Wrath of Empire by Brian McClellan: Chapter One

To read the prologue, click here.


Wrath of Empire

Chapter One

As a child, General Vlora Flint had heard stories of refugee camps formed during the Gurlish Wars. Whole cities displaced, a million people on the run from enemy armies, or even forced from their homes by their own soldiers. The camps, she’d been told, were places of untold suffering and misery. Disease and starvation were rampant, bodies left unburied, and the people living in constant fear of the next army to come upon them.

Vlora, in all her nightmares, had never imagined herself de facto leader of such a camp.

She stood on a gentle rise overlooking the Hadshaw River Valley and surveyed the long, winding string of wagons, tents, and cookfires that stretched into the distance. It was early morning, the air heavy and humid, and all she could think about was the numbers that her quartermasters had brought her just an hour ago. They’d finished their counts and estimated that over three hundred thousand people had fled Landfall—just over a third of the city—and that of those, some two hundred and twenty thousand were following this river valley toward Redstone.

Her own men, including the Mad Lancers and the Landfall garrison, had been badly mauled during the defense of the city. She had less than ten thousand men under her command, just one soldier for every twenty-two people.

How in Adom’s name was she going to organize this mess, let alone protect it?

She pulled herself out of her own head and looked at the camp below her. She could pick out her soldiers walking up and down the river, waking people up, telling everyone it was time to get moving. Three weeks since the Battle of Landfall and disease was already beginning to spread; many of her own soldiers had contracted dysentery. Food and medicine were in short supply. Most people had left the city in a panic, grabbing valuables rather than necessities, and fled without plan or destination.

She inclined her head slightly toward the man waiting patiently beside her. Olem was of middle height, a few inches taller than her, with sandy hair and a graying beard. He walked with a slight limp, and his right arm was still in a sling from a bullet wound from Landfall. He was a Knacked—possessing a singular sorcerous talent that kept him from needing sleep—but even he looked tired as piss, with crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes and his face gaunt with worry. She wanted to order him to rest, but knew he’d ignore her.

She wasn’t entirely sure what she’d do without him.

“Any sign of the Dynize?” she asked, turning from her view of the refugees to look back down the river the way they’d come. Landfall was about sixty miles to their southeast, and the road that direction was dotted with stragglers. Her own army was camped here, guarding the rear of the refugee convoy.

Olem sucked on a cigarette, smoke curling out of his nostrils, before giving a measured response. “Scouting parties,” he said. “They’re watching us leave. But I imagine they’re too busy solidifying their hold on Landfall to bother coming after us. For now.”

“You know,” Vlora said, shooting him a sour look, “You could leave off the ‘for now.’ It just sounds ominous.”

“I never try to give you anything but the facts,” Olem responded, straight-faced. “And the fact is they’re leaving us alone for now. I can’t imagine it’ll last forever. I’ve got our dragoons sweeping our rear, trying to catch one of those scouting parties, but they’ve come up with nothing so far.”

Vlora swore inwardly. She needed to know the state of the city. She and her men had won the Battle of Landfall, only to be forced to abandon it at word of an even bigger Dynize army on the way. Last she knew, that army had begun to land near the city, and she had no intelligence since then. How big was that army? Were they pushing outward aggressively? Were they taking their time to fortify the city? Did they have more Privileged sorcerers and bone-eyes?

Beyond food and supplies for so many people, the next most valuable commodity was information. She needed to know whether the Dynize were hot on her heels. She also needed to know if the Fatrasta Army was heading this direction, because that offered its own set of complications. “Any word from Lindet?”

Olem pursed his lips. “Nothing official. We’ve taken in nearly two thousand Blackhats. None of them seem to have orders, or know of the falling out between you and their Lady Chancellor. I’ve put them to work as a police force among the refugees.”

Olem’s ability to keep even the biggest army occupied and organized never failed to amaze her. “You’re a saint, but keep a close eye on those Blackhats. Any of them could be Lindet’s spies. She may have left town two steps ahead of us, but if she didn’t leave eyes and ears to keep track of me, I’ll eat my hat.”

“And I, mine,” Olem agreed. “But I’ve got my own men among them. I’ll keep things sorted as best as I can. Did you know Styke is openly recruiting from the Blackhats to fill out the ranks of his Lancers?”

Vlora snorted. “With success?”

