Wrath of Empire by Brian McClellan: Chapter Two

To read the prologue, click here.

To read chapter one, click here.


Wrath of Empire

Chapter Two

Ben Styke sat at the crest of a hill, his scarred face turned toward the morning sun, the ground damp and cool beneath him. He leaned against his saddle while his warhorse, Amrec, grazed nearby. The sun warmed Styke’s bones, allowed him to test the limits imposed upon him by old wounds. He squeezed a handful of pebbles to strengthen the tendons in his arm that had once been cut, then healed, by sorcery.

A little girl, Celine, played on a crumbling dry-stone wall. She skipped from stone to stone, barely seeming to pay her surroundings any mind until one stone slipped out from beneath her and she switched feet deftly, finding purchase before she could fall. She continued down the wall a hundred yards or so and turned around, doubling her speed for the trip back.

Somewhere over the nearby hills was Lady Vlora Flint—Styke’s new commanding officer—along with her tiny mercenary army and hundreds of thousands of refugees from Landfall. Styke kept his own men away from the column, preferring to flank the refugees and handle the scouting. Refugees weren’t his problem. Killing—when it had to be done—was.

Styke squeezed the pebbles until a bead of sweat trickled down his forehead. He searched the back of his mind for his birthday—one of the many things forgotten after so long in the labor camps—and decided he was just a few months away from his forty-sixth. Almost old enough to be Celine’s grandfather. Certainly old enough to be her real father, if he’d gotten a late start.

Celine reached the end of the wall nearby and leapt to the grass. She wasn’t wearing shoes, despite having two new pairs, and her jacket and loose trousers were muddy from three weeks on the road. She had a girl’s long hair and a soft face, but her bearing left her mistaken for a boy more times than not. She was at once skittish and confident, the daughter of a thief and toughened by years in the labor camps.

She grasped Amrec fearlessly by the bridle, stroking his nose. He snorted at her, but did not kick her to oblivion as he would anyone else so daring.

Styke discarded the pebbles and brushed the grit from his hands. The release of pressure on his tendons made him swallow a gasp, and he took a deep breath before calling to Celine.

“How do you decide which stone to step on?” he asked her.

Celine seemed surprised by the question. She left Amrec and came over to Styke’s side, throwing herself down against the saddle in the mock exaggeration of a tired soldier. She was, Styke decided, spending too much time with the Lancers. Not that that would change any time soon.

“I just step on whichever one looks secure.”

“And how do you know which is secure?”

“I just know,” Celine said with a small shrug.

“Hm. Think, girl,” Styke replied. “Think about how you know.”

Celine opened her mouth, closed it again, and furrowed her brow. “I don’t step on the flat ones. They’re the worst, because they wobble. The ones that are shaped like…” She made a triangle with her hands.

“Like a wedge?” Styke urged.

Her face brightened. “Yeah, like a wedge. Those are the strongest, because they rest on two other stones.”

“Very good.” Styke searched in his saddlebag and found a bag of wrapped caramels that he’d discovered while looting a Blackhat supply depot before leaving Landfall. He placed one in Celine’s hand.

Celine regarded the sweet seriously before looking up at Styke. “Why does it matter? Didn’t you tell me that instinct is a Lancer’s best weapon? That’s what I use to find the stones, isn’t it?”

Styke considered his answer and glanced down the hill. Far below them, several hundred Lancers practiced drills on horseback, riding back and forth across the small valley until it was a muddy cesspit. He listened to the shouts of his officers as they barked corrections and orders. “Instinct is just a word we use to describe all the little bits of information your senses collect, and how your brain interprets them. Instincts can be improved.”

“So, when you make me inter…inter…”

“Interpret.”

“Interpret my instincts, you’re exercising my brain? Like what you’re doing with your wrists?”

Styke grunted, stifling a smirk. “You’re a clever little shit, you know that?”

“Ibana says that’s why you like me,” Celine responded, sticking her chin in the air.

“Ibana says a lot of things. Most of them are bullshit.” Styke climbed to his feet, leaning down to tousle Celine’s hair, then turning a critical eye on the Lancers training down below. The training lasted hours each day as Ibana whipped old Lancers and new recruits alike into shape. Both men and horses had to be trained, and Styke didn’t know of any army on this continent that drilled as hard as the Mad Lancers.

But that’s part of what made them the best.

Styke felt an ache deep in his back, in his thighs, and in his shoulders. He took a few breaths and stretched. There was a time when he was just shy of seven feet tall, and not a man in Fatrasta would have looked him in the eye. He was the biggest, strongest, and meanest—a hero of the Fatrastan revolution with a lover in every town between the coasts.

