Rogue One– A review

Let’s get this out of the way first–

***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***

So, I held off seeing Rogue One for two whole weeks for several reasons– I hate opening night crowds, I’ve spent the last two weeks helping support a family member who’s been in the hospital, and because, being the spoiler-whore I am, I knew it ended on what might possibly be a real downer, and I knew that I didn’t need any extra downers in my life at the moment.

At least regarding the last item I needn’t have worried.  Rogue One does end with all the good guys, including leads Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), dying in a terminal shootout/holocaust with the Empire on the planet Scarif, but it’s the sort of massacre that appeals to me, where the heroes have won although they give their lives in the attempt.  In this instance, they have secured the plans to the Death Star of Episode IV- A New Hope and transmitted them to the rebels, which means that the end of Rogue One is meant to segue directly into the opening of Episode IV, with perhaps the lapse of only a few minutes story time.

The film, in my quite biased opinion, does most everything pretty well.  It has a darker, grittier tone than most of the other Star Wars films; the Empire has the galaxy by the throat and is about to permanently tighten its grip.  The rebel Alliance is on the run, fractured and riven by divisions and conflicting counsels.  You’re not entirely sure who the good guys are; Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera is the paranoid leader of a splinter group too radical for the other rebels, and some Alliance members are willing do things in the name of the Rebellion that are morally dodgy, at best; Cassian, for example, summarily kills an informant in the first moments of the film to keep him out of Imperial hands.

The story bounces from world to world, shifting between Rebel and Imperial viewpoints, as the rebels get wind of the Death Star and desperately try to find clues as to its weaknesses.  Rook, defecting, delivers a message from Jyn’s father, Galen Erso, an engineer the Empire has forced to work on the Death Star, who has built a vulnerability into its structure.  In the end, Jyn and Cassian lead a desperate group of volunteers to the planet Scarif, where the plans for the Death Star are kept.  There ensues one hellacious ground and space battle, as the Rebel fleet joins in and Jyn, Cassian and the droid K2SO try to get the plans.  In the end, the plans are secured and transmitted to the rebels just before the Death Star nukes the Empire’s own base in a vain attempt to keep the information safe.

All the flim’s performances are good, but it’s some of the supporting characters who are the best.  Jyn and Cassian are not quite as engaging or sympathetic as we might want; on the other hand, you find yourself rooting pretty hard for the blind Force monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donny Yen) and his buddy Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang); the defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is someone we watch become a hero in his own right as he overcomes his fear.  The reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, is fun, light-years away from the obsequious C3PO, and has his own hero moment toward the end of the film.

All-in-all, the film captures the desperate struggle of the rebels against the overwhelming power of the Empire.  ‘Rag-tag’ is pretty apt for these guys, who only agree on a united course of action when it is forced on them.  The battles are solid action pieces, and the power of the Death Star, even when only employed on low power against individual targets on planet surfaces, is jaw-dropping.

There are problems.  The connection the end of the film makes with the beginning of A New Hope is less than perfect in terms of continuity.  In Episode IV  when Leia confronts Vader for the first time she pretends that her ship is on a diplomatic mission; Rogue One’s ending makes that pretense unsustainable (or even nonsensical), as her ship is shown detaching from the crippled rebel flagship and fleeing, as Vader watches.  Episode IV’s screen-crawl states the rebels have won their first victory against the Empire; if the battle over Scarif is a rebel victory it sure looks Pyrrhic;  all of the ground forces were lost, and what looked to be a good portion of the space fleet– not a good way to start a civil war.

And then there are the CGI images for the Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia.  Personally I think I was able to suspend my disbelief enough that they didn’t throw me, but they were odd, particularly Leia’s; for the brief moment we see her face, she kinda looks like an anime Kewpie Doll.  It’s strange how the images turned out, especially as a lot of effort was expended to get them right, particularly Tarkin’s (Peter Cushing).

On the whole, though, the film works, and works well.  This may be the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.  Certainly it leaves the prequels and The Force Awakens in the dust.  This is the first of a projected set of “anthology” films about different characters and situations in the extended cinematic Star Wars universe that are not part of the main trilogies.  As this expansion proceeds, we are liable to get both good and bad films .  Rogue One, thankfully, starts the anthology off right.

 

 

The Horseman, Part Four

Warning: this story contains graphic violence, language and sexual situations.

Copyright Douglas Daniel 2016

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In the mid-afternoon the sound of firing from the western bastions sent Mankin running for the western wall, but it was no new attack.  In the shimmering heat the gunners had spotted loose enemy formations exiting the woods and headed for the crossing.  Three volleys of round-shot sent the Okharians scurrying back to cover.  “If you see them stir again, call on the mortar section,” Mankin told the Bastion Six captain, Sergeant Gero.  “We’ll see how they like bombs coming down on their heads.”

“Yes, sir,” Gero said.

Going back down, Mankin pondered if it might not pay to have the mortars put harassing fire into the woods.  Certainly it would discourage the Okharians on that side, but the fort had a far from limitless supply of mortar bombs.  Wisdom would probably be to save them for when the mortars could fire at clear targets.

However, there was one target the mortars could take out without much effort at all– the bridge at the river-crossing.  If the Okharians were trying to infiltrate across the Gar, wasn’t Mankin’s duty to destroy the bridge?  He went down to the nearest water point, beneath Bastion Six, and drank deep while debating with himself.  It was important to keep the Okharians on this side of the river.

On the other hand, if the Khetuni destroyed the bridge the relief column would have a hard time getting to them– it would effectively lock the fort in a box with a half-legion of frustrated enemy soldiers.  Mankin wanted that relief force here as soon as possible, and he wanted to keep the enemy on this side of the river.  Those two goals were not wholly reconcilable.

The point of the outpost is to keep the bridge in Khetuni hands.  There was, in fact, no provision in the standing orders for the destruction of the bridge.  No plan had been made, and no explosives were designated for its removal.  It was an omission that now loomed large.

If Mankin could have been assured that the relief force would not be delayed even a tenth of an hour by the bridge’s destruction, he would be up on Bastion Seven giving the mortar section their orders right now.  But he couldn’t.  And to destroy the bridge would be to snatch hope away from his men.  He would not do that– not unless his hand was forced.

 

At about the tenth hour, with the sun angling down into the west, Mankin was walking across the yard toward the hold-fast, intending to send another message to Fort Hope.  He had just finished another turn about the walls.  The men were all at their posts, despite the jabhoon, and the fact that the stones of the parapets were so hot you hardly dared put a bare hand down on them.  The jabhoon was worse, though– to Mankin, facing into it as he walked, it seemed to be sucking the moisture from his very marrow.  The wind threatened to steal Mankin’s hat away, and stirred dust-devils in the sand of the yard.

A bugle call– commander to Bastion Three.  Mankin turned and sprinted for the eastern wall, the wind pushing him along.

He was panting from the heat when he reached the bastion.  He half-expected to see enemy formations advancing on the fort; instead he found Goma, Ita and Ganer staring through one of the telescopes.  Off to the east, perhaps a half-mile away, sunlight flashed continuously on armor and weapons.  Even at this distance Mankin could see formations massing, like some vast, insectile hoard gathering to ravage and lay waste.

Tah,” Mankin said.  “When did this happen?”

“Sir,” Goma said, “we didn’t get a good look until just minutes ago.  Apparently the bastards have had men marching back and forth, raising dust to mask the movement of these new units.”  He stood back from the telescope.  “Best you take a look, sir.”

Mankin bent his eye to the eyepiece of the telescope.  He adjusted the focus a little, and there they were– a great horde of Okharian infantry, moving through the scrub.  Mankin counted six, eight, ten cohort standards before giving up.  He stood.  “That’s a lot more than a half-legion.”

“We can handle them, sir, right?” Ganer said.

“Yes,” Mankin said aloud.  In his silent thoughts, though, he made calculations.  Whoever was in command out there was apparently no longer content with half-measures, or half-legions.  The Okharians would rush the main gate, expending lives to reach it.  If they brought forward petards– and there was little point to a new assault if they didn’t– then they could perhaps climb up to the main gate, blow it in, and force an entrance.  It would be a bloody slaughter, but Okharian commanders were often willing to shed rivers of their men’s blood to take positions.

The wind gusted; one of the gunners in the bastion cursed as his hat went flying off toward the enemy, as if it were deserting.  “This piss-bastard wind,” Goma said.  “It’s too bad it won’t fry the Okharians’ eyes in their sockets.”

Mankin looked at him, then sprang to the embrasure out of which Death’s Handmaiden lowered.  The first assault had trampled down much of the sagebrush, but much remained standing.  And the crushed brush would serve just as well….

“Master Gunner,” Mankin said, turning to Ita.  “How long would it take to heat fifteen or so iron round-shot to red-hot?”

Ita looked surprised by the question, but said,  “A third of an hour, if we stoke the ovens– but hot-shot will not do much to the Okharians at this range.”

“You won’t be firing at the Okharians,” Mankin said.  He pointed at the line where the brush ended and the killing ground began.  “You’re going to be firing there.”

Ita looked where Mankin was pointing.  Slowly, he smiled, and then he began to laugh.

 

Mankin could hear the heated cannon-ball sizzling against the soaked wads that separated it from the powder charge in Death’s Handmaiden.  The crew who had loaded the red-hot cannon-ball jumped out of the way, as if afraid the gun was going to go off at once.  Ita, far cooler, leaned in to sight down the barrel, then stepped aside and lowered his smoking linstock to the gun’s touchhole.  The cannon fired, the muzzle blast hammering every man in the bastion.

Mankin, standing to one side, saw the ball hit the hard ground just shy of the scrub and bounce in a long arc, to disappear into the brush a hundred yards further.  In the long light of the fading day he glimpsed the glowing red dot of the ball for a moment before it rolled out of sight in the sagebrush.

“Damnation!” Ita said.

The lead guns in the other east-facing bastions fired, as well.  Their balls landed fair within the first few yards of the scrub.  This provoked a further outburst of cussing from Ita.

“You hit the brush, Master Gunner,” Mankin said, hiding amusement.  “I didn’t ask anything more of you.”

“That’s kind of you, sir,” Ita snarled.  “But I’ll never live it down that Brava and Perma were both more accurate than me.  For once.”  He rounded on the gun crew.  “So what are you whoresons doing, just standing there with your mouths hanging open?  Get that next ball up here, now!”

The crew jumped to obey.  Mankin ignored Ita and his men and watched.  Goma joined him at the crenel.  The jabhoon still blew hard at their backs, like the breath of a furnace, swiftly carrying away the powder smoke from the guns toward the gathering Okharians.

For a long space, Mankin saw nothing.  He kept watching, but growing worried.  The gun crew reloaded Death’s Handmaiden; Ita re-sighted the gun, still muttering, touched his match to the touchhole, and fired again.  This time the ball went into the brush no more than ten yards from its edge.  Ita grunted with satisfaction as the other guns fired, as well.

Then Mankin saw a wisp of smoke, off to his left.  At first it was almost not there, a thin little twist of gray rising in the air.  As Mankin watched, though, it grew, darkened and spread, becoming something that would do a farmer’s chimney credit back in the Soher.

“Sir, look!” Goma said, pointing.

Further out in the brush another rising tongue of smoke– Ita’s first shot finding something dry and combustible.  Mankin’s heart lifted.

In another few moments more smoke appeared, apparently from the second volley.  Ita ordered his men to shift Death’s Handmaiden to fire more to the south, to expand the reach of what they were trying to do.  If this was going to work they needed to create as broad a front as possible.

It was then Mankin saw flames, again off to his left, a small flicker.  As he and Goma watched the flicker changed into a steady flame as high as a man, pale in the sun but solid.  “It’s working,” Mankin whispered.  “It’s working.”

In another few moments he saw more flames, both further out and closer at hand.  The fires leapt up under the lash of the wind.  It was surely just Mankin’s imagination that the flames danced with joy.

The three guns fired their third volley.  As they did, it was as if the brush exploded; in several places flames grew from man-sized to bonfires to sheets of flame the size of houses in the space of a few breaths.  The smoke rose thick, angling off eastward under the wind.  As Mankin watched the fires continue to grow, and then he saw the flames begin to leap from one clump of brush to another, and then to more, and then more.

“Hold your fire!” Mankin shouted, as the gun-crew started to load the fourth hot ball into the gun.  “It’s working!”

The crew heaved the cannon-ball over the edge of the bastion– no one wanted a heated ball rolling about underfoot– and as one man stood to the crenels to watch.  Ita stood among them, a broad smile reshaping his face.

In a few more seconds the ground immediately east of the fort was covered by a solid sheet of flame two hundred feet long and still expanding.  Mankin definitely could feel its heat, even at this distance.  For a moment he feared that the fire would come back toward the fort.

But the jabhoon wasn’t having any of that– the wind grabbed the fire and pushed it eastward, spreading it like a flood from a burst levee.  The smoke rose in one solid column now, and the fire roared, as if to warn the Okharians it was coming.

The gun crews in the bastion cheered lustily, to be joined by the men in the other bastions, and then those on the walls.  Men stood in the crenels to get a better view, some jumping up and down with excitement; Mankin saw sergeants order men to get down before they toppled off the wall.

Mankin, however, wanted a better view himself.  “Master Sergeant, come with me!” he told Goma.  “The hold-fast roof is the best place to watch this show.”

“Sir!” Goma said, with enthusiasm.

