30th Battalion front line, Llael.
13th of Octesh, 611 AR.
By noon their new trenches were coming along nicely. The soft soil and Daisy’s help made work go quickly. The pace of the forward trench suffered from having to tear up the matted grasses and constantly diving for cover from intermittent destroyer fire, but they managed to suffer only one casualty in the course of a few hours. The clouds finally dispersed and the temperature rose over an unveiled sun. Work grew hot. Kirk found himself immediately wishing for the oppressive, melancholy clouds to return and shield him from the heat.
In all his imaginings about war, in all the stories and warnings and drills he’d experienced back at the training depot outside Bainsmarket, the one thing Kirk was slowly realizing he hadn’t been prepared to expect was his own unwashed stench. There were many smells on the battlefield: spent powder, foul gasses, bodies in every imaginable state of decay, oil and smoke from machines and about a thousand burning substances up to and including smoldering dirt. All were things he could find some refuge away from, if only for a moment. Even the stink of his companions was something he could avoid for a while. But his own smell? That was inescapable.
His funky aroma was a particular sting to his sensibilities and pride after having the importance of proper hygiene drilled into his head over and over by his combat instructors. Rigorous self-cleaning was enforced with no room for imperfection: trimmed and clean nails, clean-shaven scalp, a fresh wash after every day either in the lake or in pump-fed showers. Everyone was required to shave regularly, even those like Kirk whose beard was hardly more than a boyish layer of thin patchy bristles.
Now, after barely a week of hard travel and merciless combat, he positively reeked. He caught it every time he moved, emanating out of his armor in a constant updraft. His face was actually getting prickly again and his scalp was no longer bare. A layer of filth was slowly accumulating on his gear. The only thing he’d had time to clean in the last two days was his weapon, and that only out of sheer necessity. His hands were almost black from dirt. A bucket of cold water on his face was the closest thing he’d had to a wash, and that was days ago when they’d first arrived at the front. Relieving himself was the worst part. In the last four days his only way of wiping up after a crap was the waxy paper wrappings on their ration kits; not only did it feel bad, it also didn’t do a very good job. Smelling his own dirty bottom any time he bent over or squatted was humiliating. He couldn’t even imagine how bad his feet smelled in his boots; he hadn’t removed them since Drek Lake. The pain of keeping them on was almost worth avoiding whatever smell hid within.
Of all the inconveniences and indignities of war, if anything was going to cave him in it was probably going to be his own persistent stink.
Kirk stood and stretched, his back popping loudly. He took a swig from his canteen, gazing at Albyn across the field through the sweat stinging his eyes.
He saw something. A little trail of smoke. He crouched down and tapped Merrimack’s shoulder.
“Hey, Corporal, look!”
Merrimack lifted his eyes from their ditch and peered across the field.
“Man-O-War,” Merrimack said, his face taught.
“Does he have what I think he has?” Kirk asked incredulously.
“Yep,” Merrimack confirmed, although he didn’t sound like he believed it either. “He’s waving a white flag.”
Kasey was at the now-empty rear encampment, slogging in grave holes with the Bastards. He hadn’t told them why he was helping, and to his great relief they didn’t ask. Exhaustion was making his limbs tremble uncontrollably now. The physical exertion was only making it worse. He paused a moment to sit at the edge of a grave, tossing his trowel into the pit. The Bastards continued digging with some bottomless well of energy that Kasey was beginning to find irritating.
“Damn you all, how are you not dead on your feet?” He lamented. “Am I really getting that old?”
Swelt paused and pulled a little cloth baggie from one of his pouches. He upended the bag into his hand and walked to Kasey’s side, sitting beside him. Kasey looked down at a white tablet in Swelt’s open palm.
“Alchemical stimulant,” the Sergeant said. “They give us a couple before major engagements. Kills fatigue for about twenty-four hours.” Swelt pushed his hand against Kasey’s chest and Kasey gratefully accepted the gift. He popped it into his mouth without hesitation, chomping on the bitter pill without making a face. Almost immediately he felt strength seep back into his limbs, his vision grew sharper, the heavy wet blanket of exhaustion lifted from his shoulders.
“Shit,” Kasey said. “Eight years in the army and this is the first I hear of it. How long have these been around, and why don’t I ever get any?”
“They’ve only been put to widespread use in the last few years,” Swelt explained. “Prolonged usage can lead to dependence, even dangerous side-effects. Only special operatives or UE teams get them, usually. And only a couple at a time. Can you imagine if these went into wide circulation? You’d have an army of addicted trenchers trading their boots for pills!”
Kasey snorted. “I guess you’re right. If you had asked me for my boots in exchange for this, I probably would have given them to you.”
Swelt shook his head. “Can’t imagine they’re any less smelly than mine. You can keep em.”
A couple of the other commandos dropped a body into the neighboring grave with a heavy thump.
Kasey shifted uncomfortably. “Staff Sergeant, I, uh… I’m sorry about Corporal Simpson. How are you and your men holding up?”
Sergeant Swelt looked away.
“Fine. We’re professionals,” he remarked with a sigh. “He was one of my newer ones. Just sorry he didn’t get a chance to see more action.” He shrugged. “We don’t lose men often, Captain. I’d be lying if I said I’m used to it. But if you’re worried it will affect our performance–”
“I have no doubt about your professionalism,” Kasey said before Swelt could finish. “Between losing Simpson and Walyam’s injury, you’re down to eight, though. I asked a lot of you last night. Honestly I’m amazed more of you didn’t get hit.”
“We’re the best, sir,” Swelt reminded him. “We get the job done, even if we don’t come back.”
“Yeah, that’s what concerns me,” Kasey said quietly.
“We’re obviously in a tight spot out here, and it will be tempting for me to rely too much on your team to accomplish what the rest of Hammer Company cannot.”
“That’s our job, sir,” Swelt said proudly. “We do the impossible.”
Kasey sucked his teeth. “I’m not going to be responsible for the death of a unit of Trench Murderers, Sergeant. If I ask you to do something and the task seems to have an unreasonably small chance of success, I need you to be honest with me.”
“Understood, sir,” Swelt answered. “Although high-risk operations are quite literally our mandate.”
Kasey shook his head. “Yeah, but they’re not mine— and you’re in Hammer Company, at least for now.”
“Do you consider last night’s infiltration to be a mistake, sir?” Swelt asked.
“No, because we had to do something or we’d all be dead. But I don’t want the fact that it worked to conceal how dangerous it actually was.” Kasey furrowed his brow. “I like to think I’m not a man who wastes the lives of his men.”
“You’re not, sir,” Swelt said firmly. “The Colonel trusts you or we wouldn’t be here at all.”
“I wish he trusted me enough to actually give us…” Kasey stopped himself. “Ah, nevermind.”
“I can promise you things weren’t better at Frénosel when I left,” Swelt offered. “Although, they don’t have a siege mortar pointed at them right now.”
“No matter what, we’re going to lose a lot more of our people before we put a Cygnus over that town,” Kasey said. He turned to look at Swelt. “Tell me, how do you handle it?”
“Handle what, sir?”
Kasey waved his hand at the grave. “This. Losing men.”
Swelt shrugged. “Truthfully? Religion.” Kasey laughed in surprise.
“I never pegged you for a religious man, Sergeant. Morrowan I assume?”
Swelt knit his brow. “Ah, not quite such a popular one, actually.”