Now he was a broken man, and though mended by sorcery he was still bent from years in the labor camps, gnarled from wounds left by the firing squad.

“I’m still Ben Styke,” he whispered to himself. He thought about going down there, participating in the drills. He was out of practice himself, and he’d had Amrec for less than a month. Any warhorse big enough to carry Styke would need plenty of time learning the maneuvers of a Lancer battalion. But that could wait. Half the Lancers were old comrades, gathered from Landfall before it ended up in the hands of the Dynize. The other half were raw recruits. Best to remain aloof, and let Ibana train them on the legend of Mad Ben Styke, rather than see the broken soul he’d become.

He turned to find Celine staring at the side of his face—at the scar where a bullet had bounced off his cheekbone a decade ago. Celine had grown bold since leaving the labor camps at his side. She was bigger, stronger; responding well to a healthy diet. In ten years she would be a stout woman with fists of iron, and Styke pitied the men who might think her an easy tail to chase.

“Ibana says not to let you feel sorry for yourself.”

Styke narrowed his eyes at Celine. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“She says you’re not as strong as you once were, and she catches you staring at your hands all the time. She says self-pity makes you a dog, and she needs you to be a man.”

What the pit was Ibana doing telling all this to a little girl? Styke’s little girl, particularly. “Ibana needs to shut her bloody mouth.”

Celine stretched out against Amrec’s saddle and stared up at the sky. “The boys have been telling me stories about you during the war.”

“Shit.” Styke sighed. As much as he tried to avoid it, Celine had become something of a favorite in the camp. Everyone who’d lost a daughter or a cousin or a sister back during the war took it upon themselves to tell her stories and “raise her up right.” Aloof or not, Styke was going to have to start cracking heads.

“Did you really kill a Warden with your bare hands?”

Styke snorted. “I told you that story.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t believe it before. I thought you were making stuff up. My da used to make stuff up all the time so his friends thought he was tough. But Jackal said you did kill a Warden. Did you?”

“I did. Broke his back, then cut his throat.”

Celine nodded seriously, as if this were the response she expected. “Then Ibana’s right. You shouldn’t pity yourself. You’re too strong to pity yourself.”

“Okay,” Styke said, pushing her off his saddle with one toe. “That’s it. I’m not letting you spend time with Ibana anymore. Or Jackal. Or Sunin. I don’t need everyone thinking they can heal me. I’m fine.” His final insistence rang a little too forceful, even to his ears. “That was over ten years ago. You weren’t even a twinkle in your daddy’s eye back then. I’m not strong enough to kill a Warden anymore. People change. That’s the nature of life.”

“You killed a dragonman. I saw the body after.”

Styke looked down at his hands. If he focused hard enough, he could still feel the slick, warm blood up to his elbows, the bits of brain between his knuckles. “Yeah,” he said uncertainly. The memory felt like a dream. “I did, didn’t I?” He shook his head. “All right, enough of this. Help me get Amrec’s saddle on him. He and I need to go through some paces before Ibana lets everyone go for the day.”

Styke was tightening the straps on the saddle while Celine fed Amrec an apple, when he heard the sound of approaching hooves. He looked up to find Major Gustar, commander of Lady Flint’s cuirassier and dragoon companies. Gustar rode with the comfortable slouch of a natural horseman, and he gave Amrec an appreciative glance as he reined in. “Afternoon, Colonel.”

Gustar was a tall man, thin and bow-legged with the shoulders of a saber-swinging cuirassier. He had brown hair, perfectly trimmed muttonchops , and a clean-shaven face. He struck Styke as the type of man who’d joined the cavalry to impress women and was surprised to find he was a capable officer.

“Gustar. Word from Lady Flint?”

“Indeed. We’ve spotted a Dynize vanguard.”

“How large?”

“Five hundred. Mixed horse and infantry.”

“Any idea what kind of an army is coming up behind them?”

“We do. Five brigades of infantry, and they’re marching recklessly fast. Flint expects to engage them this evening.”

Styke played with his big Lancers’ ring, looking down toward the drilling Lancers. The words to an old Lancers’ hymn came to him, and he sang under his breath, “Ride, Lancers, ride, through the meadows, against the tide. Let your hooves ring, steel ring; break your lances, break their bones, break their spirit against the stones.” He took a deep breath. “What are our orders?”

“You have command of me and my cavalry again. Lady Flint is preparing a welcome for the Dynize. We’re to crush their vanguard and then sweep their eastern flank to keep their scouts from seeing her preparations.”

