The Savior – Snippet 18
The morning brought more marching. And after a day and a half they left Treville behind and entered Cascade district.
Almost the moment they crossed the border they were attacked. This time it was not crossbows at night. The raiding party was mounted on donts, and they rode down upon the column about its midpoint. Abel was riding with von Hoff to the front, and the pop of firearms behind them alerted them to the attack. Von Hoff ordered an immediate cavalry charge, and he and Abel joined in. In front of them, puffs of blackpowder smoke were rising, but before they arrived, the raiders had fled. Abel took reports. The attackers had fired salvos from carbines, reloaded while they were riding, fired again, and then switched to bow and arrow. Progar — whatever oligarchy was in charge — was serious about their harassment raids.
The attack left behind sixteen casualties, with ten dead.
There might have been many more, but instead of disarray, the attacked portion of the line fell out in good order and took positions behind a low hedge on the Road’s eastern side. They lay down mass fire, aiming for the legs of the donts. This had brought down a good third of the attackers. The cloud of gun smoke Abel had seen had come from the rifles of Guardians. There were perhaps one hundred raiders in all. More of the column came up, and instead of standing around gawking, joined in the fray, giving the front lines time to reload. The Guardians’ counterattack moved steadily forward like carnadons drawn to a kill.
Finally the raiders had had enough. They’d broken off and fled back toward the Escarpment. Several officers started to give chase on foot, but von Hoff called them back. Instead, he sent a company of cavalry after them.
That night, the cavalry brought the heads of twenty raiders into the camp staked on the end of banner poles. These raiders they had ambushed and killed. The others had made it to the Rim by the skin of their teeth.
You tangled with Goldies at your own peril.
General Josiah Saxe, who commanded the entirety of the Guardian Corps, did the wise thing and marched the corps off the Road, overland, and around the sprawling city of Bruneberg, staying a respectful two leagues distant. Even Abel cast a long look or two toward it.
This was his domain. His command until a short time ago. He was the one who had taken on the corruption, the decadent idiocy of the ruling class.
Taken it on and beaten it with terrible cost.
Of course, there was a memory that lay lighter in his mind: he’d also once gone into that city a virgin, but hadn’t left one.
They circled back to the Road near the top of the First Cataract, the system of shoals and rapids that lay near Bruneberg on the River. Then it was northeast again. After a bewildering series of twists and turns, they arrived at the base of the Second Cataract. By afternoon that day, they were in sight of the great fortress of Montag Island.
Fort Montag was garrisoned by Cascade District Regulars. Their commanding officer was the extremely competent Eugen Metzler, whom Abel had promoted and appointed himself. Metzler rode out to meet Saxe, and offered the Corps the hospitality of the place. The fort was not large enough to hold sixteen thousand troops, but the island was, and the men bedded down around the stone walls and down to the River shore. The island sat at the midpoint of the Second Cataract, but this did not mean the swiftly flowing rapids had no carnadons in them.
That night, Second Brigade lost a man to prove it.
As per Abel’s instructions to Metzler before he left, Saxe and all the command staffs were invited inside the fort. Saxe had lined them up to enter through the gate, but Metzler led them south along the eastern wall. As Abel knew, and Saxe discovered to his amazement, the wall ended. There wasn’t a wall, and only the sparest of battlements, to the direct south. About a fieldmarch away, Abel saw the wall on the western side pick up again. There was a large gap separating it from the eastern wall.
“I guess the idea is to guard against Redlander attack from both Rims,” von Hoff said.
“But they’re wide open for an attack moving up or down-River.”
“Well, the only ones moving in the Valley would be us friendly forces, wouldn’t it, Major?” von Hoff answered. “Still, you can’t count on that. It is an odd arrangement.”
Created under Edict of Zentrum, said Raj. All modification forbidden.
Like a window for the Blood Winds to blow through, Abel thought.
Precisely, said Center.
* * *
They stayed under a roof for the first time in nine days. The garrison Regulars had been turned out of their barracks for the evening to join the Guardians outside, and their bunks given to Corps staff officers. Abel didn’t complain. Each bunk had a mattress filled with cane-silk.
Metzler had given von Hoff a captain’s quarters, a double-roomed affair of mud wattle, with its own privy hanging over the ditch of river water that flowed northeast to southwest and bisected the interior of the fort. Abel had at least ordered Metzler to see to it that the fort took its water from a point above the row of cabins that lined it. The previous Cascade DMC and his fort commander had not bothered.
The barracks were for enlisted and had no luxury at all. There was a common outhouse shared by every two buildings — outhouses that had to be mucked out daily.
Abel knew that on the north end of the island near its point was a giant pile of nightsoil waiting for the spring floods to finally carry it away.
Von Hoff invited the command staff in to cook on the hearth in the cabin. Here there were cookpots and spits, and in a larder closet Abel discovered a smoked hank of dak shoulder. Everyone reasoned that the owner of the cabin wouldn’t have left it there if he didn’t mean for them to have it.
They sat at a real table, in real chairs, and fell to their meal with gusto. Someone else found a half keg of beer, and clay mugs from the crockery closet were passed around. After eating, the nesh chewers went outside to chew and spit, and the smokers took out their pipes and lit up around the table. Abel brought his out for the first time in a very long while and joined them.
