Warning: this story contains graphic violence, language and sexual situations.
Copyright Douglas Daniel 2016
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.”
“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.”
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….