 

By the time they had crossed the yard and climbed up to the hold-fast roof, the fire had spread to cover what had to be twenty or thirty acres, and it was still growing and advancing eastward.  Sergeant Ros and the signal team on duty stared, open-mouthed, at the holocaust.  They stared at the conflagration so intently that no one seemed to notice their superior officer’s arrival.  Mankin did not call the lapse of military courtesy to their attention; instead he and Goma joined them at the roof’s edge.

Mankin immediately suffered a disappointment– the smoke from the fire was now so great that he could not get a clear view of the enemy lines, even with one of the larger telescopes.  The billowing smoke was so thick that he caught only occasional glimpses.  What he glimpsed was encouraging, though– an impression of milling confusion.

Rather more suggestive was what Mankin managed to hear over the roar of the flames– the calls of Okharian battalion horns.  The Okharians used the great horns that accompanied their legions in a different manner than the way Khetuni employed bugle calls, but it was still possible to discern separate calls.  Mankin heard assemble and retreat at the same time, combined with move by the flank and, oddly, officers’ call.  It seemed different units, or the different commanders of separate units, had conflicting ideas about what to do about the approaching flames.  Maybe, Mankin thought, just maybe there would be enough indecision among the commanders that the cohorts would not have the time to move out of harm’s way in an orderly fashion.  Okharian troops were very stolid facing danger and clung stubbornly to their formations, but no man could stand fast when a wall of flame loomed over him and began to singe his hair.

Just a little more time.  Unchanging, let them scatter so we have just a little more time. 

 

The Khetuni in the fort watched as the fire grew and grew and marched inexorably eastward.  As the sun set and the jahboon intensified, the fire became a moving wall that extended north and south nearly out of sight.  Acres, and then square miles, of scrubland were left blackened and smoking in its wake.  The smoke of the fire rose thousands of feet in the air, black in the red light of evening.

The troopers watched and slowly their jubilation faded.  It was as if they grew appalled at they had unleashed.  Mankin came down from the hold-fast and took another turn around the walls, quietly reminding everyone to mind their business, which was still to hold the fort.

An urgent query came via the telegraph from Fort Hope.  Mankin had to hurry back to the hold-fast to send a reassuring message in the last of the sunlight saying that the fort still stood, and to clarify what all that smoke signified.  He didn’t show it, but he was a little put out that Fort Hope’s response to the news was a mere Acknowledged.  Mankin sent a full official action report, and repeated his request for the position of the relief column, but only got another, irritating Acknowledged in reply.

Because of the set of the wind, the fire did not reach the scrubland to the north and south of the fort, nor the river woods.  Mankin warned the men on those portions of the walls to be especially alert; there were still Okharians close by, and doubtless they would look for any opportunity to repay the Khetuni in the outpost for their victory.

The sun went down.  The jahboon continued to blow, as usual.  As the sky darkened the fire became a source of light for the men in the fort.  At its peak Mankin could read the entries in the day log by its illumination.  Other than the smoke, the sky was clear, but they could not see very many stars because of the fire’s glow.

An hour after sundown the fire reached the former Okharian positions.  Mankin, no matter how much he strained, could no longer hear their horns.  No doubt they had finally overcome their uncertainty and fled, preferably in many directions at once, in as an incontinent fashion as possible.  Mankin calculated that, with a little luck, the enemy legion would not be able to reassemble in the vicinity of the fort until mid-day tomorrow.  At least, he hoped so.

The troopers, under Mankin and Goma’s direction, used the respite well.  Bastions were resupplied with ammunition and shot.  Mankin had the men fed their first full meal since breakfast, and then had Goma start rotating men down from the walls to get some sleep.  Mankin knew he needed sleep, as well, but there were things he had to do.  Most of all, of all things, paperwork.

Monthly payroll and uniform issues and ration allotments could wait; besides, they required the signature of the official post commander, and Mankin was merely the senior officer present.  Far more importantly, there were entries to be made in the battle log and the day log.  Mankin sat down in Lyon’s office to do them by lantern-light.  The mundane task struck him as odd, given the circumstances, but it had to be done– among other things, he needed to record the names of the men who had died– Private Fury, Private Hart, Lance Private Shinn, Sergeant Corum, and all of the other men, most of them more than names on a page for Mankin.  It was strange– you spent months with men, got to know them, and then suddenly they were just entries in a log.

The battle log was also where he recorded his commendations for the day’s action.  There were quite a number of them; Master Gunner Ita, Lieutenant Ganer, a dozen other men who had stood out, one way or another.  Corporal Sahs, for instance, quite on his own initiative, had heaved fused hand-bombs over the western wall during the second assault, causing huge casualties among the enemy and possibly discouraging them from turning their feint into a real attack.  Mankin listed Medicus Otho for his efforts to keep badly wounded men alive, or to ease the suffering of those he could not save.  And Mankin listed Scout Chure for his brave– and possibly above and beyond the call of duty– ride back to the fort to warn the garrison.  In the long run none of the entries would mean much, or would even be seen by anyone in authority, but Mankin felt an obligation to call out bravery and skill.  Who knew?  Perhaps some future antiquarian in a century or two would pull the logs off of a dusty shelf in the Electorate, read the entries, and find the bare history of this time fleshed out a little more fully.  The thought pleased him.

When he was done with the logs he turned to the last task he considered urgent– he composed a message to be sent up the chain of command at first light.  In the politest, most militarily correct terms, Mankin demanded a report on the status of the relief column.  He doubted it would do any good, but he had to try.

The minimum of paperwork done, Mankin went back out into the fire-lit night.

With the dying away of the jabhoon, the nightly desert chill had reasserted itself.  Mankin’s breath steamed in front of his face.  Soldiers not on wall-duty or taking their turn for sleep had built fires against the cold of the night and stood clustered around them.  Mankin greeted them and was greeted in return.  Here and there he stopped and talked with men who had been on the walls during the attacks, or in the yard when the Okharians had broken in.  The men seemed tired but confident; many talked excitedly about the hurt they had given the Okharians.  “We can keep on give it to them, right, sir?” one private said.

“Surely,” Mankin said, and he managed to smile.  “Just a matter of time before the relief force is here, and we can push all these sand-devils back to where they came from.”

The men seemed to appreciate Mankin’s words, even as Mankin harbored his own doubts.

He went up to the wall and walked among the men on guard.  All seemed to be alert and watchful.  Other men were on the wall, as well, not on the current guard shift but apparently wanting to stay close in case something happened.  Mankin found them in odd corners and on the steps of the bastions, talking or watching the distant line of the fire.  They greeted him as he moved among them, and he stopped here and there to talk.

In an angle between Bastion Three and the north gatehouse Mankin stumbled over the feet of a soldier seated against the wall.  “Ah, sorry,” Mankin said.

“Ain’t nothing, Cap’n,” the man said.  It was Denetoi.

Mankin caught a whiff of his breath, and glimpsed the small jug in Denetoi’s hand.  “Consoling yourself, Sergeant?”

“Just trying to ward off the cold, sir,” Denetoi said.  He held out the jug.  “Take a hit yourself.  Skinny fellow like you don’t have enough meat on your bones to keep warm as it is.”

Mankin took the jug.  “Your health, sergeant.”  He took a swig.

Fire raced down his throat.  He coughed, his eyes watering.  “Where…cough…where did you get that?”

Mankin glimpsed the sergeant’s white teeth grinning in the moonlight.  “It’s a little bit of my own brew, the stuff my boys and I been cooking down in the basement of Barracks Four.  You know, sir, the still that doesn’t exist?”

“Right,” Mankin said.  He took another nip, with the same results.  “Ha…save some of this stuff, sergeant, we could use it if we run low on gunpowder.”  He handed the jug back.

“Heh,” Denetoi said.  He lifted the jug in salute.  “Here’s to women who ain’t too choosy.”  He took a bigger drink than Mankin had dared.  “Ho, that’s good.”

Mankin squatted down.  “Don’t get too pie-eyed, sergeant,” he said.  “Tomorrow’s like to be as busy as today.”

“No worries, Cap’n,” Denetoi said.  He waved the jug.  “It takes more than the three little swallows this contains to affect me.”

“I suppose so.”  Mankin’s eyes were still watering.  “That reminds me of the Clan aquavit, back in the Reach.”

Denetoi peered at him.  “All due respect, sir, but I thought you were born in Brema?”

“I was,” Mankin said, “but I fostered with my mother’s folk in Tikili for three years when I was young.  I rode with the horse-herders and danced the greeting of spring around the Great Fire at Deilu-amere.”  The memory came tinged with regret.

“Ah,” Denetoi said.  He seemed suddenly sadder.  “I haven’t seen the Reach since my tenth summer.”

“Hm– I never asked how you came to the Electorate.”

“Well…blame my dad for that,” Denetoi said.  “My old man, he took us south when I was a kid.  He said he was going to look for work in the factories.  I heard the truth later– he was dodging the kin of a fellow he knifed in a dice game.”

“Oh,” Mankin said, not sure what more to say.

“That was my father,” Denetoi said.  “We fetched up in Alisan.  There was plenty of work to be had, but I don’t remember my dad doing a single day’s labor.  Instead he pimped out my mother and my sister to keep himself in wine.”

Tah.  I’m sorry, sergeant.”

“What for, Cap’n?  It was long before your time.  It all worked out to the good, anyway.”

“How so?”

“One day my old man went to sell me the same way he was selling Ma and Sis.  Instead I stuck a knife in him and run off.  I signed up with one of the Alisan foot regiments as a drummer-boy and never looked back.”

“I see,” Mankin said.  “Well, then, we’ve both come here by circuitous paths, it seems.”

“How did you, Cap’n, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Well, it’s not much of a tale.  My father was a trader.  Met my mother while on a caravan to the north, took her back to Brema.  I think she missed the Reach a lot, but that didn’t stop her from giving my father four children.  I’m the youngest.”

“But you went to the Lyceum in Alisan.”

Mankin nodded.  “My father had– has– ambitions for me.  The Tannerssons are like that, a bunch of folk looking to climb in the world.  My cousins in Brema…well, never mind.  My father had me tutored, then got me into the Lyceum.”

“Brr,” Denetoi said.  “Sitting and studying– not my idea of a happy life.”

“Maybe not for you, sergeant, but I loved it.”  Mankin sighed.  “Almost had my scholar’s stole, but then they closed the Lyceum to half-bloods.  Still, it could have been worse– at least my education got me into an officer’s uniform.”

“Well, you know what they say, sir,” Denetoi said.  “It’s an ill wind that lifts no girl’s skirt.”

Mankin laughed.  “I suppose so.”  He stood.  “Do get some rest, sergeant– we both have to uphold the reputation of the Attau.”

“Absolutely, sir.”

 

Mankin went down from the wall.  Just as he expected, he found Master Sergeant Goma doing his own paperwork lantern-light in the hold-fast.  “I think we’re about sewn up as tight as we can be for the night.”

“I agree, sir,” Goma said.

“You should get some rest,” Mankin said.

“With all due respect, sir,” Goma said, “it’s you who should try to sleep.”

“No, Master Sergeant, I think you should.”

“Begging your pardon, sir,” Goma persisted, “if there’s anyone in this fort who needs their mind clear of cobwebs, it’s you.  Me, I know my routine so well I shout it in my sleep anyway.  You need to be able to stay ahead of the enemy’s moves.  A few hours of sleep will go a long way toward that.”

Mankin shook his head.  “You know as well as I do that a clear head is not a requirement for an officer of the Electorate.  I mean, look Commandant Lyon.”

“I wouldn’t want to stumble into insubordination by agreeing with you too readily, sir,” Goma said, but he smiled.  “Still, my point holds.  The commander should get as much rest as possible.”

Mankin thought to argue further with the master sergeant, but then he smiled.  The heaviness of his own eyelids worked against him.  “All right, all right,” he said.  “You’ve twisted my arm.  I’ll bed down in the outer office; send a runner for me at once if anything stirs outside the walls.”

“Yes, sir,” Goma said.

Mankin turned, stopped.  “Oh– I left a message with the signal section.  A firm inquiry about the timetable of the relief column.  If I should be so fortunate as to sleep until dawn, could you make sure Signal sends it at very first light?”

Goma gave him a long look.  “Captain,” he said quietly, “you know they’re not coming.”

Mankin said nothing for a moment.  He was having some trouble finding the words.  At last he said, “I have to give the men some hope.”

“Of course you do,” Goma said.  “You’d be derelict if you didn’t.  But we both know we’re just not that important– and I know you well enough to know you’re not the sort to lie to yourself.”

“Maybe,” Mankin said.  “Perhaps you can just call it wishful thinking.  You seem pretty calm about it, Master Sergeant.”

Goma shrugged.  “Captain, I’ve been a soldier since I was a boy.  Near on to forty years.  I’ve seen more than my share of war.  When you’re an old soldier like me you always know a day may come when you find yourself in a spot you can’t get out of.  It’s just the nature of the business.”  He smiled.  “At least I can look back on a busy life– good men I’ve served with, places I’ve seen, pretty girls I’ve shagged.  I don’t have any regrets.  It’s hard for you youngsters, though, and I’m sorry for that.”

Mankin looked up into the dark corners of the room.  “I should have ordered an evacuation the moment we saw those dust clouds.  I should have….”

“Captain,” Goma said, “don’t.  Don’t do that to yourself.  Another part of being a soldier is duty, and we can’t easily abandon that.  Besides, running would have been no guarantee of safety, not with that piss-fire cavalry scampering about.  A bunch of gunners out in the open, with no guns?  Doesn’t bear thinking about.  Here we have a chance.”

