Messick lowered the field glasses from his eyes and smiled with grim satisfaction. He issued orders for the first and third platoons to move forward by three trenches, and his adjutants hurried off to forward the commands. Though he was only a few hundred yards behind the front line, Messick began to walk forward staring intently into the trenches and making sure he was visible to the troops.
Many smiled at him, some even waved. It was poor discipline perhaps but the troops were genuinely happy. Some had lost family and friends to Rauder raids over the years and were pleased to finally be able to strike back. A few seemed to relish the fighting and were anxious to spill blood and see blood spilled. Most of the men of course were still under Kratia’s thrall and found pleasure in serving her.
One of the men in the trenches caught his eye. The man was smiling, but his teeth were darkly stained and a river of greenish brown slime ran from his mouth down to his collar. Drake’s habit of chewing the dried leaves of certain plants had spread like a virus through the army. More than half now regularly practiced a habit that none had even heard of a month before.
Messick smiled back. He personally found the habit disgusting, but the men liked it and Kratia had certainly had an excellent idea when she suggested that he supply the leaves to the troops for free – after lacing it with mood elevating and pain suppressing drugs.
Raising the glasses to his eyes, he saw the Rauders retreat further as the deadly vapors from the gasbag flowed slowly across the ground and into more of the trenches. He wished he had more of the gasbags, but he had been told quite clearly that there were too many demands on the time, talent, and energy of Kratia’s staff to support any more. Apparently genetic engineering and accelerated cell growth hoggishly consumers of each of those assets. Still, they had helped him accomplish what no other general in history had been able to do: force an army of Rauders to retreat. Even if they pulled back only a few dozen yards, Messick considered it a historic event.
A messenger ran to him, panting and sweating. Relaying Kratia’s deamind for an immediate report. Messick sighed, put down his glasses and walked back to the command tent. He wished he had more time to savor the moment but Kratia was seldom patient. The walk took a few minutes; the command tent was positioned several hundred yards behind the front lines to minimize any magical interference that the battles might generate.
Kratia’s face filled the sensiball, which sat on the central table in the command tent, and she was not smiling. “Messick, give me a quick report,” she snapped as Messick entered.
“Drake’s comment on air support was well taken,” Messick replied. “The gasbags worked extremely well and the Rauders have pulled back after suffering heavy losses on the front line.”
“The Rauders are gone?” Kratia asked incredulously.
“No, Lord. I didn’t mean to imply that they left,” Messick hastily amended. “They have retreated several hundred yards. I have moved up some of my troops to take advantage and to keep the pressure on them.”
“Messick, give me a complete report. Troop losses, enemy losses, munitions and supply inventories, everything,” she said tersely.
“Our losses are running less than we projected,” Messick answered slowly, bothered by the tone of Kratia’s voice. “We are losing about fifty soldiers a day. Cumulative losses are about three hundred dead. The wounded also average about fifty a day, but cumulative wounded are not being tabulated since we have more than enough energy and magical support to effect full healing daily.”
Kratia nodded. “Continue.”
“Rauder casualties are estimated at twelve hundred dead, and three thousand wounded. We believe they are experiencing great difficulty in using healing spells, so the cumulative wounded figures are significant.”
“How certain are you that the Rauders are not healing themselves?”
“Your staff magicians have been monitoring for any magic and energy use, and there is only low level stuff coming from the Rauder enclave. And it makes sense, too. Logistically the Rauders are making a mistake in deployment. They are still maintaining their traditional tight patterns of attack, which works great for cavalry charges but renders them more susceptible to the impact of pain and fear on magic. The initial surprise with the trenches gave them plenty of both, and our gasbags today reinforced our advantage in that area.”
“Don’t underestimate them, Messick.”
“I’m not, Lord Kratia. The war is going well and I am confident that in a few days or at most a few weeks the Rauders will give up and return to their homelands.”
Kratia remained silent for a moment. “A few days,” she mused. “We need to shorten that. How much ammunition do you have? Can you support a massive offensive?”
It was Messick’s turn to stare openly at Kratia. “Lord, we have several thousand rounds of shells. Enough to win this battle if we continue as we are, but not enough if we change strategy. The Rauders aren’t accustomed to fighting this way; it demoralizes them. It makes them far less effective as a fighting force. But if we abandon the trenches to take them on in massive frontal assaults, we play right into the style of battle they love and we will suffer greatly, perhaps fatally.” Messick was pale and shaking. He was most uncomfortable standing up to his commander-in-chief.
“Can you hold the line against the Rauders with a third of your troops?”
Messick sputtered. “A third? I couldn’t hold them with half! Listen, I told you we are winning. But I need to continue to do what we have been doing. If the Rauders see us changing tactics they will see it as a sign of weakness or at least uncertainty. Then they will dig in even more stubbornly. This is not the time to change our battle plans!”
“Events force change upon us,” Kratia answered. “Sarral has reported that the Esafi Condeu has united what is left of her husband’s army and is marching north from Delos. In less than a week she will have forced her way past our token rear guard and be at the banks of the Moen. Messick, my entire army is with you. Sarral has also told me that my army is not large enough to wage a war on two major fronts. You have confirmed that analysis. Therefore, we have to eliminate one of the fronts.”
Messick closed his eyes. “I am sorry, Lord. I see no way to defeat the Rauders by brute force. Even the victory I promised you depends more on the Rauder psychology than on our superior weapons. But I see no way to accelerate their frustration.” Messick paused. “Perhaps I could have more trenches dug. It could hamper their advance, and let me deploy some troops to the south. We could probably form a skirmish line at Tolan. Maybe slow down the Esafi there until we develop another plan.” Messick didn’t sound hopeful.
Messick opened his eyes, but Kratia wasn’t glaring at him. She looked thoughtful. He remained quiet, hoping that she had some idea that could salvage the situation.
At last she spoke. “Messick, there may be a way to hasten the emotional stress that the Rauders are suffering. Each of the tribes are normally quite independent from one another, aren’t they?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Politically, an alliance between tribes would be a difficult thing to achieve and maintain.”
“I would think so, although Sarral could probably give you a better analysis,” answered Messick.
“No, I think this is simple enough for anyone to predict.” Kratia smiled. “If they were to lose Rangee, what would happen?”
Messick considered the possibility. “I suppose there would be some bickering, some jockeying for power. It would make them temporarily less effective, until a new chain of command was established. But if the tribes are convinced the war is worthwhile, it won’t take all that long to sort out the new leaders.”
“And that is the key, Messick. There has to be some level of doubt among some of the tribes that this war is needed. Rauders are not a cooperative people; it surprised us that they became a factor in my plans at all. If the death of Rangee can at the same time discredit his support for the war, then the Rauder alliance will disintegrate.”
Messick shook his head. “Maybe. But we don’t have any way of getting to Rangee. So we’re back to winning by attrition.”
“Leave Rangee to me. Prepare to move the army south within two days.”