The Savior – Snippet 33
The Third Brigade plunged into the melee with the Progar militia on the northern Road, and for a long while Abel was busy processing all the incoming reports from commanders for von Hoff, and sending off von Hoff’s orders and queries in the most efficient manner he could, whether that was by mounted courier, mirror signal, or flag wigwag.
Now that the field was smoky, the quicker methods became less effective, and after a while mounted or running courier was the only thing that would do.
The Guardians were hacking away at the Progar militia as if they were nasty vines overgrowing a garden, but for every man they cut down, another was there to take his place.
The Progarmen fought like madmen. Apparently everyone in the district realized what fate had in store for them if they didn’t stop the Guardian advance.
Abel visited the front lines only once, when von Hoff briskly ordered him forward to see about a reported enemy breakthrough. On the way, he grabbed a platoon from the rear, eager to get into the fray, and led them forward toward the hole in the lines. The platoon’s young lieutenant was visibly trembling, but trying to put on a brave face. Abel didn’t blame him. He’d felt the same way himself before.
It seems so long ago now.
He’d been in his first firefight when he was fourteen.
“Don’t worry,” he said to the man in a low voice. “Just stand tall and do what your staff sergeant tells you.”
And then they were among men falling back and shooting, then falling back again. “Get in there!” Abel shouted to the platoon.
They charged forward into the breach with bayonets fixed and guns blazing. Abel drew his dragon from his waistband — he’d left his rifle stacked back in the command zone — and trotted along with the platoon for a moment. He wanted to charge forward. Everything in him told him to do it.
But von Hoff has specifically ordered me not to, thrice-damn him.
Reluctantly, Abel slowed himself and watched the others disappear into a haze of smoke lit by flashes of fire. It was as if they plunged into one of the thunderstorms of Valley legend. He himself had never seen rain.
He stayed long enough to be sure that the line was holding. Those who had fallen back began working their way forward again. For a moment the smoke parted and there was the platoon Abel had led forward. Many of them lay dead on the ground. He tried to see if one of the dead men was the young lieutenant, but couldn’t make him out in the scrum.
Then Abel turned and worked his way back to the rear and von Hoff.
When he arrived, at first he couldn’t find his colonel. He began to fear that von Hoff had gone down, but then he spotted the colonel kneeling beside a tarp laid out on the ground. Several other older men stood around, also staring down.
On the waxen tarp lay General Josiah Saxe. Around him was a hovering cloud of commanders and staff officers.
Saxe was alive, but blood was flowing from a wound under his right arm, spurting out with each beat of his heart. A rough tourniquet had been tied at the shoulder, but the wound was too far toward the shoulder for the tourniquet constriction to do much good. The artery was protected by bone here and couldn’t be squeezed shut.
Saxe was trying to say something, and Colonel von Hoff was leaning over, his ear to Saxe’s mouth, attempting to listen. But blood bubbles were forming on the general’s lips instead of words. Then the general gave one violent shudder from his head to his feet, and lay still.
Von Hoff slowly stood up, still staring down at Saxe and shaking his head. “Gentlemen, the general has gone to the grain halls of Zentrum, just as we all shall.”
The other men Abel recognized now by their shoulder sash insignia: gold and red. Green and red. Yellow and red. And von Hoff’s own gold and indigo. The other two were the commanders of the First and Second Brigades, Muir and Deerfield. Kanagawa, captain of the mounted regiment, was also present. The only leader missing was the colonel of the quartermaster corps.
As if on cue, the sun set behind the western Rim. Dusk fell across the Valley. The fighting continued until pitch blackness arrived. It was only when complete darkness arrived that the armies slowly disengaged, and they did so in haphazard fashion. Abel did not know who, if anyone, had taken overall command. He suspected they had been fighting as separate batallions.
For the most part the forces pulled back out of musketry range of one another, and then collapsed where they were. Abel led an attempt by the engineers and medical units to distribute rations and, more importantly, water, to the exhausted troops. The operation lasted late into the night.
Landry Hoster stood by Abel’s side the entire time. His engineers had put wooden spigots on the water barrels instead of the usual cork plugs at the bottoms. Spigots were items brushing close to nishterlaub, but Abel figured it was Landry’s right to endanger himself if he wanted. In any case, the spigots worked wonderfully as the water wagons trundled along the line, and much water was saved from spilling uselessly onto the ground.
