30th Battalion command post, Llael.
12th of Octesh, 611 AR.
Reinforcements arrived a few hours after dawn. Kirk and the rest of Hammer Company were already up and waiting anxiously for orders, standing far into the southern field away from the treeline. The Khadorans had redoubled their artillery harassment and were lobbing shots into the stretch of woodland. The trees were no longer a safe place to congregate.
They knew something was up when they heard cheering roll through the battalion. Lines of heavy boiler smoke drifted away from a column of marching machines and men coming from the north. Kirk, Alex, Gerard and Peter climbed a short hillock in the field to get a view of the procession. What they saw filled their hearts with hope.
A warcaster was psychically guiding nine warjacks under his command. Two cyclones: hulking machines with a lighter-variant chaingun bolted under each arm. Two defenders: a heavy cannon instead of a left arm and an electrified shock hammer in the right hand. Two light grenadiers: the same model as Daisy. The rest were ironclads: quake-hammer wielding beasts that were the workhorse of the Cygnaran military.
Their hope was blunted a little when they saw the condition of their help. Everything except the cyclones had already seen heavy combat. They all bore deep scores from bullets, replaced components that shone bright amidst the rest of the dirt-crusted machinery, and several cracked or damaged armor plates that had been welded with unpainted steel braces. One of the ironclads seemed to be burning more coal than the other three and was moving slowly. A grenadier was completely missing its right arm and the spiked mattock it once held, leaving it with only the grenade launcher attachment to fight with. A wisp of steam trailed from a severed pipe in the empty arm socket.
“They’re looking a little rough,” Gerard muttered beside him.
“Better than nothing,” Alex said.
“Better than nothing…” Kirk repeated.
“Morrow, how old is that warcaster? He can’t be more than a year older than me,” Gerard said, observing the arcanist guiding the machines. He was young, and only had the marks of a lieutenant on his shoulder plates. He was also wearing modified trencher gear, adjusted to accommodate the arcane turbine and specialized boiler mounted on his back instead of a field backpack.
“I think he’s a Journeyman,” Alex said in disbelief.
“Seriously?” Gerard said in dismay. “We get a junior warcaster to help us with a thousand-man assault? Where’s his boss?”
“Nine warjacks at once is a lot,” Peter added. “Look, he’s straining to keep focused.” The young warcaster stared straight ahead as he walked. His motions seemed as robotic as his machine charges.
“I don’t know about this,” said Kirk, the initial hope slipping away. Before he could grow too despondent, they spotted additional help.
“Look! Commandos!” Peter said excitedly. Behind the procession of mobile armor can two units of ferocious-looking trenchers carrying specialized equipment. Scatterguns, carbines, sniper rifles, high-yield grenades… all of them had stained their clothes, armor, and equipment with either dirt or black shoe polish, reducing them to shadowy sillhouetes.
“Are those Bearded Bastards!?” Gerard almost shouted. They hushed him.
“Don’t yell in my ear,” Kirk grumbled.
“Can’t be,” said Alex, ignoring Kirk’s complaint. “That sounds too good to be true.” But it was true. Each of the vicious looking trenchers had a thick beard that made their faces appear to be in perpetual shadow beneath their helmets. Beards that were normally considered far out of regulation for Cygnaran army. Beards that might be more appropriately worn on Khadoran infantrymen. Beards that had once upon a time in the distant past been grown precisely for the purpose of infiltrating Khadoran lines, and had somehow remained as a trademark of their brotherhood ever since.
Being a member of their ranks permitted a certain leeway in the official grooming standard.
“Hot damn. Now we have nothing to worry about,” Kirk said in awe as they watched the grizzled warriors enter the battalion.