“Cavalry?”

“Not that we’ve seen. We suspect that their horses are simply what they could scrounge from Landfall.”

Styke smirked. “We took all the good ones when we left. They’ll have nothing but fourth-rate mounts. You said they’ll be here this evening?”

“That’s what we expect.”

Styke looked up. It was still early in the morning, but he could tell it would be a pleasant day. It was hot, but not too hot, and the humidity was bearable. As good a day as any for killing. “Ride, Lancers ride,” he sang to himself. Louder, to Gustar, he said, “Pass on the orders to Ibana. We head out within the hour.”

#

Styke and Celine watched the arrival of the Riflejack cavalry—a force of over a thousand that included a few hundred cuirassiers in their steel breastplates and bear-skin hats, along with a larger contingent of dragoons, all riding under the Riflejacks’ flag of a shako over crossed rifles. Styke waited until they had streamed into the Mad Lancers’ camp and then rode down to join them.

He found his second-in-command, Ibana je Fles, standing next to a makeshift headquarters—a tent flying the skull-and-lance of the Mad Lancers—issuing orders and reviewing inventory reports. Major Gustar stood nearby, his jacket resting loosely over his shoulders, hand on the butt of his saber, eyeing his men in silence. Styke lowered Celine from the saddle and followed her down, tying Amrec to a post before heading over to join the officers.

Ibana finished with a set of reports and handed them off to a soldier. “Flint has no idea how big that Dynize army is, and she’s still preparing to dig in and fight.”

“I don’t think she has much of a choice,” Styke responded, nodding to Gustar. “She can withdraw and let them ravage the refugees, or she can pick her ground.” He asked Gustar, “What’s this surprise she’s preparing for them?”

“No idea. All I know is we need to keep them from getting a good look at her formations.”

“Do they have cavalry beyond those in the vanguard?”

Gustar spread his hands. “Sorry.”

“Pit. We need better information than this.”

Ibana snorted. “Yeah, well. This whole venture was your idea. So what do we do?”

“How are the new recruits?” Styke responded with his own question.

“They’ll do.” Ibana sucked on her teeth. “I’d like another three months to train them, but that’s not going to happen.

Gustar gestured toward her. “Same here. We’ve been trying to fill out our numbers from Adran ex-pats and retired cavalry officers among the refugees. They’re a willing bunch, but very rusty.”

Like Ibana said, they would have to do. Almost a third of their number would be green or out-of-practice riders with just a few weeks of training under their belts. “Make a buddy system,” he said.

“A what?” Ibana replied.

“A buddy system.” Styke smiled grimly. “They used to do that in the labor camps when a new batch of prisoners came in. Pair one of the new guys with two or three old hands. The old convicts were responsible for the new—teach them the ropes, the guard signals, the schedule.”

“And that worked?” Ibana asked doubtfully.

“Seemed to. I knew the camp quartermaster, and she said the buddy system extended life expectancy and reduced injuries.” He tapped his finger on the side of his leg thoughtfully, fiddling with his big Lancers’ ring. “Of course, every once in a while the old convicts would just murder the new one for his shoes.”

“That,” Major Gustar said, “is not reassuring.”

Styke ignored him. “We do as we’re told. Smash the vanguard and then go looking for trouble.” He pictured a mental map of the area, considering the refugees, the river, and Flint’s forces. “The river is too deep for them to flank us, but they may send scouts. Gustar, I want you to take a hundred and fifty of your dragoons and sweep the west bank. Keep eyes off of Flint.”

“Yes, sir.”

Styke flexed his fingers, feeling that twinge in his wrist. He wasn’t the young, strapping cavalry officer he’d once been. But he was the best Flint was going to get. “Ibana, take the rest of the Riflejacks down the road. I’ll swing wide with the Lancers and we’ll hit that vanguard before they know what’s happening.”

#

Styke walked among the dead on the banks of the Hadshaw after a short, bloody battle. The Dynize vanguard had tried to withdraw when they saw the Riflejacks bearing down, and had run straight into the Lancers. Some fled, some fought, but he’d caught them all in his pincer movement and they’d been ground into dust in an appalling slaughter.

He searched through the corpses until he found his lance, buried through the chest of a Dynize scout. The scout was a middle-aged woman, and her eyes shot open when Styke grasped the handle of his lance. She made a deep sucking sound, her mouth bubbling blood. She tried to reach toward him. He drew his boz knife and ended her suffering with a single stroke before reclaiming his lance, leaving the body where it lay.

