Plethin-Somark Border, Early Summer, D.A. 307

An officer’s shouted command was immediately lost in a cacophony of gunfire, as nearly ninety Plethin cuirassiers fired their carbines nigh-simultaneously. Radek turned in with the rest of his formation, charging into a gap opened up in the wall of pikemen the fusillade killed, holstering his spent carbine on his right thigh and unslinging the poleaxe-like weapon traditional of Plethin heavy cavalry. When the troopers entered the already-fracturing line of Somark infantry, he swung his poleaxe low to his right, taking off the forearms of a man who had collected his wits just enough to attempt a hasty thrust with a side-sword. As he took his weapon back up, his horse vaulted over a fallen comrade of its own accord. He made a final thrust at a few soldiers near the back of the Somark formation, skewering one on the pointed tip of his blade – and just barely keeping his grip on his weapon – before he was already free of the enemy.

The hussars fanned out to either side, re-engaging on each trooper’s own initiative as they could, constrained by hills on all sides. Radek turned right, finally freeing the dragging body from his poleaxe’s spear-tip before attempting a wide swipe, but catching no unfortunate soldier with its head. Behind Radek came a whooping shout he recognized as Serwyn’s. Now that he no longer moved in a larger charge, the supernatural illumination of the enemy soldiers was plain to Radek, and he dove back into the back of a line of soldiers too blinded by Serwyn’s magic to turn and face him. Another stroke to the right decapitated the first person in Radek’s way, just as the illumination faded. The next five people behind that hapless man were all knocked to their feet by a projectile too fast for Radek to see.

From there combat became a series of still images burned into his memory, chained together by actions of instinct. His weapon coming straight down on someone’s head, caving in their helmet. Another three people knocked off their feet, a meteor bow’s overly-long arrow jutting from the final man’s chest. Spinning his horse away from a thrust on his left side, and how the last-second maneuver hindered a thrust that just then only clipped another enemy’s arm. His a fellow trooper plowing through a small cluster trying to regroup ahead of him, making him adjust his angle of charge – personalized elements of riding gear revealing their identity as Celina, who started their charge next to him. In the distance, another formation of enemy soldiers cresting a hill.

Wait, hold up…

Once again free of Somark infantry – routed by the devastation of their quick and brutal fighting – Radek wheeled around as he heard a trumpeter sound a retreat. Celina quickly made her way over to where his horse danced in place, and the two of them placed another pre-loaded cartridge in their carbine’s breeches as they watched Serwyn blast a stream of fire at a few Somark musketeers who took too long to retreat. The squadron mage turned his horse to meet with them with a nudge of his legs as he drew an arrow out of a smaller quiver on the side of his saddle. He lit a fuse on this arrow’s tip with the same flamethrower spell he had just roasted men alive with, then pulled out his meteor bow again and shot the burning arrow into the air. As he recovered his reins, a crack sounded as a bright explosion briefly lit the sky.

The three of them, and a few other stragglers from their squadron, galloped away from the carnage to catch up with their comrades. In the distance, more Somarkans fell to gunfire, this time eerily quiet.

―――――

Atop the surrounding hills, Micha found the ground much drier than the muck they had to move through to get up there. Closer to the river, ground soaked by the past seasonal wetness was still saturated enough to become a terrible mess after the slightest rainfall, as the area had seen a couple nights ago. She was surprised Somark’s commander decided to advance through it at all. But while Mahre may not have the best mounts for warfare – a claim that could only be rightfully made by their Plethin allies – their horses could navigate any terrain as if they were born for it. In most cases, they were.

Those mounts now waited patiently at the base of the hill Micha and her comrades lay prone on, as well as two others that Dragoons decided to use as their positions. They observed the melee below them with calm, watching a Plethin company dismantle a Somark infantry formation of similar size. On another hilltop, more Somark musketeers could be spotted, climbing into position.

A trumpet blast from below drew most of the Plethin cuirassiers out of the fight, with a straggler launching an arrow into the air straight over his head. Hayder, next to her, nudged her shoulder and pointed his rifle at it as it ascended. “There it is. Get ready.” Similar murmurs rippled over the hilltop.

Mere moments after the arrow exploded, Micha felt a very brief flash of energy surge through her; their commander needn’t speak to bid them attack. Micha looked down her rifle at the Somark musketeers on the other hilltop, counted in her head down from six as they idled in disarray when their targets fled, then pulled the trigger.