Von Hoff was convivial but subdued through the evening, yet he seemed happy to have company. Several candle lanterns hung on wall pegs burned, casting a warm hue on everything in the cabin. Their wicks were guttering before everyone had gotten up and made his way to the barracks and his bedroll.
Abel himself sat on a bench on the porch of the cabin after the others left. He gazed up at Churchill, which was three-quarters full now. In the distance was the low roar of the Second Cataract rapids. Abel shivered even though it was late ripening time; the evening was as chilly as a winter’s night in Lindron would have been. They were getting farther north.
In the sky burned the stars. Constellations he knew: the Dragon. The Bridle. The Scythe. Reitz the Water Carrier and his bucket full of clustered stars.
Those stars of the bucket are very close together in actuality, Center said. They are a nebular cluster burning blue and hot. They have only lately emerged from a gas cloud and are quite young, at least on a galactic time scale.
Where is Bellevue’s star? Abel asked. This was the system that Center and Raj came from.
It is too faint to observe in the Duisberg sky, Center replied.
How do I know it exists at all?
You can never know unless you go there. As with many things, all you can do is infer its existence.
Or take your word for it.
Does it ever rain there?
A lot more than here, Raj replied.
What about Earth?
It is said to rain there all the time, said Center. But the truth of the matter has been lost.
Just then, Abel heard the sound of a chair scraping inside the cabin. He’d thought the colonel had gone to bed. Maybe von Hoff was up rummaging for another mug of beer or cup of water. Then a light came through the door cracks.
He’s lit a new candle off the hearth coals, Abel thought.
Another scrape of the chair. Abel was on the verge of knocking to see if he was needed, but thought better of it. Then he heard a sound he could not mistake.
The cocking of a pistol.
Abel opened the door and came inside.
Von Hoff was sitting with his back to the door. He did not turn at the sound of Abel entering.
Von Hoff was light in complexion. He’d probably been blond when he was young. He was well-proportioned and compact. He’d created a complicated set of exercises that Abel had seen him perform religiously each morning. Evidently they worked. His arms and neck were textured like tightly coiled rope.
“Go away, Dashian,” he said.
Abel considered. This didn’t sound like an order to him. It sounded like a desperate request. He ignored it, closed the door, and took a seat on the end of the table, facing the colonel in profile.
In a wall niche, the new candle was burning, putting out more smoke than light. Von Hoff’s blunderbuss lay on the table.
“What are you thinking about doing here, Colonel?”
Von Hoff did not turn to face Abel. He stared at the pistol.
“None of your thrice-damned business.”
“Colonel, I believe it may be. Colonel, you seem…Are you all right.”
“In what way all right?”
“Agitated?” von Hoff said. He let out a strained chuckle. “Agitated. Yes.”
“Colonel, what is it? If it’s something personal, I’ll butt out.”
Von Hoff’s mouth ticked into the approximation of a smile. “Oh, it’s personal,” he said. “A personal weakness, you might call it.”
“I don’t understand, sir.”
“Do you realize what our orders say, Dashian?”
“No, sir, they’re secret as of now, and you haven’t made me aware of their contents.”
“Have you made a guess?”
“I suspect we are supposed to wipe out the private militias that have sprung up in Progar, probably kill every last one of the officers, maybe even the men, and drag the oligarchs who hired them back to Lindron in chains, where they’ll be executed by crucifixion or burning.”
“That would be acceptable,” said von Hoff. “Harsh, but acceptable.”
“We’re going to sell them to the Redlanders.”
“All the private militia men?”
“No. They die. You were right about that.”
“The others. Orash.”
“I don’t understand, sir.”
“Every living person in the capital city. Men. Women. Children. To be either killed or sold as slaves. To wipe out this water heresy, you see.”
“There are…there must be many thousands of people in Orash.”
“There were sixty thousand in the last census.”
“How would we do it, even if we tried?”
“A pretty problem. I suppose we will have to do it systematically, create some sort of slaughter facility. That problem the Abbot of Lindron graciously left up to the commanders of the Corps,” said von Hoff. “If we can’t sell them, we have to kill them. No exceptions.”
Abel nodded. He didn’t need Center and Raj to explain to him the inexorable logic of Zentrum in this matter. Wipe out whatever heresy had sprung up in Progar and open the door for a slow Redland invasion. Or, as he knew Zentrum thought of it, reap and burn the blighted crop, and reseed the field.
He might be horrified, but he was not surprised.
“You don’t agree with these orders, Colonel?”
“That is completely beside the point,” said von Hoff. “As long as I live, I’m bound to carry them out. There can be only one Law in the land, and that is the Law of Zentrum. This is what makes us…civilized.”
Abel glanced at the blunderbuss pistol.
“Are you thinking of taking your own life, sir?”
“What makes you say that, Major?”
“The loaded pistol on this table, for one thing.”
Von Hoff’s eyes went back to the gun. “Do you know why I became a Guardian, Dashian?”
All Abel knew was that von Hoff was originally from Ingres. His instructor, and now commanding officer, had hardly ever spoken of his younger days, except for an occasional comment about his tour in the Regulars and his promotion to the Goldies. He had been very proud of that.