Sir Mathian thrust the surgeon roughly away and heaved himself up off the camp stool. The world swooped about him, but at least this time he managed to stay upright, and he lurched to the tied-back flap of the tent someone had managed to erect beside the field surgery. Chaos almost as wild as that inside his head swirled under the torches outside the tent, and he clung doggedly to a tent pole while he made his brain sort the confusion into some sort of order.
It wasn't actually as bad as it looked, he realized slowly. The surgery had been set up in one of the few wider stretches of the Gullet, but there was little room to spare. His men were packed tightly together in what space there was, and the crowd seemed to seethe and flow as messengers and stragglers trying to get back to their units pushed their way through the press. The unsteady light of the torches only made it look even more confused, and he clung to the pole as vertigo washed through him.
"Milord, you must sit back down!" the surgeon protested. "At the very least, you have a concussion, and there may-"
"Be silent!" Mathian rasped. He closed his eyes, and his head pounded as if a dozen dwarves with pickaxes were trapped inside and trying to get out. The force of his command to the surgeon didn't help the pain one bit, but at least the man shut his mouth. That was something, the Lord Warden thought, and opened his eyes once more.
"You-guard!" he called to one of the sentries outside the tent. He didn't recognize the man, but the guard turned at his summons.
"Send Sir Haladhan to me at once!"
"I-" The guard hesitated, glancing at his fellow, then cleared his throat. "I can't, Milord. Sir Haladhan… didn't return from the attack."
Mathian clung even more tightly to the tent pole, staring at the guard, and his eyes burned. Haladhan? Dead? It couldn't be. The gods wouldn't permit it! But as he stared out into the torchlight and the chorus of scream-shot moans from the surgery washed over him, he knew the gods would permit it. Deep inside, part of him recognized that the attack on the hradani's fort had been no more than a skirmish compared to the slaughter of a major battle. But that recognition meant nothing at this moment. It had been Mathian's first taste of real combat, and the brutality and savagery of it had turned all his dreams of triumphant glory and vengeance for his father into cruel mockeries. He had never before known such terror, never imagined such horror, and now he'd lost Haladhan, as well.
But he may not be dead. He may still be alive out there… and is that any better?
He shuddered, picturing his cousin writhing on the rocky floor of the Gullet, sobbing while he clutched at the crossbow bolt buried in his belly or the sword slash which had spilled his intestines in the dirt. Or, worse, screaming as the hradani avenged their own losses by torturing the wounded.
Yet even as imagination tormented him, he realized he had to do something. A craven voice in the back of his brain urged him to listen to the surgeon, to sit back down and surrender to the man's ministrations, using his injury to hide from his responsibilities. It was tempting, that voice, yet he dared not heed it. He was Lord Warden of Glanharrow, and he was the one whose orders had brought all these men here. However right or wrong the decision had been, it had been his, and if he was to retain any ability to command them in the future, he could not show weakness now.
"Very well," he told the guard who was still staring at him. "What of Sir Festian?"
"He's with the surgeons, Milord." Mathian looked up sharply, but the guard shook his head reassuringly. "It's only a broken arm, Milord. He's having it set."
"Good." Mathian rubbed his forehead, jaw clenched against the pain. "Ask him to join me here as soon as he can. And pass the word to the other captains. I'll want to speak to them as soon as Sir Festian and I have conferred."
"Yes, Milord!" The guard saluted and hurried off into the confusion, and Mathian allowed the insistent surgeon to at least get him to sit back down.
"That's the best we can do for them, I'm afraid," Kaeritha said.
She and Vaijon sat with Bahzell, and all of them clutched hot mugs of tea. Bahzell blinked, struggling with the aftermath of healing the wounded, and nodded. Vaijon said nothing. It was the first time he had ever touched the healing power Tomanak granted his champions, and the aftereffects had hit him harder than his more experienced companions. He'd done well, though, Bahzell thought, reaching out to rest one hand on the youngster's shoulder. Vaijon looked up, half-dazed but blue eyes glowing with the joy of bringing life, not death, and Bahzell squeezed. Then he looked at Kaeritha.
"Aye, I'm afraid you've the right of it," he said. He didn't like the admission, but if they expended any more strength on healing, they would be useless if the Sothoii launched another assault. A part of him felt guilty for having seen to their own worst wounded before turning to the enemy. He knew some of the hradani they'd healed would have survived unaided while many of the Sothoii they had not healed would die, yet they'd had no choice. They needed every man they had-on his feet and ready to fight, not lying wounded in his blankets-and it hadn't been their decision to launch this attack.
