Here is approximately seven-tenths of one per cent of the next novel in the MERCENARIES series.
I hope some folks will want to read the rest.
1. APPROACH MARCH
“Just more woods, Zinni?”
“’Fraid so, major. But the cits say there’s a highway from Gorodel to Whitesands.”
“All right. Go tell the general.”
The young scout saluted and rode off. Loreg turned to Sgt. Chindan. “They say Vedraxa is part of the Empire now. I hope that means some new roads.”
We reach Gorodel in three days, sir. Things should get better then.”
“I hope it doesn’t snow. Any more supplies?”
“We can’t get much from the farmers, sir. They got nothing to spare. That last village managed to cough up about two bushels of wheat.”
“I’ll ask her about going on half rations until Gorodel. Carry on, sergeant.”
Loreg looked back; the van of the Pelicans could be seen wending its way through the forest. “Rear guard in Sarenia and vanguard here. Wish we could be in the middle for once,” he said. Then he trotted south, through the screen of archers, and reached 1st Company.
“Still nothing but forest,” he said to Lt. Vaklar.
“We’ll reach the Zerdar soon, sir. It’s easier north of the river.”
“I hope so. When we get to Gorodel, make sure nobody wanders off. The men are hungry enough to start pillaging, and we’re in friendly territory. Any rumors about the enemy?”
“The commander is with the general. Maybe she’ll have some news, but as far as I know they’re still near Vorgast, sir. It’ll be some time before we see any Saris.”
“You ever campaigned in the winter before?”
“No sir. This will be a new experience.”
“Maybe we can winter in Vorgast, or Norl.” He rode down the line, shaking his head when troops asked if there was any relief in sight.
The march from Ferlind had been going on for eight days across a poor and wild countryside. By now a battle seemed preferable. In fact, the prospect of a battle would have cheered everyone up by offering chances for loot and fame. Marching provided neither.
Loreg rode past the other three companies of halberdiers to the bag-gage column. The first wagon was pulled by two horses that looked as though they should have been carrying fighting men (which was what they had done before Kedriss Gap). Sitting in back, protected by a bul-wark of disassembled tents, were three young women, playing cards.
“How much further to this town, major?” called one, peering out from under the hood of her woolen cloak.
“About three days, Sary. And probably half rations until then.”
“Why couldn’t we go by sea!” exclaimed another.
“Rough weather, they say. The commander wasn’t upset about that.”
“No. She’d rather go to Whitesands on her knees than get on a boat.”
“Ha. I win,” said the third girl, laying down her cards.
The other two paid her as Terl Garvis rode up. “Commander around, Lana?” he asked one of the losers. “I’ve got a bivouac picked out.”
“She’s back with the general, captain.”
“Good. I can see her and the army billeting officer together.”
He rode away. Loreg went to his usual place, between 3rd and 4th Companies, and the long column of soldiers trudged on, into the gathering twilight of central Vedraxa.
Andiriel returned just before the evening halt, telling Loreg and Tomas that nothing much had changed. “The general is still worried that the enemy might try to threaten our right, so the light cavalry will stay to the east and our scouts will be in charge of guiding the army,” she said. “It’s an honor, really, that he trusts us to do that.”
Loreg told her of the food situation and recommended cutting rations.
“I was afraid of that, but there’s no choice,” she said. “The general assured me that there’s lots of food in Gorodel. The Prince ordered it sent there two weeks ago. We’ll have a decent road, too, finally. We’ll go to Whitesands and follow it down the coast.”
“No news of an invasion yet?”
“No. But the general says it can’t be long now, unless they’ve decided to wait until spring, which he thinks isn’t likely. Hang on, everybody. Things will get better.”
The army encamped near a brook. Fuel parties went to chop firewood after the tents were up and the guards out. The temperature was near freezing—colder than it usually had been the previous year at Ironport.
Supper was stale bread, a little beef jerky, and some dried vegetables. Andiriel ate with her orderlies and the regimental mascot, who was less bouncy than usual.
“Sandi isn’t too happy,” said Lana, passing the fox a bit of bread. “This isn’t the desert.”