“More than I expected. He’s making them renounce their loyalty to the Lady Chancellor before they can sign on. The Blackhats are damned angry she abandoned so many of them without orders. He’s got over a hundred already.”

“And may Adom help any spies he catches,” Vlora said. She hesitated, her eyes on a string of horsemen riding single file along the other side of the river. They were a company of hers, wearing their tall dragoon helmets and crimson uniforms with blue trim, straight swords and carbines lashed to the saddles. “Did I make a mistake giving Styke command of my cavalry?”

“I don’t think so,” Olem replied.

“You hesitated.”

“Did I?”

Vlora clasped her hands behind her back to keep from fiddling with her lapels. “Lindet told me he’s an uncontrollable monster.”

“I get the feeling,” Olem responded, dropping his cigarette butt and crushing it beneath the heel of his boot, “that Lindet’s version of the truth is whatever is convenient at the time. Besides, right now he’s our monster.”

“Again, that’s not reassuring.” Vlora tried to get a rein on her thoughts. They were unfocused, scattered; and the sheer number of uncertainties running through her head was enough to drive her mad. There was so much to attend to within her own army—Blackhat stragglers, the city garrison, the Mad Lancers, and the core of the brigade of mercenaries she brought with her from Adro. She had over five thousand picked men, many of them wounded, half a world away from their homes, without an employer. A desperate bark of a laugh escaped her lips, and Olem shot her a worried glance.

“You all right?” he asked in a low voice.

“I’m fine,” she said reassuringly. “There’s just…a lot to take in.”

“You know these refugees aren’t your responsibility,” Olem said, not for the first time.

“Yes, they are.”

“Why?”

Vlora tried to find a satisfactory answer. She wondered what Field Marshal Tamas would have done in such a situation, and realized that he would have marched to the nearest unoccupied city and booked passage home for his troops the moment his contract became null. But she was not Tamas. Besides, there were more reasons to stay in this land than a quarter of a million refugees. “Because,” she finally answered, “no one else will do it.”

“The men are beginning to wonder where their next stack of krana will come from.”

Another of a thousand worries. A little bitter part of her wanted to tell the men that they should be more concerned about getting out of Fatrasta alive than their next payment, but she couldn’t be too hard on them. They were mercenaries, after all. “Give them promissory notes against my own holdings.”

“I already did.”

“Without asking me?”

Olem gave her a small smile and dug in his pocket for a pouch of tobacco and some rolling papers. “I figured you’d give the order at some point. But not even you can pay them indefinitely.”

“I’ll figure out something.” Vlora waved him off as if she wasn’t concerned, but it was a worry that kept her up at night. A thought suddenly hit her and she squinted down into the camp. “You know, I haven’t seen Taniel or Ka-poel for a while. Where the pit are they?”

“They remained in the city when we left.”

Vlora scowled. “And you didn’t think to tell me?”

“I did, actually. Twice. You assured me both times that you’d heard every word I was saying.”

“I lied.” Vlora felt a sudden stab of despair. Despite their rocky history, Taniel was a reassuring man to have around, and not just because he was a one-man army. “Why would they stay in the city? Are they gathering intelligence?”

Olem shrugged, then hesitated before saying, “I know you and Taniel have known each other a long time. But don’t forget that those two have their own agenda.”

It was not a reminder Vlora needed—or wanted. Taniel was more than an old lover; he was an adopted sibling and a childhood friend. Instinct told her to trust him, but years of military and political training reminded her that shared history was a long time ago. So much had changed.

With everything going on right now, his disappearance was the least of her worries. She ran her fingers through her tangled hair, wondering how long it had been since she’d had a proper bath. Setting aside her discomfort, she said, “I need information.”

“Well, we might have something.” Olem pointed toward a uniformed messenger hurrying his way up the hill toward them.

“It won’t be useful,” Vlora responded, annoyed. “It’s going to be some asshole city commissioner trying to hassle me for supplies he thinks we’re hoarding from the refugees. Again.”

“I bet it’s something important.”

“I bet it’s not.”

“I’ll bet you that spare pouch of tobacco you keep in the left cuff of your jacket,” Olem said.

“Deal,” Vlora said, watching the messenger approach. It was a young woman with a private’s insignia on her lapel, and she saluted smartly as she came to a stop.

“Ma’am,” the messenger said, “I’ve got word from Captain Davd.”

Vlora shot Olem a look. “Is it important?”

“Yes, ma’am. He said he’s spotted a Dynize pursuit force.”

