30th Battalion Command Post, Llael.
11th of Octesh, 611 AR.
Their first glimpse of the front line was through the casualties.
A cart trail had been established from battalion CP to the back line. They found the trail and began their march into the woods where their leadership was coordinating the stalemate that had broken out just half a mile forward. As they traveled, carts passed them. Some of the carts bumped along full of wounded men, screaming in pain, or sobbing, or unconscious. Their wounds had been bandaged at the CP aid station and deemed too serious to return to the trenches. They were being sent farther back where Precursor Knights and priests of Morrow would induce divine restoration wherever possible, along with surgery when required. Hammer Company watched the grim procession with rapt attention. They saw maybe thirty grievously wounded men pass: missing limbs, bone-deep lacerations, horrible burns. The cries of the injured hailed their passage.
A few of the carts were stacked with long pine boxes. No screams or cries came from these passengers; they were the peacefully silent dead.
Captain Kasey stopped one of the carts and asked what was going on up ahead. The driver, barely more than a boy, shook his head.
“Eighty-first and eighty-fifth companies are up there on the line,” he said. “They’ve been getting the shit kicked out of them for three days. Reds are dug in like ticks. Nobody is moving.” With that, the young man rode off in the dying light with his funereal cargo. Strange thunder and the far-off cracks of rifles heralded the proximity of the front as they approached.
The CP was in a narrow band of woodland separating two very large farms. The fields on the south side were idyllic expanses of freshly-tilled patches of ground, with a smattering of farmhouses and windmills separating plots of land. Were it not for the sounds and smoke just past the treeline, they could almost imagine there was no war at all. On the south side of the trees, a little tent city had been created. The strip of trees was about a mile long and maybe three hundred yards deep. From within its shelter, they could look back at the glimpse of idyllic countryside, or forward, into the hellish no-man’s land that faced them. Many of the treetops had already been shattered by mortar fire, and they realized the shallow depressions in the earth weren’t all foxholes. He gave his men leave to find water basins to rinse off, make themselves some chow, and set up sleeping positions.
“Major Halleck!” Captain Kasey called as he approached the command tent, boots crunching twigs and leaves. A man emerged from the tent, bare-chested and wearing only his dungarees, half his face covered in shaving cream and the other in little red razor-nicks dabbed with cotton balls. He was over six feet tall and well-muscled with a bald head.
“Ah, Captain,” Major Ryan Halleck answered, setting his razor down on a large crate and reaching out to shake Jericho Kasey’s hand. “Good to see you again. Been what, two years?” Captain Kasey shook the Major’s meaty hand and wiped shaving cream off his palm.
“Three,” Kasey corrected. “Sentinel Point, ’08.”
“Damn, time flies,” Major Halleck mumbled. “You’ve caught me at a bad moment, I’m afraid,” he said, gesturing to his half-shaven face.
“Pretty sure every moment is a bad moment out here,” Kasey said with a smile. Halleck snorted.
“Come in, please. Hope you don’t mind if I finish,” Halleck asked, grabbing his razor and escorting Kasey into the large command tent. It was dim, with three tables covered in maps and books and pewter troop markers. Kasey wondered where the Major slept.
Major Halleck returned to a small cracked mirror propped up inside a cigar box in the corner and started shaving again. He pointed at a half-finished bottle of wine on one of the maps. “Drink?” he offered.
“I’m alright,” Kasey refused politely.
“I’m sure glad to see Hammer Company, Captain,” he said. “We’re at a bit of a stalemate out here and Colonel Swinburn is very displeased.” As he finished speaking, the earth shook with an artillery bombardment from east of the field, knocking over Major Halleck’s mirror. He cursed angrily and set it upright once more. “I have orders to make a push in the morning. Your men better be up to it.”
“What are we dealing with, here?” Kasey asked.
“Why don’t I just show you,” Halleck said.
“How the hell did this even happen?” Kasey asked, peering through the spyglass on a tripod at the edge of the woods. The sun was close to the horizon, casting the world in long shadows.