Kasey gave him a knowing look, then pulled on the thin silver chain around his neck. A tiny golden menofix emerged from his cowl. Swelt looked at it, then at Kasey.
“Praise the Creator,” Swelt said quietly.
“Praise the Creator,” Kasey repeated before returning the icon to its hiding place. They looked into the distance for a while.
“I’ve got nothing against Morrowans, to be clear,” Swelt said uncomfortably.
Kasey patted the air. “You don’t need to explain it to me, Lieutenant.”
“Simpson was a Morrowan.” Swelt stared at the backs of his hands. “Always makes me feel better when I know one of my men ended up somewhere safe in urcaen. Least I hope so.” He turned to look at Kasey. “I can handle death, Captain. It’s capture of the soul here on caen, or a less-than-gentle landing place in the afterlife, that makes me worry.” He clenched his fists. “I’ve fought Cryx enough to know what fate awaits the spirits of their victims.”
The Captain grabbed his trowel and stood up. “We’ve got a lot more to bury. Let’s get this over with.”
“Captain, incoming,” Swelt said with a sudden look of concern. Kasey turned to see Major Halleck running towards them from no-man’s-land.
“Uh oh,” Kasey mumbled. “He looks either pissed or worried, I can never tell the difference.” Swelt stood up beside him.
Major Halleck answered the Captain’s question within a few seconds.
“Captain, we have a situation!” he yelled as he approached.
Kasey nudged Swelt’s pauldron. “Come on, let’s see what’s wrong.”
They jogged to meet the Major who came to a breathless halt in front of them, panting harder than he should have. He looked even worse than Kasey had felt before he’d taken the pill.
“Greylord wants to talk,” he managed to squeeze out between breaths.
Kasey gasped. “The hell? About what? How many of our boys he’s killed so far!? Tell him to–”
“He’s got hostages,” Halleck interrupted. Kasey swallowed.
“What does he want?” Kasey asked.
“Don’t know yet, just got word,” Halleck wheezed. “I’m nearly deaf and dead on my feet, Jericho. I need you with me to find out what he wants, and to back me up if he tries something stupid.”
“Understood.” Kasey turned to Swelt. “Give the Major one.” Swelt hesitated a moment, then pulled the little pouch back out of his pocket.
“Last one. Don’t come back for more.” He handed the pill to Halleck, who stared at it in confusion.
“Just eat it,” Kasey said. Halleck shrugged and ate it. He made a bitter face.
“Aw, what is…” his eyes regained their sharpness almost immediately. “…this.” He rubbed his face and looked around. “Holy shit, what is this?”
“Alchemical stimulant, UE team issue,” Kasey explained. “Don’t get used to it, we still need real sleep soon. But it’ll give us our edge back.”
The two officers hastily made their way through a parting crowd of trenchers near the front. Kasey had armed himself with a handcannon in a belt holster and had picked up Joffrey on their march to the strange meeting.
“I want that big motherfucker in your crosshairs,” Kasey told him. “He gets even a little glowy, and you end him. You hear me? Don’t miss.”
“I don’t miss,” Joffrey answered. Kasey stopped walking suddenly and squared off with Joffrey. The other two men stopped with him.
“You don’t fire unless you see him do something dangerous or unless you see me give you a signal, I mean it,” Kasey reiterated. “We need to find out what he wants.”
“Yes sir. What’s the signal?” Jofrrey asked.
“If I move to stand in front of the Major, you fire,” Kasey ordered.
“Go find a position,” Kasey said and resumed walking. Halleck continued walking beside him.
“We’ve got every gun in range trained on that wizard, Captain,” Halleck said. He’d be insane to try something.”
“He’s big, he’s fast, he’s heavily armored, and we’ll be standing very close to him,” Kasey said, worried. “Joffrey is supposed to be the best sniper in Hammer Company. I like a sure thing.”
“Fair enough,” Halleck nodded. “Isn’t he one of the new ones, though? How good is he?”
“If his Lieutenant is telling true stories about him, he’s going to be a legend,” Kasey answered.
Halleck rubbed his chin. “Huh. I sure hope the rest of our guns keep trigger discipline if he takes a shot. I don’t fancy being greased by my own men.”
“Major, if he has to take a shot, it’s probably because we’re already dead,” Kasey sighed.
“At least that fucking wizard will go with us,” Halleck offered.
“What a comfort,” Kasey huffed.
The eyes of the battalion were on them as they approached the half-finished forward trench. There in the field about a hundred yards ahead of them stood the battle wizard, the golden trim on his heavy red armor glinting in the sun. A trail of thick boiler smoke rose from his back. Three small figures were huddled in front of him. Halleck pulled out a spyglass and aimed it at their target, looking through it for a moment and then snapping it shut angrily.
“Fat bastard is using old people as meat shields,” he said, nostrils flaring.
“No axe,” Halleck noted. “Doesn’t mean much though.” Kasey grunted in agreement. He was tapping his hand nervously on his thigh.
“Damn stimulants are making me edgy,” Kasey said.
“Me too. Hold it together. Let me take the lead,” Halleck said. He turned to a trooper next to him. “Gun.” The young private tossed him his freshly-oiled bannfield rifle. Halleck checked the breech and nodded in satisfaction at the bullet within. He snapped it shut. A moment passed. He looked at Kasey. Kasey looked back at Halleck. They clambered over the trench together.
“Good luck,” the private whispered after them as they walked away.
They marched quick and silent through the tough grass. As they approached the wizard, his imposing size and armor made their hearts race. Nearly every surface of the hulking exosuit was chiseled with ornate runes and decorated with strange medallions that looked more magical than meritory. A white flag had been attached to the armor and flapped in the gentle breeze. His bald head sat atop the armor like a turtle just poking its head out of its shell for a look around, a ridiculous bushy beard flowing from his face. The wizard grinned. His brilliant white teeth flashed in the sun.
There was a faint shimmer in the air around him and the three hostages.
“He’s doing something with magic,” Kasey hissed to the Major.
“Nothing we can do about it. If he tries something, Joffrey had better be quick,” Halleck whispered back.
“Greetings, southerners!” the enemy bellowed at them as they approached, his Cygnaran slightly accented but otherwise very clean. The officers stopped about fifteen feet away. Two elderly men and an old woman were standing barefoot in nightclothes at the wizard’s feet. Their small, feeble bodies offered him no significant cover– he towered over them– but if he came under fire, they would die one way or another.
He looked at the two Cygnarans, his black eyes glinting like a cat playing with a terror-frozen mouse.
“Now look, you’ve come armed and I have no weapon,” he said, opening his arms wide. “How inhospitable of you.”
“Screw you. You are a weapon,” Halleck snapped, gripping his rifle.
The wizard laughed. “Very complimentary,” he boomed. He had a voice like a warjack’s engine.
“Give me one reason to not order my snipers to take off your head,” Halleck said.
“Because if you do,” Yegor answered, “my destroyer will obliterate the ground we stand on. I die, we all die.”
“Weapon or not, you don’t seem to mind threatening innocent old folks,” Kasey noted.
The wizard clucked and he waved one of the metal fingers in his suit at Kasey. Its actuators buzzed like insects. “Just insurance. I have no particular desire to kill them,” he said. “I couldn’t come out here in range of all of your considerable firepower without something to compel restraint.”
