Read me the story
The evening after she raised Veran Banner, the Lady drew me aside, after the daysend meal.
“Ilvren, I need you to return, now, to thinking as a Guardian.”
This I had been anticipating. Raising Veran Banner now could mean only one thing—that the Lady had determined to continue resisting the barbarian invaders, and that implied military action of some variety.
“My life is Veran’s, Lady.”
She looked at me for a long moment, then nodded. “Let us, then, summarize what is known. First: The invaders are indeed techno-barbarians, world-killers from the Hub. They issue their demands in the name of a place called Klaros.”
This was new information to me and had doubtless been included in the information brought by Captain Matyas’ bird relay. “Alas, Lady, the study of the Hub and its many powers and worlds was not part of my Guardian training. I can tell you nothing of these particular barbarians.”
She accepted disappointment philosophically. “Second: The King perished at a great battle in the foothills of Quavi north of Traaki Citadel, to the west of Gallyvaran Pass, nine- no, ten, now- days ago.” She canted her head. “Speculate upon the implications of this, please.”
I was already feeling the old thought-patterns sliding into place. It was not dissimilar to a planning exercise during Practice Wars.
“We know the blood-banners were sent forth the day we set forth from Bellflower House. That leaves a period of nine days for the levies and Militias to gather to their muster-points. The Traaki Citadel was already overcome, so the principal gathering would have been at either Nendaari House or the Charter City of Pequavil. Both are designated muster points. Nine days…” I tried to recall what I had known of the strength estimates for those karils, but most of my actual experience had been in the west.
“Perhaps eighteen thousand Militia, and another sixty thousand levies. The supply caches at Pequavil, Missar Valley, Old Syxarth, and Nendaar Gorge would have been available, and anything scavenged from Traaki.”
She frowned. “But Traaki was destroyed on the first day.”
I realized that she would, in all probability, know little of the matters concerning the Guardians and the Emergency Protocols.
“If the Captain of a Citadel judges an attack to be of clearly overwhelming force, his primary objective becomes to enable as many Guardians as possible to escape, using secret ways, and taking as much as possible of the Citadel’s materiel. It is certain that at Traaki, Captain Erillas will have made that decision.”
Her brows were drawn together, assimilating this. She nodded for me to continue.
“In any case, Lady, however many Guardians survived to fight at Quavi, they will all have perished quickly. To preserve the King’s life, and remove him from the battle zone to a planned fallback fortification would have been the task of the most skilled and best-equipped fighters that the Marshal could appoint. If this was not accomplished, it would seem to indicate that these Klarosians attacked in overwhelming force, and quickly destroyed all of the Royal forces.”
“It’s likely, however, that the Mayor of the Palace and other key Royal Officers will have not been at the battle site, and some may have survived. They will be making their way to dispersed muster points, and enquiries there may give us more information. Information is what we need the most. We cannot formulate much more than a broad strategy until we know more about what we are facing.”
Again, she nodded. “And that broad strategy…”
“Well, the basic strategy in a barbarian invasion scenario has always been the same, Lady.”
Her eyes darkened, the pupils dilating with emotion, but she did not speak, merely nodded again for me to continue.
“Increase the cost of their objective to where they will abandon the attempt to achieve it.”
“And what is that strategy likely to cost us?” She asked, her tone both dryly ironic, and curiously fearful, as though she knew the answer but hoped to be proven wrong.
“Lives, Lady. Many, many lives. Perhaps millions.”
Her eyes dropped, and there was a long silence, before she thanked and dismissed me.
We stayed another night at the Lyrin Chancel. The Lady sent one of the marsh women back with a message for Captain Matyas; she left with the Chancel’s debt-send in the form of metal slugs and powdered dryland herbs. The rest of the morning, the Lady spent with Leifara and Canon Lennari, preparing the messages that would send the banner forth throughout all Veran. No more, just now, than that the blood-banner of Veran was raised—that would suffice to let all the karils and Great Houses know that she lived, and thus Veran lived, and the world-killers had not prevailed.
After daymeal, I was summoned to Canon Lennari’s chambers. He and Elder Kevrilaasya, Leifara and the Lady, were gathered there, discussing Chancel business. The Canon and the Elder greeted me politely, and then took their leave.
“Ilvren, we must set forth the possibilities for our course,” the Lady began, without preamble. She seemed less weary and tense than at the banner-raising.
I nodded. “I am at Veran’s service.”
“I must assume that the Marshal of the Guard is dead, and the eastern and western Captains-Major, too. I have no experience in military matters, nor do I feel hopeful that military action—as I understand it, and my understanding is limited, I grant—will serve our purpose well. Nevertheless, it is a fight, and I must now lead warriors. You must teach me what you can.”
“You told me of Citadel Captains’ strategies—buying time for Guardians to escape, for the salvage of weapons and materials.”
“Yes. In the Protocols, that strategy goes by the name of Relnara, after the plant that scatters itself as it dies, to live again from each piece.”
She smiled. “How apt.”
“Precisely so, Lady. Like relnara nodules, surviving Guardians will be dispersing themselves as widely as possible, and seeking the resources which will enable them to raise a new generation of fighters.”
“Ahhhh…” Her eyes narrowed in comprehension, and she nodded for me to continue.
“Dispersal helps to avoid competition and make efficient use of resources, and increases the chances that some may avoid the notice of our invaders, as the relnara escape the rootling snouts of mountain talgar.”
“And how should Veran use this resource?”
“We do not yet have enough information to determine that, Lady. We must know more of the enemy.”
Her brows drew together. “But you were a Guardian, Ilvren—surely you know how barbarians fight?”
“In general I do. But as to particulars—there are thousands of worlds in the Hub. They share some technology and an economic framework, but little else. How an enemy fights is only one aspect of the intelligence we need to be effective against them. Why they fight… who they are, how they conceive of themselves… what tactics they favor, what they avoid… their strategic biases…” I shrugged. “It is all important.”
Her eyes were on mine, intent, narrowed a little. “I see. It is like striking a balance. You can’t be effective until you understand how all the elements fit together. How will we learn this?”
I had been turning an idea over in my head for some time. Not an attractive idea to me, personally, but personal considerations no longer held merit.
“We are making for the Westmarch. There is one there who might provide a starting place.”
I nodded. “He is the brother of Westmarch’s mother’s mother. He served four terms in the Guardians and became Elder Preceptor of the War Academy, before he retired. The Hub and its worlds were his particular study—I believe he even took ship with an Independent Fleet trader once, and visited some Hub worlds. Back in my mother’s time.”
“If he is still alive,” I added, belatedly. “Arrestar must be over a hundred and twenty by now.”
“We will hope he is still alive.”