imperial decree, posted prominently in the capital city for all to see:
The Imperiat. 15‑4‑51.
Soldiers and people of Latii !
Too long has the hand of Mides lain desiringly on Latiian lands.
The time is upon us to eliminate this stain on the honour of our people.
Let us now go forward with a will, and free the province of Woneiia. Let us cast off the yoke of Milatan oppression which binds our brothers, still caught up in that sad land.
Let us raise up new legions and once more carry aloft the banners of Latii in a just and mighty war! Let us avenge ourselves of those defilers of treaties, those enemies of right, those Mides!
These are the words of Rasnokii.
Emperor of the Latii.
In the way of it, that an emperor needs consult with his warlords, it was followed some time later by letter to Asadnii.
The Imperiat. 15‑10‑13
In accordance with my decrees of 15‑4‑51(202), 15‑6‑44(513) and 15‑7‑22(844), you shall be in receipt of a further nineteen legions to your Army Group.
I have asked of the five Lords that they send you not the newly raised, but their best legions. It is my desire that these be welded into a separate force, which I shall call my Army of Dewa. This force will however for the time being be allotted to your jurisdiction.
Put your best man to it, for I shall expect much of this Army of Dewa. It shall become my hand of retribution. The fist of Latii.
I shall keep personal note of progress in the formulation and activities of this force, but do not fail to advise of aberrations or laggardliness for such may have been deliberately kept from me. The first contingents should start reaching you with the new year and I, with all Latii shall expect action by full summer.
Rasnokii. Emperor of all Latii.
The Commandanteur AGN. 16‑2‑44
My lord Emperor,
We are deceived.
I have this last day observed for the first time your new Army in manoeuvre. I must regretfully report that it is a tragedy in waiting.
My inspections of the actual troops did not reveal the calamity of the situation. The Legions all have fine reputations. The troops and their commanders have a good soldierly bearing and appear at first sight to be competent. This has proven to be not so.
How quite, my Lords Goiija, Ipermiiia, Eiija and Fiija have done it I do not know, for the fine legions that were promised and expected have been degraded to wastrels. The troops are new and without experience. Scarcely four good legions are to be had in all.
Voicing my discomfit to Hakaramii, an extremely good fellow with whom I have landed this sorry lot, I find that they were worse when first come. He is working day and night with the new legions and has done wonders so far. I fear that even he cannot make such a potent force out of this rag‑tag as we would need for the task in hand, but can see no other option to fit your excellencies current time expectations.
My Lord, I beg you right this wrong. Give Hakaramii delay, or fit legions now. Save that, harden your heart to disaster.
My Lord, do not think this ill of me. I report out of loyalty, not calumny or fear. In fact, I am even now swapping legions with Hakaramii that his worst are my reserve and my best his mainstay.
My Lord, I cannot say more for my heart is broke.
Your ever loyal servant.
Well may Asadnii have warned his emperor to harden his heart for there was no time nor inclination to change out the troops before the clamour for battle grew to fever pitch in the privy council. With his hand forced, Asadnii constructed a plan of attack that comprised a three-pronged assault. His own forces would assault the Midean frontier fortress of Droniik which lay in the hills south of the Wonups river. This would be a diversionary attack as both Droniik and the Latiian Fort that lay across the valley from it were considered virtually impregnable.
The real action would have to come from Hakaramii, advancing north up the left bank of the Wonups river with Asadnii ranging off to his left both guarding his flank and confusing the enemy as to their real goal.
The Droniik diversion was launched a full sector in advance of the planned breakout into Woneiia and succceded in drawing Midean troops east of the Wonups. There were two reasons for its launch so early, firstly to ensure Mides had time to redeploy their resources away from Wonarr and secondly to allow for Latiian redeployment should it become necessary. As with the best-laid plans this one fell foul of its own success. Such were the numbers of Mideans in and around Droniik, Asadnii was compelled to switch his personal attention to that zone of conflict and draw troops from his left flank army, so reducing its strength. He also had to hand over control of this force to his subordinate Ratniikii.
Accordingly, on the first day of high summer, called the fourth sector in Milatan speaking lands Hakaramii advanced his ‘fist of Latii’ into Woneiia. With very little to stand in his way the Army of Dewa swept Milatan opposition aside to charge down onto the fortified city of Wonarr and come to an abrupt halt. In very little time, the shortcomings of his force became all too plain to Hakaramii. It was not trained nor prepared for siege warfare and though by no means a true fortress, the Mideans had not been idle in their occupation and fortification of Wonarr.
The Commandanteur Army Group Dewa. 16‑10‑62
My Lord Emperor,
It is with sadness and regret that I must advise your exalted person of the recent re‑distribution of troops which circumstance has forced upon me.
I am greatly aware that this movement is in contradiction to your direct imperial wishes. I must however point out that until now, and in so far as mortal beings are able, those wishes have been complied with most exactly.
My Lord, In accordance with your decree, I assembled the entire available might of all the forces at my disposal. Those being the legions of Army Group Dewa. You will recall that I launched them into successful action on the first day of sector four, this year.
My Lord, I have liberated all the province of Woneiia west of the Wonups river save the city of Wonarr itself, and all within that fourth sector.
Furthermore, I have since laid mighty siege to that same bastion such that I stood next the ramparts of victory.
My Lord, on the 40th night of 7th sector this same year, as I have already reported, I initiated a single massive stroke to the enemy's heart. Despite tenacious and skilful action, our initial success was met with stubborn resistance in all quarters and the action foiled by the narrowest of margins. Every subsequent assault has been repulsed by this most volatile and capable enemy.
Contrary to all efforts I have made to its prohibition, this enemy has grown in strength to the point where they have been able to pursue offensive flank action of their own.
Regrettably, I must concur with my local commanders that without reinforcement I must neglect all that has been achieved in active siege in order to contain the counteraction of an enemy who, having survived what they erroneously perceive as the worst, seek to ease their ails further.
Accordingly, I have disposed my troops to frustrate this action and intend, should your exalted person continue to support my position in the light of these revelations, to lure the enemy into the precipitate action that will prove to be the ultimate downfall of our adversaries.
Devotedly, your servant.
To: The Lord Hakaramii, Commander Army Group DEWA. 16‑10‑44
From: Underlord Ruptakii, Commander 4th Division Army Group DEWA.
Sire, I am now able to account for the action of 40th and 41st.
As per orders, all senior officers recconoitred and marked staging and assembly zones in daylight. As a result I can advise that all legions succeded in these manouvres despite them being completed in darkness. An error in assault timings occured however, due I now believe to a variation in source of time sticks. All were cut to a master in the assembly zones but differing burn rates caused the move‑out of 3rd & 15th Fijja, 14th Eiija and 6th Hoiija to be delayed. 3rd Hoiija and 7th Eiija assaulted on time and in that order, 3rd Hoiija taking 1st wall about 20 pars after assault start. 7th Eiija followed out of order through the breach and turned right as per plan. The delay of 14th Eiija to reinforce 3rd Hoiija's left hindered progress of that legion and caused confusion as they,(14th Eijja) and the following legion (10th Hoiija) attempted to pass the breach simultaneously. This congestion delayed all following regiments.
It is my belief that this delay was sufficient to permit the enemy time to regroup and reinforce.
14th Eiija finally cleared the breach and advanced the left flank, only to come against a well defended, prepared foe. This legion valiantly assaulted its objective no less than five times before 3rd Fiija arrived as reinforcement. A further six attempts were made by the combined units during darkness.
In the centre, 3rd Hoiija was so weakened as to be unable to continue its advance. Even 10th Hoiija's arrival failed to regain the neccessary momentum, and fighting bogged down in the darkness in a series of badly co‑ordinated assaults on a now reinforced wall.
7th Eiija on the right, made spectacular progress., clearing the compound and taking their first objective ahead of time. The legion then wheeled left and successfully breached a second wall. At that point they were dangeously overextended and lacking the support expected were forced to retire in the face of enemy counter‑attacks.
I have yet to ascertain why, but their supporting unit, 16th Fiija turned left instead of right, once through the initial breach. This error was further compounded by the final supporting unit, 6th Hoiija, being directed to the front.
I can only blame the confusion of a night attack for this breakdown of order. In the breach at the time, I can confirm that reports were sparse and contradictory. I was not aware of the full situation until daylight, by which time 7th Eijja had been forced back to their original objective and were in danger of ceding even that. I immediately detached the remains of 6th Hoiija and 16th Fiija to their aid and the position held.
The mass of soldiery in the centre and left were meanwhile suffering considerable casualties from missile attack and had to be withdrawn from range. These two movements must have caused the enemy great heart for cheering could be heard clearly. All seven subsequent major assaults were repulsed despite two actual crossings. These were both broken up by missile attack before a breach could be made.
The loss of life occasioned by these attacks has so weakened my division that further assault would jeapordise the unity of the line. In fact this has already happened, in that the enemy had that day organised a counter attack so powerful that I could not resist it and retain the offensive. I therefore closed down aggressive action and withdrew all my troops to defensive positions.
Sire, we do not as yet have Wonaii, but 7th Eiija were in the streets! Give me three more legions today and Wonarr will be yours.
As to the diversionary action promised by 3rd division, there is no evidence of its effect whatsoever. Should it even have been launched, the resultant had no positive action on the activities of this division. I seriously question the validity of such actions in future occasions as the troops could more readily be utilised in follow up situations as we find ourselves now.
From: Officer Commanding 7th Hoiija Legion 16‑10‑51
To: Commander 3 Div. AG D.
Sire, in reply to accusations that this legion has in some way failed in its duties, I write to you as the newly promoted leader of half a legion. The other half of what was a loyal and trusty unit has been expended as you are aware in a dangerous mission to cause a diversion to a massive strike by 4th Div on the night of the 40th.
I assure you that training was rigourous and thorough. Reconnaisance and trial indicated a high probability of success. The troops were launched on schedule and with high morale. There is no reason to doubt that this action was not succesfully carried through.
I put it to you, Sire, that it is 4th Division's failure to gain ground which caused the demise of 7th Hoiija, rather than the other way round. I further point out that 4th Div. is scarred but intact. None of those that set out from 7th Hoiija have returned.
Yours, in anquish
The Commandanteur Army Group Dewa 17‑1‑55
My Lord Emperor,
At the end of this first sector of your seventeenth glorious year I humbly report to you that the Midean Army of Woneiia has been at last bested in the field. This at the place of Nuneii.
Your loyal divisions acquitted themselves magnificently to turn the battle around. Sadly, exertion and losses have been such that I cannot commit them to follow up this gain without respite.
The enemy lays in droves before us and their numbers will testify to the mighty effort expended in their defeat. To some extent this must go toward mitigation of the misfortunes suffered at the year's start.
My Lord, we are once again on the doorstep of victory. It is but a measured pace into the halls of history. In short time, and in your name I shall guide this revitalised army through that glorious portal.
Wonaii shall be yours. I swear it.
By oath, your devoted servant.
The Imperiat. 17‑1‑60
By decree of the Imperial Council and on the direct order of his Majesty, Raznakii, Emperor of all Latii, the bearer of this decree:
Shall assume absolute command of the Emperor's Army of Dewa from this time forth and retain such authority until death or the Imperiat shall decree otherwise.
From: The Emperor's Council. 17‑1‑60
To: Nakpotii Hapatkiiprii. Cdr. 3 Div. AGD.
Take this decree, and with it leap over Hakaramii's "doorstep of victory" before the bloody Mideans shut the door in your face.
I have striven long and hard for this day. Act now my son, take the day and I swear you shall in time to come be regent. Know that and destroy this letter.
Long live the name of Nakpotii !
Your father, Nakpotii, Unkiiprii.
The Commandanteur Army Group Dewa. 17‑2‑24
My Lord Emperor !
Your arms are once again triumphant!
Entrusted with the fist of Latii, I have brung Mides to battle once more.
For two days now, they have thrown all against the rock of Army Group Dewa to no avail. I fear now that the enemy will cede this ground and slip away to return again. Thus, I intend a ruse, an entrapment wherein Mides will be caught and destroyed.
Sire! I say this now tho' I would the world not to. This coming action, as has been the latest will be no easy thing for my division commanders are as yet not inured to me in this new post. There is an air of personal fidelity over the needs of Latii.
My Lord, they will turn around.
This is not the doorstep, but we are on the right road.
I must now to my troops.
Your servant, Sire,
From: Hapatkiiprii, Commander Army Group Dewa. 17‑2‑25
To: Commander Army Group North.
I entreat you, speed the day and your divisions to this field of war! Join the glory of Mides' end!
I am withdrawn from Nuneii to best redirect my forces. I intend to accept battle once more at Annareii in twenty or so days from now. For the intervening period I shall harry and disrupt, and thus allow time for your arrival.
Come soon, for my troops are eager and I may not be able to hold them that long!
Exultantly, and in the Emperor's name!
From: Oniikiin Asadnii. Cdr. AGN. 17‑2‑30
To: Husponii Ratniikii. Cdr 5Div AGN
Ratnakii my friend,
I am recently in word from Hapatkiiprii. It seems the young fool has run the Army into trouble. He has been forced to retreat as far as Annareii. It is that bad.
For myself, I shall have to move to his reinforcement, but cannot get legions quickly enough to turn the thing if it is as much a debacle as I suspect.
Therefore, I am instructing you to despatch five legions straightway to Wonarr. It will be on my head that your borders go undefended. With luck you should find the place unprepared for such action, the main army being out for Hapatkiiprii.
Should you find difficulty, then get out, for be sure they will come for you. But once in, stay there and hold for all you are worth and I will come for you.
Do it now, for me and for Latii.
Your old friend,
The Commandanteur, Army Group Dewa 17-3-8
My Lord Emperor !
Again! Again for you I give a mighty victory!
In your name, and as I had foretold, Latii has triumphed!
The enemy run before us and your valiant soldiers reap harvests of Midean heads!
Soon! Soon shall Wonarr be a city with you the Emperor as its Lord.
This I promise.
Your devoted subject.
Hapatkiipriihad his way and finally got his troops into Wonarr but it was the action of Ratnakii which opened the door.
It may not unreasonably be deduced that the Army of Dewa that subsequently marched south was not a happy band. Of the fifteen legions that moved out, all had seen major action in Woneiia that last summer. All had suffered grave losses, a deal of which had not been rectified by replacement. No less than six of these legions were markedly under strength, and though eventually victorious, shattered by the effort.
Nonetheless, it was a sizeable force, an army in its own right, which eventually crossed the bridge at Imaliija and into the province of Jalii.
Ipokaliis' intent had been to march Hapatkiipriis' divisions up the right bank of the Jaliij river and then hook round over the hills to cut off Kiisk. His own Jaliian legions would advance directly on the fortress, catching the enemy between two mighty jaws. Should there be resistance, he would again lay siege to it, and as a by‑product recapture the town of Jojiisk.
This plan was however nothing like bold enough for Ipnanii. In his mind was retribution and territorial gain. Under pressure from such a source the plan was modified, with Hapatkiiprii's left wing splitting into two, the first division to continue up the Jaliij deep into Sur and only hooking over after encountering the first large town. This was to be captured if feasible, burned if not. Reports from raiding parties in previous years had indicated that this town of Povijj lay four days hard marching from the border, but on the far bank of the Jaliij. If that were so, then burning would be most likely. The second division would adhere to Ipokalii's original intent.
All forces intended for this great assault would be encamped in a great arc around the town of Jaliim. Well to the rear of the fluid area of current operations in order that no prying enemy scout's eyes might accidentally see something they should not. Even when ready, all marches to the border itself would be completed in darkness. That way, the full brunt of strength and surprise would be levied on the enemy’s position.
Such was the scheme laid before the Emperor, and of which he heartily approved.
The Other Side of The Coin
Surian dismay at the departure of their Valever alleis units from the frontier in the previous autumn did not preclude a deputation to that land over the winter. The sentiment in the capital was that Sur should not have to go on bended knee to anyone, quite the reverse. However, a disquieting thought intruded, in that having witnessed no threat, Valev would assume that the call was not valid and therefore despatch no aid.
Despite pride, those in power in Sur knew that when the blow struck, every effort from whatever quarter would be vital. It was only by forcing that blow and turning it that Latii would be so weakened as to temporarily cease to be a threat. All winter, even in the bitterest cold, patrols were out.
As spring thawed the ground, the patrols were increased, all searching for the tell‑tale sign of reinforcement. Throughout the previous summer they had striven ceaselessly for information on Latiian intention. In and near the disputed region there was none. Deep penetration reconnaisance‑only teams had brought back information, which like pieces of a puzzle fitted together to indicate preparations for a massive troop build‑up. Ground cleared here, a new fortified camp there. But so far there had been no new soldiers to fill these positions. Latii had licked its wounds with, unbeknown to Sur, its attentions firmly elsewhere. It was beyond belief that this situation would continue through another summer.
Everyone in Vasny knew of the Surians coming, and it was not long before all knew their purpose. Day after day the deputation went from the university residence (the only place they could find of suitable quality for such a large contingent) to the House of Elders. Time after time they would lay the Surian case before the Champion of Valev or the Elders themselves. Each time gaining a little more, an extra regiment raised (or the promise of it). An earlier departure on the first contingent, direct routing to the battle zone, a co‑ordinating and command agreement or more simply, though further reaching, a question of supply.
For every gain, of course some concession had to be made. Valever regiments would operate as a separate force, under no circumstances being seconded or integrated into Surian Land Armies. Direction would only be from the absolute commander of Surian forces in the field and even then the Valev Champion held the right to reject the instruction if he considered it to unreasonably imperil his own forces. Furthermore, all Valev citizens presently in Surian units must be transferred immediately to Valev control.
The Surians being no fools conceded these things despite desires to the contrary, and even went so far as to guarantee shipment of next years grain requirements at half cost, this as a sweetener and incentive to comply with the agreed numbers of troops. Such was the seriousness this undertaking held. Moreover, as an initial indicator of this, the Surians had included in the deputation Karnic, 3rd son to the King. Zamrak, High Chief of Orel and deputy commander of the King's Third Army. Nysomak, Eldest of Zlad, with two Elders from Ossov.
With a party of this calibre, the Surians could bargain with authority and cover any problem raised with a workable solution and a representative to deal with it. Valev had been left in no doubt as to the requirement, and in fact had been ready to fill it in the greater part. This was a bonus. Excepting of course that more troops would be needed.
The previous summer, four regiments had stood with Sur, double that was now needed. Fortunately the organisation was already in place and call‑up was ordered at weekly intervals starting with the New Year. There would be a delay with Line Regiment 2 and Reserve Regiments 2 and 5, as a proportion if not all their members were in the mountains and snowed in.
The first three regiments moved out as soon as the ground would take them. With them went the Surian deputation, glad to see their mission accomplished, and having delayed their own departure to witness it, although making the excuse that they too were waiting for improved transit conditions.
Imnak Vasyakva commanded the lead Valev regiments into Sur, with the intention that the Champion, Zovan Oblanva follow with the main body shortly after. Thus it was that Valev troops were the first to relieve the tired Surians who had guarded the frontier all winter. Most Surian regiments were less eager to leave winter quarters for the long trek down to Kisk, and the hazards of campaigning. Some arriving as much as amonth later than the first, and incidentally even later than the Valev main body. This was in no way an impugning of Surian commitment to their own cause however. For where previously 31 regiments had marched, now a mighty 43, not including Valev, jostled for position on the land around Kisk. With everyone in place, close to 25 thousand troops would eat, sleep and manoeuvre on the plain.
Arlak was not happy. He thought that it was bloody unfair and he said so. He'd been with the regiment not far short of a year now, serving with distinction right through the winter. It was where his friends were, the same friends who had recently celebrated his promotion so expansively on the rare occasion of being in sensible quarters. Now he was transferred without the promotion into a rookie regiment, not even in the same Land Army. Reluctantly he said his goodbyes amid the ribald cheers of his fellow officers and carried his kit away. Even worse, was that his personal aide could not go with him for Annta was Surian and must stay with the regiment to serve his replacement.
Making his way across rapidly filling ground, he walked through the bivouac areas of many a regiment before at last entering the tent of the Valev Commander. There was not unnaturally, a delay before he was seen, Imnak Vasyakva of Vasny having more pressing matters to attend.
The primary concern at present seemed to be securing bivouac areas for Valev regiments not yet arrived that would keep the Land Army together. Here again was a conflict of interest. Vasyakva was torn between the desire to be near the Surian headquarters and yet not wishing to be lost in the mass of Surian troops. A move away would ease the land space, but place the Valev Command tent markedly further from the centre of decision than was considered politic.
The consideration was put aside on the arrival of a messenger from High Command. Vasyakva was requested for briefing. His departure left a perceptible vacuum in the command tent and it was only after some moments that people started to go about their duties again. One of these saw Arlak and asked his business. Introducing himself, Arlak explained the situation into which he had been thrust and reported correctly on learning his listeners title. Pankov, VCSD High Marshall (which equated to a Surian Land‑Captain, but was nonetheless staff rank).
"Unit Leader Arlak Arlakva, 4th Svensa Regiment. Transferred to your command, Sire !"
"Ah, yes." Pankov clicked his fingers. "I remember something about you. Wait here and I will look, though we have had most of you fellows through already and I think you will have to go to the tenth whatever."
Arlak was about to ask why so, but was left open mouthed as the High Marshall turned his back. Shocked at such effrontery despite over a year with Surians, Arlak stood rooted. Pankov was soon back, effusive in his apologies having realised the social gaffe. A place at table was arranged, which Arlak according to his rank correctly declined with thanks. No‑one would accuse himof bad manners, and the excuse of being out of Valev just would not wash. Pankov duly confirmed the attachment to the tenth regiment which was not yet arrived. Directing Arlak to a tent off to one side that housed the officers of that regiment, Pankov wished Arlak good fortune and excused himself to duty.
Pankov had duties indeed. Already there had been mix‑ups in ration allocations, with the net result that there had been no meat in the Valev camp for two days. New supplies were due and he had been tasked to ensure the correct supplies were handed over with the greatest efficacy and least embarrassment. The occasion would require every shred of tact in his body. He knew exactly what was needed, but getting it whilst the other supply officers argued their individual cases all at the same time would be no easy task. It had been like a Surian market last time. He expected no different this. It was dreadfully uncouth, but he had been preparing himself all morning and was ready now. Assembling the kitchen masters and portering staff, Pankov donned and straightened his rank sash then strode straight backed out toward the raising dust cloud which signalled the stock train's arrival.
Stepping into the inner gloom, Arlak waited for his eyes to adjust. It was a small tent, but even so there was plenty of room for the three mats spread on the floor. One of which was occupied. A bearded face stuck itself through a flap at the back, peered at him and spoke.
"Your parents be praised Sire. Can we help?"
"May your line be long." Arlak responded tactlessly to the face. "Is this the tenth?"
"It is Sire." Came the reply. "So far."
"Good." The grunt as Arlak threw his mat down and the kit on top of it. "Where is everyone?"
"Leader Oblan and Sub Vorkiz are out with the troops now. Sub Arkov here, (indicating the sleeper) was out all last night. That is it."
Arlaks shoulders sagged. Four bloody officers for a whole regiment. Could things get worse?
Seeing the dejection, the face spoke again. "I will get you some water. You look like a wash would help."
Arlak did not hear, or at any rate did not appear to. Collapsing to a sit he began to unroll the mat and unpack his kit. The face reappeared and revealed the semi‑corpulent body attached to it. A steaming bucket was placed at Arlak's feet. He looked up, almost in alarm, then recomposed himself to thank the bringer and ask a name.
"Mankta, Sire." Came the answer, and in response to his question on when the others would be back; "Leader Oblan asked for supper before dark, so about then I would think." .
The logic was sound and the supposition correct.
Oblan was a giant of a fellow, such that he had to stoop in order to enter the tent. He was closely followed by the more normal frame of Sub Vorkiz, both of whom looked tired. Arlak stood and introduced himself.
"Glad you have come." Oblan grunted, and over dinner explained why. Like Arlak Vorkiz, Arkiz and Oblan had been transferred out of Surian Land Armies, albeit from two different organisations, Oblan and Arkiz from the Pavan 2ndand 4threspectively, Vorkiz from the Zandov 5th, all now to serve in this yet to be formed Tenth Regiment of the Valev Armed Contingent for the Defense of Sur.
Half the troops they had were previously cooks or porters. The others were fine fellows but mostly middle rankers, and all were disgruntled about the enforced transfer. Getting them into fighting shape was an uphill struggle. Even worse was the task of interpolating between the Surian system they were used to and would have to link with, and the Valever system, if indeed you could call it such. It was all a shambles.
Arlak feared that he had rejected his duty that day. Attempting to put a brave face on it, he calmly suggested a means to easing the strain.
"Spread these troops about among the rest of the regiment when it comes. That way there will be a transfer of experience and we can make sure all the poor examples are put among other units."
"No!" Oblan rejected flatly. "Better the mess you know. At least all mytroops have some experience of campaigning, and all wear the Surcoat."
Arlak was taken a little aback by this, but countered; "That may be so. But I too have commanded a unit. Give me now what you will, and I will run the second unit until superceded. There will still be Surcoats in it."
"I doubt it." Oblan came back. "Your troops come with the main force."
Now Arlak was puzzled. For Oblan had indicated his problem as control of a mass of soldiery with limited officers. His latest statement belied that. Too polite to push the point, for it was bound to embarrass someone and he had no need of enemies now, Arlak changed the subject. Vowing to find the truth at a better time, he settled for officer of the watch next night.
Morning provided the answers, for attending Oblan's muster it was plain that barely a unit strength was assembled. Further to this, it was clear that whether or not Oblan was a good Leader, he was not an organiser and had none so skilled to deputise. Sadly, Arlak could now do nothing to cure this failing without damaging Oblan's standing, and so chose to observe only ‑ but on the first opportunity speak with the powers that be. The powers were busy for some time. That day, Fourth Reserve Regiment (RR4) marched in, to be followed next morning by RR3.
Lack of troops to command permitted Arlak to wander the Valev encampment over the succeeding days. Bumping into faces from his past, talking to old friends and watching the soldiers at work he learned how the formations differed from his experience. Mentally evaluating the capabilities of the Land Army, it was not so bad a picture as Oblan had painted. These units (sections, in Valev parlance) had been hereabouts before. They had stood the border last summer with Sur. There were differences, but these people knew the score and could do the job necessary.
The quiet and growing confidence Arlak felt plummeted on learning that the Tenth ‑ his regiment ‑ had never been outside Vasny, let alone Valev. Even worse, it was rumoured to consist predominantly of miscreants, objectors and draft dodgers. As if that were all, his friends had noted that an increasing number of junior officers coming down from Hi Valev were from the ranks.
In Arlak's experience these menials were excellent both as soldiers and workers but catastrophic as officers. It was not all their fault of course. Taught to be subservient all their lives and especially as they never had any training how could anyone expect them to be bold and decisive in command? Everything they gained was from experience. That would have been fine if Valev had been at war for ten years. The truth was, that this was only the start of the second summer of action and there had been precious little of that with no real combat to speak of through that time. Arlak had a gut feeling that the situation would not continue so.
The arrival of the Tenth came as a prod. Arlak rolled over to face the light. Mankta was bent close, with Oblan sat up to his rear.
"Officers to the Champion's tent by his request Sire."
"My thanks, Mankta. Do you know why?"
"Word is Sire, the regiment's arrived. But I have seen no‑one."
Arlak stood, rubbing his eyes and thanking Mankta again as he produced hot cups of broth to waken the officers.
Stepping from the tent and following what was in daylight not too long a path, but in darkness more difficult, they came to the Command Tent. There, guttering lamps illuminated a tired assembly. High Marshall Pankov was again in residence awaiting the officer's arrival in order to conduct introductions and hand over duties. Arlak, along with Oblan, Vorkiz and Arkov was presented to their new leader. Commander Vokov.
Formal niceties over, Vokov quickly demanded troop information in advance of billeting arrangements. Hearing the situation he pondered only for a moment before designating Oblan's unit as section four, and retaining Arkov as Sub‑Leader. Vorkiz, despite ‑ or because of ‑ his experience was assigned as Sub‑Leader, section two. Arlak was given section three.
"I know you are only a Sub Leader here," Vokov had said, "But I have it on authority," Looking pointedly at Pankov. "That you gained your Svensan Lead. So you had better take ours. Do not give me grounds to regret this decision."
Arlak was overjoyed, but was to quickly learn that the decision had been a close one. “If you hadn’t been here or High Marshall Pankov neglected to advise me of your expeience then I’d have promoted Bordoz here.” Vokov told him.
Sections one and two had sent their Controllers to view and report back on campsites, knowing that the Section‑Leader was in evidence to rectify misunderstandings. The current officer in charge of three had come personally and introduced himself. Sub‑Leader Bordoz was instantly likeable, confident and at ease, without affectation or unnatural assertion. The impression at first could easily be mistaken for nonchalance. Arlak was not fooled. He had seen this kind of officer before. It bespoke absolute assurance in his troops. Arlak liked that concept. Upland hillbillies they may have been but now they were his troops.
Spaces were allotted to each section and their representatives guided to each respective area in time to view and mark it by dawn's light. Soldiers of the fourth section would ensure the areas security prior to the incumbents arrival. Arlak elected to go out with Bordoz and guide his section in. Bordoz was dismissive, saying. "Do not worry. Our Controller is a fine fellow. He will ensure all is well. All we have to do is be here when they arrive."
Arlak, ill at ease with this as he was, deferred to the opinion and breakfasted instead. Over this meal he enquired as to how far out the overnight camp was. The reply convinced him he would not see his soldiers until noon.
Eating and washing over, Bordoz made to go.
"Not so sure eh?" Arlak questioned chidingly.
"Sorry, Sire?" Bordoz returned, puzzled.
"Come on then. I understand. Let us go together and chivvy the section along."
"They will need no chivvying Arlak," Bordoz returned coldly. "They will in fact be here soon and as I said, we will merely need to indicate the correct place."
Arlak could not, and would not believe such a statement. but he had to as histroops came confidently marching in. Standing eyes agape, Arlak had to confess to himself that he had never seen such a disciplined, solid and proud unit. Sorry. Section.
"I do not know that it is such a good thing." Bordoz commented. "Controller Okhta has things tighter than a buzzer's arse. He says that if you look like you mean business, the Latii leave you alone. They always go for the weak spot. I know it..."
"We have a Latii fighter?" Arlak butted in. "I thought this Regiment had not been out of Valev before." He did not say what else he had heard.
"We have not." Bordoz retorted. "But he says he has, and I tend to believe it."
Watching the individual in question more closely, Arlak noted that the Controller seemed to be everywhere needed at just the right time. Organising, instructing, sorting and reassuring. Bordoz had done nothing other than walk up a path and hold out an arm. With amazement, Arlak saw piquets placed, campsites allocated, troops ordered, grazing pegged, kitchen and quarters laid. In fact everything settled without the need for intervention.
Agog, he witnessed the support detachment arrive. Not only were they employing the stock animals to carry packs, as was becoming common, but as Bordoz proudly pointed out, they had odd contraptions by which two persons could carry the baggage of ten. A sort of land‑boat it seemed. If it was an encumbrance to drag these land‑boats around, they brought real benefit. One housed a portable smithy and weapon repair shop, another carried tenting for the entire section. Yet another held grain enough for a week, and so it went on.
Relishing the astoundment, Bordoz spoke again.
"As you can see, we are here to stay. And in the words of our Controller 'We mean business."
The regiment had only brought three full sections from Valev. It was just as well the fourth was already assembled here. But then that is why it was attached to the Tenth. How it would all fit together Arlak was not sure. Arlak had thought Oblan's troops would put his own Valevers to shame. That might no longer be the case.
Over the evening meal, Vokov announced to the now fully assembled officery of a complete regiment, that despite the short notice and proximity to arrival, the Tenth would participate in a massed practice war for all Valev forces which Champion Zovan had ordered for the following day. The Land Army would march out toward the fortress town of Kisk and then deploy as to meet an enemy advancing up the road. Tenth RR would take the rear and move out to left flank abutting 1stRR. The regiment would march and deploy linearly, thus placing 4th section at extreme left flank. There were no questions, and so Vokov closed the council of war, ordering everyone to bed and sleep.
Taking Oblan aside as the meeting broke up Vokov made plain his expectations, seeking assurance that Oblan and his section were up to the job. After all these were soldiers he had not yet seen perform and whispers from the Surian camp said Oblan was not happy.
Seething inwardly, Oblan reported that of course he had shown displeasure. The troops had come from all corners of Sur and needed melding. One could not expect them to be so fine as 2nd Pavan Regiment at such short notice without a little invective to bring them along. Grunting assertion, Vokov dismissed his subaltern and stepped out into the darkness. Mankta appeared silently three steps behind him as he paced slowly and deliberately. Hands clasped behind his back, head lowered deep in thought, his musing was disturbed by Mankta laying a cloak about his shoulders as the night cooled. The train of thought broken, Vokov returned to join his officers in sleep.
Grey morning mists mingled with the smoke from cooking fires to create a cold dull blanket. Dampening clothes and spirits alike, it at least shielded any disorder from the eyes of contemporaries. Oblan personally checked each and every one of his troops, knowing that as last in line he had the time to do so. In his efforts to ensure perfection he nearly got left behind. It was only Bordoz's timely liaison with Arkov that rectified the error.
With the column moving and clear of the Armies encampments, the pace settled and sections sorted themselves into order. As morning wore on, the sun broke through to gradually disperse the fog and then warm land and soldier both. There was still a trace of airborne vapour as the herald ran down the line, stopping only at Regimental Commanders as he passed the order to deploy.
Controller Okhta Sumina of the 3rdSection saw him, and not waiting for the proper chain of command barked the instruction for the regiment to move off the road to the left. It was not really his place but there were no official top‑controllers in Valever regiments and the regiment moved anyway. Arlak quietly fumed, Vokov visibly did so, but neither said anything. After all, the regiment was in position well before expectation.
Watching from the nearby high ground, High Chief Banktov of Zandov saw the deployment and approved. Perhaps these Valevans were not going to be so bad after all. The entire manouvre was undertaken with speed and skill, extending quickly from the centre. Of particular note was the curious deployment in the left wing.
Sadly the right wing did not utilise their third rank as darters, as was the case in the centre and left. Oddly, particularly as they were the only troops in Surcoats, the extreme left appeared to be badly organised in this mode, but perhaps that was from the recent take up of the practice from their neighbours. No matter, a little time and practice would bring them to heel.
“Best perhaps,” Banktov considered, “to allocate this Land‑force to a strong right position, like the river Sur.” The more he thought on it the more Banktov liked the idea. It would solve the political impasse and free all the Surian troops now spread between Kiisk and Zoskii.
Watching a few practice advances and retirements, the bustling to and fro in the left, that smacked of organised chaos intrigued Banktov to the point where he had to come down from his position to observe more closely.
Arlak was rigid with anger. He would tear this section apart as soon as they were off the field of manouvre. What the stars did Bordoz think he was at? Every order he had signalled, Bordoz had commanded differently. And the rushing about at the rear wassounsettling. He had turned around three or four times now, and although the first two ranks looked as steady as rocks, the third were all bunched up. Every time! Curse them!
Arlak felt a fool. That confounded Overseer was to blame. How could Bordoz have trusted him so? Losing patience and screaming blue murder, Arlak invited Bordoz to join him in advance of the section and in a trice Bordoz was there. Demanding explanation quietly and in a tone of suppressed wrath, Arlak was advised on indicating the source of his disquiet that if he cared to look, it was regimental practice.
"See here." Bordoz raised his spear in both hands as a horizontal bar.
A flurry of activity, and Arlak now watching the action noted that darters from other sections were with his. All grouped. Bordoz's spear indicated direction and actual release.
Arlak could not help himself flinch. Where a hundred shafts would have crossed his head, it seemed a thousand did. A momentary darkness was on the sky and the target area jumped at the impact. Another spear raised in the 'bar' to their right and the bowmen re‑formed behind it.
Up close, Banktov witnessed the incident and was impressed. Arriving behind the regiment as Bordoz regained his proper position, he made his presence known. Asking of the regiment, its commander's name and the unit commander's name he requested Bordoz to relay his compliments and invite them all to his tent that evening.
Turning his back to the manouvres in return to more pressing duty, Banktov could not help the feeling of deja‑vu which swept over him. There was a face here he knew, but one he could not place. It haunted him all day, popping into his mind at the most unexpected times. Distracting him from the business of running an army, such that Zarkov the Commander‑in‑Chief felt need to make comment. Brought back to reality with a jolt, Banktov forced the matter from his mind.
Dragging Bordoz clear of the troops at termination of the excercise, Arlak demanded. "What the heck is going on?" Seeing Bordoz's incomprehension he continued. "What do you think by not telling me of this? Whos idea is it anyway?"
Apologising profusely, Bordoz explained that he had assumed it was standard practice. Since Controller Okhta had shown how it was done last year, the regiment had always worked that way. It was so obviously right. The surprise was that other regiments did not act so as Bordoz had previously believed they would. In fact, that 4th section had so blatantly failed to respond to the procedure had confused Bordoz considerably. Mollified a little by this Arlak secretly became quite pleased, and especially so on hearing of the invite from Banktov.
The entire Land Army marched back into camp tired and hungry, for the troops had carried no food out that morning. Dismissing them to eat, Arlak drew Bordoz aside again for a fuller explanation.
"Do you mean to tell me." He asked, "That this is the only regiment to use concentrated darting? For I have observed no other."
Bordoz could only repeat his earlier statement.
"So answer me this, for I am sure to be asked it before the night is out." Arlak continued. "What happens when the enemy feints and the regiment’s darts are wrongly placed. Where is the protection from attack then?"
