The Heretic – Snippet 39
Part Three: The Woman
“It was a massed attack, as you might expect from that lot,” said Joab. “But the occupation has been disciplined. That’s what bothers me.” They rode along the winding road that led from Hestinga to Lilleheim. On their left, the northwest, were rice paddies irrigated by the elaborate system of rams of water-lifting cranes. The cranes with their woven baskets dotted the landscape to the horizon. To the right, as the ground rose to the southeast, were flax, barley, and wheat fields, which did not require the regular flooding of the rice paddies. Abel knew these fields continued all the way to, and partially up, the Escarpment, which rose, filling the horizon, about a half-league away. “They took the town and stayed in place. I would have expected them to sack the town, kill everyone they could find, and either retreat or keep moving down the road to Hestinga. Instead, they’ve stayed in position and systematically burned every building in the town. The sky has been black with smoke from the thatching for three days. You can see it from here.” He pointed to a black plume to the north wafting lazily upward, as if it were merely the smoke from some enormous cookfire chimney. “The Scouts report that each morning they crucify a new set of village elders outside the southern gate, the one that faces Hestinga.”
“They want us to see it,” Abel said. “It’s a taunt.”
“Clearly,” his father replied. “And they want to enrage us. They’re succeeding. Horst Danziger was a good friend of mine, and he was nailed up with yesterday’s group of cross hangers. Your Sergeant Kruso managed to put a shot in his forehead before noon, blessed-be.”
“Did he? Good man.” Abel remembered Danziger slightly. Joab had many friends for someone who worked as hard as his father did, and it was hard to keep track. Abel knew that Joab considered his cultivation of the smart and useful citizens to be part of his job. “Horst was that big redheaded farmer who used to drink with you at that wine stall in the market you like, wasn’t he?”
“When he was in town on deliveries.”
“That’s right, he was the oil maker. He worked those olive orchards up the Escarpment above the village, didn’t he?”
“Bought them played out and managed to squeeze value from them despite it,” Joab said. “Man after my own heart.” Joab spat into the sand, as if to rid his mouth of a bad taste. “They nailed him to one of his own uprooted trees.”
“Too bad,” Abel said.
“I’m going to burn the Blaskoye bastard who did it at the stake when I catch him,” Joab said matter-of-factly. “And I’m going to use Horst’s oil to do it with.”
“Do you think they are counting on angering you? It could be a feint, to get you out of Hestinga.”
Or an ambush, said Raj.
Unlikely at this juncture, although that is the ultimate strategy the Blaskoye will have to employ when their true invasion begins.
This isn’t a real invasion?
It is a reconnaissance in force. A major raid, to be sure.
Again he is on the flyer, soaring up, up, and then leveling out. Toward the north, toward the rising smoke of the burning village. Then through it. Spots of red raging light below, the fires so large they are visible even in the harsh light of the sun through the Land’s cloudless sky.
My deductions from reports and from analysis of the terrain indicates a force of approximately eight hundred Redlanders to take the village and do the sort of damage we have seen.
Now past the burning town, and up, up toward the Escarpment and the Lilleheim Trail, the footpath that led up through terraced fields to the crest of the Escarpment wall. Up and over this crest and —
Into the Redlands. And now the terrain becomes abstracted as Abel flies higher and faster. Labels appear. Oasis One. Oasis two. Blaskoye strongholds along the dry gulch known as the Graben.
In wetter geologic times, the Graben was once a stream itself, a tributary of the River. Now all that are left are the wet spots. And of course the Blaskoye have found them, for they mean life itself in the Redlands.
Now down, down toward a spot of green in the sea of red. The Great Oasis —
Which seemed to be surrounded by a system of straight lines, like scoremarks in the desert floor. Only when Abel was nearer did he see them for what they were. Corral fences. Campgrounds delineated. Order. Discipline. Numbers.
A huge force of Redlanders was gathered, was being gathered, for he saw more streaming in from outlying lands, many on dak-drawn wagons, some on donts, hundreds more walking.
So Lilleheim is just the tip of the spear.
Correct. Aimed at Treville. At your father, specifically. He is being targeted for his competency and the strength of the Treville Militia and Scouts. He holds the center. If Treville District falls, the Land will be open from north to south.
And if Treville holds firm?
Lindron is too well protected by the Tabernacle Guard, and the Valley too wide at that point for Blaskoye tactics, Raj said, his tone musing. An invasion from the north sweeping down the Valley, I’d suspect.
That is a 92.4 percent probability.
And if Treville falls?
Terror in his veins, hard breathing. Running, running on his own two legs, his dont slain somewhere behind him in the retreat.
