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Sam Monroe is the reluctant commander of a tough-minded warrior people living in what was once northern Mexico. His tiny country is flanked on the northeast by the Kingdom River, a vast, trade-driven nation that replaced the southern United States, and on the northwest by the Khanate, an empire of nomads who swept down the west coast after crossing the ice from what was once Russia. Sam's people cling to a precarious, hard-won freedom.
Toghrul Khan, leader of the Khanate, wants Kingdom's lucrative trade and lush farmlands. To get them, Sam Monroe knows, the Khan's forces will march right over his people's small towns and precious homesteads. His country's only hope is an alliance with Kingdom-but the far larger Kingdom may simply swallow them up. Unless . . .
Sam's proven ability in the field attracts the attention of Queen Joan, who rules Kingdom with a heart as cold as the Colorado ice where she was raised. But if she gives Sam Monroe command of Kingdom's forces, her loyal generals and admirals may feel a lot less loyal. Unless . . .
Young, bookish princess Rachel is the key. A marriage between Sam and the princess unites both their nations and their fighting forces and gives the commanders a way to save face.
Has the alliance been made in time? The Khan's armies are sweeping east in a rush, threatening both sides of the vast Mississippi River. Kingdom's large army and navy move excruciatingly slowly. Sam's people are fleet but greatly outnumbered. And there are other dangers Sam Monroe is just beginning to comprehend. The technologically advanced people of New England, who breed monsters in women's wombs and have learned to levitate, are watching the growing conflict between the Khan and Kingdom and more important, watching Sam as he learns not just to command but to rule.
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Mitchell Smith is the author of critically-acclaimed novels of suspense, including Reprisal, Sacrifice, and Karma. His evocations of the natural world and of human nature, as in Due North, earned him a devoted readership. Smith has also written a trilogy of near-future, post-apocalpytic novels which illuminate what the Earth might be like after the next Ice Age: Snowfall, Kingdom River, and Moonrise.
Smith and his family live in Washington state.
The ravens had come to This'll Do.
Sam Monroe, Captain-General of North Map-Mexico--and commander of the army that, before this, had been called Never-Defeated--frightened birds here and there as he walked among the dead.
A messenger-pigeon had reached Better-Weather, and he'd come, down with headquarters' Heavy Cavalry, come quickly, but still arriving two days too late. Troopers of the Second Regiment of Light Cavalry lay scattered through high grass for almost a Warm-time mile down the valley from Please Pass.
Sam Monroe walked through tall brown stems still brittle from last night's frost. Death had come in Patchy-fool Autumn, the eight-week summer ended two weeks before. Dead troopers lay here and there, almost hidden in the grass except where low mounds of the slain showed--Light Cavalry's hide-and-chainmail hauberks hacked by the imperial cataphracts' battle axes.
More than three hundred dead within sight of his encampment on the near hill, and dozens more lying out of sight to the east, where the village stood, ridden down as they'd spurred away. It seemed to Sam Monroe there would certainly be at least four hundred dead, when totaled.
Though the villagers had been spared the empire's usual rapes and murders, valuable squash and pumpkin fields had been trampled, their last harvest destroyed. Farms had been burned or battered--pine-plank buildings feathered with the cataphracts' arrows, doors smashed in, the furnishings axed for campfires.
The valley fields were quiet now, excepting only a raven's occasional croaking, only the dawn wind's murmuring through the grass. A cold wind, almost freezing, with Daughter Summer dead. Sam's soldiers believed Lady Weather would be weeping sleety tears for her, as Lord Winter came walking south from the Wall.
The imperials' commander had already recovered his killed and wounded, taken them back south through the pass, heading farther south of the Sierra Oriental to what would certainly be a triumph in Mexico City for the Empire's first victory against the North.
Not a great battle--only a clash of cavalry along a mountain border. But Sam Monroe's army had lost it. The charm of always winning was broken.
The Heavy Cavalrymen not digging john-trench, tending horses, or guying tents, were watching from the hill as he walked through the grass from corpse to corpse; Sam could feel them watching....He knew so many of the dead. A small army was full of familiar faces--even though the chill afternoons had still been warm enough to spoil these, begin to swell them with rot in the army's brown wool and leather.
He knew a number of these troopers--and all the officers, of course. He'd saluted them in battle many times as they'd poured past him to trumpet calls in a flood of fast horses, shining steel, and banners.
Sam walked through the grass, visiting this one...then another. The women were the worst. If it hadn't been for the women, he would not be weeping. They lay, slender bones broken, soft skin sliced, faces--some still beautiful--astonished at their deaths. Where bright helmets had been beaten away, gleaming drifts of long hair, black, red, and golden, lay in broken grass.
He visited the dead for a Warm-time hour, then went back up the hill as the picks and shovels were brought down to bury them.
Two Heavy Cavalry corporals were posted as guards just beyond ear-shot of his tent (wonderful Warm-time phrase, 'earshot'). They saluted as he passed. Sam saw Margaret had brought his breakfast to a camp table by the tent's entrance.
"Sir, please eat." She stood watching him. "Done is done." A favorite saying of hers.