"Firstly." Bordoz replied assuredly, "The enemy cannot feint so aggressivly that the grouping for the main thrust be disguised, for that attack would be treated as main thrust. The mobile reserve is never moved beyond the regimental boundary and if there is any doubt, it stays with its section. In any case there is a static defence in place, for only two out of every three darters are mobile, and this will serve to blunt any offence until the mobile reserve arrives."
"Fine." Arlak complemented. "And who chooses to free or lock up this reserve?"
"Vokov. Of course." Bordoz answered candidly.
"You and the troops have done well today Bordoz. I am learning and I am pleased. Now I must entreat you to pass on my felicitations and to set piquets, for I must away to Banktov's tent."
"I will not say I was displeased." Banktov was addressing Zovan, Champion of all Valev.
Zovan, far the younger of the two bridled visibly at the inference of peerage but was prevented from verbal reaction by a full mouth. Banktov took the opportunity to continue.
"What intrigued me was the variance in technique exhibited. I must ask if this is deliberate and we can expect to see it should any of my Land Armies align with this methodology, or whether as I hope it is, an aberration yet to be remedied."
Nearly choking, Zovan fumed. "You dare to question the mettle of Valev troops? You have the gall to infer we may be inferior? How can you imply that Surians would not stand by us after we have come so far to your aid? This offends and seriously troubles me."
"Take no disquiet I beg of you." Banktov returned. "I am merely concerned for continuity in the face of the enemy. I would give them no succour in perceiving disunity whether false or real."
Calming or more correctly, controlling himself, Zovan hissed. "Should disquiet or disunity be present or perceived I venture to suggest its origin be yours."
"I mean no ill. My desire is for commonality. Such that I would offer you Surcoats in praise of your soldierly skills and to exhibit the bond of unity between our two peoples."
No fool, Zovan saw the underlying intent so answered carefully. "We need no Surcoats to hide behind. The enemy will quickly learn the folly of conflict with Valever regiments."
Seizing the diplomatic initiative, Banktov countered. "It is good that I may rely on such skill and valour, however this would ihebit my manoeuvres and pass uneven stress upon the Surian Land Armies placed aside you. Surely you can make a concession for their sakes? After all, I have seen that some of your troops already wear the Surcoat. And proudly too, without diluting their filiality to Valev."
Temporarily trapped, Zovan would not accede directly but backed away from the imperious stance he had been holding.
Content that his way would be realised, Banktov turned his attentions to Vokov via a complementary remark to Zovan. Unable not to introduce the Commander at this juncture, Zovan nevertheless wished Vokov was not there. Vokov's regiment was one of the three that had a Surcoated section, at least that Section‑Leader were not here to compound the situation.
Contrary to the preceding vein and Zovan's expectation, Banktov became quite blunt, but in an accommodating manner about the tactics employed by Vokov's regiment. Asking almost exactly the questions Arlak had given to Bordoz that afternoon, Banktov received much the same tactical solutions from Vokov as Bordoz had given. Growing confident that he could not now be caught off guard, Arlak was thrown a question which did exactly that.
"Why were you surprised at the events of the afternoon Leader Arlak?" This question came from Banktov’s lips of course. "And why then, but not now did you wear the Surcoat and emblazons?"
Flushing, Arlak recovered quickly deciding that the truth were the best exhibit. Explaining his condition, transfer and expectations compared with realities and what was told him by Bordoz. Arlak missed nothing, but made pains to express his satisfaction and new confidence in his present charge.
Banktov appreciated the candour. Zovan did not. Vokov was in two minds. The factor which gelled his opinion was stated by Banktov.
"You know, it is odd. Here we have a new concept. Totally sensible and yet never thought of before. Said to emanate from a, you call themControllers?"
A nod was all that was needed in affirmation.
"Of the name Okhta Sumina. I can have him brought to you." Vokov butted in, but said no more as he caught Zovan's look of disapproval.
"That might be a good idea." Banktov returned. "For I have a tale to tell."
He related the situation two summers earlier when the siege of Jojiisk had been stalemated. How an unknown cook had turned up and solved the situation in a single sentence. Of how that same cook, met later had outlined a new rationale of campaign in dealing with so vociferous an enemy as Latii. Of how unexpectedly successful that strategy was and how taking credit for the waging, at its conclusion Banktov had searched the Army for the cook, by Banktov’s recollection and coincidence also named Okhta. The original, as far as it was known had perished with the 4th Zandov Regiment. It could only be hoped that either the demise was falsely assumed or the namesake continue proving to be so martially gifted.
Zovan understood instantly that there was a political crisis in his command. Knowing straightway his decisions he nevertheless delayed speaking them too quickly, anticipating the others too readily making a link. At a convenient pause later in the conversation, he expressed a desire to extract at least a portion of the Valever force to higher ground. There would after all be insufficient room to accommodate 2nd Line, and 2nd and 5th Reserve Regiments on their arrival. Therefore, the new units being uplanders, it best bespoke them billeting on the hills. Some, if not all currently deployed regiments preceding the move to prepare the ground so to speak, could ease integration.
Banktov applauded the idea, fitting in so well with his greater concept. He also was prepared for the revelation that Valev 10th RR was one of the regiments first selected to depart from his direct jurisdiction.
"So we have it." He thought to himself. "Now I am sure of both the Commander's wits and the Controller's importance. Both are good signs."
Breaking into speech, he continued the train for the benefit of his guests. "It would be better if the entire Valev Land Army was as one would it not? So why do I not simply give responsibility for the right wing to Valev? Eh?"
As if realising his thoughts were aloud, he looked up sharply. Searching for a reaction. Zovan seized the opening. Pretending calm he mused.
"That would be a fine and sensible solution. It would give us a solid role and yet that little independence we seek. You may be sure that this is a position Valev is most suited for. I shall move my troops tomorrow."
With the major manouvrings out of the way and nothing more of real importance to be said, the evening broke up quickly with the Valevers returning to their respective units.
The move did not actually start until beyond mid‑day, the Land Army marching out as three columns. One reason for the delay had been the issue of Surcoats. Banktov had made his point, seeing to it that these were distributed as soon in the morning as feasable. The soldiers donned them, assuming this were accepted and welcoming the extra layer for the early morning and evening chill. The officers were puzzled, but said nothing to the troops, passing their queries up the chain of command.
When it got to Zovan's ears he blew a fit, immediately prohibiting their use. The order went out and the soldiers began to unburden themselves. Meanwhilst, mediation and sensibility came to the command tent. Knowing that some Valev troops already wore the Surcoats and not wanting to isolate these the order was rescinded. Thus soldiers who had once donned then discarded the coats were told to take them up again, an altogether unsatisfactory proceeding for the maitenance of confidence and morale.
Early in the afternoon, with a light lunch in their bellies, 1st Regiment broke camp and filed out toward the hills, with Zovan the Champion at their head. In line astern the other regiments followed until within four hours every Valever was gone from the Surian enclosure. Night‑camp was made in a long narrow valley only slightly raised from the plain. Ascent into the hills proper would have to wait until new daylight.
In that first stop the Land Army as a whole first began to act as an army should. It was nothing new to the recent additions to the force. They had picqueted and patrolled since crossing the Surian border. It had been introduced as a measure to make up for lack of experience in campaigning, now it illustrated the technical superiority of properly exercised troops over experienced but lax formations. 5th, 4th and 10th RR's were camped, fed and secure well in advance of 1st Line and 1st and 3rd RR's. With everyone in Surcoats it was harder to tell the old sweats from the new, this night procedure being just one of the few means open for this purpose.
Zovan was happy with the blending. In his mind it helped to unify his force. Vasiakva, his 2ic was not so sure. To him it meant the difference between knowing who was reliable and who untried. From here on it was trial and error and a commander's memory.
Day two was an improvement, all the regiments moving early and almost to a unified plan. There was a good deal of haranguing but none of it harmful as each section found its place and maintained it through the uphill climb and the afternoon's traverse of the hilltops and ravines that marked the highland, this long wide ridge of land which ran centrally through Sur. Three days in this high country and then the Land Army would be down in the Survov River valley and on low ground again.
It seemed that no sooner had the Valev command become accustomed to control of their near complete Land Force in transit than they were faced with the real prospect of its control in combat. Meeting with Pankovic, the Regimental‑Captain of 2nd Pava, Oblan’s old regiment he advised Zovan of his scouts reporting massive Latiian activity to their front. Pankovic was not panicking, but when deep patrols just did not return at all and local patrolling came back as bloodied ones and twos instead of twenties, things were not that good.
In rapid consultation with Pankovic, for he knew the ground, Zovan deployed his regiments on raised ground to the left of Pankovic's regiment, which occupied and guarded the fortified township of Zosky. Double picquets were placed with forward sentry groups. The Land Army was on a war footing. Knowing that the morning would see himself win his championship undisputedly, Zovan had difficulty sleeping. He was not the only one, but by dawn the Valevers arose tired but uncontested. It was not to last.
By mid‑day the outlying scouts were tearing into camp wild eyed, with reports of huge enemy formations. Their reports were unnecessary. The Latiian columns could be seen from the elevated position of the command tent, as could the last of the Hivalevers arriving over the hill, come at last to meet destruction, for they were one valley nearer the Latii than was the main‑force.
Entering onto the plain, Iktak could not believe his eyes. An enormous black mass filled the ground, one leg of it headed straight for him. Bullying his three regiments into defensive line he scanned around assessing the chances. He saw the main‑force tantalisingly close. Reality told him there was no way they could meet. Not today anyway. Latiian numbers spelled certain doom unless his flanks could be secured. The only chance of that meant a retreat up the narrowing valley they had just left. This would also mean there was no way he could reach or assist Zovan in his action. So be it. Any other move would be tantamount to suicide. At least if he held here he might just divert a little of the enemy effort careering towards Zovan's line. Issuing his orders then and there, Iktak committed Hivalev to its course.
Zovan saw the movement and whilst feeling pride and agreement with the military decision, at the same time experienced a sinking sensation. Knowing now that there was no succour to his plight, heavy hearted he turned to his duty.
An Appreciation of Force
The country of Latii is semi feudal and made up of five districts each with its own Lord and warlord, each district raising and commanding its own legions on behalf of the Emperor. When gouped however the division commander is an Imperial appointee. The districts are, Hoiija, Fijja, Goiija, Ipermiia and Eiija with the addition of the disputed territories of Jalii and Woneiija, each of which have their lords and warlords too but who much to their chagrin, do not sit on the imperial council.
The Latiian army in the south numbers at campaign start consists 38 legions of which twenty three have been raised in Jalii. Unfortunately some twelve of those are newly raised and lack training and experience.
The legions in the Jaliian contingent have an average strength of around 960. Although they have received replacements since Wonarr, the Army of Dewa’s legions average slightly less at just under 900.
The 15 legions of the Army of Dewa numbers some and 14,000 troops and consist of:
From Hoiija, 3rd,6th,7th,10th,15th,16thLegions
From Fiija 3rd,4th, 15th,16th Legions
From Eiija 7th, 14thLegions
From Goiija 3rd,6th ,13th Legions
Hapatkiiprii Commander the Army of Dewa
Asakdrogii 2ic Army of Dewa and Commander of the 1stDivision (centre) 3F,4F,7H,10H,15H,16H,7E,14E
Asnadnokii Commander 2nddivision (right wing)
Hakaramii Commander 3rdDivision (left wing)
The 19 Legions of Army Group South, 12 of them from Jalii.numbers some 18,500 troops and consist of:
From Jalii 5j;7j;10j;11j;12j;13j;14j;15j;16j;17j;20j;21j;
From Goiija 5th,10th, 15th, 22nd
From Ipermia 17th
Ipokalii Cdr Army Group South.
Inahaii1stDivision 7J, 10J, 15J
Hanaiid4thDivision 13J, 16J, 5J, 12J
Rahiim 5thDivision 10G, 15G, 14J, 17I
Hiima2nd Division 5G, 22G, 20J
Assmi 3rd Division 17J, 11J, 21J
The country of Sur has 10 lands:
Zandov; Zodiv; Orel; Pava; Svensa; Rega; Wussiv; Ossov; Zladisov and Ulta; each with its land champion and is required to field in the event of war a minimum of 4 regiments. It is normal for each land to have at least two standing regiments. Normally the first occupies the role of ceremonial guard and police, the second as garrison guard and first to war.
Each land is required, in addition to the militia and guard, in a time of crisis to furnish the King with at least four regiments, each consisting a minimum of seven hundred troops. Thus even the smallest land army must be three thousand soldiers strong.
In practice most of the lands can field and sustain six or seven regiments and the larger lands nine or ten regiments. Even then the regiments are usually larger than 500 strong as each unit (section in Valev) consists 3 ranks of 64, plus six end guards thus 70 soldiers. Added to that are the Section Marshall, the sub leader and the unit leader. With reserves it numbers some 88 souls, not including the Regimental captain and his equerries (one per unit) plus their runners and a labour unit . Most regiments have anything up to six units.
Zovan of Sur brings 43 Regiments to the defence of Kiisk supported by the eight Regiments of the Valev Land Army.
Asnadnokii, commander of the right flank division witnessed the enemy appear to his right as if from no‑where. A sharp panic gripped his heart as he misinterpreted the move as part of a trap.
Physically gripping his composure he forced himself to realise that they had exposed themselves too early. He still had time and control enough to wheel his division of four legions and counter the threat. Relapsing into an oscillating nightmare in which he wheeled and found glory only to face the wrath of a defeated centre lacking support, to the flanking guard in pursuit of a central foe turned and annihilated from the rear and folding up the entire front. Asnadnokiihesitated and in that hesitation sealed his downfall.
Torn between two conflicting duties, he fed his troops piecemeal into the flank action and where a massive assault by the entire division of three and a half thousand soldiers should have speedily eliminated the dilemma and still been able to assist the general assault, a hundred here, a few hundred there all failed to break the Hivalev line. Assault after assault went in, all bravely lead, all determined. But the weight of missile defence broke every one to pockets that by them selves could not hope to succeed even when carried to the enemy's heart.
Asnadnokii's juniors saw the failure for what it was and knew its reason. Asnadnokiihad lost three full legions before through underestimating the enemy at Nuneii. Here above Zoskii he would lose two more for much the same reason.
In the centre Hapatkiipriisaw Asnadnokii's halt and turn, and redisposed his troops accordingly. Hakaramiito his left was already in action around the town of Zoskii, leaving what appeared to be the enemy main‑force slightly right of his line of march. Knowing exactly what was required of his troops, Hapatkiiprii ordered a concentration to the enemies centre. No matter they were on raised ground with flank secured in farm buildings. Hakaramiihad once been the Emperor's favourite, but had tried clever tactics. Where was he now? Embroiled with half a division in a pox‑ridden nowhere to Hapatkiiprii's left. Take them straight on. That was the way he thought. Smash through them with the fist of Latii then destroy them in pieces.
From the moment the assault started, Askiitakii, like most of his troopers was stunned. He at least, as Commander 7th Hoiija was rearward of the fury of the response.Two thousand soldiers started this attack as one massive strike, within four paces of breaking into a run they ran into a hail of missiles which precursored themselves by a darkening of the sky. In moments the charge became a fiasco. Troops simply could not advance over their fallen and falling comrades. They tried. Emperor's heart to them, they tried. Amid the pandemonium, the indescribable confusion and horror, individuals would clear the melee and filled with hatred and anger thunder at the enemy ranks. Few got anywhere near.
Askiitakiiscreamed again and again the attack command as did his counterparts, then admitting the futility of it but filled with self-loathing, uttered the cry to retreat and regroup. Gathering the pitiful remnants of his legion about him, Askiitakiicould not keep the tears from his eyes. How could this be? It was his legion that was decimated at Wonaii to try out new tactics. Now again his commanders sacrificed his men against a powerful foe without proper thought or consideration. This was nothing like the warfare he had seen against the Mideans, yet this war was not new. How could no‑one have said or warned of the enemy's tactics? There had been too much preparation and care for this to be an accidental oversight.
Askiitakii was not the only commander with that thought. Hapatkiipriitoo was stunned. At no time had there been any hint of this possibility. Here he outnumbered the enemy by two‑to‑one even after this first attack, but suddenly he doubted that even three against one was a great enough ratio. Never before, even during the darkest days in Woneii had any question of the invincibility of Latiian arms entered his mind. Though uneasy, he had never doubted that Latii would win, for one‑to‑one he knew the Latiian warrior was superior. Even now he felt that to be true. The question was how to get close enough for that superiority to tell.
As these thoughts coursed his mind, half a thousand of his warriors lay dead before him and another half a thousand cried and screamed at the torture of their injuries. Any attempt to approach the wounded and still the horrific wail was met with a shower of missiles and more casualties. This was getting no‑where fast.
Observing the mass, Okhta spoke to Bordoz. Not at ease with the concept, Bordoz nevertheless acted on the recommendation despatching all but the regimental static reserve darters to 1st Reserve. It was they to whom the attack would be directed. An incredible, enormous black mass erupted from the foe's lines, to be met by a fusillade the world had never seen. A numbing unstoppable megathon reduced to impotency in the blinking of an eye. Even 1st RR's Commander flinched as the hailstorm crossed his head. The Latii in front of him collapsed into confusion, bodies everywhere tripping the uhurt who in turn blocked their companion's advance. Three full volleys into the packed ranks sufficed to halt the advance. There was even the freedom to cool the individual ardour of the few who managed to free themselves from the carnage and still had the heart to attack. Breathless and elated, the darters returned to their regiments to replenish dart stocks and receive the congratulations of their fellow soldiers. Arlak, sensing that the fight had only just opened, stilled his troops.
The enemy began to mass again. This time directly in front of 10th Reserve. More cautious this time, testing in one's and two's the range and accuracy of the darts, then forming up in a solid wall of black clad monsters just out of range. What they were not aware of, and for that matter nor were Arlak or Vokov out in front was that Okhta had been listening to the Latiian commands, so knew their tactic and intent so with Bordoz's blessing held the darters back deliberately. Now when the enemy was formed and ready to charge, on his own volition he initiated a volley.
As the shafts lofted, Vokov heard the hiss and turned alarmed and annoyed. Returning his view quickly to the enemy, not sure that he had not missed something, he saw large on their helmeted faces looks of scorn. Heard laughs that said, "You do not frighten us! We know you cannot get us here!" Looks that turned to horror at the realisation that they, not the Valev had been fooled. Faces that turned to panic and pain as the fusillade struck. The timing had been perfect. With the mass in place, the forward ranks could not retreat for their comrades were in the way. They would not advance for there the darts were more deadly. Trapped in a killing ground they paid a penalty in blood. There was hardly a dart that failed to strike home. Arlak was dumbfounded. “Why had he not thought of this? Why did it take Bordoz to mastermind such a stroke?”
He did not have long to ponder on it as the enemy, uncoiling itself as a giant stung by a bee rises to a fit of peak and malevolence against its aggressor, surged forward, the ranks crushing down their forerunners as they poured over them hell bent on revenge.
Arlak's arm was barely raised before the first darts flew. All along the line Latiian soldiers were stuck and fell. The line quivered, faltered then surged forward again. Up went Arlak's arm again and another fusillade struck the enemy formation. Great rents appeared and were swallowed up as the mass gained momentum. A third and fourth volley hammered home, causing dreadful carnage. The enemy wavered, as if the effort were just too much. For a heart stopping moment the sides stared each other down over a thirty 30 pace gap.
Okhta issued the command to Squad Marshals. "Squad your darters and pick your targets!" In effect, passing control of the darters to localised objectives. The Marshals wasted no time in exercising their perogative. Highly concentrated volleys sang out, striking core sections of the surviving enemy formations. The effect was immediate. Deprived of leadership and under intense fire, the Latiians turned and ran.
Hapatkiiprii cried. Tears of anger, frustration and genuine grief for his dead and dying soldiers but more for himself. His dreams of glory, of bathing in the Emperor's glow ripped away by the harshness of defeat staring him in the face. How could it be? They would ask. You had twelve thousand and they just five. Half your number of dwarvesand still you lose? How?
How could he tell that he had lost two, maybe three thousand warriors and so far as he could tell, not so much as scratched a single enemy? If they had not been here, how could they understand the missiles?
Who was this ignorant? Who dare interrupt Hapatkiiprii'smisery?
Raising his consciousness, Hapatkiipriilooked into the face of Asakdrogii, centre division commander and Hapatkiiprii’s second in command.
"Sire, they do not advance. We have been given a sign. They are weak somewhere and we have a chance to redeem this morning."
"I do not see it." Hapatkiipriispoke at length.
""Sire. I ask you. Given that your enemy turns and runs, what would you do?"
"Exactly! The Sur things do not. Therefore they cannot. Therefore they are weak. We only have to find where and we will have them!"
"Is that so?" Scornfully, then with a glimmer of light as to how he could escape derision. "Well, you had best find the weak pointAsakdrogii,had you not? But waste my precious legions in the process and I will blame it all on you. Now find me my victory."
Dismissing himself,Asakdrogii went personally to each legion commander to explain his requirement. It did not take long for there were only six of them. As usual the two Eiijan legions attached to this arm were late arriving. It was as well for the plan. They would appear fresh and untainted by the proceedings so far, to be flung in at the weak point.
The first aim was to deplete the enemy's missile stocks. This must be achieved with as few casualties as possible, so elaborate feints would have to be employed. 4F, 7H and 10H were naturally excused major action having exposed their strengths already, but 3F, 15H and 16H were advised to exploit any weakness they should perceive for that was where the Eiijans would be placed. Also, 3F and 16H were to investigate flanking manoeuvres with the direct order that they should not permit their troops to become separated from the line enough for the enemy to isolate them.
By the time Asakdrogiiwas relaying these instructions to 16H on the left, he could see that Oviijdniia of 3rd Fiija had already shifted weight to his right, and using the farm buildings as focus was already in attack.
The ground between the stream and the buildings was wet, very wet and very muddy. It was impossible to charge over. Nevertheless, persevering troops could cross it even under flank attack by missile. The closer they got to the buildings the easier it got, missile wise, as fewer of the enemy could bring their wepons to bear and thus the buildings themselves gave a form of cover. If sufficient numbers could make it that far there was only a half section to oppose them. The primary wave failed to make a breakthrough, but caused the first Valev casualties as they closed in. Oviijdniia,not noted for reticence, saw the possibilities and fed more troops into the mudbath.
Slowly but surely this tactic produced results, Latiian courage and persistence laying open the Valev flank. Weakened, it began to give ground and thus made reinforcement easier for Oviijdniia. 3rd Fiija, as was expected of it, was breaking the enemy's back. Sure now of the course of vents, Oviijdniialeft his left in the hands of his 2ic. and crossed the mudbath himself to facilitate the breakthrough.
4th section of 10thReserve Regiment were making heavy weather of it, obstructed as they were and not secured by the buildings. Had it not been for the carted supplies assuring vast dart quantities they would have been in trouble much earlier. As it was the Latii, using cover got in close enough to start the killing. Even without the momentum of a charge the damage was fearsome. 4th section was not lacking in courage, skill or experience however, and no Latii passed them. As pressure increased and the ranks thinned, both Oblan the Section Leader and Arkov the Subleader were cut down in their turn. And so it came that the next officer up the line was called for. It fell to Bordoz to take over.
Here was a male poor in combat experience but rich in learning and ability to assimilate the qualities of others. It took him but moments to realise that there were two options. One: To take and dominate the ground with the buildings behind the line. Two: Withdraw until the buildings were out of range, in essence, that the farm was of no use to Valev as a strategic or tactical amenity. It would be best to deny its use to the enemy, but were that not reasonable then withdrawal must be undertaken even though it constitute a withdrawal of the whole left wing. For now, he had to keep the half section together.
As he would repulse one attack, there would be another the other side of a building. Back and forth he ran, cajoling, encouraging, stabbing, lunging, shoving, shouting. Perhaps it was inevitable, but the time came when he was in the front rank, the only rank. His shortspear deflected the Latiian blows but could not prevent them forcing him down by sheer weight. Grabbing and stabbing as he went down, sheer anger possessed him to a paroxysm of movement. Kicking and lunging, he felt weight and more weight pin him down.
Oviijdnaiiacould by no means be described as lacking. He had been in the thick of the fighting during five major battles last year alone. He had nevertheless seen nothing like this. Even at the worst moments of 2nd Nuneii the troops would advance to combat. Here, there was hesitation. It was necessary to bully them into crossing the killing zone of the mudbath. Prodding and shouting,Oviijdniiaforced his soldiery into the danger area, pushing them to greater speed through the clogging mud and showers of darts.
At each step his feet became heavier, more people around him screamed and lurched. Some pressing on injured, most writhing on the ground in a frenzy of pain. The mud convulsed with prostrate forms painfully extricating themselves back toward Latiian lines, or expending their last energies in a desperate attempt to stem the inexorability of their fast guttering lives.
Closing his mind to what lay at his feet, Oviijdnaiiaexhorted his band to greater effort, their mud‑caked legs at last finding firmer ground and pumping madly after the seeming eternity of bog launched into attack. Hurling his body at the Surian line,Oviijdnaiia'sstabber cleared a path into the enemy ranks. Their blades lunging at him, but falling short under his hammer blows. Troopers fell at his side, cut to death, but he fought on in an adrenaline-fuelled frenzy. Parrying blows then smashing the enemy down, he broke though the formation.
The sudden lack of opposition brought him up short for a moment. Turning, he slew again to clear the way for his followers and exploitation of the gap he had caused. The breach widened and Oviijdnaiiaturned again to lead the destruction.
A glimpse was all he caught of the axe‑head which struck him foursquare at the joint of neck and body. His already dying eyes witnessed with incredulity the plume of blood masking the sight of hands that no longer obeyed head, and of ground and sky toppling crazily. He felt the taste of blood in his mouth and heard the alien cries of Surian axers as they chopped his breakthrough to bits.
There was a pain, less physical, more mental asOviijdnaiia became aware of his failure and personal predicament. A momentary pang with the realisation of the loss of his love and his life, that he would see his blovedNaniijano more. A moment only before even thought became fuzzy and the waves of darkness came to engulf him.
"Still, you stupid sod! You will cut me!"
The call sounded directed at him. Unable to comprehend its meaning, Bordoz ceased his thrashing to listen again.
"Thanks." The voice said among the cacophony of battle above him.
Presently the immediacy of sound ceased and friendly hands dragged Bordoz clear of the body pile. Where a Latiian breakthrough had been imminent, now lay a charnel with the Latii well clear of danger.
"What the stars happened?" Bordoz questioned his rescuers.
"Seems like your old Controller likes you Sire. He sent in the axers. I have seen nothing like it. Talk about death on legs."
Bordoz knew what was meant. Each section had six axe wielders as flank guards. It was Controller Okhta's idea to utilise these all together when the regiment was full‑formed as a last ditch defence. This tactic, as had all the others he encouraged, worked. It had just saved Bordoz's life. The axers were gone, back to central position, ready for the next danger. Bordoz again had command.
Forcing himself once again erect, he could survey the effect of this last encounter. 4th section was but a wraith of itself. The enemy here was at a respectful distance across the mud, reluctant to move again. He could see it written clear even though their faces were helmeted. Looking round, Bordoz gained half an idea as to why. Here was a sea of agony and death. His section inherited as was from Oblan through Arkov was in tatters, but looking proud and firm, the injured all taken to the rear still it held. In front only the dead and those mostly Latiian. Further on, the Latiian injured, sobbing and moaning in their pain. Beyond them, the Latiian soldiery, live and afraid. Leaderless.
"Why?" Bordoz asked.
Looking closer, he discerned the mark of officery among the recent carnage. The axers had killed the Latiian leadership! Weak or not, now was the time to advance. With a whoop of joy he announced the truth to the section.
Forcing them forward one step at a time, the buildings were cleared and the enemy condemned to retreat. Proud and strong, Bordoz smiled as Arlak's 3rd section advanced to link withhissection, the two Leaders holding spears aloft in happy recognition. Turning his back disdainfully on the enemy as Bordoz had seen Okhta do so many times in training, he addressed his troops.
"Soldiers of 4th section, 10th Reserve Regiment, I am Bordoz, your new Leader. I think we fight well together. Let us keep it that way."
In that brief moment Bordoz found the true spirit of command. He saw the respect on the troop's faces. He felt the confidence of his ability and self, and of his troops and their reading. It was truly strange how such a simple act could achieve so much. Thankful for the controller's example, perhaps he now had an inkling as to the menial’s standing.
True to form for such an unpredictable, and yet predictable if one conceived the impossible, Okhta was there to ceremonise the occasion. His salute, not with shortspear but by captured Latiistabber sealed any doubts. For such a small force, an unbelievably huge cheer went up. 4th section had matured. Word had got around in the ranks, any officer approved by Controller Okhta Sumina was a good officer. 4th section would now fight doubly hard. Theyknewthey had, and were the best.
Things were not going so well on Zovan's right wing. Preliminary attacks had only taken the form of probing in this area, but the probing had shown up the weakness of the right in its darting. The Latii had seemed not to be prepared to risk a mass slaughter on the scale it had met in the centre. Unable and unwilling to fall into a prospective trap, the Latii held off, particularly as the Surians line extended beyond theirs. It bought Zovan time to review his orders.
Afternoon changed all that. The Eiijans arrived.
Asakdrogiihad little hesitation in committing them to his left. The right, if persevered with may have succeded, but the despondence of the troops the Eiija would pass through might seriously affect success. On the left no such chance existed. Asakdrogiitruly believed the left weak. Every assault had been met, but the fusillades lacked the accuracy and persistence of the enemies centre and other flank. A weak attack to draw all the fire, followed quickly by a strong assault would, by his calculation reach and break the line. Then the day would be his.
Massing his Eiijans behind 15th Hoijja, Asakdrogiiwaited for a sign. It was not long in coming. The Surans redeployed their end regiment! Plainly seeing that Asakdrogiiwas not extending his line, the enemy were shortening theirs.
From what he could tell, Asakdrogiithought they were bolstering up the line against 3rd Fiija on the right. It could not be better! He had been concerned at the failing of the right but now it had paid him dividends. Giving the Surians time to move away properly,Asakdrogiiordered the attack.
Especially thin wedges of Eiijans stormed up the slope. Open to flank attack, they were nevertheless able to move around their injured as they fell and still reform to strike hard in cohesive blows. Living up to their reputation, 7th Eiija made the opening. Six simultaneous strikes were made, all actually delivering warriors into the Surian lines, but four were so weakened as to fail to penetrate. The fifth stumbled at the last hurdle, bogging down in the third rank. It was only the last column, the central 7th Eiija that hacked their way through all three ranks and kept the breach open, forcing troops through the rent to splay out and cause havoc in the enemy rear.
This one breakthrough was all that was needed. Once made and secured it rapidly widened, allowing reserves to exploit the collapse of the enemy's stolidity and position. The fighting was not a reversal of fortunes, but in the blood and guts of close quarter combat the Latii had the edge, and were using it to full purpose. The scales of death were slowly moving back toward balance.
To the rear of the Valev line Zovan had sensed the Latiian intent as well seen their disposition. Withdrawing 4th Reserve Regiment to act as reserve had seemed a sensible move. One section he had at first deemed necessary to despatch to 10th Reserve but were not needed in the event, 10th RR overcoming their difficulties in style.
When the breach came it happened so fast that the three sections of 4th reserve thrust into the gap could not stem it. They could but merely reduce the roll‑on effect down the line, and then only to the centre. In what seemed moments it became grotesquely obvious that the greater portion of 3rd Reserve Regiment would perish with nothing to be done that could prevent it. In fact, any attempt to assist them would jeapordise the remainder of the Valev Army as a whole. What must be done was to stabilise the line, and that meant withdrawal. That in turn meant giving up the advantage of slope, but that would have to be. Line integrity was more important. It was the only way to give the darters clear targets.
The carnage that was 1st Reserve's right end section abated under a torrent of 4th Reserve's darts, the Latii spilling past the kinked line all along 4th Reserve's front and turning away from the storm to hack at the mutilated rump of 3rd RR still fighting in ever diminishing knots of detemined but futile resistance. The tide was with Latii, but every tide washes on resisting rock and like then, this too was not a one-way event.
The Latii could in this butchery employ to the full their skill and temper to batter the Valev down. Stabbers swung in wide twin arcs to crush and smash, rip and gouge, maim and kill in an unrelenting orgy of horror and pain. Even in this welter of blood and misery individual Valevers met their doom with courage and fortitude. Burying their shortspears deep into Latiian flesh. Killing their killers.
It had to end, and that was not protracted in its coming. As the last member of 3rd Reserve was dashed to the ground a huge cheer went up from the Latiian ranks. Stabbers on high they turned to mete out their measure on 4th RR. It was not to be. 4th RR were made of sterner stuff, more resolute still for witnessing the result of weakness. Further to this, the demise of 3rd RR had bought the time needed to order the line. No longer was it a harsh angle. Now a half circle it was nevertheless solid. Try as they might, the Latii would achieve no more breakthroughs this day.
They would come close more than once, the stabbers killing frenziedly at every chance only to be stilled by blade or dart and in one instance where breach was imminent, by the newly formed axe‑teams. Zovan had missed nothing and was changing tactics and formations as the battle went along. If something was a good idea and it worked he immediately incorporated it. Behind the entire line now worked mobile dart and axe teams. When danger threatened they were at that spot.
It was an angry and frustratedAsakdrogii who stormed into the command tent at days close.
"I see they're still there." Hapatkiiprii greeted him, half in wonder and dismay at the enemy's fortitude and half in semi‑glee at Asakdrogii'sfailure to produce victory at Hapatkiiprii'sexpense.
"Yes Sire." Asakdrogii had to concede. "But we'll shift them tomorrow."
"Do I have enough troops for that?" Hapatkiipriibitterly queried.
"There is a way Sire." This said in controlled temper, then as if to mediate. "I just haven't perfected it yet. But I will."
"Let me know when you do, and in the meantime take no further action without directly consulting me. We will have to answer for this debacle later and I need our answers to be good. For now, I ask our current dispositions."
"All legions are retired into bivouac with sentries posted, though the Surans seem to have little stomach for attack. The measure is precautionary and as a device to keep commanders occupied. They might otherwise ponder too much on losses."
"Quite frankly, not good. I don't have final figures but it is estimated at between two and a half to three thousand with the worst affected area being the central right."
"Where we attacked first." Hapatkiiprii mused. "This whole thing stinks of 2nd Nuneii. A curse on Ipokaliifor not warning us of the peril of mass attack against these barbarians."
Their grumblings done, both commanders sat late into the night discussing strategies and formulating new tactics after the heralds from 2nd and 3rd Divisions had reported. A consensus on the next day's plan of action had barely been reached when an alarm was called. Bursting in, the guard commander blurted the news.
"Sires! They have taken our outer guards and are even now among the legions!"
Their deep conversation had left Hapatkiipriiand Asakdrogiioblivious to a rising clamour outside. Now they were eminently aware of it.
"I shall sort this out." Asakdrogiistated flatly, rising to his feet.
"Sire." The guard commander halted him. "It's chaos out there, for they are killing the officers. For your protection I must leave guards in this tent until the intrusion be contained."
"Leave them for his eminence here, but I shall not stay whilst my comrades are in peril."
"The whole camp is awake. There is little you may achieve just yet and so I must ask you to remain here a while. Where I can assure your safety."
"Safety my arse." Asakdrogii cursed, striding out into the darkness.
Mayhem it was, chaos not so. Each legion was functioning within its own boundaries. By torchlight Asakdrogiilearned that each legion attacked had come to readiness and systematically repelled action then searched every corner of their camp area for intruders. None had been found alive, but what was missing was the active response, the follow up.
Asakdrogiihad 4thFiija sweep ahead of the army's right in strong patrols and 15th Hoijja on the left. That way there would be minimal confusion in the dark and maximal effect. The patrolling should prevent further incursion and entrap any lingering enemy yet undiscovered. Satisfied that order was restored, he returned to the command tent to find Hapatkiipriialready retired. Unable to rest himself,Asakdrogiitook a night‑cap and awaited the patrol reports.
These words, flatly spoken by an exhausted and dishevelled Navodiia, Legion Commander of 4th Fiija, stood suddenly at his side jerked Asakdrogiiinto wakefulness.
"You what?" He questioned.
Repeating himself,Navodiiaresponded. "They've gone. I've been myself to see, right through the field of dead and onto their mound. The enemy are no longer there."
"Where the **** are they then?" Asakdrogiidemanded.
"I know not Sire, but it seems they have retired the position. There is nothing left or right and even in the confusion of raiding they haven't come through us.."
Seeing the raiding then for what it had been, a distraction, Asakdrogiihad to admire the enemy commander's nerve and skill. His worry now was what someone so good was doing. What were these Surans up to?
The withdrawal had been a nightmare for Zovan as well as every other officer in his command. It had been no less gruelling for the soldiers. To melt away into the darkness, every twig snapped, every leaf brushed, every clink of equipment could give the game away.
With most of the force on the move and no response, Zovan felt assured enough to give the go‑ahead for the parties sent out to silence sentries to raid a little in the enemy camp. Just to give them something to remember. He had no idea that the day just passed would be one that Latii would never forget. What he did know was that he had lost a quarter of his troops, had all but expended the stocks of throwing darts and had been in what was no longer a tenable position.
As the Latii had cleared the field so parties had been despatched to retrieve as many darts as possible, but this had been successful only in a limited way. There would be no holding attacks of the determination shown that afternoon on the morrow, or any other day without more darts. Many more. The cartloads of 10th RR had been a saviour, what was needed now were more carts and more loads. This would take time. The only way to obtain that was to cede the valley floor and retreat to the hills.