A fairly extensive friendly trench network had already been created from his position at the treeline to about fifty yards into a field. Across the rest of the field about two hundred yards from the Cygnaran forward trench was a sizeable dike separating one patch of farm from the next. This dike had been made taller and reinforced by the Khadorans with log-and-mortar bulwarks at its front slope. A sandbag and dirt embankment ran all the way across its top. Several heavy gun positions had been created at intervals along its length. At the western end of the field about two miles down with a slight rise in elevation the dike made a hard corner north, turning the Khadoran position into L shape that protected them from attacks along the western flank. Their eastern flank was a large lightly-forested hill that rose up to the town of Albyn about a half mile northeast of their position. Any flanking attack from the east would have to skirt dangerously close to the town and risk a counter-flanking maneuver from whatever force was garrisoned there. Enemy rifleman could fire from the three and four story buildings down onto trespassers, plus whatever other ordinance they had in the town.
The only way forward was through the enemy position.
It was an incredibly difficult line to breach. Captain Kasey wasn’t at all surprised the advance had stalled here. They were going to have to cut through it with only a single battalion. A daunting prospect.
“From what CRS has told me, that position was built four months ago and never occupied,” Halleck said. “There has been a significant force holed up in Albyn since around the third or fourth of Solesh, but the nature of the town’s layout makes it very difficult to observe precisely how many troops or what kind of gear they have. That whole dike you’re looking at was empty until about four days ago when a kompany and a half poured out of the town and took up position here literal hours before we showed up; too fast for command to alter our plan of action, which was originally to surround and take Albyn,” he said in frustration. “We didn’t have enough men to break through in an initial assault, so I pulled back here and started to dig in until more men arrived. Please tell me you brought warjacks,” Halleck said pleadingly.
“One grenadier. It should arrive tonight,” Kasey said. Halleck swore angrily.
“For Morrow’s sake, how the hell does Swinburn expect us to take that line without armor?” Halleck asked in frustration.
“What warjack assets do we have?” Kasey asked, still sweeping his spyglass along the enemy line.
“Including your grenadier?” Halleck asked. “One grenadier.”
Kasey looked at him in alarm.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Kasey said in surprise.
“I wish I was,” Halleck said.
“Where are Shield and Snake Company’s warjacks?” Kasey asked.
“They were diverted to 40th Battalion’s position about five miles northwest of here, just south of Frénosel. There’s a Khadoran warcaster up there who’s giving the 40th a bitch of a time, from what I understand,” Halleck explained. Kasey grunted.
“Anybody famous?” Kasey asked.
“Nobody I’ve heard of,” Halleck said. “But whoever he is, he’s got a brand-new colossal and a full company of Man-O-War. He’s using some kind of earthquake magic that keeps knocking our assault on its ass.”
“Delightful,” Kasey said in resignation. “You know I saw at least eighty warjacks standing by at Drek Lake? Including two Stormwalls. And there were another twenty ‘jacks in line at Bainsmarket. Where the hell are they?”
“Bottlenecked,” Halleck said. “We don’t have enough transports to get them to the front quickly, and we don’t have enough coal to just march them all the way.”
“What’s our artillery?” Kasey asked.
“Nine trench howitzers, six chain guns, and one smooth-bore long cannon that’s as old as my grandfather. It hits like a bull, but we’ve got limited ammunition so I’m saving it for the assault,” Halleck said.
Kasey returned his eye to the spyglass, sweeping it across the enemy line of sandbags. The image warped as it moved through the glass, but he could see the occasional flash of movement along the tops of the bags. He spotted dugouts set into the dike that probably housed field guns.
“Whoa, what is that,” he said suddenly, stopping on a gun position he didn’t recognize. It was a very heavily armored wheeled gun platform half-buried in dirt and sandbags. A little trail of smoke drifted out from just behind it, and Kasey could make out the distinctive helmet of a man-o-war steam-powered armor suit in the fading light. A massive rotary gun was mounted behind thick armor plating.
