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Authors: Harry Turtledove

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Sentry Peak

BOOK: Sentry Peak
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Sentry Peak

by Harry Turtledove

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2000 by Harry Turtledove

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

P.O. Box 1403

Riverdale, NY 10471

www.baen.com

ISBN: 0-671-57887-1

Cover art by Carol Heyer

First printing, September 2000

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Turtledove, Harry.

Sentry peak / by Harry Turtledove.

p.     cm.

“A Baen books original”—T.p. verso

ISBN 0-671-57887-1

1. United States—History—Civil War, 1861–1865—Fiction.

2. Imaginary wars and battles—Fiction.     I. Title.

PS3570.U76     S46     2000

813’.54—dc21 00-033722

Distributed by Simon & Schuster

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

Production by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH

Printed in the United States of America

Baen Books by HARRY TURTLEDOVE

The Fox novels:

Wisdom of the Fox

Tale of the Fox

Sentry Peak

The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump

Thessalonica

Alternate Generals
(editor)

Down in the Bottomlands
(with L. Sprague de Camp)

PROLOGUE

N
ow it came to pass when Avram succeeded his father Buchan as King of Detina that those in the north would not accept his lordship, anointing his cousin, Grand Duke Geoffrey, as king in their lands. For Avram had declared even before old King Buchan died that he purposed freeing the serfs of Detina. The subtropic north was a land of broad estates, the nobles there taking the fruit of the labor of their fair-haired tenant farmers while returning unto the said serfs but a pittance. By contrast, merchants and smallholders filled the south: men who stood foursquare behind Avram.

Declaring he had inherited the whole of Detina from King Buchan, Avram would not suffer Geoffrey to rule unchallenged in the north, and sent armies dressed all in gray against him. Geoffrey, in his turn, raised hosts of his own, arraying them in blue made from the indigo much raised on northern estates that they might thus be distinguished from the southron men. Now Avram had the larger portion of the kingdom, and the wealthier, but Geoffrey’s men were the bolder soldiers and, taken all in all, the better mages. And so the war raged for nigh unto three years, until Avram’s general named Guildenstern moved against the northern army under Thraxton the Braggart, which held the town of Rising Rock close by Sentry Peak. . . .

I

S
weat streamed down General Guildenstern’s face. Hating the hot, muggy summer weather of the north, he took off his broad-brimmed gray hat and fanned himself with it. The unexpected motion spooked his unicorn, which sidestepped beneath him. “The gods curse you, you miserable creature,” he growled, and fought the animal back under control. It took a little while; he knew he was something less than the best rider in King Avram’s army.
But I hold the highest rank
. The warmth of the thought was far more pleasant than the warmth of the weather.

Beside him, Lieutenant General George shed his hat, too, and wiped his wet forehead with the sleeve of his gray tunic.
His
unicorn stayed quiet under him. Guildenstern noted that with a stab of resentment, as if it were a reproof of the way he handled his own mount. He saw slights everywhere, whether they were there or not. His thick, dark eyebrows came down and together in a fearsome scowl.

Lieutenant General George squinted into the westering sun, which glinted off the silver streaks in his black beard. “Do you know, sir,” he said, “now that we’ve forded the river, I don’t see how in the seven hells old Thraxton’s going to keep us from running him out of Rising Rock.”

Now Guildenstern’s eyebrows leaped upward in astonishment. His second-in-command was most often known as Doubting George, sometimes even to his face. He worried about everything. “That’s . . . good to hear,” Guildenstern said cautiously. If Doubting George thought Thraxton the Braggart couldn’t hold Rising Rock, he was very likely right.

And if by some mischance the army didn’t take Rising Rock even after Doubting George thought the town ought to fall, who would get the blame? Guildenstern knew the answer to that only too well.
He
would, no one else. Not his second-in-command, certainly.

He reached for the flask of brandy he wore on his belt next to his sword. He took a long swig. Peaches and fire ran down his throat. “Gods, that’s good,” he rasped—another warmth obviously superior to the local weather.

“Nothing better,” Lieutenant General George agreed, though he didn’t carry a flask in the field. He nodded to himself. “We’re coming at Rising Rock from three directions at once, and we outnumber Thraxton about eight to five. If he doesn’t fall back, he won’t have much to brag about once we’re through with him.”

“Count Thraxton is a sorcerer of no small power.” Guildenstern knew every officer within earshot was listening for all he was worth. He didn’t want any of his subordinates thinking the attack on Rising Rock would prove a walkover, just in case it turned out not to be.

“Oh, no doubt,” Doubting George said. “But we gain on the northerners in wizardry, so we do, and the Braggart’s spells have already gone awry a time or two in this war. I wouldn’t fall over dead with surprise if it happened again.”

Was he really as guileless as he seemed? Could anyone really be that guileless?
Or is he laying traps beneath my feet?
Guildenstern wondered. Had he been Doubting George’s second-in-command, that was what he would have done. He took another swig of brandy. He trusted what he carried in his flask. That was more than he could say of the men who served under him.