"Your lot are different to mine."
"What?" Hapatkiipriireturned, his face contorted by incomprehension.
"I don't understand you Lord Hakaramii." Hapatkiipriiprobed, not curious at the statement but desiring to hear of Hakaramii'sactivities."
"They're different to mine." He reiterated, "I've been shown over your battlefield and noticed the disparity. We were not fighting the same enemy."
"Really?" Hapatkiipriitook a new interest. "So who was fighting who?"
"I can confirm that I took on and destroyed the 2nd Pavan regiment of Sur." Hakaramiielaborated. "Who you were confronting I don't know, except that they were not regular Suran."
"How can you be so sure?" Hapatkiipriiqueried. "They look pretty damn Suran to me."
"Not dissimilar I grant you, but not the same. I was fortunate enough to come across one of our border units and wise enough to listen carefully to what they said. I positively identified the battle flag of Pava as described, and on scrutiny it has the insignia of 2nd regiment on it. I have that now in my possession."
"Seems like you had an easy task then." Hapatkiipriichided.
Controlling himself, Hakaramii went on. "I don't think there are any easy tasks in war. I was lucky in getting advance warning of the enemy's tactics. From what I have seen they were not much altered, if at all in your battle. I merely chose to fight on my terms and not those of the Surans. I won. You didn't."
"Damn you!" Hapatkiipriiexploded. "I won too! How dare you say otherwise? Show me my enemy! You cannot! They have fled before me. How can you not see that as victory?"
"Oh!" Exclaimed Hakaramiifalsely. "I misunderstood. I thought that piles of enemy dead and capture of their standards signified winning. I am sorry. I should have learned your ways by now and shall know for next time the dead must be ours!"
"You bastard!You did not gloat so at Woneii!"
Cut by the remark, Hakaramiiconceded the point.
"No, it is true I messed up there. I made the plan too complex. But I have learned my lessons. Not to underestimate the enemy, and not to overestimate our troops."
"That is too much!" Hapatkiiprii blustered. "The Emperor shall hear of this! I tell you now, our soldiers have hearts of dragons!"
"I never said they didn't." Hakaramiicountered. "But between us, we've seen a lot of dead dragons."
"I know... I know." A more sedate tone. "But breaking through the missile storm is costly. You had the same problem?"
"True. But I chose to circumvent it. Keep them busy in front and go round the flanks. That was my tactic and it worked."
"You had better ground then."Hapatkiiprii lamented. "I tried that and got bogged in, in mud."
Hakaramiisaid nothing. He had been shown around by Asakdrogiiand knew who had done what. Asakdrogii had admitted his mistakes and listened to Hakaramii'scriticism and advice. They had discussed the enemy and Asakdrogiihad asked Hakaramiito give the information to Hapatkiipriias a bolster to his explanations to the Emperor. Perhaps he would get away with it again as he had after the shambles of 2nd Nuneii, for the way now seemed clear into the heart of Sur.
It was not to be that easy. Zovan would ensure that. Safely onto the high ground, every effort was made to join with the Hivalev contingent. More important even than that was to send word to Zarkov and the Surian Army at Kiisk of the Latiian activity. The Valever land Army complete was not strong enough to resist this invasion by itself. They could however take steps to hinder it.
Selective raiding ensured separation of the Latiian formations and slowed what had been the right wing down to a crawl. When the gap was sufficient, Zovan committed himself. Still outnumbered, this was a situation where Valev could prevail. Choosing his ground well, Zovan secreted his troops until the last moment.
Caught in column and totally unprepared for combat, Asnadnokii'sdivision suffered horribly. Splintered into unorganised pockets, the Latii were eliminated bit by bit. Powerless to bring order out of chaos and too far away for help, Asnadnokii fell among his warriors. The right wing ceased to exist as a fighting force. There were survivors of course, and some of these pressed on to join the central division. A good many though, went home.
Hapatkiiprii was furious. The entire army turned and stormed back, too late of course. The Valev were gone again, leaving another charnel house for all Latii to see. This was not good for morale, Latiian morale that is. It was excellent for Valev.
Despite loss of life that now severely restricted active capability in the offensive, the will to continue was high among the troops. Having risked all and tasted victory against the odds, they were hooked like true gamblers, ready to try again believing the cast to be stacked in their favour. Zovan knew otherwise. This latest sortie had inflicted sore wounds to Latii but the Valev loss, though numerically lighter was proportionately of markedly greater significance. He simply could not risk any venture that could conceivably escalate into major action. That would without doubt result in defeat and annihilation. A resultant of that nature would only be contemplatable if it should be vital to the survival of Sur and even then only if it would prove catastrophic to the enemy. Neither would be true here now, and therefore Zovan chose to raid and harry only. No more set piece battles. No longer the major interventionist. It was with a clear conscience and a heavy heart that Zovan chose his route. And then the weather changed.
Over the past week, the weather had been almost balmy for the time of year. Occasionally cloudy with the odd shower, but mostly crisp clean and clear. Now the clouds multiplied and grew, the wind picked up and blew with intensity. To cap it all, the heavens opened, pouring out a deluge of cold biting rain. Within hours, the entire valley and everything in it was sodden. In an afternoon the streams had risen and in by evening it was impossible for the army to move.
On the high ground, Zovan's troops had a better time of it against the water but there was no shelter from the wind. Down in the valley the Latii were so deep in mud, the minimal respite their position afforded from the wind was unnoticed. Zovan at first cursed the climatic misfortune, but then considered his foe's plight and began to plan.
Hapatkiiprii just cursed. He had little choice but to hold his position. An army the size of his takes a lot of feeding. This was relatively barren country with an unknown situation ahead. The conditions made it impossible for supply trains to keep up with any movement by the army. In fact, they were barely managing to supply enough before the rain. In its way the reduction in mouths to feed was a fortunate event.
Hapatkiipriicursed again. Where was this town that was promised him? The one Hakaramii kept urging him on to, the town that would feed his army as well his objective. The patrols sent out in advance of his position were ambushed, trains to the rear were raided, his sentries and picquets murdered in the night. How by the Emperor's name could it have all gone so wrong? How could he think?
The situation was constantly on his mind but always there were the Hakaramii'sand Asakdrogii'sof this world telling him to do this, advising that, pointing out another failing. He needed calm in order to achieve a solution. Was there to be no respite? Two more days they were stuck in the rain and mud. Both nights suffered incessant raiding. Both nights he was kept awake by the commotion.
Hakaramii could not abide the discord and confusion of these incursions and could be found when dawn deigned to filter through the murk, organising and controlling the countermeasures. To Latiian eyes, the organised sweeps seemed to fail in the most part to entrap, channel or dissuade the raiding parties. A single palpable success story began to emerge at first light on the third day. A group of Surans had been discovered and though a large portion had made an escape, some of them were now trapped in a narrow defile and fighting off the pursuing Latiian patrol. The sweep team would be there shortly, Anaiikraof 6th Fiija excitedly told Hakaramii. Then these raiders would be crushed.
Hakaramii rushed to the scene, arriving too late for the attack. In the slanting rain he saw the troops milling about in confusion. They had charged and taken what was thought to be a Suran defensive line. The Surans however had already withdrawn further up the defile to a new vantage point leaving only a few swift runners to maintain the air of occupation in the original position. At the attack, these too had run back to the new line. The sweep commander rapidly reformed his troops to cope with the narrowing defile and advanced to contact.
Watching from the defile mouth, Hakaramii suddenly became aware of the topography and situation.
"Get them out!" He screamed.
Those around him looked bemusedly at him. None made any move.
"Get the sweep back! Now!" He ordered. "It's a trap!"
Again no‑one moved. Brimming with anger, he launched forward into the gully, shouting at the top of his voice to retreat the troops. He was too late, the defile rim erupted into life as Suran darters disclosed their presence to fling a hail of deadly missiles onto the Latiians below.
The chaos was almost immediate. What had been a block of soldiery disintegrated to a rabble before Hakaramii'seyes. None of the set manoeuvres the troops had practiced were of use here. There was no direct attack. The destruction seemed to come from no‑where, the darts appearing through the rain to injure and slay in droves. Hurling himself, as if at an enemy, Hakaramiicareered into the confusion screaming, shouting, abusing, thumping, imploring all and any who were able to "Get out!.. Out!.. Out!"
He too tripped a dozen times, but as if charmed stood again to make his way forward, here to hurl abuse at those who cowered against the steep walls, there to rage with frustration and pride at soldiers attempting to scale the gully sides and confront the enemy. And then, all at once, he was among those most forward and in actually combat with Surans.
There had been no momentum in the clash and none could be fabricated. The Surans were giving as good as they got, their axes hewing chunks out of the unformated Latiian troops.
"Go back!" Hakaramii'shead told him. "Go on!" His heart replied.
Diving into the melee, stabbers swinging,Hakaramiifelled one Suran and gouged another when an excruciating pain erupted in his left leg. The knee gave, toppling him and as he fell a sharp blow, felt even through his helmet sent the world to darkness.
The jolting brought Hakaramiiround and the pain flared. A cry found it's way through gritted teeth and he tried to grasp the source of hurt, but could not move. Controlling the rising panic he forced his eyes open and twisted his head to find himself to be tied down to a litter, carried by four Surans. Struggling madly despite the agony, he attempted to free himself.
"It would be better if you kept still." The words came from a heavily accented voice to his left.
Twisting to see, Hakaramiilooked into the face of a Suran.
"These fellows are trying to be careful. It would ease their task and your leg if you tried not to move about."
It was difficult to make sense of. His language coming from such a strange mouth, set in an ugly little rounded face and with so much hair!
Observing the perplexion, the Suran continued. "Do not worry, you will be all right. We will not hang you upside down and gut you as do your brother's, the Varlan. Just lay still for a bit longer then I will have the physic take another look at your leg."
"Damn your physic you Suran bastard!" Hakaramii hissed, breaking his silence.
The Suran laughed out loud. "Curse all you like Latiian! I am the only one here who understands you, and I do not mind!"
"Filth!" Hakaramiispat. Wriggling fiercely he was about to utter a further expletive but was prevented by the agonising spasm which ripped up his leg.
With absolute precision and control a sharpened stabber was laid to touch his cheek. The effect was not wasted on Hakaramii.
"I asked you politely." The Suran said. "Now I am telling you. Lay still!"
"Or what?" Hakaramii sneered.
"I might be tempted to tap your leg again." Was the reply, and that too was not wasted on Hakaramii. He lay still.
The Suran turned and went out ofHakaramii'sview.
Lifting his head again to see, Hakaramii took in the scene. He was in a column of soldiers and even through the drizzle he could see there were scouts on both sides as the raiding party made its way back up into the hills. Presently the effort was too much and he let his head fall back onto the litter.
An eternity later, the rhythmic jolting ceased and Hakaramii'slitter was set on the ground. The bearers changed, the litter was lifted and a new session of pain began. The sensation had slowly changed until it was a continuous gnawing ache rather than the unending series of sharp stabs. Despite himself, Hakaramiidozed and eventually fell into sleep.
The troops were exhausted. It had been a long and dangerous night followed by an arduous and even more hazardous dawn. Everyone had been magnificent throughout. The soldiers brave, resilient and steadfast to a person, the leaders resourceful, calm and capable. It had been a simple plan that could so easily have gone badly wrong. That it had not was a pleasure to Zovan and a credit to Vokov. The tenth reserve had once again proved its mettle.
Listening to Vokov's narration of events, Zovan was simultaneously alarmed and intrigued at there being a prisoner.
"What ever did you do that for?" He questioned.
"It seemed like a good idea." Vokov answered. "The fellow's clothing puts ‑ him? ‑ pretty high up in their ranking and the action in the gully backs that up."
"But what is the use? We cannot talk to the prisoner." and then in a moment of insight. "Or can we?"
"There is the nub, Sire." Vokov answered. "One of my controllers speaks Latiian. It was he who took the prisoner."
"That sounds suspect to me." Zovan commented, thinking 'I will bet on who that is', but saying "I do not like it."
"I assure you Sire, there is no trickery." Vokov responded. "Come and see for yourself."
Hakaramii was woken into the dank and fetid stench of wet clothing and unwashed bodies mixed with an overlay of old animal dung and wood‑smoke. Opening his eyes he found himself in what could best described as a roofed animal pen dimly lit by guttering rush lamps and a small fire as the only source of heat.
The floor was littered with sleeping bodies, all tightly packed against each other. With a start, he realised that the cleared space he occupied contained more than his guard. Craning his neck back he could see by their belt sashes that there were officers. Three of them plus the guard and a physician. You can tell them anywhere. Hakaramiiwas vaguely amused at the thought, and then struck with the realisation that his leg merely ached. It did not actually hurt. It had been re‑dressed and splinted whilst he slept. Amazed, Hakaramiireturned his attention to the visitors. The physician had gone and the officers were whispering to each other. They were joined by the one with the stabber, the Latiian speaker.
"My stars!" The outburst came from the red sashed officer, Iktak Paknova High Chief of Hivalev. "It cannot be! Okhta Asiakva!" Eyes wide and hands spread in open welcome, Iktak bade greeting. "Well met! Though I expected it not here!"
"May your line be long Sire, I am glad to see you well.” Okhta retorted in the formal manner whilst rubbing the sleep from his limbs.
"You know this fellow then Sire?" Zovan enquired of Iktak. Although the answer was obvious, the question brought out the elucidation it intended.
"Indeed my Lord. In fact he is a member of my personal staff."
"I did not understand it that way, and the word is. ‘was’." Okhta interjected. "You paid me off. Remember?" This said with a hint of malice.
Bridling, Iktak cut back. "I did no such thing! What the?"
Much to Vokov's relief the confrontation was cut short by Zovan, "Enough! I shall deal with this later. For now, I need to know your allegiance Controller Okhta Asiakva."
The reply came after a pause, as if Okhta had been affronted by the question. "I am a soldier in the Valev tenth reserve. My allegiance is to the regiment, its officers, their commanders and Valev."
Zovan sensed the indignation and was both relieved and intrigued. "Good. So tell me how you speak Latiian and why," gesturing at Hakaramii, "you brought in this specimen."
"Actually my Lord, the language I learned is Midean and even then I do not know it well, the Latii just speak a dialect of it. It is a long story of why the learning took place but there it is. As to why the captive, he is a very high-ranking Latiian equivalent to something like a Surian High Chief. We should be able to solicit an idea of their state of mind and intents here and elsewhere. Even if we do not gain all we want from him we can always send him back with a new perspective."
"Like our true numbers and location?" Iktak put in.
"I think they already know that, as we know theirs." Okhta replied. "I mean, that we think of each other as brute animals. With little persuasion he may learn that we are a resolute and capable people yet not implacable nor without compassion. These soldiers are from far Latii and have no valid fight here. If we project ourselves well enough they may see the futility of their actions, lose heart and go home."
"Hah!" Iktak laughed out loud.
"I agree." Zovan concurred with the laugh. "A fat chance of that, but a chance none the less. Let me speak with him."
Moving to where Hakaramii could see them without cricking his neck, Zovan made to start.
Hakaramii had understood only the words "Latii" and Midean" in the exchange, but had read the discord loud and clear and now he was faced by the underling.
"I speak to you on behalf of Zovan Oblanva, Regulator of Valev. (Okhta did not know the Latiian word for Champion) He enquires of your name and status."
"That's green sash, right?"
Okhta confirmed this.
"So who's the red?" Hakaramii continued.
Okhta told him and prompted, "And you, if you would be so kind?"
"Kalimii Hakaramii. Commander 24th Hoiija legion." Hakaramiilied.
Okhta faithfully reported the conversation so far, advising of the mistruth.
Even though the tongue was foreign, Hakaramiiknew they were aware of his lie. He felt belittled.
The Suran turned back to him. "Odd that you carry staff rank and have a borrowed stabber. Still? But how is your leg?"
"It is much better." Hakaramiireturned. "Your physician is good, and quite undeserving the abuse I spoke earlier."
"I will pass the compliment." Okhta told him. "And I am glad for you, as I am sure your troops will be. They seem to think highly of you."
"I do not know why, for it seems no‑one else does. Even the Emperor."
"Ask how this 'king' finds disfavour with one so lowly as a 'Regimental Commander." Zovan instructed on hearing the translation.
With this put to him, Hakaramii replied that his legion was out of favour.
"Which one?" Okhta asked. "24th or 7th Hoiija?"
"Why link me to the 7th?" Hakaramiiqueried, asking himself how they could know that was his old legion?
"Your personal stabbers are marked with the legion number." Okhta answered. "Just like mine." Producing the item from his belt, he continued." I picked this one up at Woneii. Where then did you get yours?"
His resolve collapsing, Hakaramiiasked. "What don't you know?"
"Firstly, what you hope to achieve here. Whatever it is, it does not seem to have any sense to it. You have inadequate troops for invasion proper and have been sent without armour. So where are the Jaliians who we know have it, that they must send you here to die as a distraction?"
"These 14 legions are the main thrust I will have you know!" Hakaramiibridled. "And your pathetic little army is all but done for. We will catch you soon and crush you to sand!"
Looking at him straight‑faced, Okhta could see that there was no deceit. "You are mad, foolish or ignorant. Were you so long in Woneiia, Kaliimii Hakaramii, that you cannot see the truth when it confronts you?"
Perceiving the honesty yet disbelief, Hakaramiiqueried the basis of such an enquiry.
"We are but one Land Army." Okhta told him. "There are another twenty, all larger. Half of which are en‑route to this battle zone. You will not only be outfought but vastly outnumbered. You have no chance. You have been misled and thrown as fodder to the Wolves. What we cannot see is why."
"You yourself are the misleader, the one attempting to deceive me!"
"Am I?" Okhta queried. "Ask yourself. Who has stated their position openly and truthfully? Do I, do we, look like Surians? No. For we are of Valev as we have stated. Our regiments, though few, stand beside our Surian cousins to protect their land against hostile intruders. Like yourselves."
"You are the deceiver. Valevian. For Sur is the war wager. We Latii are acting againstyouraggression."
"This is a game of circles. I ask, does this land appear well kept? As fruitful perhaps as the fields of Woneiia? Maybe you should think why. For this is Surian land. The building you are in testifies to that."
Hakaramiicould not argue the point. He could see the building was old, and in a style no Latiian would use. Despite being from far Hoiija he also knew the doctrine of frontier expansion. 'Clear the land then occupy it'.
"Press him on how many and where the armoured troops are." Zovan urged. Okhta complied, enquiring only the proximity of the Jaliian contingent.
Hakaramiismiled. "Tell him, as one Divisional Commander, which is all I am now, I applaud his tactical skill and the tenacity of his troops but as he must know, I can't tell of these details for I know your weakness now."
"Which is?" Okhta probed, looking for another leak of confidence.
"You' re splitting the mainforce in two to counter us and are afraid of weakening the one against the other for you are afraid of the Jaliian weapon."
Okhta paused very carefully before answering. "That is for you to think."
It was important, particularly if this Latiian were to be returned that no nuance be misplaced, no stone unturned to glean intent and yet leave the desired impressions. But this one was clever. No ordinary Divisional Commander even. He had to be careful.
Whilst they were talking the watch changed. The Section Marshall quietly waking those next for duty and bustling them off efficiently, followed a while after by the 'off' shift sloughing their cloaks to the fireside hangers and their bodies to the mass sleep. Hakaramii missed nothing. Here was not the discipline and order of his army, yet none‑the‑less order pervaded. The Valev, no strangers to observation saw Hakaramii'sinterest and drew strength.
The interview had come to the point where neither Zovan nor Iktak could validate their continued personal attendance and so assuring themselves of a later translation, with Iktak pressing Okhta for a further interview so to clear their differences, both left for their duties. Vokov too made his exit. With the hierarchy gone, Okhta managed to solicit little more on current activities but persevered via the past.
"From a personal interest." Okhta offered as a relaxation, "I should like to know the fortunes of Wonarr after, when was it by your calendar? The fortieth? I think it was about that. The fortieth day of the eighth month last year."
"You mean the year beyond I think." Hakaramii responded. "But what is your interest and how do you know of the place, even less the action?"
Okhta answered truthfully, explaining his presence and activities during the battle.
Hakaramiilistened with growing interest. "So how many of the seventh got through do you think?" He questioned.
Drawing on the accounts of the Latii caught in Varlan, Okhta quoted the figure of about three and a half Latiian hundreds.
"Emperor's blood!" Hakaramiicursed. "You are not attempting some new deception? It was as bad as that?"
"That was bad?" Okhta chorused. "How many did you send?"
At first Hakaramii could not reply, but on Okhta's repetition of the question, answered. "Half a legion nearly. Six hundred and forty soldiers."
"My stars! That is just what Ovniitokii said and I did not believe him. You really sent a force when only half would get through to fight? You Latiians. I shall never understand you. How can you be so desperate, so thoughtless of life?"
Unhearing, Hakaramii was in a world of his own. A world where the seventh were delivered en‑masse as training and the plan indicated. A world where legions did not get displaced, a world where he were not disgraced. Dragging him back, Okhta opened the floodgates on Hakaramii'slife, learning how he had been replaced and demoted after being forced to withdraw and fight a holding action at Nuneii, yet how his replacement,Hapatkiiprii had done no better for given that Mides had been halted he became reckless and precipitated another battle where only the fortitude of the troops and the skill of the junior commanders saved the day. That madness had lasted three days and ended in another retreat.
Once again, at Annareii it was not Hapatkiiprii'shand that averted another defeat and yethewas spared by Asadnii. At the end of their tether, the Army of Dewa was rescued by the Hoiijan reserve and by Fiija transferring everything they had to strike at Wonaii. That split Mides and they were soundly defeated in the field, but Hapatkiiprii still took the credit. He retained command when the Emperor moved operations to this front.
Certain now of the tactical situation, Okhta made sure Hakaramii was fed and comfortable and left him with the guard. Making his way to Zovan's tent he reported his interpretations before returning to a much-needed sleep. With this new information, Zovan was able to send new messengers to Sur carrying revised plans and requirements. What he had learned did not change Zovan's course. It merely reinforced its correctness. With the weather slowly beginning to clear it was imperative that this activity be stepped up. To do otherwise could release the enemy to their will.
Hapatkiipriiwas furious, and yet exalted at one and the same time. It was extreme folly and grievously irresponsible for a senior commander to imperil his position so, and yet what a relief to have Hakaramii gone at last. Hapatkiipriihad lived under his cloak for far too long. Even with the role reversal and Hapatkiiprii'selevation, he had always felt the old master to be watching and disapproving. Always showing how it should be done. Always respected by the troops ‑ perhaps even loved. Where he,Hapatkiipriiwas merely in charge. So the old bastard was gone. Good! Perhaps now the legions would look for a new father. With time it could be he.
Off in the fourth quarter, the sky was lighter and new plans to shake off the army's inertia must be made. Summoning the legion commanders and their overlords, Asakdrogiiand Ovidnaiia, Asnadnokii'sreplacement as divisional officer, Hapatkiipriiemphasised the importance of their positions, playing upon Hakaramii's folly.
"The frontal place is for junior officers ‑ as you all once were." He reminded them. "I don't doubt the courage or skill of any of you but it best serves Latii if that experience is exercised from where you can see the whole picture."
There was no response to this appeal. Each knew its truth, and yet admired Hakaramii'saction and wished it were they who had been there. For already the word of his bravery had spread among all the troops. Hakaramiihad died for them. He had risked and lost all to save ordinary soldiers, another tale, a legend to elevate him into folklore. Already a hero, nowHakaramii was fast becoming an enigma.
Basking in the reflected glow, Askiitakiicould gain no warmth. His was Hakaramii'slegion of old and so had been the favourite. To Hakaramii this had meant 7th Hoiija got the most hazardous and taxing assignments and the chance of greatest glory. Askiitakii knew the price of that policy. It was why he had only half a legion left. He also knew that Hapatkiiprii'sdistaste for Hakaramii was why the policy continued ever more dangerous and would endure until the legion ceased to exist.
Hardly believing his luck he listened as Hapatkiipriidivided the army, retaining 7th Hoiija in the mainforce. The force with the easy task of pushing on. It was Asakdrogiiwho had the bastard call. He was expected to cross the hills now to Kiisk, straight into the teeth of Suran opposition waiting for him with an uphill advantage. Poor sod even had the remnants. A very shaky 3rd and 4th Fiija bolstered by the survivors from Asnadnokii'sdefeat, together with Hoiijan 15th, 16th and the half strength 10th.
Hapatkiipriiof course retained the legions who had tasted victory and were near full strength. Except of course for 7th Hoiija. So why?
The explanation was not long in coming. Askiitakii was to form the bait. In a plan of Hapatkiiprii's devising, 7th Hoiija were to be a lure to bring the Surans out such that Asakdrogiicould climb up behind them. Revolted, but not surprised, Askiitakii'sstomach turned to stone as he heard out and accepted his task.
Hakaramii had lain for two days watching the comings and goings, listening to the sounds of the encampment. Straining for clues as to numbers or morale through the incessant drip of rain, there was no value to the sounds, but from them and the troops billeted in the barn he discerned an order, a routine. The familiarity of it gave him some comfort, but not enough to settle. Not to feel a part, or welcome. Hakaramii turned his mind to escape. Any attempt would have to be made in darkness and even then when the guard was at lowest ebb. The small hours would give the best chance for him to overpower his jailer and make his way as silently as possible from the enemy camp. The plan outran his ability, and was put on hold the first time he tried to stand. The pain was excruciating, causing him to cry out and bringing the attentions of the physician in short order. I also brought the underling to translate the doctor's orders.
Hakaramii welcomed the opportunity to talk for although he had been visited a number of times by medical staff there had been no discourse requiring elucidation, and of course the guard's duties and attentions had been all too clear. Hakaramiispoke first and immediately regretted it, interrupting as he did the doctor's words to Okhta.
The surprise showed and both Okhta and Hakaramiiknew that he had shown a weakness.
"It is raining again although the sky is not quite so dark in..." Okhta had to rack his brains for the right terminology. "I think it is the fourth? Quarter."
"That bodes well." Hakaramiiresponded. "We shall be on the move again soon then."
"Which 'we'?" Okhta came back. "For you are going no‑where according to the physician."
"For how long?"
"At least ten days unless he mud‑packs the leg and we make crutches. Naturally enough, there is little inclination for either."
"What then do you plan for me when you retire?"
"Why retire?" Okhta questioned. "At worst we can let your legions march up the valley into Sur's now waiting arms, then on your retreat be stood awaiting the dismembered remnants. At best we can split and best you bit by bit, leaving Sur to advance straight to your black heart and deliver the death blow."
"Latii does not die so readily to your plan underling! You will see!"
"That is not what has been evidenced so far." Okhta chided.
"A curse on you!" Hakaramiisnarled. "Show your faces fair and square and our legions will crush you and sent your precious Sur to the four winds!"
"Even should you get your way, by our counting that leaves two winds, and by those winds we shall haunt you and hunt you until the lands are free again from your Emperor's curse."
"Fine rhetoric." Hakaramiispoke after a pause in which to calm himself. "But even as we speak, the might of our Army Group South is battering your Suran friends into submission around Kiisk. There is no‑one ahead of Hapatkiipriito stop him sacking Poviij or prevent him wheeling to the rear of Sur's retreat."
"Is that so? Well, we shall see shall we not? In the mean time lie still and do as the physician orders if you want to walk again."
With that, Okhta left. The doctor had gone well before and Hakaramii was left alone and feeling dreadfully stupid again. Even though he knew he had learned more of the Valev than they of him, he was left with the distinct impression that the converse was the case.
Dawn was well ensconced when the scuttling woke Hakaramiifrom a troubled sleep. Rolling over to view the sounds source he winced as the pain seared through his broken leg. Quietly cursing through gritted teeth he lifted his head to witness the scene. Troops were being woken bleary eyed and moved out with all their kit, making room for a pitiful band of tired, dirty, wet and bloodstained soldiers. Shuffling in, in a ragged and wretched line some with great gouges in face and body, others with grotesquely distorted limbs. All were ushered into a relatively warm and dry corner where auxiliaries first helped them into resting positions then assisted to bring each individual to the attention of the physicians who had set up a small working area on clean cloths. There were two real medical people, and working independently of each other they swiftly and skilfully set about their trade. Hakaramiihad seen doctors at work before. Who in the army had not? He had not ever witnesses such a prolonged activity as this however, and was forced to grudgingly admire the fortitude of both practitioner and patient. Here also was a gentleness, a caring, which was not evident in Latiian physicians. The injured were treated in an orderly manner, the worst cases first. Those remaining rested quietly awaiting their turn. Each was treated with consideration and care. Each either guided out after treatment or carried and laid to one side. Some cases were carried outside. It did not take much to imagine why.
Amid this sea of sorrow Hakaramii could not conceive how or why the physician found the time and energy to ease the suffering of an enemy.
"So tell me again." Zovan insisted.
"Sire." Ankov spoke through his weariness. "Our raid was progressing well. Much as we had intended for its greater part. The reinforced picquets caused no great problem and our 'way guides' were left in place as normal. Entering the camp there was some confusion. It was not as we had been told. Whole sections were missing. Everything moved around. Patroling within the camp was greatly increased and as advised, my troops avoided contact with these, using time and energy to spoil stores and damage equipment. We managed to strike on some of the junior officers but were unable to locate any but the heaviest guarded senior ranks. Realising that without it becoming a suicide mission we could do no further good, I called the raiders to retire. We have full notes now of what is where, and can go back again with a much better chance of success."
"Good." Zovan approved. "You did the right thing. But how did it go wrong?"
"It was the exit, Sire. Coming back to our own way guides, they told me of strong patrols across our path, seeming as if searching for their own picquets. In short, it was obvious they knew we were about. I ordered a deviation round this hazard and we ‑ I thought we were all clear. Then in an entirely separate location, close to the valley side we blundered into another encampment. There were the missing sections. They have split their army into two It was a mess Sire, and I bear full responsibility."
"Two hundred and twelve missing, another fifty‑one with the physician."
"That is not good. But it cannot be helped. From what you say Ankov, you did well to escape so lightly. Go now and sleep, for this is important news you bring. I must think on its meaning."
With Ankov gone, Imnak spoke. "What a foul up! I cannot imagine what Ankov thought he was doing."
"I am not thinking of Ankov. My mind is entirely on the Latii. So tell me, what the shit are they at now?" Zovan asked of Iktak.
"I do not know. It makes no sense to me."
"It can only be a ploy." Zovan mused. "Nobody would be so stupid as to separate his army when under threat."
"Perhaps," Iktak commented, "They no longer see us as a threat." Then extrapolating for political nicety, even though Zovan was with the concept, "It may be that in Latiian eyes we are merely a nuisance now. They may well be aware that we no longer have the numbers to sincerely threaten their intentions."
"We never could." Zovan retorted. "Our task was to hinder and hold as feasibility dictated. We have had more luck than we deserve in our efforts."
"Oh, come on!" Iktak protested. "It is our skill and resilience that have brought success, and we still have an abundance of both."
"I do not disagree." Zovan countered. "But luck has certainly played its part. That being said, how do you see the enemy's intent and what we can do about it?"
"I think," Iktak postulated carefully, "That this could be a predisposition. Unless it is an attempt at trapping us, and on evidence I do not think this Hapakreepup to such. As you say, there is no sense in it save that their orders dictate it. We are aware now of how they work to a system and order. This is the only rational explanation I can give."
"But why?" Zovan questioned.
"I can only guess, and this is aided by the prisoner's comments, that it is intended to threaten Kisk. Beyond that, and why the split I have no idea."
"We do not know what has happened there." Zovan stated. "No word has yet come. Perhaps the Latii expect, perhaps they have achieved a defeat of Sur and this split is to allow promulgation of a rout or annihilation. Whatever, we cannot permit a single Latiian to pass these hills."
"Be careful." Iktak warned. "That may be their intent. To make us think so, and position our army to prevent such an action. If they could pre‑plan the engagement we could find ourselves wrong footed. And fatally so."
"I think," Zovan interposed, "This is a time to utilise the knowledge of our friend the Latiian."
"He will tell us nothing of this." Okhta advised Iktak. "His loyalty and pride preclude it. I ask of you, would you disclose such details to an enemy?"
"I would not, and I understand the point. But we must know in order to best make our next move."
"A deception then, but I can think of none to fool him."
"Tell him they have all moved out. Gone down‑river."
"Then why have we not followed?"
"They have started home then."
"He will not believe it." Okhta retorted.
"In that case we will make him believe it. We will move the troops. At least this hut and those around. That will make the filth think."
The sudden rattle from outside caught Hakaramii'sattention. He had become used to the sounds and smells of the encampment and this was unusual. Alert, but feigning diffidence he listened harder. His ears could be deceiving him, but it sounded like troops on the move. The supposition was borne out by the presence of officery in the barn. The soldiers nearest him were pretending to tidy up and were partially blocking the restricted view he had round the improperly closed sacking screen, but he could see well enough that there was a major move afoot. Not merely leaving for patrol or the like, these Valevers had moved the injured and were taking all their kit with them. Presently, the pretence was dropped and the shielding troops made their exit too. Leaving Hakaramiiand one guard.
The noise outside subsided and died. Only the sound of wind around the roof joists was discernible. Hakaramii called to the guard bet received no response.
"Bastard!" He cursed, attempting to shake free his bonds. This brought the guards' attention. Swiftly and showing definite signs of nervousness, the guard indicated thatHakaramii be quiet.
"Why?" He thought, then verbalised. "What gain is there in my silence?" Then thinking on concluded, "We're coming. We're coming!" The elation hit and buoyed him. Then a second thought struck. "The silence... The bastards are going to lay an ambush!"
The guard angrily hushed him again, but Hakaramiiwould have none of it, yelling, "Bastards! Bastards!" at the top of his voice.
The guard threatened with the weapon and Hakaramiihushed, thinking he must be alive to warn. If he died then it would not matter, but to do so now would be futile.
There was a scraping from outside and the guard was gone, out of the door in a flash.
"Don't let the bastard get away!" Hakaramii shouted. "But be careful of the trap!"
"I will watch for it, but I think it is you who should be more careful."
Okhta had appeared at Hakaramii'sside as if by illusion.
"What the bloody....?" Hakaramiistarted.
"I cannot stop, for your people have a raid coming this way and we are to surprise them. I just wanted you to know so you would not cry out and find it was our troops who were your visitors later, and get yourself killed for your pains. If your raid get this far and discover you then maybe you will be all‑right. If, as we plan they do not, then lie still until I return."
"Hah!" Hakaramii scorned. "You will not be back for this is Hapatkiiprii come for you! You can't fool me!"
"I think not." Okhta replied, "For your army is split and even as we speak half of it is marching down‑river into Sur."
"ThenHapatkiipriiis the fool I always thought. He has followed orders and it is Asakdrogii who will find me and he is the better to annihilate you before going on to Kiisk."
"A fine thought to frighten me, but this is no more than a large raid. Less than a legion is coming."
"You lie!" Hakaramiiresponded. "You Valevers would not break camp in a rush for less than a legion. It is Asakdrogii,I know it at the very least."
"Whoever," Okhta interrupted, "It is of no matter, their destruction is imminent and I must away to my part in it."
Gone as swiftly and quietly as he had arrived, Okhta went direct to Iktak to report.
"I believe the mettle and the means." Iktak reported in his turn to Zovan. "It ties in with all we know and thought to this time."
"It is madness." Zovan replied after a lengthy pause to contemplate the implications. "As I see it," He continued, speaking to both Iktak and Vasiakva, "Our best and most obvious move is to attack this 'Asakdrog' and thus prevent their incursion into these hills and therefore Kisk and the Surian flank. How say you?"
Vasiakva spoke first. "Your judgement is sound Zovan, though it is not how my heart speaks."
"I agree." Iktak concurred. "The strategy is good, but perhaps that is what they would want of us. Maybe the obvious is not the best. Like Vasiakva I too think of the people of Povsk. I would not leave our citizens to the depreciation's of these cowardly animals. Let us leave Asakdrogii to the Zarkov's keeping and belittle thisHapatkripnaand the Latii he stands for."
Zovan smiled. "My thoughts exactly, but I would not commission them without concurrence. You are aware that in this we are unlikely to survive? In prevailing, we can only reduce them to impotence and in the doing destroy ourselves."
Both nodded their awareness and assent for the action.
The conference that followed concluded that only goading would bring the Latii into precipitate action which was Valevs only real hope of a stand up victory, as it could not be expected that Hapatkiipriiwould commit troops to frontal attack again without extreme provocation. Any freedom for the Latii to utilise terrain or numbers would without doubt result in Valev annihilation.
With the coming of nightfall, Hakaramiiknew that something had gone dreadfully wrong. He had been alone for most of the day now, and though some sounds had come earlier on, they had been subdued and nothing like pursuit or combat. Either the Sur‑Valevers had defeated Asakdrogiiand were not coming back, or he had completely by‑passed this place.
Whichever, without a fire or body‑heat, the barn had lost its warmth very quickly leaving Hakaramii thankful for the blanket and vittles left for him. The food was bland but not unwholesome and the blanket helped ward off the night chills. He was uncomfortable, but not in great pain, however unable to move far or fend for himself. In short, feeling extremely vulnerable and in a position where he was forced to admit that even the return of the Valev would have been welcomed.
Askiitakiirefused to believe it. He and the 7th were high in the hills and unscathed. All day he had advanced as ordered, expecting at every step to have devastation unleashed on him. Probing every bush, hummock and gully he had led this legion up from the valley floor seeking for sign of the enemy. Sign there was, but all of it old and no presence at all. The effort and tension of it all had been nearly too much for him, and making camp at day's end he knew there would not be an end until Asakdrogiiarrived.