“I assume you’re referring to their new barrage cannons,” Halleck sighed. “Thirteen barrels with a higher rate of fire than anything I’ve ever seen, and they have three of them out there,” he said. “I lost a full unit to one of those when they strayed too far into the field. Ten men killed in about three seconds. They’re part of the reason I ordered a withdrawal. If we try to charge into those things, they’ll kill hundreds of us before we’re halfway across no-man’s-land.”
“Almighty preserve us,” Kasey muttered.
“Those rotary guns are so big and heavy that only powered armor can maneuver them, hence Man-O-War,” Halleck grimaced. “We’ve landed a couple howitzers on them, but they’re just too dug in to displace without heavier shot. We tried to burst shells over the gunner’s head, but those fuckers are so heavily armored, shrapnel might as well be confetti to them,” he grumbled. “I’m hoping our long cannon can take them out before we have to cross the field.”
“This is really starting to piss me off,” Kasey said angrily.
“Oh it gets better,” Halleck said. “They have about twelve mortars and at least three warjacks behind the hill causing indirect fire anytime we try to push our trench farther forward. They’ve settled with harassment for now, but as soon as we make a hard push, it’s going to rain like a motherfucker.”
“Any intel on the warjacks?” Kasey asked.
“Probably destroyers, considering the ordinance and angle of fire we’re seeing,” Halleck said. “But they’re staying out of sight. We’ve spotted three separate smoke plumes from boilers back there, big ones. There could be more that they just haven’t fired up yet. If anything else is back there it isn’t burning coal right now.”
“What else?” Kasey asked sharply. “Warcasters? Colossals? Supreme Kommandant Irusk himself?”
Halleck chuckled at Kasey’s incredulity. “No sign of any warcaster, thank Morrow,” he said. “If they had one, they would have enough firepower to push us back right now. No evidence of any arcanists either. They have four field guns that will cause us trouble if we get some armor across no-man’s land, but I’m far more concerned about those rotary guns and the mortars,” Halleck said.
“We outnumber them three to one, but we need hard assets,” Kasey mused. “If we try to take that position tomorrow with no warjack or warcaster support, we’re all going to die.”
“Tell that to Swinburn,” Halleck grunted.
“You tried?” Kasey asked.
“Yeah, as soon as we got here. He sent word to hold position until Hammer Company arrived and then make a move the following morning,” Halleck answered. Captain Kasey shook his head.
“This is a suicide mission,” Kasey said. “I’ll send him a message myself. I know him, I think he’ll listen to me. I served with him in the Sul-Menite invasion. We’ve got to get these orders changed,” Kasey insisted.
Halleck shrugged. “The Colonel’s head is so far up his own ass, the bump in his throat is his nose,” Halleck muttered. “I think the pressure on 40th Battalion is keeping him from thinking beyond Frénosel,” he said.
“Is that where he is?” Kasey asked. Halleck nodded. “Maybe I should just go see him in person,” Kasey suggested.
Halleck shook his head. “No Captain, I need you here. Right now the reds seem content to sit on their hill and wait for us, but if they do summon the balls for a counterattack, I can’t have a totally green company flailing without leadership. Hammer Company needs you here. Write an urgent letter to the Colonel. Get our damn warjacks back,” Halleck said.
“And if that doesn’t work?” Kasey asked skeptically.
Halleck shrugged again. “Then it was nice knowing you,” He said.
Kirk and Alex sat in a shallow foxhole dug into the wet loam beneath the trees. Night was creeping in, and while no lights were permitted there was a bright three-quarter moon in the sky that illuminated their surroundings. Kirk stared out past their trench line into the abyss of no-man’s land. Dozens and dozens of mortar and field gun shots had already churned the field– Alex guessed it had been growing young corn– into a dirty mess. The rain had only turned the dirt into thick mud. The Khadorans had dug shallow pits in random places throughout the field prior to the battalion’s arrival. These pits were just deep enough to require extra energy to ascend, but not deep enough to provide meaningful cover. One could probably avoid shrapnel by laying down in the shallow depressions, but doing so when the field was under heavy fire would be a death sentence. They were deadly temptations to seek shelter, to cause men to clump up.
