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THIRTY-TWO: Defeat. Defeat. Defeat.

Fahrig. Vorgreberg. Lake Turntine. Staake-Armstead, also called the Battles of the Fords. Trinity Hills, in Altea. The list of battles lost lengthened. Detached legions, supported by Magden Norath's night things, conquered Volstokin and Anstokin. Badalamen, by slim margins, kept overcoming the stubborn resistance of Ragnarson's growing army.

He reinforced his northern spearhead. It drove through Ruderin and curved southward into Korhana and Vorhangs. Haaken Blackfang, with a hasty melange of knights, mercenar-ies, and armed peasants, stopped the drive at Aucone. Ragnerson extricated himself from envelopment in Altea. Badalamen ran a spearhead south, through Tamerice, hoping eventually to meet the northern thrust at the River Scarlotti, behind Bragi.

Reskird Kildragon harried the Tamerice thrust but refused battle. Tamerice's army had been decimated in Ravelin.

Then Badalamen paused to reorganize and refit. He faced Ragnarson across a plain in Cardine just forty miles short of the sea and cutting the west in two.

In the Kapenrungs, Megelin bin Haroun chose to ignore the threat behind him. He launched another campaign against Al Rhemish and El Murid.

"Damn! Damn! Damn!" Ragnarson swore when the news arrived. "Don't he have a lick of sense?" He had counted on Megelin thinking like his father, had anticipated that the Royalists would conduct guerrilla war behind Badalamen's main force.

He sat before his tent with Liakopulos, Visigodred, his son, and officers from most of the nations which had sent troops.

This ragtag army was the biggest gathered since the El Murid Wars.

"I think we've done well," said Liakopulos. Hawkwind and Lauder nodded. "We've managed to keep from being destroyed by the best army in the world."

Lord Hartteoben, an Itaskian observer, agreed. "The persistence of your survival continues to amaze everyone."

"Uhm." Bragi surveyed his army.

It wasn't especially dangerous, despite its size. The demands of constant retreat hadn't given him time to organize and integrate. New contingents had to be thrown in immediately. Often his captains didn't speak the language of their neighbors in the line.

"Why shouldn't he?" Ragnar asked. "El Murid is Shinsan's client now." He stirred the fire with the tip of a crutch. He had been injured at Aucone. Haaken had sent him south to keep him from getting himself killed. He was too impetuous.

"Maybe. But I wish he'd helped us instead. Haroun would've seen that getting El Murid ain't worth a damn if the rest of the west goes."

At least the west now believed an eastern threat existed. But mobilizations hadn't helped yet. A battalion arrived now, a regiment then. Too little relative to the task.

The political question of who should be the supreme commander hadn't yet been posed. That the generals of major nations should be commanded by the Marshall of a country village-state like Ravelin seemed implausible to Ragnarson. He considered Hawkwind the best man. But his allies remained impressed with his ability to evade disaster.

Hawkwind didn't want the job anyway. He had had enough of command politics during the El Murid Wars.

"When'll we see help from Itaskia?" Bragi asked Visigodred. The wizard had been home several times and been able to produce just Lord Hartteoben and another thousand bowmen. Itaskia was husbanding her resources to fight on home ground.

Ragnarson had rebuilt his cavalry advantage. He pressed it mercilessly, compelling the legions to remain close and their allies to stay within the protective umbrella of Badalamen's genius.

Marco and Radeachar hunted and exterminated the creatures of Magden Norath-excepting the savan dalage, the disease without a cure. The Tervola transported them backalmost as fast as Radeachar hauled them away. Varthlokkur and the Unborn tried burying them in caverns on islands in the ocean, but even there the Tervola found them.

Shinsan's sorcerers had to be exterminated before the savan dalage could be solved permanently.

The Tervola wouldn't permit that.

For the time being, then, there was a thaumaturgic impasse.

At least, Bragi thought, if defeated, he would fall to force of arms.

The nearest town was Dichiara. The battle took its name.

It was the nadir of Ragnarson's career.

Badalamen announced himself with drums. Always Shinsan marched to the voice of drums, grumbling directions to legion commanders.