But I’m advancing
, he thought.
As long as I’m advancing, as long as I drive the traitors before me, no one can cast me down
.

A haze of dust hovered over his army, as it did over any army marching on roads that had never been corduroyed. Because of the red-tinged dust, Guildenstern couldn’t see quite so far as he might have liked, but he could see far enough. The ordinary soldiers weren’t out to betray him. He was . . . pretty sure of that.

Regiments of crossbowmen made up the biggest part of the army. Save that they wore King Avram’s gray, many of them hardly looked like soldiers at all. They looked like what they were: butchers and bakers and chandeliermakers, tailors and toilers and fullers and boilers, grocers and farmers, woodsmen and goodsmen. Not for nothing did false King Geoffrey and the rest of the northern bluebloods sneer at King Avram’s backers as a rabble of shopkeepers in arms. Shopkeepers in arms they were. A rabble? In the first year of the war, perhaps they had been. No more. They’d never lacked for courage. Now they had discipline as well. The crossbow was an easy weapon to learn, and could slay at long range. That they were here, deep in the Province of Franklin whose lord had declared for Geoffrey, spoke for itself.

A fair number of the heads under those identical gray hats were blond, not dark. Serfs—former serfs, rather—had been free to bear arms or take on any other citizen’s duties in most of the southron provinces for a couple of generations. That accounted for some of the blonds in the ranks. Others had fled from their northern overlords. Avram’s orders were to ask no questions of such men, but to turn them into soldiers if they said they wanted to fight.

Even through the dust the marching army raised, the sun sparkled off serried ranks of steel spearheads. Archers were hideously vulnerable if cavalry—or even footsoldiers with pikes and mailshirts—got in among them. Posting pikemen of one’s own in front of them forestalled such disasters.

General Guildenstern’s smile turned as amiable as it ever did when he surveyed the spearmen. Far fewer blonds served among them. They were real soldiers—professionals, not conscripts or zealots. If you told a man who carried a pike to do something, he went out and did it. He didn’t ask why, or argue if he didn’t care for the answer.

The sun also gleamed from the iron-shod horns of the unicorn cavalry. Guildenstern sighed. The riders he commanded were far better at their trade than they had been in the early days of Geoffrey’s attempted usurpation. They still had trouble matching their northern foes, for whom riding unicorns was a way of life, not a trade.

And, of course, unicorns bred best in the north. “I wonder why,” General Guildenstern murmured.

“Why what, sir?” Doubting George asked.

“Why unicorns thrive better in the north than in our part of the kingdom,” the army commander answered. “Hardly anyone up here is virgin past the age of twelve.”

His second-in-command chuckled, but said, “That’s just superstition, sir.”

“I should hope so,” Guildenstern growled. “If it weren’t, every bloody one of our riders’d go on foot.” He sent Lieutenant General George a baleful stare. Was the seemingly easygoing officer trying to undermine him by pointing out the obvious? When Doubting George muttered something under his breath, Guildenstern’s ears quivered. “What was that?” he asked sharply.

“I said, ‘The enemy is weak,’ sir.” Doubting George’s voice was bland.

That wasn’t what General Guildenstern thought he’d said. Gods knew it had sounded a lot more like “Unicorn Beak.” Guildenstern’s left hand came up to stroke his nose. It was of generous, even noble, proportions, yes, but no one had presumed to call him by that uncouth nickname since he’d graduated from the officers’ collegium at Annasville. He’d hoped it was years forgotten.

Maybe he’d misheard. Maybe. He tried to make himself believe it.

Asses—unicorns’ humbler cousins—hauled the wagons that kept the army fed and supplied. They also brought forward the stone-throwers and the dart-flingers that made the footsoldier’s life so unpleasant in this war and that sometimes—when the gods chose to smile—made siegecraft move at something faster than a glacial pace.

A company’s worth of men in long gray uniform robes also, to a man, rode asses. General Guildenstern’s lip curled as his eye lit on them. “Why is it,” he demanded of no one in particular, “that we can’t find a wizard—not a single bloody wizard—who knows what to do when he climbs on a unicorn?”

“I don’t much care about that, sir,” Doubting George said. “What I want to know is, why can’t we find a single bloody wizard who knows what to do when he opens a grimoire?”

“Demons take them all,” Guildenstern muttered. That was, of course, part of the problem. Demons
had
taken a couple of southron wizards in the early days of the war. Down in the south, mages were more used to using sorcery in business than in battle, and military magic was a very different game, as the elegant and arrogant sorcerers who served Grand Duke Geoffrey had proved several times.

“We do need them,” Lieutenant General George said with a sigh. “They are up to holding off some of what the enemy’s wizards throw at us.”

“Some,” Guildenstern granted grudgingly. He kept on glaring over toward the mages, though. As if his gaze had weight, it drew the notice of a couple of them. He would have taken pride in the power of his personality . . . had he not misliked the way they looked back at him. Like any man of sense, he wore an apotropaic amulet on a chain around his neck. His left hand stroked it, as if reminding it to do its job. Measured against the mages who fought for Geoffrey, most of King Avram’s wizards were less than they might have been. Measured against a man who was a soldier and not himself a mage, they remained intimidating.

