Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Snippets of upcoming and in-progress works.
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Ten

The first impression I had of the City Guard, which only grew stronger over my first week of service, was that they were simply not a very professional outfit. The rules and regulations were astonishingly loose, to the point there was practically unlimited scope for abuse and corruption ... as long as the guardsman in question didn’t pick on a landlord or a magician or someone with enough money to land the guard in hot water. I’d wondered, at first, why they’d been so quick to snap me up and put me to work, my mind suggesting all sorts of possibilities before it had dawned on me just how desperate the guards were for manpower. We were not popular. We slept in our barracks, in the guardhouse, because sleeping outside was asking for trouble. I had the feeling the vast majority of the population hated our guts. We were, at best, tolerated.

It was hard not to blame them, I decided, as I worked through my probationary period. Horst and Fallows weren’t bad people, not in the sense they were terrorists or insurgents or rapists, but they were corrupt and often bullies. It was hard to watch them angling for bribes and not say something, to not call them out for being assholes to the people they were supposed to protect. I knew there’d be no point - collecting bribes was one of the perks of the job, the very few perks of the job - but it was still galling. It was all I could do, at times, to bite my tongue as I learned how the city actually worked. I had the feeling the formal rules, such as they were, bore little resemblance to reality.

Slowly, a picture began to emerge. The city did have a formal government, but it was dominated by the landlords. They’d stacked everything in their favour. The highest-ranking posts in the government belonged to them and their families by right, with no one else so much as having a hope of being promoted. The landlords were a de facto aristocracy, practically a state within a state. They paid for everything, which gave them vast power over the entire city. There were no limits on their power, at least within the walls. Outside, where the warlords held sway, was a different matter. The city’s walls were strong, but an army wouldn’t need to break into the city to take power. They’d just have to lay siege to the city and wait for the population to starve.

I kept asking questions, ignoring the snide remarks from my fellow guardsmen as I showed my ignorance time and time again. There was a certain safety in being underestimated, but still ... I guessed some of them suspected I’d come from a very long way away, although they couldn’t possibly have realised just how far I’d come. I was weird to them, a man with completely alien values. I tried to keep a lid on it - the more different one was, the harder it was to be accepted - but it wasn’t easy. The more I learnt, the less I liked the city.

“You’ve done well,” Fallows said, when we came to the end of our shift. “I think you’ll be a full guardsman soon.”

“Thanks,” I said, rather sourly. It wouldn’t be long, I’d been assured, before I’d get more important work to do. Patrol was easy, as long as you didn’t run into trouble. Manning the gatehouses along the walls was apparently a great deal harder. I suspected that meant more lucrative. “Can we go to bed now?”

“Hell, no,” Horst said. “We’re going out drinking.”

I blinked. It hadn’t taken me long to realise that Fallows and Horst went out after dark, although they’d never invited me. I wasn’t one of them. Not yet. But now ... I followed them out of the guardhouse, through a maze of side-streets and into a tavern, torn between excitement and fear. It was hardly the first time I’d gone drinking - I’d engaged in many a drinking competition in the army - but here ... I might say something I shouldn’t. God alone knew how they’d react to the truth. They might think I was lying ... it might be better, all things considered, if they thought I was lying. The truth might not set me free.

I’d been in some dives in my time, but the tavern was easily the seediest place I’d ever drunk. The floor was filthy, the table and chairs crusted in the remnants of marathon drinking sessions, the music strange and atonal and the bartenders looking surly as they took our order and pointed to booths in the corner. I forced myself to breathe through my mouth as we sat down, wishing - not for the first time - that the guardhouse had a proper shower. My skin felt grimy, no matter how many times I wiped myself down. I didn’t want to visit the public baths - I’d heard some horror stories about them - but I was starting to feel I didn’t have a choice. I’d probably leave a trail of muck when I clambered into the water.

“Here.” Fallows shoved a tankard of something under my nose. “You’ll like this.”

I gritted my teeth, then took a sip. It was beer - or something closely akin to beer. It tasted weak, yet ... I had a feeling there was a lot of alcohol in it. The patrons were quaffing the stiff like nectar, throwing back their necks as they poured it down their throats and over their shirts. There was something nasty in the air, I noted, as liquid pooled around their feet. It felt as if a fight was going to break out at any moment. I warily checked my weapons as I took another sip. The beer didn’t taste any better. I supposed the more I drank, the less I would care.

Horst put his tankard to his lips and drank ... and drank ... and drank. I stared in frank disbelief as he held up the empty tankard, let out an immense belch and waved at the bartender for a refill. A waitress appeared with a new tankard, her eyes a million years old. I felt a stab of sympathy as she turned and hurried away. Bartending wasn’t an easy job, even back home. Here ... I doubted the drunkards would leave her alone for a second.

“So,” Fallows said. “How do you like being a guard?”

“It’s pretty interesting,” I lied. It was a job and not a very good job, but it gave me something to do and somewhere to sleep while I got my bearings. I’d learnt an awful lot about the city by keeping my mouth firmly closed and letting my partners do the talking. They didn’t seem to know much about the lands outside the walls - they had a striking lack of curiosity about the wider world - but they knew everything about the city. “I’m enjoying myself.”

“Really?” Horst brayed like a mule. “We must be doing something wrong.”

Fallows snorted. “You’ll get bored of it soon enough,” he cautioned. “By then, perhaps you’ll be on the walls.”

I shrugged. “How did you become a guard?”

“It’s a respectable profession,” Fallows said. His partner snickered. “And it suits me.”

I kept my thoughts to myself. I was pretty sure that was a lie. The police hadn’t been popular back home - certainly not where I’d grown up - but the Damansara Guardsmen were about as popular as a kick in the groin and somewhat less welcome. I wasn’t blind to how many people tried to escape our gaze, when we patrolled the streets, or told their daughters to hurry away from us. Horst and Fallows might seem like good chaps, but the locals regarded them as predators. No, scavengers. A pack of hungry hyenas might be more welcome.

“It’s fun,” Horst said. He waved for another tankard. “And profitable.”

He elbowed me. “You should make the most of it. You won’t be a guard forever.”

Hopefully not, I agreed silently. I’d been doing my best to think of concepts I could introduce, although it wasn’t easy. My mystery predecessor had scooped up all the low-hanging fruit. What few ideas I’d had - irrigation, for example - required connections and money I didn’t have. What am I going to do with myself?

I stared into my beer. I’d done some research. Renting a room within an apartment was expensive. Renting a whole apartment for myself was so far outside my price range that I would have get promoted several times before I could even consider it. One had to spend money to make money and I didn’t have any money. How the hell had Martin Padway done it? He’d made brandy ... somehow, I doubted that would work for me. And no one was going to listen to my ideas on irrigation either. Why should they?

Fallows smiled, coldly. “So ... tell us about yourself.”

It was an order. I hesitated. It was a good sign, I supposed, that they were showing interest in me. They hadn’t asked many questions over the last few weeks, even when I was questioning them. I understood - I was the FNG, as far as they were concerned, who might be gone in a flash - but it was still irritating. And yet, I would have preferred them to show no interest at all. I didn’t want to lie, but I knew I couldn’t tell the truth either.

“My family were taken from their homes, a very long time ago,” I said. It was true - and they’d believe it. The vanished empire had apparently scattered ethnic groups around its territory to make it harder for them to become a coherent threat. Or something. I guessed it was why there was so much diversity in places like Damansara. “I was raised a very long way away and eventually became a soldier.”