Bragi had had two weeks to prepare, to plan. He was as ready as time permitted.

Varthlokkur, privately, told him, "Back off. The omens aren't right."

Ragnarson remained adamant. "This far and no farther. This's the best position for leagues around. We'll hurt him here."

His army held a rough hill facing a plain on which cavalry could maneuver easily. His bowmen could saturate climbing attackers who survived the horsemen. Once Badalamen came to grips and drove him back, as was inevitable, he would withdraw into woods on the west slope, where Shinsan's tight formations would become less effective. He would re-form beyond the trees.

Attrition. That remained the game. Quick victory was out of the question. He worked against the day the power of the north took arms. Till then he had to stay alive.

His espionage was poorer than he thought.

Badalamen started his first wave.

Bragi, as always, responded with knights. That had worked well in every confrontation. He saw no reason to change.

Badalamen counted on that.

The knights swept over the plain-and into destruction ere striking a blow. Badalamen had cut a trench across his front, by night, and had camouflaged it.

The legions hit the tangle before the riders could extricate themselves. Half the knighthood of the coastal states and the Lesser Kingdoms perished.

Badalamen circled the debacle, rolled toward the hills. Ragnarson began falling back.

"I warned you," Varthlokkur said.

"Warned me, my ass! You could've been specific. Damned wizard never says anything straight out. Come on, Klaust. Get those men moving." He studied a map. "Hope we can ferry the Scarlotti. Else we're trapped at Dunno Scuttari."

The sun hadn't been up an hour. Radeachar, till now occupied deporting savan dalage, brought his first scouting report.

The legions in Tamerice weren't. They were racing north, having begun at sunset, and now were just ten miles away. They might beat him to the far side of the woods.

The withdrawal became a rout. Bragi desperately tried to keep control, to blunt the legions from Tamerice. The Guildsmen and his Kaveliners responded, but hadn't enough strength.

Their effort prevented total disaster. Most of the army escaped. Half reached the Scarlotti, where Ragnarson regained control and ferried them over.

Thousands of escapees joined Kildragon, who fled toward Hellin Daimiel.

Legions pushed south as far as Ipopotam, leaving enclaves at Simballawein, Hellin Daimiel, Libiannin, and Dunno Scuttari. The garrisons hadn't the strength to sally. The Itaskian Navy ran supplies in, as it had done during the sieges of the El Murid Wars.

Badalamen brought reinforcements through the transfers. Valther identified elements of seven legions not seen at Baxendala.

Badalamen beefed up the force in Vorhangs while facing Ragnarson across the Scarlotti near Dunno Scuttari. Blackfang strove valiantly, but hadn't the resources for success. He lost a battle at Glauchau, just three miles from Aucone. Agents of the Nines betrayed him. Haaken led the survivors westward.

Weeks passed. Late summer came. Though Badalamen drew heavily on transfers, most of his supplies and replacements came through the Gap. Again Ragnarson fought for time, trying to survive till winter isolated Badalamen.

The born general gathered boats and exchanged stares with Ragnarson. His Vorhangs expedition hammered Haaken back toward his brother.

The holocaust had come. Badalamen's auxiliaries erased towns, villages, crops. Winter's hunger would decimate the survivors.

Then Varthlokkur and Mist came to Ragnarson.

He stared guiltily across the broad Scarlotti, repeating, "This's my fault."

"Marshall, we've made a breakthrough. The biggest since Radeachar."

Bragi could imagine nothing capable of brightening the future. "You've compelled Itaskia to move?" Itaskia's nonin-volvement stance was a bitter draught.

Varthlokkur chuckled. "No. We've found a way to scramble the transfer stream. We can intercede whenever they send."

"Oh? How long before they figure out how to stop you?"

"When they create their own Winterstorm."

"Maybe tomorrow, then. They're working on it. Because of the Unborn."

Varthlokkur smiled dourly. "He has orders to obliterate anybody researching it."

"Do whatever you want. Got to play every angle." Bragi turned, stared across the gleaming brown back of the river. How long till winter closed the Gap, giving him a chance to regain the initiative?

The Battle for the Scarlotti Crossing began with a massive, surprise thaumaturgic attack at midnight. The western army got badly mauled before Ragnarson's wizards reestablished the sorcerous stalemate.