“The chance of a hare in a den of foxes,” Mankin said.

“Perhaps,” Goma said.  “But hares– they’re tricky fellows.  You never know.”

Mankin slowly smiled.  “I suppose not.”

 

To be continued….

 

Carrie Fisher, 1956 – 2016

leia-armed
© Lucasfilm Ltd.

This just sucks.

I’m with Anna….

John Scalzi said it best.

She and I were not far apart in age, and I am feeling my mortality now.  The great thing about Carrie, though, was how much she accomplished while she was here.  We should all do half as much.

RIP, Carrie.

The Horseman, Part Three

Note: this story contains military violence, sexual situations and coarse language.

Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel

************************************************************

Mankin took a few moments to drink deep from the hold-fast well, then did a turn around the walls and the bastions.  All the guns were primed and ready, the bowmen resupplied with arrows, the culverin-men loaded and standing by their loops, swordsmen in their positions, despite the heat.  The men were all quiet, waiting, but they greeted Mankin with cheer and smiles.  “We served them up good, didn’t we, captain?” one private in Bastion Five said.

“We sure did,” Mankin said.  He knew the soldier’s whole gun crew was listening.  “All we have to do is hold them off like that for a while longer, and the relief column will get here and send them packing.”

He walked on, hoping he hadn’t lied to the boy.

After his inspection he went down to the infirmary.  In the moments right after the assault this had been a scene of frantic activity, but now there was something approaching calm.  Medical aides knelt beside the pallets where wounded men lay, wrapped in bandages.  The worst cases had been given poppy-seed and were silent; the less-severely wounded seemed to endure their injuries with a good deal of aplomb.  There was a smell of drying blood and tincture of mercury in the air, but that was how a hospital was supposed to smell.  It was almost reassuring.

Mankin knelt down beside Corporal Karu, whose arm was in a sling, and who sported a nasty abrasion on his forehead.  “Did you lead with your head again, Karu?”

“Ah, captain, it ain’t fair,” Karu said.  “Right after they get over the wall one of the bastards nicks my arm, and I stumble right off the wall and land on the stable roof.  Had two or three of them lined up, too, could have really quick-marched them to hell, but I had to come over all clumsy.”

“Well, that was just lucky for the Okharians,” Mankin said.  “But don’t fret about it.  We cleaned them out pretty good, and we’ll do it again if they come back.”

“I don’t suppose you could talk to the medicus, could you, captain?” Karu said, hopefully.

“No, no,” Mankin said.  “This is your duty station for the moment.  You rest.  That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir,” Karu said, glum.

The medicus was washing blood from his hands as Mankin entered the back room.  “How are we doing?” he asked.

The medicus, a lean man named Otho, shook his head.  “Lost one of the amputees– Sergeant Tor.  Loss of blood, most likely.  Private Sereno is not likely to live out the night.  All the others should pull through.”  Otho rubbed his eyes.  “Of course, the best prescription is to drive those sand-rats off for good, but that depends on the relief column, doesn’t it?”

“They’re coming,” Mankin said.  “Don’t worry about that.”

 

There was one more room Mankin visited in the barracks– a darkened cubicle that had been Sergeant Tor’s space, as a matter of fact.  As he would not be needing it, this was where the Khetuni had laid the one living Okharian still in the fort.

Here there was a stink of blood and bowels; the man on the pallet breathed heavily, slowly, struggling with his pain.  Otho had dosed him with poppy, but the man’s wounds were so severe that the drug could not mute their agony.  Mankin looked them over, but even he, who was no medicus, could tell there was nothing to be done.

He knelt down beside the man.  The Okharian looked up at him, defiant despite his pain.

“What is your name, soldier?” Mankin asked in Okharian.

The man sucked in a shaking breath.  “What is it to you, Khetuna?”

“I want to know who I’m talking to,” Mankin said.  “Who is not a soldier anymore.  Your war is over, friend.  You’ll not see the sunset.  I’m sorry.”

“I know it,” the Okharian said.  “It is the will of Hasor and Faror.  They weave the fate of each man and woman.  It is well.  My life is only one spark among millions.  Together, though, we will set a fire that will drive you invaders back into the sea and cleanse the land.”

“Perhaps,” Mankin said.  “But that’s a question I’m not asking at the moment.  Is there anything you want?”

The man hesitated.  “Some water?” he said, warily.

Mankin stood and poked his head out the cubicle’s door.  “Hey!  Some water here.”

One of the aides brought a jug.  Mankin knelt again by the Okharian.  He helped the man lift his head.  The Okharian drank deep.  Mankin would not have normally given so much water to a man with a belly wound, but in this case there was no point in refusing it.

“I never thought to owe a Khetuna anything,” the Okharian said, settling back.

“Well,” Mankin said, “I’m only half Khetuni.  Maybe that makes a difference.”  He set the jug down by the Okahrian’s head.  “We could give you more poppy, if you want it.”

“No,” the Okharian said.  “It is my fate to endure with courage whatever the gods ordain.”  He grimaced.  “Also, if I were drugged I might talk too freely.”

“That could be,” Mankin said.  He smiled.  “I will tell you what– I will start.  I am Captain Mankin Tannersson, of Brema, commander of this post.”

The Okharian looked him up and down.  “I am Gerutana Keruhar, of Mira-teno, decarion of the Seventh Cohort of the Legion of Mira-teno.”

“Well, we knew we faced at least a half-legion,” Mankin said.  “It helps to put a name to it.  Is Mira-teno far away?”

Gerutana closed his eyes.  “It is in the foothills of the Crystal Mountains.  A valley, up in the folds of the hills.” Gerutana opened his eyes.  Mankin saw regret.  “That’s home.”

“It sounds beautiful,” Mankin said.  “I wish we were both home.”

Gerutana looked at Mankin in suspicion.  “You say this?”

“Yes,” Mankin said.  “I’m not here by my own will.”

“Yet you are here, and killing us.”

“True enough,” Mankin said.  “War is a strange business.”  He hesitated.  “I have to ask– is there more than one legion coming against us?”

Gerutana shook his head.  “I will not tell you anything about that.”

“I really didn’t expect you to,” Mankin said.  “It’s just my job to ask.  Just as it’s my job to ask if there are there guns coming here.”

“I know nothing of that,” Gerutana said.

“All right,” Mankin said.  “I’ll leave it be.”

Gerutana peered at Mankin.  “You just ask, and do not try to compel an answer?”

“What, from a man who is dying anyway?  I doubt it would work, and I’d have to live with it afterwards.”  Mankin sighed.  “I’ll leave you in peace.”

Suddenly Gerutana grabbed Mankin’s sleeve.  Mankin was surprised at the man’s strength.  “What is it?” he asked.

“Captain,” Gerutana said, “I ask a favor.  From one soldier to another.”

Mankin hid his surprise.  “If it’s within my power.  What is it?”

“If…if you live,” Gerutana said, “I ask…I have a woman, back in Mira-teno.  Mara.  Mara’s her name.  We have a son.  If you live, could you get word to her?”

“If I can, I will,” Mankin said.  He was surprised all over again– since the Okharians traced their inheritance through the mother’s line, fathers often did not have very close relationships with their own children.  “What should I tell her?”

“That I died bravely,” Gerutana said.  “It’s not much to ask, captain.  It will be something for my son to hold on to.”

“If I live,” Mankin said, “I will do it.”  He smiled and shrugged.  “Whether I live is, of course, in the hands of the Unchanging.”

“In that, captain,” Gerutana said, “there is no difference between us.”

 

When he came out of the barracks Mankin found a runner from the Signals section waiting for him.  The private held out a scrap of scribbled-over paper.  “Message from Division, sir, relayed by Fort Hope.”

Mankin took the scrap of paper–

To: Commander, First Senso-marta Outpost

From: Division Headquarters, Fifth Division of Enum

Relief column consisting of three brigades of Tenth Inan enroute.  Cavalry from Corps reserve screening ahead of column.  Report all further enemy action and movements.  Hold outpost at all costs—repeat, at all costs.

“That’s encouraging,” he murmured.  He crumpled the paper in his hand.  Now they just need to get here.  

Mankin found Goma and the officers and shared the message.  Ganer said, “How long will it take them to get to us?”

“There’s no way of knowing, lieutenant,” Mankin said.  “We do not know when they left, or from where, or what they might meet on the way.”

Ganer looked disappointed.  “You’d think they’d have given us more information.”

Mankin’s eyebrows went up; from the obliging Lieutenant Ganer, this speech very nearly amounted to open rebellion.  Mankin was spared from having to say anything, however, as Goma said, “When you’ve been in the army a bit longer, sir, you’ll learn that details are reserved to higher echelons.  Down here we have to make do.”

They fed the troops a late midday meal of cold meat and hardtack.  Mankin went up to the roof of the hold-fast again, this time carrying one of the spotting telescopes.  The signal telescope was more powerful, but it was reserved for watching Fort Hope for signals.  Mankin set up the spotting telescope and scanned the whole circle of the horizon around the outpost.

Yes, the dust-clouds and flash of light on armor and spear-points were still out there, but despite the added height he could still not make much sense of what the Okharians were doing.  There were formations still to the immediate east of the fort, moving about as if reordering their ranks, but other enemy units were now both to the north and south.  Mankin could not tell if they were merely moving to cut off the outpost, or marching away to easier targets.

The enemy movements to the north worried Mankin.  About eight hundred yards north of the fort there was a long ravine running from the southeast to the northwest.  It was dead ground to anyone in the fort.  At that range it was difficult to hit with the fort’s main guns; only the mortar section, in Bastion Seven, could hope to drop shells into it with any accuracy.  Mankin took a little comfort in the thought that the Okharians did not themselves possess reliable mortars that could cover that range.  But it was still a concern.

He checked with the Signals section.  No further messages had been received from Fort Hope.  Mankin studied the distant fortress; as far as he could tell the fort was not under attack, and the large marker flag still fluttered over it.  That was as reassuring as the fort’s silence was frustrating.

Mankin went down again.  He would take another turn around the bastions, and then check with Goma about the rotation of the men on the walls.  He wondered if the Okharians would hold off making another attack until dark.

The blare of Okharian horns assaulted his ears as he stepped out of the hold-fast’s main door.  At first he could not tell their direction; the walls seemed to reflect and diffuse the sound, so that it seemed to becoming from every direction.  Then a bugle sounded– enemy to the northwest.

Bastion Eight— the closest to the crossing, and the woods along the river.  Mankin ran for the bastion.

The screams of the Okharians reverberated in Mankin’s ears as he raced up the stairs to the bastion.  Its guns began to fire, and then the guns the other bastions on the western wall that could bear opened up.  Mankin reached the gun deck of the bastion just in time for the concussion of Man Reaper firing to slap him in the face and flatten his uniform against his body.

He jumped up on the battlement beside the gun as its crew jumped to reload.  A mass of Okharians was boiling up out of the woodland, a crowd without any discernible formation.  The enemy screamed and ran hard toward the northwest corner of the fort.  The faster soldiers had already covered half the distance to the fort.

We missed them.  Mankin cursed himself.  The Okharians had done exactly what he had feared they would do, used the woods as cover to close on the fort.

As he watched, though, he could not see how it had advantaged them.  The open ground on the west side of the fort was still a killing ground, and the guns were cutting great, bloody swaths through the charging enemy.  The defensive ditch was not as deep on this side of the fort, but the Okharians still faced the glacis and the wall.  Bowmen on the wall and the lower level of the bastion were exacting a price, as well, picking off men in full stride.

“Get ready for scaling ladders!” Mankin called.  He saw Okharian teams carrying the ladders forward.  Soldiers carried repelling poles up to the parapet and began to hand them out.

Mankin jumped down as Man Reaper’s crew hauled her back into position.  He ran out on to the wall just as the first Okharians reached the ditch and began to cross it.  Mankin dared to peek out a crenel and saw men climb up to the glacis and stop, panting, now out of reach of the guns, but not the rain of arrows from above.

The first of the scaling ladders reached the ditch, and the Khetuni archers played havoc with the teams carrying them as they slowed to cross the ditch.  As many as the bowmen dropped, however, twice as many crowded in to pick the ladders up and carry them forward.

Something’s not right.  Mankin could count only four or five ladders in the mass of men below.  That seemed far too few.  And yet the Okharians came on and kept crowding in against the wall; within a minute or so there were a hundred or more men milling at the base of the glacis, with yet more coming in.

Mankin pulled his head in as the ladders reached the base of the wall.  “Get ready to receive visitors!” he called out.  The men along the wall cheered and waved their poles.

Mankin moved to one side, to get another vantage point from the far crenel that abutted Bastion Eight.  From here he could look down on the enemy without presenting himself as an easy target of Okharian bowmen.  He saw the ladders going up.  Men fell at their foot as Khetuni archers shot them, but others leapt to replace them.  The tops of the ladders fell against the top of the walls– and nothing else happened.  Mankin watched one, two, three heartbeats, and not a single Okharian started up any of the ladders.

“What the hell?” he said.

He dared lean out further, risking enemy arrows, desperate to comprehend what was going on.  He saw, amid the surging crowd of infantrymen below, a line of soldiers threading their way through.  They seemed focused and determined, and each of them carried a large backpack.  They appeared to be working their way around the Bastion Eight, headed for the northern wall of the fort.