“A mercenary,” Fallows said. “And there I was thinking you were a decent guy.”

His words were so deadpan it took me a moment to realise it was a joke. Soldiers weren’t held in high regard, while mercenaries were feared and hated by just about everyone. I’d never been fond of them myself - I’d met too many during my time in Iraq - but here it was worse. They’d fight for whoever paid them, as long as the money held out; they’d loot, rape and burn their way through towns and villages, regardless of which side they were actually on. I’d heard the horror stories. Mercenaries were about as welcome in the city as child molesters.

Horst grinned as he polished off yet another tankard of beer. “You fought in the wars?”

“Small wars,” I said. There were rumours of wars against evil sorcerers, strange monsters and campaigns on a scale that would have daunted Eisenhower and Zhukov. I was fairly sure the stories were exaggerated, but there was probably some truth within the lies. “It was a job.”

“Your mother must have disowned you,” Fallows said. There was something waspish in his voice, as if I’d somehow touched a nerve. “A mercenary, for a son.”

I shrugged. “My mother is dead.”

A sense of aloneness washed over me. Cleo and my sons were in another world. There was no one, as far as I knew, who’d understand my life. Horst and Fallows knew I’d come from a long way away, but they didn’t know - they couldn’t know - just how far I’d come. I took a sip of my beer, suddenly understanding precisely why people drank themselves to death. It would be so easy to crawl into a bottle and refuse to come out. I was doomed to be alone for the rest of my life.

There might be others, I thought, as I finished the tankard. Jasmine hinted there might be others.

I grimaced. I’d been lucky. Someone else might have been raped or enslaved or killed by now. If there were others ... I wished for my old company, with all of its vehicles and equipment. A company of modern soldiers could have taken the city, imposed a genuinely responsible government, thrashed the warlords and started hammering out a semi-modern tech base. The Lost Regiment would have had an easy time of it, without giant aliens roaming the lands and eating everyone in their path. They would certainly have survived long enough to get their bearings, then realise their technology was not only superior but very easy to duplicate. A American from the Civil War era would have been a hell of a lot more useful - here - than me.

Horst shoved another tankard under my nose. “Drink,” he ordered. He’d had at least four tankards himself and he was still surprisingly sober. Either he was used to it or I was wrong about the alcohol content. “It’ll do you good.”

I sipped the drink, while doing my best to answer questions without giving too much away. I had hundreds of stories of military service, but most of them would have sounded like blatant lies. They didn’t know about tanks or aircraft or any of the toys I’d taken for granted. I told them a little about my service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they didn’t seem too impressed. I wasn’t sure why. I had a feeling I was missing something.

The music changed. I looked up. A trio of travelling bards - for a moment, I thought they were Diddakoi - stood on the stage, striking dramatic poses. They didn’t seem fazed by the volley of abuse from the patrons. Instead, they started to sing. They were badly out of tune -and there was something archaic about their style - but I had to admit they had a certain charm. The patrons hooted and hollered, waving their tankards around as if they were going to throw beer at the singers. I guessed it was a tough crowd. The patrons certainly didn’t seem impressed by songs of the Necromancer’s Bane, Crown Prince Dater and a bunch of other people I hadn’t even known existed.

Horst waved at me as the bards took a break. “Did you fight in that war?”

I shook my head. There was no point in lying, not when I knew too little to tell a convincing lie. Besides, I wasn’t sure how much of the songs were made up of whole cloth. Half of them praised various people I’d never heard of and the other half condemned them. I wondered, vaguely, if the bards saw any contradiction in kissing a prince’s ass one moment and putting a knife in his back the next. Maybe they just didn’t care. The songs were probably written by the prince’s PR department and the bards were paid to sing them.

“That’s a shame,” Horst said. “It was supposed to be glorious.”

“War is never glorious,” I said, a little more severely than I’d meant. The beer was getting to me. “War is homes destroyed, men mutilated and killed, women and children raped ...”

I shook my head, forcing myself to sit back as the night wore on. The beer was making it harder to think straight. I was going to have a hangover tomorrow, my first in years. And yet ... I looked at Horst and Fallows, feeling a surge of comradely good feeling towards them. It was hard not to feel something, despite their flaws. They wouldn’t have taken me out drinking if they hadn’t been warming up to me.

Fallows stood. “This way.”

I felt wobbly as I followed them across the room and up a flight of dark stairs to a heavy wooden door. The air smelt hot, humid and scented. Someone had sprayed perfume everywhere ... I hesitated as we reached the top, suddenly all too aware of what was on the far side. Fallows didn’t slow down. He pushed the door open and stepped inside. A row of young women waited for us, wearing almost nothing. I felt my heart kick into overdrive as I struggled to sober up. Fallows had taken me to a brothel!

Horst elbowed me. “Our treat,” he said. “Which one do you want?”

My heart clenched. I’d been cautioned, when I’d started my military career, that many of the prostitutes in brothels weren’t there of their own free will. Some of them had been sold into sex slavery, others had had no choice but to sell their bodies to survive. And I’d been told - we’d all been told - not to visit brothels. I tried not to be sick as I remembered the dire warnings. STDs were the least of the dangers.

I caught a girl’s eye. She looked around nineteen, but her eyes were ninety.

“No,” I said. I didn’t want to catch something nasty. Magic could cure anything that wasn’t immediately lethal, I’d been told, but potions were expensive. I doubted the brothel forced its clients to use condoms. “I don’t want a girl.”

“A boy?” Fallows seemed pleased, rather than disgusted. “There are boys in the next room ...”

“No, thank you.” I allowed myself a moment of relief that I hadn’t drunk too much. “I’m still married.”

Horst leered at me. “Your wife will never know.”

That was truer than he could possibly have known. I scowled. “I’d know.”

Fallows shrugged. “Then you can wait out here,” he said, sardonically. “And if you get bored, feel free to take one of the girls.”

“Will do,” I said. I considered heading back to the guardhouse, then dismissed the thought before it had fully-formed. I would be alone and not entirely sober. It would be asking for trouble. “I’ll wait for you downstairs.”

They shrugged, then made their choices and took the girls into the next room. I forced myself to sit back and wait, ignoring the titters from the girls. They didn’t know what to make of me. I supposed I didn’t know either. Part of my body was reminding me that it had been a very long time since ...

And you’d probably catch something nasty if you slept with one of them, I told myself. I didn’t know if AIDS existed here, but it wasn’t the only danger. And how would you cope with an STD?
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Eleven

I’d feared the worst, in the days and weeks after my abortive trip to the brothel, but neither Horst nor Fallows seemed inclined to make a big thing out of it. I’d worried they’d think less of me for not indulging, yet they didn’t seem to care. It made no sense to me, as we patrolled the streets of the city day after day, but I decided it was better not to worry about it. I needed a native guide, someone who understood the depths of my ignorance, yet I didn’t dare ask for one. The more questions I asked, the greater the risk of someone realising the truth.

Captain Alder seemed pleased with my progress, to the point he told me I was no longer on probation. I allowed myself a moment of relief, even though it didn’t mean any real change in my duties. Horst and Fallows seemed content to keep me as the third member of the trio, although I suspected I was meant to partner up with another guardsmen. Trios were rare in the City Guard. It almost always meant one of the guardsmen was on probation.