The Bearded Bastards. The Fort Falk Floggers. The Trench Murderers. The beards and darkened appearance were trademarks of one of the most– maybe the most– aggressive trencher commando force in the entire First Army. There was a whole platoon of them, but their units were scattered across regiments all through the First Army. They were a UE platoon– ‘Unorthodox Engagement.’ UE teams were usually small and varied wildly in composition, deployed on missions that required more specialized skillsets. But the Bearded Bastards were an entire trencher platoon whose UE mandate was pretty simple: kill more. Be better. Survive. They put the ‘force’ in ‘special forces’. Their exploits were renowned and probably exaggerated with each telling, but myths aside, their combat record alone spoke volumes of their success in battle: exceptionally low casualty rates in spite of outrageously difficult mission parameters. For the young men of Hammer Company, seeing a unit of the bearded commandos arrive felt like being secretly handed a gun right before a knife fight.
“I feel safer already,” said Gerard. There was no sarcasm in his voice.
Major Halleck ran out to meet their reinforcements. The young warcaster leading the men and machines held a salute as Halleck approached. Halleck saluted back casually.
“At ease, Lieutenant,” he said.
“Lieutenant Colbert reporting for duty sir,” the man said as his hand dropped from his brow. Well, ‘man’ was a stretch. He was barely older than some of the fresh-faced boys in Hammer Company. Major Halleck couldn’t avoid letting uncertainty onto his face. The lieutenant warcaster noticed immediately, sighing.
“Try not to look too disappointed, Major,” the warcaster-in-training said.
“Don’t tell your officers how to look,” Major Halleck said.
“Yes, Major,” Lieutenant Colbert replied.
Halleck never knew quite how to deal with warcasters and the strangely fluid military positions they occupied. They had official ranks and were technically under the authority of certain commanding officers, but a warcaster’s combat output and value far outreached the whole of an entire company. Even the most inexperienced warcaster was a god among men. The most legendary fighters in all the nations of the Iron Kingdoms were almost all warcasters, with only a few exceptions. In the heat of things, a soldier with magical ability and sixty-plus tons of wrecking machinery under his or her mental control occupied a special place in combat, rank or not. If that weren’t enough, the rarity of the warcaster gift even among the magically touched elevated them to a role that a simple military rank never quite seemed to capture.
Still, this was a very young lieutenant, and Halleck wasn’t going to offer any room for sassiness. There would be no slipping the chain of command in his battalion.
“You can call me ‘sir’, Lieutenant,” Major Halleck said calmly. He looked at the warjacks behind Colbert. They had halted in step with their controller. “Quite a lot of gear you’re carrying here,” Halleck said. “I’m impressed you can keep them all going at once.”
“Sir,” Colbert said blandly. Halleck examined the young man more closely. Dark circles ringed his eyes, and his posture– in spite of his attempts to conceal it– showed strain and fatigue.
“Hard time at Frénosel, Lieutenant?” Major Halleck asked.
The journeyman warcaster gave an exasperated snort. “’Hard’ is one way to put it,” he replied. “‘Absolutely fucking dreadful beyond reason’ is another way.”
Major Halleck nodded understandingly. “I don’t mean to disappoint you, but things aren’t much better here. We were hoping for a more… experienced warcaster. And while I certainly am glad for the armor you’re towing, nine warjacks is a lot to manage for just one of you,” Major Halleck said.
“Half of them were my commanding warcaster’s battlegroup, the other half are mine,” Lieutenant Colbert said. “He, uh… he was severely injured in combat last night. I’m expected to carry his slack, sir.” The young man blinked hard.
“Ah,” Major Halleck said softly. “I see.” He took a deep breath. “Lieutenant, I can see you’re under tremendous strain, and these machines aren’t helping,” he said more quietly. “If you need to have some of them marshalled, I understand. Our platoon leaders know how to manage the grenadiers, at the very least.”
Relief flooded the man’s face.
“Yes sir, that would be some help,” he said. Halleck shouted for the captains of Snake and Shield companies. They came running from one of the planning tents where Captain Kasey was briefing the battalion lieutenants on their half-cocked plan. The omnipresent thunder of Khadoran mortars sounded on their arrival, the explosions shattering trees in the distance. Enemy fire was like a broken clock that ticked in uneven thunderous blasts and reminded them all of the inevitable conflict soon to occur.
