Start the roll call. Fire up the alternative battle reenactments. None of it is going to do anyone any good. But you’re going to do it regardless, Cassan Vala, because it continues the illusion that you have control in any sane or reasonable way.
I sighed. There would be no demotion after this. I was the Guardian. One hundred days were tick tick ticking away.
I slid aboard and felt my hovering horse adapt. We rode the customary five feet above the floor. I led my column up after everyone else had followed suit.
I was surprised to see that day had dawned entirely. Sometimes I think time flows differently in caches.
Nogilian stood right beside the cache’s proscribed exit, bloody and victorious.
“Polish up that armor, Nogilian,” I said. “Well done, very well done indeed.”
He shrugged, a gesture of his I was pretty sure I understood. None of it ever good enough. He pointed back behind him to where a mob in black armor trudged toward the city square, escorted by Tevantes’ reserve. Those had been last to reach the city, and for all their running had achieved on the day little more than better physical condition. I had left the new recruits in his care.
“I will incorporate these men,” Nogilian said, lowly enough that no one else could hear, “and then they will also die.”
“Nogilian,” I said “now we have cavalry. How many caches did you say there were, scattered all across this plain?”
We whooped it up across the plain. Nogilia was good to us. Grasses made the foraging easy. The land coursed with streams for watering. And Nogilian was the greatest tactical mind of his generation fighting on the land of his birth. You can be damned sure we did what he suggested. I insisted only on seeing to the needs of my other commanders: logistics, operations, intelligence and communications. So we moved, we gathered information, and then we did what Nogilian said. Afterward, we incorporated new recruits. We established garrisons behind, ensconced in cities favored now by swarms of friendly white machines.
Ki asked why we did not take everyone. She alone lingered past a nightly debriefing.
“Because if we win back this world, I need there to be someone left to enjoy it.”
She went. She did not bother asking about the if. Each of my commanders knew I had no idea where the supposed lightships were. It’s one thing to encourage those who actually fight. It’s another to delude your command chain to the point of stupidity. They knew. They knew the same chances I did: certain death if we did nothing, slightly less if I happened to find those ships. I had told them Jerem Cozak conveyed not the slightest doubt that we would succeed. Which was true. I did not add the part where he also conveyed small cracks upon the surface of his sanity.
One hundred days. Sixty until we met him. We’d spent twenty-four days in Redmarak and three in leaving it. We’d departed victorious from the first city of Nogilia on the morning of the thirtieth, halfway through the time we had to get our shit together.
We spent sixteen more days warring across the plains. We attacked at any time of night. We attacked at dawn and dusk. We attacked during the changing of the guard. Once, we came in the middle of the afternoon, when the sentries were nodding off. The rank and file developed a preference for storming the gates in that bleak hour or two before the dawn, during which time defenders were prone to be shivering and exhausted and asking existential questions of themselves.