I forced myself to keep my eyes open, even though I had the sense I was just spinning my wheels. We rounded up soldiers from the garrison who’d sneaked back into the city - apparently, it was a flogging offense - and kept a wary eye on mercenaries as they entered the city long enough to buy supplies, recruit more infantry and left before their welcome ran out completely. I heard rumours of distant conflicts, of fighting between kings and princes and a whole string of lesser titles that meant absolutely nothing to me. Horst teased me, asking if I’d be tempted to join a mercenary band, but I wasn’t tempted. They looked even less professional than the insurgents I’d fought. And they were just as dangerous to anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path.

The weather never seemed to change, somewhat to my surprise. It was hot all the time, hot and dry and ... there wasn’t even a single rainstorm. It didn’t rain very often in the desert, if I recalled correctly, but it should have rained a little. Horst and Fallows didn’t seem to think much of it, when I asked them, yet ... I couldn’t help noticing that the cost of food was steadily going up. If the wells ran dry, the local population was screwed. I hoped the landlords had enough sense to ration water.

The good thing about getting off probation, I discovered, was that I had more free time to explore the city. I changed into a simple set of robes - we were advised not to wear our uniforms when we went off duty - and haunted the bookshops, sounding out the text as if I’d gone all the way back to first grade. I’d always loved reading - it had been an escape from a childhood I hadn’t enjoyed - but it was hard to work out, sometimes, what the writer had meant. There were so many different versions of local history, I discovered, that it was impossible to figure out the truth. Who’d done what? One set of books insisted that Crown Prince Dater had won the Necromantic Wars single-handedly, another didn’t even mention him. And I had no idea who Crown Prince Dater even was.

“There are more history books on the way, I’ve been told,” the bookseller said, late one evening. He looked old enough to be my grandfather, although it was hard to be sure. “Do you want me to put some of them aside for you?”

“I wish I could afford them,” I said. I was trying to save what little I could. “Are they reliable books?”

The bookseller shrugged. I didn’t blame him. Whoever had invented the printing press and devised new ways of making paper had concentrated on producing cheap pulp, rather than history and other non-fiction books. I wasn’t sure if it was an immensely clever move or a sign of naked stupidity. Probably the former. Getting people to read - and encouraging them to develop the habit of reading - wasn’t easy. If they enjoyed the experience, they’d keep coming back for more. My teachers hadn’t learnt that lesson. They’d wanted us to read books that were either above us, below us or simply so divorced from our lived experience that it was hard to follow the characters. I was lucky I’d done a lot of reading in my own time.

I waved goodbye as I stepped out of the shop. I didn’t think the bookseller liked me very much, although it was hard to blame him. The City Guard were little more than bully-boys, petty criminals in their own right. He had to fear I’d simply take whatever I wanted from his shop, even though he was probably quite well connected. His patrons might not give enough of a damn to support him. I knew how he felt,.

The night heat enveloped me as I made my way down the road. Curfew was a joke, this close to the fancy part of town. I saw men and women making their way up and down the streets, laughing and joking with the ease of people who knew they were unlikely to run into any trouble. I heard music echoing from a building and rolled my eyes. The locals had a surprisingly flexible concept of dating, from what I could tell. Young men were allowed to walk out with young women, perhaps even take them to a dance, as long as they behaved themselves. Both sides understood the rules. It made me wonder what my children would become ...

I stopped, dead, as it hit me. I hadn’t thought about my sons in weeks. I’d known there was no hope of getting back to them - Jasmine had said as much, and the books I’d read hadn’t so much as suggested the concept of alternate worlds - but I hadn’t wanted to forget them. The sudden realisation was so strong, so painful, that it almost drove me to my knees. I wanted to see them again, I wanted to see my sons so badly I was prepared to agree to anything - anything at all - if it took me back to them. And yet I knew it couldn’t be done. There was no way home.

The streets grew darker as I wandered through the alleyways, alone with my thoughts. The allays were emptier here, the homeless regularly chased into the poorer regions of town to fend for themselves ... or die, more likely. I cursed savagely as I wandered past another dance hall, the faint sound of music touching my ears. I didn’t belong in this world. I wanted to go home. I wanted ...

I tensed, senses snapping alert without quite knowing why. I’d heard something ... one hand dropped to the club at my belt, the other reaching for the whistle. I was off-duty, technically, but Captain Alder had made it clear a guardsman was never truly off-duty. If I heard the whistle, I had to respond. I had no choice. If I didn’t, they might not respond to me when I was in trouble. I clutched the club as I inched forward, listening carefully. Someone was protesting, quietly. Ice ran down my spine. I’d heard that tone before, from people who wanted to protest - to object, to say no - without drawing attention. I reached the edge of the alley and peered into the darkness. My eyes were good, but it was so dark it still took me a moment to be sure of what I was seeing. A young man was pressing a young woman against the stone wall, one hand lifting her dress while the other was holding her still. I felt a hot flare of anger. How dare he?

“Let me go,” the woman protested. She squirmed against the ball, unable to break free. I cringed at the terror in her voice. “Let me go!”

I put the whistle to my lips and blew, then lunged forward. The man gaped at me, a moment before I yanked him away from the girl and thrust him to the ground. He landed with a grunt and tried to roll over, too late. I put my foot on his back and pushed down hard, pinning him to the ground as surely as he’d pinned his victim to the wall. I heard a gasp from the girl as she stumbled back, but I had no time to console her. I caught the would-be rapist’s wrists and held them behind his back with one hand, while I frisked him with the other. He wasn’t carrying much, beyond a pouch of money and a silver wand. It felt unpleasant to the touch.

The man grunted, struggling against me. “Let me go!”

“Like you let her go?” I heard another gasp from the girl. “You are going to do some hard time.”

“Do you know who I am?” The man didn’t seem put out by my words. “I’ll break you for this.”

I pushed him down, just as the sound of running footsteps announced the arrival of a pair of guardsmen. One of them was carrying a lantern, casting an eerie radiance over the scene. I stared down at my captive, silently noting his features in case I had to testify against him. Olive skin, dark hair, darker eyes ... by local standards, he was quite handsome. But the malice in his eyes, as he looked at the girl, bothered me. He’d been going to rape her. He’d been going to ...

“My father will sort this out,” the man said. I felt my heart sink. “Just get in touch with him and he’ll sort this out.”

“We’re going to the station,” I growled. There was enough money in the young man’s pouch to bribe ... well, a guardsman or two. If I left him with the others, I doubted he’d stay in custody for any longer than it took him to realise he could bribe them. “All of us.”

I glanced at the girl. She looked around eighteen, although it was hard to be sure. She had long dark hair, a tinted face and dark eyes; she wore a dress that suggested she was decidedly upper-class. I wondered, grimly, why she’d been with him in the first place. I was very sure she hadn’t decided to go wander into the alleyway on her own. Her would-be attacker’s clothes were as fine as hers. Judging by the glances the other two guardsmen were exchanging, I might just have stuck my manhood into a power socket. Or pissed off a magician.

But if I’d done nothing, she would have been raped, I told myself. I knew the type all too well. The entitled frat boy, the one who thought his daddy’s money gave him the right to do whatever he liked ... the one who moved from crime to crime until he did something so vile that no amount of money, and expensive lawyers, could save him from a long prison sentence. I did the right thing.

The thought tormented me as we marched our captive - and his would-be victim - back to the guardhouse. The officer on the desk’s eyes went wide, the moment he saw us. He jangled the bell for Captain Alder and sat back, looking as if he was trying to pretend he was somewhere - anywhere - else. Captain Alder emerged from his office and blinked in surprise, then looked at me. I had the feeling he wasn’t pleased. I might have accidentally landed him in hot water.