“Captain Nicola, Captain Donn, take your grenadiers,” Halleck ordered the approaching captains. “They belong with their companies.”
The two company leaders stared at the battered machines in disgust.
“Two days ago these were in perfect condition,” Captain Nicola complained, shaking her head.
“Tools get used in war,” Halleck replied. “Don’t get attached.” He gestured to the warcaster to loosen his psychic grip on the ‘jacks. Lieutenant Colbert closed his eyes for a moment, releasing the grenadiers from his control. The two captains gave the ‘follow’ hand sign to their respective warjacks and lead them away, the earth thumping beneath the warjacks’ feet.
The unit of commandos had been waiting patiently to the side while the Major conversed with the junior warcaster. One of the ones in front finally cleared his throat and removed his helmet. He was a remarkably small man with a patchy beard and customarily short-cropped dirty brown hair. His face was streaked with camouflaging grease.
“Staff Sergeant Swelt, awaiting orders, sir,” the grizzled warrior barked, eyes straight ahead, snapping a sharp salute. Halleck saluted him back.
“Well, Colonel Swinburn must be feeling awfully generous to lend us some of his finest murderers,” Major Halleck said with a broad grin. The man grinned back and met his eyes.
“War’s on, murderers are in demand,” Swelt said proudly.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Halleck chuckled. “I’m assigning you to Captain Kasey’s company. Report to him when we come out of briefing. I’m sure he’s got special plans for you.”
“Major,” Swelt barked with another salute and then lead his men off at a trot. Major Halleck turned back to the journeyman warcaster.
“Park these ‘jacks and follow me to the briefing,” he ordered. Colbert’s eyes glazed for just a moment as he ordered his charges to remain in position, and then followed Major Halleck to the briefing tent.
The tent was stuffy with sweat and breath. Colbert deactivated the arcane turbine on his back to prevent filling the tent with boiler smoke. Captain Kasey and twelve lieutenants were positioned around a large table upon which lay a roughly-sketched map of their position. Kasey was sliding around pewter figures that represented various platoons, units, and military assets on both sides. He paused to look up at their new attendee, blue eyes glittering with thought as they landed on the warcaster. Lieutenant Colbert saluted Captain Kasey. The Captain nodded.
“At ease, Lieutenant,” Kasey said. If he felt any surprise at Colbert’s age, he didn’t reveal it. There was no point in drawing attention to the journeyman’s inexperience in a room full of officers. “Good timing. I was about to explain your part in this mess.”
“Sir,” Colbert said dutifully. Kasey took a few more moments to outline the battlefield position before describing his plan in detail. A mortar barrage on the field punctuated the end of his explanation. There was a silent pause.
Major Halleck watched the faces of the platoon lieutenants. Their expressions ranged from fear to worry to anger. He had expected as much. It was, on the surface, not an appealing plan.
“So you’re using Hammer Company as cannon fodder. Sir.” Hank Reynolds voice was monotone, but the dissatisfaction in his statement was clear.
“No, Lieutenant Reynolds,” Captain Kasey said calmly, refusing to rise to the baiting comment. Kasey resisted the urge to remind Reynolds that he had not given permission to speak freely, but instead simply addressed the Lieutenant’s point. He wanted to address doubts openly. “I’m using Hammer Company as hardened shock troops who have just spent three months training for exactly this kind of engagement.” He pointed in the general direction of the Khadoran line to emphasize his words. “If you think this is a cannon fodder mission, then you don’t belong in the Trencher Corps., because I have news for you Lieutenant, it can get much worse than this.”
Reynolds stared back defiantly for a moment, then dropped his gaze. “Sir,” he said apologetically.
“Be thankful you have me and Major Halleck planning this operation and not certain other officers in this theater,” Kasey said sharply. His eyes drifted from one officer to the next.
