Wrath of Empire
Styke limped slowly across the river valley as the sun set, stepping over corpses, ignoring the cries of the wounded all around him. He bled from a dozen wounds, some of which would need stitches, and fought the exhaustion brought on by two tough battles in less than ten hours. His back and head hurt, his left shoulder had been sliced to ribbons. He wore a captured Dynize cuirass from the biggest corpse he could find, and it was still a little too small around the chest, buckles poking him in the ribs.
And the corpse he dragged along behind him wasn’t light.
His eyes passed over the bodies: Friend, foe—even some of his own Lancers—they gave him as little pause as so much meat at a butcher. He wondered if there was ever a time when the sight of so much gore shocked him. If there was, he couldn’t remember. He thought of Celine, hiding back with the refugees, and wondered if for her sake he should get out of this business. Then he thought of the wind in his hair and the thrill of the charge; Amrec at a full gallop and his lance smashing through the breastbone of an enemy.
He should get out of this business. But not yet.
Styke caught sight of Ibana on horseback, watching passively as a Riflejack surgeon put a screaming Dynize soldier out of his misery. Styke changed directions, heading toward her, still dragging the body. He raised one hand in greeting.
“There you are,” Ibana said, scowling down at him. “Where’s Amrec?”
Styke waved vaguely toward the river. “Last I saw, he went to get a drink.”
“You’ve been unhorsed twice in a single day. And back in Landfall, too. Pit, Ben, it’s a wonder you haven’t broken your back. You’ve got to get used to riding again.”
Styke bit back a reply. She was right, of course. “It’s all about knowing how to fall.”
“Who’s that?” Ibana asked, jerking her chin toward the corpse Styke was pulling along.
The body belonged to a middle-aged man with a gaunt face, wearing what little was left of a charred teal uniform and an orange-lacquered breastplate. “Dynize general,” Styke grunted. He poked the body with his toe. It was missing a chunk out of its side, right where he might have been wearing a pistol and a few spare powder charges. “He must have pissed off Flint. She’s the only one of her mages who can detonate powder at any significant range, and this guy was blown almost in half by it.”
Ibana barked a laugh. “I find myself liking Flint more and more.”
“And here I thought you were going to kill each other sooner or later.”
“She’s been growing on me,” Ibana replied. “But things can still change. Where is she?”
Styke pointed to a squat bit of squared stone rising from the valley floor a few hundred yards away. A few weeks ago, he imagined it had been a small stable and waypoint for the Fatrastan messenger service, but the building had been stripped down to the foundation by refugees looking for firewood. It was currently occupied by a dozen soldiers in the crimson coats of the Riflejacks, with just two blue coats standing out among them—Vlora and Olem.
Styke resumed his journey, dragging the corpse along behind him. It would be easier, he mused, to leave the body where it lay and come find it later, preferably with Amrec in tow. But there was a statement to be made by dragging the enemy general across the bloody field. What it was, he hadn’t yet decided, but he was certain it was there.
When he reached the makeshift headquarters, he was surprised to find Major Gustar had returned from his expedition across the river looking a little rough around the edges, and wondered if he’d managed to find an enemy force. The major was the first one to notice Styke, and touched the brim of his bearskin hat. “Good evening, Colonel.”
“Evening, Major. How was your ride across the river?”
“Eventful. Your ride into the country?”
Styke lifted the body and draped it over the old foundation stones. The assembled officers fell silent, staring at Styke. Most were wounded, red-eyed from exhaustion and powder smoke. Night was coming on quickly, and they all knew there would be little sleep in the aftermath of such a battle. Styke was not the first Mad Lancer to arrive—Jackal stood next to Lady Flint, his old yellow jacket hanging open to reveal a shirtless, tattooed torso. The damned Palo didn’t have a cut on him.
Eyes moved from Styke to the body behind him and back.
“Brought you a present, General,” Styke told Flint, jerking his thumb at the body. “I believe that’s your handiwork.”
Someone gave Styke a congratulatory thump on the shoulder, and conversation resumed as quickly as it had stopped. He let out a small sigh, thankful for the familiarity. He’d spent enough of his life as a curiosity—a horror, even—that he didn’t need everyone staring whenever he walked up. Of course, he realized wryly, dragging around a corpse probably didn’t help him fit in. He limped over to Flint at her beckoning. Someone had set up her table and maps, along with her personal trunks.
“Colonel Styke,” Flint said with a reserved air, bent over the table with both palms flat on a map of the Hadshaw River Valley. “I want to commend you on your timely arrival. I’ve been told not to inflate your ego, but it’s quite possible you saved the battle.”
Styke raised his eyebrows. He’d charged the enemy rear with just seven hundred cavalry, most of them wounded from the fray earlier in the afternoon. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t think Flint needed it. “Looked like you had everything in hand.”
Flint gave him a long, cool look that told him a thousand words. She knew he’d saved the battle. She knew that he knew he’d saved the battle. But it was all the praise he was going to get. “Jackal here was just telling us of your contact with the enemy cuirassiers. I understand you charged a force twice your size.”