“Elliot, go into the briefing room and wait,” he ordered. “Hoch, put our guests in the comfortable sitting room. I’ll deal with them in a moment.”

The girl shot me a shy smile as I walked past her, feeling my heart sink again. I’d saved her and yet ... I had a nasty feeling the fix was already in. If Captain Alder had recognised the would-be rapist ... I shuddered, unsure if I should just keep walking until I was out of the building, then put as much distance as I could between myself and the guardhouse before they realised I’d deserted. The briefing room was surprisingly cold, but ... I forced myself to sit and wait. There was nothing else to do.

I thought I heard voices from outside the door, men arguing over ... over what? Me? Or something completely unconnected to me? I waited, wishing for a glass of water or something stronger. I didn’t want to get drunk, but ... I knew it wasn’t always safe to drink the water in the guardhouse. The less said about the time I’d drunk unclean and unhealthy water, the better. They just didn’t understand the importance of boiling water first.

The door opened. Captain Alder stepped into the room. I stood to attention, clasping my hands behind my back. I doubted he’d appreciate a salute, particularly one he wouldn’t recognise. The guardsmen didn’t really have a salute. I had no idea what the local soldiers did, when they wanted to salute. The city was so slapdash, by my standards, that it was quite possible they did nothing.

“Sit.” Captain Alder pointed to a chair, then sat down himself. His voice, when he finally spoke, was cold and hard. “Do you know what you did?”

“I saved a girl from being raped. Sir.” It was hard to keep the disgust out of my voice. “Who is he?”

“Harbin Galley, son and heir of Lord Galley, one of the richest and most powerful men in the city,” Captain Alder grated. “And you had the nerve to arrest him!”

“He was going to rape her. Sir.” I allowed my voice to harden, even though I knew it was probably suicidal. There was no way in hell a young aristocrat, heir to a rich and powerful family, would have trouble finding female company. His family’s wealth would have made him very attractive indeed. “If I’d done nothing ...”

“If you’d done nothing, I wouldn’t have found myself at the centre of a political storm,” Captain Alder snapped. “I spent the last hour caught between two powerful men, each one with more than enough influence to crush my career - and yours - like ... like an eggshell.”

I gritted my teeth. “With all due respect, sir, he wouldn’t have been arrested if he hadn’t been able to commit a terrible crime,” I said. I loathed people who committed crimes and then complained when they were arrested and jailed. “Did she press charges against him?”

Captain Alder gave me the kind of look a parent might give a particularly stupid child. “Of course not,” he said. “His family and hers will sort it out privately. He’ll probably pay some compensation and the matter will be buried, protecting her reputation as well as his.”

“Fuck,” I said. I thought I saw the logic, but ... it was sickening. “That’s ...”

“The best anyone can hope for,” Captain Alder said. “If her family makes an issue of it, young man, his family will destroy her reputation in a bid to save his.”

“Bastards,” I said. I knew the type far too well. “And you just ... let him go.”

Captain Alder met my eyes. “You have been incredibly lucky,” he said. “Gayle Drache was collected by Rupert Drache, her brother. He went to some trouble to ensure you would not be in any trouble.”

“You mean he bribed you,” I said.

“Yes,” Captain Alder said. He made no bones about it. “And if he hadn’t, you would be in deep shit. Hardin could have had you sacked, or enslaved, or simply executed. You got very lucky.”

I stared at the floor. I’d wondered why the guardsmen were so deeply corrupt. Now ... I thought I knew. What was the point of being a honest cop in a corrupt city. I’d arrested a would-be rapist, only to have the criminal escape and ... and I’d nearly been punished for my good deed. The only thing that had saved me, irony of ironies, was another criminal act. I cursed under my breath. If I hadn’t intervened ...

You wouldn’t have been able to live with yourself afterwards, I thought, darkly. I’d thought I was saving Jasmine ... here, at least, I had the satisfaction of knowing I had saved someone from a terrible fate. I was morbidly sure it wasn’t the first time Harbin had tried to molest or rape someone. This time, at least, it had come to nothing. You can still look yourself in the eye.

“You’ll be spending the next two weeks patrolling the slums,” Captain Alder said, flatly. “If you do anything as stupid as this again, you’ll be dismissed before you drag the rest of us into the shit. Is that clear?”

I scowled. “Yes, sir.”

“Good.” Captain Alder stood. “Get to the barracks. Get some rest. You’ll be up early tomorrow to take the morning patrol.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. He probably thought it was a punishment. I was almost glad. It would keep me busy, making it harder to brood. I was starting to feel as though I was wasting my time. Or worse. If I stayed in a corrupt police force, how long would it be until I wound up corrupt myself? “Thank you, sir.”

Captain Alder stared at me for a long cold moment. “You got very lucky,” he snapped, coldly. His eyes bored into mine as he loomed over me, so close my fists were itching to punch him in the gut. “Next time, things will be different.”

I had the nasty feeling, as I stood and headed for the door, that he was right. And yet ...

You saved her, I told myself. Take pride in that, if nothing else.
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Twelve

The next two weeks were an eye-opening experience in so many ways.

I’d seen the slums before, of course, but patrolling them regularly left me torn between horror at the conditions - I’d seen better places in Iraq and Afghanistan - and a curious numbness that made it hard to think of anything I could do for them. I was one guard, one man, and there was no way I could even begin to come to grips with the sheer scale of the poverty grinding the poor into the ground. I wanted to do something to help, yet nothing came to mind. The slums were an endless nightmare of crime, where one could either be the victim or the victimiser ... or both. Just walking through the slums made me sick. It didn’t help that I was seriously worried no one would come to my aid if I blew my whistle.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been the FNG, but it was ... different. The guardsmen - the other guardsmen - knew I’d managed to wind up in deep shit. They feared what would happen, if they stayed too close to me. I understood all too well - people rarely confronted abusers as long as the abusers had the power to strike back - but it still galled me. The guardsmen regarded me as a lightning rod, someone who might draw fire just by being there. I liked to think I would have been more understanding, if I was in their place, but it was hard to be sure. Standing next to the guy throwing shit was never a good idea. It was hard to blame the guardsmen for wanting to make sure they were as far from me as possible.

I found myself wondering if it was time to move on, although I had no idea where I could go. I’d read a great deal about the local political situation, about the warlords and the powers beyond the kingdom, but ... where could I go? The thought of being a mercenary offended my pride, yet ... how many other choices did I have? I could sign on as a bodyguard, I supposed, but that would have its own problems. I’d heard enough grumbling about conveys being harassed, as they made their way through the disputed lands, to fear the worst. If the warlords were stopping the Diddakoi, it was easy to believe they’d be stopping farmers and harassing them too. And there’d be nothing I could do about it.

The thought tormented me as I made my way up and down the slums, alone in a crowded sea of humanity. My uniform separated me from the poor and downtrodden, my conduct separated me from the other guardsmen and my knowledge and experience separated me from the rest of the city. I’d read dozens of books where the time traveller had made himself a fortune, but ... those books mocked me, every time I recalled how easy it had been for men who’d had a friendly author. I had nothing, beyond a handful of coins. There was no way I could convince someone to let me innovate, not when it would take years for them to see any real results. All of the low-hanging fruit had already been plucked.

There might be another cross-world traveller out there, I thought. I was actually fairly sure of it. Convergent evolution might have led to a written language resembling English, but not an exact duplicate. The letters had appeared, as far as the locals were concerned, out of nowhere. But where is he?