“Sir, why not have Snake or Shield spearhead this assault?” one of the lieutenants from Snake Company asked. “We’ve got more experience. Putting a green company in charge of the first push seems awfully risky, Captain.”
“Hammer Company is as prepared as they’re ever going to get,” Captain Kasey rebutted. “And it’s going to get a lot worse when we have to actually take Albyn. It’ll be house-by-house, corner-by-corner up there. I need to wash the green off of them, and quick. They aren’t going into this alone. Not by a long shot. Every one of you are going to be hot on our heels across that field. Sergeant Bradson,” he said, turning to the officer from Shield Company in charge of their artillery crews, “I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is that you bring down those fucking barrage guns the moment we start going over the top.”
“Why aren’t we taking the guns out before Hammer leaves the trenches?” Gunnery Sergeant Bradson asked.
Kasey pursed his lips and shook his head. “We might get one, maybe two of them down, but give them too much time to think about it and the Reds will just pull those guns to their back line out of direct fire and wait for us to cross the top of their trench. They’d be safe from direct fire and we’d be even more exposed than we are in the field. It’d be a shooting gallery,” Kasey explained. “We haven’t cut loose our big gun yet, and it’s been buried in the brush back here, so I don’t think they even know we have it. They need to feel the presure of us crossing the field or they’ll just retreat. I want those fucking meatheads to stand right where they are and die in their silly armor like good Khadorans.”
“Sir,” Bradson said in acknowledgement. “Black Jack will get it done.”
“Who?” Captain Kasey said with a puzzled frown. The gunnery sergeant’s face froze in embarrassment. Major Halleck laughed.
“He’s talking about the cannon,” Halleck explained. “The gun crew call it Black Jack.”
“What is it with grave diggers and naming every piece of metal they lay eyes on,” Captain Kasey muttered. A few of the Lieutenants chuckled. “Do you guys name each and every one of your grenades, too?” he asked in exasperation.
“Only the ones attached to my twig,” Lieutenant Black quipped. This elicited an actual laugh from the tent, easing the tension a little.
“Alright, alright,” Kasey said with a little smile. “Is everyone clear on what their job is?” they all nodded. The grins faded and the unease returned to their eyes as fast as it had parted. “Major, anything you’d like to add?” Kasey asked, looking toward Halleck.
“This is a frontal attack on a heavily fortified position,” Major Halleck said to the group. “You’ve all studied your military history. Assaults like this have high casualty rates. If this goes well, we’re expecting a forty percent casualty rate.” His statement sucked the air out of the room.
“Fighting is going to be savage and time-sensitive,” he continued, ignoring the falling mood. “Every second we waste out there means more dead and wounded. We have to strike fast and hard. Don’t spare ammo. I know it feels counterintuitive, but the way to save the most lives is throw everything we have at them as hard as we can. A slow trickle gets as all killed.” He glanced at Kasey before continuing. “The only tactical advantage we have right now is sheer numbers, so we have to use it.” He paused a beat.
“There’s one more thing,” he added, watching the officers in the tent brace for more bad news. “You’re all the first in the battalion to hear this: I received a message from a rider not an hour ago that, on the third of this month, Khador officially surrendered Riversmet to Lord General Stryker.”
Cheers erupted in the stuffy tent. Everyone was ecstatic except Kasey, who simply stared at Halleck with an odd look on his face.
Halleck and Kasey strode away from the tent after dismissing the other officers to delegate and inform their platoons.
“What’s with the sour attitude?” he asked, already knowing what the answer would be.
“The third of Octesh was eight days ago,” Kasey said quietly. “Is word really traveling that slowly?”
“It’s not as if we have open telegraph lines through a warzone, Captain,” Halleck said defensively. “Storm Division is far ahead of the main advance.”
“Still, over a week to receive word of an enemy surrender?” Captain Kasey said uneasily. “That’s a long time.”