He wiped the gore off the tip and examined the corpses of the vanguard. The horsemen wore turquoise uniforms and carried a light kit with nothing more than a knife and an outdated carbine for defense—they were nothing more than scouts. The infantry still carried the same short bayonets that they’d used in the assault on Landfall and had been unprepared for a flanking maneuver by cavalry. Styke was unsurprised to see only a few bodies belonging to Riflejack dragoons, and none to his Lancers.

Ibana approached on horseback, her roan picking its way through the bodies with an almost dainty affection. “We got them all,” she reported. “It’ll take the main Dynize army a few hours to figure out something is wrong. I’ve got boys set up all along the road to ambush any messengers who come looking for the vanguard.”

Styke lifted his eyes from his lance and looked across the river, where a small group of dragoons hugged the shoreline and cleaned up the handful of Dynize who’d braved the depths of the river to flee. He tapped his ring against the lance, frowning. “Why do I feel uneasy?”

“Too clean of a kill?” Ibana suggested. “They barely put up a fight.”

Styke grunted an answer and put his lance over his shoulder and headed back to where Amrec stood nibbling at the grass on the riverbank. He patted Amrec’s nose, speaking over his shoulder. “Gather the horses. Send any prisoners back to Flint. She’ll want to interrogate them. I think that…,” he trailed off, turning around to examine the field of slaughter.

The dead lay scattered in a radius of about ninety yards. Riderless horses had already been captured by attentive Lancers, though some had fled in the confusion.

Ibana seemed to sense something was amiss. “What is it?”

Styke climbed into Amrec’s saddle and searched among his own men until he found Sunintiel—an ancient woman who looked like she’d be unhorsed by a breeze. Celine sat behind Sunin in the saddle, and waved when Styke gestured her over to a captured Dynize horse.

“Tell me what’s wrong with this horse,” Styke said when the two approached. Sunin opened her mouth, but Styke made a shushing motion. “Celine.”

The girl’s forehead wrinkled. “Nothing is wrong with it,” she said.

“Its health is fine, sure,” Styke said. “But what about it is out of place?”

By this time several of his officers had arrived. Looks of understanding began to dawn on their faces. They remained silent. Celine glanced around nervously. Styke watched her trying to work out the solution. “Don’t worry about them. Worry about that horse. What can you tell me about it?”

“Small,” she said. “Probably pretty quick. Not particularly strong. It was spooked by the battle. By the hindquarters I’d say it was bred for endurance over other qualities.”

Proud smirks spread among the officers, and Styke had no doubt each of them would take credit for teaching Celine about horses. But he knew where she really learned it, and stifled his own smile. “What kind is it?”

“It might…” She hesitated. “It might be a Unice desert racer. But I haven’t seen a horse with those markings before.”

“Neither have I,” Styke said. “Neither has any of us.” He swung down from Amrec and gave the captured horse a quick walk-around, treating it to a whisper and a light touch to calm its nerves. He returned to Amrec and pulled himself into the saddle. “I’ll bet my saddle this is a Dynisian.” Mutters followed the proclamation.

“I’ve never heard of that,” Celine said.

“That’s because the Dynize have been a closed nation for over a hundred years, and before that they weren’t exactly friendly.” Styke searched his memory. “Supposedly, Dynisians were bred for, as you said, endurance. They’re an all-purpose horse, meant to be docile, obedient, generic, and easily interchangeable. Just about every Fatrastan breed has a bit of Dynisian in them, going back to when the Dynize actually ruled this damned place.”

“So, what’s so special about this one?” Celine asked.

“Nothing more than any of the others,” Styke said, gesturing toward a group of Lancers attempting to run down riderless horses up on the ridge.

Ibana snorted. “We don’t have time for this, Ben. Tell the girl what you’re getting at.”

“Right, right,” Styke said. He stretched his fingers and adjusted his lance before climbing back into Amrec’s saddle. “A Dynisian here means that the Dynize have cavalry—they’re not just using scrounged fourth-rate Fatrastan horses.” He meditated on the possibilities for a moment. “We’re not just sweeping for scouts, now. We’re looking for an enemy cavalry force, and we have no idea how big it will be.” He looked around at his officers. “Strip the bodies of anything useful.”

They were on the move again within fifteen minutes. Captured horses trailed behind their column, and Styke made sure that his “buddy system” was still in place. They’d had more injuries during that quick battle from green riders getting fingers caught in the reins than they had from actual enemy combatants, and he needed to keep those kinds of accidents to a minimum.