“Dammit!” Mankin cried.  He pulled his head in just in time, as enemy arrows clattered off the stones around him.  “It’s a feint!” he shouted to the men on the wall.  “Those bastards have found the postern gate.  They’ve got petards, they’re going to blow it in!”

Mankin turned and ran past startled faces, threw himself down the closest steps.  “Bugler!” he shouted.  Private Ren, the Fifth Section bugler, came running to meet him at the foot of the stairs.  “Sound ‘assemble, every third’.”

Ren put his bugle to his lips and sounded the call.  Swordsmen detached themselves from the walls, crowded down the stairs.  Mankin drew his sword and ran for the north side of the fort.

He’d gone three yards when there came a harsh crack.  Smoke and flame shot out of the inner gate, along with wooden fragments and pieces of stone.  Mankin instinctively went to one knee, ducking his head as debris bounced and whistled around him.  He lifted his eyes only when broken bits of the postern and the wall stopped flying.

There was a smoking hole where the entrance of the pastern had stood moments before; and out of that smoke surged Okharian soldiers screaming “Okhar gershan!”  Mankin yelled himself and charged.  From behind him a bugle called enemy within the walls.

The nearest Okharian thrust a spear at Mankin’s belly.  Mankin parried the spear-point, spun and slashed the soldier with a sweeping cut.  The man fell, blood spurting from his bisected throat.  Another Okharian came at Mankin.  Mankin parried the man’s sword-thrust, the swords ringing, beat his sword aside and thrust him through.

There were Okharians all around him.  Mankin knew a moment’s doubt that perhaps he had killed himself by charging into the mass of them.  He knocked another enemy soldier off his feet, turned and cut the sword-hand off another.  The Okharian screamed and fell backward, but there were many, many Okharians behind him.

Then Khetuni troops were around Mankin, shouting “Khetun!”  The collision of the two groups of soldiers was like two waves crashing into each other, some troopers running full-tilt into opponents.  The Okharian war-cries turned to screams of pain and rage.

In the midst of the melee an Okharian officer appeared before Mankin.  Mankin glimpsed a tabard of red, and gold braid– a half-cohort commander– before the man swung his sword.  Mankin parried, counter-attacked, and was forced back by the man’s counter-parry.  Their swords spoke loudly together amid the chaos and noise.

Within moments Mankin knew he faced a well-trained swordsman.  The officer’s attacks were fast, precise and deceptive; Mankin barely countered two attacks that changed direction at the last moment.  The Okharian seemed to have wrists of granite, and his blade, a double-edged krahjana, flashed and turned like a willow stick in his hand.

But this was no fencing floor, and Mankin had learned his swordsmanship in a very practical school.  He parried, stepped in close and slammed the Okharian with his shoulder.  The officer grunted and stumbled backwards.  Mankin beat the krahjana aside and the point of his sword transfixed the Okharian through the heart.  The Okharian looked surprised; then he crumbled, sliding off Mankin’s blade.

Just yards in front of Mankin another group of Okharians burst out of the open wound of the postern gate.  A sharp report, then two more, and the Okharians went down in screaming heaps, suddenly bloodied and torn.  On the wall behind them Ganer and several other Khetuni were firing down into the mass of Okharians with culverins.  Ganer fired one of the hand-cannon into the crowd, snatched a newly loaded weapon from a soldier and fired again, all the while screaming curses Mankin could not hear over the din.

The blasts of scrap metal and stones tore the Okharians in front of Mankin apart, and the survivors wavered.  “Push them back!” Mankin yelled.  The Khetuni around him shouted and charged.  The Okharians still within the walls went down under their rush, or turned and fled the way they came.

Someone grabbed Mankin’s arm.  He turned, intending to kill them, but it was Master Sergeant Goma.  “Sir!  Don’t go out there!”

Mankin saw that the opening in the wall was clear of Okharians; he could look, over wreckage and piled bodies, right out into the defensive ditch.  “I have no intention of being that stupid, master sergeant,” he said, gasping.  “Get the men together, seal this hole up!  Stone blocks, head high, three deep.  Move fast, before they regroup!”

“You heard the captain– move!” Goma shouted to the men around them.

“Ganer!” Mankin shouted to the lieutenant.  “Keep them away from the wall while we get it blocked up!”

“Yes, sir!” Ganer called down.

Mankin stood, panting, and looked around as the troopers in the yard worked to seal the breach, or dealt with scattered enemy soldiers trapped in the fort.  Two or three Okharians threw down their weapons and surrendered; Mankin was pleased to see his men drag them away, disarmed but alive.  Other troopers moved among the piled enemy bodies to dispatch the wounded.

Goma came back, as troopers relayed stone blocks and began to fill in the breach.  “Sir,” he said, shaking his head, “I want you to understand I say this with all due respect, but you are flat crazy.”

Mankin tried to laugh, but it just came out as a shaky gasp.  “I won’t argue with you.”

 

The troopers sealed the breach much more quickly than Mankin would have thought possible.  In minutes, while Ganer and his culverins kept the Okharians at bay, the soldiers had a solid wall across the gap, with just enough space at the top to shoot through.  Mankin stationed culverin-men there– they could fire right down the passage and instantly turn it into an abattoir if the Okharians tried it again.  Mankin found it ironic– the passageway was more strongly protected now than it had been before.

Perhaps a whole section of Okharians, a hundred fifty men or more, had made it inside the fort.  Few had made it back out; a thick fan of dead and badly wounded Okharians covered the sand of the yard.  The troopers took a few more of the lightly wounded prisoner, but most they dispatched.  It was better that way, Mankin thought– most of the wounded had suffered ghastly injuries, particularly those hit by the culverins.  With the sun beating down he detailed men to haul the bodies up to the wall and toss them over.

He went down to the basement of Barracks Three and interrogated the new prisoners.  They were in the basement of Barracks Five, which was the fort’s brig in ordinary times and served well enough as a prisoner of war holding pen.  The Okharians were mostly sullen, as if resenting the Khetuni for letting them live.  Mankin tried to question them, particularly as to whether any guns were coming, but the prisoners either did not know anything about them or were supremely tight-lipped.

Leaving the prisoners, Mankin spoke with Otho.  There were ten more wounded Khetuni, one or two just clinging to life. Six men had died outright pushing the Okharians out of the fort.  Mankin chalked up the difference between the Okharian casualty total and the Khetuni to Ganer’s timely intervention with his hand-cannons.  He made a note to mention the boy’s initiative in the fort’s battle-log; that sort of enterprise needed to be rewarded.

Mankin took a turn around the wall and inspected the bastions.  The troopers had resupplied the guns and the bowmen; they sheltered as best they could from the sun but seemed pleased with how they had stood off the Okharians again.  Mankin greeted the men, particularly complimenting the culverin-men who had stood by Ganer to break the attack, reassuring anyone who asked that the relief column was truly on its way.

In part to confirm that for himself Mankin went up to the telegraph and sent Fort Hope another message, updating them, and Division, about the latest attack.  In minutes they got back a response that boiled down to relief enroute, hold at all costs.  Mankin swallowed a growing frustration; he possessed no practical means of shaking the answers he wanted out of Division, so he had to settle for what he could get.

With the failure of their attempt against the postern gate, the Okharians had pulled back from the western and northern walls and returned to the shelter of the riverside woodland.  A strange quiet fell over the fort, punctuated only by the screams and moaning of the enemy wounded outside the walls, and the sound of the of wind.  It had picked up, and shifted direction; Mankin recognized the change as heralding the jabhoon, the hot, dry evening wind that came out of the Dune Kingdom, which blew every third night or so in this season, and which brought added misery in its wake.  It would make the afternoon and night even more wretched, until it died away about midnight.  Mankin filed it away as one more thing he could do nothing about.

With the Okharians’ retreat to the woodland, Mankin found himself once more guessing at their movements.  More dust, and more glints of sun off of armor, but Mankin again couldn’t make much sense out of it all.  It did seem that formations were reforming out there, particularly to the northeast of the fort, but Mankin could not tell how many or in what strength.

Further afield, more dust clouds continued to march toward Fort Hope and Fror.  Mankin studied those clouds through a telescope set up in Bastion One.  It seemed if the entire Okharian army was being concentrated in this one corner of the kingdom, to gain a local advantage.  Logically, he doubted it, but looking at that dust it was hard to be logical.

He leaned against a crenel, trying to think.  Sixteen men was a comparatively small price to pay to keep the fort from being overrun, but it still stung.  It left two hundred and ninety-one men, and at least a third of those were gunners who would not leave their guns except in the last extremity.  Mankin redid the numbers in his head and worried about holding the walls.  Twice now Okharians had made it inside the fort, if only briefly.  If they continued their assaults, if they kept whittling away at the garrison, sooner or later they would make a breach and Mankin would not have enough men to contain them.

Relief column, relief column…if Mankin made it into a chant and burned incense, would it make the column march faster?  The faith Mankin had inherited from his mother had taught him to disdain outward rituals aimed at manipulating the divine, but, at the moment, he was willing to try anything.

 

To be continued…..

The Horseman, Part Two

Note to the reader: this story contains military violence, sexual situations and coarse language.

Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel

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They went up to the eastern wall.  The gunnery division had set up one of their bigger telescopes there, and some of the men from Bastion Three were clustered around, staring through it.  They hastily stood aside as Mankin and the others came up the stairs.

“You can see them, Cap’n,” Sergeant Denetoi said.

Mankin bent to look through the eyepiece.  With the sun up the land was warming rapidly, and the image in the lens wavered in the heat, but Mankin could still see the columns of infantry, with bright colored ensigns and battle-standards at the head of each cohort, coming down the roads from the eastern heights.  There were Okharian troops on the Cactus Road and the Scorpion Track, with a mile between them.  Sunlight glinted on spear-points, burnished helmets and armor.  Mankin knew Okharians were used to the heat, but he still imagined scale armor had to be torment.  Most Khetuni soldiers favored lighter leather and quilted armor, which were stifling enough.

Mankin counted the standards of twelve cohorts before giving up.  He stood back from the telescope and studied the horizon.  Yet more dust-clouds marred the eastern sky, many which seemed to angle off toward the northwest.  Fort Hope— and probably Fror-manu, as well.  If the Okharians took the city, they would cut off half the Khetuni Division of the Gar.  Holding Senso-marta would make little sense then, but it wasn’t a decision Mankin could make.

“There’s a deal of them, no doubt about it,” Master Sergeant Goma said.

Mankin turned to face the officers and the senior sergeants.  The two junior officers looked scared, the old sergeants resigned.  “They’ll be here in four to five hours,” he said.  “Cavalry sooner.  Artillery, if they have any, will be following behind.”  When the war had started the Okharians had barely any guns at all, but they had quickly caught up.  “If they’re anxious to take us they may try an infantry assault.  Otherwise it will be a waiting game.  The longer we hold them, the closer the relief column will get.”

“If there’s enough of them,” Goma said, “they might just swarm us.”

Lieutenant Ganer looked green; Hass looked as if he were about to cry.  “Maybe,” Mankin said.  “But they’ll pay a price getting across the fort’s killing ground, if we work the guns right.  Too high and we might just hold them off.”

Until their guns come up.  Mankin put the thought away.

This was the moment, he supposed, when he should something inspiring.  Nothing came.  Finally he said, “Everybody just do your job.  That’s the only way to hold this fort– and holding out for the relief force is our main hope right now.”  He paused, resisting the urge to wipe his hands on his trousers.  “Let’s get ready.”

 

He wrote out a report and had the signal team send it.  While he did the senior sergeants rearranged the guard on the wall, sending half down to rest in the barracks, and making sure fresh water was brought up the bastions. Mankin took a turn of the bastions, inspecting the guns one more time.  Then there was nothing to do but wait.

Mankin took himself to the hold-fast.  He sat down in the commandant’s office, in one of the messenger chairs, but not at the commandant’s desk.  He sat, soaking up the cool of the room, and tried to think.

Okharian cavalry, when they appeared, would not worry Mankin.  The fort’s guns would decimate any force attempting to approach the crossing, and cavalry could not assault a fortified position.  It was the infantry following on that were the first danger to the outpost.

Would they come prepared for an assault, with scaling ladders and petards?  Mankin had to assume they would– what was coming down from those eastern heights was no mere raiding party, but a coordinated offensive, obviously aimed at pushing the Khetuni right out of this province.  They would come fully prepared to scale the walls and blow in the gates.

There was a killing ground four hundred yards wide around the fort, except on the river side, where the trees lining the waterway came within two hundred yards.  Mankin was still confident that the bastions on that side would riddle any force taking shelter the woods, especially if the mortars lobbed bombs into the trees.  On the other side, the guns utterly dominated the open ground.  Even at a dead run enemy infantry would take two minutes to cross that space, and heavily armored Okharian regulars were not fast runners.

Mankin closed his eyes and pictured the assault from the viewpoint of a foot-soldier crossing that ground from the east.  Three bastions could bear on that ground.  With four guns a piece, each of which could land aimed shots on targets up to half-a-mile away, each firing three rounds a minute…the image didn’t bear thinking on.  From the limit of the guns’ range to the open ground, the Khetuni could rain down round shot and maybe a few mortar bombs at will.  The enemy’s formations would suffer cruel punishment before they even got close to the fort– but when they emerged out on the killing ground the guns would switch to grape, and the real slaughter would begin.  Any attack that tried to press to the walls of the fort would be bled white.