“For us to receive word,” Halleck corrected. “I’ve no doubt that General Worley was made aware much earlier.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better,” Kasey grumbled. “This entire invasion hinges on good communication. We can’t be waiting weeks on end to get word about success or failure.”
“Storm Division isn’t part of the First Army, Captain,” Halleck said, irritated. Kasey’s concern wasn’t unwarranted, but now was not the time to be dwelling on the battle in the North or the failings of their message systems. “You and I aren’t in a position to be reading their After Action Reports.”
Captain Kasey didn’t reply.
They passed the row of idle warjacks, standing and staring with the patience only machines could manage on the brink of combat. A few of the mechanical heads swiveled to watch them pass. Halleck looked up past the tree line towards the city on the hill, assessing their real objective: Albyn. Kasey followed his gaze.
“Even if this works–” Kasey started, then caught himself, “when this works– we’re still going to be short-handed for the attack on the town,” he admitted. “I want to keep the Bearded Bastards in our pocket for that assault. I don’t think we should let them cross no-man’s-land today until we’ve taken the other side,” he said.
Halleck laughed heartily. “You get to tell them that. I don’t think they’ll be too pleased with you,” Halleck said. “They’re not used to being sidelined during a battle.”
“They can itch a little longer,” Kasey said. “And it should come from you, Major, not me.”
“They’re assigned to your company, you go tell them, and that’s an order,” Halleck said wearily.
Kasey chuckled. “Yes, sir,” he said obediently. Their paths diverged as they strode off to begin their own preparations, but Kasey paused. “Sir,” he said. Halleck stopped and turned to look at him.
“What is, Captain?” Halleck asked.
“If this goes to shit, I’ll accept responsibility,” Kasey said. “I was the one who convinced Swinburn to send Lieutenant Colbert and the rest, you shouldn’t have to deal with–”
“Stop,” Halleck said, holding up his hands. “That’s not how the chain of command works and you know it.” He turned around to keep walking. “Besides,” he said over his shoulder, “it doesn’t take a tactical genius to see we didn’t have much choice. Stop trying to take credit for everything, it makes you look too ambitious.”
Kasey laughed heartily. “Yes, sir,” he replied.
Kirk, Peter, Bull, and Corporal Merrimack loitered anxiously in a little cluster with the rest of their platoon, flinching every time the Khadorans hurled more ordinance overhead. They had all quadruple-checked their own gear and then each others’ gear and then their own gear twice more. The jitters of approaching death blunted the bone-deep exhaustion. Kirk hadn’t had a solid night’s sleep since they left the training depot. He felt like his muscles were alternately being filled with pure energy and liquid jelly. Anxiety was quickly transmuting his stomach into a knotted tree root.
Lieutenant Reynolds had summoned them and explained the assault in clipped tones, focusing primarily on 4th Platoon’s role. He and the other Lieutenants had drawn straws to see whose platoon would go first. Reynolds had lost. Kirk felt irrationally angry at Reynolds for letting it happen. Knowing that fate had decided for him only made him angrier.
Six chain gun crews, preceded by six warjacks: two per company. The ‘jacks were to blaze their path through the deadly stretch of ground and secure a spot at the effective range of each company’s chain guns, where each crew would then deploy in the open and lay down covering fire for the rest of the battalion to start the charge behind them. Friendly howitzer, cannon and grenade fire would cover their approach. The big sixty-pounder was supposed to take out the enemy rotary guns. The ‘jacks– controlled by their new warcaster and reinforced with sandbags sandwiched with steel plating to interrupt high-explosive rounds– would catch enemy fire, while ten-man units would cross alongside them at intervals in time and space. They were told they were to provide suppressing fire for the gun crews to deploy, but their main job would be to take over on the chain guns if the crews got hit. There had to be enough fire saturation on the enemy trench for a full charge to cross, which meant all six guns had to be running at once.
The attack was focused on the eastern side of the enemy line to maximize fire concentration and deny the enemy use of one of their monster barrage guns on the western side. Once the enemy trench was breached, they’d travel along its length pushing the Khadorans out.