Asakdrogii too found the truth hard to credit. He had followed respectfully well clear to Askiitakii's right, yet keeping a watchful eye and not too distant. For him too the Sur had not appeared, nor could he see had they taken the 7th's bait. So where were they?
"It is not a good plan." Iktak had warned. "Look what they did to 3rd. Reserve." He quoted as justification for avoiding close combat."
"Yes." Vasiakva, commander of 1st Line, countered. "But think what we did to them afterward."
"That was a surprise move when they were unformated." Iktak reminded Zovan. "Now we are deliberately to wait for them to organise. I am sorry, but I cannot see the sense."
"The idea," Zovan explained, "Is to shatter them in open combat."
"I know," Iktak retorted, "I agree that this Hapakripyis the weak point and we must hit him hard and keep him reeling such that he looses his confidence. But let's not risk missing on our first blow. We should stun them into paralysis, so he does not know where to look for the follow up."
"I follow your argument Iktak, but you miss the vital link." Vasiakva elucidated. "Our action to date has slowed but not stopped their purpose. We react as the lesser force. To halt and turn them back we, for we are all there is to prevent them reaching Povsk, we must show our disdain and beat them in open combat in the field. This Hapykreepy'sidiot tactics have allowed this to be feasible, and my regiment shall prove it."
Into the Valley
Hapatkiipriiknew exactly where the Surans were. He knew from their banners these were the same ones come back down from the hills to meet him. He was at first loth to believe it, then incredulous at the carriage of misfortune. Every plan he had conceived removed the Surans from his path. It was beyond all reason that they now stood in his way.
No slouch to the disciplines of war, he ordered his force into line and position whilst viewing the ground and the enemy. It was not so bad after all, he consoled himself. The Surans had thickened their line to absorb attack better, but this had caused it to shorten. He would use Hakaramii'smethod, occupy the centre and go round the flanks. The terrain was even suitable for this, the Surans choosing the battlefield poorly this time.
"Advance the centre, and probe." He ordered. "We cannot make flank action too obvious yet, or the enemy will merely withdraw to better ground." He confided.
His legion commanders concurred and went to their tasks determined and confident. Hapatkiipriitoo was determined, but not so confident. The Sur had placed themselves on a rise again, this time above a small and eminently fordable rivlet. This was not a great tactical disadvantage for him. Definitely not one so great as to allow them a force half the size of his. Unless that was, there were something more to it. Their raiding had proved the Sur quite capable of deception, but Hapatkiiprii could see none here, nor how any could be perpetrated once battle commenced.
Zovan could have told him, but he too was nervous. This was a dreadful risk he admitted to himself, now confronted with the Latii for real. In the centre he had doubled the ranks so that now two triple ranks stood, but they were all spear‑troops. The two ranks of darters knelt behind them were concealed from enemy view, the bulk of darters having been shifted to the flanks. If the Latii even dreamed he was so formated they would destroy him in an instant. That they suspected not was evidenced by the inception of probing moves.
As the first squadrons crossed the water, their commanders immediately saw problems. The bottom was firm gravel and at its deepest the water came no greater than thigh high, but its speed though not fast, was adequate to make the crossing of five or six normal good paces a slow and awkward task. It meant that troops on the far side were vulnerable and swift reinforcement almost impossible. Haiinodaof 24thHoiija, the most exposed legion, was soon joined by his counterparts in vociferous demand for permission to place more troops in support of the crossing.
"Move the whole line, the entire army over." They chorused. "We can already see the enemy missile range falls well short, only half‑way down the slope."
"It is tactical lunacy to place a river at your back." Hapatkiipriitold himself.
"It would be a sign of extreme weakness not to go forward now." They told him.
"You have had one near calamity, beware a second." His mind said. "Do it!" His fear of the Emperor and his mouth said.
"Wait for it!" Zovan instructed, his heart racing. "They are on the downslope now and can no longer count us, but hold back the darters still. Keep them kneeling until enough are across. It will not be long."
Vasiakva and Iktak both nodded and went to their respective positions, left and right.
The enemy centre was formed and already organising a penetrative assault even though their left was having problems. One legion was entangled in thornscrub and edging over to crowd a second.
"Move now!" Zovan commanded.
1st Line and 1st RR erupted from the line to dash a hundred paces. No more. This was enough to bring the Latii in range of the now stood and advanced darters. Volley after volley flew, creating mayhem in the Latiian mass.
Under fire and under stress, Haiinodakept his head. Noting that the Surans had broken their line to leave the advanced formation isolated, he at once spurred the near formed attack group to action. With no surprise and minimal cohesion it stood little chance of success despite the shortened gap. It was brave, and the sensible thing to do at the time. It was exactly what Zovan wanted.
Running uphill into a wall of spears, no individual could be expected to break through. None did, and the failure was obvious to the attackers. Returning to the relative safety of their own formations they caused a further disruption asHaiinodajostled his soldiers into new formations for flank attacks. The disorder turned to chaos, for hard on their heels came the Valev.
The strike was every bit as forceful as the Latii perpetrated, thundering in to smash the Latii down. In the crush of bodies that followed, the blade of a shortspear did more work than stabbers unable to be swung. Latiian right and left were unable to assist, for the Zovan had advanced his line and now subjected the Latiian wings to a deluge of darts. Chaos spread and the Latii broke.
The rivulet filled with frantic, shoving, jostling, slipping, tripping bodies. There was no way to make room and reform until back across it. There was no way to be clear of the dart showers until back on dry land and away from the water. There seemed no way to survive until returned to their commanders' side. Amid the confusion and commotion all these proved difficult, but in the event an amazing number achieved it.
Bedraggled and dispirited, the survivors would have been routed had the Valev gone forward to continue the attack. Zovan chose not to. He was not quite confident or fool enough to risk his army with its back to water despite the state of his foe. Also, there was enough to contend with in mopping up the odd pockets of Latii stranded and still resisting. What was more, the dart stocks were again seriously depleted and there was a Latiian legion intact and moving freely to his right. The non‑appearance of the Latiian second force could not be counted on and so he felt the need though it was unlikely to be necessary, to be able to extricate his force at a moments notice.
Withdrawing back up the slope and deploying more strength to the right, Zovan re‑stood his ground. The impression came quickly that there was no longer any gain to remaining. The enemy was paralysed and he was not going to advance. Accordingly he ordered a return to the hills. There would be other days to repeat the exercise.
Anahiimadof 6th Hoiija declined to make anything of it. He had witnessed the penalty for over‑extension and isolation, and thought better of it. He would merely shadow and threaten with no intention of actual attack until, or if, support arrived. The mere presence of his legion was to prove a thorn in Zovan's side.
Hapatkiiprii was beside himself with rage and frustration, physically striking his subordinates. Cursing them for stupidity and cowardice. Running from legion to legion abusing their officers, screaming at them to create order out of chaos. Yelling insults as he obscenitised their redeployment instructions, Hapatkiipriidestroyed what little credibility he had retained. He could not of course, and would not understand the turning against him for the fault lay squarely with him and he were not big enough to accept it. He was an organiser and a politician. Both eminent characteristics in a great general but sadly that most important of traits was missing in him. He was not a leader. It was that lack which caused him to flinch at harsh decision, and that lack which allowed his subordinates to become independent to the point of recklessness. All was not lost for him however. Once again he had met a numerically inferior enemy and been bested, but as before he was technically in charge of the field. For having at length achieved some form of defensive order from the confusion he found the enemy had gone. Tentatively,Hapatkiipriistarted his legions back over the rivlet.
Without support, Anahiimadcould do nothing to prevent the Sur doing as they would. Keeping his legion close, but not too close, he could however delay them by forcing a combat formation to be maintained. Becoming increasingly vulnerable, he followed until the ground began to break up as it rose from the valley floor. In the open, he could see what was going on. From that point he could not, and would not risk being entrapped.
Hakaramiilay in a half doze of absolute dejection. He had been alone now for over a full day and was utterly helpless. The effort to clear himself and clean after defecation had left him exhausted, his strength sapped by pain. Even now he lay back on the blanket, the turd pile with its mocking stench just two paces away. Where before merely laying still had brought the ache to a tolerable level, the movement necessitated by venting his bowel had aggravated the injury so that it burned in throbbing waves. So much so that it had quite dominated his psyche to the point where he failed to hear the soldiers until they crashed in through the open doorway. The sudden violence of their entry startled and caused him to jerk, sending a searing arc of agony into his brain.
Asakdrogii had received every one of Askiitakii'sheralds with courtesy but disinterest. That was for the first half day at any rate. He had expected one or two, but the unending flow, one every timestick began to gall, then the rationale struck. Askiitakiiwas letting him know where he was and within a stick when the enemy struck. Therefore, exactly where the enemy was.
"Damn him for his courage! He's really going after them!" Asakdrogiiapplauded, and set his forces to mirror Askiitakiiin complete contravention of orders. "If he'll go on a limb so, I cannot let him be destroyed without trying to listen." Asakdrogiitold his 2IC.
"My Lord," Navodiia advised, "Be careful. This enemy are not so predictable as Mides."
"No." Asakdrogii answered. "But so far we have always met on their terms. Askiitakiiis offering the opportunity to meet them on ours."
"A curse on it!" Askiitakiiswore. "All right, bring Quarterings 2 and 4 to readiness and hold them here. 3rd quartering is to run sweeps of not more than squad strength. I want to know where and when they went. I don't want sign screwed up by herds of idiots trampling everywhere. Got it?"
"Sire!" Miassmiispoke in acknowledgement and wheeled away to his task.
The curse had been occasioned by first, reports of an enemy encampment then after forming the legion ready for action, Miassmii'sreporting that the site was unoccupied.
Dividing his squads into sweeps,Miassmiigave the orders; "I want every building searched. Every hearth inspected. Anything left reported. I want to know how many there are, if they have left as a band or in groups and if so what sizes and in which directions. I want to know how much they are carrying, how many sick and their morale and readiness. If you look, all this can be found. Most importantly I want to know when and why they have gone."
"Emperor's balls!" Hiimlanhissed. "We're supposed to be bloody psychic now!"
"Save it!" Naliimadwhispered back. "The squadric'll hear and then we'll both be in the shit!"
Sure enough,Ahmalii, the squadric glared in their direction, but on this occasion declined to make comment as he barked the forming commands to squad up for sweeps. Neither Hiimlan nor Naliimadwere devotees of Ahmalii'sauthority, nor was he an admirer of them. Making no secret of his approbation's, Ahmaliithreatened, though not loud enough to alert officery as the pair passed him.
"Screw up you two turd suckers, and I'll nail your balls to a post!"
It was not an idle threat.
As it was, the pair had been assigned to the duty Naliimadhated most. Clearing buildings. Between them, they had cleared more than a few between Wonaii and here. It was never a pleasant experience. Even when the place was empty, the heart always ran twice as fast until you were out in the clean air again. It was the transition, his rationality told him. The change between dark and light, the seeing and knowing and the blind unknown.
They had a system,Naliimadand Hiimlan,where they would take turns to be first in. First went left, second was an eyeblink behind going right. Both had stabbers flying. Anything in the way was destroyed, no questions asked. They had seen too many others hesitate, or stand in the lighted doorway too long. Naliimadand Hiimlanwere both alive and intended to stay that way. The Mideans had been bad enough, there was no telling what was waiting with these bastard little Surans. Hiimlanhad one of their darts stuck in his helm and at first wore it as a talisman, but the idea quickly palled and he had thrown it away in loathing when they cleared the battlefield of their former friends corpses. Their friends who had fought with honour in Woneii and died like animals here in Jalii.
So here it went again. The dry throat and sweating palms. The false bravado as you wait to take another building. The quiet oblique approach to the opening so to give the occupants least warning of your intent. The inevitable pause for the backup to be ready. Then the nod.
It had been the custom for the first in to call the "go", and Naliimadhad having that dubious honour squared his courage, licked his lips and locking Hiimlan'seyes gave an almost imperceptible movement of the head then launched himself through the doorway. In, with stabbers flailing he thrashed fetid air but kept moving until his eyes adjusted. The backup was there and stood like morons, all jammed in the doorway struggling to see.
It was just as well the place was empty.
Hiimlancame over with a familiar grin of relief and the two went into their routine. Each partition. Cover, dash and stab. It was better they explained when fun was poked at them, to find your stabber in fresh air than have it up your arse and some other bastard's in your gut. After Nuneii, there weren't many who poked fun. In truth, it did all seem a bit silly now, what with the place empty. But memories were strong, and fear even stronger. You could smell it. In some cases literally. At least one of the new replacements had wet themselves.
Nothing of value here. The hearth had the faintest vestiges of heat, that meant the last usable fire in it had been close on a day ago for the embers had been left to burn out. One or two broken oddments but no clothes or kit. That meant the enemy had left in an orderly manner. Perhaps Quarturion MiAssmii was right. Maybe a nothing could tell you something.
No time to ponder, another building was waiting to be cleared. This next a little larger and in worse repair. From outside looks and smells like a barn. For the last week Hiimlanwould have welcomed the shelter of a barn. It was inconceivable that the enemy would not have utilised it.
"So here we go." He thought. "My turn first now." Instantly, the need to defecate was strong. Suppressing the instinct,Hiimlan gestured the desired positions. People moved and he was born along on the familiar routine.
Bursting through the overlarge opening, Hiimlanvented his fear in a gut wrenching roar. Naliimadphysically shat himself at its sound and beat a coat clad wooden post to insensibility in his attempt to kill an imagined enemy. Screaming every curse at a foe who would not fall, his eyes adjusted and focused on his quarry, and the gross frustration drove him to thrust a stabber point deep into the wood. Unable to quickly retrieve it he left it imbedded and turned to seek Hiimlan's killer. Finding him alive and well Naliimad cursed him for a fool, his eyes full of tears at the fear of his friend's death and the relief ant its non‑event. The emotion took second place when the back‑up found a stranger in one of the stalls.
"Emperor's balls!" The soldier exclaimed (taking on a term heard at the lips of old soldiers and not appreciating the penalties associated with it being heard aloud) "It's one of our people!"
"Shag! And I was just about to gut him!" Spoke a second in false bravado.
"Shut it!" Said the first, "This is an officer you dickhead! Go ask Naliimadwhat we should do."
In his condition Naliimadcould not compose a sensible answer to the enquiry so Hiimlangave it.
"Get the fucking Squadric! And quick!"
Hakaramii too had been scared shitless by the entry. He had seen it all. From the moment the doorway erupted with soldiery, spilling out into the barn hacking at unseen foe until their eyes allowed them to see there was none. His spine had jerked straight and his hair stood on end at Hiimlan's cry. He had seen the tension and terror on an old soldier under stress too many times.
He had witnessed Naliimad'sfrenzied attack on the post and had been in frozen awe at the violence of it all. The words of his discoverer were lost on him until he were directly addressed.
"Sire!.. Sire! Can you hear me?"
"Yes." Hakaramiianswered, suddenly awakened from his trance. "Yes I hear you soldier. Who are you?"
"TrooperRupaatii, 3rd Quartering of 7th Hoiija Sire. I was to ask you the same question."
"No need." Hiimlanbutted in. "I know him well, as should you. Tell Ahmaliithat we have found none other than our Division Commander, Lord Kaliimii Hakaramii."
Racked by pain as he was, Hakaramiiwas disgusted with himself to be found in such a condition.
"Help me up." He begged hoarsely. "I cannot walk, but I must stand."
Helping Hakaramii to his feet caused even more distress but the soldiers could understand its importance and aided him toNaliimad'spost, which he could lean against for support.
Ahmaliicame very quickly, hotly followed by Askiitakii. Neither could believe their eyes though both instantly recognised Hakaramii despite his dishevelled appearance.
"Sire!" Each had said. "This is a miracle!"
Sizing up the situation in a glance, Askiitakiiordered Ahmaliito assign four litter bearers as Hakaramii'spersonal staff. They should first construct a suitable means of conveyance for the Divisional Commander and obtain washing water and food. Demanding the immediate presence of the Legion's doctor he supervised the careful extraction of Hakaramii from the fetid environment of the barn.
Merely being out in the fresh air perked up Hakaramii'sspirits and he was able to relate his tale and expectations. His estimate of when the Sur had broken camp did not tie in with the reports Askiitakiiwas getting from the sweeps and confronted with this information neither could explain the variation.
"Unless." Hakaramiimused, "No, that cannot be."
"Say it Sire, for I have come to realise there are no longer can‑nots. These people live by different rules, we must accept that fact, and should not judge them by any concepts of our making."
"Bravely said Askiitakii Araktaii, and wisely too. I have learned a thing or two lately I must confess."
"How then is it that you believe the camp broken in the morning and yet all sign says it was inhabited 'til midnight?"
"I can only surmise." Hakaramiiprobed himself. "But what if they were deliberately deceiving me?"
"Eminently possible. Highly probable when you think of everything they've done so far. At every turn there has been some trick or hidden ploy. Why should that be different now?"
"But they moved their wounded!" Hakaramiiprotested.
"There was plenty of tented acomodation. I would have done the same had there been a yield. That is the part I cannot see."
"Nor I." Hakaramiiconfessed. "In truth I am unable to understand why they took me at all."
"Your rank Sire!" Askiitakiianswered almost indignantly.
"If I could close on one of their comanders." Hakaramiireplied, "I would kill, or have him killed immediately. Wouldn't you?"
"Yes. Well probably."
"Sire. I would without question remove the commander from the enemy’s hands. Most usually that means kill. But.."
"I don't know. There is something in their action that is unsettling. Before this I would have done precisely as you say. But now, I do not know. I think perhaps if the opportunity presented itself for capture I might just do that and think about gain or loss afterward."
"Interesting." Hakaramiimused. "Put in that light, it might explain this case for from what I perceived there was no actual plan or reason for my capture."
"What do you honestly think they may have gained from you Sire? Honestly, for it will go no further."
"I do not know. Very little I believe. They seemed to be well informed from their scouting of our every move. That level of quality observation is a skill our patrols must aquire."
"What then did youperceive of their intent?"
Halting a moment to compose his mind, Hakaramiireplied. "You are an interesting fellow Askiitakii, that you should ask this, for I perceive in yousome twist."
"Sire, as I see it we have established these Surans to be devious. If they are to learn nothing from you, they must wish to use you to sow mistruth. Why else leave you alive for us to find?"
"How dare you?!" Hakaramiiexploded, the physical motion accompanying the verbal outrage jarring his leg again.
At his quiescence, Askiitakiicontinued. "Not deliberately my Lord, I assure you that was not my meaning. But if for instance they have hinted at retreat, I would wager an attack was planned and the opposite the case had they talked of attacks."
"Emperor's beard! You are a cunning fox! With you in charge it's no wonder this raid is a success. Tell me, is this your first 'patrol in force' in these parts?"
"This is no raid Sire. We are the bait forAsakdrogii'smove."
"How do you mean, bait?"
Askiitakii told him.
"Bastards!"Hakaramiicursed. "The bastard V'levii even know our legions!"
"How do you mean Sire? Who?" Askiitakiiasked.
"There is one among them, these Surii, who was at Wonarr in the night. That bastard has a special interest in 7th Hoiija."
Askiitakiisat back surprised. "Well. And well, but why? But he is gone. What can he be to do with now?"
"The bastard has his stabber."
"No!" Complete disbelief.
"As I breath. Remember Ovniitokii?"
A pause, then. "Yes, but not well. Wasn't he a quarturion in the second wave?"
"Yes. And he missed landing. He and his boat crew were executed in Varlan according to Okkta."
"The V'levii who was at Wonarr."
"Do you believe him?"
"I do." Hakaramii replied. "He described it too exactly not to have been there. I believe him. There is after all Ratnakii's stabber. How could that have come into a mere soldier's possession otherwise?"
"A soldier?!" Askiitakiiblurted incredulously. "I thought you talked of at least an officer!"
"Oh no." Hakaramiiexplained. "The interpreter, the one who really unsettled me is an underling. The officers are clever, but I think they are still unsure of us. This Okkta has no such doubts. Think on, for you may have seen him. In the blue‑over‑red regiment with a double ribbon spear. Bearded and sometimes in a blue shirt. Most notably, he carries a stabber. Ratnakii's."
"I shall look for this one I swear it, but tell me now what did he say the Sur were doing?"
"They, the Valevians, are withdrawing to safer ground then enfilading Hapatkiiprii'srear. Tell me, He hasn't really split the army has he? This is just a ploy?"
"It is no ploy." Askiitakiiassured. Asakdrogii is in the hills behind us. I have already sent a runner to advise of your discovery."
"He must not go to Kiisk. There lies suicide. Send another runner now with my imploration to return to us."
"The first has already said as much Sire, but I will send another for we now know that the enemy will not withdraw. My searchers bring me strange tales but I am convinced now that the Sur are gone into the valley."
"What are you thinking ?" Hakaramiiasked.
Askiitakiihesitated, then answered. "They have plenty of tents and plenty of food. The means of transporting it, for we think they have sledges, and a reason to fight."
"So ?" Hakaramiipushed, knowing what was in his mind was in Askitakii'stoo but wanting to hear it.
"I think they will turn Hapatkiipriithen come looking for us."
"I agree." Hakaramiireluctantly concurred. "And I think they have the mettle to do it."
"I cannot believe what I am hearing!" Askitakiimouthed. "How could it get so bad that even you lose faith?"
"I don't know." Hakaramiianswered resignedly. "I would have blamed Hapatkiiprii, but he didn't just get command. It was given. The system which gives political influence in military matters is what is to blame. Hapatkiipriiis a victim too."
Resigned to failure, both were surprised by the advance guards from Asakdrogiiarriving in their camp as dusk deepened. Of a sudden new hope was with them and they began to plan.
Return to the Hills
For Zovan, the day had been almost traumatic. The enticement and manouvre had been anticlimatic in the expectancy of success. Every thought of precaution he had entertained had proved unwarranted. The effect had nearly ‑ very nearly led him on. Only prudence had caused restraint, and wisely so he still thought. The enemy legion's harrasment on quitting the field irked him, but to destroy it was an action that would, or could endanger his force.
At first look it would seem strange that he could not spare the moments it would have taken to discourage Anahiimad, however Zovan knew he could not spare the ammunition to do so and Anahiimadwas not aware of that. The two played an increasingly delicate game of move and countemove, each pushing and threatening but neither to the point where pitched battle was a necessary resultant. Each in retrospect admired the skills of their opponent and the forces under their individual controls. It was needless to say that given the peculiar skills of raiding exhibited by the Varlan, Anahiimad withdrew to the lowland in order to make camp.
Zovan's camp was makeshift by recent standards but no less useable for that. All the portage and cartage had stayed high and deliberately discreet until the outcome of the day was known. Even then, there had been a delay in meeting with the army and so whilst every soldier was fed and tended this was not until later than had been the usual case. This in turn profligated a minute degree of laxity among the Valev sentries, all eating at the same time. Unsually for the Latii, this was the one time they had agressive patrols out and they took advantage of this opening to gain the information their orders required. Undetected in their new role and by the diversion of late meals the Latii made comprehensive note of Valev disposition and numbers. These reports began arriving inAskiitakii'stent around the middle of the night.
"If I could understand the reasoning, then I would be more able to respond." Asakdrogii, now arrived in Askiitakii'scamp spoke out loud. There was no need to ask for Hakaramii'spresence for he had not, and could not without assistance have left the command tent. "Why do you ask for this re‑deployment? What is the enemy doing?"
"As I see it my Lord." Askiitakiianswered, looking to Hakaramii for support. "They are not like us. If we judge their actions on our terms we will continue to fail."
"Lord, we think it madness not to finish an enemy when you have inflicted defeat, and yet time again that is what these people do. So ask why."
"I'm sorry, but you lose me. I can't see where you're leading."
"It is Hakaramii'switness which tells us. They are not of this land. If they were Sur I don't think they would let us have a footlength without blood. Because it isn't their land they are fighting for, these Valevians can afford to bring us on, punch and then run. I would guess that for them so long as they keep us in check the next most important thing is keeping their army intact."
"But they beat us at every turn. How can they be afraid of this?
Hakaramii provided the answer. "Fear is not the driving force here. They win set pieces, not battles. It is a tactical series of manouevers they are performing. They will not commit whenever they consider our numbers will overwhelm them."
"You could have fooled me!" Asakdrogiiguffawed. "What about the field of Zoskii?"
"I think they were wrong footed there, attempting to consolidate their force. If it were not for their left flank being loose and the presence of the Zoskii garrison, I don't think they would have stood. As it was they quit the field at the first opportunity."
"Very well Hakaramii, but what are you saying?"
"What we say, for Askiitakii is one with the idea, is that we can beat them. We should have done so at Zoskii and if we knew then what we know now or at least had kept at them we would have. We did it wrongly but have learned. Your division even now outnumbers them. But to force them into pitched battle on our terms we must all be between them and their route home."
The forward scouts of 2nd Reserve Regiment came into first contact and the word was sent back. Tired troops re‑deployed into battle formation, the following regiments spreading either side of 2nd.RR to take up the threat. Zovan, like his soldiers was emotionally exhausted and this new development caught him unprepared and temporarily unable to compose himself to the task ahead.
The lethargy was not helped by the confliction of reports he was receiving. Ahead, 2nd.RR had met a strong patrol and deployed to face it as he understood it. To the rear, 5th.RR was still harried by scouting parties from the Latii on the plain. If ahead were only just a patrol, why were 2nd. Line and 1st. RR going to action stations as well? He could not believe that Iktak would be panicked, so just what was ahead? If it were this Asakdrog come back, then Zovan was done for. Trapped between two larger forces and in unfavourable terrain. Curse them! Had this been their plan all along, and had he, Zovan witlessly followed along with it?
Whatever, the trailing scouts must not carry word back to their main force. So, leaving the fight ahead in the capable hands of Iktak, Zovan went back down to Ankov, ordering him to savagely destroy the Latii to his rear then go up as quickly as possible to the action above.
Fervently hoping Iktak's action to be precipitate, Zovan ran forward past 10th. and 4th.RR's, urging them to too onward.
Asakdrogiicould hardly believe his luck. The enemy had been caught unprepared for his arrival. Gleefully abandoning the plan so carefully made the day before, he ordered his troops straight into attack.
Turning to Askiitakii,he told him, "This is your doing Araktaii Askiitakii, and I shall make it known. I applaud you!"
"Sire." Askiitakii acknowledged, noting the use of his first name, an honour indeed. Taking advantage of this largess he prompted. "With respect, Sire, I must council against over‑zealousness."
"Askiitakii?" Asakdrogiienquired, one eyebrow raised and his tone that of mock derision. "Are you of all people afraid?"
Askiitakiibreathed out. "No Sire." What he wanted to say was that he and the soldiers were tired. Morale was not what it could, or should be and even a small setback now could be disastrous. Instead his words were, "I am merely cautious. From what I can gather, the enemy's blood is up and I doubt then that they have been bested today. That means Hapatkiipriihas got at least a bloody nose. I do not think it would bode well if over‑extension should deal us the same hand."
"Oh,Askiitakii!" Asakdrogiiconsoled. "You are getting nervous." Then grasping his shoulder in a gesture of cameradie continued, "I take your point my friend and will look out for it, but for now we must hit them hard and keep at it until they are crawling in the dirt. Come, let's you and I to the fray."
Asakdrogiihad wanted some hard hitting, and 16th Hoijja were intent on providing it. They had attacked in the new 'wedge' formation, paying a heavy price under concentrated darting and the survivors being denied the final lunge as the Sur charged uphill to destroy the attacks on their spear‑points.
Aliimahnwas taken aback at the sheer aggression the enemy exhibited. His attacks had not floundered. They had been annihilated. Unable to slow, or stop on the downslope, they had literally run to destruction on their enemy's blades. Furthermore, the entire enemy line, part formed as it was had advanced to the new position and was in missile hurling range of his troops.
The gap shortened,Aliimahntook matters into his own hands and catapulted his entire legion forward. He was quite aware of the risk but rejected it in a do‑or‑die bid to regain the initiative. Where the first attacks had gone in and the Sur missile bowmen were still grouped, casualties mounted with alarming rapidity but there were 'thin' patches and here Aliimahn's16th Legion crashed in in sufficient numbers and weight to beat down the ranks and begin the real carnage.
Caught in a maelstrom of violent fury, the soldiers of 2ndReserve fought like cornered Wolves. The combat degenerating into unbridled savagery as both sides hacked, stabbed, thrust, crushed and killed in an orgy of blood. An uncontrollable madness of mutual destruction fuelled as the opposing commanders deployed more troops in order to respectively exploit or redress the situation.
The charnel pit stagnated as the dead and dying fell in heaps, locking the combatants in a macabre dance of death. The killing too slowed as the sides became enmeshed in a crush of pushing, shoving mass. First this way then that with extinction guaranteed for anyone who should slip.
Aliimahn did not slip. Caught in the crush he was unable to move. Pinned with elbows at his sides and both stabbers at shoulder height he could still exhort his soldiers on. Turning his head this way and that he could see all around him. Well known faces half hidden by helmets and scores of troops he could not recognise because of helmet angles. Immediately to his front was one such. The fellow would not look round for to his front equally caught in the crush were the enemy. Aliimahn was irked that he should not know exactly who was where, and vowed that from now on all soldiers would have a mark or tassel on their helmets as identification.
He was deciding which when he became aware of a pressing sensation beneath his ribs. The sensation turned to pain and Aliimahn looked around desperately for a cause. He could see none. The pain flared and he was forced to cry out.
"My Lord?" The soldier at his side questioned, then "Hey you!" To the fellow in front. "My Lord Aliimahn is behind you and hurt. What are you doing?"
The fellow did not turn but looked down and cursed. "You little bastard!"
A struggle doubled Aliimahn's pain, and then it was gone. He could feel the blade sucked from his flesh to be replaced by a burning flood. It burned and throbbed, throbbed and burned, sapping his strength. Spilling his blood. Presently he could no longer support his head and it lolled down against the helmet in front. Gradually, seemingly ever so slowly his sight faded as the feeling left his body. His legs had long since ceased to support his weight, but caught in the crush and quite dead, his body was held as it had been in life.
It was a contest the Latii were bound to win in the end. Their number, physical size and the dowhell slope made the result inevitable. Inexorably the Valev gave ground until as if at a command the line suddenly broke open to spew out a deluge of figures. Angry and confused Valev running for their lives, dazed and amazed jubilant Latiians swinging to smash down all they could catch.
Into this chaos stepped the combined Hivalev Axe Team and the butchery recommenced. Caught out of formation, split up in the chase and to make room to swing, the Latii were cut down like harvested grain. It could not last long though, for Asakdrogii had advanced yet another legion into the breach. Where 16th Hoijja had created the break and 6th/7th Fijja exploited it, 15th Hoijja guaranteed it, their tight knit columns pouring through to overwhelm the defenders. There could be no succour from the flanks either, for they too were heavily embroiled as Asakdrogiiurged his troops onward to sweep the Valev away.
Running from trouble spot to trouble spot, Iktak had reinforced, cajoled, encouraged and saved the line a dozen times. As it finally broke, his efforts became wasted. Unable to stem the tide, Iktak stood his ground only to be felled by his own troops rushing past. It had not been intentional and Iktak was soon back on his feet, but isolated. The Latii were on him in the blink of an eye.
Dodging the first stroke Iktak lunged to bury spear‑head in his assailant's belly. In close to avoid the down stroke he twisted and freed the blade, able to witness the agony on the Latiian's face and the fetid breath exhaled involuntarily as the body spasmed in reaction. Stepping back and allowing it to fall, Iktak faced another threat, half to his left. Flicking his blade up and using his fallen victim to keep the next assailant at arms length, Iktak prepared to strike.
The Latiian swung up and Iktak rolled on the balls of his feet to let the point pass then lunged in. The Latiian parried with it's second stabber, catching Iktak wrong footed as the first powered down. Iktak was quick, but not quick enough. The stabber struck and his wrist seemed to explode. The pain seared into his brain as flesh and bone were torn asunder. Staggering under the blow, Iktak fought to regain control. His flailings bought time as a jet of blood from his shattered arm spurted over and into the face of the Latii. Unable to take real advantage, Iktak nevertheless reeled forward shortspear extended. A sudden jolt catapulted his head forward and the world went red.
Zovan needed no telling that the situation was irrecoverable. Employing Ankov's already hard put 5th RR to absorb the worst of the centre, he ordered Imnak's immediate disengagement on the left. This could reasonably be achieved as the fighting there was not so intense or protracted. In the event the withdrawal of the 2nd Line/4th RR combine went ostensibly unchallenged, allowing Imnak to peel away down through the foothills into gathering dusk.
The right was not going to be so easy. There, 1st/10th RR's were as heavily embroiled had been the centre and were now cut off from high leadership and any further contact with the remainder of the army. With the forces at his disposal and the position so tenuous, Zovan had no real alternative but to abandon them despite his self loathing at the act. Thus among 5th RR's calm disciplined ranks he to quit the field.
Had he been able to see clearly, Zovan would have realised that it was not so bad as it looked over on the right. 1st/10th RR's were acquitting themselves well against an enemy who though determined, lacked commitment. For here, unknown to both high commanders, a return match was occurring. On the extreme flank, 10th RR once again faced up to 3rd Fijja. There was no mud this time, but recognising their foe, it existed in the minds of the Fijjan troops. They knew the mettle of the opposition and trod warily. Alongside them 7th/10th Hoijja were simply too tired and with insufficient troops to make an impression. Moreover,Asakdrogiihad nothing left to throw in.
Truth to tell, he was far more interested in preventing his centre from scattering, and as to whyNavodiia's4th Fijja had let the enemy go so easily. He knew the day was his, but the night was fast approaching and with this his advantage would be lost. The glory of the evening could easily be turned to dust if the enemy could utilise their superior night skills to wreak savage retribution on widely scattered groups of his central legion's soldiers.
Both Imvak and Vokov had seen the collapse in the centre and were aware of its implications. Tacked on the end of his line Imvak still had a hotch-potch, mostly of 2nd Line, but with odds and ends from the other defeated regiments. And they were very shaky. Withdrawal was inevitable and should be accomplished at the soonest available moment. Before his shaky left gave way or the Latii found reinforcements. It was not going to be easy though.
Despite beaching up against an immovable object, 7th Hoijja to his front were plainly tired, but determined. Any sign of weakness would be ruthlessly exploited and Imvak knew it. Salvation came from the inimitable and equally 'rag‑tag' 10th Reserve Regiment to his right. Aware that the same situation existed for him, Vokov concluded that the only option available was to make the enemy retire. Such was his acquired confidence in this regiment that he truly believed it possible.
"Let us hear that Controller's voice boom!" He ordered Okhta. "We have stood here long enough. Advance the regiment if you please."
The battlefield was far from quiet, but it stilled as a single voice roared out above the throng. Askiitakiiheard it clearly even at his distance from the speaker and was taken aback at the message.
"Move, you Latii bastards!! We are coming through!"
The voice reverted to its native tongue to commit the troops in no less volume.
The spears went up, the darts flew and the regiment charged.
3rd Fijja reeled and steadied, then collapsed as the fury of the assault broke the front ranks and the rearward troops scattered to escape the hail of darts hurled at point blank range by bowmen stood on one another to gain clear sight of their targets. The Fijjan line shattered into chaos as completely as had the Valev centre. The difference being that 10th Reserve's pursuit retained its order and thereby its strength.
Immediately compromised and severely shaken by such a rapid and catastrophic collapse on his flank, Askiitakiihad no hesitation in ordering a general retreat.
A good many speeches and opinions were voiced around the various camps that night, almost without exception it was agreed that the onset of dusk was timely.
"So close!" Asakdrogii expleted, smashing his fist down. His face a mask of suppressed rage.
"We had them!" Thrusting out his open palm to the assembled officery, "Here!"
Glaring into their faces, one by one, he continued demonstrating to match his words. "All it would have taken is to close my fingers and we would have crushed them!... Crushed them!.. But NO!!"
Turning to Navodiiain fury, "You, You just fucking let them go! .. And you!" It was Rasokii, the new commander of 3rd Fijja to whom the venom was now directed. "You bloody run away!"
"Sire!" Askiitakiiprotested, to be cut short.
"You?!! You who I thought I could rely on! Aliimahnand Anaiikra died for this victory and you? You disengage?!!" Exhaling heavily, Asakdrogiiflopped exhausted onto his cushion bag.
"It is not.." Began Navodiia, but was hushed byHakaramii'scalming hand.
"Be not so despairing Asakdrogii my friend." He spoke. "You have won a great victory today. Not as we planned it is true." He chided... "But a victory nevertheless. Consider this, it is the first time we have made them run."
"I know, damn it!" Asakdrogiiexploded. "A bit more push and the bloody lot of them would have run, but this crowd!" His hand sweeping the room to indicate those assembled, "This crowd of bloody old females are afraid!"
"I too am afraid, as are the soldiery." Hakaramii stated quietly.
Utter silence followed, eventually broken by Asakdrogii'shushed, "Then we are all lost." Then coming to his feet, "It seems that dusk was fortuitous after all."
He then walked unsteadily out into the darkness.
Imvak had no campfire, but as senior officer spoke to his assembled troops barely visible in the darkness.
"Warriors of Valev! It is with great pride and sadness I speak to you tonight in this dark and dismal field. Your courage and skill this last long day have been without equal. You have stood at deaths gate and laughed. You stand as ever undefeated. I applaud you heartily."
"You have done all that could have been asked of you and more, and yet I must ask more still. Our friends and countrymen toil in similar peril not far off. They like we must estrange ourselves from this field of war in the endeavour that we should rejoin our forces. For strong though we are, the Latiian host will surely smite us down whilst we are so parted. Thus I entreat you good fellows one and all to put away your fatigues and pains, to march the night through and all the day, this goal to fulfill."