I sighed as I made my way back to the guardhouse. There were hundreds of stories of great magicians and aristocratic warlords and great innovators, stories that had grown so much in the telling that it was impossible to sort the kernel of truth from the bodyguard of complete nonsense. I had the feeling I could spend the rest of my life trying and yet draw a complete blank. It was funny how I’d never realised just how big the world was until I’d found myself in a place without cars and trains, let alone jumbo jets. The flight from America to Iraq had been somewhere around twelve hours. Now, getting from Damansara to half-mythical lands like Zangaria or Alluvia would take months ... if I was lucky. There was no way I could afford a trip through the portals. They cost far too much for commoners like me.

“Welcome back.” Captain Alder didn’t sound pleased. He hadn’t, ever since he’d sent me to the slums. “Report to the briefing room.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, deciding it would be better not to point out that I’d been on patrol for the last three hours. Alone. The guardsmen were never meant to patrol alone. I had a feeling it was intended as more than just a punishment. A lone guard could easily be picked off by criminals or rebels, his body left to rot in the streets. “I’m on my way.”

I walked down the corridor, pausing long enough to pick up a tankard of small beer - it had very little alcohol content, I’d been assured - before I stepped into the briefing room. It was crammed with guards, people I recognised mingling with people I’d never met. I felt eyes following me as I leaned against the wall, sipping my beer. It tasted ghastly, but there was nothing else to drink. The City Guard didn’t seem to have coffee and donuts on tap. We were lucky to get the beer.

The guards spoke in low voices, sharing notes and rumours as they tried to guess what was going on. I kept my eyes on my beer, while listening as best as I could, but no one seemed to know the truth. Mutterings about warlord activity on the edge of the city’s nominal territory were mingled with rumours about parades and additional duties, perhaps even an expanded deployment into the slums. I suspected it would just make them worse. The slum dwellers hated and feared the guards, seeing them as just another bunch of exploitive bastards. I was the cream of the cream, just for not taking whatever I wanted and harassing their women. It made me feel like I’d been awarded a prize for common decency.

Captain Alder entered, followed by Storm. The sorcerer’s eyes swept over the room, lingering briefly - very briefly - on me. I felt a rustle of unease passing through the massed guardsmen, as if they were confronting a wild - and rabid - animal. I’d heard so many stories about magicians, and what they could do, that I honestly wasn’t sure of the truth. We were strongly encouraged to have as little to do with the magical community as possible. I suspected it was probably good advice.

The captain spoke in short, choppy sentences. “Our agents have uncovered a gang of runaway-smugglers and their charges. Hidden in a warehouse. We are ordered to arrest them, then hold them. Their masters will take them off our hands.”

I frowned. There was something in the captain’s voice that bothered me, a sense that ... I wondered, suddenly, if he believed what he was saying. Or ... I’d met a bunch of officers who thought keeping information from the troops made them clever, or irreplaceable, but I’d never thought Captain Alder fell into that category. He simply didn’t have much to conceal. And yet ... something was definitely a little out of kilter ...

A guard I didn’t know held up a hand, then spoke in an oily voice. “Is there a reward, sir?”

“Yes, if we recapture branded serfs,” Captain Alder said. “Remember, we have to take them alive. There’s no reward for bodies.”

I felt my heart sink. Damansara was a magnet for runaway peasants and serfs, who fled the warlord estates in hopes of finding a better life in the city. In theory, they were allowed to claim their freedom if they stayed out of sight for a year and a day; in practice, the warlords demanded their return even if they were old and grey. They formed an underclass that lingered under the slums, doing odd jobs and brute labour for employers who didn’t give much of a damn about the law and exploited them. A handful made it, I’d been told. The remainder never managed to leave the slums.

And yet, the guard tries to ignore them as much as possible, I thought. What’s changed?

Captain Alder snapped orders, dividing us into squads. I joined my squad, keeping my expression carefully blank. Perhaps the time had come to slip away into the city ... I scowled as I remembered my little bag of cash was back in the guardhouse safe. I could rely on the administrators to look after it - as corrupt as they were, they knew better than to steal from the guardsmen - but I couldn’t get my hands on it in a hurry. There was no way I could convince them to give it to me and make my escape before the captain realised I was missing. He already had his eye on me.

The squads formed up, collected their weapons and marched onto the streets. I hoped someone was watching the guardhouse, ready to send a runner to alert the runaways that we were on the way. It wouldn’t be that hard for the people-smugglers ... my thoughts ran in circles as something struck me. The runaways might not have a pot to piss in, but the smugglers were quite wealthy. They could easily afford to bribe the guardsmen to look the other way. And yet, we were heading out to bust their chops. It made me wonder, as my eyes sought Captain Alder, just what had changed. And why?

It was a warm evening, as always, but I felt cold as we marched into the poorer reaches of the city. The crowds scattered in front of us; men and women, rich and poor, running for their lives as though the hounds of hell itself were after them. I felt cold, remembering the days when Iraqis and Afghanis had done the same, not so much scared of us as what the insurgents would do to them, and their families, if they thought the locals were being a little too friendly with us. Here, we were part of the city and yet ... I fixed my eyes on the squad leader’s back, trying to keep my racing thoughts under control. The warehouses at the edge of the poorer quadrant were abandoned, were supposed to be empty. I hoped the runaways would have had the sense to station lookouts, to run for their lives if - when - they saw us coming. There were just too many of us to fight.

The warehouse loomed up in front of us, a surprisingly large and blocky building. I guessed magic had been involved in its construction, although there was no way to be sure. The City Fathers had hoped Damansara would become a popular stop along the trade routes, a hope that might not have been misplaced if the warlords hadn’t taxed the lifeblood out of convoys heading to and from the city. It was hard to be sure how many of the horror stories about the warlords were actually true - I doubted they kidnapped and ate children, let alone sacrificed them to the dark gods for power - but it was clear they were nasty bastards, too stupid to see when they were on to a good thing. From what I’d heard, they were so determined to cling to their power that they wouldn’t let anyone else have a shot at it. No wonder the runaways wanted to flee.

“Surround the building,” Captain Alder ordered, curtly. He carried a club in one hand and a shield in the other. “Squad Five will go in through the rear door and flush the runaways towards us.”

I groaned, feeling disturbingly unarmed as the squad took up position. It had been a long time since I’d done any sort of crowd control duties and that had been with my friends and comrades at my back, men I’d trusted with my life. Here ... I was all too aware there were guardsmen would put a knife in my back, if they thought it would earn them a pat on theirs from the rapist’s family. My skin itched as I saw the fifth squad making its way around the building. There weren’t many ways in or out. Captain Alder might be a corrupt bastard, but he wasn’t wrong. If the runaways were in the building, they had no choice. They had to charge us when the shit hit the fan.

“Remember the reward,” the squad leader muttered. He was the oily bastard who’d asked the captain earlier. “Don’t let them get away if you want a share.”

I looked up, sharply, as a crashing noise rent the air. The fifth squad were making their entry, breaking down the warehouse door and crashing inside. I braced myself, unsure what was going to happen. Hard entry was always difficult and dangerous, even with modern weapons. If you had to take the people inside alive, there were limits to what you could do to shape the battlefield. Here, they didn’t even have grenades. I had an idea for using gunpowder, but ...

The door exploded outwards. A mass of people - almost all men - boiled towards us, waving sticks, knives and a bunch of makeshift weapons. I read desperation in their faces as they charged us, determined not to let us take them into custody. I didn’t really blame them, even as I dropped into a combat stance. The runaways didn’t have anything to look forward to, when they were returned to their former masters. At best, they’d be hobbled and put back to work. At worst ...

