Chapter 20: Going All the Way

Copyright© 2006 by Gina Marie Wylie

Tanda Havra scanned the desert ahead of them. Night would fall soon and once again they would be on the move. She was about fifty feet below the crest of a ridge, lying in a crevice in the rocks, using Tuck's glasses to watch for any movement at all out on desert floor. A few feet away Tazi slumbered peacefully, a smile on her face.

This was going to be their longest night march so far, almost forty miles. They would be leaving as soon as it was full dark and would probably have to hurry the last few miles, and those last few miles would be uphill. Still, they would then be on the other side of the ridge from the town that was their target.

She couldn't fault Tuck's caution. The main force still had two more days of marching ahead of them just to reach where she was now. Then they would have to march to the ridgeline she could see dimly in the distance. There they would be south of their target and would rest for a day and a half, before the attack. Almost, but not quite, a full moon-quarter. Compared to Tuck's attacks before, almost lethargic.

Having the help of Lost Ruthani from the redoubt was making a great deal of difference. Even though she couldn't see a single sign of movement out there in the desert, two dozen of Pinyon's scouts were in position. As soon as it was dark, another dozen men would move south and half of those deployed would be returning, to give Tuck specific information.

They had good maps of the area around the Mexicotal town that sat between the forks of two small rivers. Some rivers! One was already dry and the other would be in a few moon-quarters. The town had wells and primitive irrigation canals that would move some water around. And one of Manistewa's guards, Xenos, had made contact with Manistewa's agents inside the town. Xipototec, the Mexicotal called the town.

It had taken a great feat of talking by Tuck to get the Lost Ruthani to agree to his plan. What they wanted was the town burned and the bones of people dumped in tall pile for all to see. Tuck had patiently made them recognize that most of those who lived in Xipototec were like so many of those that had come to the Lost Ruthani: oppressed and helpless against the nobles, priests and soldiers of the God-King.

The realization of that truth had raised Tuck's stock with the Lost Ruthani a great deal. The scouts reported that there were about twenty-five hundred Mexicotal soldiers in the town of about twenty-five thousand. Parties of male workers would go into the fields each day, each escorted by a company of cavalry. If someone tried to flee, they were ridden down and captured, then skinned alive and left for the buzzards and the ants. If the person who ran had family, all of them went to feed the Gods the next Feast Day... those were held every moon-quarter.

And if someone snuck away, avoiding the guards? Everyone in their family died as soon as the person was reporting missing. They were tortured terribly, publicly, including the newborn.

In spite of the dire punishments there had been volunteers aplenty willing to help the Hostigi soldiers. They might have been terribly oppressed, but the people of Xipototec could still talk amongst themselves. And they must have talked a lot about life in Hostigos.

She hadn't told Tuck about it yet, but tomorrow she would reach the town. Tomorrow night, they would sneak her inside and a few days later, just in time for Tuck's attack, she'd come out again. Tazi too would be left behind. Tazi was a proud young woman, who walked with her head held high, able to look any man in the face as forthrightly as any other man would. She would be spotted and killed almost at once.

Tanda didn't like walking with her head bowed. She didn't like avoiding the glance of those who oppressed these people. But if by doing so, she could work for their downfall... she was more than willing to do what had to be done.

Tuck coughed and she looked up. "You're slipping, Tanda Havra!"

She bobbed her head. A few moon-quarters ago she'd have lied. There were enough lies between them, most of which she could do nothing about. So, about little things, she told the truth.

"Xenos, my uncle's guard, is going to take me close to Xipototec tonight. I'll meet one of my uncle's agents and talk to him. Xenos will tell him who I am and that I command him."

"Obliging fellow, this Xenos," Tuck commented.

"Manistewa gave me a letter telling him I was in charge."

"I notice your uncle keeps out of the line of fire as much as possible," Tuck observed.

"There are many reasons I never considered his entreaties -- and why he never tried to force the issue."

Tuck nudged Tazi with his foot. She woke up at once. "Tazi, please watch for what little time remains. I need to talk with Tanda Havra about tomorrow."