Zovan was not so heroically spoken, but he at least had a fire to warm him and a tent to meet and sleep. In what seemed a minor miracle, but in fact an everyday occurrence for Pankov, he had found Zovan and brought the support column with all its equipment to his campground.
Zovan was only speaking to his officers. Those that remained. Pankov of course, Vasiakva of 1st Line, Zarkovak of 4th reserve and Ankov of 5th Reserve. He knew that Iktak, Nosov and Markov were gone. Imvak and Vokov probably so.
Markov needed no replacement for gone too was his regiment. Vasiakva had precious little left to command either and it was only natural then to allocate him Nosov's old regiment, 2nd Line, with all the oddments tacked on to that. There might be a few people to be picked up through the night or in the next couple of days, but even then the best Zovan could hope for was the equivalent of two and a half normal regiments.
"There is nothing for it." He stated flatly. "We have done all that could be expected of us. I will not throw away the little we have left of Valev's heart. By any means that is within our power, we must now go home."
"But what of Imvak and Vokov?" Vasiakva queried. "They were putting up a good fight the last I saw. What if they have survived?"
Zovan sighed, and inhaling deeply answered. "If,.. and that is a big if. If they have escaped. For I am convinced that the Latii turning on them is what allowed our quittal of the battleground. You know full well that we are in no position to assist them. They must run by themselves."
"I still think we should at least send runners to look for them." Zarkovak interceded. "That way, anyone left can be directed to us."
"Yes." Zovan quipped. "Not least the enemy.
"Zovan!" Vasiakva scolded. "These are not good times, but I would have not believed youcould be so despondent."
"Not Good?!" Zovan exploded. "This is disaster! We were saved from annihilation by the dusk. All along we have known that we could not win a showdown. Now we have proof."
"Not so, Sire." Vasiakva pressed. "I let you down, but both Zarkovak and Ankov here quit the field in good order. I put it to you that the enemy has shot his bolt. Were we to face them in pitched battle again it is they who would break."
"You are a fool Vasiakva. A proud and stubborn fool. Would you have us die to the very last person? And what for? For Sur? The Sur which has not sent us a single regiment, not so much as a single soldier to protect their lands!"
"If that is how you feel, truly, as Champion of Valev." Vasiakva asked, "Then what have we been doing here at all?"
"We came to help." Zovan answered. "Not to fight the bloody war all by ourselves. We came because we had to, because we cannot grow enough grain to feed ourselves. It is my opinion that Valev has done enough paying for all the grain Sur can grow this year and the next hundred."
No one was of a mind to make comment against Zovan's revelation and so he closed the meeting by ordering that the troops be prepared to move at dawn. In the direction of home.
"Let them rest tonight." He said. "They have earned it, and tomorrow will hold hardship enough without us all being dead on our feet to face it."
Zovan could not know it, but Sur had troubles of their own. The fighting he had seen was less than half of the story. In and around Kiisk, Sur had been embroiled in a conflict of climactic proportions. For against them was arrayed the expanded Latiian Army of Jalii.
Ipnanii,Lord of Jalii had been devious even to his emperor. For in approving Ipokalii'splan he had made subtle changes. Hapatkiiprii's southern thrust would move exactly as laid down, with Ipokaliiproviding the alternative, or diversion action. It would just be that the diversion were now of greater magnitude than the main strike.
Obsessed with the recapture of Jojiisk and the taking of Kiisk, Ipnanii had stripped the province of troops. Without Ipokalii'sknowledge he had ordered the raising of another four legions and the redeployment of ten, leaving his eastern borders precariously thin. Now Ipokaliifound that instead of the eleven legions he had made available for the campaign out of the twenty-three in his army group, there were nineteen assembled for action.
Ipokalii was at one and the same time, quietly pleased and outwardly furious. Secretly glad of the extra muscle made available to him and considering how to best use nearly double the original planned force. Railing at Ipnanii for subverting his authority and putting the entire province at risk. Writing to the Emperor that he might know of Ipnanii'sdoing and thus diverting blame should attack materialise from other quarters.
In two minds as well, he was at first assured. Firm and positive, confident that with such an army he would really be able to smash down those usurpant Surians now, and then vacillating and jittery, aware of his failures. The defeats of two years ago still stung, and he knew from bitter experience that it might yet be no walkover.
Ipokalii'sintent had been for Assmi’s Division of three legions to attack and eject the enemy from Jojiisk, then to fortify the town and lure Sur into its investment. The primary force, eight legions strong in two divisions each led by an experienced and trusty commander would then crash into the unprotected enemy rear. The two extra divisions each of four legions were as far as Ipokali knew untried, but placed between the known bulwarks of his three capable initial divisions added weight and permitted a further prong to the pincer, that to ensure no Surian reinforcements could pull the same trick on him.
Trusted and experienced, Inahaiiwould take 1st Division further out and keep an eye out forHanaiid's4th Division of easterners to his right. Similarly, Hiima's2nd Division, Ipokalii's choice, would be bolstered in the centre byRahiim's5th
Exactly as agreed in the original plan, Ipokaliibegan moving his divisions from their start positions on the first day of the New Year. Thus, as expected, it was two days later when Assmii of the 3rd Division came upon Jojiisk. Unbeknown to them the first battle had already been fought far off to the south, for Hapatkiipriihad moved to invadeon the first.
Neither commander could have known it, but the forces opposing each other in this arena were almost uncannily equal in numbers. Ipokalii had under his control some 19,500 souls. This did not including the baggage train, for not being a fighting unit that did not come under his jurisdiction. Of those available to him about 19,150 were fighting soldiers, of who on any given day around 18,500 were fit for duty.
Zarkov commanded far more people, but then he had command over his logistics. Of the 22,000 persons in his control 19,200 were battle-trained troops, and he too could only reliably formate some 18,500 of them on a day-to-day basis. So, although the organisations were markedly different, the sides were closely matched. Each equally tempered for war. Each similarly determined to succeed.
The first clashes did not come until mid afternoon of the 3rd day Sector 1, (27th of the 8th to the Surians) as 4th Orel Regiment had very sensibly retreated their patrols in the face of enormous odds.
"Sire!" The speaker was flushed with an excitement which wafted round the tent with the odour of his sweat.
"It is with pleasure I report, my Lord Assmii! The advance scouts of 17th Jalii Legion have seen the enemy, and they are running!"
Assmiilooked up. "How many and when?" He did not need to ask where.
"The report is, my Lord, four groups of thirty and an hour ago and all running away like buggery!"
"Is the river or town in view?" Assmii asked.
"Not to my knowledge Sire. I heard neither mentioned in the Legion lines. But my Quarturion says he thinks that is where the enemy flees."
"Good." Assmiidismissed the messenger, then turning to his own Lieutenants sent message to Udriiswith the 11th Jalii Legion. "All speed now to Jaliim, let nothing stand in your way for the door is still open."
"Word to Ipnanii?" Questioned the staff officer, a Quarturion himself.
"Not yet." Assmiireplied. "I shall tell him when we have them in our grasp, and not before."
The reports came in thick and fast thereafter. A skirmish here, a savage little fight there, as each side’s patrols played for time and position among the gently rolling landscape.
As bit by bit the picture fitted in, it became obvious to Zamrak that the Land Army of Orel was outnumbered by two to one in the very least. It would avail him nothing to confront the enemy in the field from his present position. Zarkov was much better placed to fulfill that function. Far better for all if Zamrak immediately withdrew to the comparative safety of Jojiisk.
Aware of the enemy strength to his south he was ruthless in the order. Any unit not within the walls when the first Latiian arrived would have to stay and fight outside. These actual words were conveyed to his regimental commanders. When it came to it, there were no Orel soldiers other than the dead beyond the walls when Udriissent his troops in.
It really was a forlorn hope for the town’s defences had in no way decayed since its last siege. Furthermore Zamrak had taken the care to ensure a plentiful supply of arms and provisions had been amassed there. There was no shortage of missiles to greet the Latiian attackers and they fell in droves attempting to breach the fortifications that their compatriots had constructed.
By nightfall,Assmii had caught up with his troops, and seeing for himself the state of affairs, called a halt to offensive action. Jojiisk was surrounded with the enemy safely inside. This was now a siege, and he would demand more time and troops if it were expected that he should pursue the action.
Ipokaliireceived Assmii'sreport at dawn the next day and mentally reserved the two Goiijan legions fromRahiim's5th division for the task. They would be securing the Kiisk road anyway, so having done that they could be easily redeployed toAssmii'scommand. Hiimacould then have the rest of 5th Div. for his 2nd. There were too many divisions and each too small for Ipokalii'sliking anyway.
It was that meddling Ipnanii'sfault. Rahiimand Hanaiidwere his men, thrust under Ipokalii'snose with the troops. Reject them and the troops would go. That had been the choice. Ipokaliihad nearly taken it, but the troops were here anyway, the risk already run. He would have been foolish not to have acceded to the ploy. Now he was glad, for with Assmii'snews came the scout's reports.
The extent of Surian patrol activity hinted at a far larger enemy presence than he had anticipated. Gross Surian strength had been estimated at 15,000, of which 10 to 11,000 were expected around Kiisk/Jojiisk. Ipokaliihad always known that the fighting would be hardest here, but then the mainstroke to the south should have easy going and come quickly into the enemy rear. Perhaps Hapatkiipriihad easier going than he deserved and all the Surians were here.
The 4th was a day of frustration. A ceaseless stream of reports came in, often conflicting in their information. Some elated, some disparaging. Some of empty vistas others of enemy massed ranks. If orders to put the army into battle formation went out once and was then reversed, it was done five times until Ipokaliigrew tired of all the manoeuvrings.
"All legions," He dictated, "Will move in column until actually attacked or facing direct combat. We have the strength and should exhibit it."
It all ground to a halt pretty quickly. No sooner were all legions in column and moving forward than the scouts came back bloodied with tales in no uncertain terms. The Surians were en‑masse and in formation at Kiisk. There remained insufficient time to organise an attack proper an such a well prepared foe before dark as such, Inahaii halted his 1st Division to await the judgement ofIpokalii.
Zarkov was able to witness for himself from the high walls of Kiisk the enemy mass flooding across the terrain. Their numbers and stolidity filled him with awe and dread. He knew full well that something of this ilk would occur sooner or later, but that it had happened now, was laid before him in all its doom, sent a chill to the core of his gut. He was as ready as he could be and was still not sure he had done enough.
Dawn came bright and clear with the regiments moving from bivouac into line in an orderly and professional manner. It also brought news from the south. Zarkov was at first unable to comprehend its reality. It was plain that an immense force opposed him here. How could it be that so many were free to attack elsewhere? Just how big was the Latiian army? Was there more to come? Whatever, he steeled himself. He could not spare a single regiment to Valev's' aid at the present. It sounded like an entire Land Army or two at the very least would be required, and that simply was not possible. Advising Pava was as far as he could go. This decided, he put it out of his mind and concentrated on plans for this day.
Grounding his left flank firmly against the outflung wall of the fortress Kiisk, the line extended for nearly a kingspace, curving slightly only at the end. That would be the danger point he knew. Pamakov's Pavans would stand solid there and with Nikkov's Ultans in reserve the enemy's only chance was a massive all‑out blow to the centre. The real fear was that the Latii were really capable of it.
Zarkov had doubted that, until yesterday that was, and the mornings sight reinforced the growing unease. An unprecedented number of Latii covered the ground to his front. A black seething mass, ordering itself to strike at him.
"Strike sure, hit hard and keep pushing them" Ipokalii had said. "Bear down on them and keep the centre occupied whilst I bring Hiimaround behind them. Then they will break." Jesting now, he continued. "But not too hard or too soon eh? I want a little share of the glory!"
Inahaiiand Hanaiid had both laughed at the humour and both individually thought immediately of his own ends. Ipokalii'sfailure as he left them was to realise this or to officially appoint either one or the other 'in command'.
Hanaiid the politician was the first to react and by mid‑morning had flung 13th and 16th Jalii into assault, against both legion commander's advice, on a wide front. The strike went in hard and Hanaiid'sbadgering made sure it kept pushing, but it had been hastily and ill conceived. It created pressure, but the price paid was extortionate.
Inahaiifared little better, for though more mindful of military conduct than his compatriot, had less opportunity to utilise his skills, hemmed in as it were by the fortress Kiisk to his right andHanaiid to his left. Attack after attack went in to be broken on the stream of Surian darts. Beside himself with frustration,Inahaii sent word to Hanaiidas the sun reached its zenith, imploring him to move left and around the flank, thus availing Inahaiimore room.
Hanaiidwould have none of it. His orders were to push and push. Not to perform antics and so leave the field and glory to hidebound old farts like Inahaiiafter his 4th Division had done all the work. Inahaii's heralded insistence received a similar rebuff, goading him into a personal excursion to Hanaiid'scommand.
"I entreat you,Hanaiid Ramiiah, Highest of Jamiijlah to renounce the report I am in receipt of, which alleges your intransigence to either relocate your position to the benefit of Latii or to accede my order thus."
"How dare you!" Hanaiid screeched. "You self‑seeking bastard! How dare you put yourself above Jalii? I swear the emperor shall hear of this!"
Taken back by the invective, Inahaiicoloured then returned. "That he shall! But the telling will be mine, for it is through methat you should serve him. I fear that should this not be immediately ceded I shall be forced to initiate your replacement."
"Hah!" Hanaiidlaughed out loud. "You replace me? It is more like that I dispose of you! ‑ Old man!"
"You bloody upstart! You and your kind make me sick! Your shit licking ways have no hold here. Now get out of my sight!"
"Go suckle your mother old man! These are mylegions and you, you who call me the upstart, have no right or reason to take them from me."
"Emperor's buttocks!" Inahaiifumed. "You are not fit to command a legion let alone a division. I order you gone. Now!"
Hanaiiddid not go. Instead he ordered Inahaii'sremoval from his lines. Against allInahaii'sblusterings and threats, officers of 5th Jalii complied, manhandlingInahaiiand his cortege well to the rear.
Lacking leadership co‑ordination, 1st Division's attacks assuredly held Surian attention but failed to make headway, andHanaiid's4th Division's assaults were wasted by their commander’s lack of military appreciation. All in all it was a disappointing day for the left wing, activity petering out as both sides became fatigued at their relative exertions.
For Zarkov, the Latiian conduct of the fighting so far had been inexplicable. A complete span had passed before the attack horns had blared out and even then the ferocious assaults he had expected had not materialised. The enemy had it must be admitted been initially forceful in attack, but this had become noticeably sporadic and ill timed as the day wore on and even then lacking in the vigour he had prepared to withstand.
Emboldened by this situation, Zarkov had Pamakov advance from the flank but halted the manoeuvre on seeing the enemy reserve move to counter. The last thing he wanted was an extension of the line. He was holding the enemy without any real effort, just as it was. To extend the line would mean thinning it and thus risking its integrity. No. The Latii were expending far more energy and resources than he, and as long as they continued to do so without seriously threatening his position he would encourage them to continue.
The time would come, take it days or more, when the Latii would either lose heart and go home or be weak enough for him to force them to go. If this was genuinely all they had to offer, Zarkov was confident he could oust them sooner rather than later. Suspecting there were reserves or as yet unknown enemy forces in the field, he was content not to risk the matter until all was revealed.
Banktov, in the gap between fortress and the river to north was spared such a luxury. The horns were later in sounding for him but the contest was patently one sided. The Latii to his front outnumbered him by three to one and were not slow to exploit the fact. He could hold their attacks on his line, his Zandovans pouring mass dart showers into the packed black ranks and hurling the Latii back with unabridged aggression.
As soon as any attempt to turn his flank was made, Banktov immediately ordered a withdrawal. He simply did not have the reserves to meet such an action and the alternative was annihilation. Despising himself for it, but knowing it to be the only sensible course, Banktov continued the retreat. Slowly but steadily giving ground, aware that behind and slightly to his right lay Kiisk.
If he could gain that place he would at least be able to ground one flank. His losses steadily mounting, it became not a hope but an imperative. Even at such a priority it was not easily won for the Latii could see the relevance and took pains to prevent it.
Pain was the price paid by both sides, in extreme. Such were affairs that each side had its forte and each its counter. In skill or fortitude neither had a head start and the resultant was a series of conflicts each of cataclysmic violence.
Banktov was pleased and relieved that his formations, such as they were could still hold off the Latiian aggressions. As the fighting became more ferocious he thought of the new method he had seen practised by the Valev and appreciated its worth, vowing to introduce it at the first practical opportunity.
Banktov knew he was losing and considered his actions as a delay or postponement of the inevitable. Without Zarkov he could not hope to prevail. That in no way ihebited his will to continue. There was no option. Even to perish was inadequate. For everything that he was, held dear and believed in, Banktov and every single person in his command were aware that victory was the only acceptable conclusion. Thus, though not understanding all but the basics of rationale in retreat, each individual in the Zandov Land Army gave of his all, trusting Banktov to commit and succeed at the right moment.
Ipokaliihad been dismayed on his arrival at right wing headquarters, to find that it, along with all the legions of the two divisions were still in camp. As with the left wing, there had been disagreement as to who was in charge and therefore who would form on whom. The discourse had not been as acrimonious as that between Inahaiiand Hanaiidbut it had served nonetheless to prevent positive activity.
Ipokalii'stirade stirred things considerably but the sun was quite high before the entire wing was moving forward. There was not long to wait before the battle horns began their cries. Listening out as legion after legion joined the cacophony,Ipokaliilooked around for a vantage point to view and assess the enemy.
The ground was raised to his enemies advantage but even then only slightly so, and Ipokaliiwas prevented from good sight of the Sur by his own troop's presence. A climbable tree overlooking the battleground was what he needed but was denied. Sending runners to the available but not close‑by specimens he was forced to make appreciation from front line reports. All too quickly these came in indicating fierce resistance on the left and nothing on the right.
Rahiimwas in open country and advancing freely, leaving Hiima's2nd Div. to cope, which they seemed to be doing, forcing the Sur back in a series of flanking moves. Confidant that he could freeRahiim'sGoiijans to Assmii, Ipokaliimade the order. Rahiim naturally was furious at having his command split, but powerless to prevent it. He could however ensure that his remaining two legions were kept well clear of Hiimas' fight and thus less likely to be sucked into his control. Wheeling his entire division about, Rahiim marched back onto the uncontested road before dutifully dispatching 10th/15th Goiija back to Jojiisk.
Ipokalii had expected some dislocation asRahiim reorganised, but was unaware as to its extent, and continued pushing on with Hiima to cover the action. With 5th division gone, the numbers were more evenly matched but Hiimaused his Goiijans skilfully, continually harassing the centre in bloody assaults to pin the Surians down whilst an outflanking action took place.
The effort served to move the enemy back but failed to break their solidity or get behind them. Every further attempt brought a trail of casualties. A bloody smear to mark the passage of the fighting. The Surians seemed to Ipokalii to be weak on the right, always withdrawing that side first. Gleefully imagining rolling up their line Ipokalii had Hiiima shift weight to that side, and then realising the real reason ‑ it was intentional, a deception to allow the left freedom to move over into Kiisk's protection ‑ redeployed the reserve in a furious charge to prevent it.
Sweeping round, the Latii ran into Banktov's reserve and a pitched battle of extreme intensity ensued. Neither side could sustain such an action for long and in a contest of the immovable versus the unstoppable where both are liable to failure, it was the latter that finally proved false. The margin however was so narrow it gave no‑one confidence that a similar result might occur on a future occasion.
With one flank secured against turning, safe against the mighty castle walls. Ipokaliiwas unable to make headway against Banktov's Zandovers. He badly needed Rahiims two legions now and only at that point did he realise their loss. He had expected them to catch up and reinforce him before then, and was dismayed to find that he did not even know where they were. His day ended in complete frustration. By dark he was no further against his foe and word had come that Inahaii was similarly stalled. Of Rahiimthere was nothing.
But it was Rahiim who conditioned the Surian withdrawal.
Bowing to the heated rejection of Miihaad, 14th Jaliian Legion Commander, to his stated intents, Rahiim had advanced his two "Ettoimii" parallel to the river until past Kiisk and then turned at right angles into the Surian rear. Bivouacking far in advance of Ipokalii, he had seen no action since his breakaway and was not entirely convinced that he would. The true situation had not dawned on him.
Zarkov was under no illusions, save that he misunderstood the size of Rahiim's force. This was the "unknown enemy force" he had half expected sweeping round massively well to his rear. Zarkov had no intention of dispatching troops from his battle area so that three or more separate fights would be going on. It would become too uncontrollable, too unpredictable. Far better to withdraw and consolidate. Accordingly he sent his orders out into the pitch darkness of rapidly overcasting skies.
The rain began in the darkness before a sullen dawn. It started and came on so suddenly and with such force it was if the sky held an immense bucket which had been up‑ended. Sweeping through the Latiian camps it startled and instantly drenched the sleeping masses of soldiery awake. The pandemonium of an army attempting to find cover was masked by the roar of the wind blown torrent.
Zarkovs army was no less affected, but was in the arguably better position of seeing it coming. On the move, the columns of tired troops had minimal protection against the violence of the elements but trudged on anyway, rearwards. Sodden and encumbered.
Daylight failed to materialise as an instrument of revelation. Rainfall continued at such intensity that neither side could see well enough to be sure of its own positions let alone those of the enemy. The entire day, or what could loosely be called day, the armed might of both races stumbled and blundered into a vague semblance of order, neither moving appreciably by nightfall from the positions as they were at dawn.
By the following morning the rain had slackened but not ceased, and Ipokalii felt the need to move. Conditions were dreadful but his opinion was that a stagnation now could kill the campaign.
Like a beast rising from hibernation, the Latiian megalith stirred itself. Slowly and ponderously with dissynchronous limbs, the army got underway. Scouting ahead was fraught, for visibility was still at an unacceptable level and it was already known from what little could be gleaned from the previous day that the Surians had moved. En masse.
The rationale for such an action eluded Ipokalii, for from all he had learned, the Surians could have held their positions reasonably comfortably. That they had thought otherwise gave him strength.
"Leave Kiisk." Ipokalii had told Inahaii. "Ignore it. The place has no relevance to us here. When we have destroyed the Sur in the field we can come back to the place at our leisure. That is, if it hasn't starved already."
"More like drowned." Hanaiid muttered insubordinately, having come the furthest through the rain to be firmly put in his place. Damp and despondent, he could nevertheless not keep his peace.
"But when the garrison stabs you in the back don't say I didn't warn you all."
Ipokalii hear the comment and glared angrily at Hanaiid. Turning to him, he roared. "That is taken care of! Do you really think that professional soldiers are so stupid as to miss such things?"
Hanaiid bit his lip in anger but made no reply.
"No! I thought not. Now if you could conduct your operations with as much consideration as you do mine, we'll be a better army for it."
Straightening himself, Ipokalii faced his division commanders again, less of course Rahiim and Assmii.
"Inahaii, you will fall back and allow Hanaiid across your front then take the left flank. Hiima will retain the right. If, and when we find Rahiim, he will provide the reserve. This is not a race. We all need each other like it or not. I don't believe the enemy is done for yet and with conditions this bad, each of you could be badly mauled and the rest of us know nothing of it save when our turn comes. I cannot emphasise enough the need for co‑operation and information. If we keep our heads then we will have them. Any questions?"
Privately,Ipokalii was not so confident. the numbers Inahaii and Hanaiid had spoken of, plus the Sur he and Hiima had faced were a more formidable force that had been expected and Hanaiid had not been frugal with his soldier’s lives so far. Even then he considered the Sur to be only slightly superior in numbers. But they now had open flanks.
With the crossover manoeuvre, little was gained by Ipokaliii's force as they advanced without contact for a distance of five or so miles. About the same distance as Zarkov had managed to retire. What Zarkov knew, but Ipokalii was ignorant of was the location of Rahiim'sforce. Both knew its size, and by now Banktov had been given Vissak's Svensans to deal with Rahiim. Deal with him he did.
Against Ipokalii, Banktov's Zandovers had lost a quarter of their strength but the remainder along side Vissak's fresh soldiers were more than a match for Rahiim. Rolling up his flank in a parody of the Latiian textbook. Rahiimcould not believe what had hit him from the rain soaked fields. Caught unprepared, his squadrons were scattered and destroyed. He himself cut down by his subordinates as he fled.
Banktov had not escaped lightly though his losses were a scratching in comparison. He was glad to let Vissak chase the Latiian stragglers off, through the seemingly unending cascade of water.
"Have fun." He told the drenched but grinning Svensan. "But do not go so far as I am unable to help if there is trouble."
"Trouble?! Hah!" Vissak laughed irrepressibly. "We will give them the trouble! We have hardly got our spears bloody and now the rain has washed them clean! How could we go home like that?"
Banktov smiled in spite of himself and bade Vissak go.
"Just , ‑‑ not too far." He chided again. "Zarkov will have more work for us I have no doubt.
Zarkov would indeed have work, for he had miscalculated.
Choosing his position entirely from foreknowledge of the ground, he used the same land armies in the same order as two days previously. They had succceded then. Why should they not now? He ordered each unit to march back and forth on the ground ahead of the battle line for a hundred paces. Forward and back, forward and back until the ground churned to mud. Some regiments were still doing it when the Latii appeared out of the murk that the rain had become.
Zarkov had not expected them until much later, completely wrong in his estimation of the Latiian will to advance. The reserve armies of Ulta and Zladisov were well to the rear plundering the spring encampment sites for tents, fuel and food. Despite the haste and confusion to get back in line, the effects of the mud patch immediately showed its worth. A determined first charge fell to chaos as people slipped, tripped and took others with them as they fell. Not many made it as far as to be in darting range, and those naturally were in receipt of the undivided attentions and consequent flurries of the Surian bowmen.
The portents of the situation were not lost on Hanaiid's legion commanders who two days ago were prepared to keep throwing in attacks despite the losses. Today it was plain that such a policy was sheer madness. It would be virtually impossible to get an adequate number of troops to the enemy without the ability to speed throughthe danger zone. Fortunately for them this lesson had been learned with minimum loss of life.
Hanaiid was not to be so easily convinced. Aghast at all four commanders at his post at the same time, he ranted that in the face of the enemy their action was treasonous.
"I dispute that accusation, Sire." Issmiik, 12th Jalii's commander spoke out. "The mud is such that neither they or we can attack across it quickly and for any effort to succeed we know it must have momentum, do we not?"
The other three nodded their concurrencee, that having been their line of thought already. Hanaiid backed down in the face of such stolid opinion but even chastened by such attitude he pushed them.
"So how many casualties have you suffered?" He asked.
There was a protracted silence before Iimahaof 5th jalii coughed.
"I don't think that's a fair indicator Sire."
"What do you mean?" Hanaiid immediately responded, his voice rising.
"WhatIimaha means Sire." Issmiikinterjected, "Is that we don't need to destroy our legions to see a bad manouvre.
"I see." Hanaiid resolved. "But for my interest, how bad was it? How many." Turning to Issmiik. "Have you lost?"
"Fourty seven Sire, but that..."
"FOURTY BLOODY SEVEN!!!! DO YOU CALL THAT AN EFFORT?!!"
"Sire!" Issmiikbridled. "You impugn us, and I will not have it! We.."
"And I'll not have it!" Hanaiid screamed back. "That my legion commanders are insubordinate cowards! How dare you defy me? How dare you speak like that? You will, you all will, attack and attack now! Or else I'll have your heads, I swear it!"
The tent was momentarily silent save the drum of rain on the canvas roof.
"Try mine then Hanaiid, for 13th Jalii are the finest fighting legion in the land and I'll not have them commit mindless suicide for you."
"Doom is on you Miimad." Hanaiidreturned. "For you shall die on the gibbet and 13th Jalii shall lead the attack!"
"I foresaw this your pronouncement Hanaiidand I welcome this death for I charge you now to lead out my legion in battle or resign your command as unfit."
Hanaiid was horrified. He had been trapped, and that most effectively. Three choices now confronted him. The first, and that he liked best was to have everyone in or around the tent killed so that no word of the tryst got out. The realist in him knew that even as the thought went through his mind, so eavesdropping sevants were making swift exits. Such an action could not be contained and it would destroy him.
Equally as destructive was to rescind his command, to step down from the position of divisional comander. Should he take that choice he could never step up again. The third choice was even less appealing. It meant actually stepping out in frontof a legion hostile to him by his actions. If the enemy did not kill him the legion just might. Furthermore, from such a forward position he could not control the division and therefore must subjugate its control to another. If Ipokalii heard of this then the subrogation would be permanent. To Inahaii.
Even so, despite the massive physical risk, the third choice was the only one that gave Hanaiid a future. He took it only after some deliberation.
There had been an uneasy silence as Hanaiid pondered his fate and his subordinates allowed their disgust to grow and fester.
"My command remains." He said at length, his voice holding the merest tinge of the shakiness he felt. "You will now surrender your gorget and stabbers Miimad, for you are dead."
Carefully removing his necklace of office, Miimadstepped forward to place it around Hanaiid's head, but Hanaiidnervously backed clear.
"You are afraid of me?" Miimad chided.
"No!"Hanaiid cursed and stepped forward, ramrod staight.
"Wrong!"Miimad struck out, the blade hidden in his hand now exposed and slashed across Hanaiid'sthroat.
At first it seemed that nothing had happened, Hanaiid'shands covering the wickedness of the wound. But eyes wide and desperate,Hanaiidcould neither speak nor control the blood running through his fingers. Rasping and bubbling noises came from his throat as his face blanched and he began to totter, finally to collapse in a twitching, thrashing blood soaked heap.
"Miimad? ‑ Oh Miimad what have you done?" Queried Issmik resignedly.
"You must kill me now I know." Miimad replied "But I would rather die at the hand of a friend than be belittled on the gibbet at that bastard's gloating. I could not go without knowing he would gain nothing from this, for I had a sudden fear that he would find a way to survive. Were I wrong on that I could not countenance that he be branded a hero even in death."
"That is a truth with which I must concur." Issmik countered "But our duty is now plain." Nodding to Iimaha who stood behind Miimad. The scrape of metal caused Miimad to turn.
"No! I beg of you let it be..."
The sentence went unfinished as Issmik's stabber crushed into Miimad's skull, his instantly lifeless body crashing to the ground.
There was a pregnant pause before Iimaha quoted " So, now we are three. And what then?"
“I believe Riiapit is 2ic of 13thJalii.” Issmik returned. “He should be handed the gorget. As to us, we shall send a runner to Ipokaliiand act on his instructions. Agreed?”
Iimahaand Asmahiiconcurred, also accepting that some activity was neccessary in order to retain the enemys attention whilst Inahaiicame up on their left and Hiimaon the right.
“Of these bodies?” Asmahiiquestioned.
“Burned with the dead of battle, I say.” Iimahastated. “Miimaddeserves no less and Hanaiidno more.”
Thus it was, the two, less marks of rank were laid with the growing pile whom more honestly had come by their demise but whose pyre would without favour besmirch the sky.
The front was as stable as it could be. Neither side willing to make a determined advance across the mud, but both ready to exploit any weakness the other might show in troop redisposition. Where the variance lay was in Zarkov’s lack of support and the arrival of Hiima’sdivision. Suddenly the dice was turned. Wearied and wet, Hiima’swarriors advanced through the rain to break on Zarkov’s left like a storm driven tide.
The seawall of Zisnov’s Regans shuddered under the impact, flexing and giving to absorb the waves. Almost, but not quite breaking. Sending Wussive troops at the run from his centre to shore up and extend the wall Zarkov left his right exposed. Both Zandov and Pava had shuffled left and lengthened to cover the redeployment and in the reduced visibility Ipokaliiwas slow to realise the implications. Realise them he did however, and ordered Inahaii’s7thand 10thJaliian Ettoiimii out of line and round the flank.
Unfortunately, by the time these armoured legions could strike around the edge of the mud bath, Nikkov’s Ultans had returned. Both sides advanced into contact. The metalled chest and shoulder plates worn by the Latiians afforded a measure of protection from the clouds of darts preceeding the Ultan advance such that their own charge delivered a greater than usual number of warriors into the Surian midst.
Slowed by the soft ground and heavy armour the Jaliians neverthless struck with astounding force. In terrifying moments, stunningly, shockingly violent moments the Ultan line was sundered. Beaten, smashed, destroyed bodies thrown chaoticly in bloodied disarray littered the ground, joined at sickening rapidity by increasing numbers of their former colleagues. In the face of such a catastrophy Nikkov held his nerve. Throwing his reserve straight in, he hooked 3rdand 4thregiments round into the Jaliian flank and rear.
Loosing torrents of darts at 10thlegions unprotected backs, the situation fluxed. Pushing ahead in victory, Inahaii’ssoldiers now found themselves no longer the advance guard of an attacking army, but isolated outposts. Cut off and under threat. Ever being drawn further from support by the need to close the enemy so to escape the dart storms. A huge rent still lay in the Ultan line but nothing passed through it save back to Latiian lines for Inahaiiwould not press forward until his rear was secured. Diverting his attentions to the flank he managed to push Nikkov’s 3/4th back to their start lines. In doing so he lost his advantage and his centre. The Ultans had paid heavily but they had held. The Surian right was secured, and as secure as it could be for Pankov’s inimitable Pavans were looping over to back the position up.
The pendulum swung again as Gudsov led his Zladisov Land Army into position on the Surian left flank. Like Nikkov he had been ransacking the spring campsite for supplies and had been recalled at short notice. Zarkov had indeed miscalculated but now reaped an unexpected benefit. He knew he could hold. Here now were fresher troops to break the Latii.
Hiimawas not going to be so easily broken. Ordering his Legion Commanders to stagger their formations and reduce block size so to present lesser targets to the advancing Surans his intention was to let them come on and then at the last moment launch his men in columns to shatter the enemy line at multiple points. Hiimahad only just finished briefing as to his new attack plan when the new threat appeared to his right quarter. The room gained by the reorganisation into a looser formation allowed him to face this advance with minimal change to his battle plan. Only one of his Legions, 22ndGoiija, wore the metal armour and Hiimahad instructed that these troops make up the column flanks to further protect against the dart storms.
It was not liked, this mixing of Legions. Either by the commanders or the troops. Each Legion had its own ways and its own pride. Soldiers felt they belonged with a Legion, were not just a small cog in the amorphous mass of the army. Right away there was friction. Those with armour felt as they were put more at risk protecting those who were not their comrades. Those without felt they didn’t need protecting, not by a bunch of pansies who wore metal “because they were afraid of getting hurt” anyway.
The armour had originally been introduced on the Nulish front as a counter to the axe teams and its use had spread to the Suran border as its values against all cutting and penetrating weapons was realised. The vast majority of the Latiian army was still equipped with the shock absorbing “pad and wood” mantle and helm, the ideal protection against their primary weapon, the “Siibath” or stabber. A cam shaped steel bar as long as a Latiian forearm and as thick as a big toe, with a counterweight below the cord hand grip and brought to a point at the business end. Called a stabber, they were not much used for that purpose. More normally, they were just kept swinging. Anything they hit would be smashed. Bones, blades, bricks, all broke under the impacts of a well directed Siibath. Unless padded, metalled armour merely transmitted the shock. It was not well thought of until its wearers faced axers or darts.
Gudsov had seen the Latii in battle more than once or twice before and was well aware that he now faced an adapted formation. It did not distract him. Sending word to his regimental captains to hold their darters unless directly confronted by targets, he advanced straight on. Iniitahstood in the front rank ahead of soldiers from the 3rdsquadron 2ndQuartering 5thGoiijan Ettoiimii. He was of 3rdquartering 22ndGoiija and there was no way the piss-taking bastards behind him would be allowed to suspect his fears. Even so, he could not help flinch as the dart storm struck. To his left Issmiinjerked and collapsed to the ground gasping and writhing, his hands up to his face grasping the dart embedded in his eye. Two paces further and someone had got it in the neck. That shouldn’t have happened if they’d held themselves properlyIniitahthought. He himself was like a pincushion. At least four of the darts penetrating his armour enough to stick out absurdley. None had broken his skin. Unlike the one which had banged off his helmet and he had turned to see it ricochet into the neck of a trooper behind him.
“Come on! Come on!” He urged, cursing his officers for tardiness. “Forward or back” he thought. “Just get me out of this.” The enemy were closer now, their bright battle flags plain eventhrough the drizzle. Behind him the cries grew to a cacophany, even armoured soldiers were now falling, the metal tipped darts piercing the thin plates. Close to hysteria Iniitahat last caught the order over the clamour. It was an unfamiliar voice and not backed up by the warhorn, but it was welcome for its decision to act. Iniitahlaunshed himself forward, arms and legs pumping in the charge. Sweeping his stabbers in front of him he managed to dislodge or break off all but one of the the darts. It was a conscientious process, for more were hitting him all the time. The distance across the open ground to the enemy was not great, but the time to cross it seemed interminable toIniitah. His eyes fixed on the Suran front line, he had a sense of isolation, that he were the only attacker. Then of a sudden he was there, hacking their bades clear, striking out at their ugly little faces. Seeing face bones smash open in spray of blood. Feeling the reassuring thump and the sharp crack as a shoulder shattered. Sensing the pressure as a blade pushes against his armour trying to find a way through, watching the wild eyes widen as his counterball smashes the teeth out. Pushing and flailing to gain room then swinging in a horizontal arc. The right stabber jamming in one of the bastard’s ribs. Wrenching and twisting as the victim screamed, the stabber would not come free. Concentrating on the left and beginning to panic,Iniitahstruggled, trying to loose his weapon as the Suran collapsed, dragging the stabber down with him.