A normal chain gun crew was three, but after being set up, two men could keep one running for as long as there was ammo. Their teams would be four. Four insured operational efficiency even if two of them got hit.
The extra man did not inspire confidence in their odds.
Weapon teams were selected out of Hammer Company. Kirk, Peter, Bull and Corporal Merrimack were one of them.
Even the Corporal blanched when Lieutenant Reynolds announced their names.
After explaining the plan and making sure the job was clear to them all, Reynolds told them to wait for the Captain’s address before entering the trenches. There were several infinitely long, tense minutes while they waited for Captain Kasey. Nobody spoke. Finally, the captain approached the company from over a hill at a rapid walk. One of the cyclones crested the hill up behind him, pounding along with the same urgency and soaking the air in smoke. The machine’s hull had been covered in an array of sandbags, secured to its body with heavy leather straps and making it look like it was covered in pouches. It looked absolutely ridiculous. Its engine hammered away with the punch of a train at full steam. Kirk hoped the ‘armor’ didn’t weigh the machine down too much. Running through no-man’s-land was bad enough, but walking through it…
Captain Kasey waded into the giant group of men, carrying an empty ammo crate and tossing it on the ground in their midst. The Cyclone continued on past them, headed straight into the line of broken trees. Captain Kasey stepped onto his ammo crate.
“Alright, girls,” he said quickly. “This is it. This is your moment. You’ve all been waiting months for this, from the day you signed up in whatever recruiting office you stumbled into. You survived Captain Willikers. You survived the Bloody Trench. You survived the trip here.” He turned slowly, making eye contact with each of them in turn, challenging them. Encouraging them. Daring them. “Here’s the truth in its barenaked glory: you aren’t all going to survive this.” He stamped his foot on the crate energetically.
“Well guess WHAT. That’s war. If you wanted to be safe, you should have been bakers and milkmaids. You all want to get the chance to kill Reds!?”
“Yes sir!” they responded weakly. He recoiled as if they’d all spit in his face.
“What the fuck was THAT!?” he screamed. “I asked you a question! DO YOU WANT TO KILL REDS, YOU SONS OF BITCHES!?”
“YES SIR!” they responded with renewed energy. Kasey was doing a fine impression of Captain Willikers and it was simultaneously scaring the piss out of them and taking their mind off of their fear. It reminded them of training. It reminded them of what they’d already endured.
“GOOD! Killing Reds comes at a price, and the price is they get to try to kill you too. If you get shot, well, you get right up and KILL THEM BACK!”
“YES SIR!” they replied with smiles. They were grins of fear, but he was working their fear into focus now, into drive.
“Casualties are going to be bad,” Kasey admitted. “This is a bitter way to start your career as soldiers, but are you TRENCHERS or are you TRENCHERS!?”
He paused a moment to let their fervor settle.
Kirk thought back to all the times he’d been standing exactly like this, pressed in with his company, listening to their captain or lieutenant or some other CO shouting either abuse or encouragement or both. A dysphoric wave of deja vu swept over him, like he’d stood at the brink of this battle dozens of times already but couldn’t remember the outcome. Would he die? Had he already died? It passed as quickly as it came, leaving him even more unsettled than he already was.
“Alright. I’m assigning men to run wounded back to our line.” Kasey rattled off over a dozen names. Kirk didn’t recognize any of them except Ludwig’s, and realized the Captain had only called on the seasoned soldiers to run wounded. He spied Ludwig amid the sea of taut faces: he looked unhappy about his assignment. Kirk wondered if running wounded was any worse than leading the charge carrying a forty-pound steel gun shield for his weapon team.
“You want to live through this?” Kasey asked. “Take that fucking trench. The only way any of you are coming back to this side of the treeline today is if one of the men I just mentioned is carrying your broken body. The war is on that side. So go kill some Khadorans.”