Tazi was only too happy to take the glasses from Tanda. She was fascinated by them, and had spent some time talking with Tuck about how they worked. The last time they'd been in Outpost, she'd found some broken glass and had played with the pieces, watching how the glass affected the way the light moved through it.

Tanda followed Tuck over the ridge. He moved quickly back towards the scout camp, stopping a few hundred feet away. There were at a level place in the wash when he stopped. "I will draw a line in the sand," Tuck told her. "I want you a step back from it. When I tell you to, step forward, putting your foot in the middle of the line, then walk naturally for ten steps, then stand still until I come up."

Mystified, Tanda did as she was told. She stopped and a heart-beat later Tuck also took ten steps and finished about a foot in front of her. "Once again, only this time with your eyes closed," he said, dropping a rock where she'd stopped.

She did it again, eyes closed. Tuck was watching, she was sure. But, when it came time for him to come, he too walked with his eyes closed. They ended up in almost the same relative positions as before.

"Your steps are two inches shorter than mine," he told her. "I have a natural thirty-three inch stride, that makes you a thirty-one."

Tanda shrugged, not understanding.

"When you are in Xipototec, see if you can step off some distances, even an approximation will help us register mortar shells."

"Ah!" she exclaimed. She gave him a sidelong glance. "I did not want to worry you unnecessarily."

"We're here, a long way from home. Forget about trying to save me from worry. I worry every day in every way about all of us. A little more or less isn't going to matter."

A few feet away a couple of doves suddenly flew up from a bush. Tanda turned to look; sure someone was sneaking up on her. Then, almost on the edge of her hearing, there was a low roar as the ground began to shake. It wasn't a hard shaking, it wasn't for very long but she found it profoundly disturbing.

"Earthquake, I guess," Tuck said. "I've never been in one before."

The word he used sounded like Zarthani, but the first word she didn't recognize. "Beben?"

"Shake," he said. "The ground shakes."

"Why?" Tanda asked.

She listened to his explanation patiently, but patently disbelieving him. The ground had cracks; sure she'd seen those. But cracks that ran for miles along the ground? Deep into the ground? She'd never seen that! How could anyone see that deep?

Before Tuck had finished explaining to her, he was explaining it to everyone. After about a half palm-width he threw up his hands. "You will have to trust me. It happens. It happens more often as you go south. You might as well get used to it. Do you know about mountains that spit fire?"

No one knew about mountains that spit fire, either. Finally Tuck told everyone to stop talking and get the camp ready to go. Men hurried to the task, and shortly it was dark enough to leave.

Tazi was not happy when she was told that she could not go with Tanda. It was Lady Judy who finally calmed Tazi down, whispering something to her that Tanda couldn't hear. Tazi's eyes dwelled on Tanda, angry. "Do not set me aside, sister, because you fear for my safety."

"I do not. What I fear is that you will be Tazi: a girl who walks with her head held high, proud and unafraid. To come with me you will need to walk stooped, your eyes on the ground, bowing to every man you meet."

"Lady Judy says that if I'm patient, one day I will know as much as you. But that if I'm not, I will never be as old as you."

Tanda nodded. "Please, sister Tazi. I would take you with me if I could. I will try to return before the attack, and you will go into battle at my side. I promise you that."

"I will do as you bid, sister Tanda."

Much later, out in the desert, Xenos stopped for a break. "Xenos, do you know of earthquakes and mountains that spit fire?"

"Yes, of course."

It took some additional questions before she had to admit Tuck was right. "The earth is round, I knew that," Tanda mused. "I never thought to ask about these other things."

Xenos glanced at her. "Tanda, you know we don't tell people like you everything. You don't know beans about chemistry, physics, biology, and geology -- nothing technical. If you wanted to study something technical instead of anthropology, right now you'd be cleaning some Home Timeline toilet."

It was a cold, brutal thing to think about. "Look, the Chief and Manistewa told me that you're the boss. You're in charge. I have less than six moons experience in the field here. I don't know much about the terrain, the people or the issues. The Chief said that since you already know the Paratime Secret, what was the point of keeping you from knowing anything else?"