But if they come in enough numbers….  The Okharians had never been shy about using numbers to overcome Khetuni firepower.  If more than a few of those legions Mankin had glimpsed coming down from the eastern heights were sent against the outpost, they might just soak up everything the fort’s guns could hand out.  They might just be able to clamber over the dead and reach the outpost’s walls.  If that happened Mankin did not know if the garrison could repulse them.

But if the Okharians had guns, all his calculations might be amiss.  The Okharians were still integrating guns into their army.  Not all units could call upon artillery for support, and the quality of Okharian guns and the skill of their gunners varied greatly– Mankin had seen Okharian guns blow up and kill more Okharian soldiers than Khetuni.  But if enemy guns appeared outside the outpost, and if they were wielded with any amount of skill, they might well silence the fort’s own guns, knock the walls down and allow their infantry in.

It all depended, Mankin reasoned, on how badly the Okharians wanted this crossing.  The next crossing to the south was fifty miles away, and there the western side of the river was all difficult badlands.  Taking the Senso-marta crossing would allow the Okharians to move troops quickly up the Gar’s left bank and invest Khetuni positions on that side of the river, as well as cutting supply routes to the desert outposts.  Without it, they would have to fight their way past Fort Hope and Fror-manu, which were much tougher propositions than Senso-marta.  Mankin rather hoped the Okharians did not know that.  It wasn’t that he wished the Khetuni soldiers stationed there ill– far from it.  But being the target of too many Okharians at once was a fate Mankin fervently hoped to avoid.

The sound of guns interrupted his thoughts.  He grabbed his sword and ran for the door.

 

Bastions One and Three were firing as Mankin took the steps up the north wall three at a time.  He got to the top of the wall just in time to see Okharian cavalry, three hundred or so yards away, wheel away amid clouds of dust raised by the roundshot falling among them to ride back off to the northeast.  One, two more guns fired; the shot dropped among the horsemen.  Mankin saw one man and his mount go down in a spray of blood and torn flesh.

Then the horsemen were spurring hard away.  One more gun fired, but the shot tore the ground short of the enemy.  The Okharians sped away, raising a screen of dust behind them.

“Cease fire!” Mankin shouted, just as the crew of the third gun in Bastion Three cleared to fire.  “Cease fire!  They’re going.”

A moment’s silence fell over the north wall, and the gun crews were cheering.  Men thumped each other on the back and shook fists at the retreating Okharians.  “We sent ‘em packing!” someone shouted.

“How’d you like the taste of Khetuni iron, you bastards?” a private shouted after the riders.

“At ease!” Mankin shouted.  “They were just seeing if there was anyone at home.  They’ll be back soon enough, with infantry.  Reload and prepare the guns for the next round.”

The men stopped cheering and fell to work.  Ita came up to the top of the wall and urged his crews to their work with words far more emphatic and pungent than Mankin’s.  Mankin left the work in his hands, and watched the horsemen dwindle in the distance.  Just the opening act.  He went back down.

 

An hour later they saw the dust of marching men on the flat ground to their east.

Mankin used the telescope to study the approaching infantry.  He counted at least four cohort standards– a minimum of three thousand men, all aimed at the outpost.  As bad as that was, there was the possibility that the dust obscured yet more cohorts behind the lead units.  Worst case, Mankin reasoned, there was perhaps a half legion headed his way.  Despite the growing heat, it was as if he carried a lump of ice in his gut.

Goma rotated the men on the walls.  Mankin took one last turn around the bastions.  The men were solemn, quietly watching, speaking in low voices and only about the business at hand.  Goma went around the bastions on his own, briefing each gun crew on what to expect, how to wait the order to fire, telling them to work their guns steadily, by the count, and to stay focused on what they were doing and disregard any distractions.  Mankin hoped that last piece of advice wasn’t just wishful thinking; not all the men here were veterans who understood that the best chance anyone had to make it through a fight was to keep doing what needed to be done.

Soon enough they caught the notes of Okharian pipes and drums.  The steady beat of the drums particularly grew louder and louder, a rising throb of sound that seemed to hover over the fort like an ominous cloud.  The men listened, and Mankin thought that they steadied down even more.

“Rider!  There’s a rider coming!”

Mankin looked up at the shout, which came from Bastion One.  He ran up to the eastern wall close by the main gate and looked.  Yes, a small plume of dust, well ahead of the enemy infantry, marked a rider coming fast.  A larger cloud of dust followed the first.

“What does that fool think he’s doing, riding right at us?” one of the soldiers nearby said.

Mankin turned away from the parapet.  “Open the main gate!  It’s one of our scouts.”

Soldiers in the yard sprang to the gate.  They got it open just as Chure emerged from the scrub.  He flogged his horse without mercy across the open ground and stormed through the gate.  “Shut it!” he yelled.  “They’re close on my ass!”

Soldiers strained and shoved the gate shut, even as enemy horsemen appeared out of the scrub.  The Khetuni shoved the bars closed as a gun in Bastion Two fired.

Mankin didn’t wait to see if the shot scored any hits; he was dashing down the steps to the yard.  He reached the ground as Chure flung himself off his horse.  It was dismount, or have the horse roll on him, because the animal staggered and collapsed in utter exhaustion.

Chure staggered himself; Mankin caught him by the shoulders.  Chure was covered in dust, his aspect wild-eyed.  “Water, water, for the love of the gods,” he croaked.  His legs buckled and he sat down unceremoniously in the sand.

“Get him water!” Mankin ordered, as more guns fired.  A soldier ran and got a dipperful from the nearest barrel.  Chure drained it very nearly in one swallow, and another after that.

“Ease up,” Mankin said, “you’ll make yourself sick.”

“I’m all right now,” Chure said.  “It was just that last sprint– I had the entire Okharian army around me, and I don’t really know how I made it through.”  He coughed, wiped his blood-shot eyes with his hand.  “Pretty sure they caught Deman.”

“Tell me everything,” Mankin said.  “But make it quick.”

Chure shuddered, with exhaustion or fear or both.  “I made it up on the plateau before midnight.  That’s when my troubles started.  I dodged Okharian cavalry all night, and then I had to stay ahead of their infantry.  There’s a half-legion coming against us here, captain, I counted, but that’s just patch on what’s out there.  Full legions, Guards brigades, thousands and thousands of infantry, battalions of cavalry, batteries of guns.  Most are aimed right at Fror-manu, captain, they obviously mean to take the city.”

“I understand,” Mankin said.  “Does this half-legion have guns?”

“I didn’t see any, captain,” Chure said, “but that don’t prove nothing….”

Horns blared outside the fort’s walls.  The sound shivered down Mankin’s spine– it was the Okharian call to the attack.  It’s started.

Mankin stood.  “Sound stand-to!  Everyone to the walls!”

He went up the steps to the eastern wall, Chure forgotten.  Goma was there with Ganer and Hass.  The kids looked green, Goma grim.  “They’re deploying out in the scrub,” the master sergeant said. “Five hundred yards.  Looks like they’re going to try this side first.”

He spoke over the bugle call.  Troopers boiled out of the barracks below and up to the walls.  Swordsmen found their positions at the battlements, bowmen in the corners of the bastions, ready to enfilade advancing infantry with a cross-fire.  We’re as ready as we can be.  There was little comfort in the thought.

“Hass,” Mankin said, “go to each bastion, remind everyone to mind their sectors, no matter what happens over here.  This could be a feint, or they could be getting ready to hit us from two directions at the same time.  Go!”

The boy took off, dodging soldiers.  “Ganer,” Mankin said.  “You take command of the gate-houses.  Keep the bastards away from the gate.”

“Sir,” Ganer said.  He remembered to salute before sprinting away.

“Hold this section of the wall, Master Sergeant,” Mankin said.  “I will be in Bastion Three.”

“Sir,” Goma said.

Mankin dashed the thirty yards to the bastion.  Within it the gunners stood by their guns, ready; one additional gun was being run forward to the bastion’s front angle, to bolster the fire that would directly oppose the Okharian advance.  Ita, cussing and chiding, was directing the work.  Mankin stood on the battlement as the gunners levered the cannon into position and peered toward the Okharian formations, out in the scrub.  As Mankin watched the standards of four cohorts appeared above the brush, in a line that spanned two hundred feet.  The scrub was high enough that at this distance Mankin could only glimpse occasional flashes of sun off helmets and spear points.  It didn’t matter; he could see enough.  It’s a column assault.

“I need two runners!” he yelled.  He jumped down from the battlement, nearly stepping on the two junior privates who came running.  “You,” he said, pointing at one, “go to Bastion Two.  You,” he pointed to the other, “go to Bastion Four.  Tell the bastion captains to open fire on the Okharians at four hundred yards with round shot.  Aim for the standards– that will be the center of their formations.  When they reach the open ground switch to grape.  Spread the word along the walls– archers find and take out section and half-cohort commanders.  Everyone to stand by for an assault on the walls.  Go!”

The privates sprinted away.  Mankin found Ita at his elbow.  “Any better suggestions, Master Gunner?”

“No, sir,” the older man said, grinning, “I couldn’t have laid it out better myself.  Gunnery is really a simple business, sir– the enemy shows themselves, we blow them to pieces.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Mankin said.

The horns stopped.  Into the moment of ringing silence that followed flooded in the sound of hundreds of men’s voices crying “Okhar!”  Then the enemy drums thundered again, and the standards advanced.

“Here they come!” Ita shouted.  “Stand ready, wait the word!”

Mankin stepped back, out of the way of the guns and their crews, but still watching.  The gun crews were silent, waiting, tense.  The gunners’ matches on their linstocks smouldered; the rising smoke was nearly the only motion in the bastion.  The fort was a pool of silence compared to the noisy attack.

Mankin did numbers in his head.  At a steady walk it would take the Okharians more than a minute to cross one hundred yards.  In the thick scrub the enemy would be even slower.  Once they reached the open ground they would doubtless break into a run, but they would still be long seconds crossing those three hundred yards.  Once they reached the fort they would have to cross the outer ditch– not as deep as Mankin had wanted it to be– and then face the glacis– not as complete as Mankin would have liked.  Still, the enemy who reached the wall would have twenty-five feet of glacis and wall to ascend, with enfilading fire coming down on them.  Mankin sent a prayer to the Unchanging that it would be enough.

“Ready!” Ita cried, raising his arm, as the standards came on.  Mankin could see the brush being trampled down by hundreds of marching feet, a steady line trampling through the scrub.  He began to discern the forms of hundreds of individual men coming toward him, melded into a glinting line of iron.

“FIRE!” Ita shouted.

The first gun, Death’s Handmaiden, fired, a harsh crack! that compressed the air around Mankin and set his ears to ringing.  Serpent’s Kiss and Iron Reaper followed, each gun speaking with authority.  The wind bore the smoke to one side and Mankin saw the balls as they arced outward.  Handmaiden’s ball shot across the open ground and dived into the scrub, short of the enemy.  For a sliver of a heartbeat Mankin thought it was a miss; but the ball skipped off the ground, tore through the brush, and struck the enemy formation.  One of the standards wavered and fell; Mankin was sure he saw a man flung skyward.  Screams echoed across the ground.

Bastions Two and Four were firing, as well.  Shot tore into the enemy along their front.  Another standard toppled; a third was tossed in pieces into the air.  Dust and pieces of brush hurtled through the air; here and there bodies in armor followed.  Cries of agony and fear echoed between the roar of the cannon.

Ita was already lashing his crews with curses, urging them to greater speed as they swabbed out the guns, reloaded, and levered them back into firing position.  Mankin spared a second to admire that first shot– no miss at all, but skillful gunnery that maximized the damage to the enemy– before jumping in and helping haul Handmaiden back into position.

When he stepped back, he saw the enemy still coming on, closing the gaps in their ranks.  He had no trouble seeing the enemy formations now, despite the dust the shots had raised.  The two fallen standards had been once more lifted up, and for just a moment Mankin had to admire the courage of the men who had done so.  They knew full well that picking up the standards would make them targets of the Khetuni guns, but they did it anyway.

The gun captains spun the elevating screws of their weapons, depressing the barrels to track the closing enemy.  The captains each sighted along the barrels, raised a hand to indicate they were ready.

“Fire!” Ita yelled.

The guns fired again; with the other bastions firing there was a ragged rhythm to the speech of the cannons.  Shot fell now on the enemy without pause, and Mankin could see the shots tearing holes in the enemy lines, knocking men over or tearing them to pieces.  Screams of agony mingled with screams of “Okhar!” and still the Okharians came on.

“Load grape!” Ita yelled, and Mankin realized the Okharians would surely reach the open killing ground in the next few seconds.  He stepped to a fenestration to watch.  The enemy line, coalescing around the three remaining standards, came on with the steady pace that told Mankin they were regulars and veterans.  The enemy chanted as they came, “Okhar gershan!”– Okhar Victorious.  Mankin regretted what was about to happen.

“Ready!” the gun-captains yelled, in sequence.

“Stand by!” Ita said, his hand raised.  He watched the enemy advance, waiting for the precise moment.  His hand came down.  “Fire!”

The guns fired, one after the other.  The blasts, hurling hundreds of pebble-sized iron balls, struck the enemy line as it emerged from the brush.  In an instant the grapeshot ripped swaths in the enemy formations, tearing men apart by the dozens, wounding and kill many more.  The balls threw dust and blood both into the air.  It was shocking, even though Mankin had known what was coming, to see men converted into torn meat in a moment.  More screams, agonized, despairing.