Kasey turned his attention to the three captives. “Are you alright?” he asked them softly. Their eyes searched his in desperation for some sign of hope that he would get them out of this predicament.
“Lilliana?” one of the men whispered.
He tried to conceal his surprise. Evidently he wasn’t doing very well because Yegor’s eyebrows went up.
“Ah,” Yegor said knowingly. “I see you’ve met the little bitch.” He chuckled. “I’m sure she’s having a wonderful time with your… energetic young men.” Kasey was glad to see a lack of understanding on the faces of Yegor’s prisoners. They didn’t speak enough Cygnaran to grasp the insult. “Well, now you’ve met her family,” Yegor explained. “Her father Louis, her mother Priscilla, and her uncle Michel. Tell her we say hello,” he said wickedly.
“What do you want?” Halleck asked impatiently.
“Allow me to introduce myself!” the wizard had the grandiosity of a showmaster introducing the next act to the stage. “I am Forgeseer Yegor Priyet Alexei Nikolayev of the Greylord Covenant.” He paused, waiting for the two officers to return the introduction. They did not. He rolled his eyes and continued. “I have something of yours I wish to return.” He looked down at one of his prisoners. “Montra lie,” he ordered in Llaelese. The little old lady– her arms shaking in fear– lifted her dress delicately and slowly stepped back until her spine was touching Yegor’s armor. A human head was set in the grass where she had stood, concealed by her nightgown.
Both Halleck and Kasey’s eyes flashed with anger, not just at the bloody head of one of Swelt’s bearded commandos staring blankly at them, but at the indignity of making the poor old woman stand over it this entire time.
“You sick little…” Halleck couldn’t think of a proper insult that captured his rage.
“You left this behind,” Yegor said with a smile. “I guess he just wasn’t able to keep up while his friends ran away.”
Kasey gazed calmly at the sadistic wizard. “I didn’t realize we were making returns, or I would have brought a bag of yours,” he said calmly. “You left quite a few of them back there.” He gestured to the previous day’s muddy battlefield down the hill. “But don’t worry, we took care of them for you.”
Yegor chuckled. “I think mine aren’t worth as much as this one.” He gently pushed the old lady aside and lifted his giant steel boot– as big as a light ‘jack’s armored foot– to step on the head. It vanished into the grass with a soft crunch. Yegor removed his boot. The head had gone flat and burst open. The woman screamed and the two men covered their mouths to stop from gagging.
“I think we’re done here,” Halleck said furiously, turning to leave.
“Wait,” Yegor rumbled. “I have a proposition for you.” Halleck paused. Kasey stayed rooted in place.
“Go smash heads on your own time. I have work to do,” Halleck said and started to move again.
“I will release ten civilians per day,” Yegor said quickly. Halleck stopped and turned. Kasey blinked in shock. “Starting with these three, and seven more.” Yegor nodded at the prisoners. Kasey and Halleck waited.
“And?” Halleck asked. “That’s it? You’re just feeling gracious this afternoon?”
“In exchange for a cease-fire,” Yegor added. Halleck actually burst into laughter.
“You come out here with old village folk as human shields, smash the head of one of my men for fun, and then offer a few civilians as a trade for a cease-fire?” He shook his head. “Go fuck yourself.”
“Alternatively,” Yegor continued, “I will execute two civilians for every single Winter Guard you kill from this moment forward. Starting with Lilliana’s family here.”
Halleck shook his head in disgust. “You Khadorans are all the same. You think brutality wins obedience. You kill any of those innocent people and all you’ll do is just make every one of my soldiers more eager to storm that village and pop your head under their boot.”
“You no longer have the numbers,” Yegor countered. “If you had, you would have taken the village last night. Your men will catch on our wire and choke on gas and die one by one until there aren’t enough left to take Albyn. And each day you fail, I will kill more of these,” he gestured at the three traumatized townspeople. “Their fate is your responsibility. We are at an impasse, and you know it.”
“I have the entire First Army coming up behind me,” Halleck said, pointing at his chest with his tumb. “And you know it. We’re just the tip of the sword.”
“No, you are a splinter,” Yegor spat, “and when the ponderous mass of mindless bodies you call an ‘army’ finally comes crawling up to the front, I will shatter them from miles away with fire and trembling earth. You have felt it.”
Halleck’s face turned red, the muscles in his thick jaw flexing. Kasey took a step forward before the Major said or did something foolish.
“With what?” Kasey asked. “The siege mortar we blew up?”
Kasey considered himself a good judge of when someone was lying. This assessment of his own ability only made his stomach sink even further when Yegor smiled broadly, totally unconcerned.
“Oh, I think not,” Yegor said. “Your little trench beetle should have taken more care what he was shooting at when he tried to destroy our weapon. He detonated a flare.” Yegor chuckled. “It certainly hurt our eyes, but I assure you, the gun works just fine. Too bad he didn’t wait– had he shot a true artillery round, he could have really hurt himself!”
Halleck mastered his anger and shook his head. “A Bluff. You’re bluffing. If that gun was working, we would have been feeling it all night. No way you’ve cleaned up in already.”
Kasey wanted Halleck to be right, but something about Yegor’s demeanor did not feel like a lie.
“We’ve got reinforcements due any minute,” Halleck continued.
“Major…” Kasey warned.
“It’s nothing he isn’t going to find out himself when our men and machines come up the road,” Halleck said.
Yegor’s eyes narrowed. “It doesn’t matter. What’s coming is coming. The question is, how many of you will still be alive when reinforcements finally do come to your rescue?”
Halleck sneered. “I don’t have time for games, and I don’t have authority to negotiate a cease-fire even if that’s what I wanted.”
Yegor nodded calmly. “I see. Would you like proof that I am not lying?”
Halleck stared him down. “Sure.”
“I am going to fire the mortar,” Yegor said. “As proof.”
“Uh-huh,” Halleck said. “Alright. Fire it into those fields south of us.”
Kasey wanted to say something, to warn Halleck that the greylord might be telling the truth, but he bit his tongue. He could be wrong. If he was, calling the wizard’s bluff here would totally erode the enemy’s position and they might be able to leverage him to free more people.
“Tell your men to hold fire,” Yegor demanded. “I don’t want the mortar to trigger a firefight.”
Halleck turned to look back at their troops who watched them anxiously across the field. He cupped his hands around his mouth.
“Hold fire unless ordered!” He bellowed at them. He turned back to Yegor and raised his eyebrows expectantly. Yegor smiled back.
“Very well,” the giant man sneered.
“Don’t kill anybody, or you’ll sprout a hole in your head,” Halleck warned.
Yegor turned slowly to face the town– putting his armored back to the two soldiers– and raised a hefty powered arm straight into the air.
Joffrey had climbed up onto Daisy’s hull at the edge of the forward trench, seated right on top of her cortex bay doors. It was an awkward firing position and his ass was getting hot from her metal surface, but the higher angle meant he could more easily compensate for bullet drop. Reynolds had ordered Daisy to be completely still. She obeyed like only a machine could, slowing her engine to avoid any movement. Joffrey adjusted his sights to easily see the entire exchange between the Captain, the Major and the evil wizard, trying to ignore the terrified faces of the hostages. What kind of animal used old people as hostages? Damn those Reds!