He glanced at her. "And where we're headed, they have earthquakes often and volcanoes erupting every couple of years. You'd find out anyway."

"And I will do what I have to do. But Xenos, understand this. I've been well taught and well conditioned. But not everybody is. Someone brought Tuck and his girls here. It wasn't any licensed conveyor. Someone is out here, right now, breaking all of your laws save one. Tell me, Xenos, do you think they've broken that one last law?"

"I imagine the thought gives the Chief nightmares."

"I imagine it does. It gives me nightmares, too."

They started running again.

Freidal watched as the council chamber filled up. Once, a few moons ago, there was a pretense about who he was. He'd sat along one side of the table, near the middle, the only captain at a table filled with high nobles, priests and generals.

Now he was seated squarely at one end, Xitki Quillan on his left. Straight down the table were seated the Mexicotal High Priest and Captain-General Upharsim. There were no longer any pretenses.

The Mexicotal general spoke first, after Quillan called the council into session.

"We should tear down the dam and drain the lake. When the lake is empty, we should attack the Hostigi!"

Freidal nodded. "We have discussed this plan several times, Quillan and I, while I recovered.

"We have lost the least leg of support for our undertaking, Styphon. I know not what Hells there are for a God of such foul deeds, I shudder to think of his punishment at the hands of the True Gods. Further, one man in two of the army we had here to fight is dead or unfit. The Hostigi mount daily attacks against the Great Road and troops that should have come to our reinforcement have been held back to defend our supply route. In truth, if they were to arrive here in any number, we'd all starve.

"Once, we could have planned a night attack. It would have been a tricky thing to do and the empty lakebed a dangerous place. But, the Hostigi have checked us there as well, because we've seen their fires that float in the sky. Night would not cloak us and to try to cross a mile of ground that broken, under artillery firing case shot... our loses just reaching the base of Outpost's walls would be terrible. Perhaps enough to cause the attack to fail before we could launch it. We would only have one chance.

"And then, there is something else to consider. We are here, facing an enemy a fraction of our number. They are behind a lake, behind stout walls and defended by cannon and rifles. Taking this place by storm would cost any army dearly. What about next season? It should be clear that the Great Plan is dead. Even if we win here, this will be as far as we can go in force this year. We would spend the rest of the season chasing down the Hostigi raiding parties, patrolling eastwards to see what we face there, and bringing up supplies and men that should have already been here.

"You, our fine allies, are running out of scouts. Yours are better than ours and our enemies know this. They attack them again and again. It's hurt the morale of all of the scouts and decimated their ranks.

"Thus, we should stop and think about what we do here. We can go no further this year. We must chase down the Hostigi raiders and we can do that just as well or better, with our troops spread out along the Great Road. Strong patrols have been sent out towards the east and more will be as time passes.

"So... here we sit. And here they sit. Early on, Count Quillan called a parley and offered the Hostigi fair terms. That was more than a moon ago. Count Tellan said no. What might he say today? We should ask again for his surrender. And if he says no, why we will let him sit on his rock in the middle of his puddle. Perhaps they will be able to eat rocks before we finish with them. Certainly if we wait long enough, they will be hungry enough to!

"If we capture the city intact, we will be able to use it ourselves. Destroy it by storm and it will be just another pile of rocks in a landscape filled with piles of rocks."

There was a low murmur down the table as Freidal's comments were digested.

"You sound as though the decision has been made," the Mexicotal Captain-General stated, his face angry. "Why then, have you not consulted with your allies?"

"We're here, talking about what we are going to do," Freidal said equitably. "I offered a plan. If we desire to storm Outpost, first we would need a few days to pull down the dam."

"Fireseed would bring it down quickly!"

"Fireseed, while not in short supply is not in great supply," Freidal told him. "I would prefer to use what we have on our enemies, not rocks."

Freidal looked at the man steadily and when he didn't say anything more, went on with his thoughts. "Suppose we pull down the dam? We know the Hostigi have snipers out, they shoot anyone who goes near the dam. We would lose some men, no matter how carefully we go about pulling down the dam and even if we use fireseed, it would take several days to properly place it.