“Any questions?” Kasey said, pausing a beat. Gerard raised his hand. Kirk hoped to Morrow the fool didn’t have some smartass remark.
“Are the Bastards joining us, sir?” Gerard asked.
“Is Staff Sergeant Swelt your platoon leader, Private?”
“Uh, no sir,” Gerard said.
“Then it’s none of your goddamn business what they’re up to. Let them do their job, you do your job, are we clear?” Kasey barked.
“Yes sir,” Gerard said.
“That’s enough questions. Wwhat’s our motto!?”
“FIRST TO FIGHT, LAST TO LEAVE!”
“Damn right,” Kasey grinned wickedly. “On Lieutenant Webster’s mark, one unit of his platoon will cross the woods and get into our trenches. One unit will cross every thirty seconds to avoid drawing mortar fire. When 1st Platoon is across, 2nd Platoon will cross, and so on. Spread out and await orders. When all three companies are ready, Lieutenant Reynolds will sound the whistle, the ‘jacks will ascend and so will 4th Platoon. I’ll be marshaling our grenadier and joining 1st Platoon’s ascent. Weapon crews, your chain guns are disassembled and waiting for you at the supply tent. Go get them. Hustle!”
And with that, he hopped off the ammo crate and jogged off with purpose. Kirk and his team took off at a sprint to get their equipment while Hammer Company organized itself by platoon once again.
On the other side of the bruised span of earth that had not long ago been a peaceful range of sprouting corn, the Khadorans were racing to make sure everything was in place to weather the storm. Forgeseer Yegor had donned his own specialized suit of Man-O-War armor, inscribed with a maze of ornate, deeply-etched runes that glowed faintly blue from within. They served a dual purpose: both denoting his rank within the Order and ensorcelling his armor with special protection against frost magic so the boiler would not freeze when he summoned a spell. He found them quite beautiful. He did not bother donning the spade-shaped helmet typically worn with such equipment, preferring to be able to see and command freely.
It really was a beautiful day: the cerulean blue sky was scattered with puffy ragged clouds, the trailing remnants of the wet storm that had visited a night or two before.
He both loved and hated the immensely powerful armor. It gave him the mass, the strength, and the protection that only a warjack normally enjoyed, yet at a substantial cost to his speed and maneuverability. That, and it was always quite hard on his back and joints to control the machine, even with pneumatic assistance. Still, in spite of its costs, very few Greylords had the size or strength to don such special accoutrement, and it afforded him not only a unique place in battle but also a truly terrifying presence. For the moment he used that presence to inspire his men, pacing behind the bulwark and inspecting their preparations. Nobody would be fleeing from the enemy while he was behind them.
He spotted Kovnik Vasily running towards him. Yegor acknowledged the man as he approached.
“Sir,” Yegor rumbled in a voice that seemed to coming from an engine pump, not a human being.
“Forgeseer,” Vasily said breathlessly. “I’m moving your ternion east to defend our lane there. A large build-up of trenchers is happening right now.” Vasily was trying to sound professional, but the excitement in his voice was hard to disguise. Yegor suppressed his own vicious joy. Ah, finally.
“They are smart to do so,” Yegor said appreciatively. “Our rotary cannon on the west side cannot reach them.” He was glad to face a skilled enemy. This would be a true test. They would have to abandon their position here very soon, he knew this, but victory was not to be on this field. This was only the first step. He would ensure the kompany’s safe withdrawal.
Well… some of them.
Vasily would have to die very soon. Pondering the inevitable dampened Yegor’s high spirit.
“I’m going to hold all fire until they leave their trench,” Vasily said, half to himself and half to Yegor. “We are running short on artillery rounds, they have taken so long to make their move.”
“Understood, Kovnik. They fire on your order,” Yegor said, glancing at the destroyer warjacks under his direction.