"D'you think they'll come at us again?" a voice asked, and he turned his head to find Brandark at his side.
"I've no idea at all, at all," he said after a moment. "I'd not try it again before dawn in their boots, assuming I was wanting to try again at all."
"They might try under cover of darkness," Kaeritha pointed out. "They could creep in a lot closer, and they might think they could surprise us."
"Aye, so they might," another voice rumbled. Hurthang loomed out of the darkness and seated himself on a boulder beside her. "But we're talking of Sothoii here, Kerry, and for all that young fool as 'parleyed' with us isn't after having the sense the gods gave idiot geese, there's bound to be some older heads over yonder. And if there are, then they'll know as how hradani see nigh as well as cats in the dark. They'll not surprise us by creeping up unseen, come what may, lass."
"Which isn't to be saying they won't try," Bahzell said, "and from all I've had the hearing of, this Mathian of Glanharrow's fool enough to try almost anything. Still and all, I'm thinking you've the right of it, Hurthang. We'll be keeping a sharp eye on them, but if they've a brain in their heads, they'll wait on light for their archers to be seeing by."
"We should attack again now, while they're still licking their wounds!" Mathian insisted, and Festian turned from where he'd stood watching the surgeons through the tent doorway. His broken arm throbbed-he'd almost passed out twice while the bonesetter splinted it-and he felt as if the sobs of the wounded were a dark and restless sea on which he drifted.
"We hurt the bastards-I know we did-and there were fewer of them to begin with," Mathian went on. "And we've our own wounded to think about, lying out there where those butchers can get at them. We have to rescue them. And-"
"Milord, shut up."
The older knight spoke with cold, bitter precision, and the three words cut Mathian off like a sabre blow. The Lord Warden stared at the man who'd become his senior officer with Haladhan's disappearance, and his mouth worked like a beached carp's. The combination of his concussion and the open contempt in Festian's voice left him momentarily bereft of words, and the scout commander forged ahead into his silence.
"If there's a single thing you haven't done wrong, Milord, I can't think what it might be," the older man told him in a flat, biting voice that hurt far worse than any shouted imprecations. "Even leaving aside whether or not you've acted within the law, or whether or not you've set us all on a direct course for the Order of Tomanak to invoke the Sword God's edict against us, you and that other young fool have managed to commit us to an attack under the worst circumstances you could possibly have arranged. I warned you not to come down the Gullet, but you wouldn't listen. I warned Sir Haladhan that there was a reason the hradani decided to fight here, but the two of you had to charge ahead-on foot!-and find out how defensible that position is the hard way."
"But-" Mathian tried to interrupt, but Festian cut him off with a savage chop of his good hand. No doubt the shock of his own injury had something to do with his tirade, but gods it felt good to finally speak his mind to this fool!
"I haven't finished, Milord," he went on with that same, cutting levelness. "As I was about to say, if you insist on pressing this attack at all, then for Tomanak's sake-" his eyes glinted as Mathian flinched visibly at that name "-wait for daylight! The Horse Stealers are infantry; we're not. They're armed and armored to fight on foot; we aren't. If we try to take that pile of rocks away from them with head-on assaults, they'll massacre us, because we'll be fighting their kind of fight, not ours. Oh, we can do it, Milord, but you've already lost upwards of four hundred in dead, wounded, and-maybe-prisoners. We'll find that hard enough to explain to Baron Tellian without doubling or trebling the butcher's bill. And the only way to avoid doing that is to use our bows. If you insist on continuing this attack, then for the gods' sake at least stand off and lace them with arrows for an hour or two! Mount a few false attacks to pull them up onto the wall, then fall back and let the archers shoot them in the face. Do whatever you have to, but don't send in another Sharna-damned charge without whittling them down first!"
Mathian bit his lip as fury mixed with the pain throbbing through the bones of his skull. How dared Festian speak to him with such cold contempt? Yet under the anger and the pain was the cold knowledge that Festian was the least of his worries. Even the minor lords who'd stayed loyal to him when Kelthys split his forces had to be shocked by their losses. Many were no older or experienced than he himself had been. They'd expected him to lead them to a quick, sharp victory-just as he had expected to do-and their failure to crush the hradani with their first rush must have stunned them almost as badly as their casualties had. No doubt they were thinking long and hard right now about their decison to follow him into what might, technically, be construed as treason. If he forced a break with Festian, his own senior officer, by insisting on mounting another attack immediately, he could lose all of them. But if he didn't do something to assert his authority and show he had command of the situation, he'd lose them anyway!