Vlora took a deep, shaky breath as a wave of trepidation swept through her. This would mean a battle. It would mean men dead and the lives of all these refugees at stake. But at least she could finally see her enemy.

She dug into her sleeve and pulled out her pouch of emergency tobacco, handing it to Olem without looking at him. Smug bastard. “Take me to Captain Davd.”

<li_sb>

The Hadshaw River Valley was heavily trafficked, the old-growth forests that had once sprawled across this part of Fatrasta logged into extinction over the last couple hundred years. The land was rocky and unforgiving, very unlike the floodplains closer to the city or the plantations to the west. Farmsteads dotted the hilly landscape, surrounded by walls built from the stones the farmers dug from their fields.

The occasional rocky precipice was topped by a stand of scraggly honey locusts, and it was in such a vantage point that she found two of her soldiers hunkered on their knees between the boulders.

Captain Davd was in his early twenties, with black hair and a soft, beardless face. He tapped powder-stained fingernails against the stock of an ancient blunderbuss and nodded as Vlora crept up beside him.

His companion was an older woman with graying, dirty-blond hair. Norrine lay with her head against a stone, her rifle propped on a log, sighting along it as she watched some target only she could see.

Anyone else might find it odd to discover two captains out on a scouting mission, but Vlora took it in stride. Like her, they were both powder mages. By ingesting a bit of black powder, they could run faster, see farther, and hear better than any normal soldier. It made them ideal scouts for an army on the run. She had taken a page out of her mentor’s book and given powder mages under her command a middling rank and an auxiliary role. They answered only to her.

In addition to scouting, they could also use their sorcery to fire a musket or rifle over fantastic distances, picking off the most difficult targets.

“Norrine has an officer in her sites,” Davd said in an excited whisper. “Say the word, and they’ll be down a ranking metalhead.”

Vlora snorted. Her men had begun to refer to Dynize soldiers as “metalheads” because of the conical helmets they wore. She laid a hand gently on Norrine’s shoulder. “How about you fill me in on what’s going on before you start killing people.”

Davd looked crestfallen. Norrine gave Vlora thumbs-up and kept her bead on her target.

“Well?” Vlora urged Davd.

Davd shifted to make room for Vlora to hunker down between him and Norrine in the rocky crag. She crawled up beside them, looking over the edge of their vantage point, and fished a powder charge from her breast pocket. She cut through the paper with her thumbnail and held it to her right nostril, snorting gently.

Her senses flared, giving her an immediate high as sounds, colors, and smells all became brighter. The world came into focus, and she squinted down the length of the Hadshaw River Highway toward a small party of soldiers in the distance. The powder trance allowed her to see details as if she were a mere fifty yards away, and she took quick stock of the enemy. Long experience at this sort of thing gave her an estimate of five hundred or so soldiers, at about two miles distance. They wore the silver breastplates and bright blue uniforms of the Dynize soldiery. About half of them rode horses, which was new to Vlora—the Dynize who had attacked Landfall had no calvary.

The troop was on the move, the horses trotting while the soldiers marched double-time. Every so often they were joined by a rider coming over the ridge from the east or fording the river from the west. Messages were exchanged, and then a dispatch was sent south.

“It’s a vanguard,” Vlora concluded.

“Making regular reports,” Davd added. “I’m willing to bet they’re no more than a couple of miles ahead of the main army. They’re probing, checking the lay of the land and trying to draw out our rear guard.”

“They’re moving awfully fast for a vanguard.”

“Huh,” Davd commented. “So they are.”

Vlora took a shaky breath. Her army—and the refugees they were guarding—were less than five miles from the pursuing Dynize. If the army was traveling as fast as the vanguard, they could force a battle before nightfall. If they took their time, Vlora might have two days to prepare. She wondered whether she should attempt to gain a few more miles before nightfall, pushing the refugees ahead of her, or choose a defensive position immediately. “You two, get me information. I want eyes on the enemy army. I want to know their strength and how fast they’re moving. No guns, and don’t be seen.

She crawled out of the thicket of honey locusts and returned to the messenger who’d shown her the way. “We have enemy contact. Have someone prepare my rifles, then go find Major Gustar. He and Colonel Styke have an enemy vanguard to crush.”


To read chapter two, click here.

Wrath of Empire is book two in Gods of Blood and Powder. To check out book one, Sins of Empire, click here.

To pre-order Wrath of Empire, click here.