“It’s the cold, and there aren’t as many things she can catch,” said Andiriel. “Hunting’s not easy these days, is it, honey? All the yummy mouses have gone someplace warmer.” She stroked Sandi’s back and smiled. “Your coat’s getting really thick.”
Sandi yipped plaintively and left the tent. “If you find a nice big rat, bring it back,” called Dagget. “We could use it.” He looked at Andiriel. “Chief, can we really fight a campaign in this weather? It’s November 20, and it’ll get lots worse. Food and weather, I mean.”
“It only takes one side to make a war,” she replied. “If the Saris invade Vedraxa, we have to meet them. If they don’t cross the border, the general plans to put the bulk of the army near Whitesands and cover the frontier with pickets.”
“Maybe the Empire will send some help,” said Lana.
“I asked him about that. He doesn’t think it will happen before spring. We couldn’t feed more men, for one thing. Demantius is pretty sure we can handle the Saris and their mercs. The Prince is placing him in supreme command. The message just got here today.”
“That’s good, chief.”
“He’s going to ride ahead to Whitesands, to look things over.”
“Who’ll command this force while he’s away?”
“Cormad. He’s the senior colonel.”
Dagget’s face fell. Andiriel smiled. “You didn’t think it would be me, did you? I’m not ready for that yet, Dags. Cormad’s in his fifties. He’s very good.”
“But we captured his whole regiment at Chevelina, chief.”
“That wasn’t his fault. He never got off the ship. He respects us, you know. We treated the Gryphons honorably.”
Demantius rode north the next day; his five regiments continued their unpleasant trek through the bleak countryside of central Vedraxa. Patrols came in regularly from Tyvar Negrath’s cavalry force—which included the 150 men of the general’s own unit—to report all was quiet on the right, and the Pelican scouts likewise found nothing new. The wind picked up a bit. Chilly rain fell. The troops trudged on. “Better a long march to victory than a short one to defeat,” said some witty officer, a saying that made the rounds.
They reached Gorodel, the only place of any size in the region, on the morning of the 23rd. This city of 12,000 souls sat astride the Zerdar River. Cormad marched through it, since it contained the only bridges for miles, but the troops were not allowed to break ranks. They made camp two miles north and dispatched wagons to get the expected supplies—which proved in fact to be there, a compliment to the arrangements of the Prince of Vedraxa and his bureaucracy, and a good thing for Gorodel, too, considering what might have happened if the troops started foraging after three days on half rations.
That night Captain Voros brought word that the army would force-march to Whitesands. Enemy light troops had crossed the border; Demantius felt that a full-scale invasion would soon follow. He wanted to meet the Sarenians close to the Reldani frontier.
Andiriel asked Voros what forces were already in place. “About 3,000,” he replied. “There’s five merc regiments, maybe 1,300 levies, and about 100 Vedraxan knights plus their people. The Prince of Reldan supposedly is coming in, too, with some loyal men.”
“So we’ll have over 6,000? That’s a lot.”
“The general thinks we may be outnumbered almost two to one once the Saris add their men to the mercs. This is going to be tough.”
“We can do it. Some of my men say we’ll spend the winter in Vorgast, or even Norl.”
“We’ll need all the confidence we can muster,” said the captain with a grin.
“Morale’s good, and now we’re on full rations. How are things at Whitesands?”
“The Vedraxans have a big depot there, and wagon convoys all the way from Karlisberg. Should be enough for a month or so. North of Whitesands the country’s very wild.”
“Well, if the enemy has a lot more men, maybe they’ll have a lot less food. It can’t be any easier for them to supply themselves.”
“The general thinks the same, colonel. He said that if Rognard can’t force a decision quickly, he’ll have to wait until March. If all else fails, we can just hold Whitesands. It’s the only walled city between Vorgast and Karlisberg. By spring Prince Ednis can call out his vassals in the south. The Empire will help pay for everything, too. It’s paying our salaries right now.”
“Yes. We learned that in Whitesands. The Chancery decided to foot the bill for all of Vedraxa’s mercs so Prince Ednis won’t go bankrupt.”
“So we’re fighting for the Empire, at least indirectly?” said Andiriel. “I’m very glad. I always hoped to work for the Emperor.”