Prince Ladisla himself. It was not so much a uniform that he was wearing, as a kind of purple dressing gown with epaulettes. Bedwear with a military motif. The lace on his cuffs alone could have made a good-sized tablecloth, and his staff were little less remarkable in their finery. Some of the richest, most handsome, most elegant, most useless young men in the whole Union were sprawled in their chairs around the Prince. If the measure of a man was the size of his hat, these were great men indeed.

West turned back to the map, his throat uncomfortably dry.

He knew what he had to say, he needed only to say it, as clearly as possible, and sit down. Never mind that some of the most senior men in the army were behind him. Not to mention the heir to the throne. Men who West knew despised him. Hated him for his high position and his low birth. For the fact that he had earned his place.

“This is Angland,” said West again, in what he hoped was a voice of calm authority. “The river Cumnur,” and the end of his stick traced the twisting blue line of the river, “splits the province into two parts. The southern part is much the smaller, but contains the great majority of the population and almost all the significant towns, including the capital, Ostenhorm. The roads here are reasonably good, the country relatively open. As far as we know, the Northmen have yet to set foot across the river.”

West heard a loud yawning behind him, clearly audible even from the far end of the table. He felt a sudden pang of fury and spun round. Prince Ladisla himself appeared, at least, to be listening attentively. The culprit was one of his staff, the young Lord Smund, a man of impeccable lineage and immense fortune, a little over twenty but with all the talents of a precocious ten-year-old. He was slouched in his chair, staring into space, mouth extravagantly gaping.

It was the most West could do to stop himself leaping over and thrashing the man with his stick. “Am I boring you?” he hissed.

Smund actually seemed surprised to be picked on. He stared left and right, as though West might have been talking to one of his neighbours. “What, me? No, no, Major West, not in the least. Boring? No! The River Cumnur splits the province in two, and so forth. Thrilling stuff! Thrilling! I do apologise, really. Late night, last night, you see?”

West did not doubt it. A late night spent drinking and showing off with the rest of the Prince’s hangers-on, all so that he could waste everyone’s time this morning. Kroy’s men might be pedantic, and Poulder’s arrogant, but at least they were soldiers. The Prince’s staff had no skills whatever, as far as West could see, beyond annoying him, of course. At that, they were all expert. He was almost grinding his teeth with frustration as he turned back to the map.

“The northern part of the province is a different matter,” he growled. “An unwelcoming expanse of dense forests, trackless bogs, and broken hills, sparsely populated. There are mines, logging camps, villages, as well as several penal colonies operated by the Inquisition, but they are widely scattered. There are only two roads even faintly suitable for large bodies of men or supplies, especially given that winter will soon be upon us.” His stick traced the two dotted lines, running north to south through the woods. “The western road goes close to the mountains, linking the mining communities. The eastern one follows the coast, more or less. They meet at the fortress of Dunbrec on the Whiteflow, the northern border of Angland. That fortress, as we all know, is already in the hands of the enemy.”

West turned away from the map and sat down, trying to breathe slow and steady, squash down his anger and see off the headache which was already starting to pulse behind his eyes.

“Thank you, Major West,” said Burr as he got to his feet to address the assembly. The room rustled and stirred, only now coming awake. The Lord Marshal strode up and down before the map for a moment, collecting his thoughts. Then he tapped at it with his own stick, a spot well to the north of the Cumnur.

“The village of Black Well. An unremarkable settlement, ten miles or so from the coast road. Little more than a huddle of houses, now entirely deserted. It isn’t even marked on the map. A place unworthy of anyone’s attention. Except, of course, that it is the site of a recent massacre of our troops by the Northmen.”

“Damn fool Anglanders,” someone muttered.

“They should have waited for us,” said Poulder, with a self-satisfied smirk.

“Indeed they should have,” snapped Burr. “But they were confident, and why not? Several thousand men, well equipped, with cavalry. Many of them were professional soldiers. Not in the same class as the King’s Own perhaps, but trained and determined nonetheless. More than a match for these savages, one would have thought.”