They headed east away from the river, then cut south to flank it, being sure to keep at least two hills between themselves and the river valley at all times. His own scouting parties fanned out to watch for contact with the enemy army.

Styke couldn’t help but shake a feeling of uneasiness. He shouldn’t be surprised by Dynize cavalry, not really. Lancers would make quick work of any force riding Dynisian mounts. So what was bothering him? The prospect of greater numbers? Disappointment that he had more to worry about than flanking enemy infantry?

He was still pondering this question almost an hour later when Ibana joined him at a gallop.

“We have contact!” she shouted.

Styke snapped out of his reverie. “Where? To the west? From the river?”

“No, south. Directly south!” Ibana was flushed, and she immediately began barking orders.

Styke was about to ask for an explanation when he topped a small rise in the landscape and inhaled sharply. Directly in front of them, riding in their direction, was a wide column of Dynize cavalry. Breastplates shone in the evening sun, and at half a mile he could see that they were armed with sabers and pistols. Their column was spread out, moving at a walk with no real cohesion, and he could see a sudden flurry of excitement ripple through them.

Ibana raised her looking glass to her eye for a moment, then stowed it in her packs with a curse. “They’re as surprised as we are. God damn it, we must have taken out each other’s scouts.”

It didn’t take a genius to realize why they were here. The Dynize cavalry were going to attempt the same thing as the Lancers—flank the enemy. But instead of a handfull of ill-equipped riders on fourth-rate horses, these were Dynize cuirassiers, and there appeared to be almost two thousand of them.

“Orders, sir?” Ibana asked. “We’re outnumbered and have no element of surprise. All things being equal, they’ve got us.”

Styke rocked back and forth in his stirrups. Beneath him, Amrec began to stomp, pawing at the ground in anticipation. Styke had to think quickly. They could outrun the weaker Dynisian horses. But a retreat would only give the Dynize extra ground and the time to assess Styke’s forces. Best-case scenario: Draw them all the way back to the Riflejack infantry and set up some sort of ambush. But Flint could not afford the men to deal with Dynize cavalry. He needed to handle this on his own.

“Orders!” Ibana snapped.

“Send a runner to Flint. Tell her we’ve met a superior force.”

“And?”

“And we have engaged. Split the column. Arrow formation. Lancers will tip, Riflejack cuirassiers just behind. Send our dragoons in two columns to harass their flanks but do not let them engage hand-to-hand.” Styke was beginning to wish he hadn’t sent Gustar and those hundred and fifty extra horses across the river.

“You want us to split into three groups against a superior force? Are you mad?”

“Do you really need to ask? Now, give the orders, Major Fles, or I’ll do it myself.”

Ibana fumed for a few moments. “No withdrawal?”

“No,” Styke loosened his carbine and urged Amrec forward. “We hit them now, and we hit them hard, before they can tighten their formation.” He glanced over his shoulder, to where Jackal rode with the Mad Lancer banner fluttering over him. “With me!” he bellowed.

The orders spread quickly, and the whole group sprang forward, rushing toward the startlingly close Dynize. Styke prodded Amrec faster and faster. Within moments he could see the confused expressions on the enemy’s faces, no doubt wondering why they were being charged by a smaller force.

He knew that confusion, and he knew the doubt that it would sow. Were they about to be flanked? the enemy would wonder. Is a large force about to hit us from just over that ridge? Where are our scout reports?

Styke had no interest in giving them the chance to recover. He breathed deeply, searching with his senses, and could not smell any sorcery on the wind. Good.

At forty yards he fired his carbine, then shoved it into its holster. Powder smoke streamed behind his whole arrow-shaped company, and then hundreds of white lances lowered toward the enemy. A scattering of pistol shots responded from the confused enemy vanguard, before they drew their sabers and attempted to meet the charge.

The concussion of the two lines meeting was audible, and Styke was soon enveloped in the enemy force. The clash of steel surrounded him, powder smoke filling his nostrils. Not even cuirassiers could break a Mad Lancer charge, and their momentum carried them into the heart of the Dynize force before Styke could sense their speed ebbing. He shouted, urging them on, when he felt the jolt of his lance catching something more than flesh.

The tip snagged on the groove of a Dynize breastplate without punching through. The Dynize cavalryman jerked from his saddle, but his reins were wrapped around his wrist and his horse continued to gallop past Styke, pulling its rider—and the tip of Styke’s lance—along with it.

Styke felt the movement, but his twingy hand did not respond quickly enough to drop the lance. He was ripped from the saddle, spinning, and could do nothing but brace himself as the earth rushed up toward him.


To read chapter 3, 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.