"Mercies found the last of them, eleven WT miles east. They've started bringing them in." She saw the question in his face. "Fifty-three, sir. And Ned Flores. He lost a hand ... left hand."
Sam sat at the table. The breakfast was scrambled chicken eggs, goat sausage, and tortillas--almost a Warm-time breakfast out of the old copybooks, except the sausage would have been pig, the tortillas toasted bread with spotted-cow butter.
"You have to eat."
He took a sip of hot chocolate. "Thank you, Margaret."
Margaret turned and marched away, her boots crunching on the last of morning's frost, her rapier's length swinging at her side.
Margaret Mosten, old enough to be an older sister, always served his breakfasts. Always served every meal. She would come riding up to his horse, on campaign, with jerk-goat or crab apples for his lunch. Boiled water, safe from tiny bad-things, for his leather bottle. No food came to him, but from Oswald-cook by her hand.
Her predecessor, Elder Mosten, smelling something odd in chili, had tasted Sam's dinner once along the northern border by Renosa, then convulsed and died.
"To you--only through me," his eldest daughter, Margaret, had said, then resigned her captaincy in Light Infantry, and come to Sam's camp to take charge of it with a much harder hand than her father's had been.
Though that fatal chili's cook had hung, Margaret had ridden back to Renosa, inquired more strictly, and left four more hanging in the square--the cook's wife for shared guilt, and three others for carelessness in preparation and service.
"That many," Sam had said to her when she returned, "and no more."
"The cook and his wife were for that dinner;" Margaret Mosten had answered him, "the others were for our dessert."
So, as with many of his followers, the burden of her loyalty leaned against Sam Monroe, weighed upon him, and tended to make him a short-tempered young man, everywhere but the battlefield.
He could take bites of the breakfast tortilla, but the sausage and eggs were impossible. He must not--could not--vomit by his tent for the army to see.
"Too young," they'd say. "What is Sam, twenty-six, twenty-seven? Too young, after all, for a grown man's work. All that winning must have been luck."
And Sam Monroe would have agreed it had been luck--the good fortune of having the Empire's old, incompetent generals for enemies; the good fortune of having fine soldiers to fight for him; and what had seemed the good fortune of being born with battle-sense.
But battle-sense had led to victories; victories had led to ruling. And ruling had proved a crueler field than any battleground, and weightier duty.
It seemed to Sam, as he tried to eat a bite of eggs, that his will, which he had so far managed to extend to any necessary situation--as if a much older, grimmer, and absolutely competent person stood within him--that his will, his purposes, had turned him into that someone else, a man he would never have liked and didn't like now.
The proof lay beneath the hill, in dead grass.
But even that grim and forceful person had not come forth this morning to eat goat sausage and eggs.
Margaret came back, her sturdy bootsteps quieter; the light frost was melting under the morning sun.
"Sir...." With official business, "sir" was all the Captain-General required. Sam had early decided that honorifics promoted pride and stupidity; he had the south's imperial examples.
"The brothers," Margaret Mosten said.
"Lord Jesus." He ate a bite of sausage to show he could, then took deep breaths to quiet his belly. The Rascobs had to be spoken with, but a little later would have been better. "Will they wait?"
"No," Margaret said. "And it would hurt them to be told to."
That was it for the sausage. Sam took another deep breath and put down his two-tine fork--silver, a spoil from God-Help-Us. "I'll see them."
"You should finish your eggs."
"Margaret, I don't want to finish the eggs. Now, send them up." Odd, when he thought about it. Why 'send them up'? The camp was on high ground, but level. His tent was only 'up' because he gave the orders.
Different bootsteps, stomping. The Rascobs appeared side by side and saluted--a fashion that had settled in the army after the early days in the Sierra. It was something all soldiers apparently loved to do.
The brigadiers, Jaime and Elvin Rascob, were twins, scarred and elderly at fifty-eight--both tall, gray-haired, gray-eyed, baked brown and eroded by weather. Elvin was dying of tuberculosis, caused by poison plants too small to see, so he wore a blue bandanna over mouth and nose as if he were still a young mountain bandit and sheep-stealer.
"We just rode in." Jaime Rascob's face was flushed with rage. "And saw what comes of sending Light Cavalry where infantry should have gone."
"Told you, Sam," Elvin said, the south's blue cotton fluttering at his mouth. "Heavy Infantry to. hold the pass--Light Infantry to come down the hills on them. Would have trapped those imperials, maybe killed them all. Told you." Dying, Elvin was losing courtesy.
"Ned thought he could deal with them." Sam stuck his fork in the eggs and left it there.
"Ned Flores is a fool kid-goat--a Light-Cavalry colonel! What the fuck does he know about infantry situations?" Courtesy lost entirely.
"It was your fault, sir." Jaime's face still red as a rooster's comb.
"Yes, it was my fault." Sam looked up at two angry old men--angry, and dear to him. "Scouts reported only a few hundred imperials, and from the careful way they came, with no great force behind them. So, it seemed to me that Light Cavalry, with room to run east if they had to, could handle their heavies without our infantry to lever against. I was wrong."
"Three hundred dead," Jaime Rascob said.