Unlike their gunpowder-propelled brethren, air rifles only made a very loud pop when discharged, but the sound of over a hundred being fired at once across three hilltops was still quite loud. A whole line of Somark infantry dropped at once, most of them being those hapless halfwits who decided to stand up as soon as they lost sight of the enemy.

A gentle nudge against the blue feather in Micha’s cap told her to reload, so she tilted her rifle upward, tilted it to the side, and worked the handguard lever. A few of the newer Dragoons tilted their rifles too high, possibly alerting the enemy, but the distant hilltop was chaotic enough after the first group was shot that she doubted anyone was paying attention. She looked back down the barrel of her rifle and waited for the faint burst of energy that would signal another countdown.

It took two further fusillades before the enemy realized where Micha’s group were hidden, and by the time their shots rang out, she was already shimmying backwards down the hill. Troopers on a second hill were also discovered, but got one last salvo off before they retreated. Their third hilltop was still undiscovered, and continued to fire as Micha mounted her horse and turned to her commander. The drake was on a fourth hilltop, a silver spell ring before her face as she looked to the final hill her troops were still on. That silver color obscured the family of whatever spell Sėrremha was casting, but Micha knew she was sweeping it over their remaining hilltop position, magically pulling and prodding the troopers there to give silent, distant commands. Sėrremha spared a moment to glance down at Micha’s group before spreading her wings and tilted them at an angle. Micha kicked her horse into motion then, angling towards the river and the gathering point her commander specified, wondering how many groups they’ll have to ambush that day.

―――――

“I thought you wanted me to see a show of strength. I’ve just witnessed what could only be called a plea for help.” Prince Harvralt loomed over the five Somark commanders who had forces committed to this fight. Harvralt couldn’t discern which among them was the commanding general here; they all looked like they’d never seen combat before in their lives. With the difficult terrain, and these soft nobles’ insistence on erecting their command structure on Somark’s side of the river, they certainly hadn’t seen any today, even as their men died.

The Liyeland Prince turned his attention back to the remnants of the two battalions Somark had sent across. The initial plan was not entirely unsound, and the one that had engaged as expected was far better than its partner, but was still soundly defeated by the opposing infantry they’d faced. The flanking element, however, had gotten outflanked themselves by a cavalry charge. The maneuver itself was not unexpected, but the opposing force behaved strangely, a contributing factor to their success, though not likely the root cause. More probable was a simple mismatch in the level of discipline between Somark’s mostly-green forces and Plethin’s world-renowned cavalry.

Queen Isolde’s assumption that these skirmishes would give her men valuable combat experience had run into a problem Harvralt assumed was obvious. Plethin was getting even more experience out of it than her. While Somark had plenty of men, they rotated entire formations into and away from the front. Harvralt knew – and suspected whichever of these plump nobles was in charge did not know – the Plethin formations they had faced today have been holding this collection of crossings nonstop for a year and a half. They were led by blooded officers overseen by a skilled general, if not Dorin’s right-hand, then possibly Dorin himself. Plethin had no need to spread command experience around; Somark was letting them promote veteran captains and colonels out to their own commands, accompanied by a literal army of corporals-turned-sergeants to turn the combat expertise of one regiment into three, then five.

One of the decadent men before him was speaking to him, Harvralt only now realized, but the Prince nevertheless started walking towards the returning men. The gaggle of gawking Somark nobility trailed behind him like starving dogs.

“Who is in charge here?” Harvralt called to the first group of wounded and broken soldiers he reached. A man with a badly mangled forearm straightened at the challenge, though said nothing, only glancing at the pampered men behind the Prince. His uniform marked him a captain.

“They obviously are not,” Harvralt’s tone hardened. “What did you see, Captain?”

The wounded man glanced behind Harvralt again, but finally found his voice. “Plethin’s cuirassiers seemed skittish, sir. They wouldn’t try to take advantage of any momentum they gained, always falling back shortly after they engaged. When we positioned men to cover advances, they’d turn to flee even if they were about to meet their targets. But those other groups, covering the advance…”

“Snipers on every hilltop!” a trooper shouted, holding a bloody hand to his head. “Snipers for miles around! So far away we couldn’t hear them fire!”