A man crashed into me, swinging his stick in an arc that would intersect my head. I raised my club to block it, then kicked him in the chest. He grunted, but didn’t go down. I cursed under my breath as he staggered - he was a farmer, tougher than the average guardsman - and smacked him in the side of the head. He fell to the ground, blood staining his hair and pooling on the cobblestones. I felt a flicker of guilt, even though I knew he’d meant to kill me. He hadn’t been given a choice.

The guardsmen wobbled under the sheer fury of the attack. I saw a handful of guards knocked down themselves, men who would have been killed if the attackers had taken the time to do it properly. They didn’t want to kill the guardsmen, they just wanted to escape before it was too late. Another man came at me, fists raised. I banged my club into his clenched hands, then again into his stomach. He folded and crashed down. I stepped over him, fighting beside two more guardsmen as the stream of runaways seemed to grow stronger and stronger. We were being pushed back by sheer weight of numbers. I had a vague impression of a man with a scared face, stabbing a knife towards me; I saw a woman tearing open her shirt, the sight distracting a guardsman long enough for her to stick a blade in him. I turned, just in time to see her break through the line and run. I hoped she made it. Her victim would be lucky to survive long enough to make it back to the guardhouse.

Not that the local doctors can do much for him, I thought. Magical healers could work wonders, literally, but they cost too much for the average citizen. The doctors - they called them chirurgeons - were probably better described as butchers. It would probably be safer to keep the poor bastard well away from them.

The fighting ended, almost as suddenly as it had begun. I looked around, spotting a handful of guards lying on the ground. The follow-up units were advancing, scooping up the prisoners and shackling them. Captain Alder seemed oddly amused as he snapped orders, directing me and the other uninjured guards to help sort out the prisoners. I eyed him darkly, feeling my temper fray. The captain looked pleased, even though at least five guards were dead or so seriously wounded they would probably not survive the night. I had no idea why he was so pleased.

I kept my thoughts to myself as we searched the warehouse, flushing out a handful of runaways who’d tried to conceal themselves rather than join the flight. It was a crafty tactic, I conceded, and it might have worked if things had been different. I couldn’t fault the runaways for assuming the guardsmen would do as little as possible. God knew I hadn’t been very enthusiastic about the job. I hadn’t wanted to arrest people for the crime of running away from their masters ...

It hit me as we started to escort the prisoners back to the guardhouse. It had been a set-up. The runaways had been deliberately abandoned by the smugglers, left for the guardsmen ... they’d been left in a place that could be made inescapable, with a little effort. They might as well have been tied up and left for the taking! Captain Alder, I realised suddenly, had been working with the smugglers all along. He’d arrested the runaways, ensuring he’d collect the reward for sending them back to their masters ... I felt sick. I hadn’t thought much of the captain, particularly after he’d let a rapist go, but ... this was bad. It was one thing to do as little as possible, in hopes of a quiet life. It was quite another to actively do evil. And sending slaves back to their masters was evil!

And yet, what could I do about it?
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Thirteen

My gut churned all the way back to the guardhouse.

I was complicit. There was no getting around it. I’d played a major role in trapping, catching and shackling the runaways we were marching to their doom. The citizens on the streets booed and jeered, shouting mockery and insults at the runaways ... as if they were any better than the prisoners. I cursed myself, again and again, for joining the guard. I could have done something else, if I’d wanted to earn money. It wouldn’t have been that hard to sign on as a bodyguard or ... or something, something other than a guard. I felt dirty, as if I’d done something irredeemably wrong. And - in truth - I had.

The guards laughed and joked, chatting about how they planned to spend their share of the reward. I hated them, hated them more than I could say. This wasn’t policing. This was slavery. The prisoners had fled oppressive masters and come to the city in hopes of a better life and now they were going to be sent back, because the city didn’t care enough to even try to protect them. And I was complicit. There was no way I could tell myself that I had only been following orders, no way I could tell myself that I’d at least tried to uphold my standards of justice. I hadn’t been the one who’d let the rapist go. I couldn’t blame myself for that. But this?

I could have hit the deck and claimed I was knocked down, I thought. It would have been easy to let someone hit me. I knew how to take a punch. It would have been a gamble - the runaway might have stabbed me while I was defenceless, or merely kicked me while I was down - but I owed it to myself to take some risks. And instead I did nothing.

“You want to join us for drinks tonight?” Fallows slapped my back, hard enough to sting. “You can even pick a girl or a boy and take them upstairs ...”

I didn’t want to do anything of the sort - I really didn’t want to spend any time with them - but I knew I should. I’d had an idea. I could free the runaways myself. I could tell them to flee into the warrens before they were sent back to their former masters. And I’d need an alibi. I’d need people who could bear witness I’d been in a bar, surrounded by my fellow guardsmen, rather than alone in the barracks.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be glad too.”

Fallows winked at me as we reached the guardhouse, spoke briefly to the officer on duty and headed out for the night. A dozen other guards joined us, chattering loudly as we made our way down the streets and into the nearest bar. I tried to conceal my disgust. It was crammed with guardsmen, spending their ill-gotten gains. There was singing and dancing and girls in skimpy outfits, eying the half-drunken men to see who’d give them the most for doing the least. I felt my stomach churn as a half-naked man stumbled past me and out onto the streets, where he collapsed in a heap. Fallows laughed, then led the way to the bar. I said nothing as he ordered several pints. The drunker he was, the better.

“It’s been a good day,” Fallows said. “The reward money will keep us going for years.”

I kept my face impassive as I pretended to drink, spilling a little of the booze down my shirt to suggest I was already halfway to being drunk. Fallows didn’t notice. He was waving at the girls for more alcohol, then flirting with them in a manner that suggested he was already drunk as a skunk. I slipped him my tankard, swapping it for his empty one. He was so drunk he didn’t notice. Whatever they put in the beer, I didn’t want any of it in me.

“I’ll find a girl,” I said, with a shameless wink. “See you back at the barracks.”

“Cheap rooms upstairs,” Fallows said. “I ...”

His head lowered, then hit the wooden table with an audible thump. I stood - he wouldn’t be in any danger, not surrounded by his fellows - and weaved my way through the crowd, heading for the rear door. I’d marked it the first time I’d visited. It was right next to the stairs leading up to the brothel. Anyone who saw me would assume - I hoped - that I was going upstairs, rather than sneaking out into the darkened streets. I pulled my hood up as I stepped outside, allowing the darkness to envelope me. I was hardly the only person who fitted my description in the city, but there was no point in taking chances. If someone saw me and gave a proper description, it was just possible my superiors would start asking questions. They might been deeply corrupt, with a willingness to do anything for gold, but they weren’t idiots.

Just assholes, I reflected. I wrapped my cloak around myself to conceal the uniform as I hurried on. People who could do better if they gave a damn.

I felt my heart twist as I made my way down to the slave pen. It was little more than a walled warehouse, not that different from the building we’d raided earlier in the day. I’d checked it out weeks ago, fearing that I might end up in it one day. It wouldn’t be that hard to escape, even without my tools. I guessed the runaways were shackled, bound hand and foot. They knew what awaited them, when they were forced-marched home. They’d be desperate enough to attack armed men with their bare hands.

The warehouse rose up in front of me, illuminated by a single burning lantern over the gatehouse. The wall wasn’t that high, barely twice my height; the interior had been designed to make it difficult to climb. I scrambled up to the top, then dropped down and landed inside the courtyard. My lips twisted as I knelt within the shadows, waiting to see if any of the guards had heard my landing. The designers hadn’t expected someone to try to break into the slave pen. Who in their right mind would try?

