Not about to get her army trapped in place for a week or even for days, Faustina proves her earlier guess correct: her boys were going to pay for their days of easy marching. On the heels of a 45-mile day, they must cover another 25… and the rain from the hurricane is starting to fall…
Faustina pulled up the radio hanging from the saddle’s pommel and keyed Gibson’s frequency.
“Gibson,” he immediately replied.
“New orders,” she not-quite shouted. “Break camp! We march in one hour! Twenty-five miles east and over the Pearl River. I’ll explain in a few minutes!”
“Copy. Moving out in one hour. Out.”
A week! I will not be in one place for a week! Yes, there are other creeks and rivers to come, but if the Pearl floods its banks, we’re trapped! Not happening!
Sliding off her horse at the west gate, Faustina was pleased to see the explosion of activity and the cacophony of shouted orders. There would not be enough time to disassemble the fort. They would have to make do with whatever they found at their next stop.
Tomorrow morning, she thought, seeing her cousin draw up next to her.
“We leave in fifty minutes, Seaman,” she yelled before running off. “Get to your cohort!”
Thirty minutes later the rest of her retinue from the meeting in McComb came back at a gallop. Not bothering to ask questions Owens and Tapscott ran to assess the readiness of their legions. The sun was just on the horizon when Third, perhaps to make a point to their seniors, was the first out the unfinished east gate. I warned them they would pay for taking it easy… they can march time-and-a-half until after twilight but will have to slow once it is dark. We’ve torches aplenty but I’ve no choice but to use our precious batteries for illumination, as well. The broken road ahead is still an old four-lane, but they will be exhausted once we cross the river’s flood plain. I am, to an extent, gambling that the Gulf Shore State is just that: a sea power, and will not have ten thousand soldiers waiting for us in whatever is left of Columbia, just across the Pearl. It will be at least an hour before my first scouts report back…
“Owens!” Faustina shouted as he led his legion out. “Recruits just became my vanguard! Were all of your little girls bedded down comfy already?!”
“Not at all, Empress!” he shouted back, a laugh in his voice. “But these love-struck lads were standing about with their soup bowls in one hand and their other down their trousers waiting for Princess to feed them! Can’t tell if they were thinking with the stomachs or dicks, but surely not with their heads!”
“Which head d’ya mean, legate?” someone shouted from the ranks. Everyone, including Faustina, laughed, wondering what her cousin would do when this rippled down the column to where she was with the artillery.
She stayed at her post by the east gate, making similar observations to First as they marched out fast to use what little light was left to them. With a nod to her aides and no look back she fell in at the rear of her army and began the three-mile quick walk to the front of the column. It was patently clear that her cousin wanted to talk to her, but as this was their first night march in ages – have to remedy that – her duty was obvious. Faustina gave Ryland a friendly grin and pressed forward.
Catching up to Tapscott at the tip of the spear, he passed on what the riders had told him. “The road bows just a little south to a place called Tylertown before coming back up and east to the river. The road itself skirts that town by a mile north and they reported seeing no one at all. Relayed information from the far scouts should be here in about ninety minutes.”
“Get a man from our flank cavalry screen on you and have them ride back and find me,” she ordered, then raised her voice. “I’ve got to find a way to keep these raw recruits awake so the two legions in their rear don’t walk all over them!”
A chorus of “not happenin’!” “hell, naw!” “over my dead body!” filled the air. Faustina and Tapscott shared a look before she slowed her pace and let her army slowly move past her.
Only making it as far back as just to the artillery, and still not wanting to talk to Ryland, let her learn to deal with rumors! once twilight became night her place was at the front of the column. Not that her eyes were any different than a human’s. They didn’t need to be: the human eye could detect a single photon. But how were those tiny bits of input processed? Randomly, if at all by a human. She, a demi-human could tease patterns out of the darkness her men could not. Whether an active threat such as a sniper or passive such as a washed-out culvert, Faustina could be the eyes and ears of her army.
Case in point, she thought, as a rider to their left scanned their line…
“Here,” she barely raised her voice, moving to the edge of the column.
“Legate’s compliments, Empress,” the cavalryman said, turning his horse about just as the first drops began to fall from the sky. “Didn’t know you were so far forward. Long-range scouts say the main bridge over the Pearl is broke but a smaller, about a half-mile north, can get us’uns over the river.”
“Ride forward and tell legate Tapscott to tell the next returning scouts to take this message: Empress commands one hundred mounted troopers, minimum, to cross this bridge and hold the other side against all comers until relieved by me. Clear?”
“Clear!” he galloped forward.
“We’uns gonna have to build you’s a fort when we get there? Empress?” an older boy’s voice asked out of the darkness to her right. She was able to see his face and realize that, while tired, he was determined.
“Not once have any of you built a fort for me,” she said in a speaking tone, beginning to be muffled by the sprinkles. “I have you build them because I love all of you so much and want you safe. Dammit! This rain! Haul out your ponchos and rain covers, boys!”
As they did, she forced herself into a trot to get back to Third’s legate as soon as she reasonably could.
“Any new news?” she asked after waiting for Tapscott to finish talking to second cohort senior centurion.
“Besides expecting a line of horses dead from exhaustion along our line of our march, not really,” he replied in irreverent words but a professional voice. “I did tell the last two to try to trot and canter, reversing any they meet without critical information, to carry on your orders about holding the east side of the river.”
He turned his face to hers and she was able to piece together his concern and mirth.
“Fortunately, there is only one bridge tonight, Empress. This will be no Arnhem.”
“Hah!” she barked at him, provoking chuckles from those immediately around them. “You make me consider making an air assault company, legate!”
“Now why,” he said, following her even further forward, “would you need something such as that?”
“Need? You mistake me! I just want one!”
The chuckles were behind them as they stepped just past the first rank of her three-mile-long army column.
“We will angle left and due west in three hundred yards,” she said, now digging in her kit for a raincoat. A patter was quickly becoming a torrent.
“My eyes will lead you!” Faustina shouted over her shoulder. “Your Empress will lead you! I will never leave you!”
A little tired and getting soggy, the line took up the chant: “Faus-tin-a! Faus-tin-a!”