The blade caught him on that exposed side at the gap between shoulder plate and helmet. Jerking at its touchIniiitahlost his balance and crashed over backward. His stabbers gone and forgotten,Iniitah’sonly thought now was to quell the pain and staunch the blood which ran in gouts through his fingers. Trodden on and kicked as 5thGoiija advanced over him,Iniitahheard cries of victory among the screams and yells. His wounds were not too bad he thought, and so tried to get up. Knocked back down twice by passing knees he nevertheless managed to get to a sitting position when once again a passing trooper stumbled into him pitching him face down. Here the one dart stuck in his armour did its work. Forced through by the weight of his fall, it stuck into his ribs.
The pain was excruciating. Unable to use his left arm because of the agony any movement caused, he rolled over and tried to extract the dart with his right. It would not come. His cries for help went unheard. The air was already full of similar pleas and the unharmed soldiery was otherwise occupied. Temporarily freed from being trod on, Iniitahmanaged to struggle to his knees and in that position to loose his armour. As the chest plates fell away the dart point was sucked clear of his wound. It hurt like the Emperor’s balls and bled like a stuck pig but he would not die from it.
Staggering to his feet he made his way labouriously to the rear. Erect, he became aware of the extent of suffering, the carnage of war. It seemed that the ground was completely carpeted with prostrate forms, some of which were writhing or crawling so that the whole sodden mass moved as it moaned. The sound alone was enough to send him mad.
Gudsov was concerned at the situation but not overly worried or afraid. His second line was after all subduing the break throughs with an unsurpassed deluge of darts, all brough from the foray to the summer campground. The containment tactics were proving effective but were having to be employed more frequently than envisaged. The front line was not as resilient as he would have hoped or expected. Furthermore, healing the rifts was proving expensive and in isolated cases almost impossible, such that his line did not produce an unwavering frontage to the enemy. Gudsov was not happy, but he kept the disquiet to himself.
Hiimawas busily throwing everthing available into the weak spots and when they closed or were healed, pushing again or probing for a new opening. By anyone less assertive his actions would or could be interpreted as extravagent of resources and in later life he would be pilloried as such. Now however he was reacting to circumstance, attempting to force the situation. To either make the break or bring in all the enemies reserves and leave the way open forIpokaliito smash them. Ipokaliihimself was indecisive as to whether the left or the right would do the final damage. That was decided by Inahaii. Seeing the centre weaken dramatically to support the wings and lacking the lesson of that morning he took it upon himself to precipitate action in the centre.
“My intention,” Inahaii reported, “Is to get them to transfer some weight from the left back to the centre. It’ll keep the guys in 4thDivision busy as well. We can’t afford for them to lose their edge! Eh?”
Ipokaliicursed the rashness of the action but knew it was too late to stop it. Thus, he urged Inahaii to throw his left-most legion forward again. At least that way the Surans would not be permitted to swap their reserve.
To Zarkov, peering through the intermittent drizzle it was as if the enemy knew something he did not. They were committing a balls-out general advance. The action of someone who knows their enemy is broken in all but name and a very risky move if they’re not. Zarkov knew his centre was weak, but he suspected not weak enough for the Latii to break it.
Issmikof course intended differently. If it were possible to conduct an attack across a mudpatch in drizzle with panache this was the closest to it ever witnessed. Leading knots of his soldiers in short dashes, forward then left, forward and right in a ritualised dance to avoid the worst of the darts. It was only partially sucessful, a frightening percentage of troops performing the less formal but nonetheless ritualised dance of death. The plan was that attack groups would keep the enemies attention whilst the second row advanced to charging distance relatively intact. This plan went wrong too. As soon as the main body was in range the darts were diverted to the bigger target. The sudden lifting of the barrage caught Issmikby surprise, but only for a moment. He straightway stood erect again, stabber high and whooped out the attack cry. Despite the elan and aggression Issmikand his Jaliians never had a chance.
The armoured troops of 1stDivision once again wreaked their damage on the Surian right. Inahaiihad ordered these legions spread out to match the line length of Nikkov’s Ultans and though unhappy that it effectively only gave him a line two squads deep, at least he was not going to be flanked again. The move was worthwhile, for though now prepared for the Latiian assault the Ultans could not stop it or slow it and were forced to cede ground to prevent the Latii breaking through. Nikkov should have let them, for immediately to his rear Pankov was ready to pounce like a pack of ravenous wolves.
Under pressure left and right, Zarkov could not retreat for the centre was too weak to hold without the mud barrier. He would just have to stick it out. It was not an act of assurance or courage. There was no alternative. It was a matter of pure bloody attrition And then Banktov came. Arriving mid afternoon from the north he and Vissak were leading troops who had gained the confidence of kings. Not for them to go round and form on line at Zarkov’s command, but to crash pell mell into Hiima’srear, spreading rout as they ripped his legions apart.
With all cohesion irreparably gone those that could, ran for their lives. Those that could not died. Bunched up, the stabbers could not flail and were outreached by the shortspears. It was not a contest, it was butchery. Turning to work up the line, Vissak’s Svensans broke into song. It had started as a single voice but was rapidly taken up such that “the working woodsman” could be clearly heard right across the battlefield, and with that sound the course of the day was set. Advancing over the mud, proceeded by a barrage of darts, Rega then Ossov joined the chorus as they linked with the all-conquering Svensans.
The Latiian right was collapsing before Ipokalii’seyes. Helpless to shore it up and staring certain defeat in the face he orderd immediate withdrawal to conserve whatever could be saved from this debacle. Disbelieving, Inahaiihad to be told three times before the truth hit him, then he too confirmed the order.
“Disengage. Disengage and retire with all speed. 1stQuarterings to cover, 4ths to clear and keep contact. Orders effective instantly.”
The retreat, for that is what it was, lasted a full four days and dragged Assmii’s 3rddivision away from around Jojiisk. Finally grouping his army in front of the small town of Kiiliij,Ipokaliiwas amazed at how much was left. Coalescing in dribs and drabs there proved to be effectively still 13 legions at about 3/4 strength and significant elements of 3 more. Only 14thJalii and 17thIpermiija from 5thDivision and Hiima’s11thGoiija had suffered catastrophic damage. Morale it seemed was the major casualty.
“We will rest here if they let us”Ipokaliitold the assembled oficery. “Then having mulled over what went wrong we shall seek them out and do it right.” He did not speak of the despatch fromHapatkiipriithat Ipnaniihad shown him before sending it dutifully to the Emperor. Not becauseHapatkiipriispoke of victory, nor because he wanted no vain hopes raised, but because they had both seen Hapatkiiprii’sletters before and knew their circumstances. The tone of this one hinted at defeat. That would have been too much and nothing he could say would hide it.
Ipnaniiwas no great soldier but he was not fooled. “It is disaster.” He confided toIpokalii. I took a risk and gave you extra legions. That risk is still there, but I thought that with them you could not lose. Now what do I get? Destruction on my right and lies to my left!”
“Hold hard!”Ipokaliihad riled. “It’s not destruction. I’ll give you - defeat. Temporary mind! But not the disaster I had thought it to be. Not like 2nddivision south will get. Who’s got that number anyway?”
“Oh, well.perhaps that won’t be the end of the world then, but even so it’s going to be a bloody show.”
“You mean not meeting up with you?”
“No!.. I mean yes, I suppose so, although that would not have worked anyway give bloody Hapatkiiprii’slate start but it’s hardly my end now, don’t you think?”
Ipokalii was searching for support. Political backing to minimise the damage to himself and Ipnaniiknew it. The response was crushing.
“Well, we’ll have to see what come of this, whatHapatkiipriican pull out of the hat, eh?”
The River Side
Hapatkiipriiwas not going to be very communicative for that very day he was being humbled by Zovan. Although now restored to a semblance of order, his forces were static. Confounded by the Valev actions, Hapatkiipriidid not have the confidence to advance in force over the rivulet. Despite the presence of Asakdrogii’slegion there. By nightfall he had only just got all his force across and into defensive bivouac, completely unaware of the goings on above and to his right. Darkness brought a time of tension and fear. Double guards were out, and sleep came with difficulty for experience had taught that the night was when the Surans came back.
None would bother Hapatkiipriithis night however. Zovan was too exhausted and Imvak too desperate. Trudging through the darkness in column, with an advance piquet from the 10thReserve, Imvak’s detachment slowly and carefully skirted Asakdrogii’s campfires. It was a long and arduous march completed with great care by overtired troops scared as much of losing those ahead as of the enemy discovering them. Dawn disclosed woodland on the raised ground off to Imvak’s right and he chose it to rest his five hundred strong force. Sheltered by the trees and early morning mist he permitted concealed fires to warm his soldiers and get some hot food inside them. As the sun rose and the mists began to thin, these fires were ordered extinguished and save the obligatory piquets and guards.the troops to rest,
Vokov could not recall a more trying or terrifying night and among his officery, said so. At the same pot, and looking for some sustenance, controller Okhta Asiavakna Zumina could, but held his tongue. The respect he had gained from the troops was not mirrored in the officery. They took heed of his experience but did not like it that his standing among the soldiery exceeded their own. With a half filled bowl of tepid soupy mush, Okhta was compelled to ask the question of Vokov.
“After a night like that sire, what then are today’s plans?”
Vokov took instant umbridge and so made his reply short, uncommunicative and slow in coming. Such that Arlak needed to make the prompt. “Vokov?”
“Rest here to midday. I will tell you more then --- Controller.” The abruptnes of the response had been quite uncalled for, and Vokov’s only defence was that he too was tired. The answer had been enough for Okhta however. He now had confirmation that move out would be at noon. Making the customary obediences, he moved away to spread the word. With luck he too might manage a hour or two in the land of nom before that time.
In the cold light of dawn the campground began to stumble wearily back to life. Their leader’s forebodings not yet transmitted to the troops, they were none the less slugish in their morning rituals. The prospect of clearing the battlefield lay before them and with that, the actions memories. Steadied on both sides by Hiimlaanand Naliimadand leaning heavily on a stout pole, Hakaramii made the rounds. Every quarteing of the eight legions was visited, though in some cases there wasn’t much left to visit. Each one had gathered to hear the warrior’s words.
“Be strong!” Hakaramiihad told them all. “Since when has the road to glory been easy? Have faith.” He extoled. “We have their measure. Latii will triumph. You shall conquer! Your valiant action of yesterday struck a real blow for Latii. We stand today on the steps of victory! Just one more push and the door will fall in! Have heart my friends and bend your backs to the task with a will!”
By the end of his tour, Hakaramii almost believed it himself. He had seen the mood change at his words and was moved that he still held that power with the troops. Depression had changed to calm. These soldiers had been too long in Hapatkiiprii’scare but now the first step back to confidence had been taken. Given time Hakaramiiwould make them the finest in all Latii. But Hakaramiihad neither time or command.
Down in the valley Hapatkiiprii’s legions too were slow to make headway. An extremely cautious fanning out of advance patrols was tentatively followed by the legions bulk, which halted at every late return. Overtly still confident, Hapatkiipriiharboured nagging doubts and fears, thwarted at every turn. Even he had adopted a note of caution, perhaps excessively so at that juncture. His subordinates were without exception dismayed. It was a change which at no level inbibed confidence. The hotheads like Haiinodaof 24thHoiija saw it as fear. The more careful, likeAnahiimadof 2thHoiija were concerned for they knew too well that daring was Hapatkiiprii’sonly military quality. Hapatkiiprii’snext camp was barely four leagues from his last.
Zovan started the day early and was surprised at the ease with which he was able to extricate his force from the environs of the enemy. The fortitude of the regiments remaining to him was a vital factor in that success, but of greater note was the complete inactivity of Asakdrogii’slegions. Not so much as a single soldier had their safety compromised. No-one, even the wounded and nothing was left behind. The withdrawal was complete and total. All day the only indication of the enemy had been the morning scout’s reports of the Latiian camp location. The morning mists had hidden their fires, and when they cleared Zovan was long gone.
With the sun at its zenith and the mornings mist burned clean away Imvak was able to see his line of march and realised his error. In the darkness, he had mistaken distance and direction, bearing off more to northwest than west. Deploying scouts ahead and left of the corrected route, he ordered the regiments to march. Aware that like himself, the soldiers were still tired and improperly fed, Imvak had the pace kept down. The first priority was to create time and space away from the Latii in order to facilitate the achievement of the second priority, food and rest.
Bereft of hostile intervention as the day wore to its close, foraging parties were sent out in every possible direction. This force could look forward to eating only what was carried in its knapsacks, and that was prescious little. In that high ground there was little or no cultivation with zero livestock or stored produce. Game animals and wild plantswould have to suffice where and when available. What there was, was eaten with undisguised relish.
“I simply do not understand you Hakaranii.” Asakdrogiisaid. “Your words of last night and this morning are completely at odds. Explain to me if you will, the meaning of it.”
“I do not believe my statements to be incompatible.” Hakarramiianswered. “Why should you think them so?”
“Not incompatible? Emperor’s teeth! One minute you’re a bunch of quivering fish, next you’re shouting victory slogans! You’re not a politician Hakaramii, if you were I’d believe it, but you are a soldier. How can two such variant attitudes come so shortly from the same mouth?”
“Ahh!” Said Hakaramii. “I think I see your confusion. I told you the truth when I stated that both the soldiery and I are afraid. I did not say that I do not believe we will win or that yesterday was any less than the victory it was.”
“But you are afraid?”
“Frankly, yes. But it is my duty not to transmit that fear down to the rank and file. We, as command officers must do all we can to alleviate the doubts and insecurities of our subordinates, whilst being truthful to ourselves.”
“Very well, I will concede that as true. So why are you scared? We have their mettle now.”
“Do we? The final action of the day hardly indicated that, and that is why I am afraid. Not scared. Afraid of what I do not understand. Everything we know, all we have learned says we should wipe the floor with them, but they keep coming back and every time there’s something new. Every time we come away feeling bested. Ask yourself what will happen next time we meet. What trick or tactic will be produced? Ask truthfully, then tell me you’re certain of the outcome.”
Asakdrogiidid not speak and his silence answered for him.
“Good.” SaidHakaramii, after waiting what he thought to be an appropriate time. “Good.” He said again, just as Asakdrogii was about to vent his indignation. “That’s about it with our arrogance then. Perhaps now that we can accept the enemy is not without skill, we can make proper provision for his disposal.”
“What are you trying to tell me?” Asakdrogiiqueried, confused.
“What do I mean? I mean that we can win, and convincingly. We know how to break these people and we should do exactly that, and nothing else. For what we have all done so far is to blunder in and then react to what happens. What we should do is plan our action and counteraction. We must treat this enemy with the same caution as Mides for instance, but with the different perameters to cope with the varied means of conflict.”
“I understand what you’re saying.” Asakdrogiiretorted. “But as you have already pointed out, I cannot see how we can know what they will do. In Mides, we have had long experience, here there is so little.”
“So let us guess.” Hakaramiistated flatly. “Have a council of war. All the senior officers, maybe all the officers together and let us talk through a battle. Let us ask those who have been up front what they think these Valevs will do.”
The triplex of orders went out simultaneously.
One. All legions are to ensure camp security and areas to one league beyond. 4F to partol north and west to ten leagues. 3F to make contact with Hapatkiiprii and patrol the foothills.
Two. 15H and 16H to combine, and this combined legion together with 7/10H and 6/7F to clear the battlefield and dispose the dead.
Three. Quarturions and above report to the commandanteur at midday.
The numbers attending Asakdrogiiwere not so many as might have been expected. Their presence was greatly overshadowed by the multitude being piled into burial heaps in the not too distant proximity. Iibriim,the only remaining gorgetee of 16H was present. In the same situation was “Q” H’miidof 6F. 7F could present two. Amahiid of 15H brought three, as did Rasokiiof 3F whilst Navodiiaof 4F retained all four. Askitakii(7/10H) had one from 7F and two from 10H. All together then, twenty three souls remaining of the fourty eight alive at campaign start, and this was just the legions’ senior officery.
The forum was introduced byAsakdrogii, who as the division commander addressed his officers. “This is not as you may have expected, an extended order group. Nor is it intended as a planning commitee, but more a council of war. I realise that it is an unusual action to call such a thing and involve such ranks as I have ordered here assembled. You should not interpret this as a weakness or lack of determination in Latii, myself or this command. It is in fact quite the reverse. We are set upon this course and mean to succeed. What has not been so far evident is the measure of success we expect and deserve. The purpose of this council is to remedy that shortfall.”
In the hush that ensued, Hakaramiispoke up. “We are faced here with an implaccable and resourceful foe with a new method of warfare. It cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that the strategies and tactics we have so far employed, those of our convention, are not as effective as we would wish. What is required here is that every individual shall search his experience and state freely what he thinks is being done wrong. Having established what we are doing badly, steps can be taken to do things well.”
Still there was no response.
“Very well.,” Asakdrogiicut in. “Let us review what happened last evening.”
“I do not think that would be beneficial just yet.” Hakaramii interjected at the immediate slumping of shoulders.
“We need to start somewhere.” Asakdrogiiinsisted. “And that is as good a place as any.”
“That’s it!” Iibriimgroaned aloud. “Here we go again. Same old story, the soldiers let us down.”
“I do not think so.” Hakaramii answered. “For a start, I must ask why the original plan was disposed with so early?”
“If it did not happen as we planned,” Asakdrogiistated flatly, as the question was indirectly asked of him. “We had to change the plan to suit the circumstances.”
“You mean they sucked us in.” Was Hakaramii’sresponse.
Asakdrogiiwas wishing he had not been persuaded to start this. “We broke them.” He said.
“With half our strength.” Hakaramiiretorted. “Which prevented the envelopment, and the total victory we should have had.” Then turning, “So,Iibriim, you were in the thick of it. Tell us what happened and why.”
“It was simple.”Iibriimspoke out. “We went in as briefed. They counter attacked vigorously so we waded in, in response. It was touch and go, but they broke.”
“Who ordered the reponssive charge?” Asakdrogiiquestioned. “Or was it gut common reaction?”
“The order came from Aliimahn. 16thHoiija is, or was, a solid well disciplined legion.”
“You did well Quarturian Iibriim. I salute you” Amahiidpraised.
A general chorus of approval came from the assembly.
“But he would have done better to hold.” Hakaramiiintoned.
“Emperor’s beard!” Oskiihaof 7thFiija expleted. “Can we do nothing right for you Divisionary Hakaramii?We have lost a legion’s worth of soldiers for this. Is that not enough?”
“Your casualties are so high,” Hakaramiicountered, noticably not pulling rank on Oskiiha, “Precicely because you did not do it right.”
“Oh come on!”
“The centre was not supposed to break them. That was always going to be too dangerous and too costly. Your job,” Hakaramiitold Oskiihaand Iibriim, “Was to threaten them so they reinforced their centre then the wings would roll them up.”
“But that’s precisely what we did!” Iibriimprotested. “It’s not our fault that the flanks didn’t do their job.” And then looking round, “No offence to whoever that was.”
“None taken.” Rasokiiassured. “I freely admit to not having the strength to go round them.”
“Same here.” Navodiiaconfessed, relieved at an out.
“Would reinforcements have helped?” Asakdrogiiqueried, tongue in cheek. “Like Annaiikraor Amahiid?”
“I was commited to the centre.” Amahiidsaid in his defence. “And that by yourself my lord. I know it to be true of Annaikraas well.”
“As I said,” Asakdrogiicountered, “ It was my decision to the changed circumstances. What I ask is how could I, no, we have done differently, or better.”
“Something needs to be done about the missile storms.” Navodiiatentatively presented.
“Our troops,” Rasokiicontinued for him, “Are reluctant in the extreme to commit to such murderous fire, and I am reluctant to send them.”
“Except.” Put in Amahiid, “When an opening is presented.”
“As it was to us.” Iibriimstated.
“We must have a defence, or even weapons like theirs.” Navodiiaadded.
“There are archers in our army.” Oskiiha said. “I have seen them display in Ipermia."
“But none here.” Hakaramii noted. “And we’ve never used them to this effect either.”
“As to defence.” Quarturion H’miidspoke out. “If we had Jaliian armour I am sure it would help. My guess is they wear it to counter these arrow storms.”
“And what exactly is that?” Amahiidqueried.
“You know!” H’miidretorted, bending for a clear view of Amahiid. “The metalled kit the 11thand 17thJaliian Ettoiimii had on in Kiilij,sire. Did you not notice it?”
“No.” Came the reply. “But then I did not pass through Kiilijj.”
“Has anyone else seen this ‘armour’.” Asakdrogiisneered.
“Yes, my lord.” Chorused Oskiihaand Affiidof 7thFiija. “As did all of Annaikra’sdivision, for we all came through Jakiil and thought the local Jaliian boys ‘tin tops’dead panzy.”
“Amazing!” Hakaramiisaid to himself sadly.
Mistaking the intent of the comment H’miidspoke in Affiid’sdefence. “My lord, had you seen it you would agree. It looks like something the Emperor’s guard would dream up. All shiny and smooth, and of no bloody use. No one would think of it until they faced organised hard point concentrated missile attack.”
“I am sure that is so.” Hakaramiiresponded. “For the enemy too wish to know why we are not so protected.”
“You cannot.” Forgive me my lord Hakaramii,Amahiidblurted. “But you cannot know that. We can at best surmise what the enemy thinks.”
“Not quite true.” Hakaramiireturned.
Standing,Askiitakii addressed the assembly. “For all who do not know it, IAskitakii Araktaiicame across the LordHakaramii among the abandoned campsite of the Valevs two days ago. With my own eyes I witnessed the attention his wounds had been given and the cradle that had been made for his comfort. I know it for fact that he had been taken by the enemies’ hand and then left safe at their abandonment.”
“What does this mean?” Amahiid questioned accusingly, and pausing for effect, “And how long has this been established?”
CautiouslyAskiitakiianswered with, “I am not sure as to your meaning.”
“I am!” Asakdrogii voiced. “And I believe Ettoiimiibah Amahiid presumes too much!”
Rising like a baited fish, Amahiidriled at the disguised threat. “By the Emperor’s leave!”
“Still!” The command rang out clear. “Be still! Know that honour and integrity are not issues here today. Not one of us here assembled are in any way questionable in support of the Emperors’ will. As previously stated, the sole purpose of this gathering is to maximise that intent.
“This is a matter of honour and integrity.” Hapatkiipriiorated to his troops. “It is the Emperors’ will that we destroy the enemy in his home. We are therefore committed by law into this undertaking, and the burning of this town that lays before us. The campaign shall have no respite until that task be completed. We have the honour to be tasked as such and must show our integrity by its completion. I, Nakpotii Hapatkiiprii, your commander have instigated a course of action that your leaders will direct you in and by which this glorious goal may be achieved. Look to your courage and press your advances despite the enemys mischieves, for then we are assured success and our victorious return to the Emperors’ bosom. Now soldiers, march away!”
Hapatkiipriihad not been a happy individual when on finding the long awaited town, his troops discovered the village on the near bank deserted and stripped. The town proper sat safely on the far side of the river, the bridge between them dismantled. Not burned, not destroyed but carefully taken apart by a populace given time to do it and plainly intent on its later rebuild.
“The supports are left.” Haiinoda of 24thHoiija noted. “We can use the timbers from the village to cross the spans.”
“And have them destroy us piecemeal as we cross.” Anahiimadchided. “Don’t even think of suggesting it or I’ll make sure I suggest you’re first over.”
Memories of events three days earlier could not quench Haiinoda’sdesire for glory so long as it was not too dangerous to himself. His firm intent was to live long on the proceeds.
“Burn the place, I say.” Anahiimadscolded. “Before anyone else gives him ideas.”
The two stood on the ramp to the non-existent bridge and had been paired as the vanguard for their opposing characters, caution and drive. Now it was Haiinoda’sturn to chide. “The troops would kill me if I ordered such. These buildings, such as they are will be the first shelter they’ve had for three weeks.”
“True.” Conceded Anahiimad. “But if we burn them now, Hapatkiipriicould take it as his victory and we could all go home.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this defeatism from such as you. What has got into you?”
“Don’t you see? We can’t win this. Not now. I thought we could, but I was wrong. We should go back and think again. Our troops are no longer dying for the Emperor; they’re dying for Hapatkiiprii’sreputation. To me that’s lunacy.”
“How can you say that? I know you’ve been tested, but then so have we all.”
“Ask yourself.” Anahiimad replied. “If the Emperor told you to walk knowingly into an ambush, would you do it?”
A guarded “Um.. Well, yes. But?” From Haiinoda.
“But do you think he would order so?”
Haiinodas, intrigued. “No.”
“Do you then think Hapatkiiprii will order you to attack when the enemy know our intentions, are ready and have the advantage?”
Haiinodacould not say no, for he knew that Hapatkiipriihad already done so.
“So, we cannot burn the village. Yet.” Anahiimadfinished as Hapatkiipriijoined them.
“Not good, eh? Haiinoda. Can it be rebuilt?”
“By them sire?” Anahiimadinterjected. “Easily. By us? Probably, but it will take time, and whilst we are, the bastards will be over there laughing themselves silly.”
“That might be a good thing, sire.”
Anger flared on Hapatkiiprii’s face at Haiinoda’s remark, then turned to a grin at his “Then they will not notice you and I crossing upstream will they sire?”
Nobody could have blamed Anahiimadfor he had genuinely tried his best. 6thHoiija made enough noise, disruption, mess and progress into the bridge building to account for five times their number. In only two days there was only one span too complete and that as the one before, under fire. Noone could say it was Anahiimad’sfault when that last span could not be bridged. But some would try.
Nobody could have blamed Haiinodafor he had manufactured boats from resources as scant as could be believed and then thrown his legion over the river and secured the ground for 25thHoiija and 14thEiija. Then with them striking out from the landing area. It was not Haiinoda’sfault that the Suran chose their time well to attack and burn the boats as his back was turned. No one could say that the three under strength legions did not put every effort into attempting to storm the fortified city. No, no-one could blame Haiinodawhen after a further eight days fighting, his troops could no longer resist for lack of food. But some would try.
Nobody would blame Hapatkiipriifor failing to outmart the defenders of Poviij and realise that the Surans had militia in reserve. How could anyone put blame on a commander who watched in helpless horror as his army was further irreparably split and his plans dashed? Who would say that withdrawal and abandonment of any hope for Haiinodawas in error when the half of his force remaining was put under threat by an attack in the rear? No, no-one would blame Hapatkiiprii, but eveyone should. ForHapatkiipriihad lost his nerve. That one distinguishing aspect of his character had, like his command been whittled away bit by bit until now there was nothing left worth noting. The last straw was seeing the banners of his tormentors, the Valevs, coming down from the hills.
Zovan, much against his stated intent had relented to Pankov’s arguments. He had refrained from retreat, hoping for signs, links or even remnants of 1st/10thReserve. None had come, and now there were insufficient supplies left to last even the depleted numbers that remained, long enough to reach a reliable re-supply depot or town. The options were to starve or go down and seek succour at Povsk, provided that was that the Latii had not got there first and raised the place.
“Look at it this way.” Pankov had said, “Until five days ago, everything we have had from Sur has come through Povsk. All we would be doing is re-establishing our supply route.”
“We will probably have to fight for it.” Zovan warned.
“Is that not so whatever you decide? And would it not be better to be active, even to fight while we still have some food in our bellies?”
Reluctantly Zovan concurred, and so having spent five days keeping his force clear of the Latii, now directed his three remaining battered regiments dowhill and back into conflict. That fight was not needed was a binus, for Zovan’s scouts had told of the Latiian presence in the village and all along the riverbank. Heavy hearted he arranged his meagre force that their line of march would cut the enemy in two. Aiming left of the village as he came down from the hills, Zovan had not deployed his troops into battle line before the smoke began to rise.
In their haste to depart, 6thHoiija had botched the job of torching the village. It did not matter, for Hapatkiiprii’s account would not reflect such. They even left intact all the work they had done on the bridge. It took very little effort for the citizens of Povsk to complete that last span and link up with Zovan’s valevers as they ensured the village was completely Latii free. It was Ankov who had been tasked with the job and now he strode out over the planking to where soldiers of 5threserve waited with their counterparts from the Pavsk militia.
“Well met.” Spoke Prakvan, mayor of Povsk. “Zovan of Valev I presume?”
“No.” Ankov corrected. “I am captain Ankov of 5thReserve VCSD. Champion Zovan is securing the bank off to our left.”
“Champion? What happened to Zarkov?”
“Zarkov. You know, the Kings’ champion, last I heard.”
“Ahh.” Exhaled Ankov. “We are at cross purposes. Zovan is champion of Valev, not Sur.”
“Oh!” Prakvan bemused, confessed. “I am confused. But it is no matter. We are well met are we not? Whoever we are?”
“Indeed.” Ankov returned. “Let the honour and gain befit all.”
“Yours the honour, ours the gain methinks.” Prakvan returned. “It would honour us further should Zovan and his officery accept the hospitality of Pavsk this night.”
“Valev thanks you, and I can think of no reason for this generous offer not to be accepted. I shall convey it forthwith to Zovan. However, I know it as a fact that the fellow most in need of your hospitality is Captain Pankov, our sutler.”
“Send the fellow to me and what we have shall be yours. Within reason that is, for we are now shut in you realise.”
“They crossed then?”
“Yes. Some twenty five hundred strong two kingspaces upriver but their boats have been burned and with the two regiments of Pava who are coming we think we have their measure. Especially now you are here.”
“I thank you for your confidence in Valev, but I am afraid that we are but a shadow of our former strength.”
“Able enough to send those remaining thousand packing it seems.”
“Why though, is beyond me for we are less than half that number.”
“Kings’ breath! I thought you a Land Army!”
“Short days ago.” Ankov said, “We were.”
Prakvan could see the fatigue and strain on Ankov’s face and knew his words to be the truth. The scale of sacrifice stunned him. The reports Zovan had sent bore no hint of such a calamity, but then the enemy’s actions did not bear it out either. Not until Prakvan re-read Zovan’s original letter, written after the fall of Zosk. In it he had spoken of fifteen thousand enemy, and here had come but three thousand. What feats must have been done? What extreme efforts made? What sacrifices endured to reduce that host to this level? Faced with that, perhaps it was no wonder the Latii withdrew rather than fight.
There were problems enough to deal with though, without such distractions.
The meeting had drawn out a good many hindrances, problems and even solutions, albeit long term answers. It did not resolve the tactical or strategic questions which still hung over Asakdrogii. Faced with a split enemy, which prong was more relevant to search out and attack. If any? That which appeared stronger and had retired relatively uncontested or the technically marginally weaker which had proved itself a pre-eminent and vociferous foe. The choice came in that manner. Not which was the most important objective, but which was the body on which he could not afford to turn his back.
“We have identified the paths of both groups” Rasokii informed him. “The large section camped quite close to the battlefield and are making their way west through the foothills. They do not appear to threaten Hapatkiiprii but I have advised him anyway. There has not been a reply yet to my knowledge. The second group were harder to track as they’ve not gone quite where we might expect. Their trail was identified by Askiitakii’s soldiers, not mine.
It would appear that they did not rest, but instead marched through the night in a northerly direction having cleared our camp area. Where either body is now however, we do not yet know.”
“That settles it.” Asakdrogii had responded. “We march north. It is where the terrain will be better, where the enemy retreats, and where we are supposed to go. North it is. First thing in the morning.”
Lekta was suffering. He was not the only one, for a number of the troops had wounds of some nature. His was going septic. It had not been much of a cut. The fact that it was on his lower leg did not help, caused as it was by a still writhing Latiian over whom he had stepped, then killed as the rusted dagger flailed and caught him in the advance. Every step was causing pain, every pace sending more poison into his body. Memta and Vikta from his own section both had shattered useless arms (curiously, both left arms) but they were now in good spirits and they could keep up. Even Nakita, grey faced and with broken ribs could keep up. Anyone could see that they were hurting and of no use in a fight. They and the others like them were slower, but getting no worse. Lekta needed to be strong, He had an entire section to lead. It was all the more important with subleader Vorkiz dead. It was so vital to keep his bit right to ease the burden on Arlak and Zivanta and so Marshalls Makta and Prokta did not get his shit. If only he could concentrate, if only it were not so hot.
The bulk of the troops were beginning to feel the chill. It was still early in the year after all, and what weak sun penetrated through was quickly counteracted by fatigue and hunger. A curious impasse existed where morale was low and yet confidence was high. These two regiments were sure of victory in a fight and yet unsure of health or even survival without one. The absurdity of the situation did not immediately strike the officery, and yet when Arlak laid the prospectus open before scrutiny none could deny it, least of all Imvak.
“We fight them then, but only when we can be assured of aquiring resources.”
“That means at night.” Arlak confirmed. “Like we did before.”
“Agreed.” Vokov concurred. “The same format. Reconnaisance patrol then strike on their report, only this time bring back food instead of spoiling it.”
“You two seem to have this sewn up!” Imvak noted. “This being the case you shall be the first up.”
“Very well.” Vokov accepted. “In what form do you percieve?”
“Split activity.” Came back Imvak. “Arlak will take his section out tomorrow and locate the enemy. Meanwhile, we shall reorganise into five sections. You shall have two and so shall I. One for scouting, one for raiding. Each regiment shall do day and day about. The fifth section shall be a mix of all the sick and injured. Their job is to keep camp. Agreed?”
“Yes.” Vokov concurred. “Any problems with that Arlak? No? Anyone?”
“Good.” Imvak stated, then ordered. “I want full section strengths and skills within the subspan. Dismiss.”
With the coming of dawn, results were already forthcoming. Arlak had split what remained of his section into seven patrols, the intention being to work back down yesterday’s track with three patrols spread either side and the remaining patrol to run communications. Squad Marshall Makta had largely negated the need for such a spread, having taken it upon himself to patrol in darkness. Simply folowing the track back, his patrol came accross the Latiian camp and had word back to Arlak before first light.
“It would seem they are following us, about a day behind.” Arlak was able to report. “We will have a better idea of numbers and intent later on.”
“I am sure, no. Absolutely positive they are running for home.” Amahiid triumphantly announced. “My scouts ten leagues ahead report them still on track as of nightfall and it would seem, not that far ahead.”
“Excellent!” Asakdrogii exhalted. “We have done better than we thought, and perhaps the day after tomorrow we will do even better!”
“Let them run.” Hakaramii put in. “I say you should now head for Kiisk as per the plan.”
“No.” Asakdrogii was resolute. “We shall have them. A lesson is about to be learned.”
The lesson came at midnight. With the piquet guards silent in death, the way was clear through to the heart of the sleeping camp. Soft footed, the raiders pillaged packs as they murdered the owners. The killing and theft would have gone on longer were it not for the watch change. In the safety of firelight, the watchmaster had gone untouched. Now he roused the change and even then it was only en route to their posts that the incursion was discovered. Pandemonium broke out as the alarm cry was raised. Troops woke in fright and ran to panic. Sleep dulled and confused, they caught the occasional raider but failed to seriously hamper 10thReserves’ withdrawal to safety.
“Leave them you say!?” Asakdrogii screamed into Hakaramii’s face. “Listen to that out there! Turn my back on them? Never!” Insensed, he continued at full volume. “I nearly listened to you, and I nearly got clever.” Backing off, he mollified. “Curse me for a fool should I ever do either again.” Storming out to double the guard piquets, Asakdrogii was shouting in his anger. “I want to know how many there were, where they came from and what they did. And I want to know now!”
Nobody stopped to question.
It was fully light when the raiders came back to camp.
“Nine missing, four wounded, eighty seven food packs brought in.” Minak reported.
“Any officers hurt?” Vokov queried.
“No.” Came the answer. “But we’ve done for a fair number of theirs!” A matter of fact statement.
“Good.” Vokov returned. “There is a broth readied for you. Have your troops eat, for we move within the subspan.
Imvak was not so pleased. “I had hoped for more.” He spoke in truth. “This is barely a days rations.”
“Yes.” Vokov conceded. “But a days rations we did not have before and that they no longer have.”
“Nevertheless, we shall raid again tonight.” Imvak confirmed. “And I shall try to do better.”
Vokov said nothing, but thought to himself. “We shall see.”
“They’re after food” Rasokii stated. “Every one of my dead soldiers has had his rations taken.”
“I hardly think a few stolen rations constitute evidence of the enemy’s condition or intent.” Asakdrogii snapped back.
“How widespread is it?” Askiitakii questioned.
“As I said.” Rasokii answered. “They had the packs of every one of mine they killed, the same with Navodiia and a few more besides.”
“So how many packs do we think are gone?” Hakaramii put in.
“We reckon.” Navodiia answered, looking to Rasokii for support. “Between eighty to a hundred packs, each with four to five days rations.”
“You what?!!” Asakdrogii queried incredulously. “And how many were off the dead?”
Sheepish, Rasokii hesitated before resonding. “Coming up to seventy, sire.”
“Emperors’ balls!” Hakaramii exhaled.
“Who did they get?” Asakdrogii demanded, regaining some composure.
“No one of merit, sire. So far as we can tell.” Rasokii came back.. “Just soldiers.”
“Is there a hidden reason?” Hakaramii asked.
“How do you mean?” Rasokii queried.
“Were officers better protected, less obvious or even awake?”
“No, I do not believe so my lord, but I will say this. Officers do not carry their own rations.”
“Very well.” Asakdrogii broke in. “No-one has yet told me the rest of what I required. Namely how many there were and where they are now.”
“We believe around a hundred came and went from the north, Great Lord.” Navodiia responded, using the excessive honorific in an attempt to cover his lack of assurance.