Doubting George said, “I wonder what sort of hellsfire Count Thraxton’s cooking up over there in Rising Rock.”

Now General Guildenstern glared at him. “You were the one who said his spells kept going wrong. Have you changed your mind all at once?”

“Oh, no, sir.” His second-in-command shook his head. “I think we’ll lick him right out of his boots.” Yes, he could afford to be confident; he wouldn’t have to explain what had gone wrong if the army failed. “But it’s always interesting to try and figure out what the whoresons on the other side’ll throw at us, don’t you think?”

“Interesting.” It wasn’t the word Guildenstern would have used. Rather to his relief, he was spared having to figure out
which
word he would have used, for a scout came riding toward him, waving to be noticed. More often than not, Guildenstern would have let the fellow wait. Now he waved back and called, “What’s your news?”

Saluting, the young rider answered, “Sir, some of our pickets have run the traitors out of Whiteside. The little garrison they had there is falling back toward Rising Rock.”

“Splendid.” Guildenstern brought a fist down on his thigh in solid satisfaction. “I’ll spend the night there, then.” The scout saluted again and galloped back off toward the west, no doubt to warn the men who’d taken the hamlet to have ready a lodging suitable for the army commander.

They didn’t do a perfect job. One of Grand Duke Geoffrey’s banners—red dragon on gold—still floated above Whiteside when General Guildenstern rode in as the sun was setting. At his snarled order, troopers hastily replaced it with Detina’s proper ensign—gold dragon on red. The general doffed his hat to the kingdom’s banner before dismounting and striding into the village’s best, and only, inn.

The innkeeper served up a decent roast capon and a tolerable bottle of white wine. He’d likely favored Geoffrey over Avram, but did a fair job of hiding it. By their blond hair and blue eyes, both the serving wenches who brought Guildenstern his supper were serfs, or rather had been till his army entered Whiteside. The wine—and, no doubt, the brandy he’d put away before—left the general feeling expansive. Beaming at the wenches, he asked them, “And how do you like your freedom?”

“Oh!” they exclaimed together, like characters in a comedy. Their names were Lindy and Vetty; Guildenstern wasn’t quite sure which was which. Whichever the younger and prettier one was, she said, “Hadn’t thought about it much, your lordship, sir. I guess it’ll be pretty good—money of our own and all, I mean.”

By his scowl, the innkeeper didn’t think it would be so good. Now he’d have to pay them wages instead of hiring them from whichever local noble controlled their families. “Freedom,” Guildenstern said, quoting King Avram, “is worth the price.”

He wasn’t altogether sure he believed that; he’d never had any great liking for yellow-hairs himself. But he enjoyed throwing it in the innkeeper’s face and watching the fellow have to paste on a smile and pretend he agreed. “Just as you say, General,” he replied, as if each word tasted bad.

“Just as I say?” Guildenstern echoed complacently. “Well, of course.”

When the innkeeper took him up to his bedchamber over the dining hall, he found it a rough match for the supper he’d had: not splendid, but good enough. “Won’t find anything finer this side of Rising Rock,” the innkeeper said.

“No doubt.” Guildenstern’s voice was dry; there weren’t any more towns between Whiteside and Rising Rock. But he put that out of his mind, for something else was in it: “Send me up the prettier of your girls, the one with the freckles, to warm my bed tonight.”

“With the freckles? That’s Lindy.” The innkeeper’s smile went from deferential to rather nasty. “Can’t just send her up, now can I, sir? Not if she’s free, I should say. She’ll have to decide all by herself if she wants to come up here.”

“By the gods!” General Guildenstern exploded. “That’s taking things too far, don’t you think?” The innkeeper just stood there. “Oh, all right,” Guildenstern said with poor grace. “
Ask
her, then.”

He wondered if he’d made a mistake. If the girl said no, he would never live it down. But Lindy knocked on his door a few minutes later. As soon as he closed it behind her, she pulled her shift off over her head. Guildenstern enjoyed himself. If she didn’t, she was a reasonably good actress.

Afterwards, she leaned up on one elbow beside him, so that the soft, pink tip of her bare breast poked him in the shoulder. “You trounce our lords,” she said earnestly. “Trounce ’em good, and every blond girl in the kingdom’ll open her legs for you.”

“One more reason to win,” Guildenstern said, and caught her to him again.

If Count Thraxton had ever been happy in all his born days, his face didn’t know it. He was tall and thin and lean, beard and mustache and eyebrows going gray. His features might have come from one of the masks tragic actors wore so even people in the highest rows of the amphitheater could see what they were supposed to be feeling. His eyes were large and dark and gloomy, the eyes of a sorrowing hound. Harsh lines of grief scored his cheeks. His thin-lipped mouth perpetually turned down at the corners.

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