No, Fussy’s not the devil; but, she does have her demons. Once she catches “victory fever” after Savannah we’ll likely see more of them, I’m afraid. In the meantime, she really does care about “her boys.”
The next day they had a solid twenty miles to cover with many low ridges to cross. Faustina did not expect trouble from the oxen as the gradients were just not that bad but she did have their destination for that evening clearly in mind: a man-made body of water called Lake Summit. There was a large open field to the north of it for their camp and it was an excellent place to draw water for the next day’s march, which, while a few miles shorter, would have them over the last ridge separating what had once been the States of North and South Carolina.
Only a few miles into their day’s march and starting up the first little ridge, while walking along through her column, she first heard then ambled over to see a centurion, Rodgers, taking a legionary to task. The boy seemed a little unwell and was having difficulty maintaining the pace.
“Problem here, Rodgers?” she asked neutrally. Faustina tried to give her underofficers great leeway in their leadership.
“Not at all, Princess!” he replied with a toss of his hand to salute her. It would have made an American from the early 21st century apoplectic. “The little man here never had a beer before and is a little hung-over right now! Keep it moving!”
“He’s dehydrated,” she observed in ways the centurion could not. “Get him some water while I have a chat with my boy.”
“Miss!” he said, moving to one of the century’s mules in the unit’s center to get some.
“If you never drank before, boy, what prompted you to start yesterday evening?” she asked just loud enough to make sure his mates were listening.
“I… everyone else was, Miss… I…”
“Does your family drink?” she continued.
“No! We’re Baptists!” he looked around a little, nervous and sick. “It… uh…”
“Ah! Thank you, centurion!” Faustina took the large plastic container and passed it to the boy. She already understood that the young man had given into peer pressure. “Here, I’ll tote your load while you drink.”
“Miss?! You…can’t…!” but she had already taken the box of automatic rifle ammunition from his hand.”
“Don’t,” she said very coldly, “tell your commander or one of us what to do! The former will get you tossed out of the legions and the later just might get you killed!”
He nodded his apology and drank quickly, handing the oversize cup back to his centurion. At that, Faustina returned the heavy box.
“Rodgers? Keep an eye on him,” she said with a smile and toss of her head. “If he needs more water, detail one of his friends who thought making fun of someone’s faith was fun.”
The tension of the men around them was palpable.
“If this ever happens again to a single one of my boys, ever, then my army will be dryer than Caesar Dictator’s, clear, Rodgers?” her words carried.
“Absolutely!” he agreed, with a proper salute this time. She returned it before increasing her pace to continue her trek up through her legions to their vanguard.
“Wow…” Rodgers head the boy mutter.
“What? You never met her in person before?” he asked.
“No, centurion! She was so nice… but…” the lad shook his head a little, “…but so scary!”
“Hah! She’s our Princess and our good luck charm! She’s gonna change this world!”
“I think you are right.”
By noon Faustina had reached the space between her two legions where the heavy artillery was kept secure. Per a short conversation in the morning Gibson and Owens were there, as well as her cavalry commander, Connor. Not knowing if the surrounding trees might hold sharpshooters, no one saluted. A rusted road sign pointed right to a now-ghost town called Hendersonville.
“Everything correct?” she asked, receiving nods in reply. “Good. Connor? Once we cross the last ridge into the Savannah River watershed, we are only to remain a rumor if your horse troopers can screen us.”
“Yeah,” he replied with the gait of his legs typical for his profession. “Any heavy goods put ashore at Augusta, for road transport north, but there are portage stations, to get smaller shipments past the three dams. You know I have scouts in all directions but I’ll be takin’ a personal interest in what’s on our right flank.”
“Thank you. Gibson? In six days we’ll be in a shooting war with the PLA garrison in Augusta… and possibly with their gunboats, too. This will not be some brushfire engagement with leftover barbarians from the Breakup and my boys know it. How is their morale?”
“Solid,” he replied immediately, thinking she already knew the answer to her question. “More to the point, everyone wishes it was tomorrow, not nearly a week from now.”
“They might change their tune once the casualties begin,” she said with her mouth in a line.
“Soldiers, excuse me, legionaries, know that fighting entails killing and being killed; wounding and being wounded,” Owens contributed with a sidelong look. “We’ve all covered this before, Miss.”