“They put up a good fight though,” interrupted Prince Ladisla, “eh, Marshal Burr?”

Burr glared down the table. “A good fight is one you win, your Highness. They were slaughtered. Only those with good horses and very good luck escaped. In addition to the regrettable waste of manpower, there is the loss of equipment and supplies. Considerable quantities of each, with which our enemy is now enriched. Most seriously, perhaps, the defeat has caused panic among the population. The roads our army will depend on are clogged with refugees, convinced that Bethod will come upon their farms, their villages, their homes at any moment. An utter disaster, of course. Perhaps the worst suffered by the Union in recent memory. But disasters are not without their lessons.”

The Lord Marshal planted his big hands firmly on the table and leaned forwards. “This Bethod is careful, clever, and ruthless. He is well supplied with horse, foot, and archers, and has sufficient organisation to use them together. He has excellent scouts and his forces are highly mobile, probably more so than ours, especially in difficult country, such as that we will face in the northern part of the province. He set a trap for the Anglanders and they fell into it. We must not do the same.”

General Kroy gave a snort of joyless laughter. “So we should fear these barbarians, Lord Marshal? Would that be your advice?”

“What was it that Stolicus wrote, General Kroy? ‘Never fear your enemy, but always respect him.’ I suppose that would be my advice, if I gave any.” Burr frowned across the table. “But I don’t give advice. I give orders.”

Kroy twitched with displeasure at the reprimand, but at least he shut up. For the time being. West knew that he wouldn’t stay quiet for long. He never did.

“We must be cautious,” continued Burr, now addressing the room at large, “but we still have the advantage. We have twelve regiments of the King’s Own, at least as many men in levies from the noblemen, and a few Anglanders who avoided the carnage at Black Well. Judging from such reports as we have, we outnumber our enemy by five to one, or more. We have the advantage in equipment, in tactics, in organisation. The Northmen, it seems, are not ignorant of this. Despite their successes, they are remaining north of the Cumnur, content to forage and mount the odd raid. They do not seem keen to come across the river and risk an open battle with us.”

“One can hardly blame ’em, the dirty cowards,” chuckled Poulder, to mutterings of agreement from his own staff. “Probably regretting they ever crossed the border now!”

“Perhaps,” murmured Burr. “In any case, they are not coming to us, so we must cross the river and hunt them down. The main body of our army will therefore be split into two parts, the left wing under General Kroy, the right under General Poulder.” The two men eyed each other across the table with the deepest hostility. “We will push up the eastern road from our camps here at Ostenhorm, spread out beyond the river Cumnur, hoping to locate Bethod’s army and bring him to a decisive battle.”

“With the greatest respect,” interrupted General Kroy, in a tone that implied he had none, “would it not be better to send one half of the army up the western road?”

“The west has little to offer aside from iron, the one thing with which the Northmen are already well supplied. The coast road offers richer pickings, and is closer to their own lines of supply and retreat. Besides, I do not wish our forces to be too thinly spread. We are still guessing at Bethod’s strength. If we can bring him to battle, I want to be able to concentrate our forces quickly, and overwhelm him.”

“But, Lord Marshal!” Kroy had the air of a man addressing a senile parent who still, alas, retains the management of their own affairs. “Surely the western road should not be left unguarded?”

“I was coming to that,” growled Burr, turning back to the map. “A third detachment, under the command of Crown Prince Ladisla, will dig in behind the Cumnur and stand guard on the western road. It will be their job to make sure the Northmen do not slip around us and gain our rear. They will hold there, south of the river, while our main body splits in two and flushes out the enemy.”

“Of course, my Lord Marshal.” Kroy sat back in his chair with a thunderous sigh, as though he had expected no better but had to try anyway, for everyone’s sake, while the officers of his staff tutted and clucked their disapproval for the scheme.

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