We’re camped near the destroyed crossroads where the Royal Road intersects with that Castaviran highway, and you can feel the excitement, because we picked up the God-Empress’s trail. It’s excitement tempered with anger, though, because the news came from men who escaped the slaughter near Binna, and Mattiak looked grim when he found out about it.
I wasn’t there when the soldiers arrived, but Mattiak sent for me to come to the command tent before he let the soldiers tell more of their story than the basics: their division, the one that went east, encountered part of the God-Empress’s army, there was a vicious battle, and our division was routed, though not without inflicting terrible casualties on the enemy. The soldier who repeated all this for me looked terrible. His head and left leg were bloody, and he and his two companions were filthy and exhausted. All three of them were sitting on camp stools looking like men who’d been defeated, which they had been, but it was more than that—they looked completely demoralized.
“Start at the beginning now, Corporal,” Mattiak said. “When did you first see the enemy, and where?”
“We’d just passed Binna—Major only stopped long enough to talk to the elders and see if they’d seen anything of the invading army. Which they hadn’t,” the corporal said. “Then our outriders found theirs. They ran, and we followed, came over a rise and saw them. The invading army.”
“So they were headed west when you encountered them?” said Mattiak.
The corporal nodded. “Captain said we were in a good position and we outnumbered them, and our company was going to move around to the north to attack their flank, try to circle them.” He coughed, hard, looked like he wanted to spit but swallowed instead.
“Our front line crashed into theirs—they don’t fight like we do, got strange swords and knives ‘stead of fighting with sword and shield—but we were doing all right. And then…” He shuddered. “That was when the fire started. Lots of big fires, actually, all over the place, but mostly in a line that cut our front lines off from the rear. Then the officers’ horses started screaming and rearing up like they was being stung all over by horseflies the size of a man’s head. Lot of officers just fell. Some of ‘em were crushed underfoot. Signalman sounded the advance for us, and I swear, General, we didn’t back down.”
“I believe you,” Mattiak said. “Go on.”
He coughed again, and I reached around for a flask of water and gave it to him. He was so miserable he didn’t even react to my having used the mind-moving pouvra to do it. He swallowed, passed the flask to his comrade, and said, “We cut into their flank pretty deep. They’re fierce fighters, but they depend on that knife to do the killing while the sword keeps the other man busy, and they didn’t know what to do with our shields. So we were thinking their evil magic wasn’t enough to save them…
“I heard Captain start to shout something that was cut off in the middle, and I looked up because he was right near and saw his face was gray and he had his hand to his throat, like he couldn’t breathe. Then he just fell. And more of our officers fell. Then a man next to me…I couldn’t do anything for him. We were still fighting, but now they had the advantage, and there wasn’t anyone to tell us what to do. It was down to my sergeant, and he told us to fall back toward the main army just before he went down too.”
“Did you see what happened to the rest of the army?” General Kalanik said.
The soldier shook his head. “Not until they were running too. We didn’t know what else to do. Can’t fight magic. The fire, and the choking, and big rocks flying through the air to sweep a line of men and smash them to bloody pulp. We couldn’t do anything else.” He was pleading, and I wondered if he was afraid he’d be in trouble for escaping what sounded like an impossible situation. But Mattiak didn’t look like he was in a mood to blame anyone but the Castavirans.
“You did right, Corporal,” he said. “No sense all of you getting killed and leaving no one to pass the word. Thank you all for your service. Go see the camp surgeon now.”
The three men saluted (the Balaenic salute is two fingers to the forehead and a shallow bow at the waist, deeper the higher the rank of the man you’re saluting) and left the tent. Mattiak sighed and said, “That’s not the way I hoped to find our enemy.”
“They’re headed this way, sounds like,” General Drussik said. He waved his pipe around, gesturing the way he did when he was feeling some strong emotion. “But where’s the rest of their army?”
“Could be that division was coming here to slow us down while the main army rips eastward through Balaen,” General Kalanik said.
“But there’s nothing there,” General Bronnok said, sounding frustrated. “Garwin’s much farther south and Barrekel is four weeks east across nothing but plains. And they’d have to cross the Myrnala.”
“What if they’re going to one of their own cities?” I said, unable to be more specific, but thinking If they overrun Colosse and then being unable to finish that thought.
That made them all look thoughtful. “Could be anything there,” Kalanik said. “And we haven’t gotten news from the heartland for six weeks. If they’ve got more troops out there….”
Mattiak stood to pace. “We have to pursue,” he said. “If they have more forces out east, we might not be able to defeat their combined army. We have to catch them before they get too far.”
“We need more information,” Drussik said. “We might be running into a trap.”
“We can’t afford to wait that long,” Kalanik said.
“I can find out,” I said.
to be continued…