He intuited the angle his rifle should be at, the crosshairs of his scope perched just above above the greylord’s head. It felt like a magnet was drawing the end of his barrel to the perfect position, like his own arms weren’t in charge of the weapon. A feeling he was growing to trust more and more. If he did have to fire, there was no way he’d miss. He almost hoped the greylord would try something just so he could put the monster down.
He watched the old lady step away to reveal a head on the ground, and he watched the greylord crush it. His finger tightened on the trigger. Several tense moments passed but he saw no sign of danger to the officers. He wished he could hear what they were saying! Halleck suddenly turned around and shouted at them to hold fire. What? Why? What did that mean?
The wizard began to turn and he took up the slack on the trigger once more. Why was his back to them now? The head was obscured, Joffrey had no shot at all. The wizard raised an arm. Shit! What was he–
The earth shook and a cloud of fire and smoke blew out like dragon’s breath from behind Albyn. The air itself began to scream. Nobody even bothered to shout incoming. Everyone dove for cover or huddled in their incomplete trenches. There was nowhere for Joffrey to go. He sat on Daisy, heart suddenly trying to beat its way up into his throat and out his mouth. The round was not aimed at them, though– it let out its piercing train whistle as it flew overhead and faded into the distance, headed south. Joffrey desperately wanted to look up but couldn’t risk taking his eyes off the greylord, who was now turning around with a smug grin on his face.
In spite of its distance, the blast of the impact was greater than any that had come before. A small earthquake traveled through the ground and Joffrey took his eye off the enemy for just a moment to turn and see where it had landed. He looked just in time to see the earth itself bubble upward where one of the farms in the southern fields had been, the shockwave flattening a nearby barn. There was no pillar of flame this time; just an ungodly amount of earth being lifted into the sky. A geyser of dirt.
It was the farm he’d taken Lilliana to shelter in.
“NO! NO!” he screamed. “No, no… oh, gods…” there was no way she could have survived, no way anyone could have survived that. He whipped back around and lifted the rifle scope to see the dark wizard laughing. Laughing!
It was too much. He could end this right now, end all of it. He’d be a hero. Orders be damned.
He let the barrel guide him to the right place, set the crosshairs just above the evil bastard’s stupid shiny head, and fired.
Relief flooded him as the butt of the rifle kicked his shoulder, loosing the bullet across the field. Finally, some justice was about to be served. He waited to see a puff of red and a greylord go limp in his armor.
An instant later, wheeling azure runes flared all around the wizard and one of his hostages dropped to the ground in a spray of blood. Joffrey blinked. What? What had happened?
He’d shot the hostage. The image in his scope began to vibrate as his arms shook and the rifle drooped. He pulled his eye from the quivering optics, but not before seeing Halleck and Kasey whip around with furious faces.
“Cease fire! Cease fire!” they screamed across the field, voices distant. Only hours and hours of trigger discipline beaten into their heads stopped the whole company from opening up at that moment.
“Thamar’s tits, what just happened!?” someone shouted in confusion.
A heartbeat passed and then things got even worse.
Unnaturally dense fog instantly appeared where the six– now five– figures were standing. Everyone had guns up, even Daisy cocked her grenade launcher and took a step forward, nearly sending Joffrey tumbling off. Someone went running out across the grass to find out what was going on.
“What have I done…” Joffrey murmured.
A freezing mist enveloped them even as new runes blazed to life all around. Kasey coughed from the sudden temperature drop assaulting his lungs. The greylord took a menacing step forward, his suit’s engine chugging and pistons hissing like snakes.
“Cease fire!” Kasey kept screaming. Halleck was doing the same.
“You should not have done that!” Yegor cried. “I should kill you for this trickery!”
“I said not to kill anybody, you bastard!” Halleck shouted.
“Those farmers weren’t anybody,” Yegor countered.
“We didn’t order that shot!” Kasey managed to say through coughs. “Someone got jumpy! Drop the fog, Yegor, or they’re going to shell us!”
“If I do, what will stop them from shooting again? Your men have no discipline!” Yegor roared furiously. “They have endangered us all! My destroyer may fire any second!”
“Drop the fog, dammit!” Halleck screamed.
The two surviving hostages had dropped to the ground beside their dead family member, howling in grief. The casualty was Louis, Lilliana’s father.
A new voice called to them from outside the cloud of fog.
“Major, Captain, are you ok!?” It was the distinctive hoarse voice of Captain Donn from Shield Company.
“Tell those stupid fuckers to CEASE! FIRE!” Halleck screamed.
“The Major and Captain are alive, do not fire! I repeat, do not fire!” Captain Donn relayed across the field.
“Derzhat voyat!” Yegor hollered over his shoulder, voice projected impossibly loud and deep through some magical effect. “Yo povtoroyu, DERZHAT VOYAT!”
“What are you saying!?” Kasey demanded.
“I told my ‘jack marshal to hold fire,” Yegor said. “I hope he heard me. We’ll know in a few seconds.”
“Major Halleck, Captain Kasey, what’s going on?” Captain Donn shouted.
“You tell me, Captain!” Major Halleck shouted back furiously. “Who the hell fired without permission and why?”
“Some Hammer Company private sitting on a grenadier,” Captain Donn answered. Kasey let out a pained gasp. Joffrey. That imbecile. He’d nearly gotten them all killed. How in Menoth’s name had he accidentally shot Louis!? And then Kasey remembered the magical energy that had built up around Yegor as they approached; it was the same spell the wizard had used to protect himself and his retreating army from Lieutenant Colbert’s cyclone attack. The sniper bullet was redirected to poor Louis, who probably died before knowing he was hit. Yegor had somehow suppressed the visible runes until the bullet passed through them and the spell was triggered. Kasey hadn’t even realized such a thing was possible.
Fucking wizards. Fucking warcasters. Fucking magic!
“Have the private restrained, I’ll deal with him when we come back,” Kasey said.
“We aren’t dead yet, which means my kapitan heard me,” Yegor said, his gravely baritone sounding more calm. “Your foolish sniper nearly ended all our lives.”
“He’s going to pay for it,” Kasey said through gritted teeth.
Yegor grunted. “You should execute him.”
“You should release this ridiculous fog before someone thinks something has happened to us and we get leveled by my howitzers,” Halleck rebutted. Yegor stared him down for a moment– all Halleck could see was a hulking, smoke-wreathed spectre in the icy fog. Then, as fast as it came, the fog cleared and the sun blazed down on them once more. Captain Donn was standing thirty feet away, shoulders heaving from the sprint across the field and the stress of the precarious moment.
“Morrow have mercy, that was close,” Halleck breathed. Priscilla was sobbing at her husband’s limp body, stroking his hair in some vain hope the small act of tenderness might revive him, might undo the gaping bullet hole in his forehead or repair the brains leaking out of the back of his skull. Michel had his head in his hands.
“My offer still stands,” Yegor said. “You see I am not bluffing about our weapon.”
“We’re too close for you to use that thing on us now,” Halleck said.
“And yet the farms are not,” Yegor said, “and your reinforcements– assuming there are any– will have to pass through our fire to reach you.”
Halleck went silent. Kasey stared at him. He could see the Major was about to walk away from the table, but Kasey had an idea.
“Yegor, give us a moment,” Kasey said, walking to Halleck and stepping away from the greylord.
“Be quick,” Yegor said impatiently.
“Major, I don’t think he’s going to honor a cease-fire even if we give it to him,” Kasey whispered.
