8 Seresstine, continued
A wall of fire sprang up just where the mages were, burning hot and yellow, and then there was a lot of screaming, not just from the mages—there weren’t enough of them for us to hear them over the noise of the battlefield—but from the several ranks of soldiers in front of them who turned to see where the heat came from, then stumbled in their haste to get away from it. The mages’ horses thrashed about, and burning bodies fell to the earth and out of our sight.
“Dismiss it, and let’s see what’s left,” I said, and the fire flickered out. Not a single mage was still mounted. Crazed horses bucked and ran, trampling more soldiers and making the rear of the enemy army look like a riptide had torn it apart. The effect was spreading forward as more soldiers turned to see what was going on, until it reached the place where our soldiers were fighting theirs, and even I could see the tide turning against the enemy.
More fires erupted, a little smaller this time. “Find your targets, and attack independently,” I shouted, and then rocks and even small trees were hurtling through the air toward the enemy mages. I couldn’t see much of anything except a glimpse, now and then, of a scorched white robe, but it seemed the other mages didn’t have the same problem. The fires went out. No new ones arose.
“Take a rest,” I said, and we all sat down for a minute. Still no new fires. “Time for new targets,” I said. “Remember what the General said—mages first, then the officers. Let’s see how well they do when they don’t have direction.” I felt a wicked pleasure at doing to them what they’d done to us, but didn’t have time to indulge it, because I had to follow my own orders.
That was when it got long and brutal. My instructions were to continue attacking until we were too exhausted to manifest pouvra or they started running, and neither of those things happened for a while. Paddrek was wounded somewhere in the middle there, and I had to force those soldiers back with fire because everyone else was either focused on their own attacks or waffling in a corner—no, that’s unfair, the spies weren’t trained for combat, and what could they have done that wouldn’t get them killed as well? They made sure we had plenty of water, and helped with the wounded, and took Paddrek to the surgeon’s tent, and I’m glad they were there.
Then the sound of the battle changed. I haven’t been in many battles—well, no battles, really, but I’ve been close enough that I could tell the moment when one side starts to flee. That was our signal to sit down and rest while the soldiers pursued the enemy. Not very far, I think, because we weren’t sure how far the main army had come and nobody wanted to run into them. I think I fell asleep, because it only seemed like seconds before I was being prodded to get up and return to camp.
The soldiers were making a lot of noise, shouting and cheering, with women’s voices rising above theirs. It felt like a celebration, but one I was on the outside of. Not that I wasn’t happy we’d won, I just felt worn out and empty. I think most of that was having used so many pouvrin in so relatively short a time, but it also felt a little like how I feel after I learn a new pouvra, kind of flat, as if nothing interesting will ever happen again.
But I smiled and accepted congratulations. All of us mages were heroes today, especially among those who’d seen the destruction outside Binna and those who’d been on the periphery of the enemy mages’ attacks. I didn’t tell them we’d been successful largely because they hadn’t known to expect us. Many of the enemy soldiers escaped to run back to the God-Empress and would certainly tell what they’d seen, and even if the Castaviran mages didn’t know what to expect from us, they’d definitely know to be prepared with defensive kathanas.
That makes me sound more discouraged than I am. The mages worked well together and independently, and didn’t panic when they saw they’d killed someone, and the spies had been useful, and much as I grieve over Paddrek, it’s true our casualties could have been far worse. Everyone else was just as cheerful over dinner, cheerful enough that I didn’t give them the “let’s not celebrate too soon” speech I’d been working on. Time enough for that tomorrow morning.
I just got back from talking to Mattiak, who behaved exactly as if nothing awkward had ever happened between us. He congratulated me and the mages, said something about how effective they’d been, and then said, “It’s going to be harder next time, you know.”
“I know,” I said. “When will that next time be? Soon?”
“We’ll encounter the main body of their army in a day or so,” Mattiak said. “But there may be conflict sooner than that if they have more divisions coming up from the southeast, flanking the army. We have four companies spread out in that direction with instructions to send runners back immediately if they encounter the enemy.”
“Will they attack if they do?” I said.
“Better for them to retreat and draw them out, away from the security of the other troops,” he said. “If we have to fight a battle on two fronts, which I think we won’t, we’ll want to crush one of those forces quickly and see if we can’t turn that attack back on them. If that happens, your mages are going to be key to that defeat.”
I said, “They’ll be ready. Even the spies.”
“I may have a different purpose for them this time,” he said, “depending on what news Nessan and his men bring back.”
“You could have sent us to spy on the G—the enemy’s forces,” I said.
“Time enough for that,” he said cryptically, and that seemed to be the end of the conversation. I wanted to hurry away before it became intimate, so naturally I tripped over my stool and fell. Mattiak helped me up with a smile that said he was thinking about flirting with me again, which flustered me, and I almost ran out of his tent and to my own.
I thought I was going to be able to handle him, but that was when I thought all I had to worry about was an attempt at physical intimacy, which I still don’t think he’s going to try. No, it’s those intimate glances, the meaningful smiles, everything he doesn’t say that nevertheless speaks volumes. It makes me feel so uncomfortable because he wants something from me he’s never going to get, and I wish he could understand that. I wish we’d never become friends. A professional relationship would be so much better for both of us.