“They wouldn’t be able to see their marks unaided, they must be mages,” another spoke up, though his gaze never lifted from where he stared at the ground. “But since when did mages use rifles? It’s always meteor bows, always has been.”

“Too many for every sniper to be mages,” the captain said, glaring at the two other speakers, before turning back to Harvralt. “Truth is, we don’t know, sir. Only that as soon as the Plethins retreated from one of our groups on a hill, that hill started dying. We’d return fire in whatever direction we thought the attacks were coming from, but we can’t be sure we inflicted any losses on them. The few directions we identified would have put them in even worse ground than we had to march through.

“Dragoons,” Harvralt muttered.

“Impossible!” one of the useless men behind Harvralt exclaimed. “Plethin horses may be good, but their cuirassiers were obviously hindered by this terrain, if they were reluctant to-”

“Not reluctant,” Harvralt snapped, wheeling on the group behind him. “Not hindered,” the Prince turned back to the wounded soldiers, “and not skittish. Plethin heavy cavalry is harder than anything you could dream of. This was all by their design. You have received the dubious honor of being ambushed by Mahrean Dragoons. The only dragoons worth the name here in the south.”

Behind Harvralt, portly nobles scoffed, but the captain looked thoughtful. “That would make sense, sir. The cuirassiers were baiting us. My men thought it was distant because they couldn’t hear signals and the sound of gunfire was faint, but I told them-’

“You directed return fire?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good, continue.”

“I knew the fire didn’t sound right, sir. I thought it may have been a new spell to muffle sound instead of distance, but Mahrean rifles is a better explanation.”

“If you couldn’t hear signals, it must have been a group from Exile’s Regiment, with their commanding officer in the field herself. If Sėrremha is here in person, they’re probably here for the Plethins to train them, and have been for some time. It sounds like you’ve spoken with other captains already, correct?”

The injured man looked away. “Not many of us left sir, and may of the lieutenants are too new to really understand what was happening.”

“I see. I want you to report to my tent tonight. Tell me everything they’ve told you. Go get your arm dressed.”

“Yes sir!”

Harvralt started off towards another group, but halfway there, the incessant muttering behind him got the better of his wits. He spun mid-step and stomped for the closest nobleman, not stopping even when they were chest-to-chest. He pushed the short man back until he was surrounded by the Somark march-lords. “Enough bullshit. Why did you lose?”

“We didn’t know Mahre had formally allied-”

“-just unfortunate they had a senior commander on-”

“Shut up. Forget I asked. Which of you is Lord-Commander Fellkelt?”

The man he had pushed back into the group raised a shaking hand.

“You are neither lordly or capable of command, but youwere put in charge here nonetheless. Listen to your peers’ complaints. Is everything just politics to you? If fortune turns against you, do you all just shrug and say nothing can be done for it?”

The man looked back up at Harvralt in shocked silence.

“You faced a technologically superior and more disciplined foe. You assumed,” Harvralt emphasized that last word, “that terrain would secure you victory, that you’d limited the field to only face their weakest link. You employed only the most basic tactics, and poor preparation ensured it was easy to read. You defeated yourselves before the battle was even joined.”

He backed out of the press then, taking the sorry nobility in. “Confronted with a king who can’t rule and a drake pretending she knows anything about human warfare, you have embarrassed your nation. Don’t think yourselves superior because you glower at reytra across a mountain range all day. Horses can do things iskapel can’t, and facing muskets is very different than facing crossbows. Reading tactics out of books isn’t the same as implementing them in the field. I didn’t intervene during your ridiculous strategy-by-consensus affair because I wanted you to experience how badly this would backfire on you. Today, I am the only one whose expectations are met; I’m sure even Plethin expected more from you.”

“If you want to take Plethin’s land – let us be honest with your intentions, and ignore those flimsy justifications you cling to like the rats you are – you won’t do it in this state. Only the sentinels over your border cities ensure Dorin won’t fold up Somark’s inland third like a handkerchief and tuck it in his back pocket. You ask a lot of Sunder’s chosen, and if you want to blame misfortune, stretching the goddess’s patience is reason enough. You wanted this to be a show of strength. I, and Liyeland, remain unconvinced. You are fortunate, then, that I am of a mind to answer the call for aid today’s action has become.”

Prince Harvralt turned and started walking back to the command complex. “Even if it’s just so you’d be worth more than a speedbump when the Authority finally decides to march.”