The young general is able to push her boys forward in the night but grows increasingly concerned that they are pressing further and further into the unknown. Once to a temporary laager, tired herself and not thinking too clearly, Faustina makes a foolish decision.
She turned her eyes and ears forward, alert to any input. Once the old highway curved back east-northeast it was completely straight and flat. The screening cavalry ahead had both precious floodlamps as well as torches to check for major breaks in the road, such as around culverts. With that forewarning, Faustina was able to keep their pace quicker than it would have been in the dark and rain.
Some hours later a torch’s flicking light briefly illuminated a rusted sign declaring ‘Foxworth.’ Just beyond it, where a much smaller road stretched into the darkness ninety degrees from their direction of travel to the northwest, six of her troopers waited on their horses.
“This is General Hartmann,” she called as they came close to their position. “Situation?”
Surprised that she was so far forward, their underofficer, Smythe, Faustina recalled, answered. “This is the detour, General! Two-thirds of a mile before the road curves northeast and a half-mile before the bridge. It’s another mile until y’all’s be out of the flood plain. What’s left of the town, Columbia, will be on your right, about a mile away.”
“Thank you, trooper Smythe!” she called as they moved from the highway left to the smaller road. “Give my best to your poor, soaking mounts!”
Even in the dark, she saw his nod. Another three miles! And then what? It will be, Faustina considered the time, just after oh-two-hundred. That young legionary was correct: we cannot build a fort in this torrent and the dark. If I have them dig in, they will be floating, not sleeping!
“Tapscott?” she asked.
“How to rest the men in what is left of this dark? And in the storm? And, most importantly, how to rest them secure against an attack?”
“Venn diagram, General,” he chuckled, “pick any two!”
Faustina was about to kick at his ankle but he was continuing.
“Let’s see what the holding force on the other side of the river can tell us,” Tapscott went on, unaware of the danger his legs had been in, “and decide then. My guess is that some cohorts are simply going to have to stand sentry duty while the rest find a dry spot in abandoned buildings or under some trees’ canopies.”
“Understood. Thank you.”
“Not worried about your tail end?” he asked in mirth.
“I pooped this morning and my period isn’t due for ten days, why do you ask, legate? You are not my type, being human and all,” she called and raised. Those within earshot of their soft conversation were coughing into their sleeves to not laugh.
“I meant,” he tried to clarify as she could see enough to see his hands up in surrender, “the tail end of our column. Three miles is a long way in the dark.”
“So long as the legionaries know I am here, they will follow,” Faustina very lightly bopped her left fist into Tapscott’s upper right arm. “I must find a way to always be there for them. Ah!”
Four horsemen with torches, two on each side, bracketed the slight rise to the bridge over the Pearl River. At a potential tactical disadvantage, her legate of Third Legion had the senior centurion of his first cohort give them the General’s compliments and a terse summary of what was following as his unit began across, buffeted by the near forty miles per hour winds from the south, up and across the flatlands.
Faustina was extremely happy that elements of the cavalry holding the far side of the bridge had pressed on to find a place where their fellows could bed down for what little was left of the night: an abandoned neighborhood of houses built nearly a hundred years ago was about three-quarters of a mile on and to the right. No utilities of course but it would be roofs over her boys’ heads during the storm. She passed this onto Tapscott and got out of his way as he sent messengers flying in all directions as to which cohorts went where and who would take what watch on their developing perimeter.
Following a quick word with her aides, Faustina took four men with her as bodyguards and set off in the teeth of the driving rain to take a look at what was left of the town of Columbia. The nearly completely overgrown road wandered southeast for a bit before ending in what a rusted sign announced as Main Street. That led them into the old town center, occasionally lit up by flashes of lightning. She made a tiny noise and they all froze. Without a word, she slowly raised her right arm to point at the cupola of what was likely the courthouse. In it, they saw either a candle or oil lamp being moved about. Certainly not a lookout: their night vision would have been ruined by the light. Considering what to do next, another flash from the sky illuminated a street sign of Church Street along with a white H on a rusted blue background. Nodding at that, she led her four to the east.
If the hospital is non-functioning, perhaps there are some supplies we can take in the coming days before we move on after the hurricane.
It was now getting close to 0330 and the wind and rain were picking up. The wall of the hurricane must be nearly upon them. In the middle of what had once been an older but nice neighborhood of smaller houses, she picked the most sturdy looking, went to the broken-in front door, and stepped inside. Scrapped and rotting furniture. Making her way toward the north side of the house, to what had been a small bedroom, she sat down.
“We’ll wait here until either the worst of this pass or the eye drifts over us,” Faustina said quietly to her men. “We’re too likely to be injured by flying debris if we were outside.”
“What ‘eye’, General?” the eldest, maybe all of twenty, asked her.
After staring at him for just a moment, she realized her mistake: these were boys from Knoxville. They had no idea what a hurricane was. Faustina took a pen from her jacket pocket and made some circular lines on the wall and quickly described what kind of storm was above them.
“Damn,” the boy muttered again, “you-uns do know everything, Empress!”
“Not everything; I know what I know,” she replied with a smile, stilling herself to rest.