"Once the lake was drained we would need to examine the ground, to see what lies under what is now hidden by the water, to find the best route of attack. Scouts out in the open would suffer greatly from Hostigi marksmen, unless they work carefully at night. Which will take more time. Perhaps in a two moon-quarters, we would be ready to attack.

"And the attack... I've already described it. Another option would be to build rafts and make a mass assault across the lake against the Hostigi. Except any man who falls off a raft would be just as dead as if he stopped a Hostigi bullet with his head.

"It is my belief that for now, we must study the situation and look for an opening that we can use to our advantage," Freidal concluded. "Then, when the time is right, perhaps when we have more men and fireseed up, we can make the attack. There is no need to rush; we've rushed enough already and paid in full measure for our error."

Their High Priest spoke for the first time. "It is as you say, such things require some study, and I, for one, do not care to report another failure to the God-King. Yes, parley with them -- it is true that they might surrender."

Freidal smiled slightly. "And we can hint that an attack is in the offing, that we're giving them a final chance to seek terms, thus they lose sleep, wondering what our plans are."

"And in your plans, Freidal, King of Zarthan, is there a plan for you to return to Baytown?"

"I considered it," Freidal told him. "But no, I won't return for now. Not until we take Outpost. I am, however, going to be a lot more careful."

The next morning a messenger went across to Outpost, under a flag of truce. Then the messenger returned with a resounding "No!" from Count Tellan.

Freidal sat fuming. There was simply no way he could cross the lake, walk up the hill and be fit for anything more than taking a long nap. The alternative was to have the meeting on the rocks at the base of the walls, which wouldn't be conducive for a comfortable negotiation. He wouldn't last very long there, either. The best thing would be for Count Tellan to come to them. Evidently the Count didn't trust them.

It was enough to make a man see red. Why couldn't they be reasonable?

It was a like a light shone down on him from the sky! Reasonable for whom?

"Xitki, I need four strong men to bear me down to the lake."

"You can't do it, sire. You can't swim, they could take you... and if you get sick again, you'll die."

"Xitki, I have always deferred to you. Always. Even in the plan to attack Outpost, if you'd have said no, we'd still be sitting in that damn fort."

"You're saying this is a first?" Xitki asked.


Xitki laughed. "I told you, Alros likes being regent. You go and get yourself killed and she will blow you a kiss. You are my King and I and all here are at your command."

"Well, I'm not totally stupid. If I offer you up as a hostage, will you go?"

"I'd rather be whispering in your ear, but yes."

"I'm also going to offer up one of the Mexicotal. I thought I'd surprise them."

"Better to simply tell them before you go. They understand hostages. They don't understand something they might construe as betrayal."

Freidal grimaced. There was always that.

He commanded and four strong men came to bear him down to the lake and the boat waiting for him. When he reached the shore, the Mexicotal high priest was waiting for him.

Freidal nodded to the priest as regally as he could. "I go to treat with the Hostigi, to get them to come here. Who shall go among the Hostigi as a hostage? You or your Captain-General?"

The high priest laughed. "You think I'm a coward, like those of Styphon. I will go if they will also accept one of my captains as well. That or the Captain-General alone. If there is anything to be learned of their military preparations, I am not skilled enough to know what is important."

"Xitki Quillan will also be offered."

"In that case, I will go."

Freidal nodded. It was, he thought, fairly clear that the Mexicotal still trusted Xitki. Had there ever been a choice?

Two men rowed him across the lake. A Hostigi lieutenant and two troopers stood at the landing waiting for them. "What now?" the lieutenant demanded.

"Run up your hill and tell Count Tellan that the King of Zarthan wants to talk to him."

The lieutenant gestured upwards. "I told them before, I'll tell you again. Count Tellan will not come to you."

Freidal turned to one of the other Hostigi troopers, the one who looked older and more intelligent. "You, run up the hill and tell Count Tellan that the King of Zarthan begs his indulgence and has come this far. Surely he can come down the hill. I'll be brief."

The trooper looked at the lieutenant who was sputtering with rage. The trooper bobbed his head, turned and jogged away.