“I agree. This was pointless,” Halleck said.
“Maybe not,” Kasey said. “Maybe I can convince him to release at least the two hostages he has here. If we tell him we’ll honor a cease-fire–”
“I can’t make that commitment, Jericho,” Halleck murmured. “I don’t have the authority.”
“I know, but it might just be enough to get him to let those poor people go,” Kasey said. “We could save a couple of innocent lives here.”
Halleck took a deep breath.
“Alright, I’ll tell him we’ll agree to a cease-fire and see what he does,” he agreed at last. “But I can’t actually order our men to not engage the enemy without orders from the Colonel.”
“You know what Swinburn will say,” Kasey warned. “It’s not even worth asking him.”
Halleck shook his head. “Yes, but this Yegor fellow is obviously desperate and I’m not quite sure why. They seem to hold all the cards here, yet he’s trying to buy time for some reason. If that’s the case, he might actually be willing to keep his end of a deal.”
“Let’s just tell him we’ll honor a cease-fire and then go from there,” Kasey said. “I don’t like the idea of holding back if that’s obviously what he wants. But we don’t have to be faithful to anything we say here. We aren’t authorized to negotiate and he knows that.”
Halleck blew out a breath. “Alright. Let’s try and get these people free.”
They turned and walked back to Yegor.
“We’ll agree to a cease-fire,” Halleck said. “If you release your two surviving hostages to us right now.”
Yegor let out a jovial belly laugh. “What! They are the only thing ensuring you don’t bombard me the moment I turn around and walk back to my town! I think not.”
“We won’t fire on you,” Kasey insisted.
“Of course not,” Yegor laughed again. “No, I think the temptation will be too strong. I am not entirely confident even these brittle old people will be enough to keep you from pulling your triggers again. I will release them after I return safely. You’ve already demonstrated that your men are more eager for my death than you are.”
“I’ll walk with you back to Albyn in their stead,” Kasey said quickly. Halleck’s head whipped towards him. “They certainly won’t fire on me.”
“Captain–!” Halleck started. Yegor laughed again.
“And what will stop me from ordering my men to shoot you in the head the moment you are in range?” Yegor asked. “You are so trusting, you tempt me.”
“Captain–” Halleck began again. Before he could finish and before even Yegor could react, Kasey whipped the hand-cannon off his belt and took three steps forward, aiming it straight at Yegor’s head. He cocked the hammer.
“I wonder if your magic will be able to deflect a bullet at point-blank range,” Kasey said, eyes hard. Yegor stared back at him. A few beats passed, and then Yegor smiled.
“I have not ever tried that before,” Yegor said. “But I am not keen to. You are bold, Captain. I grant you that.” He thought for a moment. “Very well. I will release the prisoners, and you will accompany me back to Albyn. Once I am safely out of range of your guns, you may leave.”
“Oh, for–” Halleck started again.
“Major, this is the only way everyone standing here walks away alive,” Kasey interrupted before the Major could order him to stand down. Halleck bared his teeth angrily, then turned to Yegor.
“You try anything– and I mean anything– and I’ll make sure Black Jack turns you into red paste,” Halleck said dangerously.
“Who?” Yegor asked, his face puzzled. Halleck winced.
“Our heavy long cannon,” he clarified. “The one that blew up your defenses yesterday.”
“Ah, yes,” Yegor smirked. “I have seen you shoot this. Are you so confident you can actually hit me?”
Halleck smiled grimly. “Oh, I don’t need to hit you, I just need to hit the ground right behind you. It’ll bounce into your backside and shatter your spine like glass.”
Yegor’s smirk faded.
“Fine. It is agreed,” Yegor said. “I release these prisoners to you, and your Captain follows me to Albyn until I am safely out of range of your artillery. From now forward, we will not fire upon you so long as you do not fire upon us. Every twenty-four hours that you comply, I will release ten villagers. But.” His eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared. “Should you violate our agreement, I will open fire on anything that moves or breathes in range of our siege mortar– I don’t care if it’s your reinforcements or a lost farmhand– and I will keep my promise to execute two villagers for every Winter Guard who dies because of you. Do not test me.”
Kasey and Halleck looked at each other.
“Let’s go,” Kasey said to Yegor. Halleck approached the grieving old man and woman, gently pulling on their arms to get them up. Priscilla screeched as she was torn away from Louis’ body, but Michel restrained her, speaking to her softly in Llaelese.
Yegor turned and began thumping back to Albyn. Kasey walked beside him slowly, keeping pace with the lumbering machine armor. They walked in silence for a time. Yegor glanced at Kasey from the corner of his eye.
“You’re a brave man,” he said. “Braver than even some of my own men.”
“Yes, I’m sure unwilling conscripts are just incredibly brave,” Kasey said mockingly.
“Oh they are quite willing, and they are quite brave,” Yegor defended. “Service is mandatory but most enlist early without. I suppose patriotism doesn’t run quite so hot amongst you southerners,” he sneered. “For us, it is our only warmth in the winter.”
“Good for you,” said Kasey. “Now shut up.” Yegor let out another hearty laugh and said nothing more until they came within a few yards of the fences. Rows of dark-uniformed soldiers stood at the inner fence line, weapons aimed at Kasey. Even the destroyer was positioned there, an angry red glow behind its faceplate. Kasey kept his handcannon trained on Yegor’s head, ignoring the strain in his deltoid from holding the hefty gun.
An austere-looking woman saluted Yegor from the crowd of Khadorans. “Ma doshniet foyat, gospodin?” she called out to him.
“Nal,” Yegor replied. He turned to Kasey. “She asked if she should have you shot. I said no.”
“How thoughtful of you,” Kasey said.
“Kommander Nikolayev, et ideal sha–” she started again.
“Ya skazal NAL!” Yegor barked. “She really wants you dead, Cygnaran. You had better leave.”
“She’ll get another chance soon,” Kasey said as he slowly lowered the firearm and took several steps back, then turned and broke into a run.
“Remember our deal!” Yegor shouted after him. Kasey flipped him a rude hand gesture.
Pietra met Yegor at the front gate.
“You should have let us kill him!” She chastised him, green eyes sharp with anger. “Why did you let him live? What did they say?”
“I will give you a report,” Yegor said as he stomped his way into town, the guards barring the wooden gate behind him. “But they have agreed to a cease-fire, at least for the moment. If I had let you kill him, it may have provoked the Cygnarans into another attack. We are not ready for that just yet.”
Pietra gritted her teeth. “A cease-fire! This disgusts me. This is not–”
“See the big picture, Kapitan,” Yegor said calmly. “This bought us a few more days of preparation. Maybe more. They will send a notice to their superiors of our meeting, and my threat will carry upward through their chain of command. The risk of incoming troops being shelled at such distance will give their reinforcements pause.”
“And releasing the citizens to them… this smells like a concession. I hate it.” Pietra spat into the dirt.
“I do not think I will have to release too many,” Yegor said, stopping as a pair of mechaniks came to crack open his armor. He waited patiently while they undid the bolts. “They will not stand to sit idle for long.”
Pietra threw her arms out. “Then what was the point of this!? You were nearly killed!”
“Yes, it was touch-and-go,” Yegor admitted uncomfortably. “But my purposes have been served. Their generals will now have to think twice about funneling more soldiers up to Albyn too quickly. They cannot afford to cluster their men under the eye of our weapon. It will have to be a trickle, not a flood as they planned.”