Over the din Mankin heard a command shouted among the Okharians.  With wild yells, shrieking rage and bloodlust, the Okharians still on their feet all broke into a run.  In a moment the formations dissolved into a rushing mass of humanity, all seemingly aimed directly for Mankin.  He glimpsed one man, in the midst of the press, trying to get to his feet to follow, but falling over because his legs were gone from the knees down.

Other guns fired, tearing more gaps in the enemy mass.  The gun crews around Mankin worked to reload.  They’ll only get one more volley off— after that the Okharians would be too close.  The guns’ could not be depressed far enough to hit anything closer than seventy or so yards from the wall.

Then Mankin saw, in the midst of the crowd of running men, teams of soldiers carrying scaling ladders.

“Master Gunner!” Mankin called.  “I’m going down to the wall to make sure we’re ready to receive them properly.  Enfilade the bastards as best you can.”

“Take care, Captain!” Ita said.  To his men he bellowed, “Come on, you whoresons, get those guns into position.  You bastards got nothing but weak piss in your veins.  Pull so your grandchildren feel it!”

Mankin drew his sword.  He ran out of the bastion and down steps to the wall.  He passed bowmen shooting, taking aim and loosing, calling out targets to one another.  Swordsmen, huddled behind the palisade, waiting, got out of his way.

The guns behind him fired.  Mankin glimpsed fresh destruction among the Okharians, but already many of the enemy were at the counterscarp and scrambling down into the defensive ditch.  Their battle-cries, cursing and screams mingled and rose up to make his ears ring.

He’d thought to join Ganer in the near-gatehouse, but a knot of soldiers on the parapet blocked his way.  Sergeant Denetoi was among them, leaning over the inner edge of the wall, shouting, “Get those poles up here, now!”  Straightening up, he nodded to Mankin.  “How do, Cap’n!  Busy enough for you?”

“We’re about get even busier,” Mankin said.  Two privates came running up the near steps, carrying between them a long bundle wrapped in canvas.  They dropped it at Denetoi’s feet, and it clattered on the stone.  The sergeant whipped the canvas away and out rolled a bundle of long poles with metal forks on one end.

“Good!” Mankin said.  “Get these passed out along the wall.”

“Such was my thinking, Cap’n,” Denetoi said.  He flashed a crooked-toothed grin at Mankin.  “Think that’s worth a bump in pay?”

“Talk to me after we get through this.”  Mankin stepped to the battlement, peeked his head out a crenel and looked down.

Below him was a milling mass of Okharian soldiers, many pressed hard against the foot of the glacis.  Some were trying to scramble up it.  Many more enemy were still clambering over the counterscarp and trying to get through the ditch.  Teams carrying ladders struggled to bring them forward through the press.

A sharp crack— a steel-tipped arrow struck the stone by Mankin’s head and ricocheted into the air.  He hastily pulled his head back in, his skin tingling.  “Get ready, sergeant,” he told Denetoi.  “I need to get to the gatehouse.”

“Way for the cap’n!” Denetoi bellowed.  “Way, there!”

Mankin sidled past the troopers, ran up the steps of the near gate-house.  Inside the first level archers plied their trade through the narrow arrow-loops.  Mankin ran past them and up the circular steps to the upper level.

As he reached it there was a sharp bang that made his ears ring.  Ganer and a trooper pulled a smoking culverin back an open window.  The trooper swabbed it out with a wet rag and proceeded to reload it with powder and a odd assortment of junk– nails, pebbles, scraps of metal.  Ganer looked up at Mankin’s approach, grinning.  “Captain!  We’re killing them in bunches!”  The youngster wasn’t green anymore.  Another culverin went off, firing from a window in the front of the tower.  The men on this level seemed to be either handling culverins or shooting down on the enemy with bows.

“Keep it up,” Mankin said.  “Especially deal with the ladders.  They’ll be going up any second.  Have we cut the outer bridge?”

“Come see, sir.”  Ganer pointed to a window at the corner of the tower, overlooking the gate itself.  Mankin edged up to it and looked down.  The wooden bridge spanning the defensive ditch and leading to the outer gate lay in splintered ruins, with Okharians struggling amid the broken timbers.  Without that bridge it was an eight foot climb up to the outer gate, and at the moment Mankin couldn’t see anyone attempting it.  He looked out cautiously.  The enemy was now all along the eastern wall, with still more men coming, a great, crowded mass of men.

A bowman beside him loosed, and Mankin saw his target, a section-leader, sprawl backward, dead.

“Good shot!” Mankin said, and the bowman grinned.  To Ganer Mankin said, “Keep at it, lieutenant.  Tear those ladders apart!  I’m going to the other side of the gate.”

“Yes, sir!” Ganer said.  “Good luck.”

Mankin hurried through the tower and out on to the walkway that ran over the gate complex and connected with the south tower.  He had to steel himself to cross over it; the walkway was wooden, with only a shoulder-high parapet, so that Mankin had to run crouched over.  Arrows thudded into the boards beneath his feet as he ran, with others whistling overhead.

He reached the south tower and, entering, very nearly blundered into Sergeant Ven.  “Easy, sir, easy!” the sergeant said, almost laughing.

“Sorry, sergeant,” Mankin said.  “How are you faring?”

“We’re dealing out some hurt, sir,” Ven said.

The scene in the south tower was much the same as in the north; as Mankin turned away from Ven a trooper fired a culverin out a window, while other men loaded other guns, or shot arrows down at the enemy.  But here one bowman lay on the wooden floor, a pool of blood around him, the shaft of an arrow protruding from his eye.

Ven saw the direction of Mankin’s gaze.  “Yeah, Private Keru,” the sergeant said.  “Poor bastard always did have the worst luck.”

“Here come the ladders!” someone yelled.

“Keep your fire on them,” Mankin said.  He ran down the stairs to the lower level and out on to the wall south of the gate.

Emerging from the tower the noise of the assault stunned him; the cacophony of men screaming, yelling in rage, the banging of culverins from the gatehouse, the guns in the outlying bastions still firing, all combined into a din that was almost a physical thing.  As he dashed out on the parapet he saw troopers standing ready with forked poles.  Mankin stopped and risked another peek out a crenel.  He pulled his head back at once; there were Okharian archers, behind wicker shields, positioned on the far side of the ditch, and the brief appearance of his head drew a half dozen arrows that clattered and broke against the stones.  It had been enough, though; among the mass of men crammed up against the fort’s glacis, four or five ladders were in place, each being raised by dozens of hands.

“Here they come!” he said.

“We’re ready for them, sir,” the nearest sergeant said.  He and three other men hefted one of the forked poles.  Mankin sheathed his sword and joined them; the shaft of the pole was smooth and cool in his hands.

The top of a ladder appeared before them.  It wavered, as if the men raising it staggered under its weight, and then it came down against the open crenel with a sharp sound.  Mankin thought it strange that such an ordinary object should be so threatenting.

The soldiers holding the forked pole started to move forward with it, but the sergeant said, “No, no!  Wait until the bastards are on it!”

They all paused, with the sound of the battle washing over them.  Mankin had never waited for anything in greater agony.  It was worse because he could see the ladder flexing as it took the weight of the men climbing it.  He liked his lips and gripped the pole harder.

The ladder flexed once more, and then Mankin saw the burnished dome of an Okharian helmet coming into view.  It came up the ladder, and below it followed a brown, bearded face.  The Okharian looked right at Mankin, blinking in surprise.

“Now!” the sergeant yelled.  The Khetuni all pushed forward; the fork caught the ladder’s top rung, right below the Okharian’s chin.  They all shoved hard, and the ladder went back and back and back.  The Okharian made one, scrabbling grab at the stone of the crenel, and then he disappeared.  Screams, from dozen men falling backward, cut above the din.

Cheers erupted all along the wall; Mankin looked down its length and saw only Khetuni soldiers.  He puffed out a breath in relief; not a single Okharian had gotten over the wall.

“Well done!” Mankin told the men with him.

A bugle call.  It took Mankin a moment to recognize it– enemy within the walls.  “Dammit!”  It had to be on the northern side of the gate.  He turned and ran.

He tore up through the south tower, crossed the walkway as arrows flew, and practically flew down the steps of the north tower.  The bowmen and culverin-men there were shooting like mad as he passed them; Ganer didn’t look up from the window through which he was firing to even acknowledge Mankin’s passage.

Mankin came out on the wall and was confronted with chaos.  Khetuni and Okharians struggled and stabbed at one another at close quarters on the parapet, literally hand-to-hand and face-to-face.  Some grappled as if wrestling for a prize, rather than their lives.  More Okharians were coming up two ladders, close together in the middle of the section of wall.

Attau!” Mankin yelled, without thinking.  He parried an Okharian’s sword, beat it aside, killed the man.  Another Okharian had a Khetuni soldier down on the parapets stone, a dagger poised to stab.  Mankin kicked the Okharian in the side of the head, and the Khetuni private got his hand free and stabbed the fellow in the ribs.

For the next minute or so the world was nothing but a blur of faces, some friendly, some not, and the ring of steel on steel.  Mankin killed two more men before he reached the nearest ladder.  An Okharian decarion was coming up it, had his foot on the stone of the crenel.  Mankin stabbed him in the groin, and the man fell backward with a shriek and disappeared.

Attau!” Mankin yelled.  This time the cry was answered, “Tinu!” and there was Denetoi, bellowing, wielding a two-handed blade like a willow-wand, in a space Mankin would have sworn would not have let anyone get a good swing started.  An Okharian turned to face Mankin, and Denetoi took the man’s head off, the blade striking sparks on the battlement behind him.

“Help me!” Mankin said.  Together they used their swords, pushing at the ladder.  At first Mankin thought they didn’t have enough leverage, but then it started to move, and then it was falling backward.

“Look out!” Mankin yelled.  Denetoi ducked and Mankin reached over the sergeant’s head and stabbed the Okharian coming up behind him.

“Thankee, Cap’n!” Denetoi gasped.  He was blood-spattered but unhurt.

There was still one more ladder.  Mankin stepped past Denetoi, but from the other side of the parapet came Master Sergeant Goma.  He yelled, swinging one of the forked poles.  He brained one Okharian, pushed another off the parapet, and reached the ladder.  Mankin took two steps and grabbed the pole as well as Goma set the fork against the top rung.  The master sergeant was grinning, and that rendered his face wild and frightening, splashed as it was with blood.  “Always best to do it yourself, right, captain?”

“Push!” Mankin said, having no breath to spare for a clever rejoinder.  He and Goma pushed, grunting– Mankin wondered if the Okharians on this were particularly heavy– and then the ladder was going backward.  It teetered and disappeared.

There was cheering along the parapet, as Mankin leaned against a battlement to catch his breath.  Other Khetuni pressed in, and the few Okharians still on the wall were hemmed in and cut down, one after the other.  Khetuni swordsmen kicked the bodies off the wall, leaving only their bloodstains.

The roar of an explosion– for a moment Mankin thought the Okharians had exploded a petard on the base of the wall, for the blast seemed to go right past his face.  In the next moment, though, he realized it had come from Bastion Three.

“What the hell?” he said.

“Look, Cap’n!” Denetoi said.  He was leaning perilously out of one of the crenels, looking out and down.  “Old Ita’s served them up good!”

His stomach jumping, Mankin dared to do as much as Denetoi was doing.  As he did he suddenly understood what had happened.

The Okharians below were fleeing, with no hint of order or formation.  Men scrambled out of the ditch and ran away, some carrying wounded comrades, as Khetuni bowmen shot arrows and jeers after them.  At the foot of the wall lay a tangled mass of torn and broken bodies, along with the shattered remains of the scaling ladders.  The pile of bodies, lying all along the glacis, heaved and stirred as Mankin watched– wounded men trying to extricate themselves from the heap.  Other wounded crawled or dragged themselves out of the ditch to follow their retreating brothers, or tried to.  Mankin saw one Okharian drag himself out of the ditch, his back obviously broken, only to collapse in the dust and not move again.

As he watched the Okharians on the south side of the gate appeared as well, retreating in somewhat better order than those on the north side, but retreating nevertheless.  Arrows from the towers and the wall pursued them.  And all along the wall the Khetuni soldiers cheered.

Mankin looked to his left.  On the southern face of Bastion Three a gun’s muzzle smoked.  It was aimed sharply downward, pointing at the foot of the eastern wall.  Firing, it had raked the whole length of the glacis to the north gate tower, and broken the Okharians.

“I’ll be damned,” Mankin said.

 

“One of the lads had the idea,” Ita told Mankin.  They were both standing beside the gun, looking out over the slaughter below.  “It took us a while to horse Fire Talker around and get her arranged.  We had to cut out part of the lower gun carriage to allow her enough depression.”  The master gunner sighed.  “Altogether too long.”

“Don’t fault yourself,” Mankin said.  “If you hadn’t figured it out when you did, they might have tried their ladders again, or figured out how to blow in the main gate.”

“Well, it’s not an experiment we can repeat,” Ita said, with obvious regret.  “She wasn’t meant to take the recoil that way; the mounts are busted at the trunnions.”  Indeed, the gun’s barrel was lying askew within the frame of its carriage.  Ita shook his head.  “We don’t have that many guns.”

One of the cannons in the bastion fired.  The shot whispered away and dropped six hundred yards out, kicking up a pall of dust.  It was harassing fire, designed to keep the Okharians at a distance, particularly their archers.  The battery commander, at that moment, was watching the fall of the shot and calling corrections to the next gun being prepared for firing.  A gun in bastion Four fired, added its endorsement to Bastion Three’s opinion.

