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First battles, Rudolfo thought, set the tone for the entire war.

Rudolfo sat astride his horse and watched the line of forest. Gregoric and his other captains gathered around. Ive had a vision, Rudolfo said to his men in a quiet voice. The first battle shall be ours. He smiled at them, his hand upon the pommel of his long, narrow sword. How shall we realize this vision of mine?

Gregoric nudged his horse closer. By striking fastest and first, General. Rudolfo nodded. I concur.

Well send the scouts in first and drive them west like pheasant. Sethbert is no strategist, but his general Lysias is Academy bred-very conservative. Hell see the ploy and try to engage the scouts, judging them to be the inferior force. Hell think to put them between the ruins and the river and call up his contingency to keep the battalion occupied. His voice was low, and Rudolfo watched him make frequent eye contact with the others, measuring them.

One of the other captains smiled. First battalion will fall back at rapid retreat after a modest effort to hold their ground. If Lysias sees that what he thought was a brigade is only a battalion, hell most likely pursue.

Or divide his force when he sees that the scouts are our primary assault, Gregoric said. Or both perhaps.

Rudolfo smiled, remembering the song very well. Feint with the cutlass, strike with the knife. Then, strike with the cutlass, too, Gregoric said, finishing the lyrics out.

Rudolfo nodded. His father, Jakob, and his First Captain of the Gypsy Scouts had taught them the song to keep time with their blade and footwork. Later, Rudolfo realized, it had really been a strategy lesson, teaching him the Hymnal of the Wandering Army. Three hundred and thirteen songs had never been written down in the two thousand years that Rudolfos people had occupied the Ninefold Forest. They were written in the hearts of the living, moving fortress that first Rudolfo had built so long ago, the Wandering Army, and sung down to his recruits from the first day of training forward.

If he pursues the retreating battalion-as Im sure he will, Gregoric continued, hell find three more waiting and well net that fish.

Excellent work, captains, Rudolfo said. I will ride with the scouts and open this war in a way that is fitting for the general of this Wandering Army.

Gregoric nodded and the others did the same. It pleased Rudolfo that none of them worried about him entering the field. It meant they understood him and respected him as a soldier and a general.

Very well, Rudolfo said. He turned toward his aide. And afterward, he said, I will dine with the men.

Two hours later, Rudolfo hid in the copse of trees surrounded by magicked scouts. He sat on his horse

but the scouts around him were on foot. Their magicks would move them at nearly the speed of a horse and hide them from the eye. But at those speeds they would not be quiet. They would sound like wind rushing across the ground.

Gregoric looked at Rudolfo. General, would you give the whistle?

Rudolfo smiled and nodded. For Windwir, my Gypsy Scouts, he said quietly, and then whistled, low and long.

He kicked his horse alive and bolted toward the Entrolusian infantry encamped in the forest across the meadow, smiling at what they would see.

A horse, a single rider galloping forward with a narrow sword lifted high in the air. Around him, a wind low to the ground and roaring towards them.

He lowered himself on the back of his horse, holding his sword low and across the stallions dark side. He heard his Gypsy Scouts around him, catching slight glimpses of the ones nearest-though very slight.

They raced the meadow, entering the woods at breakneck pace. A few magicked Delta Scouts shouted because there wasnt time to send up birds. Rudolfo assumed one mustve decided to brave the rushing, invisible river because he heard the briefest clash of steel and a magick-muffled scream. The first of the Entrolusian soldiers rallied to that shouting, and Rudolfo rode straight into the center of them, Gypsy Scouts mowing over them like a wind of blades. Rudolfo turned then and rode back, laughing and waving his sword. He chose a man and rode him down, then took the ear off his sergeant.

Wheres your captain? Rudolfo shouted.

The sergeant sneered and lunged forward with his sword, drawing a line of blood along the horses side. Rudolfo kicked him back and brought the sword down on his neck. The sergeant fell, and Rudolfo whipped the sword over and took the ear off another sold cf abroier. Wheres your captain?

The soldier pointed, and Rudolfo put the sword through his upper arm. Hed not fight in this war again, but hed have his life for his respect.

Rudolfo spun the horse and rode in the direction the man had pointed.

It did not surprise Rudolfo that Sethberts worst and weakest were out for this particular battle. It was wired into the Academy to use the worst resources first as a gauge of your opponent. It also told the farmers at home they, too, could die heroic deaths.

He found the captain standing with three soldiers and an aide. The ground moved around him strangely, giving the Delta scouts away, but Rudolfo let his own contingent take care of them.

He slid from the saddle and killed one of the soldiers. One of his scouts-he thought it might be

Gregoric-slipped in and killed the other two.

The Entrolusian captain drew his sword and Rudolfo slapped it down and aside. They send me children, he said, gritting his teeth.

The captain growled and brought the sword up again. Rudolfo parried, then stepped to the side and went in with his knife to slice at the sword hand.

The captains sword clattered to the ground, and Rudolfo pointed his own sword at the aide. Ready your generals bird. He nodded to the captain. By now, at least six Gypsy Scout blades pressed in

against the shaking captain. You will write Lysias a message in Brundic script.

The aide drew a bird and passed a scrap of paper and a small inking needle to the captain. The captain swallowed, his face pale. What shall I write?

Rudolfo stroked his beard. Write this: Rudolfo has slain me. The man looked up, confused. Rudolfo whistled, and a knife tip pricked the young mans neck. Write it.

He wrote the message and passed it to Rudolfo, who inspected it. He handed it to the aide and watched him tie it to the sea crows foot. After the bird launched, he pushed his sword into the captain and climbed back into his saddle.

For Windwir, he said again, and turned back to join his men.

Then, for the next nine hours, Rudolfo helped his Wandering Army send that first message in blood to the man who had snuffed out the light of the world.

| Psalms of Isaak 01 Lamentation | Petronus