Messick raised the binoculars to his eyes and scanned the enemy line. The troops of the Esafi Condeu were arrayed in a fairly logical order: the cavalry in front, followed by archers and then infantry. The archers would actually attack first, intending to cause some disarray while the cavalry mounted a fast and furious charge, ideally producing a shock wave behind which the infantry would move in, engaging in bloody hand to hand combat.
He smiled. His troops may be tired, but they were still inspired by the victory over the Rauders. More importantly, they had had time to develop proficiency and confidence in the use of guns. Each assault rifle had a range, accuracy, and deadliness that exceeded any crossbow. Over the last few days, Onwei’s people had turned out hundreds of the guns and tens of thousands of the deadly little bullets.
He was sure that the Esafi had not expected them to prevail over the Rauders and then to march south as quickly as they had. Messick had managed to form his front line just south of the Moen, ensuring that the power plant remained in Kratia’s control. That gave Messick a strategic advantage. The vast superiority of their weapons gave Messick a significant tactical advantage. And she was probably still ignorant of the nature and number of their weaponry, which gave him the valuable element of surprise. Even though her own husband was killed by one of their guns, one of Sarral’s agents had managed to retrieve it and dump it into the sea. So there was nothing for the enemy to study or magically copy. The manufacturing process and the finished products were kept highly secret. Kratia had ordered storage of all guns and ammunition in boxes lined with white crystal, which not only kept out the magic eyes of prying wizards, it also ensured that no magical tampering would render the guns useless.
Well, the Esafi would discover just how effective Kratia’s weapons were today. Yes, she may have managed to gather her scattered forces and to assemble them in a large and disciplined army. Yes, Messick was outnumbered at least three to one. Yes, even with the guns his troops were going to take some heavy casualties today. But those factors were insignificant next to his own advantages. The Esafi and her army would sleep deep and forever tonight. Kratia had ordered total annihilation. No prisoners.
Messick gave the order for the gun cases to be opened and the guns and ammunition issued to the front line. Support personnel would remain directly behind them, issuing fresh clips and reloading the empty ones, just as Drake had suggested. It was entirely probable that they could mow down most of the cavalry with a first strike; this would help enormously in limiting future casualties.
The captain of his Mileu based scouts ran up and saluted.
“Give me your report,” said Messick curtly still studying the enemy lineup.
“Sir, the wizards were not where intelligence said they would be. They had broken camp about two hours before we arrived. We tracked them for about five miles, but they had been captured by a Mileu army patrol. The enemy force was too large to challenge; they had maybe two dozen soldiers while I had only four.”
“You had guns.”
The captain swallowed nervously. “Sir, I felt that direct confrontation with the enemy forces was too great a risk. My orders were to kill the Lords, leaving no witnesses or clues that could implicate Kratia. With so many men, the chances of someone getting away were pretty high.” He paused. “Even with guns.”
Messick grunted. “So they all got away. Kratia will not be happy.”
“We did get one of them, sir.”
Messick put down his field glasses, suddenly attentive on the captain. “You did?”
“After I saw that Mileu had the Lords, I ordered the squad to turn back. This took us back to their old campsite. One of my scouts noted that a single set of tracks led away from the camp in a direction opposite to the four sets of footprints from the Lords. So we followed the tracks.”
Messick closed his eyes and muttered, “I don’t think I’m going to like this.”
“Never mind. Continue with your report.”
“Well, after only a mile we run into this wizard. Former wizard, actually. One of those burn-outs you see sometimes, after they get burned in a duel. Fresh one, though. Wandering around, nearly out of his mind. I figure the Lords had an argument, and this one lost.”
“Did he tell you his name?” asked Messick.
“No. He wasn’t talking much. Mostly he was crying and shouting incoherently.”
“What did you do with him?”
The captain grinned. “Followed orders as best we could, sir.” He turned and shouted at the entrance to the tent, and a burly soldier came in holding a canvas bag.
The captain nodded and the soldier reached into the bag, withdrawing a bloody human head. The thin black eyebrows and hooked nose marked the owner.
“Dacsinj,” whispered Messick. “Damn. Take the head and put it on ice in case Kratia wants to see it later. Then go back on patrol. I want you to track any movements of the Mileu army.”
The captain saluted and left with the body bag.
Messick returned his attention to the front line as was about to give the order to fire when there was a flurry of movement within the Esafi’s ranks. Raising the field glasses to his eyes again, Messick watched in growing disbelief as the enemy began to pull back.
“Sir!” shouted a messenger, nearly breathless from running. Messick lowered the glasses and looked at the young boy. “A message from Lord Kratia,” continued the lad. Messick waited while the boy took a panting breath. “She wants you on the sensiball now.”
Messick took another look at the retreating enemy troops. It did not appear to be a ruse, though the Esafi was certainly wily enough. Messick gave orders to stow away half the guns, leaving the remaining weapons loaded and ready for immediate use. He directed his lieutenants to send for him should the enemy return or any unusual situations develop. Then he walked to his command tent to answer Kratia.
Kratia’s smiling face filled the sensiball. “Messick, how nice of you to respond so promptly!” she said sarcastically. “No, don’t get upset; I’m really quite pleased and have excellent news. Corsordas has declared war on the Esafi, and his troops have invaded Condeu!”
Messick stared at the sensiball, but before he could say anything, Kratia continued. “Do you know what that means? Mileu and Condeu will be at each other’s throats; all you have to do is hold the line for a while until the Esafi gets the news. She’s sure to pull back, leaving us secure in the gains we made so far!”
Messick related the fact that the Esafi appeared to be pulling back now. “It doesn’t appear to be a feint or a trap,” he added. “But I don’t trust easy victories.” Messick looked nervously at Kratia. “How reliable is the information?”
Sarral’s face joined Kratia’s in the sensiball. “I had an agent in the court of the Esaf Mileu,” the chief of staff replied. “He remains there serving regent Corsordas. My man has been very reliable in the past, and the data he has given us now is quite specific. Mileu wants to improve their strategic position for the eventual conflict with us. By turning on Condeu, Corsordas believes he can make solid gains in both territory and energy reserves. Possibly even in military strength, if the Condeu army surrenders early on, and the armies then unite under him.”
“Then what are you so happy about? This could be dangerous to our long range plans,” said Messick.
“I don’t believe so,” answered Sarral. “I have analyzed the situation carefully, and come to the conclusion that the Esafi will not surrender. Her personality will not accept defeat without a bitter struggle to the end. Corsordas will not realize that until after he has committed himself, as he apparently has already done. The Condeu army is sandwiched between us and Mileu, but she will counterattack Mileu in preference to us; we are an unknown factor she would rather not face. She knows we have some sort of edge. After all, we stopped the Rauders. On the other hand, she sees Mileu as a known factor that can be faced and possibly driven back. The end result is that Mileu and Condeu will be locked in a death embrace, draining each other’s energy reserves and soldiers until both are too weak to mount any resistance to us.”
“How long until we go in for the mop up?”
“I would think the fighting should go on for three or four days at a minimum. Maybe as long as a week.”
Kratia smiled again, her face radiant, eyes gleaming darkly. “I heard your troops are tired, Messick. I think we can afford to give them a night of celebration. We’ve won the war.”
Messick thanked her, deciding not to tell her about Dacsinj. It was rare to see her so happy and he didn’t want to spoil it.