“Well, the Okharians don’t know that,” Mankin said.  “They won’t risk being served up the same way again.  They’ll try something different next time.”

It was obvious that the Okharians had not left, despite the repulse of their first attack.  Men and formations were in movement out there, outside the effective range of the fort’s guns.  Mankin, even with a telescope, could not make much sense of it all through the dust and the shimmering heat, but it was plain that the Okharians were working on some other approach to the fort.

But still no guns.  Mankin took some comfort from that fact.

“As may be, captain,” Ita was saying.  “But, with all due respect, that’s your worry.  Me, I’ll make the rounds of the bastions and make sure the lads are all ready and watching.”

“Good,” Mankin said.  “I’ll be in the hold-fast.  Time to send some more telegraphs.”

Mankin went down into the yard.  The interior of the fort was as busy as for a general inspection.  Guns were reloaded and repositioned, powder resupplied, arrow supplies replenished.  Troopers worked to throw Okharian bodies within the fort out over the wall, and to carry away their own dead.  Fifteen Khetuni were dead, twice that number wounded.  The lower barracks had been made into the fort’s infirmary; the medicus and his assistants were there now, extracting arrowheads and suturing sword-cuts.

That number of casualties worried Mankin.  This morning there had been three hundred and fifty-two men ready for duty in the outpost, once Lyon and his minions had departed for regions unknown.  Forty-five dead and wounded was more than one in ten men out of action, at the very start.  The outpost could not sustain that rate of loss for very long.

At least Mankin could treat his wounded in the cool of the barracks.  Outside the eastern wall dozens of wounded and maimed Okharians lay out under the ferocious sun now scorching the sand and rock.  The injured men screamed, or begged for help.  It didn’t really make a difference that they cried in Okharian– you didn’t need a translation to understand what they were saying.  Some were still trying to crawl away; at intervals Khetuni bowmen keep watch on the wall and in the bastions would shoot them– now not out of cruelty or even cold military calculation, but out of mercy.

Some of the men had asked permission to go out and either put the enemy wounded out of their misery or to bring them in as prisoners.  Mankin had refused; he did not want to open the gates for even a moment as long as the Okharians lingered in the neighborhood, and he certainly didn’t want any of his men outside the protection of the walls.  He told himself it was the best decision he could make, but that self-assurance didn’t stop the cries from outside the walls.

The sun hammered Mankin as he walked to the hold-fast.  At least two of the wounded had been brought down, not by enemy action, but by the heat.  Mankin had made sure that the water points on the wall had been replenished, and that Goma was rotating a third of the men down out of the sun for a half-hour at a time.  That would end the moment the Okharians attacked again, but in the meantime it would help keep the men refreshed and ready.

He entered the hold-fast and went up to the telegraph.  He sat in the shade of the hut and composed a new message–

To: Division Headquarters, Fifth Division of Enum

From: First Officer, First Senso-marta Outpost

Besieged by at least one half-legion of enemy infantry.  First assault has been repulsed, garrison casualties one-in-ten at this hour.  Fort is unbreached but expect second assault at any time.  No enemy forces have yet crossed the Gar.  Report from scout indicates large enemy forces on the march toward Fort Hope and Faro-marsa.  Request information regarding relief column.  Please relay further orders as needed.

Mankin didn’t find the message very satisfying– it didn’t seem to adequately convey just how tight a crack the outpost was in.  On the other hand, it was strictly factual, and the Army frowned on hysterics in communications to higher command.  Mankin would have been willing to engage in hysterics if that would speed the relief column to them, but he doubted it would have made any difference.

The signal team wigwagged the message.  When they finished Sergeant Bors bent his eye to the telescope.  “Fort Hope acknowledges receipt, captain.”

Mankin sighed.  “Very well.”

 

To be continued….

The Horseman, Part One

Well, here I go again.  My record for posting serial fiction on this blog has been mixed, at best, but I want to give it another whirl.  This is another iteration of the story of Mankin the horseman and swordsman, this time in a little different context that hopefully will be a little more engaging.  I will try to post parts weekly; the parts will not be chapters, strictly speaking, but good-sized sections of the narrative where the action seems to break naturally.  This will be a long story,  and at the moment I have only about 30,000 words down out of a guesstimate of about 150,000.  In other words, I will be scribbling as fast and as furiously as I can to keep ahead of my posting schedule.

Warning: this story contains military violence, sexual situations and coarse language.  It will also, of necessity, be essentially a first draft, so I beg the reader’s indulgence for errors and inconsistencies.

Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel

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Mankin stepped out of the blaze of the afternoon sun, into the comparative cool of the fort’s central holdfast.  Outside the parade square was empty and dusty; the walls of the outpost shimmered with the heat.  The guard-mounts on top of the walls all sheltered beneath awnings, and Mankin hardly blamed them.

He removed his hat and mopped his brow.  No one in the desert outposts wore the standard Khetuni Army cap; the close-fitting black wool made it feel as if you had an oven on your head.  Instead, they’d all adopted variations of Okharian head-gear, broad-brimmed to shade their eyes and face.  Mankin favored it for a personal reason; it reminded him of the head coverings of his mother’s homeland, the Attau Reach.  A place that seemed almost mystical here, whose mists and clouds and snow– snow— had to be legends concocted by men whose world was all sun and sand and heat.

His eyes adjusted to the gloom of the guard-room.  One soldier, the orderly, sat behind the desk, scratching away in a day-log.  Sergeant Kass– Mankin nodded as the sergeant stood and saluted.  “Hot enough for you, sir?” Kass asked, grinning.

“We left ‘hot enough’ behind three days ago,” Mankin said.  “All that’s lacking now is some seasoning before we’re all done to a turn.”  He pointed with his chin, down the corridor that led further into the holdfast.  “The Commandant in?”

“Yes, Cap’n,” Kass said.  “He’s in the well-room.”  The sergeant shuffled his feet, scratched his nose.  “Need to tell you, sir, he’s started his evening libations a little early.”

Damn it.  “All right, sergeant, thank you.  Best forewarned, as usual.”

“Better you than me,” Kass said.  “Sir.”

Commandant Lyon lay on a stone bench beside the tricking spring, a wet cloth spread across his face.  Beside him on the floor was an uncorked jug.  Mankin could smell the liquor from the doorway.

Mankin allowed himself a moment to stand there and soak up the cool.  Of necessity the forts the Khetuni had built along the frontier with the as-yet unconquered regions of Okhar had been largely designed according to Okharian standards– thick, white-washed walls, towers that collected and concentrated cooling breezes in building interiors, and a room in most houses where flowing water cooled the air further.  Otherwise, Mankin reckoned, the Khetuni could never have held the pacified portion of Okhar for as much as a single summer, much less ten years.

Even with those adaptations, Mankin wondered how much longer they could hold what they had taken.  But that was a question no one spoke aloud.

Mankin stepped into the room. “Commander,” he said.  When that produced no response, he said, more loudly, “Commander!”

Lyon started, waking.  He raised himself up on one elbow, and groaned.  “Damn it,” he muttered.  “I thought it was someone important.  What do you want, half-breed?”

Mankin breathed deep before replying.  “The scouts are back, sir.”

“So– what of it?” Lyon said.  He reached for the jug.

“Casen on says there’s sign to the east– heavy cavalry, and lots of it.  Tracking to the north.”

“So?” Lyon said.  He hefted the jug, took a swig.  “That’s nothing new.  We’ve got Okharian cavalry sniffing around most days.”

“Casen says this looks like a lot more than the usual raiding party,” Mankin said.  “Orgun says there’s heavy dust and smoke to the south.  He pushed as far as the Tika and saw empty steads in the river-bottom.”

“Orgun is a useless Yetishi cunt,” Lyon said.  “Nearly as useless as you, you Attau shit.”

Says the man who can’t wipe his own ass.  Mankin sighed instead of saying it.  He stepped closer.  “Sir, I think there’s something afoot.”

“Who says I’m interested in what you think?” Lyon said, wiping his lip.

“Perhaps not, sir, but I think we need to take precautions,” Mankin said.  “I’m requesting your approval to send out Deman and Chure for another round of scouting.  We need to find out what’s happening.”

“It’s your imagination, or the sun has addled what passes for your brain.”

That certainly might be true.  “Better to be on the safe side, sir,” Mankin said.  “I also recommend the fort going on alert and putting fresh charges in the guns.  If something is afoot we need to be ready.”

Lyon glared at him, took another drink.  “All right, if it will get you to leave me alone.  Do what you think is necessary.  Just don’t stir the garrison up too much.  It’s too damned hot.”

“That much, sir,” Mankin said, “we can agree on.”

 

He crossed the sun-blazed yard and entered the second barracks.  The deep cool of the inner billet was a blessing.  Most of the off-duty troopers from First Company were here, idling the time away with sleeping, talking, or working on their kits.  In one far corner a rather low-key game of dice was in progress, with a blanket spread on the floor.  Mankin pretended not to notice and the gamesters didn’t even look up.

Kasen and Orgun both sat on the edges of their bunks.  They were still dirty and sweat-stained from their scout; both appeared to be merely reveling in being out of the sun, and too tired to think yet of washing up.  Around them stood the other men of the scout section– Deman, Chure, Juken and Decarion Sur.  Mankin had asked a lot of these men in the last few days; he was sorry he was about to ask even more.

“Captain,” Sur said.  “What word?”

“I got Lyon’s approval to send Deman and Chure out on another scout,” Mankin said.  “Sorry, lads, but you’ve got the duty now, and we have to find out what’s happening.”

“I’ll tell you what’s happening, sir,” Kasen said.  “That was no partisan cavalry I tracked.  It was regular heavy cavalry, well-shod, and lots of them.”

“I believe you,” Mankin said, “and once I’m done talking to you lot, I’m going up the telegraph and wig-wagging the news down the line.  Okharian cavalry going around our northern flank has to be headed toward Fror-manu and the bridge over the Jade.  Heavy raid or something worse, it’s bad news.  All the more reason for another scout.”

“Well, I haven’t been getting enough sun,” Deman said.  “Need to improve my tan.”

Mankin grinned.  “You’ve got a smart-mouth, Deman, anybody ever tell you that?”

“Just my lady friends,” Deman said, grinning in turn.

“Actually, sir,” Chure said.  “About when we start out….”

“What is it?”

“If Casen and Orgun are right….”

“You doubt it?” Casen said, scowling.

“…which I’m sure they are, we might be under observation right now.  There’s half a dozen high places within five miles from which a man with a glass could watch us easily.”

“I know,” Mankin said.  The placement of the fort had always worried him.

“Might be best to wait to set out until dusk, when the last of the sun will still be dazzling anybody watching from the east.  We’ll lose some time, but we’ll cover more ground in the cool of the night, and the Bone Moon is up, anyway.”  Chure nodded.  “All due respect to my cousin’s love of the sun.”

Mankin considered it.  “All right.  But push hard once you’re away.  If you run into anything, imitate lightning getting back here.”

 

Mankin went out to find the master sergeant, Goma.  He found him at his own desk, working on his own daily reports.  Mankin reflected that if Goma had been a drunken incompetent like Lyon, the fort would have fallen months before.  Goma grumbled at forcing his men to work in the heat, but when Mankin told him the scouts’ reports he agreed at once to putting fresh charges in the guns, and having the garrison go on half-alert in their billets.  As Mankin left Goma was putting on his own broad-brimmed hat to go out and speed the work along.

Mankin went out and watched the work, even helping lever one of the forty-eight-pounders back so the gunners could draw the shot and charge from it, and reload it afresh.  The work took a good portion of the afternoon, and when it was done Mankin was glad to go down to drink deep from the barrack-well.

There was still plenty of daylight left, though, when he climbed up to the northern bastion to the telegraph station.  He roused the signal corporal drowsing in the shade of the signal hut, then sat down in the shade himself to compose a message to be relayed up the line to Division.  As he wrote the corporal sent prepare for message, the wooden signal arms clattering overhead.  “Fort Hope reports they are ready to receive our message,” the corporal said.

“Almost finished,” Mankin said.

He wrote–

 

To: Division Headquarters, Fifth Division of Enum

From: Commandant, First Senso-marta Outpost

Scouts report large body of regular Ohkarian cavalry passed due west of our position within the last day, apparently heading north.  Possible enemy activity along the Gar.  No contact at this hour, further scouting parties are being dispatched, garrison on alert.  Will report any developments.  Relay any orders.

 

Mankin knew how thin it sounded– no actual contact, tracks in the sand, ‘possible’ enemy action.  He hoped the paucity of details wouldn’t cause Division to ignore the report as someone’s jittery nerves.

He passed the message to the corporal, who began wigwagging the telegraph arms.  Mankin watched through the signal commander’s telescope.  The air shivered with heat in the glass, but he could still make out Fort Hope, six miles away, or at least its signal tower.  The brightly painted signaling arms of its own telegraph stood still– then, as the corporal finished the message, Mankin saw the fort’s signal arms move themselves.  Even Mankin could read what they spelled out– message received.

“Well, that’s done,” Mankin sighed.

 

At sundown he saw the two horsemen out the gate, giving them last minute instructions.  Then he climbed up to the parapet to watch them vanish in the distance, Deman northwest and Chure toward the south.  He found himself wishing he could go with them, so he could see firsthand what they found.  It was impossible, of course– with Lyon drunk in his room, he was the senior officer on duty, and he couldn’t surrender that responsibility for a moon-lit ride.  But he envied the two scouts their freedom.