One of the rowers growled, "We should teach them a lesson!"

Freidal chuckled. "Feel free. There are several thousand of them and one of you. I'm sure you're good enough to kill one, maybe two of them before they kill you, then kill the rest of us. You wouldn't want to think about what happens if I survive."

The man subsided.

A finger-width later a tall man, older, came down the hill and stood a few feet from Freidal. "I am Count Tellan."

"And I am Freidal. Recently a Captain of Cavalry and now sitting on my father's throne."

A girl appeared, another officer walking next to her. Freidal ignored them.

Count Tellan bobbed his head. "As we've said for a very, very long time. The true Gods would spew up such a monster as Styphon. Now you have full knowledge of the perfidy of the priests of the False God. Your father might have been our enemy, but no man deserves to be killed by poisonous, back-stabbing vermin like the maggots of Styphon."

"I have fought in three battles against your men, Count. I was shot twice in the head and the third time I fell off my horse. I am not well. Please, I will give you hostages. Count Xitki Quillan and the High Priest of the Mexicotal God-King, but I entreat you: come across the lake to talk to me at length."

Count Tellan paused and it was the young woman who spoke. "He does look like shit, Count."

Freidal was startled; never imagining a woman would talk in a meeting like this, never imagined such a frank comment.

Count Tellan turned towards her. Not just craned around to admonish a foolish subordinate who'd spoken out of turn, but actually turned his back on Freidal. "Lady Elspeth, while what you say is true, it is impolitic to notice and less so to mention it."

She shrugged. "Just telling you what I see. You asked for my opinion."

Count Tellan turned back to Freidal. "I will come, the Lady Elspeth will accompany me, as soon as your hostages have landed. I make no promises or assurances, beyond that we will not attack your camp while we are there. Our raiding parties have their own plans and even if I knew them, I wouldn't interfere."

"The hostages will be here tomorrow a palm-width past first light. You will order them to be returned as soon as you put out to return."

"That is acceptable. The High King has never broken a truce and, if I did in his name, I'd be dead."

"And you have my word," Freidal replied.

"Until tomorrow then," Count Tellan told him. "If I were you, sir, I'd get some rest."

The count turned his back on Freidal again and walked away, with the others following him.

On the row back Freidal watched the two rowers. About half way he smiled. "Just remember one thing, you men." They looked at him, but didn't stop rowing.

"I was there, and I'm not going to talk about the little things. Were I to hear any of the little details... any details at all before I announce them, you both die. Am I clear?"

The one oarsman, the one who hadn't spoken before, chuckled. "Would you be killing us before Count Quillan had his way with us or after? Before would be a blessing."

Freidal didn't speak again, trying not to laugh.

In the morning he bid Quillan goodbye. In theory, since he was planning no treachery and the High King had, so far as anyone knew, never planned any either, Xitki was quite safe. But accidents happened...

Xitki had ordered a small pavilion to be erected just past the water's edge and Freidal waited there for Count Tellan. Once again it was the Count, the girl and a lieutenant. Freidal had no idea why a girl, a young girl, would accompany a noble to a meeting like this. In Zarthan it wouldn't be done. Even though Alros was regent, she wouldn't be involved in a direct parley, not on a battlefield.

"Once again," Freidal said, wanting to get the preliminaries over with quickly, "we offer you terms. You may take your personal weapons, such supplies as you can carry and march east. You would not harm the city in any fashion. I would send along hostages so that you could be assured there would be no trickery."

"We have a simpler demand," the girl said. "You get on your horses or into your wheelbarrow and march back west. We'll be right behind. Tarry returning to your lands and we'll kill you all."

There were a dozen spectators in the tent; all gasped when the girl spoke, then again at her words.

"Wheelbarrow?" Freidal asked, not sure he understood. The girl had an accent that he couldn't place.

"A wheeled cart small enough for a single man to moved around in," the girl explained. "The one for you."

Freidal racked his brain. In many parleys he'd read about, insults had been traded. None, though, quite like this.

