The Savior – Snippet 01
Tony Daniel & David Drake
Eight years after the events of The Heretic
476 Post Tercium
Three moons hung in the night sky. Churchill, the largest moon, was a quarter-sickle to the east. Mommsen and Levot, much smaller, were chips of fire to the southwest. Both were full. It was, as usual in the Land, a cloudless night.
A bonfire burned in a trampled area in the midst of a near-ripe barley field. Although it was dark, there was enough moonlight for Major Abel Dashian to see as he made his way through the barley and toward the fire to check in with one of the platoons of Friday Company.
The tall barley, a few weeks from harvest, swished against his canvas-wrapped legs, until he got to the edge of the cleared spot where the platoon had camped for the night. When the Guardians of Zentrum were on the march, they used no tents. Each man had a thin sleeping roll laid out on a waxen tarp. Beside each sleeping man was his pack. Each weighed three stones and contained rations, gunpowder in two mountain-dak powderhorns, and wicker containers of percussion caps and papyrus-wrapped minié cartridges. Guardians left their personal effects at home. Abel didn’t have many to begin with. The only item that he had any deep attachment to, a lock of his dead mother’s hair, he kept in a box in his officer quarters back in the city of Lindron.
The resting Guardians in the barley were spread out around their rifle tripods. Every squad had a wooden rack, and eight musket rifles stood neatly on butt-end in a circle around each rack, their barrels meeting in the crisscross of sticks above the lashing. Each man was only a few steps away from his weapon. There were four squads to the platoon, forming a rough circular pattern around the central cookfire. Two crosshatched paths for walking divided the sleeping men into quarters.
Abel made his way along one of these paths toward the fire.
Friday Company was on the eastern edge of the encampment. There were pickets out a bit farther, but this was the edge of the camp proper. Abel was walking the line, checking vulnerable positions. As executive officer of Third Brigade and aide-de-camp to the colonel that led it, this was his job each evening during the northward march.
He’d been a commanding officer himself in the Regulars just nine months ago: district military commander of Cascade, with the rank of colonel. Then the call had come to assemble all Guardian reserves from the various districts, and he’d returned to his old rank, major. The fact that he served under a man he respected, and for whom he even felt fondness, lessened the sting of relative demotion. Colonel Zachary von Hoff had been his favorite instructor at the Guardian Academy. For the past months, Abel had served as his adjutant and chief of command staff for the Guardian Third Brigade.
It helped that a good many of the lower ranks in the Third were men who had risen through a special selection program Abel had created in Cascade. The chosen men were sent off to the Special Warfare School in Lindron, the noncommissioned version of the Guardian Academy. Abel had been surprised and gratified to find that von Hoff had been on the lookout for his Cascade men and had snatched them up for the Third the moment they finished their Guardian boot camp. There were, then, transplanted Cascade men throughout the Third, men he knew and who knew him.
Although the platoon corpsmen — all men in their teens and early twenties — were bedded down, seven older soldiers remained around the fire. Abel recognized a staff sergeant he knew. He was with the other squad sergeants, and a couple of specialist master sharpshooters attached to the platoon. All of them wore the braided sash and twisted armband of carnadon leather that marked their rank.
The noncoms spoke in low voices, and Abel presumed that they were discussing, as most men did with a day’s march behind them, company scuttlebutt, women, pay, the possibilities of loot during the upcoming campaign — and what the hell was going on in the Progar District that was so bad it had caused the Abbot of Lindron to send an army of sixteen thousand troops to deal with it.
Correct. There is talk of the march, and there is also discussion of the relative merits of the various whorehouses of Bruneberg, said a thin, high-pitched voice in Abel’s mind.
It was a familiar voice, a voice Abel had heard since he was six years old.
A voice like nightscraper chirps, if they were made of words instead of squeaks, Abel thought. He’d heard more nightscrapers in the past few weeks than he had in years. It was good to be in the field.
These sergeants speculate that there may be a pause near Bruneberg, perhaps an encampment of several days that would be long enough for them to travel into the city proper, conduct experiments in regard to the whorehouses, and compare notes.
The chirping voice belonged to Center, a being who claimed to be an artificial intelligence descended on a traveling capsule from the sky. Center, whom Abel had decided to call “he” long ago, shared a portion of Abel’s mind with another ghostly presence: a man named General Raj Whitehall.
The bastards should hope to march on past or the town will drain them of every barter chit they possess, said Raj in a voice so deep it was almost a growl. If all goes well, on the trip home they’ll have a rucksack full of spoils to spend on a proper leave.
Raj was a rougher being than Center, foul-mouthed on occasion, and most definitely male. He claimed to have once been a conquering general on a planet called Bellevue several hundred years ago and multiple millions of leagues away. Now he was a voice in Abel’s mind, an artificial intelligence construct, the same as Center. As forceful as Raj’s presence was even now — at times threatening to overwhelm Abel’s own will — Abel could only wonder what it would have been like to meet the living general in person.
Abel emerged silently from the barley, surprising the hell out of one of the sergeants who saw a fully armed form materialize from the darkness. Abel might be a commanding officer, but on night duty he carried a rifle himself, slung around onto his back, where it was held by a strap, its bayonet unfixed and strapped in its holder on the underside of the stock. He was also armed with his own dragon, a flare-muzzled blunderbuss pistol held under his belt strap. He carried it on the left side, handle reversed, for drawing. A sword in a scabbard of carnadon leather hung at his left side as well. The sword was a mark of rank, and was generally useless in battle. But it was Abel’s concession to tradition, a family heirloom, given to him by his father when Abel had made captain of scouts in the Regulars.
It had not been entirely useless, either: Abel had killed men with the sword. And so had his ancestors.
“Evening, Major Dashian,” said the startled staff sergeant, recovering himself and saluting.
Abel returned it.
“Evening, Staff Sergeant,” he replied. He knew the man. He came from the Guardian capital garrison and not from the reserve call-ups. What was his name?
Abel took a knee by the fire. One of the other noncoms offered him a clay cup of steaming hard cider. Abel took it with a nod of thanks. The cider had a burnt taste and was very hot. He held the cup on his upright knee to let the cider cool, and glanced around the fire.
Silverstein was a short man of River Delta stock. The staff sergeant’s jaw moved in a regular motion. He was chewing gum. Delta men substituted such gum for the tobaccolike nesh that Abel had grown up around in Treville District. He did not dip or chew himself, but he did smoke a pipe of nesh weed occasionally.
Abel remembered Silverstein because not many of the enlisted from the Delta ever made corporal, much less moved up to a higher rank. He’d inquired and found that Silverstein had made his mark by fighting in a bloody engagement against the Flanagans, the wild tribe of barbarians who inhabited the coast to the east of where the River spilled into the Braun Sea.
“So, Staff Sergeant, how did we do on the march today?” asked Abel. “Do you think we can get another eight leagues out of them tomorrow?”
Silverstein looked up at Abel with a faint smile on his face. “I think they’ll do all right, Major,” he said. “We have some tired feet and broken sandals, but it’s nothing that a good night’s rest and a bit of stitching in the morning won’t fix.”
“Glad to hear it, Sergeant,” Abel replied. “Because I think we’re going to try for ten tomorrow.”
This caused a low groan from the others gathered around the fire, but Silverstein nodded. “We’ll soon be in Treville District, where the roads are broad and tended, not to mention much safer, what with your father in charge of the Black and Tans there, sir.”
“Yes, should be no need for these whole company pickets in Treville.”