Abel stumbled back to the command camp to find the brigade commanders gathered around a small fire. They were speaking in low voices, but an argument was taking place.
He tried to listen in, but could not make himself concentrate. Then he found himself sitting down next to his pack, and couldn’t remember how he got there.
Sleep, man, said Raj. You’re doing no good awake. You’ll find out in the morning what they’ve decided. I expect you’ll going to need some rest to act on it, whatever it is.
Abel dozed for perhaps a halfwatch, then started awake. It was still dark. He stumbled to his feet, looked around for a latrine, and, when he couldn’t find one, pissed in a spot he judged was outside of the sleeping area. Even though he still felt tired, the edge of exhaustion was gone from his body. He found a barrel of water, drank a dipperful, and splashed a few drops on his face.
When he looked up, he saw von Hoff sitting on his camp stool gazing into the remains of the little fire from the night before. Von Hoff saw him and, with the wave of an arm, motioned Abel to join him. Abel went to stand by the pile of coals.
“The brigade colonels have elected me as provisional commander of the Corps,” von Hoff said. “I’m taking Saxe’s place for the duration of this operation.”
“Good,” said Abel. “That’s for the best.”
The two sat silently for a moment.
“How old are you, Major?” von Hoff finally asked.
“I see.” He nodded, laughed to himself. “So you wouldn’t be the youngest in recorded history.”
“Youngest what, sir?”
“There were at least three before you: Vajiravud about a hundred years ago. I think he was twenty-seven. Kulmala, of course. That was under extreme conditions during the Delta campaigns. He went on to lead the Corps. And that other one, I can’t remember his name.”
“I don’t follow, sir.”
“The youngest Goldie brigade commander,” said von Hoff. “In the military, you don’t want to set precedents if you can help it. Brings too much attention. Makes you a target if anything goes wrong.”
“I suppose that’s true, Colonel.”
“So you see, I don’t want to do that.”
“What…” Abel’s head was spinning. What was von Hoff talking about? Then it hit him with a certainty as solid as a brick in the face.
“Vallancourt,” Abel said. “You’re going to give Vallancourt the Third because of seniority.”
“Blood and Bones, man, why would you think that?”
“He’s safe. He’s next in line for promotion to brigade commander. It wouldn’t set a precedent.” Abel swallowed. His throat felt dry even though he’d just taken a drink of water. “I suppose I could work with him. If it were a direct order from you to do so.”
“Why in cold hell would I give it to Vallancourt?” von Hoff said. “He’s a complete idiot. No, I’m giving you the Third, Dashian. Starting with a field promotion right now, Colonel.”
Abel stood still for a moment, trying to be sure he’d heard correctly.
“But — ”
“I’ve informed the other brigade commanders. It’s done.”
“Colonel, you should reconsider this decision.”
“I’m tired. I could make mistakes.”
“Excellent point. Yes, I’ve changed my mind.”
For a moment, Abel thought he’d won the argument. Then he saw the crooked smile on von Hoff’s face.
“The colonel is being sarcastic.”
“The general is being sarcastic,” von Hoff said. “The colonel is in need of hot cider.”
He’s talking about you, Raj said.
“Yes,” Abel said. “I’ll have some shortly.” Abel rubbed his temples.
Something Father said years ago when he’d made lieutenant in the Scouts. How’d the saying go? “If you’re going to do it, own it.”
He looked up, met von Hoff’s gaze. “General von Hoff, now that I’ve got the Third…”
“I’ve examined the terrain, and I have an idea for a flanking maneuver that I hope you’ll consider.”
“I’ll consider it,” said von Hoff. “How many men do you think it will take?”
“About five thousand.”
Von Hoff said nothing for a moment, huffed out a laugh. “Where am I going to get five thousand men?”
“The Third Brigade has approximately five thousand troops in it, although we’ve taken casualties, of course.”
Again von Hoff was silent for a moment. He finally spoke in a low voice. “You want me to divide my army, Dashian? Divide my army in my first act as a general. Is that what you’re saying?”
Abel nodded. “I wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t think it would work, sir.”