“They had inferior horses and were more surprised to find us than we were them.”
A new voice cut into the conversation. “Should I tell her how you were unhorsed less than two minutes into the fight?” Styke looked over his shoulder to find that Ibana had ridden up and now leaned on her saddle horn, a grin on her face.
“I’d rather you not,” he told her.
Ibana and Flint exchanged a look, and a smile flickered at the corners of Flint’s mouth. Styke was surprised to find himself braced for a fight, and even more surprised that it never came. Officers had questioned his judgment his whole career, though few of them liked to give credit for his results. Flint seemed unconcerned with the former as long as she got the latter.
She said, “We’re going over Major Gustar’s report right now, but first I think you should know how the battle went.” Her tone lowered, growing more serious. “We have nine hundred dead, and over seven thousand wounded—many of the wounded will join the dead by the end of the week. We estimate those numbers account for roughly equal numbers of Riflejacks, the Landfall Garrison, Blackhat volunteers, and the refugee militia.”
Styke let out a low whistle. All things considered, if three or four thousand wound up dead, it was still a resounding victory. “We had a good look at the battlefield as we ran them down. I think ninety-five percent of the Dynize are dead or wounded.”
“That’s our guess.”
“Congratulations, General.” Styke found himself legitimately impressed. “That’s a slaughter.”
Flint didn’t seem to share his optimism, waving off the compliment. “I would be pleased if not for the information Major Gustar just brought us. Gustar, if you please?”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Gustar stepped over to the map, pointing at the river and addressing Styke. “As you know, you sent me over the river early this morning to scout and counter any flanking force. This is where I crossed. And this is where we are now.” He pointed to a third spot. “This is where I encountered an enemy force.”
“Yes. About fifty of them. Lightly armed, but wearing cuirasses and not so spongy like that vanguard we crushed. My men and I engaged. We tried to trap them, but they managed to slip away, and led us on a merry chase.” He dragged his finger along the west side of the river, southward. “Every time I ordered my men to pull back, they returned to harry our flanks, so we ended up skirmishing with them for miles.”
Styke scowled. “They tried to lead you into a trap.”
“That’s what worried me, but we kept our wits about us, eyes out for traps and flanking forces, and played their game. Didn’t manage to finally crush them until down here.” Gustar pointed to the map again.
“So?” Styke asked.
“Here’s the thing—I think they were trying to lead us back to their main force, but we managed to catch them just in time. Pure luck, I’ll admit, but—”
“Wait,” Styke cut in. “What do you mean main force?”
A flicker of a grim smile crossed Flint’s face. “The Second Dynize Army.”
“Shit,” Styke grunted. “A second army? Where?”
“They were seven miles to our south,” Gustar said. “By our guess, around thirty-two thousand men including around four thousand cavalry.”
Styke caught his breath. No wonder Flint was so grim. Another, bigger army marching on their position and over half of her force was wounded. “So they could be here tomorrow?” he asked.
“Thank you, Major,” Flint said, resting a hand on Gustar’s shoulder. “Go check in with your men and get some rest. Come back to me in an hour for a new assignment.”
Gustar snapped a salute and slipped away, leaving Styke with Flint. Over his shoulder, he could sense Ibana waiting and watching the conversation, no doubt trying to make her own plans based on that information. Jackal still stood at Flint’s side, silent and watchful, and Styke wondered what the Palo’s spirits would say about all this.
“Yes,” Flint finally said, “they’ll be here tomorrow. I’ve been wondering all day why the enemy was in such a hurry; according to several officers we captured, Ka-Sedial ordered two different enemy generals to track down the Riflejacks and eliminate them. They were racing each other—trying to get here first, take our heads, and claim the prize.”
“The Dynize commander ordered it?”
“Yes. Turns out he takes defeat very personally. The general we faced today forsook sorcerous support and marched his troops double-time to get here. The general we face tomorrow is…not so foolhardy.” Flint was silent for several moments, looking at her maps, before finally saying in a low voice, “We can’t fight that.”
“Do you have a plan?”
“At this point? Not much of one. The Dynize are here to avenge the humiliation we gave them at Landfall. This second general will be more cautious than the first, but once he finds out how few fighting men we have left, he’s going to pounce. If he takes his time to scout us out, we have just three days to prepare.”
Styke resisted the urge to repeat his question. He could sense Ibana’s eyes on him, and he knew what she’d say—cut our losses and run. Get the Mad Lancers out of here before they encountered something they couldn’t cut through with brute force.
Flint continued. “We’re going to pull our men back to the refugee camp. Assuming the Dynize take their time, that’ll put a few more miles between us. We’re going to leave their dead and wounded for them to clean up. Maybe give them some pause.” She shrugged.
“But you intend to fight?”
Flint lifted her gaze, looking Styke in the eye. “If I have to. I’m open to other options, but with so many wounded I don’t think we could slip away even if we got the opportunity. The only good news in all of this is that the Dynize aren’t really interested in the refugees. So at least we needn’t worry too much about shielding them.” There was a sour note in her voice, and Styke realized that for all her heroics she was not pleased with the idea of dying on foreign soil protecting foreign refugees.