“The weapon you just blew up,” Pietra said bitterly. “The crew says it is now beyond all repair.”
“It was already lost,” Yegor said dismissively. “Only good for one final gambit.”
“And when they realize we have no more siege mortar?” Pietra asked. Yegor stepped out of the now-exposed frame of his Man-O-War suit, massaging his joints.
“Then the troops they need will arrive,” he said simply. “But the engine of war does not stop and start so fast, especially not with so many soldiers in motion. Without proper planning, a twenty-four hour delay can expand to be much larger.” He stretched his biceps, wincing at the tenderness. He was not getting any younger, and Man-O-War armor was not a comfortable place to be. “Frénosel’s capture means Kommander Zubkov’s battlegroup is now free to travel farther east and drain more resources at the far end of the Cygnaran advance.”
“It also means Albyn is now the spur in the Cygnaran line,” Pietra said ominously. “The maps in their command tents will attention to us. Fury is coming.”
“Yes, but we have struck at their confidence,” Yegor argued. “Cygnar fears too much collateral damage in this invasion. They have yet to win the support of the scattered survivors of Llael’s armies and mercenaries outside the country, something they will need for the attack on Merywyn– and something our agents in Ord are working very hard to prevent. It is difficult to win hearts and minds when word travels of dead children in the streets.”
“So,” Pietra said slowly, understanding beginning to dawn, “a delay in movement will be soothed by the knowledge that they are allowing innocent families to escape our wrath.”
He smiled at her. “Sometimes all you need to break a machine is a little sand in the gears.”
Kasey sprinted all the way back to his line, expecting to feel a sniper bullet or hear an artillery shell the whole way across. Only when he was back among the familiar brown and blue of trencher gear did he feel at ease once again. He’d suppressed the fear of walking alone so close to enemy territory while he was near Yegor, but as he returned to safety the fear washed over him, leaving him breathless and weak.
Halleck greeted him on arrival. He did not look pleased. “You’ve done some stupid things in the last couple of days, but that might be the worst so far,” he said sharply. “You must really like digging graves with Lieutenant Swelt.”
“You didn’t order me not to go, Major,” Kasey said, bending over to catch his breath.
Halleck barked a laugh. “I wasn’t about to let you humiliate me in front of the enemy, so no, I didn’t order you to stay here just so you could ignore me.
Kasey looked him in the eye, still panting hard. “I wouldn’t have ignored you sir.” The stared at each other.
Halleck’s face softened. “I’m glad to hear that, Captain.”
Kasey stood up suddenly. “Where’s that little bastard?” he said, voice dripping with venom.
Halleck scoffed mirthlessly. “Your legendary sniper?” He pointed to Daisy. Joffrey sat at her feet, head in his hands. “What are you going to do?” Kasey ignored the question, storming over to the despondent private. He could feel his heart pounding in his ears, and it wasn’t just from his run back to safety.
“Private Léandre!” He shouted. Joffrey looked up in surprise.
“Get on your feet!”
Joffrey rose shakily in front of the irate Captain.
Kasey punched him square in the face, knocking off his helmet and sending Joffrey stumbling back into Daisy in a painful collision. He braced himself against her immobile frame, blinking in shock and holding his face. Kasey’s anger felt like an ocean tide that threatened to break his restraints. He took a step towards the terrified young man.
“You nearly got your Captain and your Major killed, Private!” He took off his steel gauntlets and rolled up his sleeves. “Did you see me step in front of Major Halleck, Private!?”
“Did you see the greylord try to kill me!?”
“Did you see any indication that I or the Mjaor were signaling you to fire!?”
“Then why did you fire?” Kasey reached out and grabbed Joffrey by the neck of his chestplate, pulling his face so close he could see his own reflection in Joffrey’s panicked eyes. “Answer me!”
Joffrey’s eyes welled with tears.
“They killed Lilliana,” he whispered.
Kasey blinked at him. “How… what!?” Kasey shouted at him. Joffrey flinched, then slowly turned to look at the giant smoking crater to the south where the quake shell had turned a farmhouse into a pit the size of a small quarry. Realization dawned on Kasey.
That was the farm he’d ordered Joffrey to deliver Lilliana to.
“Gods…” he tossed Joffrey back into Daisy. The greylord couldn’t have possibly known, could he? No, if he had, he would have surely gloated about it. Lilliana’s death was just dumb luck. All the trouble the Bastards went through to get her out, Simpson’s death, risking his own life to barter for her family…
Just one good thing. He’d wanted to accomplish just one good thing in this slow-motion disaster, and luck wouldn’t even give him that. All because of this stupid, proud little brat who had decided the rules didn’t apply to him. Kasey’s vision swam red.
He drew his handcannon.
“Jericho,” Halleck’s voice said from some distant world. Kasey looked to see the Major staring at him. “What are you doing?”
“I…” Kasey looked down at the handcannon, then at Joffrey. The poor lad looked like he was about to piss himself. Kasey suddenly felt the eyes of the entire company on him, hundreds of shocked faces watching the exchange helplessly. He holstered the weapon.
“You are not Llael’s hero, Private,” Kasey said. “You are a cog. A grunt.” He kicked Joffrey’s left boot. Joffrey flinched. “Get up.” Joffrey got up. “From now on, you obey every word that comes out of my mouth,” Kasey said to him, “I am your god.”
“Yessir,” Joffrey gasped. “Yessir.”
Joffrey hopped into the air.
“Put your finger in your ass.”
Joffrey obeyed without hesitation, jamming his thumb into his crack through his filthy dunagrees.
“You even so much as chew your food too loud, and I will send you to the deepest darkest jail I can find,
Kasey growled.The only reason you aren’t in chains this very moment is because of your skill with a rifle, but that isn’t going to save you ever again.” He poked the terrified young man in the stomach with his finger. “This was your one chance to fuck up. For the rest of your time in this company, I am going to have my hand so far up your ass my fingers are going to be coming out of your fucking nostrils. You are my fucking puppet. You read me?”
“Yessir,” Joffrey repeated.
“Get your finger out of your ass.” Kasey turned around and walked away, still brimming with anger. Halleck stopped him several yards away, putting his hand on Kasey’s shoulder plate.
“What the hell was that?” Halleck asked in a whisper, staring at the Captain with a worried expression. “Were you about to shoot your own soldier?”
Kasey swallowed. “I got carried away, sir,” he said, hardly audible.
“I’ll say,” Halleck said. “If you want to boot him, boot him. But don’t ever draw on your own men like that again, Captain.”
“I think I, uh…” Kasey swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. “I think I shouldn’t take any more of those stimulant pills,” he said.
Halleck raised his eyebrows. “Yeah. I think not.” Halleck released him.
Kasey tried to think of the name of 4th Platoon’s Lieutenant. Why could henot remember? He really needed sleep… Reynolds. It was Hank Reynolds, of course.
“Lieutenant Reynolds,” he barked, waiting a moment for the Lieutenant to approach from the dispersing crowd of trenchers.
“Captain,” Reynolds said with a salute.
“Where are the two prisoners we rescued? An elderly pair?” Kasey asked.
“Captain Donn had them escorted to the rear to be assessed for medical attention,” Reynolds replied smartly. “I believe they’re in there,” he said, pointing to the picturesque farmhouse near the fields they had just unearthed.