I smiled grimly as I slipped around the walls, remaining within the shadows as I approached the gatehouse. There would be a handful of guards on duty, probably already half-drunk. I told myself not to take that for granted as I reached the gate and peered inside. A man was sitting at the table, his back to me. I drew my club and cracked it over his skull, sending him crashing to the ground. He seemed to be alone. I frowned - there should have been at least three guards on duty - and searched the gatehouse quickly before stealing his keys. Where were the other two?

Move, I told myself. Don’t slow down for anything.

I was committed now. I took the keys and hurried back to the warehouse. The door was solidly locked, but it was a lock I could have picked in my sleep. I opened it with the keys, then inched down the corridor and peered into the nearest office. A guard stared at me, his eyes going wide. I knocked him down before he could raise the alarm, then glanced around the office. A handful of papers lay on the desk, covered with unreadable scribbles. I cursed my inability to read Old Script as I looked at them, then turned my attention to the far doors and tried to open them. It took me several tries to find the right key to open the locks.

The stench was appalling. I gagged, stumbling back in disgust. The darkened chamber beyond smelt like a barnyard ... no, like a prison. I picked up a lantern from the office and held it up, shining it into the chamber. A sight from hell greeted me. The giant warehouse had been subdivided into a number of cages, each one holding a dozen chained and shackled men. Some of them had clearly been beaten into submission, their wounds left to fester and decay. There were no women or children. I couldn’t help finding that ominous.

Eyes followed me as I made my way up to the first cage. I tried to smile at them, knowing they’d take me for just another tormentor. They might try to jump me the moment I opened the cage. I inspected the locking system, silently cursing the evil genius who’d designed it. The cage wasn’t meant to be opened by just one man ... I supposed it was a safety precaution, intended to keep the prisoners safely confined. I cursed under my breath as I opened the first lock, then jammed the key in place. The system should be relatively easy to spoof. I told myself I should be glad they didn’t have electronic locks, with fingerprint scanners or PIN numbers. It would have been a great deal harder to break the prisoners out.

“Go through the office, through the gatehouse and run,” I hissed, as I opened the second lock. The prisoners stood, shaking off their chains. The noise was terrifying. I feared someone would hear it. I didn’t have time to search for the final guard, if indeed there was a final guard. “Hurry!”

I moved to the second cage and started to unlock it, working my way through the keys as the first set of prisoners made their escape. The second set followed the first, then the third. I tried to open the forth cage and discovered, too late, that I didn’t have the right key. The prisoners stared at me as I went through the keys twice, fearing the worst. There were ten separate cages in the giant warehouse. If I didn’t have the keys to all of them ...

Break the lock, I told myself. Hurry.

I dug a screwdriver out of my belt, inserted it into the keyhole ... and froze. My entire body locked solid. I could neither move nor speak. I couldn’t hear my heartbeat. I wasn’t even sure I was still breathing. Horror washed through me as I realised I’d struck a magical booby trap, that I’d effectively trapped myself. I’d thought the locks were absurdly simple, but I’d never realised why. The keys were charmed to open the locks. By inserting a screwdriver into the lock, I’d triggered the spell. And ...

My mind raced. The guardsmen hadn’t given me any training in what to do if I got jinxed, let alone hexed or cursed. Fallows had told me to make sure I gave magicians the upmost respect - and, if I got zapped with magic, to pray to all the gods it wore off before I went mad or got eaten or ... or something. I tried to think of a way of breaking free, but nothing came to mind. I didn’t have any magic myself. And I couldn’t move a muscle.

If my body is completely frozen, I asked myself, why am I still alive?

I heard running footsteps behind me, fading in the distance. The prisoners I’d freed were making their escape. I hoped they made it, even though I was grimly sure I was going to be taking their place. They could have tried to help ... I knew there was nothing they could have done to help me. Fallows - and Jasmine - had made it clear ordinary people were helpless against magic. I feared, as time started to press down on me, that they were right. There was nothing I could do, save wait. And try not to go mad.

“Well,” a voice said. “What have we here?”

My body jerked, then started to move of its own accord. I tried to fight, to resist whatever force was controlling my limbs, but it was useless. Thunder was standing in front of me, his eyes narrowing as he studied my hooded face. My hands rose up a second later, uncovering my face. Thunder frowned, then turned and walked into another office. I followed him like a dog on a leash, as helpless as a baby. My muscles did as they were commanded by his magic.

I struggled, mentally, as my body came to a stop. I’d been caught. I’d been caught and ... I was dead. Captain Alder already distrusted me. He wouldn’t need any more excuse to kick me out of the guard, to sell me into slavery, to even kill me outright. It wasn’t as if anyone would give much of a damn about me. Horst and Fallows would shrug their shoulders and move on to the next recruit. Jasmine would never even know what had happened to me. I wondered, as I waited helplessly, if she’d even care.

My mind raged. I’d tried to do the right thing and ...

Captain Alder walked into my field of view. He looked tired, tired and worn. The nasty part of my mind insisted he was exhausted, after spending the evening selling runaway slaves back to their masters. They were slaves, in all but name. Bound to the land, unable to leave without permission that was never forthcoming ... I wanted to swallow, but I still couldn’t move a muscle. Thunder held up a hand and twisted it in the air, light pulsing around his fingertips. My head lolled to one side, as if I’d been hit. The rest of my body remained unmoving. His magic held me prisoner as surely as chains and shackles.

“Elliot,” Captain Alder said. “Guard Constable Elliot, Son of Richard. Did you think you could claim the bounty for yourself?”

It was hard to speak. My head felt sluggish and my tongue felt ... I tried to think clearly, despite the discomfort.
leo
Site Admin
Posts: 5
Joined: Tue Mar 23, 2021 10:39 pm

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by leo »

More please!

This seems like a really good alternative entry point to the series/universe...

Leo
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Fourteen

I felt as though I was in hell.

My head hurt, pounding like a drum. My throat was dry. My body felt as if I’d gone several rounds with an artilleryman and lost decisively. My ... my memory was hazy, but I had the vague recollection someone had been trying to kill me. Panic shot through me as my memories snapped back into place. I’d tried to free the runaway serfs, only to be captured myself, threatened with a fate worse than death and then ... Captain Alder had knocked me out. Where the hell was I now?

I forced myself to remain still and keep my eyes closed as I reached out with my senses. I was lying on a bed, I thought. It didn’t feel as though I was tied or chained. I could hear someone - one person - breathing lightly. It sounded feminine, although I couldn’t tell for sure. Jasmine? I didn’t know any other women, not on this side of the dimensional divide, certainly none who would come to my aid. Who was she? I hesitated, then opened my eyes wide. The light was bright enough to make me regret it.

“Drink this,” a female voice said. “It’ll help.”

I forced myself to sit upright, despite the throbbing headache. The room was small, with nothing beyond a simple bed and a chair, but I had the sense of wealth and power. A young woman was standing beside the bed, holding out a glass ... a real glass. She looked to be around twenty, with reddish skin, short dark hair and a pair of gold spectacles. She wore a simple white robe that concealed everything below the neckline, held firmly in place by a green band wrapped around her wrist. I would have liked her if we’d met under other circumstances. As it was ...