Make the River. Maybe a chance to make a stand. Or, if not, boats. An escape to the east. Anything besides this perpetual clash and retreat, clash and retreat —
But tired, so tired. The pounding of the thickened hoofpads of the Blaskoye mounts behind him thunderous, making it so hard to think —
And then, they are in front of him. A line of donts, with riders in flowing white robes, their faces hidden behind turban windings. Only their eyes shining. Those hard, Redlander eyes watching him.
And he running toward them, for he cannot turn, cannot run back, or his pursuers will be upon him.
How did the others get in front of him, cut him off from the River?
And then he looks up, checks the sun in the sky. And knows.
He has become confused, somewhere in the dust behind. He has ever so slowly made an erroneous turn. And not only him, but the men he leads. The two hundred. The survivors. The final muster after the devastation at Garangipore.
They were to escape and begin the guerilla harassment.
They were to be the unvanquished.
And now a simple mistake.
So easy to do in his exhaustion.
So costly. So entirely his own fault.
He has slowly turned, somehow gotten off course. Had allowed his terror and tiredness to join the chase. He has allowed himself and his command to run right into the enemy’s advancing, encircling front lines.
The Blaskoye rifles crackle.
We were to be the unvanquished.
The Redlanders reload. He raises his own weapon, but of course he is long out of caps and powder. Only bayonet remain, and the enemy will never allow him, allow any of his band, to get within range to use those.
The Blaskoye rifles crackle yet again.
And he is down, taken in the hip and shoulder. He has seen such wounds. He knows he will be a long time dying.
A long time to burn with the certain knowledge.
He is forever among not the unvanquished, but the vanquished.
* * *
Abel started in his saddle, almost sending his mount skittering. Joab, who was considering Abel’s previous statement, didn’t seem to notice.
“I believe it is a test,” Joab said, nodding to himself. “Yes. They wish to gauge our response so they will know what to expect the next time. And the next.”
Good head on his shoulders, that man, said Raj with an approving growl.
The Scouts had already been deployed to cut off a retreat up the Escarpment, or at least to harry any Redlanders if they did manage to break through. Abel had been reassigned to command the Militia Regiment, much to his chagrin at first, until Raj had pointed out that Joab had given him responsibility for his entire right. That, in fact, Joab intended to use the Regulars to drive the Redlanders out of the town directly into Abel’s lines.
He’s made you the anvil, lad, Raj said. He knows the townfolk trust you, or at least they trust him, and know you are his son. They need a unified command.
It is a good strategy if the goal is to drive the Blaskoye back where they came from, Center intoned. Notice that the southeast of the village is open. Joab doubts himself, and he is providing them with a route of retreat. With the proper stroke, he might annihilate them here.
The Scouts will take them when they retreat, Abel thought. We will annihilate them
There is an 87.3 chance that a significant portion of the Blaskoye will escape, said Center. The Scouts are too few.
Abel stopped arguing. He was sure that Center was correct — in the abstract. He always was. Yet there must be something —
He reached his command, a ragtag group of five hundred — one could hardly call it a regiment — that had taken up position behind a knoll to the south-southeast of the village. He was met by a group of three “captains,” that is leaders elected from within the Militia themselves. One of these he recognized. It was Fleming Hornburg, the son of Matlan Hornburg. He was arrogant and privileged, but Abel also knew him to be no coward. They’d tangled once in the market over a bumped shoulder, and the fight had been inconclusive. Of course Abel had been conscious of the fact that if he beat the living hell out of Hornburg, he would have put his father in a very awkward political position in the town, if not the district. Perhaps he’d pulled a couple of punches that might otherwise have ended it — and that perhaps would have ended Hornburg’s existence as a result.
The other captain was a local miller named Prokopov. And their third Abel did not recognize. He was dressed in ill fitting garb, as if he wore a shirt and trousers a size too big. He held a carbine in his right hand and had a bow and quiver strung across his back. Then Abel took another glance and realized — this was no man at all, or boy either.
It was a young woman.
And then he realized that he did recognize her. Mahaut DeArmanville. This was the sister of Xander. She was the daughter of Henri DeArmanville, a lieutenant in the Regulars. No, not Mahaut DeArmanville. Mahaut Jacobson. She had recently married into the well-to-do Jacobson clan of Hestinga.
“Mahaut?” he asked. “Mrs. Jacobson? What are you doing here?”
“Same as you, sir,” she answered. “I am the leader of the women’s auxiliary.”
“The — what? But that’s a support group.”
“We’re going to support you by firing our muskets into the enemy.”