Freidal turned to the Count. "Count Tellan, I invited you here to have serious discussions about the future. You are surrounded and cut off. It would be a special miracle if the High King could reach here next season -- more likely the season after next. Assuming we don't stomp him flat beforehand. If I give the order to attack the city... there will be no survivors."

"I'm sure your widows would grieve for their losses," the girl spoke again.

Freidal pointed at her. "Unless you are Count Tellan, hold your tongue!"

Count Tellan spoke for the first time. "I'm sure your widows would grieve for their losses."

Freidal wanted to tear out his hair. By repeating verbatim what the girl had said the count had all but told him directly that the girl spoke for him! It was impossible!

Count Tellan nodded at the girl, smiled at her and bobbed his head. "Lady Elspeth speaks for me," confirming what Freidal had deduced. Count Tellan looked at Freidal steadily. "You should know that Lady Elspeth is pregnant by rape. One of my officers decided that didn't matter and offered to marry her. Alas, you killed him the day of your first attack on Outpost."

"We found the damn Mexicotal road, finally," Lady Elspeth told Freidal, ignoring Count Tellan's words.

It was, Freidal told himself, not that impossible, but didn't make sense. His sister Alros was regent, and she was about this girl's age. He ran his mind over the peerage of the High King. There was no one of this age and a woman, anywhere close to being able to command Count Tellan! No one!

Count Tellan smiled slightly. "Some have said Lady Elspeth is the High King's sister. Except she says she is an only child. Others have said she is the High King's kinsman; except she avers that she'd have noticed a High King among her relations. However, I myself know she's Dralm sent and Galzar taught." Count Tellan nodded at the Mexicotal general.

"A Mexicotal scout took her unawares from behind. She gutted him with a knife. Even now, her mentor leads my field forces."

The smile vanished, "King Freidal, take yourself away from here. Take your army away from here... or you will all die here."

"We outnumber you," Freidal remonstrated.

It was Lady Elspeth who replied for Count Tellan, "Your dead outnumber us too. Who's next?"

Freidal spoke the terms one last time. "Once again, I will give you leave to march away with your weapons, food, supplies, all that you can carry. We will never attack your column, Oath to Galzar. All of this will be undertaken with Oaths to Galzar."

"Galzar Wolf's Head never sat well with Styphon," Count Tellan responded.

"The House of Styphon no longer exists," Freidal told him. "As I'm sure you well know."

"I know. The question is, what do you know, King? You've learned the importance of roads. Tell me, you know where your road ends. Perhaps you even know where the God-King's road ends. But do you have any idea that the High King has been building roads since he came to power?"

"You won't surrender?" Freidal asked, not wanting to get into all of these side issues.

"Not going to happen," Lady Elspeth replied.

Freidal looked Count Tellan in the eye. "How am I supposed to treat with you, when you let a girl speak for you?"

The count smiled slightly. "I told her that the first time she said something I didn't like, she'd have to stop. Before he died, my logistos told me she was an ideal junior officer: when you tell her to do something, she asks questions about what you mean if she's not sure, then goes and does it.

"I have no complaints about her actions so far, even if she's asked me no questions."

Freidal was back to wanting to tear his hair out. "You would let the assistant to a dead logistos speak for you at a council of war with the King of Zarthan?"

"It's the words, King, that are important," Count Tellan told him. "Not who utters them. I speak for the High King, you recognize that?"

Freidal nodded. Not a problem! He could understand that!

"And Lady Elspeth speaks for me."

"You are doing this to make me look stupid!" Freidal said, then immediately regretted it.

More so when the Lady Elspeth spoke again. "For that you need no help."

Freidal once again turned to Count Tellan, realizing only belatedly that the whole thing had been to exhaust and tire him into making a mistake. "The woman doesn't know her place. Go back to Outpost. We will come, soon enough."

Count Tellan smiled thinly. "I told you once that a Mexicotal soldier took her from behind, intending rape. She killed him with her knife. She is, King, a woman any man would be content to have at his side."

Count Tellan rose. "You have it as clear and as plain spoken as I could have conveyed the message. No flowers or honey, just the plain words from someone who understands what happens if you win. Henceforth, King Freidal, the only reason I will treat with you is to accept your surrender."