"That's incorrect. It will be nearly four hundred."
"Goodness to Godness Agnes ... " Elvin, through his bandanna-certainly a Warm-time copybook phrase. "Almost three out of every four troopers dead. And we told you!"
"Jaime, I'm just saying what everybody knows." A statement definite, and with the weight of years as well, since he and his brother were each old enough to have been their commander's grandfather.
Squinting in morning sunlight, Sam pushed his breakfast plate a little away. The smell was troubling.
A mistake. He noticed the colonels noticing; an exchange of glances. He picked up his fork, ate a bite of eggs, then another. Took a sip of chocolate. "Do we know the cataphracts' commander?"
"Voss says it was likely one of the new ones, probably Rodriguez." Jaime didn't sound convinced, though the Empire, slow at everything, had begun to allow promising younger officers commands. Michi Rodriguez was one of those 'Jaguars.'
"Whoever," Jaime said, "he whipped Flores with just six hundred heavy horse."
"Not less, Elvin," his brother said. "Three squadrons, at least."
Elvin didn't argue. Any argument with Jaime Rascob ended only after a long while.
"Still a damn shame." Elvin cleared his throat behind the bandanna. "We could have bottled them in Please Pass, maybe killed them all."
Sam chewed a bite of sausage and managed to swallow it. "My decision to let them come through. My decision to send only Light Cavalry down to deal with them. My fault." The breakfast was hopeless--one more bite and he would be sick for all the camp to see. The young Captain-General, who'd never failed, vomiting his breakfast while troopers rotted in the mountain grass.
"You got too big for your bitches," Elvin said, certainly not the correct Warm-time phrase. The old man took little care with them, rarely got them right.
"It's a mistake I won't make again." Sam took a sip of chocolate. A smell of spoiling was rising from the valley.
"We can't win every fight, Elvin." Jaime gave his brother a shut-up look.
"For sure not campaigning like this!" Elvin coughed a spatter of blood into his kerchief, turned, and marched away into the camp. His brother sighed, and followed him.
Sam turned on his camp stool to watch them go. Two tough old men. Both wore heavy double-edged broadswords scab-barded aslant down their backs, the swords' long grips wound with silver wire. Elvin stumbled slightly on the uneven ground.
Half a year ago, Portia-doctor had reported he was dying. She'd heard bad sounds in his lungs when she'd thumped him.
It had been a difficult examination. Elvin had thumped her in return, then attempted a kiss.
"He's just a boy," she'd said to Sam, "in an old man's body."
"Then he's younger than I am, Doctor."
"Yes, sir. In many ways younger than you are."
Portia-doctor had apprenticed in medicine under Catania Olsen, which said everything in North Map-Mexico--and south in the Empire as well. Portia had learned as much as that dear physician, four Warm-time medical copybooks, and seven years of hard experience could teach.
She'd been pretty those years ago, a sturdy young woman with dark brown hair and eyes to match. Now, the army work and civilian work had worn her. And losing Catania to plague at Los Palominos had worn her more.
Howell Voss, commanding the Heavy Cavalry, called her "the noble Portia," looked for her in any group or meeting, and was thought by a thoughtful few to have been in love with her for some time.
"Why doesn't he just tell her so?" Sam had once asked his Second-mother, after an officers' evening asado.
"Because," Catania Olsen had said, tightening her mare's saddle girth, "because Howell has lost an eye, and fears being blind and a burden. And because he believes that Portia is very fine and good, and that he is not."
... Sam sat and watched the Rascob brothers walk away down the tent lines. The other, grimmer Sam Monroe inside him began to consider inevitable replacements for the two of them, certainly following Elvin's death. Jaime's replacement, then, would of course destroy him.
'Fools do top with crowns, and so bid friends farewell' A copied Warm-time line, and very old.
The Captain-General of North Map-Mexico pushed his breakfast plate a little farther away, took a deep breath to calm his stomach, and sat at his camp table with his eyes closed, not caring to watch the Sierra's shadows--lying across a wide, meadowed valley lightly salted with flocks of sheep--slowly shorten as the sun rose higher.
Bootsteps. No one in the army seemed to walk lightly. "You didn't finish your eggs."
"No. I've had enough, Margaret."
"Oswald-cook goes to some trouble with your eggs. Herbs."
"Oh, for Weather's sake." The Captain-General picked up his fork, reached over, and took another bite of eggs.
"Sir, there's no winning forever. You don't have to be perfect." It was a burden-sharing she often practiced. At first, it had annoyed him.
Margaret stood in bright, chill morning light, watching him eat two more bites of egg. "They had room to run."
"Yes--if they'd run, instead of fighting." Sam put his fork down a little more than firmly. Margaret took the plate, and went away.
It was a great relief; he was tired of people talking to him. He stood to go into his tent... get away from distant murmurs and the troops' eyes, their unspoken concern--concern for him, as if he were the party injured. They were wearing him away like constant running water. Wearing that lucky youngster, Small-Sam, away--and so revealing more and more of the present Sam Monroe. Someday, they might be sorry....
He pulled the tent flap back--then let it fall, turned, and walked out into the camp, stepping on his morning shadow as he went.<...
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