Chapter 1: On the March
Richard Taylor watched his fellow sergeant sink to the ground a few feet from him and warm his hands at the fire. It was bizarre how the desert could scorch bare skin when the sun was up, and freeze it when the sun went down.
Richard wasn't tall but he was well built, in his mid-twenties. He had thick brown hair, brown eyes and wore what the other sergeant wore: a leather vest over a spun cotton tunic, breeches with a belt around his middle, and a bronze sword hanging from his belt.
He waved a chicken leg at his friend. "Sergeant Hoi?"
Hoi looked like he'd swallowed an old pickle, too long in the alum. He was an older man, his face seamed with scars and was physically large, but there wasn't an ounce of fat on him. For all of that, Sergeant Hoi moved with the quick litheness of a man twenty years his junior and a hundred pounds lighter.
Around them the camp was quiet. It was well after dark and there were only a few fires still burning. Most of the troops were sleeping, exhausted after the sixty-third day of the march.
"They've called a Soldier's Council, Dickie," Sergeant Hoi reported. He glanced at Richard. "They wasn't goin' to invite ya."
"I hope they all still have their teeth," Richard said, trying to sound concerned.
Sergeant Hoi chuckled. Richard Taylor was always worried about people's teeth. Obsessed he was, about teeth. As a boy Richard's grandmother, who had raised him, had bad teeth and had given the boy no end of troubles because of her discomfort.
"No problems that I know of with their teeth, Dickie. We explained that it was you who was giving them the warning. There were a few reluctant ones, but they came around when we explained this and that."
Sure, Richard Taylor was concerned about teeth. Bash heads, noses, ears ... split a lip? An eyebrow? A skull? Not a problem where Richard Taylor was concerned. Leave the teeth intact and you were home free. Applying yourself to solve a problem, within Richard Taylor's parameters, was a veritable piece of cake.
"Well," Richard said, trying not to sound as pleased as felt, "perhaps we should go see what they have to say."
Richard and a half dozen of the other Corean sergeants walked from their fire, to a fire well off to one side of the main camp.
Stopping just inside the ring of light, Richard looked at Hoi, who nodded. "I put our own pickets out, Dickie. Half looking in, half looking out. Double pickets. The colonel is dead drunk in his tent."
The senior headquarters sergeant, Sergeant Major Innis, appeared from the direction of the fire, a jack of ale in his hand. He looked Richard up and down. "Big man," Innis said, derisorily.
Richard laughed as he stepped towards the fire. "I'm five eight. The only time I'm big is in bed with a willing girl."
Most of the two dozen men around the fire laughed.
"You think because you was once an officer, that you're better'n us," Innis went on.
This time Richard didn't laugh. "A clever man like you should know how long they let me keep that little bauble on my collar. Not very damn long." Most things about Richard Taylor were average, but not so his eyes. The hazel orbs almost glowed in the firelight.
"And so, why should we listen to a busted officer?" Innis sneered.
Richard was patient. "They took it from me because I sassed a fat colonel who wanted a lot of dead men to show how brave he was ... fetching ice for the palace. Six men died on that trip up the mountains, but not one of them was one of mine.
"Now we have another fat colonel, here with us."
"Drunk," one of the headquarters sergeants volunteered. "He was drunk before the noon halt. He's been drunk ever since. I don't want to go into Harn lands with a drunk in charge. I got a wife and kids, back home. I want to see them again."
Hoi stood up. "I was there. I was there when King Hadrian thought he'd won the biggest battle of his life. I saw Dickie rally us. Hell, I was standing next to him, holding our damn banner. I had to swat a lot of flies to keep it! I did though! And Dickie did what he had to do, and Hadrian had to flog his horse away from the battle to stay alive.
"Damn right they made him an officer! Never was a man who deserved it more! We ain't never been south before, but we Coreans, we know Richard Taylor! You're damn fools if you don't listen to him!"
Sergeant Major Innis looked at Richard, with no expression in his eyes. "So, Sergeant Taylor. What do you say?"
"I say, we either fight as one, or we all die separately. Like him," Richard waved at the sergeant who spoke of his family, "I have reasons I want to go home. Those pale, though, compared to the duty I undertook when I asked these men to come with me. I'm going to take them all home. Every damn man, so help me! And if I can't do that, why, I'm going to make whoever tries to stop me, regret it. You wouldn't want to be part of that, Sergeant Major."
"If you think I'm going to support Colonel Danna, you're wrong," the sergeant major told Richard. "He is a drunk," he waved at his fellow headquarters sergeant. "You're wrong about Danna. The last thing he does before he goes to bed at night is drain his cup. The first thing he does in the morning is fill it again and drain it. I doubt if he's been sober since he was a cornet.
"And you're different?" The sergeant major jerked his thumb at Richard.
Richard grinned. "You bet! We Coreans are a melancholy lot! One reason for that is that earlier today we found a man staked to the ground about two miles west of the march route. A dispatch rider from Fort South, I expect. It wasn't prairie dogs that skinned him alive and left him alive for the bugs to eat."
