The last reeking powder smoke drifted away, and Sean MacIntyre surveyed a scene that had become too familiar. The only thing that had changed were the colors the dead wore, he thought bitterly, for the eastern Temple Guard had been reduced to barely forty thousand men, and they were being held back to cover the Temple itself. He was fighting the secular lords’ armies now, and he shuddered as he watched the “merely” wounded writhe among the corpses.
His army was out of the Keldark Valley at last and, as he’d known it would, marching circles about its opponents. High-Captain Terrahk had fallen back on Baricon, but he’d lacked the men to hold an attack from the west. There were too many avenues of approach, and when Tamman blasted his way through a gap with fifteen thousand men and got around his flank, Terrahk had retreated desperately. His attempt to stand had cost him his entire rearguard—another eight thousand men (most, Sean was thankful, captured and not killed)—and Sean had broken out into the rolling hills of the Duchy of Keldark.
The more open terrain offered vastly improved scope for maneuver, but every step he advanced also drew him further from the valley and exposed his supply route to counterattack. At the moment, the Temple was too hard pressed to think about cutting his communications, and he kept reminding himself they didn’t really have “cavalry” in the classic Terran sense, but he also kept thinking about what a Pardalian Bedford Forrest or Phil Sheridan could do if it ever got loose in his rear. His edge in reconnaissance would make it hard for them to get past him, but he simply didn’t have the men to garrison his supply line properly. He could have freed them up, but only by reducing his field army, which, in turn, would have reduced his ability to keep advancing.
He sighed and sent his branahlk mincing forward. The beast whistled unhappily at the battlefield stench, and Sean shared its distaste. Whoever had commanded the Temple’s forces in this last battle should be shot, he thought grimly, assuming one of his riflemen hadn’t already taken care of that. He supposed it was a sign of the Temple’s desperation, but ordering forty-five thousand pikemen and only ten thousand musketeers to face him in the open had been the same as sending them straight to the executioner.
Had Sean armed his men in the classic Pardalian proportion of pikes to firearms, he could have fielded close to the quarter-million men the Temple credited him with. They had all the weapons they’d captured from the Malagoran Guard plus, effectively, all the weapons of Lord Marshal Rokas’s Holy Host, including its entire artillery park, but he’d opted to call forward only enough reinforcements—and replacements, he thought bitterly, recalling the five thousand casualties Erastor had cost—to put sixty thousand infantry and dragoons and two hundred guns in the field. Two hundred battalions of rifles, most veterans of Yortown, Erastor, and Baricon, supported by a hundred and fifty arlaks and fifty chagors, had been more than enough to slaughter the secular levies of Keldark, Camathan, Sanku, and Walak. He controlled all of northeastern North Hylar, now, from the Shalokars to the sea, and he wondered dismally how many more men were going to die before the Temple agreed to negotiate. God knew he and Stomald had been asking—almost begging—it to ever since the fall of Erastor! Couldn’t the Inner Circle understand they didn’t want to kill its troops? Brashan still couldn’t get any of his remotes inside the hundred-kilometer zone around the Temple, so they couldn’t know what was passing in Vroxhan’s council meetings, but the prelates seemed willing to send every fighting man in North Hylar to his death before they’d even talk to “demon-worshipers”!
The litter-bearers were already busy. Theirs was the most horrible duty of all, yet they went about it with a compassion which still surprised him. The Angels’ Army recognized its tactical superiority as well as its commander did, and, like Sean, most of its troops knew the men littering the field had been utterly outclassed. His own casualties, dead and wounded alike, had been under a thousand, and most of his men had come, in their own ways, to share his sickness at slaughtering their foes. It was too one-sided, and the men they were killing weren’t the ones they wanted. With every battle, every army they smashed, their hatred of the Inner Circle grew, yet it wasn’t a religious hatred. “The Angels” had always been careful not to deliver an actual religious message—other than backing the Malagoran hankering for freedom of conscience—and since Harry’s revelation of the truth, Stomald had begun stressing the Temple’s political tyranny and enormous, self-serving wealth far more strongly. The Angels’ Army longed to settle accounts once and for all with the old men in Aris who kept sending other people out to die, but more even than that, it wanted simply to be rid of them.
Sean drew rein and watched a group of litter-bearers troop past with their pitiful, broken burdens. Walking wounded limped and staggered back with them, and at least Harry, coached by Brashan and Israel’s med computers, had been teaching the Malagoran surgeons things they’d never dreamed were possible. The introduction of ether, alone, had revolutionized Pardalian medicine, and Sean had sworn a solemn oath that the first thing he would have sent to Pardal from Birhat would be medical teams with proper regeneration gear. He couldn’t breathe life back into the dead, but he could, by God, give the maimed, whichever side they’d fought upon, their lives back!
His lip curled as he wondered how much of that fierce determination was an effort to assuage his own guilt. With today’s body count, the war he and his friends had inadvertently started had cost over a hundred thousand battlefield deaths. He had no idea how many more had perished of the diseases that always ravaged nonindustrial armies, and he was terrified of what the number would finally be. He could trace every step of the journey which had led them to this, and given their options as they took each of those steps, he still saw no other course they might have chosen, yet all this death and brutal agony seemed an obscene price to buy five marooned people a ticket home.
He drew a deep breath. It seemed an obscene price because it was, and he would pay no more of it than he must. The Temple had ignored his semaphore offers to parley and refused to receive his “demon-worshiping” messengers, but he had one last shot to try.