By then legionnaires had landed. That, too, was a surprise, Bragi had anticipated Badalamen shifting his emphasis toward Haaken. Comimg straight into his strength seemed suicidal.

It was. For a time. But superior training, superior skills, gradually told. Earthen ramparts grew around the beachheads. Ragnarson's counterattacks, hampered by a haphazard com-mand structure and language barriers, fell short.

Haaken, just four leagues upriver, reported himself under heavy pressure. Several legions had crossed above him, marching into Kuratel.

Daylight exposed the grim truth. The frontal attack was a feint. Badalamen's main force had moved upriver.

Ragnarson saw the trap. The bridgeheads. They were weak enough to destroy, but strong enough to last days. If he yielded to the bait, a pocket would close behind him.

He had been outgeneraled again.

He offered his resignation. His allies and associates just laughed. Hawkwind suggested he get moving before Badalamen reaped the fruit of his maneuver.

Badalamen hadn't wanted to attack. Not here. The old manhad been adamant. Failure of the transfers had made quick victory imperative. Winter was a foe he could neither manipulate nor coerce.

Bragi took command. He set Hawkwind and Lauder to confine the bridgeheads. He sent help to Haaken to secure his flank, and flung his remaining horsemen after the spearhead plunging into Kuratel. His vast, confused mass of infantry he led in retreat again, up the Auszura Littoral, out of the pocket.

He adopted the Fabian strategy again. The Porthune crossings he cleared and abandoned without contest. Itaskia became his goal, winter his weapon of choice.

Legions caught him near Octylya. In the absence of Badalamen, Ragnarson proved he had some talent. He sucked them into a trap, beneath his bows, and annihilated twenty-five thousand legionnaires. But he didn't grow heady. He persevered in his strategy.

In early October he crossed the Great Bridge into Itaskia the City, where he, Mocker, and Haroun had spent much of their earlier lives.

Reskird Kildragon had problems. Some of the Rebsamen faculty were agitating for accomodation with Shinsan. It surpassed him.

Hellin Daimiel had withstood years of siege during the El Murid Wars. Those defenders had never lost spirit. And that enemy hadn't planned to obliterate them.

Kildragon couldn't convince the dons that Badalamen was truly destroying everything and everyone outside.

Chance had separated Prataxisfrom Ragnarson at Dichiara. Now he was Kildragon's assistant. He came to Reskird one autumn evening, pale as old sin.

"I've found the answer. Our own people...."

"What?" The inevitability of failure had eroded Reskird's patience, making him a small, mean man, all snarl and bite.

"A Nines conspiracy. Here. At the Rebsamen. I stumbled on it.... I was on my way to see my antiquarian friend, Lajos Kudjar, about the Tear of Mimizan. I overheard an argument in the Library, in the east wing, where they keep...."

"Skip the travelogue. Who? Where? How do we nail them?"

"In time, my dear man. This has to be handled properly. They have to be exposed carefully, every one identified. Else we risk turning Hellin Daimiel against us."

Kildragon stifled his temper and impatience. Survivalinstinct reminded him that a politically satisfactory outcome was critical.

A perilous month passed. Three times traitors opened the city gates. One quarter was irrevocably lost.

Then the member of the Pracchia, tricked with false directives, made his misstep. Prataxis made certain the right people were witnesses.

The mob destroyed the Rebsamen Nine.

Searching at Ragnarson's insistence, Radeachar uncovered a conspiracy in Itaskia.

The Greyfells group, an opposition party, had used treason as a political tool since the El Murid Wars. Radeachar destroyed every conspirator.

Itaskia's semineutral stance ended instantly.

Political victories, tactical defeats.

The big battle loomed. The bent man gathered his might on the south bank of the Silverbind. The contest, if he won, would shatter the west. Heads bent together. Famous men, old enemies from smaller wars, shared the map tables.

They dared not lose.

Yet winning would prove nothing. Not against Badalamen, armed with Shinsan's resources.


THIRTY-ONE: Baxendala Redux | All Darkness Met | THIRTY-THREE: Itaskia



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