The sergeants had been listening, all curious. Even so, there were muted comments and conversations. That all stopped.
"Harn?" Sergeant Major Innis asked, concern in his voice. They'd all heard the stories.
Richard waved at Hoi, who nodded confirmation. "Harn. I was raised west of here, the Harn didn't raid us often, at least not when I was growing up, but I've seen their work before. It was them. The uncle I fostered with moved north three years ago because it was just too damned dangerous at Westford. The bastards want everything south of the mountains. We're south of the mountains now, two days from Fort South. They're all around us, even as we sit here."
"You need to make sure your men are armed and ready," Richard told the other sergeants. "Bows and quivers for the archers, swords on the belt of each man. Every second hour, the blades will be out and ready."
"And what is Danna going to think when he sees that?" Sergeant Major Innis said sarcastically.
"Hell," one of the other sergeants asked, "what am I supposed to tell that puling babe of a lieutenant they've put over my company?"
"Why, you're sergeants," Richard told them, his voice scathing. "You're proud men, proud of your soldiers. If we don't do something here quick, we're going to march into Fort South looking like half-assed soldiers. You've duffed every possible drill for two months. Do you really think the colonel commanding Fort South is going to be as understanding as Danna? It's late, but if I were you, I'd try to get started now."
Sergeant Major Innis spoke again. "Colonel Randall commands at Fort South. He's a hard man, a very hard man. Colonel Danna said we could safely leave training in his hands."
Richard spat on the ground. "If you think a hard man is going to welcome men who've marched for two months and who barely known which end of a sword to hold, I'd like to take some of your money, come the next payday poker game."
There were more laughs. There had been no paydays on this march. Food, a little food, but not much more than sufficient. Just miles and miles beneath their feet.
"Sergeant Major!" Hoi barked at the other man. "Richard Taylor commanded 250 Coreans when we faced Hadrian. One man went home shy an arm; one man ran. The rest are here, plus a hundred and fifty more. You might want to think about how your officer did, in your last fight!" Hoi grinned. "Oh yeah, we sent Hadrian home, his tail between his legs; his Royal Guard dead to a man on the field. Nigh on two hundred men, so the story goes."
That had certainly been Hadrian's claim. Most men who'd been at the battle, including most of King Hadrian's, averred that Hadrian's personal guard had been five hundred strong. Whatever their number, the Corean archers under Richard Taylor had left their arrow-studded carcasses for the crows to feed on. King Hadrian's guard had tried five times to charge the Coreans, and five times were stayed by clouds of arrows.
When the Coreans had started forward, King Hadrian and the rest of his army had started moving backwards.
The King of Man had made Richard Taylor a captain on that battlefield. Then, two months later, jealous courtiers had taken that away from Richard Taylor and saw to it that he was sent here, as far away from Capitol City and the Kingdom of Man as a man could be sent.
"Sergeant Major, you're supposed to return with Danna, after we get to Fort South," Richard told him. "I wouldn't get within a mile of the man. I sure wouldn't ride back home with him. Do it, and you'll end up like the lost soul we found this afternoon."
"What were you doing off the route of march?" the sergeant major asked.
"I'm a curious man, Sergeant Major," Richard told him, "particularly when I'm marching through lands frequented by men who've sworn to cut the heart out of any foreigner who comes here. I'm a foreigner at the Court of the King of Man, Sergeant Major. I shudder to think what the Harn think about me."
Richard waved around them. "I've heard a variety of explanations for the reason the Coreans run three times around the camp in the morning before we start our daily march, and then twice more around the camp in the evening, after we halt for the day. Most people think we are throwing it in your faces, trying to show how puny you are.
"Nothing could be truer! My Coreans think your men are untrained and unhardened. My Coreans are trained and they are hardened. They enjoy showing off. Do any of you think untrained, unhardened soldiers are going to extend your life span out here?"
Richard laughed at them. "I've had Corean scouts out since the first day of the march. And until today, none of you knew, because you didn't notice. I'm going to keep my Coreans alive; if you want to keep yourselves alive, much less your men alive, you better damn well start doing your jobs!"
One of the other sergeants, quiet until then, spoke up. "If the Harn want us dead, they will come at us in mass. If they suspect that our soldiers don't know their duty, we won't survive long enough to reach Ft. South."
Richard smiled thinly. "That's a possibility. However, Colonel Randall at Fort South is a certainty. Exercise your men."
It wasn't phrased as a suggestion.
The talk went on for more than an hour, but it simply rehashed old ground. After the hour finished, Richard Taylor stood, emptied the dregs of his own ale jack into the fire, turned and walked into the night, followed by his sergeant.
One after another, the other sergeants did the same thing, until only Sergeant Major Innis was left. He glanced around in the night, and then pissed on the fire, killing the last of the embers. No more beer for him! He'd been in a dozen battles in his twenty-two years of service and knew for a fact that an ale-addled man was usually the first to die.