Hakaramii saw through it but declined to exacerbate Navodiias’ embarrasment, instead questioning. “Did we catch any?”
“In truth sire, yes. But I know not how many. I was less concerned with their dead than knowing there were none alive and enquiring as to my own soldiers’ health.”
A chorus of muted but tacit approval ensued, Asakdrogii stating it most loudly. “Good. Now let us make sense out of this. They attack from the north. Why? Because we expect them from the west. I am not fooled. Their tracks will lead straight west from here. That is where they are. They take food. Why? To make us think that is what they need and so protect it better. Three hundred day rations are not enough to convince me. Pooled food stocks are easier to destroy, as they have proved in the past. They kill soldiers. Why? One, to reinforce the food ploy. Two, to try and create a divide in us. The troops will fear the night more and disrespect officery knowing they are at unequal risk. What do we do? Improve piqueting and form a reprisal force to chase and destroy them. Tonight that shall be Rasokiis’ job. Tomorrow it will pass to Navodiia then H’miid, Askiitakii and Amanhad in order. That way there will be no gaps, no confusion. Do I make myself clear?”
“You do indeed sire.” Rasokii answered. “Though I fear I may not be able to achieve much this night, I will however do my best.”
His best, or more correctly, the best efforts of 3rdFiija did not amount to much. Ever since the fighting around Zoskii this legion had been shaky. They knew full well who was ‘out there’ and were ill inclined to search out an enemy who had twice bested them in battle. Working on a false premise Navodiia took over the day, placing his scouts out in force and in near contact to Asakdrogiis’ main body. The resultant of such action was to misdirect the line of march such that Asakdrogii performed a large backward S track over the course of the day, ending it no nearer the foe. This was in part conditioned by Imvaks’ elusive tactics, splitting his troops into three seperate packets, each laying a seperate trail in a great arc to backtrack on the course of the previous day and encamping some twelve longpaces away.
Imvaks’ raid was well planned. By nightfall he was already aware of the Latiian location, numbers and disposition. Armed with this information he did not have to guard his own camp, just the Latiian approaches to it. The attack would take place in three, thirty-six strong groups. The first, to penetrate and control. The second to rifle and pillage, the third to cover and support as needed. Insertion and exit would be from west-northwest with no deviation for two longpaces before heading back to camp.
Navodiia had no such distinct a plan. His latest information put the varlaners sixteen leagues or so to the northeast. Exactly where he was not sure, but it was close enough he knew, for them to raid, and that could come from any direction. Spreading his two weakest quarterings in piquet still left gaps despite the troop numbers involved. To utilise a third in that role reduced the effect of the response groups stationed as they were at the four corners of the camp periphery. As darkness gathered, tensions grew.
Reporting to the comandanteur, Navodiia joined their evening meal.
“Are you ready?” Hakaramii asked.
“All is prepared my Lord.” Navodiia responded.
“You do not sound confident.”
“My Lord, if they come, and that alone as an unknown is a cause of unease, they will come in the dark of night when the troops are at their lowest ebb and confusion and fear are easiest to create. Of that I am confident. That we can repel them once detected I am also sure of. What I cannot know and thus that which eats at me, is the reliability of detection.”
“Make your guards more numerous and we might as well stand the camp to all night.”
“I know Sire, All we need is a cry, but..”
“But indeed!” Asakdrogii cut in. “A cry there will be and it had better be timely or you will cry for your balls!”
Navodiia would be mindful of his genetalia sooner than he had imagined. Imvak, well aware of Latiian guarding strenght set in train a series of false scares. A bush rustled here, a cough over there. A scurrying shadow brought out the western reaction force to find nothing. A flurry of darts eliminated a southern sentry group but the movement was heard and the southern corner squadron burst into action, again unable to roust their quarry and returning empty handed.
“This is to spook us and distract attention.” Navodiia proclamed. “I believe it will all go quiet in a while then at midnight they will come from the north.”
No-one disagreed. The logic was sound but it was flawed. All did go quiet as Navodiia predicted, but in that quiet came lethality. A fault in the guarding chain had been exposed allowing a hit party to sneak through and behind the guard posts. The silent elimination of three of them expanded the gap, permitting the raiders entry to the main camp area, but rom the southwest.
Reluctant to commit to folly again, guard commanders disregarded the odd rustle carried on the night breeze. What they could not ignore however, was the swiftly growing hubbub as a single light sleeper awoke to find strangers among the silent ranks. The screamed warning was rapidly taken up as fighting broke out inside the camp confines. That it was chaotic could not disguise its general location and Navodiia was swift to order the southern and western reaction forces to this area. Thinking for a moment, he realised his error and rescinded the western orders, too late to be effective. The reaction forces themselves could not fulfill their intended role, caught up as they were in the chaos and adding to it.
All of 1stReserve had been briefed that as soon as the cry went up the raid should be aborted. The ruling was ‘get out, each to your own. Do not wait for anything or anyone. Just go and keep going until you clear the backup.’ No-one disobeyed the order. Some were delayed, fighting their way clear. Some were delayed permanently. Most got out, although not in the organised format they had intended. Hot on the heels of Imvaks’ raiders came Navodiias’ Fiijans. Hampered by group one’s delaying tactics, both reaction forces extracted themselves from the chaos of the camp almost simultaneously. Crashing pell mell into the darkness, they collided with Imvaks’ group three. A series of short bloody fights ensued, some won by the Fiijans some by 1stReserve. In a number of these miniature conflicts the casualty rate was startling and in others almost negligible, the major features being the confusion of the darkness and Imvaks’ need to withdraw. The impression Navodiia gained as he caught up with his troops was that despite the disorder and lack of control due to not being able to see, and so relying on sound to determine the course of events, Latii was winning. The enemy was giving ground. Sizing up the situation he gave new orders.
“They are shifting right. Just as I thought, they have come from the north! Keep up the pressure here and I will have the north-force move out to intercept. Runner! Go now to Quarturion Assmii and with my compliments have him decamp north-force westwards with all speed and expect to find the enemy. That done, make haste to Squadric Aziil in the east. Tell him to replace Assmii.”
Imvak was not displeased. The raid had not after all failed. That the alarm was raised sooner than hoped and the Latiian response stronger than anticipated, were disappointments. The difficulty in disengagement and withdrawal was more pressing. Groups 1 and 3 were retiring alternatively through each other’s lines with group 2 clear and heading home. The trouble was that the pace of retirement was such that hardly had one group formed than the other was through it with the enemy at close hand. It was almost a case of dispensing with any attempt at defense. Just run and keep going to create space from pursuit. Debating the merits of such instruction, Imvak was spared it as the retreat became rout.
With the coming of dawn, both Imvak and Navodiia were able to some extent to rally their wide scattered forces. In both cases it was a time consuming business, undertaken whilst attempting to respectively break, and to maintain contact. Imvak had succeded in assembling about half of his troops, for Navodiia it was some two thirds, plus Assmiii’s north-force which although failing to trap Imvak had joined Navodiia as a homogenous squadron. All were tired. Thus, Navodiia gained control of an armed body approximately three times as numerous as Imvaks’. It was time for both sides to hand over prosecution of this action. Navodiia to H’miid, and Imvak to Vokov respectively. H’miid however was still in encampment with no idea where Navodiia was or what action had occurred or should take place. There was only one thing for it, and that was to follow as best he could Navodiias’ tracks. Advising Asakdrogii of this course of action, H’miid assembled his troops and set off, as it was, with Asakdrogii close behind.
“The enemy has changed course Sire! They are now heading northeasterly.” The message came from the lips of Quarturian Assmii.
“Curses!” Navodiia expleted. It must be to link up with their main body, he thought. We must prevent that, or back off and wait for Askadrogii to catch up. “A curse on it!” He said aloud. “Right, that’s it!” Calling for runners, Navodiia sent to Assmii; Stall them, hold them up.Delay them by any means but don’t present them with too strong a force. Prod them and make it look good enough to have them stop. Make them think you are overextended. Whilst you keep them still, Inkhapii and Emriim will take their left and right flanks. Do it now, for they intend to link with the main. To Inkhapii and Emriim his orders urged them on with Assmii in view, but concealing themselves as best they could from the enemy then as soon as they were abreast of them, to turn and wreak havoc.
There had been a gap. A stand-off since dawn as both sides transited the landscape. Now that gap closed as Assmii’s leading elements forced themselves into a run. Imvak was not surprised. In fact he had been expecting it, or something like it for over a subspan. It was plain the Latii must try to slow him up in order to bring their greater strength to bear. It was either that or let him go, and he couln’t see them taking the latter option. What was imperative was to not let them halt him yet. Not much longer and they could do as they willed, for not much longer and he would link with Vokov and outnumber them. All the time now he was picking up more stragglers together with reports of Vokovs’ proximity. Here was no time or place for elabourate tactics. There was no choice but to turn and strike. With fewer darts than he could have hoped for, the repulsion was savage enough to cause Assmii to exhibit more caution in his follow ups. For in accordance with his orders, follow up he did.
Imvak had not completely stopped. Merely turned, thrown off his puruers and then continued his way, albeit delayed. But delayed significantly enough that a second action would place his flanks in jeapoardy. Imvak knew his peril and issued strict instructions for when it came.
Assmii came on in strength and Imvak, looking left and right could see the time of judgement had arrived. Completely against Assmii’s expectation, Imvak broke the trap by direct assault, straight back through Assmii’s loose formation and leaving Inkhapii’s and Emriim’s clappers to knock uselessly together.
Pivoting in behind Imvak they failed to notoce Vokovs’ line until it stood up from concealment in the long grasses. Caught off guard and unsure which way to turn, the hesitation and confusion among the Latiian ranks was their undoing. The banners of 10thReserve had become known among Latiian troops and aquired a none too inconsiderable reputation. With no firm control or order to counter the Valev charge, the Latii broke into chaos and flight, scattering as they ran for safety.
Firmly rebuffed, Assmii and Navodiia could only stand agape as their efforts turned to shit before their eyes. Even then, the unbelievable happened. The enemy retired the field!
“Again! I do not understand.” Navodiia stated. “I simply cannot comprehend the reason for it. There must be something really basic that I’m missing”
“Do you know where we are?” Assmii questioned.
Navodiia looked around, searching for a sign or feature of significance. “No.”
“Nor I,” Assmii retorted, “and that I think is what they want. They are leading us on into no-where. There’s bugger all to eat here and they’re stealing our food. If we keep after them it won’t be long before we starve. Then they don’t have to fight us, we’ll die by ourselves.”
“Emperor’s balls! You could be right! Assmii, you’re a bloody genius! I was going to send you on whilst I reorganise here, but balls to that, we’re waiting for Asakdrogii.
“That was just a little too tight for my liking, the turds are learning Vokov. You be careful tonight, and I shall be closer to you tomorrow just in case.”
“Very well.” Vokov conceded, silently cursing Imvak for his high-handed attitude. He had done well in the end but would admit no botched raid. Because of this, they were now forced to retreat toward sunrise, with the Latii between them and home. Bloody fellow! Vokov would indeed be careful that night.
“Nice theory,” Asakdrogii told Navodiia, “But it doesn’t hold water. I know where we are. Hapatkiiprii is not more than three days south and Kiisk is five or six north.”
“Huh,” Hakaramii grunted, “It’s not so far out in my estimation. In honesty what do you think Hapatkiiprii has got for us? Prescious little I’ll wager. And as to Kiisk’s location, if it is six days away that’s all the rations we’ve got now. Who knows what’s waiting there.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“I’m not sure the Valev’s plan is as Navodiia sees it, but the effect is the same. I think we should go for Kiisk now. After all there may be a day or two’s fighting before we can link up with Ipokalii.”
“I hear you Hakaramii. I am reluctant however to leave this quarry. We are after all so close now.”
“And if we catch them,” Navodiia put in, “We can have our food back.”
“A good point. Very well, have Hmiid report to me by midday as to the real likelihood of our attaining this today or tomorrow. Any later than that and I fear we must take Hakaramii’s advice. No matter the consequence.”
Hmiid was already hard at work. He had stood ¾ of his legion down, ready for the night’s activities and was pushing the 4thquartering on so not to lose contact with the enemy. Seething inside at Navodiia’s not waiting for him, nor telling him where he was, Hmiid was not going to allow any more chances to deal a telling blow be botched. Not while he had the power to prvent it.
4thquartering was badly depleted, even worse than the other three and Hmiid was not prepared to sacrifice what little remained.
“Keep in touch,” He told 4th’s Quarturion, Omhii, “even push them if you can. Make the bastards sweat, but don’t get caught. If it looks at all dodgy, then back off.”
“Got it, Hmii- sorry, Sire.”
“It’s all right Omhii, I am still Hmiid. Especially to you.”
“Right then Hmiid, I’d better be off if I’m to keep our boys in check.”
“Good, well take care, and keep in touch. Most importantly, with me. If you go ten leagues or more I will send standing parties out to help you in this, but I will not know without your word.”
“All right.” Agreed Omhii, and was gone.
Come mid-day, Omhii’s news was good. Not so Asakdrogii’s. The Varlan were not too far divorced for action, but the Latiian main was not assembling on Hmiid’s site well enough to mount an offence in daylight.
“Go for dark,” Hakaramii urged. “It can be spectacularly effective. The enemy have shown you that much.”
“Ahh,” Cautined Asakdrogii, “But think back to Woneii, that was well planned and it didn’t go so well that night did it?”
“Woneii was different. I’ll take your point on it but here there’ll not be the intricate plan and timing. As to last night, that goes to show that we’re gaining ascendancy in the dark as well.”
“A little zelous in your estimation I think Hakaramii, but I’ll consider it.”
“All right, how about this? If Hmiid can give us a dusk position, march through the night for a dawn attack.”
“Now you’re talking!” Asakdrogii exalted. “That’s a scheme I can work with.”
“They are still there.” Vokov spoke to Imvak. “I think they are serious now.”
“You think that they have not been so far?” Imvak quipped.
“Should I say then that their minds are now set on punitive action?”
“I propose not to raid tonight.”
“Come on! That is probably the best thing todo!”
Vokov ignored the taunt. “Instead, what will happen is that we move camp three longpaces or so, leaving a skeleton squad to maintain deception by keeping fires going and a hit squad to distract the reconnaisance parties. As we have not raided, 10threserve will retain the watch for a further day.”
“Imvak debated this for a moment, then agreed. “This can not denude the vitality of aquiring further foodstocks though.”
“Agreed,” Vokov immediately voiced. “But for those we must seek elsewhere. I believe that reliance on enemy provisions is no longer a viable proposition. We must either send to Pavsk or Kiisk for replenishment stores and even assistance.”
“Again,” Imvak Returned, “I can not fault your argument, though at this stage I do not welcome it after so much work on our part.”
“Needs must! Vokov returned. “Do you oppose my estimation or plan?”
“No.” Returned Imvak after a tired pause. “Advise me so that I may integrate.”
In another quirk of fate, both sides were playing the same game albeit under different rules and for different reasons, and both over the same ground. Contrary to what had become expectation, 10thRR struck as soon as darkness fell. In classic ploy the rearguard attacked Hmiid’s Latiian piquets, destroying four out of five and dislocating the remainder. Omhii stood in one of the two posts, now removed from its original position. He had suspected the Varlans were aware of his location but had not concieved such a violent repulsion. Concentratng on the enemy piquets, they had not seen the flank atack until the last moment. Even then three had been hit by the darts and a further two fallen as the enemy stormed the position. They had run. Fight was pointless, and in any case contrary to orders. Asnankii had come with them despite the dart. Now they were four, with Asnankii fast ebbing. Omhii dare not order or execute his despatch for fear that one pair of eyes and ears less would cause them to miss the enemies approach. The smell of blood was heavy on the air and the sounds of dying well evident.
A sixth sense caused Omhii to turn, glimpsing the silent massive jaws whirling in. Pure instinct thrust out his arm in protection, the grasped stabber striking the animals’ head and deflecting the razor teeth a hairsbreadth past his face. The body plummetet into him, crushing down as the beast clawed his coat and forced its head back to where its fangs could strike. Exerting every ounce of fear fuelled strength, Omhii thrust his second stabber into the vile creatures chest, sending it into a rictus of agony made more dreadful by its hideous howl. Even in its death throes the beast slashed and tore at him, requiring all his energies to prevent its slavering jaws obtaining purchase. In his subconscious he could hear the screams of his companions as they succumbed and were torn apart. There was another set of teeth working hard at the exposed part of his leg, and Omhii did not doubt that were it not for the beast above him he too would have been killed.
Of a sudden, the screams ceased to be replaced by a cacophony of howling and growling, the bulk of which rapidly gained distance and the remainder terminated abruptly. Even the attentions of the mortally wounded beast crushing Omhii suddenly ceased, as it jerked violently and retched a foul mix of blood and vomit over him. Struggling madly from under, Omhii was assisted by the dead beasts’weight being shifted. Sitting up, he thanked his rescuers as he palmed the filth from his face.
Dazedly Omhii heard the order. “Put down your weapon Latiian.”
“The stabber. Put it down. Now”
“Why?”Looking round in the dark, the forms were indistinct. “I don’t understand. Who is this?”
“The stabber.” The voice insisted. “Drop it or we’ll have to finish the Wolves’s work.”
A jabbering in a foreign toung brough Omhii back to reality with a thump. “Varlans!” He exhaled, then suddenly too tired to resist slumped back down casting his stabbers aside.
“That is better. Now tell us are you hurt?”
“Me? No, I don’t think so. A bit scratched up but I’ll be fine. The others? Are they?”
“Dead? Two of them here, yes. The other not far off Marakta tells me, but he is strapping your fellow up anyway.”
Cleaning himself with a handfull of grasses, Omhii was constrained to ask “Why did you aid us? Why risk your lives for the enemy?”
“No-one.” The answer came back, “Deserves to be killed by Wolves. Not even you. But…Quiet now unless you can tell me your dispositions, for we have soldiers at work.”
Omhii was silent. “I thought not.” Okhta said, then issued instructions to one of his troops who quickly dissapeared into the dark.
Occasional howls echoed through the night as the Wolves saught other prey, but otherwise all was quiet.
“Seems like you’re not doing too well.” Omhii said at length.
“Stay your mouth Latiian.” Okhta hissed. “Save that you have words of import, for we kill in silence.”
Omhii shut up again. He heard nothing amiss, but Omhii could see the Valevers stiffen and glide into action stations. Then the trooper returned.
“Sorry Okhta,” He said, “I thought I had lost you for a bit there.”
Omhii could not understand the words, but recognised one. “Okhta!” he breathed. “I have heard of you!”
Ignoring this the trooper continued, “It is all sewn up. They had ten posts with only one relay point. That was about four hundred paces from here. The boss is sending you a few more fellows and a couple of wounded Latii. He wants you to stay here untill dawn to cover us whilst he pulls everyone else out a few subspans before.”
“All right” Okhta replied. “I hope he is giving me good runners.”
“Just one. Me.”
Not long after, the others came. Omhii’s heart bounded as he saw the tall silhouettes, then crashed as he scrabbled for the stabber which was no longer in reach and looked back up to see the smaller forms in escort. Five Latii were ushered roughly into the hollow with Okhta’s force increased by ten.
“Arlak sent you these.” Endaxe Vikkta told Okhta. “He thought you might get something useful out of them before we top them.”
“Really? Like what?”
“I don’t know! He just told me you have a two hours before we top them and my three leg it.”
“Oh, nice! Well in that case I had better get to work. You take your three and form two piquets fifty paces or so out. If I am talking I will not hear any approach so you had better warn me. All right?”
Vikkta was not best pleased, but did as he was told.
“There go your executioners Quarturion. They will be back in just over one quadreme to butcher you all. Unless that is you can tell me something with which I can persuade my superiors otherwise.”
Omhii blanched at the prospect but his features were masked by night. “Fuck you!” He responded.
“And fuck your soldiers?” Okhta queried, unabashed by the expletive.
Omhii understood the threat, cursing “You bastard!”
“It is a shame it is not light, for your neckband would tell me much of what I want. Then I would not have to listen to these insults.”
“So wait until it is light you little shit.”
“You would sooner have your troops die like animals than you talk to me and live? I find that hard to comprehend.”
“Then you have no honour.”
“Hah! A Latiian murderer talks to me of honour! That’s a fine one!”
“We are soldiers, not murderers. It is not me who talks of butchery.”
“No, you just do it.”
“Bollocks! You have no ground for that accuastion!”
“And I suppose the villages hereabout are thronging?”
“It is a war zone, the populace has gone.”
“Gone to the void. When you Fijjans get there. I’ve seen it.”
“Utter bollocks. We don’t get involved in that kind of thing. That’s for the Jalii legions, and there’s none here.”
Okhta had been guessing, going only by vaguely remembered accent. The confirmationof the guess pleased him. “So you Hoiijans and Fiijans don’t like paybacks for Jaliian excess then?”
“And that’s your excuse for killing us cold?”
“I didn’t say I’d kill you cold. Just your troops.”
“What does that mean?”
“What I said. You tell me what I want to know and they’ll be allright. You don’t and they die one by one in front of you until you do. Then I leave you here for your troops to find. Now, what they’ll think of you I can’t tell, but what would your reaction be?”
“You bastard! You’ll get nothing from me!”
“Very well.” Okhta accepted, “But even the mighty Hakaramii told me his name. Is there harm in that?”
“Omhii.” Omhii said grudgingly.
“Just Omhii? No family? No rank? No status? No pride?”
“You know me to be Quarturion.”
“A Quarturion reduced to command of a squadron? And even that is now gone.”
“Fuck off!” Omhii cursed.
“The evidence is here.” Okhta said, then reverted to Surian. “Parta, be so good as to bring me the Latii here, one at a time and most uncomfortably.”
Endaxe Parta obliged, using two more menials to control the Latii, he produced the first Latiian at blade point. His arms pinioned and twisted to force submission, the Latiian was brought to his knees in front of Omhii.
“Soldier,” Okhta asked, almost civilly. “Do you know the fellow before you?”
A little more twist produced a pained “Yes.”
“Tell me, is he as he says he is?”
The soldier looked desperately for guidance from Omhii and resisted speech despite more pain.
“Enough!” Omhii stated. “I am Quarturion Fijjanii Omhii of 7thFijjan legion.”
“Okhta waited for the outburst to end before stating “You will be silent unless I deem otherwise.” Then turning back to the soldier. “I do not know your name.”
“Trooper Kaziimii Hamdiin 6thFijja.” Came the answer.
“Ah, then you don’t know this officer anyway.”
“The Quarturion speaks true.” Hamdiin blurted, “For we are a mixed legion.”
“All right,” Okhta placated. “Are you the only survivor of your sentry group?” Hamdiin did not answer. “It is no secret.” Okhta told him. “This is for your Quarturion’s benefit, not mine.”
“I am.” Hamdiin stated, talking now to Omhii. “They caught us from the side with darts and were in among us before anyone could even yell. I was knocked down and smothered then taked as I got out into the air. I am sorry sire, could not call for I was winded and then too scared.”
“It’s all right.” Omhii said. “No-one else has called either.”
“Or will.” Ohkta put in.
Omhii was about to argue but thought better of it.
“Better fetch the next one.” Okhta told Parta.
As Hamdiin was hustled away Omhii spoke. “You will not kill them.”
Okhta said nothing.
The next Latiian was brought over and capitulated more readily, helped by the fact of his being blinded. Unable to recognise Omhii, he divulged his name unit and instructions in his tale. This was confirmed bit by bit as the remaining three able to testify did so.
“So now you know it all.” Ohmii said bitterly. He had tried to stem the flow of information at each new revelation but had invariably been too late and less convincing than the Valever.
“Do not feel too bad.” Okhta told him. “There was little that we did not know, and nothing we did not suspect.” He had nonethelass sent Vikkta and his party with the runner as assurance that the message would get through. Vikkta had wanted to kill the Latii first but had not argued or delayed on hearing that the Latiian army was advancing on the position in the dark.
The runner came back a little later with orders for Okhta. Arlak was pulling out early and so should he. He had not stated how early. “Go back to him now.” Okhta told the runner, “And only come to me when he actually departs.”
The runner had only just gone when Okhta’s own outpicquets scrambled into the depression. “They are here!” Attata hissed. “At least half a legion not a hundred paces out.”
“You keep going.” Okhta ordered. “Make sure Arlak moves now. If it gets noisy, which I think it will, just up and run. Got it?”
Attata had got it, and was gone. Into the dip came the last two picquets. “They are here!” Came the urgent whisper.
“I know.” Came the retort. Form on me and we are gone.” There was no delay.
As the Varlaners moved into the darkness Omhii found the courage to call out. “Over here!” Coming to his feet he shouted at the top of his breath then threw himself back to earth as a dart whistled past his ear. Laying down, he called again, “This way! Quickly! They are getting away!”
The hollow suddenly filled with dark forms. “Keep going!” Omhii urged, standing again. “A patrol about twenty strong not far and running! Go!”
“Who is in charge here?” He called out as the forms swept by like a night tide.
“I am.” A Squadric presented himself. “And who are you?”
Omhii allowed the starlight to catch his gorgette. “Omhii of 6/7thFijja. Listen now, we had twelve posts at two hundred pace intervals in a line some three hundred paces fprward of here. They have all been taken and may still contain enemy pockets. Their main camp is only a league further on. All right?”
“Right!” The squadric responded and sped into action.
“Hamdiin!” Omhii called, “You are in best condition. Stay here and look after the others. Find me in daylight, I must report to H’miid now.”
Running forward to catch the advancing troops, Omhii found the Squadric. “Direct me to my legion!” He demanded.
Squadric Ahmalii was honest. “I have no idea where they are ‘Q’. Your 4this to the left and our 15this right. That is all I know, except that the enemy is caught up front.”
“Bugger!” Omhii muttered distractedly, then realising the Squadric’s words. “What? Dead already?”
“No, but we’ve got them surrounded and are just about to go in.”
A sudden desire for revenge swept over Omhii. “There is one. He is marked by spear and shoulder tassle. I would like that one alive if possible.”
Ahmalii was curious, but said only, “I shall pass the word. There will be a reward I presume”
“There will.” Omhii assured, though not knowing how to arrange that for he had nothing to offer.
The fight was short but extremely bloody. In desperation the Valevers gave as good as they got, abetted by the deliberate Latiian will not to kill Okhta. Unsure of identity in the darkness until the last moments, 7/10thHoiija paid in lives for their capture. The deed done no compunction was shown in ensuring the swift demise of the patrols injured. In fairness, a similar fate was dealt to badly injured Latiian troops. To survive, soldiers had to be mobile, coherent and repairable. Okhta at first sight may have failed the criteria.
Overpowered by sheer weight of numbers, he had despatched at least nine before succumbing to a stab from behind. Even then it had taken a broken left hand, a hilt weight to the face and the physical restraint of six body weights to subdue him. Cornered Wolves do not fight harder. Unable to bite, hit scratch or kill, Okhta writhed and struggled to achieve all these, for the madness was on him and would not leave.
“By fuck!” Trooper Rijpatii said to Squadric Ahmalii as he handed over Okhta’s removed weaponry. “This reward had better be good. The little bastard’s a maniac.”
The fog began to clear as the words penetrated Okhta’s brain. “Easy now Okktar, Struggle is useless. Youare now myprisoner.”
Once his struggling ceased, Okhta was grasped by powerful hands and hauled to his feet to look Omhii in the face.
“Hah!” Omhii triumphed. “Perhaps we can reverse things now. It is your turn to tell me everything!”
A faceful of blood and broken teeth were Omhii’s answer. Wiping his visage Omhii continued, “Maybe a little persuasion is needed.”
The persuasion was interrupted by Miasmii’s arrival. “What is the hold up?” He queried.
“Small patrol Sire.” Ahmalii snapped back. “ ‘Q’ Omhii here wanted a prisoner.”
“Oh?” Looking at Omhii. “I don’t know you do I?”
“Omhii of 6 Fijja.” Omhii returned. “The advance guard.”
“Right! Well is this it?”
“My troops are now to your rear.” Omhii stated.
“You have briefed Ahmalii?”
Omhii confirmed this.
“So what are we waiting for? Onward Ahmalii, onward!”
Reluctantly, envisioning the disappearance of the reward, Ahmalii started the soldiers moving.
“What about this little shit and the reward?” Rijpatii queried.
“Reward?” Questioned Miasmii.
“Yessire.” He said, indicating Omhii, “I mean the Quarturion here offered a reward. We lost good soldiers to get it sire.”
“Oh!” Miasmii was apalled but caught in a dilemma. “In that case.” He offered. “You three had best take the ‘prisoner’. It was a dirty word, to Commander Askiitakii for holding, then get back here. I will deal with this later.”
“But the prisoner is mine!” Omhii complained.
“Not yet, Quarturion Omhii, not yet.” Miasmii countered, and turning his attention back to his troops, bawled “Move it!”
“It’s good.” Asakdrogii had stated. “We can see their fires clearly. It is as good as done. We will form in a shallow ‘V’, throat forward and just keep going straight through. The two wings will keep up the momentum and contact, funneling them into the centre. Order of battle,” nodding to each as he spoke their name, “left to right, Rasokii, Amahiid, Askiitakii Navodiia, with H’miid clearing up in support. Any questions?”
Returned nods all round. “Good. Formate here as quickly and quietly as possible. As soon as you are done, we go!”
It had been done efficiently and with unaccustomed verve. A verve which dissipated as the Latii smashed through a deserted valever encampment.
“Keep going!” Asakdrogii yelled in frustration and anger. “Keep going! The bastards can not be far!” Six leagues and a timestick later he was not so sure. “We will give it another half stick then halt.” he told Amahiid’s runner.
“I cannot risk overtiring the troops and then running into an ambush.” He confided to Hakaramii, who concurred completely. “If only I knew what the bastards were up to.” Asakdrogii wished as he sent more runners with identical messages to his other legion commanders.
Halt was called, followed leisurely by dawn. Asakdrogii’s orders were for a general bivouac, breakfast and rest. No tents were pitched nor stores stacked. In the main the soldiery just lay down where they had stood, their first priority sleep.
That was going to be denied H’miid, and Askiitakii too when he deigned to show up at the commanders’ convention. The others had been assembled for nearly a stick before Askiitakii arrived.
“Excuse me Sire,” He apologised. “I have been busy setting scouts and would confer with H’miid while my mind is fresh.”
Asakdrogii was taken aback but consented. He was however disconcerted when Askiitakii drew H’miid aside.
“Are your dispositions not for my ears?” He called.
“Sire, This is,” Askiitakii hesitated “an…unrelated matter.” He said in explanation and was drawn to elucidate the situation.
“Bring him to me!” Asakdrogii cried. “I will pay the reward if I can get anything out of the little bastard!”
“The payment has gone up Sire.” Askiitakii advised.
“Oh? And how?”
“By a hundred and twenty tamarat.”
“That is a little excessive do you not think. After all by your testament the original offer was fourty tamarat.”
“Ten for each of my troops needlessly killed.” Askiitakii responded. “It might make other legion leaders think twice about abusing my soldiers.”
“Ah, so you want Omhii to pay?”
“Very well, but I will wager it will take him a time to come about such sums.”
“Of no consequence, a promisory is enough.”
“Just bring the prisoner here.” Asakdrogii told him.
It was done. Shortly after two large soldiers frogmarched Okhta in, his feet hardly able to touch the ground. The sight was pitiful, bloodstained and bruised and plainly in pain, Okhta was thrown to the ground. He stayed there.
“Is he dead?” Asakdrogii asked.
“No Lord,” One of the soldiers answered. “The little beggar struggled all the way up here. We had to give him a good kicking to shut him up.”
Askiitakii stepped over, stabber drawn and lifted Okhta’s arm gingerly, as if it would strike out or bite him. A groan came from the ground.
“He’s alive.” Askiitakii announced.
“Pick the bugger up.” Asakdrogii ordered. “I am not talking to the ground.
“The soldiers reached down and yanked Okhta into the vertical.
“What is your name Varleviian.” Asakdrogii demanded.
No response save a rasping of breath came from the hung head.
“I did get it right did I not?” Asakdrogii enquired of Askiitakii. “The bastard does speak Lataan?”
“I have not heard it Sire, but I am assured so.”
“He can.” Hakaramii spoke up. “If it is indeed the same one, for in that condition it is hard to tell.”
A soldier grasped Okhta’s hair and jerked his head up for the assembly to see.
“It is he.” Hakaramii confirmed. “But I am ashamed to admit it.”
Asakdrogii looked curious. “Why so?” He asked.
“Whilst his prisoner I was always treated with respect. Here we beat him until he cannot speak.”
“He should think himself lucky. Enemies of the Emperor end up dead.”
“If he cannot speak, how are we to hear what is to be told?”
“Good point, Askiitakii, go get the physic.”
I could just finish him Lord.” One of the soldiers put in. “He’s in a pretty bad way.”
As if to emphasise this Okhta began to cough blood.
“Emperor’s beard!” Cried Hakaramii. “Lay him down for pities sake.”
Laid down, the coughing eased but the breathing was ragged. Arriving in a rush, the physician looked about confused. “Who am I to treat my Lord?” He questioned Asakdrogii.
“The Valeviian you dickhead! He’s the only one hurt around here, can you not see?”
Bemused, the physician knelt at Okhta’s side and made a cursory examination, then called for help. “My Lords,” he addressed the assembly in general, “I am not known for expertise with foreign bodies, but this one’s main problem is a punctured air sac. There are probably broken bones about the hole and there is damage to the face and hands, none of it save the puncture is life threatening and that I can seal quickly. A further examination may reveal more but what I can do depends on your wishes.”
“Will he be able to talk?” Askiitakii asked.
“It will be painful Lord, but I cannot see why not.”
They all waited, watching as Okhta’s top clothes were stripped off to reveal his hairy body.
“Ah,” said the physician. “I did not expect this.”
Extracting a blade from his bag the physician began to cut away the blood soaked hair from Okhta’s back and bathed the cleared area as he did so. The wound was quickly revealed and treated with a poultice and pad, which was strapped around the slight frame. At its application Okhta’s breathing immediately improved.
“There is just the one broken rib.” The physician announced, “But massive tenderness across the torso. Not trying to be flippant, but this one has definitely ‘been through the wars’.”
“Thank you, Physician.” Hakaramii said. “It would please me if, when we are done, you could administer properly to the V’levii on my behest.”
“Lord.” The physician agreed, seeing the cue and making his exit.
“So Quarturion? Okkta V’levii, talk to me now.” Hakaramii continued.
“It’s aghh! Okhta.” Came the pained reply. “Of Valev.”
“And who leads you Okhta of Valev?” Asakdrogii cut in, getting the pronunciation more or less right.
There was at first no answer, then again in pain, “What.. is it ..to you?…Asakdrog.”
“Bugger me! The bastards know me!” Asakdrogii burst out, immensley pleased at his fame. “Come on! At least tell me the name of my opponent.”
Okhta could not rationalise the non-disclosure of such an irrelevance. “Imvak.. is the .. senior captain.”
“Imvak.” Breathed Asakdrogii, as if trying to discern a character through the name. Which is precisely what he was attempting.
“I do not remember that name.” Hakaramii stated. “What of..” Racking his brains..”Zodon?”
“Gone to Pavsk.” Okhta answered on laboured breath. “Kill Hapkreepii.” He could not know that, but it was as good a lie as any to tell these ‘bastards’.
“Emperor’s balls! They have some neck, these buggers” Askiitakii interjected.
“If, and I am not sure I believe all this,” Asakdrogii said, “but if it is true, then what is this ‘Imvak’ doing?”
“Go home.” Okhta breathed.
“You hear that?” Askiitakii vented, completely misunderstanding Okhta’s words. “The necky bastards mean to run us back to our borders!”
“It is their stated intention.” Hakaramii interjected. “and in truth, that is where we are now headed.”
“So Navodiia was right.” Asakdrogii stated. “This Imvak is running us round in circles and destroying provisions to wear us down so we give up and go home. Right, now I know, that is it. Whether we catch him today or not, we turn for Kiisk tomorrow.”
At that point the runners came.
The night had been stressful for Vokov. Vindicated in his action, he felt that in avoiding one potentially nasty situation he was walking into another. The move had gone almost without a hitch, his scouts clearing and marking the route for the regiment’s withdrawal. He had halted earlier than intended however for the advance guard reported the glow of a large encampment to sun-up right. Only on learning the lack of proximity did he authorise further movement. Even as this was under way news had come of the Latiian night attack.
Dawn found him with an equally fatigued Imvak. “We cannot outrun them, and in any case they will push us into their comrades’ arms.”
“I cannot disagree.” Vokov admitted. “As I see it we must hold them off today then run through them tonight.”
“The scouts say there is a low ridge not far off, I propose we stand there.” Imvak said, condoning Vokov’s assessment.
Everything changed within a the hour. The outer scouts brought back news of the strange camp and the Latii attacked.
The halt area had been brought to alert and quickly then to alarm as Latiian patrols ran into the picquets in strength. Literally running, overheated and tired already, they lacked resolve. Where success was not swift, they ran back, clear of the punishing darts. Where passage was forced right up to the rapidly solidifying lines the hazard and loss were too great. Without exception withdrawal was executed. But Latiian withdrawal only served to facilitate the more orderly retirement of Vokov’s screening forces. It came to an end soon enough as Imvak created the steady line for Vokov to retreat into. Gaunt and grim, with empty stomachs, the Valev waited resolutely for Latii to order itself prior to the inevitable assault.
Supified that he had halted so close to the enemy camp and not known it, Asakdrogii saw the benefit of at least getting food in his soldier’s bellies before taking up the chase again. With the foe so near at hand he was almost guaranteed to catch them today.