Give it up, a little voice whispered. The whole thing's turned into a disaster. If you don't give it up, it's only going to get worse. Kelthys has already betrayed your trust in him-and taken those other gutless worms with him. And Haladhan-
He shied away from thoughts of his cousin once more, and his jaw tightened. He had committed himself to this attack. He hadn't precisely defied Tellian to launch it, but he'd clearly done so on his own authority, and that could have dire consequences when the baron learned of it. The only thing that could possibly justify his actions was success. He had to break into Bahnak's rear and create sufficient havoc to smash the Horse Stealer's efforts to unite all the northern hradani under his banner. If he did that-or even if he only committed the rest of the West Riding's knights and armsmen to doing it-the Court faction which favored intervention would protect him. But if he let a handful of hradani bog him down while the rest of his force splintered-
But what if they are the Order of Tomanak ? a traitor trickle of thought demanded. You're getting in deeper and deeper, you fool. It seemed so simple and exciting-so easy-when you and Haladhan played at plotting, didn't it? But it's not simple, and Haladhan's probably dead, and those fucking hradani are down there laughing at you!
"Very well, Sir Festian," he heard himself say flatly. "We'll do as you suggest. Summon the other captains, and I'll inform them that we will attack again at dawn."
"Well, it looks like you and Hurthang were right." Bahzell turned his head as Vaijon stepped up onto the firing step beside him, and the young champion smiled crookedly at him. "They are going to wait for dawn."
"So it seems." Bahzell looked at the eastern sky. Only the very faintest hint of gray had crept into it, but the lip of the Escarpment was a bolder, blacker bar than it had been. Another forty minutes, he thought. Maybe an hour, at the outside.
He looked back down into Charhan's Despair. Hurthang and Gharnal had done their best to protect the wounded, hradani and human alike, from the arrow storm they all knew would soon be unleashed. Thirty-seven of the Order's hundred and twenty warriors lay dead, with another six too badly hurt to fight, and Hurthang had used the shields of the fallen to cobble up a sort of shield-roofed lean-to. Gharnal had supervised the movement of the wounded men into its protection, and the confused expressions of the nineteen Sothoii had put a grim smile on his face. Clearly none of the humans knew what to make of the care their captors had taken for their safety.
"I'm wondering if I should be sending you and Kerry out for another parley," Bahzell rumbled. Vaijon raised an eyebrow at him, and the Horse Stealer shrugged. "I'd no mind to try sending anyone out in the middle of the night, lad. It's easy enough to be missing a truce flag in daylight-especially when tempers are after running high. But the two of you are both after being human, and we've hurt the bastards hard." He gazed grimly out over the carpet of bodies, most stiff and cold now, but a few which had been too far out for the hradani to reach without drawing fire still twitching pathetically. "It might just be as the idiots would be listening to reason for a change, now that they're after knowing what the Despair will cost 'em."
"If you say so," Vaijon said dubiously. "I'm willing to try, but if they were going to listen to reason at all, then surely-"
He broke off, wheeling suddenly to stare up the Gullet as a confused welter of bugle calls spiraled into the darkness.
"-and the archers will open fire on Sir Festian's signal," Mathian told his vassals. Some of the faces looking back at him in the torchlight wore doubtful expressions, and he deepened his voice deliberately, trying to ignore the pain still throbbing through his skull.
"We'll let them work on the bastards for twenty minutes or so," he went on, "and then we'll launch a false attack. That should draw them out of any cover they may have found, and the archers will-"
The sudden, silver notes of a bugle cut him off in midsentence. It came from the east, from further up the Gullet, and his belly seemed to fall right out of him as he whirled towards the sound. It couldn't be!
But it was, and Sir Mathian Redhelm, Lord Warden of Glanharrow, felt his last chance to retrieve his fortunes crumble as the bugle sounded the personal call of Baron Tellian of Balthar, Warden of the West Riding, yet again.
Other bugles were sounding, and he heard the confused roar of voices as he stepped out of the tent and stared up the steep slope above his crowded encampment. There were more torches up there than there had been, and he clenched his jaw as a tightly clustered knot of them forged down the slope. Boots sounded behind him, and he looked over his shoulder as Festian came out of the tent to gaze up the Gullet himself. The older knight met his eyes for just a moment, then he looked away, and Mathian felt the last, shattered fragments of his glorious dream fall uselessly from his fingers.