Yegor looked around him, at the masses of Winter Guard infantrymen pressing themselves against the firestep of their trench wall, rifles and bell-shaped blunderbusses and sniper rifles and field guns and rockets all pointing at the enemy like a channel of explosive, deadly teeth. The three destroyers stood fifty yards back, bombards aimed high, waiting for Yegor’s command. The mortar crews watched their spotters at the firestep with hawkish attention.
“Kanava komoye,” spat one of the infantrymen as they spied the enemy scurrying through the beleaguered woodland. There were barks of laughter. Yegor laughed with them. Kanava komoye.
Yegor inhaled deeply, closing his eyes. The scent of fear permeated the atmosphere. These moments always reminded him of watching summer thunderstorms approach across the rolling steppes of Skirovnya as a child, feeling the static pull his hairs on end and washing the air in ozone.
“They will begin their advance with a barrage!” Vasily shouted down the line. An officer echoed his warning far away. “Brace!”
Come, little beetles! Thought Yegor. I will bathe this land in your blood and wash away your sins against my Motherland.
Kirk was trembling. Peter was trembling right along beside him. Bull had gone totally wooden. Merrimack was muttering under his breath. Here now each man stood alone with his fear, forced to beat it in whatever way he could. Nobody could assist: a thousand men fought their own private wars in silence. Not a few of them were yakking up rations. Heavy, stressed breathing all around him blended into a sound like rustling leaves.
Alex had snuck his way through the press of bodies in the dirty ditch to stand beside Kirk.
“See you on the other side,” Alex said, meeting Kirk’s eyes. The world stopped for a heartbeat. Alex was terrified, Kirk could see it– but he was terrified for Kirk. Why did they come out here? They should have just stayed on the farm…
Kirk nodded. He adjusted his grip on the heavy gun shield, triceps straining uncomfortably.
The cyclone was crammed in along with them, its engine chuffing rapidly and marinating the air with soot, radiating heat. Even the machine seemed antsy, shifting its torso, adjusting to the weight of its additional makeshift sandbag armor. Its chain barrels kept clicking back and forth with a snap. A couple of combat mechaniks from Snake Company had been assigned to follow the ‘jack out with them. Kirk could tell one of the mechaniks was absolutely pissed beyond belief.
“Sorry you got stuck with us,” Kirk whispered to him. The man turned, startled.
“Wha?” he said, face confused. Kirk shrugged.
“You’re mad, I get it,” Kirk breathed.
“THIRTY SECONDS!” Major Halleck shouted somewhere off behind them. From special dugouts just ahead, the howitzer crews began loading their guns, hatches cranking and shells falling into breaches with a dull thud.
“The hell you think I’m mad about?” the mechanik said, ignoring the Major’s warning. He jabbed a finger at the straps and sandbags on the cyclone. “That’s what got me ripped,” he said angrily. “What idjit thought of that? You know what sand does to gears?”
“Naught good!” the engineer muttered. Kirk enviously wished he could be so totally focused on his job that the thought of the next few minutes was less upsetting than sand in a ‘jacks gears.
“FIRE!” Major Halleck screamed. The howitzers opened up with ungodly fury. This was the closest Kirk had sat to artillery. The sound was literally deafening, all-consuming, passing through his ears and his body and his brain in a wave of pressure and pure intensity. Blast after blast after blast blended into a uniform squall of noise and fire. A fog of weapon smoke drifted overhead, filling Kirk’s nostrils with the acrid stink of spent powder.
Without a word, it attack stopped.
A whistle sounded. Merrimack’s muttering ascended in volume until Kirk could distinguish a thread of curses so creative, so vile, they would have made an infernalist uncomfortable. They did not stop as the cyclone shifted its weight and began stepping up the steep wide grade that passed for a ramp out of the trench, huge metal feet slipping for traction in the filthy mud.
“Here we go,” said Bull, clutching the hefty six-barrel of their weapon. “Here we go!”
Kirk followed the mechaniks in front of him so closely he was practically stepping on their heels, and they were so close to the warjack’s firebox that their faces were sweating profusely from the heat.
And then they were above the trench.