"You have women and children inside the city!" Freidal responded in return. "Would you have that on your hands?"

"You march all this way, lay siege to my walls and then tell me it will be my responsibility that innocents are killed if my city falls to your attack? King, I thought better of you!"

With that they turned and walked back to their boat, and were rowed across the lake. Just as they landed, Xitki Quillan returned.

"It didn't go well," Freidal told Quillan, and then explained in detail.

At the end, Xitki sat, looking steadily at Freidal. "There were some important lessons. I hope you learned them."

"That we don't speak the same language, even though we each understand each other's words!"

Xitki shook his head. "You were told many things, Freidal. Many things. You must learn to listen to the words behind the words. It wasn't as if Count Tellan was trying to be obscure."

Xitki turned the Mexicotal general. "The girl reported that they finally found your road. Where is your road? Exactly?"

The Captain-General turned to the high priest who nodded. "A map, King Freidal." A map was fetched, and then the man put his finger on where their road was. It was very far to the south.

Freidal's face turned stony. "That is -- well behind schedule."

"As you've noted," General Upharsim said dryly, "many things are behind schedule."

"And the road to Xiphlon?" Xitki asked. "Is it on schedule or behind?"

"Behind. The Hostigi have opposed our advance with many skirmishers. It has been very difficult to protect the construction crews. That has been the problem in the east. Here, even though it has been a relatively wet spring, the desert takes its toll on the workers."

"And the earlier reports that your road wasn't far south of the fort? I take it those reports were... overly optimistic?" Freidal asked.

"They were lies," the high priest said bluntly. "We tried to catch up, but the desert has been a deadly enemy. Now we face the Ruthani. They are worse."

"We destroyed the Ruthani," Freidal told him. "You reported that to me yourself."

"We destroyed their villages. Most of the villagers had fled into the desert."

Xitki spoke again. "When I first arrived, I sent scouts out to report on Hostigi movements. They told me that a large group, more than a thousand, had moved southeast. You told me they were likely heading for the Hostigi towns further east."

"We don't actually know," the Captain-General told them. "Their tracks went far to the southeast. We haven't been able to follow them, because our scouts are killed."

"Send more," Freidal told him bluntly.

The Captain-General sighed. "We know the Lost Ruthani have a refuge there, someplace. We've sought it for a very long time. If we send enough men to be safe, we don't see any of them. If we don't send enough men, we don't see our men, ever again. As you well know, as your scouts face the same problem."

Freidal cursed. "You are saying that someplace to the southeast is a citadel, another one, of our enemies. And that a thousand Hostigi have gone there?"

"More than a thousand," Quillan reminded him. "Plus, we found tracks of many hundred more, heading west from Outpost, before we attacked. Those are the parties raiding our road. Probably the thousand going south are to attack the Mexicotal road."

The general shook his head. "We guard the road well. There have been no attacks, except isolated sniping from Ruthani."

Freidal tried not to let his fatigue show. Instead, he turned to Xitki. "Let us think on this until tomorrow. Maybe it will make more sense then." It was a thin ruse and undoubtedly would fool no one. But nothing better presented itself.

Judy listened as Tuck explained the final details of the plan. She'd known the overall outline for some time, she had been curious about her own role in what was about to happen. She was quite sure she was going to be very far from Tuck's side.

"So, what happens is that right after sunup, about thirty cavalry will emerge from the gate on a patrol down to the river, then out to the fields. They check them out, then move further north, along the road towards Outpost, returning in time for lunch.

"Not today. As soon as the last man is outside the gate, Lieutenant Gamelin's company will take them under fire. They will be bunched up, coming out of the town's gate. As a precaution, they only open one leaf to let the cavalry through. The soldiers go about a hundred yards, then wait until everyone's out, before proceeding." Tuck nodded at Gamelin. "Your signal to open fire is when that gate starts to close. They are fairly well disciplined and the last men will have just gone through. Make sure your people shoot straight! Three volleys, then mount up and ride!