Mercenaries were, of course, paid to die on enemy soil. Flint didn’t seem to think that applied to her—not because she could weasel out of assignments, like so many mercenaries, but because she genuinely believed she would win every fight. Styke wondered if it was confidence or arrogance. Probably a bit of both. But he was the last person in the world in a position to make that judgment.
Flint fell into a sullen silence, staring at the map beneath her hands. Styke touched his forehead and backed away. “I’m going to find my horse and regather the Lancers. We captured a lot of Dynize horses. We’ll get to work making sledges and do what we can to move wounded back to the refugee camp.”
“Very good,” Flint said absently.
He left her to brood and returned to Ibana, who looked none too pleased herself. “We have to talk,” Ibana said.
Styke lifted the body of the enemy general onto his shoulder and began to walk. “I have to get my horse.”
Ibana rode along beside him until they were well out of earshot of Flint, then said, “We should get out while we still can.”
“I think we’re past that point already.”
“We’re not Riflejacks. We’re not Adrans. We can slip away tonight and no one left alive by the end of the week will even remember.”
The thought was both repellent and attractive to Styke. Ibana was right that they weren’t precisely Riflejacks. The Mad Lancers had ties to Fatrasta, even after all Fidelis Jes had done to destroy them, and if the Riflejacks managed to slip away and head back to the Nine, the Mad Lancers would likely remain here.
“We’ve fought beside them for three weeks. We’ve taken Flint’s money. That’s enough for us to see this through.”
“And see us all dead,” Ibana retorted.
Styke stopped, looking up the river, then back down it. He kicked at the muddy, bloody ground with one toe and decided he was close enough to the highway. “Give me your spare lance.”
Styke reached up to her saddle and took it. He placed it handle-first against the ground and pushed, leaning on it until it was buried almost two feet into the soft mud. Once it was in place, he lifted the corpse of the Dynize general under the armpits, like lifting a child onto horseback, and then dropped it. The tip of the lance entered the small of its back and easily slid up the neck and out the top of his head, leaving the body with arms slumped like a scarecrow over a bloody field.
“Macabre,” Ibana noted.
“Give the soldiers of that new army something to think about.”
“You’re really going to stick around for Flint, are you?”
Styke admired his handiwork, wiping his hands off on his pants. “Where is Celine?” he asked.
“You’re avoiding the question.”
“And I want to know where Celine is.”
“She’s with Sunin. I saw the two of them up on the ridge half an hour ago. Now answer my question.”
Styke searched the ridgeline. “I need to find a horse for Celine,” he mused. “She’s plenty old enough.”
He waved her off. “I’ll think about it. We’re sticking around for now. Attend to our wounded, and keep everyone on their toes in case I change my mind.”
Ibana finally nodded, seemingly content with the idea of a contingency plan. “We lost twenty or so of old bodies and maybe sixty of the new ones. More are wounded. You want me to try to fill our numbers from the refugees?”
“Okay, I’ll…,” Ibana trailed off. “Who is that?”
Styke turned to follow her gaze, and was surprised to see a dozen horses swimming across the current of the Hadshaw River. It was almost dark, and it was difficult to see their riders clearly until they reached the close bank of the river. The riders wore sunflower-yellow cavalry jackets just like Ibana and Styke, but Styke had never seen these men before. He was suddenly apprehensive, resting his hand on the hilt of his boz knife as they made their way toward Styke, coming to a stop with horses dripping.
The man at their front wore a colonel’s stars at his lapel. He was young and fresh-faced, no more than twenty-five, and he examined Styke’s old cavalry jacket with a troubled expression. After a few moments of silence, he finally cleared his throat. “I’m looking for General Vlora Flint.”
“Who are you?”
“Colonel Willis of the Eighteenth Brigade.”
Styke shared a long look with Ibana. “Did Lindet finally send some soldiers to help us fight this thing?”
“She did,” Colonel Willis said, stiffening.
“I hope it’s more than a brigade,” Ibana said.
Willis scoffed. “A brigade? The Second Field Army of Fatrasta is camped about ten miles from here.”
Styke felt a laugh bubble up from his stomach and escape his lips. He bent over, slapping his knee.
“I’m not sure what’s so funny,” Willis said.
“What’s funny,” Styke said, wiping his face, “is that we could have used you twenty-four hours ago.” He couldn’t help but wonder if this field army had planned on being late, hoping the Dynize would wipe out the Riflejacks. It was something Lindet would do.
“I can see that,” Willis said, sparing a decidedly haughty glance for the battlefield.
“Did you know there’s another thirty thousand Dynize camped just south of here?”
Willis pursed his lips. “We’ve been informed, yes. But that’s not my concern.”
“Then what is?”
“I’m here to arrest General Flint.”
Wrath of Empire is book two in Gods of Blood and Powder. To check out book one, Sins of Empire, click here.