It was amazing all the ways a man could find to doubt and second-guess himself. And whatever the limitations of the roadways in his own rear might be, the road over which the Charisians were currently advancing was even worse, in many ways. So if they were the ones who had to retreat . . . .

“I think you’re right, Alyk,” he heard himself saying. “And if they’re kind enough to keep coming to meet us, especially without an adequate cavalry screen of their own, then I think we should plan on greeting them right about here.”

He tapped a symbol on the map, then bent closer to peer at the name.

“Haryl’s Crossing,” he read aloud.

“Ah?” Doyal climbed out of his chair and leaned forward, studying the map.

The town Gahrvai had selected wasn’t very large. Its total population, including the outlying farm families, probably didn’t exceed four thousand, and many of them had found urgent reasons to be elsewhere once armies began heading in their direction. It sat directly on the Talbor River, which flowed out of the mountain gap of the same name, where the royal highway crossed the stream on a stone bridge. The artillerist considered the terrain east of the river thoughtfully for several seconds, then nodded.

“It looks reasonable to me,” he agreed. “This might be a bit of a problem if things don’t go smoothly, though.”

He indicated the single stone bridge.

“There’s what looks like a fairly big wooden bridge down here, to the south, at Haryl’s Priory,” Gahrvai countered, waving his finger at another map symbol, this one representing a substantial monastery. It lay south of Haryl’s Crossing and on the western side of the river, where the foothills of the Dark Hill Mountains began to rise. “There are fords north of the priory, as well, according to the map, at any rate.”

“Let me see it,” Windshare requested. He bent over the map, lips pursed, then looked back up at Gahrvai.

“I’ve got a report somewhere about this wooden bridge,” he said. “It’s not in very good shape, if I’m remembering correctly. We could probably get infantry across it, but only a lunatic would try to take cavalry or artillery across. On the other hand, I think my scouts also indicated that the river is pretty shallow along here, where the map shows your fords. I know we could get cavalry across even without the bridge, although I wouldn’t want to make any promises about infantry without doublechecking. And we definitely don’t want to take any of Charlz’ artillery across this thing.”

“Do any of Sir Farahk’s militiamen know the area well enough to provide us with more information?” Doyal asked.

“I can check,” Windshare replied. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they do, though. They’ve been remarkably helpful so far.”

The earl sounded almost bemused, as if he still found it peculiar that the Baron of Dairwyn’s men had been so useful. Gahrvai wondered if part of that was because of how . . . unsoldier-like the baron’s militia were. They were obviously civilians who intended to go back to being civilians as soon as they possibly could, and they didn’t care who knew it. At least equally obviously, some of them, like the inhabitants of Haryl’s Crossing, would have preferred to be somewhere else. Anywhere else, if it came to that. But they appeared to feel a degree of loyalty to their baron which was rarely seen, and their assistance not simply as guides, but as go-betweens for the army and the local farmers, as well, had been invaluable. No farmer ever really wanted to see an army — any army — marching through his district, and unhappy locals could create all sorts of problems if they put their minds to it. So far, at least, the ability of Dairwyn’s men to put a friendly face on Gahrvai’s army had kept that sort of thing from happening. Whether it would remain effective once the two sides came to grips and combat started turning fertile fields into wastelands was an entirely different question, of course.

And one to which the answer is almost certainly “no,” Gahrvai thought sourly.

“I’m sure they’ll have some useful additional information,” he said aloud. “Please do check with them.”

Windshare nodded, and Gahrvai returned his attention to the map.

“I take your point about the bridge, Charlz,” he said reflectively, folding his arms while he contemplated the terrain once more. “And fighting with a river in your rear is usually considered a bad idea, even when you don’t have to worry about getting artillery across a single bridge. Still, if we take up a position on this side of the river, then whoever’s in command over there is going to stop on his side and send back for reinforcements. Which means we’d have to fight our way across the river to get at him.”

“It also means he’d have to fight his way across to get at us,” Doyal pointed out. “And the longer he stays put out here, the longer your father and Prince Hektor have to get more troop strength transferred to us.”

“Unless Cayleb decides to just sit here with a part of his army and demonstrate how determined he is to attack us while he’s actually loading all the rest of his troops back aboard his transports to strike directly at Manchyr,” Gahrvai replied. “And as for getting more troops to us, how are we going to feed and supply them all through Talbor Pass? That’s over twenty-five miles of narrow road and bottlenecks, especially as you get towards the eastern end. We could feed our entire army through the western half, but I doubt we could support more than thirty thousand men on this side of the mountains. Not if they’re going to have to sit in one place for very long, at any rate. We’d run out of forage pretty quickly, and somehow I don’t think even Baron Dairwyn would be able to keep the local farmers friendly once we’ve eaten all their cattle, trampled all their crops, and emptied all their granaries.”