"When you leave, be sure to spread out! The guns from the town will open fire. Rumor has it that the guns are ready loaded with grape shot and aimed inwards against their own people. Which means that if you're quick, you will be out of range before they can swing their guns around. To shoot at you then they will have to pull the loads and put in balls. Being spread out means that you will be at small risk from balls. If you ride fast, you won't be at much risk at all."

Gamelin nodded.

"Once you are beyond long cannon shot, concentrate again and continue east, towards the mountains. Captain Andromoth will be there, lying in wait with the field guns. Captain, you will have scouts out, watching for Gamelin and his men."

"We will!" the captain told Tuck. "There will be no mistakes!"

"Gamelin, once up to our guns, you know your positions. Take them and if they have a vanguard or point, engage them. Be sure they can see your lathered horses."

Gamelin nodded. "Yes, Captain!"

It was a great plan, a glorious plan; Judy had heard that over and over from Gamelin. Judy was also aware that Gamelin was going to be going first against the Mexicotal. If anything went wildly wrong, Gamelin and his men would take the brunt of it. It was impossible, though, not to understand that Gamelin thought Gamelin's men had the least risk of any of them, in Tuck's entire plan.

Complicated plans, Tuck had told her, had a way of breaking down. On the other hand, complicated plans confused the hell out of the bad guys, because they couldn't figure out what was going to happen next. A conundrum, Tuck called it. The trick, he'd gone on to say, was to make a plan where one thing followed another. Where there didn't have to be complicated signals or timing.

Gamelin had sixty troopers in his company now. Each trooper had a rifle and two pistols. They would fire from cover at the Mexicotal with their rifles as the Mexicotal cavalry came out of the town, then two volleys from their pistols. Rifle volleys were supposed to be the most deadly, but another 120 balls flying against the thirty Mexicotal weren't going to be good for the Mexicotal. Most of the thirty men were going to be dead or wounded, most of the rest, dismounted.

Then Gamelin and his men would climb up on their horses, and ride like the wind, out of range of the cannon. Then, out of range, slow down to a walk to tease the Mexicotal.

The Mexicotal could, everyone said, count to sixty. They would assemble a party and give chase. Five hundred at the least, more like a thousand. Captain Andromoth was going to be waiting with his guns hidden, but Gamelin would be in view, several hundred yards in front of the Mexicotal. The Mexicotal forces chasing Gamelin, seeing their prey, would assume they were going to fight and would charge headlong.

Captain Andromoth had three hundred men and six field guns. They would fire as soon as the Mexicotal looked like they were ready to charge. It was thought that the shock of the initial volley would freeze them in place for a few seconds, giving the Hostigi gunners sufficient time to reload. The field guns could, Tuck told Judy, fire almost as often as a rifleman. Everything was going to depend on whether or not the artillerymen could do their job while under fire from the Mexicotal. And just to make sure that they could, the three hundred Hostigos Western Mounted Infantry guarding the guns would fire a hundred shots per volley, starting a four count after the first cannon salvo. In theory, the cannons would fire a second time on the heels of the last rifle volley.

A dozen doses of case shot, Tuck told Judy, plus seven hundred and twenty rounds of rifle fire from the infantry, all in a narrow canyon, were going to wreck the initial charge. Mexicotal troops, the Ruthani told them, were not used to fighting against fireseed weapons. They tended to break and run.

In spite of the seriousness of that battle, it was still a sideshow to the main event. Tuck and more than seven hundred men, mixed Hostigos regulars and Ruthani, would be laying in the fields, out of sight. They wouldn't fire when the initial Mexicotal patrol appeared. They wouldn't fire when the Mexicotal mounted their response to Gamelin's attack.

They would wait until the Mexicotal vanished into the entrance to the mountain valley, six miles away from the town. Once the Mexicotal soldiers were no longer visible, a mortar would fire a single round, an illumination round. It would do no direct damage, not during the morning hours, but it was a signal.

Tanda Havra was in the town. So were several of the Ruthani. A commotion would occur; the field workers were going to sit down and refuse to go out. Some time in there, a few buildings would start to burn.

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