“I’m aware,” Faustina replied, idly rubbing her temples before pitching her voice a little louder. “I have total faith in my boys and my officers. Not just for the task before us but the crusade to come, of which this is just the first step!”
Another nod to her legates and she continued her walk forward to talk to the men. The two men kept pace with each other in silence until she disappeared into the mass of Tenth Cohort, First Legion.
“You saw that, too, didn’t you?” Owens asked Gibson quietly. The men around them were talking excitedly about what she had just proposed.
“Her hands on her head? Yeah. When she…” Gibson waved in the air, “is away from what she calls signal too long, it weighs on her somehow.”
“From our interviews with the caravan leaders, Augusta only has some radio traffic,” Owens said. “Savannah, sure, but that’s six days after Augusta. Rather not our CO spazz out on beforehand.”
Gibson shook his head sharply.
“She’ll be fine; you’ll see.”
“Falling for our CO, Gibs?” Owens laughed.
“Eff you. You were at my wedding three months ago. I want this mission over so I take some well-earned leave to get the rest of my family started!” Gibson replied.
“Right. See you,” Owens said, slowing his pace to fall back into his legion. Gibson went to find the Society lieutenant who was nominally in charge of their borrowed long guns.
The little lake at their next camp was smaller than Faustina had seen in the old overhead imagery, but there was enough to replenish. Old chlorine tabs and some liquid chlorine vials were assigned to those men on water detail. When there was talk about swimming – something she had not considered – Faustina had her centurions cull out anyone who had been a lifeguard in or around Knoxville and station them where they could keep an eye on their buddies in the water. Just before nightfall and the closing of the camp gates all were safely back inside. With the gates closed, their general called a short meeting of the underofficers.
“We’re only covering about fourteen miles tomorrow as we have to get the cows over this last major pass, here,” she indicated the line on the map on the table before them. “However, here, about three miles after, is a place I want all of you to see. I want the centurions of the even-numbered cohorts to fall out first. Once they are back in line, the odd-numbered centurions.”
“And just what is it you want us to see?” Chesney asked for them all.
“It’s a surprise!” she said, letting her face relax into what it could be sometimes: that of an eighteen-year-old girl. “It’s in an old ritzy neighborhood and about a half-mile from the road, so even you can make it back in time, Ches! Dismissed!”
Faustina could tell that her legates were curious, but she waved them off as well. Turning to her staff, she began to plot.
“We’ll have to be at the tip, ahead of First Legion but just behind the cavalry screen,” she pointed at another more detailed map she pulled from underneath the first. “We’ll put little signs to direct the centurions. What I’m doing is important but I don’t want my boys leaderless for any length of time. Questions?”
The three had several. It was another half-hour before she could crawl into her tent.
Light rain and overcast skies had her grinding her teeth in frustration as they marched out of their camp, dismantled the movable parts, and got ready for the road. The gradient was not bad and the oxen did not slack their pace. While she stood at the top of the pass and saluted her men as they went by, Faustina considered if she could push them another five miles or so. The rain had stopped and sunlight was breaking through.
We’ll see, she thought.
When the last legionary was past but the horse troopers still a quarter-mile behind, she made her way quickly to the front of the column. Tapscott objected to her going forward but she overruled him. They were almost to her surprise.
To their left in what had been a gated golf community, now almost completely reclaimed by forest, the four of them tied red ribbons and staked signs. Walking from the eighteen-inch grass of a fairway onto a putting green, her runner could not suppress his gasp.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Faustina agreed, hearing the first of her two groups coming quickly. She walked right to the edge of the cliff and waited. Once they came into view she waved for them to come on.
As their eyes took in the panorama, the eleven slowed but still came on.
“Dear God,” Greene said, staring off into the distance.
“That was Spartanburg,” Faustina said, pointing southeast, “about twenty miles. There, to the south, is Greenville, part of the convoy route.”
“But all of this!” she called to them, “Is going to be mine! And I will be granting lands and titles to my officers, centurions, and those decorated for valor! Titles and land that their children will inherit and pass on to their children! All of whom will serve me in my legions as I make this part of the world new!”
“Just how long, Princess,” Owens asked with a half-smile, “do you plan on living?”
“Forever.” Deadly serious.
The men dressed into two lines of five, with the Legate just ahead, and saluted. She returned it and tossed her head for them to go.
‘Princess’, she thought. Soon I must marry and make my own heirs. And they will be called kings and emperors!
She regained her composure just as the second group was upon her.