10 Seresstine, too early
I’m so tired I can barely see to write, but I feel obligated to record everything that happened, for Rutika’s sake if nothing else. After I finished that last entry, I sat with the mages and talked tactics, and had dinner, and it was all boring and wonderful. Especially since Mattiak didn’t send for me.
But just as we were finishing our dinner, Nessan showed up and grabbed my arm and marched me away. I slid free and said, “What the hell are you doing?”
“You didn’t tell me you’d been in the enemy camp at Calassmir,” he said.
“Why would you care?” I said.
“Because we’ve found something we don’t understand,” he said, “and you might be able to explain it.”
I felt a moment’s irrational fear that I’d been discovered, then reminded myself he couldn’t be talking about my secret knowledge of the God-Empress. “What is it?” I said.
“Come with me,” he said, and walked away without either grabbing me again or waiting for me to follow. I had to jog to keep up with him.
We went to his tent—not his personal tent, the place from which he directs his spies. It’s dark and smells of mildew and the roof leaks, and it’s the most slovenly tent I’ve seen in the Balaenic Army camp, but he seems to like it. He’s got a table that’s as elderly as the tent that’s always covered with scraps of paper, some of it dirty, but what he showed me was a charcoal sketch on clean white paper. “Did you see any of these in Calassmir?” he demanded.
I nodded. It was a war wagon, if somewhat distorted and out of proportion. “I’ve heard they’re like giant rifles,” I said.
“Right. Some kind of projectile, anyway,” he said. “They shoot balls that fragment on impact and turn everything in a five-foot radius to paste. And their range is beyond even what your warrior mages can reach, which makes them safe from fire or mind-moving. The bastards have fifteen of these they’re going to turn on us just as soon as they get them into position. Looks like they weigh more than a ton, and they don’t have horses pulling them.”
“How do you know that?” I said.
Nessan crumpled the paper and tossed it at the wall, where it rebounded and fell into a dirty patch (no rugs for Nessan, he’d probably think them a sign of weakness). “That they’ll attack?” he said. “We can’t fight in the dark any more than their soldiers can, but those weapons are like a drunk man swinging a club—doesn’t have to be accurate, just has to be close. So they can mark a target spot before the sun goes down and just keep lobbing those projectiles into our camp. If they start pounding on us with those things, we either have to advance or retreat, and they’re counting on us not wanting to advance into true God knows what kind of nighttime combat. So they’re going to force us to retreat, which loses us our position, gives us no chance to rest, and puts us in a weakened position when morning comes and they can pursue us.”
“You want to know how to destroy them,” I said.
“You’re smarter than you look,” he said with the twist of his lips that passes for a wry smile with him. “Disable them, if we can’t outright destroy them. And soon.”
I didn’t even hesitate. “I got a good look at them, because I was curious,” I said, which was one hundred percent true. “You know their mages have to draw on those boards to work magic, right? Well, these things have a sort of plate with a, um, design or picture or something just like the ones they draw on their boards. I think they paint over the lines to make the magic work and fire the projectiles.” That was fifty percent guess, because those th’an might be to make it move, but they’re different enough from the ones on the collennas I’ve seen that it was a guess I felt comfortable with.
“Interesting, but not totally helpful,” Nessan said. “Didn’t you see any weaknesses we can exploit?”
“That is the weakness,” I said. “If we damage that plate, the, um, picture won’t be accurate anymore, and the thing won’t work. Smash it, gum up the lines with rocks or something, tear the whole thing off. It’s not easy, but it’s simple.”
Nessan had begun looking into the distance past my shoulder as I spoke. He was silent for a few seconds when I finished, then said, “Get the wallowers (this is what he affectionately calls our spies) and meet me at the southern picket line in ten minutes. Tell them to dress for speed, not warmth. No flapping coats, understand?”
“Since this is not my first time doing this, of course I do,” I mock-snarled at him, and he returned the expression.
The spies were excited when I told them to get ready, and we reached the picket line two minutes early, about half an hour before sunset. Nessan was there exactly at the ten minute mark. He sneered at us, which is another way he shows approval, along with insults and sarcasm, though he’s not as good at the latter as Cederic is. He was lugging a big canvas sack that clanked when he dropped it on the frozen ground in front of us. He didn’t look winded, but his breath was coming more quickly, making little puffs of white when he exhaled. That should have warned me. I was stupid not to remember there are so many ways you can be detected that have nothing to do with sight.
But reproaches aren’t going to change the past. Nessan dug into his bag and began handing things out: claw hammers, sacks of sticky mud that on inspection turned out to actually be wet clay, big metal tent spikes, and chisels. He explained what I’d told him about the th’an plates on the war wagons, then added, “We don’t know what will work best to disable them, so you’ve got options. You’ll work in pairs.
“Alessabeka and Rutika, you’re going to circle around to the north, and Tobiak and Relania, to the south. Sesskia and I will drive up the middle. One of you distracts the operators—there’s only two to a weapon, one to load, one to work the magic—and the other disables it. Get as many of them as you can, then pull out before they get their mages involved.” He sighed, and a whole cloud of white mist blew from his lips. “This is what you trained for. Make me proud.”
to be continued…