At the end of the expanse was a fortified dike of cemented logs, razor wire, and sandbags.
“We have to go across that in the morning,” Alex said softly. He was absent-mindedly stripping a leaf in his hands. Kirk could hear the nervousness in his friend’s voice. “I hope I don’t let you guys down.”
“What? Come on, you’re not going to let anyone down,” Kirk said. He felt the exact same fear in spite of his words. The only thing more frightening than what awaited them across that field was the prospect of freezing up while his companions charged on.
“I’d rather get hit than lose heart,” Alex said. “I couldn’t face you if I did.”
“Knock it off,” Kirk said more sharply than he meant to. “You’re a trencher, act like one.” He could see the rebuke stung and immediately regretted it. The truth wa,s Alex’s words were giving name to Kirk’s own greatest terror. The trembling started and didn’t let up all night. Other units were on watch along the line, so they had a full eight hours to sleep.
After making rounds checking on his men, Kasey couldn’t sleep either. He lay awake in his tent, listening for the sound of galloping hooves, waiting anxiously for a reply from the colonel. It came around three in the morning.
The man dismounted near the CP and passed by Kasey’s tent. He leapt out of his cot and opened the flap.
“Hey!” he whispered hoarsely at the passerby. The man turned, startled.
“Oh, Captain Kasey, I was looking for you,” he said. He was a young face. Couldn’t have been more than sixteen. He was still breathing hard from the ride and had a letter in his hand. “I didn’t know which tent–”
“Is that for me?” he asked, ignoring the rider’s excuse. The boy held it out. Kasey took it anxiously, straining to read it in the dim light. Relief poured over him. He said a short prayer of thanks to Menoth.
“Thanks,” he said quickly before trotting off to the Major’s tent. He poked his head in without asking. The Major was snoring loudly in his cot. “Sir, we’ve got an update,” he said. The Major snorted and sat bolt upright in surprise.
“Huh… wha…” Major Halleck said blearily. He had a pistol in his hand.
“News from Swinburn,” Kasey said. “Orders are changed,” he said triumphantly. Halleck got up slowly, rubbing his face.
“How in urcaen did you pull that off?” he asked, confused. Kasey smiled.
“I mentioned that we’d seen possible evidence of Albyn being used as a supply line to Frénosel,” he explained with a grin. The look of confusion on Halleck’s face was replaced with caution.
“What ‘evidence’ is that, Captain?” Halleck asked.
“Last night while scanning the enemy position, you and I both saw supply wagons descending the hill from Albyn and going north-west,” Kasey said.
“I don’t recall that,” Halleck said with a frown.
“Well you goddamn better recall it, because that’s what I told the colonel, and that’s what we saw, understand?” Kasey said firmly. Halleck stared back for a few moments and nodded slowly.
“Alright. But don’t do anything like that again without consulting me, Captain,” Halleck warned. “Falsifying intelligence could get us both court-martialed,” he said quietly.
“This isn’t hurting anybody,” Kasey assured him. “I didn’t say we knew for sure where the ‘supplies’ were headed. Just…implied. He needed to be reminded that this whole front is connected. Sometimes the colonel thinks the most important part of any war is where he is at that moment,” Kasey explained. “I also requested any warcaster support he can spare, even for just a day, and he said help was on the way. Snake and Shield are getting their ‘jacks back, along with two cyclones that came with us out of Bainsmarket and were originally meant for this position. Whatever warcaster he sends will also have a battlegroup of his or her own.” Halleck shook his head in amazement.
“You just saved a lot of lives, Captain,” Major Halleck said. “Congratulations.”
“Don’t thank me just yet,” Captain Kasey warned. “We still have to cross that field, and we need to have a battleplan in place before our support arrives today. Swinburn wants the attack to proceed no later than thirteen-hundred,” he said. Halleck sighed.
“I guess I’m not getting any more sleep,” Major Halleck said.
“I couldn’t sleep anyway,” Kasey said.
Halleck grunted. “Go get the other captains. We only have a few hours to figure this out.”