“It would seem to be your day Askiitakii.” Asakdrogii told him. “You have an old adversary in your hands and now you will have first crack at breaking this one who you now know.”
“They will be harried and broken I assure you.” Askiitakii half smiled. “As to the old one, I have no interest. He is Hakaramii’s man, not mine.”
“Words.” Okhta spoke, attracting the two’s attention. “For 7thHoiija.”
Askiitakii cocked his head in acknowledgement and to listen.
“Remember Woneii” a pause for still laboured breath “and learn these words if you face my regiment this day.”
No-one could turn away despite the desire to. The little flutter in the heartbeat betrayed the latent fear in each and every person.
“Valev nemova la tsokr.” Okhta concluded slowly, covering the pain.
“I am dissapointed.” Hakaramii said. “I thought you were going to come out with something profound.”
“Learn them.” Ohkta responded. “Valev nemova la tsokr.” Another pause for breath. “You will have need of them.”
“It means?” Askiitakii could not help himself.
“Spare me, in the name of Valev.”
“Hah!” Askiitakii burst out in falsetto laughter.
“Count your dead.” Okhta stated in drawn and broken speech. “Then think on ours. You have barely enough troops for two legions, you will not win.”
“Nice speech V’levii, but you do not shake me. Perhaps we will talk agin when I bring your Imvak’s head back.” With that he was gone.
“Same line up as soon as the troops are fed.” Asakdrogii ordered, mistakenly matching Askiitakii’s mood.
For all that, by the time Asakdrogii was ready, he was eight leagues from the source of action. To get what remained of his division, (for Okhta had been too close to the truth for comfort) into position took until the grey and murky day was well ensconsed. The entire staff had been transposed to a suitable place where the impending battle could be observed.
In a fit of bravado, Hakaramii had brought Okhta along to witness the spectacle whether he liked it or not. Gloating now as he looked up at the ranks on the ridge he jibed, “Look at them! If there are four hundred I will be surprised.”
Okhta said nothing, for he too could see plainly what he already knew. The odds were still heavily stacked against Valev.
Pushing the point Hakaramii said “I think our ‘two legion’s worth’ will suffice, what say you?”
“You have been thrashed at better odds than this before.” Okhta replied to the jibe, somewhat improved but still discomfited by his injuries.
“Setbacks!” Hakaramii retorted. “Hardly thrashings.”
“Call it what you will Kaliimii Hakaramii, We both know the truth.”
“Oddly enough,” Hakaramii mused, “The last time these full forces met as I recall it we had a resounding victory. This is just a tidying up of that loose end.”
“And of Zovan?”
“Ahh,” Hakaramii realised he had been caught. “That is entirely another matter.”
“You only fool yourselves.” Okhta stated flatly, ending the discourse as the first Latiian formations advanced into contact.
Askiitakii’s troops occupied the centre, and they now rushed forward in tight wedges, following the new tactical methods. They suffered horribly in the familiar old way but kept at it. As each group fell or broke, another would be sent charging up the slope to take its place. It was a terrible price to exact for its purpose, that of fixing Valev attention on the centre whilst Rasokii and Amahiid climbed unmolested to take the flanks. Even though the action was plain, Imvak stood his ground.
“It would seem he is not the tactician I had thought.” Asakdrogii commented, turning to Hakaramii, “I expected him to cede the ridgeline at the least.”
Looking back to the fight he beheld a sight beyond belief. Where had stood four hundred, now were six thousand and they no longer stood. Streaming down the ridge like a tidal wave they carried all before them as they broke into voice. Banktov had come.
Askiitakii stood transfixed in disbelief as the wave crested the ridge in front of him. His soldiers did not. They needed no advice on a prudent course of action, and as one beat an undignified and hasty retreat. Even then they could not all evade the immense dart storm sent to ensure such action. Amid a rain of darts and a chaos of running, falling, screaming, panic ridden troops, Askiitakii stood like a rock, unmoving.
No longer capable of lifting a foot, his mouth mindlessly muttering over and over the words “V’leffk nemovii latsock.”
In the speed of the charge, the incantation was nearly missed, but seen rather than heard on his lips. The blade aimed for his heart was turned and a spearhaft struck his groin instead. Doubled over he was knocked down and sent flying by the mass of troops careering down the slope.
Neither Rasokii nor Amahiid fared any better. Both perished in the surging torrent of Surian troops.
“Get out of here.” Asakdrogii spoke grimly to his entourage. “Go west and run for your lives. We will reform as best we can tomorrow and make our plans accordingly.”
“Goodbye my friend.” Hakaramii spoke as Asakdrogii was urging the others to go. “You must go now or they will not. I must stay for I cannot run. This is a sad day but go now or it will not be avenged.”
Asakdrogii’s eyes were filled with tears. “Goodbye Kaliimii Hakaramii, bravest of the brave. My friend. May you live forever.”
“It is in the forever I shall see you next. Now go, lest that be sooner than we think.”
The ‘working woodsman’ approached withstunning rapidity, the repeated chorus plain to Okhta’s ears as Asakdrogii departed.
“Go!” Hakaramii had ordered his minders, Naliimad and Hiimlan.
“No Sire.” Hiimlan spoke for them both. “We have seen none of the lads come back through so we will stay with them, and you.” He was speaking of course of the legion that bound them. 7thHoiija.
Fate would have it that another familiar formation should now burst like a storm tossed sea upon the scene, such that Okhta even recognised some of the faces as they washed past. His cry of “Stop!” was almost lost in the thunder and failed to save Naliimad from the blades of 2ndZandov regiment in time. Perishing soundlessly in a one-for-one life exchange, Hiimlan was set to follow when instead the Surians halted, seeing the Surcoat and reacting to the order. Swiftly encircling the group with their blades threatening and the exhilaration of victorious combat still strong, Okhta chided them. “Go on with you, there are plenty more out there. These ones are mine.” Then turning to Hiimlan, “I think my friends might be more convinced if you disposed of the stabbers.”
They were dropped in disgust at Hakaramii’s look.
Keen to be on, the section marshall, spoke up. “I will leave you two fellows just to be safe. All right?”
“Fine,” agreed Okhta, and two spearmen were delegated to the task. Of a sudden again the grass clearing was still, the Surians gone.
H’miid had been struck down early on, a dart in his upper chest and one in his arm conditioned his removal from the danger zone, though it had not completely incapacitated him. The legion physician had removed the one from his arm and bound the wound when all hell broke loose. Throwing his body over H’miid in protection, the physician saved him from the dartstorm as Omhii stood to ward off physical attack. H’miid watched in awestruck silence as wave after wave rolled by, engulfing Omhii as if he were flotsam.
Alone among the legion commanders, Navodiia managed to stage resistance. He too saw the futility of his position but kept a semblance of order in his fighting retreat. It was bravely done, with frequent mad rushes back to keep the Surians at a respectable distance. Sadly, that was what suited them best, their darts steadily whittling down Navodiia’s numbers. His troops did their best but they were lagging. Tired and dispirited, they could not create enough gap to disengage. The finality of it came to Navodiia and he steeled himself for the end. Exhausted himself, he still managed to draw himself proudly erect. Lacking the time for a morale boosting speech, he shouted only the order to turn and fight. Colliding with Sur, he stuck out, too tired to parry the incisive blades cutting his chest and legs. His limbs and body declined to respond to his will, sending him sprawling, a position which he found himself incapable of correcting. Chest down and head a-cock he could focus on one arm which he could see and feel twitch but was unable to stop. Concentrating hard on the arm, he was unaware that both his breathing and heartbeat had ceased, even as his sight grew dim.
For Naliiman the sensation had been of perfect awareness, an absolute knowledge of his fate and a refusal to degrade it through weakness. An inexorable ticking off of lost facilities on the chalkboard of existence, a peaceful acceptance of the final unmade mark. Nakta had not been granted so detailed a demise, Naliiman’s blow having bluntly severed the cranial link and exploded his brain sac. Both now lay still and lifeless in the bloodied grass.
The mopping up parties found everyone. It was a relatively new idea, that of scouring the area of conflict to bring all the lost and injured together. It took time and resource but did wonders for general morale. To know that you would not be left on your own or among a field of dead all night with just a broken leg made a world of difference. The area of combat had been large, with the Latii scattered, broken into pockets, surrounded and destroyed. A lot had got away, more had not. Those who had been caught had no alternative but to fight, they were not aware of surrender as an option and should it have crossed their minds they did not know how to. Tired and dispirited, they nevertheless in the true Latiian fashion ‘gave it a go’ with mixed results. All terminated in total elimination.
Individuals found who were too weak, too dulled, too confused or just plain unarmed were brought not necessarily too politely to a central location over the ridge where night camp was to be made. It was where Hiimlan and Hakaramii were taken.
Okhta was returned to his regiment, a hero’s welcome and a much needed meal.
Alone among the Latiian survivors Hakaramii still had his wits about him. He had seen it all from, almost, a dispassionate viewpoint. In that he had standing and was emotionally disarate and still lucid he attracted a following. Those able to, gathered around him and listened. He spoke of those gone in reverence, of those in power, in contempt. Of the foe, in respect, of the waste in compassion. Of the future, in hope. Of the survivors, in admiration. Of the army, in pride. Of conflict, in abrogation. Of…
Interrupted politely by Okhta, (having been woken by a purturbed guard) who advised that while he understood, it would ease his superior’s minds if the exhortation was now to sleep. “It can all wait until tomorrow anyway.” Hakaramii demonstrated his diplomatic talents by not only complying but in explanation to his followers both the intrusion and request as rational, reasonable and sensible.
Imvak was full of praise at Banktov’s speed into battle once contact had been established. “I was beginning to think it was all over, that I had misjudged it.” Imvak confessed.
“Hah!” Banktov joked. “You were doing so well I almost did not come!”
“I for one am glad you did.” Vokov returned. “That grass stew was getting to be boring.”
The momentary awkwardness was past. Banktov was now aware that Surian intervention, or lack of it, was a touchy subject. He would be mindful of that in future. Fully briefed on known friendly and enemy dispositions, he sent the Valevers to bed and rest. Conferring with Vissak, Banktov let the Svensans scout out the Latiian remains. He would clear the battlefield and send down to Zovan for news whilst recconoitering the valley. The dead were spread wide and it took well beyond mid day to drag them all into convenient faggoted piles. The collection of wounded the previous evening had given a good idea of the scale of the problem and had minimised hold ups with the discovery of live souls among the corpses. There were still a few here and there. Latii who had been too badly hurt to move and who had been unexpected to last the night but had done so regardless. Left to die the previous evening, they were now made sure of. Sur had neither the inclination or ability to treat them. It was bad enough dealing with the injured and prisoners they had as well as their own wounded.
“What is this? This taking of the Latii?” Banktov queried.
“Information.” Imvak answered. “From prisoners we know their legions, their numbers, their weaknesses and their plans. That information saved us the night before last for instance.”
“So much? But how do get it from them?”
“The same as I would from you. Asking questions.”
“You speak their language.?”
“No but I have people who can.”
“Really? That is interesting. From what you say, all we have to do is count their dead and we shall be able to tell Vissak exactly how many he he is looking for. Is that right?”
Imvak hesitated before answering. “Pretty much.”
“You do not sound so sure.”
“It all depends on how ‘exactly’ you want. My figures are a week old with estimates to now.”
“In other words, you know no more than I could see as I came over the ridge.”
Imvak could not dispute this. Vokov did. “After the count we will be able to tell you how many officers and within a handful how many troops Vissak faces.”
“You are sure of this?” Banktov queried.
Vokov was sure, and so the count was organised to include the collection of all neckware. To be quite sure, Vokov organised that Okhta be present at the counting of prisoners, and indulge in a little subtle interrogation. The required answers did not take long to solicit when the questions were so deviously put.
“4thFiija aren’t you?” As a physician tended a wound. “Any more of your fellows here?”
“Two.” Came the reluctant answer.
“Emperor’s beard! You’re lucky aren’t you. Only the three from, what? Five hundred this morning.”
“Close to.” The abject response.
“Crikey, and all your officers! How many of them are left?”
“Bastards! There was more of them than us it seemed, still had the full compliment all arguing amongst each other and getting us in the shit. Bastards! Not the legion like, he was allright but I saw him go. I just hope the other shits are dead too.”
A few more subjects and a reasonably clear picture emerged. It had not been hard to make associations, like them he still looked battered and bruised. Some were less willing than others to talk, but inevitably let something trivial slip. Trivial to them, another piece of the jigsaw to Okhta.
Vokov’s report to Banktov astounded him. He had thought Vokov’s word were supportive of Imvak and not genuine. Now he actually knew how many troops to within a hand full that Vissak sought, how many officers of each rank survived and even their names! The piles of gorgettes, sorted by legion as corroberation impressed him. If you knew this much of your enemy, how could you fail to run rings around him? That Asakdrogii was still at large with, with some four hundred troops scattered about and five ranking officers was a concern. That all the legion commanders were accounted for was a consolation.
It was however all secondary to the threat which confronted, and who knows, may have taken Pavsk. If Vissak did not have firm leads by nightfall, Banktov decided, he would recall him and take everything he had straight down to Pavsk. There was a small hamlet some six kingspaces off, the wounded and prisoners would be ensconsed there with a guard until he knew what ensued in the valley. Then, all things being equal they would be got to Pav for recuperation. It was a good plan and started well. Vissak had mopped up a few Latii but found no evidence of concentration.
Together, and with Imvak under their wing they went down into the Sur river valley. The scouts had come back excited, Latii were moving up, retiring from Pavsk and in medium strength. Confused, Banktov pondered the information. It did not make sense. The removal was not in haste, nor were there overt signs of pursuit. It was almost as if they had made their point and now they were going home. If there was a point to be made, Banktov was going to be the one who would ram it home.
As he came out of the hills, the Latiian train visibly gained speed. He was half a day behind and knew he would never catch them, even as the first of Zovan’s heralds arrived before him.
Incredulously learning the true state of affairs and assured that the situation at Pav was well under control, Banktov followed Hapatkiiprii through the ruins of Zossky and until he was off Surian lands whilst sending Vokov back to scour the hills and then take the wounded to Pavsk.
A melee of messengers meanwhile scurried in every direction updating all and sundry as to events.
And so it was that in the course of things Latiians came into the heart of Pavsk. Crossing the repaired bridge, Hakaramii entered the town, not in triumph or on the heels of a fleeing foe, but in degredation amid a shuffling line of prisoners. It was not what he expected, and yet it did not surprise him. In his daily contact with Okhta, he had come to realise that these peole had culture and learning. That they had organisation and intelligence had been amply demonstrated on the battlefield. They were very different, but not without merit.
For Okhta’s part, condemned by condition and unique ability to the role of interpreter, he grew to understand the Latii a little better. Never enamoured of them, his treatment in their hands had soured the relationship further. At best brusque, he nevertheless acted on all Hakaramii’s requests. In nominal charge of the encampment, being the highest rank mobile, he reported to Kerank of Svensa who in turn was laid up with a broken foot. The request had been made and sent to Pankov. If he still had them, 10threserves’ carts should be brought up to carry the wounded to Pavsk. He did and they were. Even as food stocks dwindled the carts appeared with fresh and Vokov loaded them for the return. He had found Latiians in ones and twos only too keen to lay down their arms at the sight of offered vittles. Asakdrogii had as he promised, taken the rest to Kiisk. A bare welcome awaited him.
The prisoners had walked. There had only been five, Hakaramii among them, to whom this caused real difficulty. A cart had been made available for this eventuality, but withdrawn. When after half a day, one of the Latii collapsed and then died in the night from fever caused by wound damage, even after over a week of rest, the cart was quickly reproduced.
It had been Vissak’s idea. “Let us show the people just what it is we are standing up to. A few battle scars will not go amiss, but the prisoners must be kept in decent condition otherwise they will think we are having it too easy!”
“And then present them to the King I suppose?” Banktov has returned causticly.
“Now that isa good idea.” Vissak returned.
Banktov did not think so, but could not think of anything better to do with them. His intention had been to hand them back to Zovan at the earliest opportunity. Vissak seemed ready to thwart that idea.
The soldiery in Pav had no desire to see the Latii up close, captured or not. The peole did, to spit on them, for Haiinoda had not gone down easily. Hakaramii had not expected the abuse, but again he was not surprised. Once ensconsed in what plainly served as a stock pen, they were at least protected from the physical aspect of local hatred.
“Be patient.” Hakaramii told his troops. “How would you react if they had brought violence to our towns? Stand firm, they will not murder us and they have to do something. Eventually they will send us home. Just be patient.”
At that time the Surian staff had more pressing things on their minds than what to do about the hundred or so (actually 127) captives in this theatre. Zarkov was not interested in campaigning. He knew full well from previous campaigns that his resources were too small to have any hope of retaining any territorial gain. In his heart he would have liked to re-open the old Pskova road, but that would also mean war with Nul. Despite their defeat, Latiian numbers to his front precluded any thought of widening the conflict. There was therefore nothing to be gain by extending his supply lines. His job was, and must be, to defend Sur. To that extent, his aim was best served by resting the army and extending his patrol line. With care and with the right information he would be better able to deal a more telling blow next time. For come again they surely would.
Labouring under a similar illusion, Ipokalii had reformed his battered army around Kiilijj and feeling confident enough with what was there, advanced his base onto Jokliijj.
“The bastards came right up this road last time, and I’ll lay a tamarat to a pinch of shit they’ll come this way again.” He told Ipnanii. “This is as far as they’ll come though for I intend to fortify this place. I’ll extend active patrols out of course, but my immediate intention is to create an overlapping chain of redoubts here, and then right across the region. Each must be kept in a state of repair and supply such that it can be quickly occupied. A string of advance warning posts shall let us know where they’re coming from and which to use. That way, they’ll not be free to run riot like last time.”
Ipnanii did not like this reminder, and let it show.
“They will be forced into the attempted reduction of each and every redoubt for they won’t dare leave such forces to their rear.” Ipokalii explained. “That will tie them down, give us time to counter and get a lot of them killed. We know from Jojiisk that’s what they’re worst at. Let’s use that knowledge.”
“What you’re telling me,” Ipnanii returned, “Is that you’ve given up! Thrown away any chance of retaking my town. My Jojiisk, this summer.”
“Face facts,” Ipokalii said coldly. “The enemy has a military ascendancy. We are outnumbered and have been bested in the field. There is no reason to think it could not happen again. Now, if Hapatkiiprii turns up a miracle, which I doubt, that will change things. That we have not heard him braying already speaks volumes. Until then, the troops need protection from the darts. Walls are what I see as the best means of that we have.”
Banktov too exhibited caution. True, he had essentially two and a bit land armies (though Zovan would have argued whose was the last) and outnumbered the enemy he knew to have quit the land. He had however seen the state of Valev’s troops. Admiring their spirit, he could not but suspect their capability in extremis, so undernourished were they. This was as good an example he had seen of an army inadequately provisioned. To extend his supply line and risk similar distress was beyond his rationale. That was, unless Zarkov ordered it.
The days wandered idly by, Ipokalii digging, Ipnanii fretting, Zarkov reinforcing, Banktov rebuilding and Hakaramii rotting. Ipnanii’s fretting was interrupted by Hapatkiiprii’s arrival in Jaliia on the 34th. There had been two days warning of the event and both Ipokalii and Ipnanii made sure they were there for it. Overtly congratulative at Hapatkiiprii’s tale, they were both inwardly appalled. What he had brought back or rather it was the twelve legions that he did not bring back that told the true story of the scale of the disaster.
“You cannot possibly go on.” Ipnanii had said. “I have already decided it. Your troops will rest here for two days then move to Kiilijj, there to act as mobile reserve until recovered.”
Hapatkiiprii had objected noisily, but would not disobey a direct order. He had come to Jaliij with the firm intention of passing straight through on his way to Reiija and the Emperor. Ipokalii had put a stop to that. His words to Hapatkiiprii were rejected out of hand.
“You have no jurisdiction over me, or my divisions.” Hapatkiiprii had told him bluntly. “For your failure, do not read my success. Your hole is dug and I for one will not lie in it.”
Stung by the rebuke, Ipokalii’s words to Ipnanii changed that. “He brings back only three legions. But even these will be more use to Jalii and you here than parading in Reiija.” As a sweetener adding, “With them as insurance I may probe the enemy more boldly.”
It was only a crumb, but Ipnanii was hungry. Furious, Hapatkiiprii nevertheless bade his time. In two days his legions would march out. He would march too, but on a different road. Ipokalii was not there to see the deception. More urgent was his time and presence at the defense line. Had he stayed, like Ipnanii, he too would have been fooled, for Hapatkiiprii marched west with his soldiers.
What neither would forsee or witness was the break at Jokiil. There, Hapatkiiprii took an honour guard and struck north. The action was not discovered until his troops entered Kiliij over a day later. It could have been hidden then save that Anahiimad wanted out from under such a botched command and saw it as an opportunity to his ends.
At once pleased at the entreaty to take these three (damaged) legions under his wing Ipokalii immediately understood the political danger he was in. Hapatkiiprii loose in the Emperor’s presence spelt bad news for all but Hapatkiiprii and his supporters. The war could wait. Even if now, he called a trump to secure victory it would be of no avail, for Hapatkiiprii would see him dead. Composing straightway letters to both Emperor and Ipnanii, Ipokalii could not but be concerned for the safety of himself and his nation.
The nature of the association gave Hakaramii the means he sought. His only link with the Surian authority was via the interpreter Okhta. That the fellow had intelligence and, even though foreign to Latiian teaching, compassion, served extremely well. Still in the animal pen he had achieved the supply of tentage, food, water and the services of a physician.
Miihad, H’miid’s doctor had survived, but could not work without his kit and until his wounds were better healed, though that did not stop him doing his ‘rounds’. Nor, in fact, touring the compound in the wake of the Surian physician Osmita, making comment and assuring the Latiian patients of the skill and care they were receiving. He was truthfully pleased at the level of medical attention received right from the start, witnessing that it was not lacking in quality, merely diligence when compared to that afforded to Surian troops. This reflection was passed to Hakaramii and through Okhta to Zovan, together with the suggestion that a provision of medicines to Miihad would ease the Surian physics’ workload. The idea was sound but Osmita wanted to be sure of the Latiian’s skill level before handing over preparations.
A dialogue was set up between the two, Okhta interpreting, which swiftly established Miihad’s credentials but continued at a frantic pace as they compared notes, remedies, treatments, techniques and knowledge. The disciplines of their calling reached across the racial divide and it was not long before the two were inseperable, and calling with increasing frequency upon Okhta’s services for interpretation. Osmita sought and gained permission for Miihad’s passage among the populace for his knowledge of diseases and their counters was, in Osmita’s experience, unparallelled.
As a bynote to this, Okhta too found common ground, for Miihad had been one of the fortunate few permitted to study at the Centre for Bodily Comprehension- Research Applications Wing- Samegei Institute of Cultural Advancement in Varlan.
“The fellow’s genuine.” Miihad told Hakaramii. “He describes it the way only someone who has been there could. But why or how he got there Emperor knows, for I worked my arse off and even then I was extremelylucky to get a place there. That was fifteen years ago. It would be impossible now of course, for you have to cross Mides and the borders are closed to us.”
“That is not what I asked, but it is interesting anyway. Now tell me, what’s the fellow’s standing? Why is he only Quarturion equivalent?”
“Not even that sire. Debatably a suqadric, but it’s hard to reference our lower rank structure with theirs.” Miihad then attempted to explain what he had discovered about Surian society and the army that protected it, for sense could not be made of one without understanding the other.
“What you’re telling me,” Hakaramii queried, “is that a third of their population is a sub class. Menials, with no standing, whatever their abilities, and these are whom we have been fighting?”
“In essence, that is correct sire. Even Osmita, the physic is servile to the other two classes.”
“Emperor preserve us!” H’miid, who had joined the conversation muttered. “They deserve to be obliterated.”
“I think,” Hakaramii responded, “that has been the mode of thought prevalent in Jalii, but someone has seriously underestimated the difficulty of it.”
“It’s not a fair assessment either.” Miihad put in.
Both looked directly at him, eyebrows high in question.
“At first I grant you, it seems all wrong here. They’re an inferior race. Stunted, haphazard, ugly, foul sounding and with weird social and organisational attitudes. For all that, they’ve given us a run for our money. Look around, are they ourcaptives? Would we take captives? Does that make us weaker or stronger, and if the weaker, do we not deserve to lose?”
“Never!” H,miid cried. “We shall never succumb!”
“I am not so sure of that.” Miihad stated. “I have this feeling that they will continue to win until we take a leaf from their book.”
“Exactly!” Hakaramii said. “A new deployment, more weight and speed into the attack. Better organisation.”
“Yes!” H’miid chorused.
“No.” Miihad countered. “That may help, but we must study them, understand them. Know their strengths and weaknesses, just like they have done and are doing with us. Only then will we beat them.”
“What do you mean?” Hakaramii asked, “Studying us?”
“Why do you think they have us here?” Miihad asked. “Look at Askiitakii. Once a proud legion commander, now a mental wreck. All done by words. Clever words that broke his legion behind him. That’s what playing a weakness does. Taking a commander and convincing him of lies.” Looking pointedly at Hakaramii, “Then making making sure he gets back to spread them. That’s understanding your enemy.”
“I resent that!” Hakaramii spat.
“Sire!” Miihad defended, moderating. “Think on it. Why did they take you? Why did they ‘engineer’ your return to us? How much effort did that take? What did you tell us of them on your return?”
Hakaramii thought. “Emeror’s beard.” He slowly exhaled at length. “I think you might be right Miihad. Askiitakii posed the same scenario and I had put it behind me. They learned nothing from me, I know it. I was so mindful of my words, and more than once they exposed my lies with what they already knew. It was all what I learned of them. I was duped. It was all lies.”
“Do not feel bad.” Miihad consoled. “We have all been fooled. Being allowed out and about I have been able to see some truths. We have come to this not by martial skill, but by guile. Male to male we have the edge. Army to army we should pulverise them. The difference is we have valour and honour. They use trickery.”
“Yes!!” H’miid put in. “You have it!”
“How then can we use this knowledge to our best advantage?” Hakaramii pondered.
“Play for time.” Came the answer. “Whatever is needed, we must ensure our return so to start the change.”
“The answer is to convince them we will broker a peace.”
“A treaty of non-aggression. Promise them we will not attack again.”
“Why should they want that? In their position I’d tell you to stuff your peace!”
“But we are not they. I’d do the same, but I think they are afraid of us and their intent was to teach us a lesson. Otherwise they’d have been on the offensive long before now. Last year even. All we do is make them think we learned the lesson.”
“Even if we do, what’s in it for them?”
“Haven’t they got that now?”
“True, but for how long? Do you think we will leave the situation as it is? Do you really think the Lord of Jalii will be content with them holding his lands?”
“No of course not, So why pretend we will?”
“Because we’ve just got our asses kicked and they could do it again if they want to. If we can convince them it’s enough, then we can come back next year or the one after that with a retrained army and commanders who understand the tactics of these people. Then we kick their arses!”
“Yes!!” H’miid exulted.
“Hold!” Hakaramii cautioned. “But Miihad, you were saying we make a treaty.”
“That’s dishonourable! The Emperor will never do it.”
“When we, sorry Sire, when you tell him of their tricks, he’ll see that they do not understand honour. Then he will do it, for it’s no dishonour to kill kraii with your teeth.”
Hakaramii half nodded, thinking it through. H’miid was grinning, ear-to-ear and that became contageous.
Okhta was not fooled for a moment. Despite the Latiian’s efforts to disguise their intents, they were not actors and the changed attitude of the select band broadcast itself as if shouted from the rooftops. Osmita was not so quick to notice for when caught up in his work, Miihad had not altered. But taking note of Okhta’s warning, saw the change for himself and confirmed it to Zovan.
“Time to send them home?” Imvak questioned?
“I think so.” Zovan answered. “Though Vissak and Zarkov may object. But they’ve seen enough now to get their tongues wagging. Any longer and they might see answers too soon.”
“Tomorrow then?” Imvak came back. “I will have Vokov move them out to the border region. I just hope it all goes right after then.”
There had been sporadic fighting between opposing patrols as they probed the boundaries of the now less well-defined frontier. Each side had its share of minor victories and disasters, Askdrogii’s among them as he walked his tired rag tag band straight into 2ndPavan Regiment. He had first plundered a hill hamlet, but failed to prevent a solitary escapee. It was his doom, for Sur then knew of his exact presence and took appropriate steps to eradicate it. He and his troops received the same mercy he had shown to the hamlet’s occupants. None.
In the north, Zarkov came up against Ipokalii’s solid line and stopped. Here at least a figurative mark had been made upon the ground. Neither side was keen to step over it, though both continued to check the other’s willingness to stand on it. To the south, Banktov’s controlled advance went at first unchecked but even here resistance stiffened as Asmii’s 3rdDivision moved up into position. A status quo was reached, with neither commander assured enough with their troop numbers to force the other’s hand.
It was thus when Vokov brought 10thRR through Banktov’s Zodovers, together with his Latiian charges. The two had discussed the best means and location to effect the hand-over, agreeing on at first an entrapment of a respectable, but not over-sized patrol. Holding them with dialogue from Okhta and then bringing the prisoners up. It was not easy, for to ensure the Latii came out in numbers enough to cope and therefore with a senior enough officer, a pre-ambush had to be made.
Carefully executed so to ensure there were survivors who would run away, the pre-ambush worked like clockwork. Conducted entirely by darters at more than three times the number of the patrol, and giving the Latii an obvious exit route, no Surian suffered so much as a scratch. To the Latii, it was if the Sur had shot their bolt too quickly, for only four went down. It did not need more to convince them of the most sensible option.
The best thing about Latiians was their predictability. Next day, sure as the sun rises, came a double strength patrol with a Quarturion in command. Prepared for trickery and ambush, they missed the obvious. Again the required odds were in excess of three to one and in that terrain it was not possible to hide those numbers. In deployment, Vokov did not try. The landscape there was gently undulating, in cultivation (Latiian cultivation) and quite open. Vokov had selected his ground the previous evening and moved the troops in at dawn. In place they were instructed to lie down and stay so until called. A squad of best runners was then selected to lay actual ambush. This again was botched, the darts thrown too soon.
When amushed, there are two options dependant upon opposing strength and proximity. Either get out or go in. Quarturion Osmii could see the dart fall, knew his numbers and ability and chose the better of the two, Go in!
He had in fact briefed the patrol squadric again only that morning on the procedures. The troops executed them flawlessly. Unfortunately the Surians too had been well briefed on their expected action. When Osmii crashed into the bush line that had hidden the ambushers, they were gone. Not far off and running for their lives, Osmii could see them and they were very catchable. Mindful that they could suddenly reform, Osmii nevertheless shouted out for the charge. A tenpace from the nearest one, Osmii suddenly became aware they were not alone.
“Oh Shiit!” He exhaled, lofting his stabbers to halt his troops. “Stop!” he screamed, “Stop!”
The squadron shuddered to a halt alongside him, quickly deploying into double staggered line.
“Too close.” He thought. “But they haven’t got me yet.”
Just out of dart range, the escaping Surians were running into their own lines, which parted to let them through. Annoyed, Osmii looked around. He could get out. Straight back at the run and they might do it, puffed as they were from the chase. Might. “Ahh, fuck it!” He spat, “Close and carry!” No need to look, the sound told him his troops had formed ready for the charge again.
“Ready?” he asked himself, “Yes!” he answered.
“Hold hard Quarturion!” The call had come from the Surians! Emerging from their ranks came a Divisional Commander.
“What trickery is this?” Osmii asked, again of himself. “Stagger up!” he called, returning his force to a defensive formation.
Limping, and escorted by Okhta, Hakaramii advenced to within speaking distance.
“Before you, stands Kaliimii Hakaramii, Divisional Commander in the Latiian army of Dewa.” Okhta spoke loud. “It is not the way of Sur to execute the stricken and helpless. Thus we have a number of your injured soldiers to return to your care. Hakaramii will testify that I speak the truth.”
“It is so.” Hakaramii said none too happily, nor convincingly.
“We ask that you now stand and receive them.” Okhta continued, “accept our offer and we shall have them brought up. It will not take long.”
Osmii hesitated, the concept was beyond him but he struggled with the realities. “What if I say no?” He queried.
“You all die needlessly.” Okhta returned.
“And you, arrogant little Sur shit!”
“It is possible, but I doubt it.” The assured reply came as quick as a flash.
“Close up.” Osmii growled angrily.
Okhta lifed his right hand. As the Latii closed, two darts whistled through the sky, plummeting to earth ecactly bracketing Osmii’s line. He blanched. He had thought himself to be out of range. Not only was that not the case, but he was now targeted to the extent that the arrogant little shit did not have to move. His shoulder greaves and gorgette might save him long enough to gut the dwarf but he, Osmii, would certainly not take any more with him and his troops would be annihilated. There was after all, no way out, save receiving the prisoners of course, so why not?
The hand-over completed, 10thRR simply quit the field. They just turned and walked away. Osmii would not contest it, his thoughts were elsewhere. Every-one that had come to him bore scars. Osmii’s problem was in contemplating those who’s scars did not show. So distracted was he, by Askiitakii in particular, that Hakaramii had to remind him of his duties.
“Leave it from your mind.” He told Osmii. “He is broken as surely as he were struck around the head. Time will heal the wound, dwell too much upon it and you too open yourself to such a blow. Think now of the surest way to legion lines, for well tended these fellows are, they will not benefit from marching or camping out yet.”
Osmii set to his task, but his mind could not let go. Only he knew how close he had already come to Askiitakii’s fate, and how fearful he was that one-day he too would succumb.
Watching from afar as the Latii moved away, Vokov spoke to Okhta. “That was well done. I personally thank you for your efforts. I know Zovan appreciates what you have enabled, even if he has not said such to you.”
“It is my duty.” Okhta returned. Improperly healed, he was tired and not given to speech making.
“Come.” Vokov assented, sensing Okhta’s mood. “I just wonder if it works, If the maggot will really infect the barrel.”
The offer came, not to Valev but to Sur, and that far quicker than could have been forseen. Zarkov was completely surprised by it. With no inkling that such a possibility were even conceivable, let alone conceived, he nevertheless grasped it foresquare. That it was he and not Zovan who sat at the conference ground was Ipokalii’s doing. “To treat with Asakdrogii’s victor would be to lend credence to Hapatkiiprii’s tale.” He told Hakaramii. “They are but a minor part of the whole and it is only the whole with whom I would deal.”
The Emperor’s words had spurred action. Ipokalii must stabilise the region by the most expedient means, and that right soon, for Mides was once more at large and all spareable troops must make haste to that front. Jalii could wait. With the enemy at the Capitals door, everything else could wait. Hakaramii’s proposal was an apt and timely solution.
The treaty was a sham. It had taken a mere four days to thrash out, the Latiian delegation (lacking Ipnanii) conceding with reckless abandon every minor issue Zarkov lay before them.
The only sticking point was the flat refusal to cede more territory. Zarkov could hardly believe it, but that did not stop him sending the draft to the King for ratification.
The King in turn was pleased. It seemed indeed that the lesson had been well rammed home. That no clause promising future non-aggressin existed did not trouble him. It was debatable whether the Latii could be trusted to abide by it, and anyway he was confident that should it occur, there would be enough warning and Sur could cope. What is more, it opened the way for the possibility of Surian territorial gain at some point.
What had eluded both Zarkov and the King was the only thing that Ipnanii could clutch at for his sanity. Active redress was not merely a concept, but a positive policy. He might have to wait a year or two, but Jalii would again be an expanding region with Jojiisk his town. Latii would not blunder again, the lesson was truly learned.
The document itself was signed in both its Surian and Latiian forms on a fine summer’s day. (3rd day of LateSummer for Sur, 41stof sector 2 for Latii) Neither King nor Emperor was present, or indeed signatory. Zarkov took that dubious honour in the King’s stead. Ipokalii inscribed in lieu of the Emperor. Both left the table with what each saw as a historic and valuable document.
The very next day, the Legions were on the move north. It took five days before any Surian re-organisation and twice that before the VCSD was relieved and moving homeward. Even then Zarkov had made special provision for the extraction, as some measure of recompensation for the debt Sur owed. He had at first found it hard to believe the events on his right wing, but reliable witness had confirmed it beyond any doubt. Latii had been prevented from executing what would most certainly have been a truly cataclysmic blow. That a force half the size he had faced had been rendered impotent by a single land army was a feat of astounding proportion and one that should, in his opinion, not go unrecognised. Thus while freeing the VCSD from action, he personally requested its leader’s presence with himself at the Kings side. The wish was reinforced by his physical presence, Zarkov routing to Riga via Posk for that specific purpose. Zovan could not congenially refuse, and took Imvak as the hero of the day with him. The three swept out of Povsk with an honour guard amid cheers from the crowds for their commanders’ victory.
The job of getting the troops home fell on the shoulders of Imnak Vasiakva, High Chief of Vasny and commander of a merged line regiment, or at least the remains of it, for like the army as a whole it was badly depleted. There were no cheering crowds to see them off when Vasiakva marched the VCSD homeward, merely a small deputation headed by Banktov who had come too late to meet with Zarkov and was quietly appalled at the choice for recognition. He had seen the Valev manouvering before campaign start and knew too well where the real inspiration lay. He had thought of searching out the ‘cookmenial’, now high controller. It would have been easy, he knew well enough the signs, even the regiment number. But what was the use? What could he say? Nothing that would have meaning or value, nothing that would change anything. No point then.
The futility of it all was strong in Banktov’s mind as he stood and watched an army march home. A shattered remnant of its former self, but still a proud and strong army. An army that had stood for Sur, that had laid down its life for a friend.