“Someone needs to tell them their daughter is dead,” Kasey said. “And the only person in this whole damn battalion who’s fluent in Llaelese is Private Léandre. I think that’s an appropriate punishment for his crime.”
“Ah.” The Lieutenant obviously thought this was not a good idea, but he was too professional to voice his opinion– especially after seeing the Captain’s outburst. Kasey saw in Reynold’s eyes that he’d just jeopardized the respect of his company by losing his cool. He’d have to fix that somehow.
“If you don’t mind my asking, who is their daughter?” Reynolds asked.
“Lilliana, the girl the Bastards pulled out of Albyn last night,” Kasey answered. He could see the confusion in Lieutenant Reynold’s eyes. “She was in the house the damn Reds just shelled.” Reynolds turned to look at the rising smoke from the distant crater.
“Damn,” he breathed. “Talk about your number being up…”
“Baise combat,” Kasey said, voice hollow.
“You speak Llaelese?” Reynolds asked in surprise.
“That’s the only bit I know,” Kasey admitted.
Reynolds frowned. “What does it mean?” he asked.
Kasey stared vacantly at the missing farmhouse in the distance. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“It means, ‘war sucks’,” he said.
Reynolds followed his gaze, shaking his head. “Baise combat,” the lieutenant echoed.
Hank Reynolds trudged back to where Joffrey stood, still and rigid as a rock. An angry red lump was forming on his jaw where the Captain had slugged him.
“Private,” Reynolds said.
“Lieutenant.” Joffrey saluted weakly.
“The Captain wants me to inform the civilians we rescued that their daughter was killed by that artillery shell,” he said. He didn’t add ‘and you’re doing it because the Captain is punishing you.’ Joffrey probably already knew.
“Yes sir.” Joffrey followed Reynolds to the rear, jumping over half-finished ditches full of laboring trenchers and hiking across the trampled fields. Everyone ignored him studiously. As they walked toward the quaint farmhouse Reynolds thought back on one of his conversations with old Captain Willikers, the one where the grizzled Captain had compared Joffrey Léandre to his own unfaithful wife– a detail Reynolds would never forget. Hank thought about how he’d stuck up for the Llaelese soldier, then just a recruit, and insisted the talented foreigner was better off staying in Hammer Company.
He wondered if he’d made the right call.
Joffrey had just made a colossal mistake. He was just lucky it hadn’t turned out worse; if Captain Kasey or Major Halleck had been injured or killed by the greylord as the result of Joffrey’s assassination attempt– or even worse, if the wizard’s spell had redirected Joffrey’s own bullet into one of his officers– he would be facing the death penalty for insubordination and criminal negligence. Joffrey probably didn’t feel it right now, but his uncanny luck seemed to be holding out just fine.
Firing against orders was a step too far, though, and seeing the Captain lose his cool like that had unnerved everybody. They had all come to respect him a great deal since the fighting started. Seeing him come unglued was the last thing they needed. A lot of the men would probably blame Joffrey rather than consider the frayed mental state of their CO. The Llaelese-nobleman-turned-trencher faced a long uphill battle to get his comrades’ trust back now, and at the worst possible time. Reynolds shook his head. Joffrey, you arrogant fool.
He still couldn’t help feeling this was somehow partly his own fault. He’d vouched for Joffrey after all, certain that he could handle fighting for Cygnar even in his own native country, that his loyalty to his friends would override his reckless impulses and boyish urge to rescue his homeland. In hindsight he realized that was probably too big an ask. None of them had really put much hard thought into how bad this war was going to be for the locals, and this was only the beginning. Casualties in Albyn were going to be atrocious no matter what they did now; if Joffrey couldn’t handle seeing a few elderly citizens held prisoner, how would he deal with the carnage they were about to face, the loss of innocent life? Reynolds hoped Kasey’s violent threat would be enough to keep Joffrey stable, or at least obedient.
Hammer Company still needed his sniping talents. Reynolds hadn’t forgotten how Joffrey had saved everyone’s life on the riverboat, and had it not been for the greylord’s sneaky use of a spell, Joffrey’s bullet would have found its home. While the Captain would have still been angry, his outburst certainly would have been more measured. Disobeying orders was a crime; in a time of war it could be punishable by death. Severity, results and risks were always part of the equation though, and the Captain had decided that Joffrey deserved one more chance, that chastising him in front of the company was enough to make his point clear. Reynolds was glad Jofrrey was staying with them, but it also made him nervous. A disrupted chain of command always tended to foment more insubordination.
They halted at the stoop of the house, its white plastered walls shining in the warm sunlight and framed by a roof of rain-washed grey shingles. The front door– colored blue with chipped, faded paint– cracked open and a pair of eyes peered out.
“Quest se’que?” a man’s voice asked.
“Son le capitiv liber ici?” Joffrey responded. He sounded exactly as miserable as he looked, and that was really saying something. Reynolds felt for him. The door opened all the way to reveal a tall, thin man in a clean linen shirt and tan working pants. A small child appeared between his legs: a boy, maybe four. Reynolds tried not to imagine a farm just like this one vanishing in a cloud of fire and dirt, erased by Khadoran artillery.
“Ell sons ici,” the man said. His eyes were deep pools of weariness. Reynolds expected to see anger or resentment there, outrage at what the army was doing to his farm or disgust at being forced to take in two more mouths to feed. There was none. Just weariness. The farmer turned and called into the house and the old man and woman emerged, wrapped in blankets, eyes red, cheeks rosy from tears of grief and trauma.
“Vout fille…” Joffrey started. His voice caught. He looked down, cleared his throat, then looked back up and tried again. “Vout fille, ei… ei…” he stuttered.
Just say it! Reynolds thought. Joffrey’s face fell into his hands and he sobbed. The old lady, guessing what was coming next, released a long wail and her face crumpled into another wave of shock. Reynolds looked away.
“Mie fille! Mie fille!” the woman screamed. The man’s mouth froze in an o-shape of horror.
This was just too hard.
They suddenly raced out of the doorway. Joffrey cowed, fearing they were going to vent their anger upon him, but they rushed right past, running faster than Reynolds would have guessed possible for people of their maturity. He turned to watch them race barefoot across the open ground, assuming they had been driven mad by grief.
He was wrong.
Lilliana was running toward them. She was filthy and had a few scratches on her face, but was otherwise alive and unharmed. The trio embraced heartily, all of them weeping with joy. Reynolds felt a solid knot in his chest suddenly release; a knot he hadn’t realized was there. Joffrey stood and stared, dumbstruck. He took one step, then another, and then he was running to join the villagers, tears in his eyes to match theirs. To Reynold’s relief he stopped short of joining in their embrace, settling for putting his hands on his helmet and grinning like an idiot.
“Je pensei tu est morte!” he shouted. Reynolds didn’t have to speak Llaelese to understand his declaration of amazement. After several long moments of embrace, Lilliana looked up at him, voice shaking as she spoke rapidly. They conversed for a few moments before Joffrey finally turned to tell Reynolds what had happened.
“She said she was fetching well-water when the shell struck,” he said, lip trembling. “She must have been outside the killzone. The family she was staying with were out in their fields, they are alive as well!” Joffrey laughed in amazement. “She ran to our line for safety, and then someone directed her here.” He was smiling like a child who had just remembered today was his birthday.
