A cotton silk plantation,
Barony of Dairwyn,
League of Corisande

“So, they’re finally on the move,” Sir Koryn Gahrvai murmured.

He stood on the shady veranda of the cotton silk-planter’s house his staff had commandeered for his headquarters. The house — obviously that of a wealthy man — was finely furnished, if on the small side for the headquarters of an entire army. On the other hand, a back corner of his mind reflected, his “army” was on the small side for anything one of the great mainland realms like Harchong or Siddarmark would have used that particular noun to describe.

And at least Cayleb’s army seems to be even smaller than mine is. That’s something, at any rate.

“How reliable are these reports, Alyk?” he asked in a louder voice, looking up at the handsome, splendidly dressed man standing beside him.

Gahrvai had known Sir Alyk Ahrthyr, the Earl of Windshare, since boyhood. They’d been good friends for many years, and there was no one Gahrvai would rather have at his side in a fight. Unfortunately, for all of his pugnacity and undeniable courage, Windshare wasn’t the most brilliant man Gahrvai had ever met. He took his responsibilities seriously, he had a seemingly boundless store of physical energy, and he was the most superb horseman Gahrvai had ever seen. Give him an enemy across an open field, a saber in his hand, and a troop of cavalry at his back, and he was invincible. He was a little shakier where the reconnaissance and screening aspects of the cavalryman’s profession were concerned, however, and his natural preference when faced by an enemy position was to attack first and figure out what the odds had been for his after-battle report. On the other hand, he’d taken enough hard knocks to be aware of his own weaknesses.

“I think they’re very reliable,” he said now. “My lead regiment’s had them under observation since they left Dairos. We haven’t been able to keep scouting parties operating along their flanks since they headed into the woods, but we’re still falling slowly back in contact with their advance guard. From the route they’ve taken so far, they’re definitely headed for Talbor Pass. And you were right, they don’t seem to have much cavalry of their own.” Windshare sniffed. “If it came down to a straight fight between my troopers and theirs, we’d be done before lunch.”

“But it isn’t going to do that, is it, Alyk?” Gahrvai asked, and Windshare shook his head gloomily.

“Probably not. Although,” the earl brightened noticeably, “if you and Charlz manage to break their formations, my lads and I will be delighted to finish them off for you.”

Gahrvai smiled, but the smile faded into a frown as he considered one, in particular, of the dispatches Windshare’s cavalry screen had sent back to him.

“What do you make of this, Charlz?” he asked the man lounging back in a commandeered chair on the other side of the improvised map table. Gahrvai tapped the offending dispatch with an index finger, and the other man shrugged.

“Pretty much what you do, I expect,” Sir Charlz Doyal said.

He was several years older than Gahrvai or Windshare, and he owed his present position to the fact that he was one of Prince Hektor’s favorites. On the other hand, he’d become one of the prince’s favorites because of his penchant for accomplishing difficult tasks. The tall, rangy, dark-haired Doyal was more noted for indolence than physical hardihood, but he had all of the intellectual sharpness Windshare often seemed to lack. His role as Gahrvai’s senior artillery officer suited him well, and between the two of them, he and Windshare normally formed a remarkably effective sounding board for Gahrvai’s strategy sessions.

He was also, however, unfortunately fond of the occasional cryptic comment, and Gahrvai made a rude gesture in his direction.

“Perhaps you’d care to be a bit more specific?” he suggested.

“It’s exactly what your father discussed with us,” Doyal said with a shrug. “We went for the short-barreled guns; from what Alyk’s scouts are telling us, the Charisians went for longer tubes. It doesn’t sound like their field guns are built to exactly the same pattern as naval guns; the barrel length is too short for that, assuming the scouts’ estimates are accurate. But they’re longer than ours are, and that means they’re going to outrange us, that’s for sure. Whether that range advantage is going to make up for how much lighter their shot are going to be is more than I could tell you at this point, though. There’s simply no way to know before we start actually shooting at one another, unfortunately.”

“You’re right; that is what I was thinking,” Gahrvai admitted.

“Koryn, I know I always prefer going straight ahead and damn the consequences,” Windshare said. “And I know that more than once I’ve managed to land myself up to my arse in slash lizards by doing just that. But I’ve got to say, they’re coming to us on our terms. I think we’ve got to hit them, and hit them hard.”

Gahrvai nodded. Windshare’s awareness of his own weaknesses, as well as his strengths, was one of the better things about him. And he was right — his tendency to charge straight ahead had led him to the very brink of disaster more than once. Not just on fields of battle, either, and Gahrvai’s lips tried to twitch into a smile despite the seriousness of the current moment as he recalled some of the dashing earl’s other misadventures. Windshare’s rakish good looks, added to his . . . impetuosity and taste for the ladies, had led to at least one duel (fortunately without any fatalities on either side) and generally kept him in constant hot water for as long as anyone could remember. Indeed, there’d been occasions in their shared youth when he’d very nearly taken Gahrvai into amorous disaster with him, as well.

But this time Alyk had a point, Gahrvai thought. The whole reason for advancing this far from the Dark Hills was to attack the Charisian invaders as quickly and as vigorously as he could and, if possible, drive them straight back into the sea.

Of course, another reason for attacking them is to find out just how badly we’ve underestimated whatever new capabilities they’ve developed for their Marines, as well as their navy, he reflected.

He looked back down at the map. He’d advanced with no more than a third of his total force, and he wondered again if he’d been wise to do so. The problem was that the roads through the Dark Hill Mountains weren’t very good. That was especially true of the smaller, flanking roads, and while the royal highway itself wasn’t too bad, there was a distinct limit to the number of troops which could be moved rapidly along it without using those flanking roads. Worse, that cramped cluster of roads was his only really reliable supply line, as well, now that Dairos was firmly in Charisian hands. He could probably have gotten a larger percentage of his forces forward, but only at the expense of making it extraordinarily difficult to keep them fed and supplied with ammunition and weapons once he had them deployed.

Not to mention just how ugly things could get if that many men suddenly found themselves trying to retreat simultaneously. He gave a mental shudder as he imagined the scenes of chaos, congestion, and panic which were all too likely to ensue under those circumstances. But does worrying about what would happen if I have to retreat mean I’m going into battle already half-defeated in my own mind? Is thinking about it prudence or cowardice?