He lingered on the wall as a bugler sounded the evening retreat.  In some ways this was Mankin’s favorite time of day, at least here in Okhar.  The air was already cooling, and now a man could stand out on the wall for an hour to catch a breath of air without frying.

He had to admit that this country had a severe kind of beauty.  Just then the Bone Moon was rising over the distant bluffs, the ones that worried him on the level of tactics.  At the moment, however, they reflected the last glow of the sun and seemed like the wall of the world.

The land between the bluffs and the river behind Mankin was a stony red waste, scrubland with mesquite and cactus.  It was barren, but open and clean.  Mankin pitied the Khetuni garrisons that had to hold the line to the west, across the Gar.  The Dune Kingdom was a place far more stark and forsaken than Senso-marta, with the added affliction of constant sand in your food and water.

Mankin turned.  The course of the Gar, a quarter-mile to the west of the fort, was the only green growth in sight, and that was a narrow serpent thatt wound out of sight to the north.  It flowed toward the Hano, and the Beso and, eventually, the Okharian cities under Khetuni occupation.  Rivers were the chief sources of life and civilization in Okhar, and the Khetuni invasion had wisely focused on taking the riverlands and the agriculture and cities they fed.

Mankin leaned on the fort’s battlement and frowned.  The war, and the occupation, had dragged on for nearly ten years.  The Khetuni invasion, which had begun with such high hopes, had stumbled to a halt here and a hundred other remote garrisons in the country’s far south.  Khetun occupied only about half of Okhar.  Rumors filtered down along the telegraph lines, or the train of visiting senior officers, of a renewed offensive in the fall, when the land cooled to temperatures that would not drop men and horses in their tracks, or in the spring after the winter rains.  Mankin doubted all rumors; even to him, a lowly captain in a remote outpost, it was clear Khetun had bitten off all of Okhar its could hold in its mouth, and perhaps a bit more.

Mankin had heard all the rationales for the war– the ancient rivalry between Khetun and Okhar across the Sea of Whales demanded a final resolution, the Okharians had burned and robbed Khetuni trading ships long enough, their oppression of Khetuni traders and expatriates had to end, and so on.  Mankin had heard them all, and discounted them all.  It was obvious to anyone but a fanatic– and there were a number of those in the army– that the real reason for the war was the desire of the noble Electors of Khetun for a greater empire.  It was, however, an observation Mankin kept to himself.

He’d had a lot of time, out here on the front line, to think about it.  If he’d had any choice he would never have come to Okhar at all.  The Royal Lyceum in Aliasan had been far more congenial.  In three years he had come close to completing the examinations for the first level of licensed scholar.  But then the Electors had decided to comb out extra bodies for the army from the Lyceum and the trade guilds.  Only his education and his father’s influence, in the form of gold solars, had managed to secure Mankin a warrant officer’s slot; then in combat he had won a commission, which allowed him the privilege of cleaning up after Lyon in this overheated little fort.

Next year, though– by spring next year he would have two years in grade.  At that point he could request promotion, assuming he had enough money and influence to purchase the rank, or…he could resign and go home.  He had been thinking about that possibility more and more in the last weeks.  He wasn’t sure what he would do back in Khetun– the Lyceum was closed to anyone not of full Khetuni blood for the duration– but it would be nice to be someplace where each day wasn’t a race between heat-stroke and dark-eyed foreigners to see which killed him first.

On the other hand, he had a standing invitation to return to the Reach, to his grandfather’s holding.  That had its temptations, too– taking up the life of an Attau rider would be a clean and straight path for anyone.  And the Attau folk could use even an incomplete scholar in Khetuni learning.  He might even start his own school….

But either way you would have to leave the men.  It was a detail he came back to over and over again.  It complicated the calculation.  Mankin hadn’t quite yet been able to find a satisfactory answer.

The bugle sounded the evening mess call.  Mankin’s own stomach complained of its hollowness.  Sighing, he turned from the battlement and went down to supper.

 

There was a light in his eyes, and someone shaking him.  “Captain, captain,” the someone said.

“What?  What’s happening?” Mankin said.  He instinctively shielded his eyes from the light and tried to throw off the dregs of sleep.

The light came from a lantern, in the hand of Sergeant Denetoi.  He was a grizzled veteran, the only other Attau in the half-battalion.  Mankin had always been curious how an Attau had ended up in an Alisanian regiment overwhelmingly composed of Khetuni, but somehow he had never gotten around to asking.  Mankin wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.

“We got trouble, Cap’n,” Denetoi said.

Mankin had slept in his uniform; dressing was a matter of pulling on his boots and strapping on his sword-belt.  “Show me.”

 

Mankin’s breath steamed in the cold morning air.  He and Denetoi climbed to the eastern battlements.  A clot of soldiers stood on the parapet there, looking east and talking among themselves.  They sounded worried.

It was close to dawn; the sky was lightening, with the east aglow and the bluffs outlined sharply against it.  And above those bluffs rose three, four, five, more columns of what Mankin first took to be smoke.  After a moment, though, he realized there were not smoke at all.  They were dust clouds.

“What the hell?” he said, leaning on a crenellation and studying the dust.

“That’s what we thought, sir,” Hass said.  He was a subaltern in First Company.  “What does it mean?”

“It means,” Mankin said, “that we’re in deep shit.”

 

It was still too dark for the telegraph, and the fort had no light-semaphore.  Mankin sent an orderly to awaken Lyon, then told Master Sergeant Goma to turn out the garrison, but quietly, with no bugle-call.  Then, while Sur saddled the fastest horse in the stables, Mankin penned a quick report.

Sur had the horse and Corporal Cal waiting at the main gate when Mankin came out.  Cal was the fastest-riding horseman in the garrison, surpassing even the scouts.  He was glad of it as he handed the young soldier the sealed message cylinder.  Cal looped its strap over his shoulder and tied the base-cord to his belt.

“Get on the other side of the river,” Mankin told Cal, “and ride like hell for Fort Hope.  With any luck the Okharians won’t reach it or the river before you do.  It’s all in the report, but tell them anyway what we’re seeing.  I need you make sure they understand.”

“I’ll do it, captain,” Cal said.

“Get going,” Mankin said.

Cal mounted as soldiers pulled open the gates.  All around them the garrison turned out in near-silence, with only a low murmur among the men.  They all climbed up to the parapet and the gun positions.

The gate opened.  Cal put his heels to the horse’s flanks and yelled, “Haa!”  The animal leapt forward and the two of them shot through the gate.

Mankin threw himself up the nearest stairs, three steps at a time, soldiers crouching out of his way.  He reached the parapet and looked out, but Cal was already on the road to the crossing, leaving only dust hanging in his wake.

“The Unchanging keep you safe,” Mankin murmured.

 

Mankin spent the next several minutes inspecting the batteries and gun positions.  In the growing light the men could see the dust columns as well as he could.  Silence lay over the positions, no banter or laughter, the men speaking only occasional, necessary words.

It was here that Lyon found Mankin.  The commandant did not look well; Mankin wondered exactly how late he had stayed up drinking.  He staggered up the steps to the parapet, red-eyed and gray-faced, half-dressed with his tunic unbuttoned and his belt askew.  “Captain!” Lyon croaked.  “What’s the meaning of this?  Why have you turned out the garrison without my authority?”

“Look for yourself, sir,” Mankin said.  The dust columns stood out stark against the bright eastern sky.

Lyon stood and looked.  Mankin would have sworn that it was impossible, but the commandant grew even more pale.  “No,” Lyon said.

“I’ve dispatched a rider to Fort Hope,” Mankin said, “and we should be able to semaphore in a few minutes.  Sir, it’s imperative we reinforce the main gate, and block the postern.”

“No,” Lyon said, still staring at the dust.

“Sir…” Mankin said.

“Damn you, you half-breed, I said no!” Lyon said.  He turned on Mankin.  Mankin stood his ground, although the commandant’s aspect was wild, his eyes wide.  They were so red Mankin’s ached in sympathy.  “Do not block the gate– not yet…We need orders….”

“Sir, if we wait for orders, there might not be any need to defend to defend this post at all,” Mankin said.

“Get the semaphore working,” Lyon said.  “And give me…give me a few minutes.”  He staggered back down the stairs.

“Damn it,” Mankin muttered.  “Master Sergeant!”

 

Mankin set Goma to finish preparations in the bastions, while he went to the telegraph.  Signal-Sergeant Der and Corporal Pol were there, rigging out the mechanism.  “Another minute or two, captain,” Der said.  “We’ll have her ready and then there will be enough light.”

“I’ll take that minute to get the message ready,” Mankin said.  As he had the night before, he sat down in the hut and wrote out a report–

 

To: Division Headquarters, Fifth Division of Enum

From: Commandant, First Senso-marta Outpost

Numerous dust-clouds indicating enemy infantry movement seen at first light on heights to our east.  No report from scouts dispatched last night.  No contact at this time, but we anticipate enemy in our vicinity about noon.  A messenger has been dispatched to Fort Hope with all information as of this moment.  Garrison has been put in readiness to defend outpost.  Further reports will follow as needed.  Request immediate orders repeat immediate orders.

 

The telegraph arms clattered and spun overhead.  “We’ve got their attention, captain,” Der said, poking his head into the signal hut.

“Send this,” Mankin said, handing him the message.

There came the sound of a commotion down in the fort’s yard.  “What the hell?” Mankin said.  He stepped past Der to the edge of the parapet.

He got there just in time to see the main gate swing open and three riders whip their mounts though it.  Lyon was in the lead; behind him rode Captain Fajar and Lieutenant Saur.  They were particular cronies of the commandant, and they rode hard on his heels.

“What the hell?” Mankin said.  He turned and ran to the northernmost bastion.

He climbed up beside the gun nicknamed Iron Thrower in time to see the three men disappear in a cloud of dust, headed toward the river crossing.  “Who was that?” the corporal commanding the gun-crew said.

“It was Commandant Lyon,” Mankin said, nearly breathless with disbelief.  Of all the things he could have pictured Lyon doing at this moment– and he could have imagined Lyon doing many things– abandoning his post was the last.

“The commandant’s gone?” one of the privates said, looking as surprised as Mankin felt.

“He’s run away!” the corporal said.  “He left us!”

“What are we going to do?” another private said.

Mankin heard the incipient panic in the man’s voice.  “What are you going to do?” he snapped, turning on him.  “Stand by your gun, by the Unchanging, that’s what you’re going to do.  Lyon will be dealt with by Division when they catch him.  We’ve got a job to do.”

 

Mankin questioned the guards on the gate, who were trembling.  “He ordered us to open the gate, captain,” the leading private said.  “Cussed us out and ordered us.  What were we supposed to do?”

Shout for me, Mankin thought, but he did not say it.  Even if they had, there was nothing Mankin could have really done to stop Lyon.  In theory Army regulations should have allowed Mankin, as executive officer, to arrest the commandant.  To actually do so, however, Mankin would almost certainly have had to use physical force, and he wasn’t sure he could have counted on any of the private soldiers to back him up against their commander.

He called an officer’s conference in the holdfast.  Since the only other officers left in the outpost were Lieutenant Gander and Subaltern Hass, Mankin included Master Sergeant Goma and Master Gunner Ita.  “Maybe it ain’t proper military discipline for me to say this, sir,” Ita said, “but I hope the gods blind Lyon.”

“The gods will be the least of Lyon’s problems, if either the Okharians or Division get hold of him,” Mankin said.  Indeed, Mankin didn’t know which fate would be the worst.  Okharians loved to flay captured Khetuni commanders alive, but the wrath of Division at a senior commander’s desertion might put Okharian tortures in the shade.  “But forget him– we’ve got our own troubles.  I’m waiting to hear from higher authority, but in the meantime we have to assume we’re holding the fort against Okharians.  If they concentrate against Fort Hope we can hold out; but if they want to get across the Gar quickly they’ll come here.  Barring orders to the contrary, we have to hold them off.  Master Sergeant, I want you to rotate a third of the men off the walls at a time, send them down to breakfast in shifts.  We’re going to need all the strength we have with the push comes.  When the sun is well up, rotate half the men off the wall for an hour at a time, to allow them to cool off and get some rest.  Once we’re in contact, though, we’ll need every mother’s son on the wall, no matter how hot.”

“Yes, sir,” Goma said.

“Master Gunner, how do we stand with powder and the guns?” Mankin said.

Ita grunted.  “We’re well-supplied with powder and shot, but how long it will last will depend on how hard they hit us.  I have to tell you the truth, though, captain– I’m not perfectly happy with how well some of the crews have worked up….”

“I know.”  Several of the gun-sections had been added to the half-battalion two Bone Moons before, seconded from another battalion in which, Mankin gathered, training had been dangerously lax.  Ita had worked, and worked hard, to bring them up to snuff, but two Bone moons was not a long time.  “We will do the best we can….”

The scuff of a boot– the signal corporal was at the door, a scrap of paper in his hand.  “Signal from Fort Hope, captain.”

Mankin took it.  “Orders from Division,” he read aloud.  “‘Corps alerted and orders that all river-line strong-points and crossings be held.  Hold Outpost Senso-marta at all costs until relieved.  Division reserves ordered out and will be on the road within the hour.  Repeat, hold at all costs until relieved.”

There was silence in the barracks.  Every man seemed to take a deep breath.  Mankin folded the paper.  “Well,” he said, “at least that settles one question.”

 

To be continued….