Reynolds found he was grinning, too. “That’s great news, Private,” he said warmly. Lilliana’s smile began to fade.
“Son le père?” she asked, looking from Joffrey to her uncle to her mother. Joffrey’s smile froze, and then drooped.
Reynolds winced. “She asked where her father is, didn’t she.” It wasn’t a question.
Her mother’s happiness faded as she recounted to her daughter what happened. Lilliana’s relief and joy at seeing her mother and uncle faded into grief at the death of her father, and then wrath when she realized the Cygnarans had accidentally shot him. She turned to Reynolds with a rebuke, but her face softened.
“Jesa enu que n‘était faut,” she said. “Murcie por noun savuer.”
“She said she knows it wasn’t our fault,” Joffrey translated, looking like a beaten dog. “She said thank you for saving them.”
“Don’t tell her,” Reynolds said. “It won’t make you feel better.”
“The shame is bad enough without also telling a lie,” Joffrey groaned.
Reynolds couldn’t let him unload his guilt on this poor family. “You haven’t lied.”
“Please, Lieutenant. I will never live past this moment if I cannot be honest,” Joffrey pleaded.
Reynolds sighed. “What will you say?” he asked.
“That I was the one who tried to kill the greylord, and that I was the one whose bullet killed her father.”
Reynolds sucked on his teeth. “Morrow, Private.” He shook his head, then sighed. “Alright. Just… don’t make it sound worse than it is.”
“The truth is bad enough,” Joffrey mumbled. He turned back to Lilliana and spoke. His voice crackled. He finished and stared at his boots.
She looked at him for several moments, processing his confession. She said something very softly, taking his dirty face in her dirty hands, touching the swollen bruise growing on his cheek. She lifted up his head and kissed him gently. He stared at her in amazement, eyes locked on hers.
“Jel’aurai fait tu,” she said firmly, and then left in the arms of her mother and uncle, returning to the house. Joffrey watched them go.
“What did she say?” Reynolds asked.
Joffrey looked at Reynolds, eyes swimming.
“She said she would have done it, too.”
Halleck and Kasey paced through the abandoned trenches of no-man’s-land, making sure nothing important had been left behind and giving themselves a chance to walk off the jitters from their stimulants.
“Major, this is not a good idea,” Kasey warned. “When I suggested we agree to a cease-fire it was only to get those villagers out of harm’s way. You said it yourself: that greylord wants to buy time, and something really bad is going on in that town. Citizens are going missing and they sure as hell aren’t coming over to our side. We need to be applying pressure, not waiting him out!”
Halleck kicked an empty ammo container. “I can’t have a meeting with the enemy and not inform my superiors, Jericho! There’s a word for that. It starts with a ‘T’.”
“I’m not suggesting you conceal information,” Kasey said, exasperated. “But requesting a delay in hostilities even for a day could have unintended consequences.”
“Like what?” Halleck scoffed. “Our men getting some sleep? Resupplying our ammunition? Finishing our damn fortifications without constant destroyer fire?”
“More like having our reinforcements put off by the risk of getting blown up en route.”
Halleck clasped his hands behind his back. “Last night I sent a runner to inform Swinburn of the bombardment as soon as it started,” he said. “I’ve already communicated our tactical position to the Colonel and have heard nothing. Now I’m going to tell him our attempt to disable the enemy asset has failed and we can’t try again without some help. And I will give a full account of our communication with Yegor.” He grunted. “Maybe it will be shocking enough to light a fire under his ass and give us support.”
“Or get him to redirect support elsewhere,’ Kasey said.
“This isn’t a debate, Jericho!” Halleck barked. “I’ve made up my mind. We’re going to hold back and see what the Reds do.”
“And if they attack us?”
Halleck shrugged. “Then we surround Albyn and give them hell,” he answered. “But if they keep their deal for a least a day or two, then we get a moment to recover and integrate reinforcements. Maybe even free a few more innocent people in the process.”
“You do realize there is absolutely no chance Swinburn will authorize a cease-fire,” Kasey pointed out.
“Of course not!” Halleck said. “Nor do I even want one. But I do want to give this battalion a chance to recover, and this is the best way I see of doing that. Twenty-four hours. Forty-eight, at most”
Kasey felt a queasy sensation in his gut. It was the same feeling he’d had standing out here on the field just yesterday when he had realized they were in range of siege artillery. But what could he do? Halleck hadn’t believed him then either.
Yet as the day wore on the Khadorans ceased their harassment, and no more farms were assaulted from on high. Then, late in the afternoon, seven Llaelese villagers came running out of Albyn into the safety of the Cygnaran line, crying and shouting for joy. The villainous greylord had actually kept his promise and even fulfilled it early, to Kasey’s surprise. Maybe the Khadorans needed just as much of a rest as the trenchers did. The bell had rung and the two fighters were seated in their respective corners, panting and having their cuts bandaged before laying into each other once more.
The next day, Swinburn’s answer came. Halleck gathered Kasey, Donn, and the new captain of Snake Company– a young lieutenant with a long Ordic last name Kasey had difficulty remembering– to read the letter.
Its contents were not good news.
“‘Cease-fire denied, do not have further communication with enemy,’” Halleck read aloud, letter in hand.
“Well that’s no surprise,” Captain Donn said. Halleck paused a moment, pursing his lips.
“What’s up?” Kasey asked, the queasy feeling growing stronger.
“‘All fighting positions in sectors A-one through E-seven are to hold in place and maintain ground,” Halleck read. “Reinforcement delays due to enemy warcaster and battlegroup activity in D sector,’” he said. Kasey listened to the familiar and silent sound of hopes falling. “‘Replacements arriving across the front over the next three days. Disable the siege mortar at all costs.’”
“Three days isn’t too bad,” Donn said hopefully.
“That’s just for replacements,” Halleck clarified. “Oh, great. ‘Main assault on Albyn delayed until confirmation of disabled artillery.’”
“Shit…” Donn said.
“‘Once confirmed, stay aggressive but minimize casualties until 30th is back at full numbers,” Halleck continued. “When all sectors are reinforced and resupplied, you will receive attack orders.’” He crumpled the letter. “‘The front must move as one.’”
“I was afraid of this,” Kasey said.
Halleck stuffed the letter into his greatcoat pocket. “Don’t give me an ‘I-told-you-so’ lecture; we’re not the only ones who are stuck,” he snapped.
“If we don’t destroy that gun ASAP we are going to just be a bleeding sore of casualties for the Twelfth Regiment,” Shield Company’s captain said.
“This doesn’t read like Swinburn,” Halleck said in derision. “It’s missing all the subtle barbs and provocations to be more suicidal and die in glorious battle.”
“He’s passing word from command, then,” Kasey said. “That’s why it took him so long to respond.”
“So what does this mean exactly?” Donn asked.
Kasey began counting on his fingers. “Full replacements in three days; dead mortar by four at the latest; confirmation to Swinburn, then response, that’s at least a day. Then holding position until command decides the whole line is equipped to move, and who knows how long that’ll take.” He looked at Halleck. “Even if everything goes well,” he raised his eyebrows, “and I think we all know what the odds of that are, then it means we’re stuck here for at least another week.”
“I don’t see any way out of this,” Halleck admitted.
Kasey rested his hands on his hips and sighed. “Neither do I.”
They had lost their momentum.
Now they had to fight inertia.