She pushed the glass into my hand. I sniffed it warily, then shrugged and drank. If they’d wanted to poison me, they hardly needed to resort to subterfuge. They could have bashed my head in or slit my throat while I was unconscious. It tasted foul, as if I’d drunk oil mixed with rotten fruit, but the pain faded away. The woman smiled at me, then recovered the glass. My eyes narrowed as I looked at it ... really looked at it. Glass was expensive, very expensive. Whoever had brought me here was staggeringly wealthy by local standards.

“You probably need to drink some water too,” the woman said, pushing another glass into my hands. “And then you can meet the master.”

My eyes narrowed, just for a second. If she noticed, she gave no sign. I drank the water - it tasted pure, not the brackish slop I’d endured in the guardhouse - and stood, taking the opportunity to check for damage. There was a nasty bump on the back of my head, which felt uncomfortable when I pressed my fingers against it, but I was otherwise unhurt. My body felt surprisingly energetic, despite the beating I’d taken. I wondered, as I flexed my muscles, just what had been in that potion. The recipes I’d seen had sounded like something out of a jokey child’s cookbook.

The woman watched me with an amused expression. “Are you done?”

I nodded, glancing down at myself. Someone had removed my guard’s uniform and replaced it with a simple tunic. My gun and supplies rested on a table, along with a belt. I donned it quickly, breathing a sigh of relief it hadn’t been stolen. I guessed the rest of the stuff I’d brought - and left at the guardhouse, along with my savings - had been taken by now. The guardsmen might have been honest enough not to steal from each other, but I was probably no longer a guardsman. I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was now. What had happened to me, when I’d been unconscious?

“This way, please,” the woman said.

I shrugged and followed her through a maze of white corridors. The interior was odd, a strange combination of Roman and Middle Eastern architecture that seemed designed to allow air to flow freely through the house - the mansion - and yet, somehow, keep the air cool. Magic? It was possible. I saw a handful of men and women along the way, all - judging by their outfits - servants. I frowned, inwardly. Where the hell was I? One of the mansions I’d been told never to even look at? Or ... or what? The only good sign, as far as I could tell, was that I wasn’t in chains. And yet, even that was meaningless. If my captor was a magician, he could stop me in my tracks with a wave of my hand.

We stopped outside a brown door. The woman tapped on it once, then pushed it open and motioned for me to step into the room. It looked like an office, bigger than anything I’d ever owned. The desk and chairs looked small, as if they were dollhouse furniture in a room for grown adults; the walls were bare, save for one covered in maps of the city and the surrounding countryside. The room was brightly lit by wide-open windows, brilliant sunlight streaming into the chamber. I blinked, half-covering my eyes. It was just too bright.

“Greetings.” A young man stood behind the desk. “Thank you for coming.”

I bit down a sarcastic response - I was fairly sure I hadn’t had a choice - and studied him thoughtfully. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, with long dark hair and light brown skin, but there was something unfinished about his features. I had the mental impression of a greenie lieutenant, fresh out of West Point, utterly unaware of the real world. I’d met my fair share of them, back in the service. Some of them matured into decent commanding officers. Some of them just got good men killed because they mistook education for experience. I allowed my eyes to wander over his clothes. They were finely cut, the very epitome of local high fashion. I was looking at someone so wealthy and powerful that he didn’t need to show off. Everyone who mattered would already know who he was.

Or at least his family is wealthy and powerful, I reminded myself I’d heard of rejuvenation spells, but the young man’s attitude didn’t suggest an old mind in a young body. It remains to be seen what he’ll do when - if - he inherits.

“I’m Rupert Drache,” he said. “I think you may have heard of me.”

I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “You were the one who bribed Captain Alder not to punish me.”

“You saved my sister from a fate worse than death,” Rupert said. “You didn’t deserve to be punished for it.”

“No,” I agreed. The local sexual mores struck me as bizarre at best, harmful at worst, but I knew there was no point in trying to change them. If Rupert’s sister had reported her rape, she would have been disgraced; if she’d kept it to herself, she wouldn’t have been a virgin on her wedding night. The bridegroom would have been very disappointed. He might even have used it as an excuse to annual the wedding. “What happened? I mean, after I was knocked out?”

Rupert gestured to a chair, motioning for me to sit. “Most guards would have walked away, rather than risk getting involved. You didn’t. You could say I took an interest in you. I asked your comrades to tell me about you ...”

Bribed them to talk, I translated, silently.

“... And about what little they knew of your past. I was going to approach you in a week or two anyway, when I heard the news. Captain Alder was going to sell you. I ... convinced ... him to let me take you, and all of your possessions, instead.”

I tried not to scowl. “How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing.” Rupert met my eyes. “You paid in advance, when you saved my sister. But” - he took a breath - “I do have a job offer for you.”

“It seems I have nowhere else to go,” I said, ruefully. Rupert might let me collect my possessions and walk out without a backward glance, but where could I go? Staying in the city would be a bad idea, yet ... how could I travel? Sign up with a merchant’s convoy as a bodyguard? “What do you want from me?”

Rupert sat, resting his hands on the desk. “I understand you have a ... military ... background?”

“You could say that,” I said, carefully. “I was a soldier, for a time.”

Rupert’s hands twisted. He was clearly nervous. “By tradition, each of the high families has to take a turn commanding the Garrison,” he said. “The position is normally determined by lot, because the commander cannot return to the city - he must remain in the Garrison - without special permission. Lord Galley - Harbin’s father - has managed to convince the remainder of the high families that I would make a great commanding officer.”

I frowned. “And that’s a bad thing?”

“Yes,” Rupert said. “For me, at least.”

I understood. The city’s defence forces were pitiful. Command of the garrison was roughly akin to reassignment to Antarctica, somewhere so far out of the way that it served a convenient dumping ground for officers the military wanted to punish without making it blatantly obvious. Rupert wouldn’t be allowed to return to the city until his term expired, unless the city came under attack. Harbin’s father had managed to ensure Rupert would be trapped outside the city, unable to influence events, for at least five years. Bastard. This wouldn’t have happened if he’d taught his son not to rape.

“For two years, I will be expected to train the next cadre of soldiers,” Rupert continued, mournfully. “And I don’t have the slightest idea where to begin.”

“And you want me to do it,” I said. I wasn’t adverse to the idea. Command of the troops - real command, if not formal command - might be useful. “Is that what you have in mind?”

“Yes.” Rupert didn’t try to hide his desperation. “We might be going to war soon too.”

I blinked. “How so?”

Rupert waved a hand at the map. “Every year, we get thousands of runaway serfs from Warlord Aldred’s estates. He isn’t happy, as you may have heard. He puts a lot of pressure on the city fathers - the high families - to return them, rather than let them blend into the city’s population and vanish. Your actions yesterday ... well, let’s just say they made it harder to give him what he wants. We think it’s just a matter of time before he starts cutting our trade routes, banning imports to the city or simply marching on the walls to give us a good thrashing. “

He grimaced. “And when that happens, the city fathers normally write off the defenders and bend the knee to the warlord.”

I winced. “Lord Galley expects you to stand and die in defence of the city.”

“Yes.”

“Ouch.” I could see the logic. Rupert would either be killed in hopeless battle or turn and flee the battlefield. Either way, his political career would be at an end. It was cold, calculating and completely ruthless. “Why don’t you build a bigger army and give the warlord a thrashing instead?”

Rupert looked at me as if I’d started speaking in tongues. “The warlords are too strong to resist,” he said. “All we can do is make a stand, get hammered and then accept whatever terms they offer.”

I studied the map thoughtfully. I wasn’t sure that was true. The warlords might be hell on wheels - more likely, hell on horseback - in the countryside, but taking an entire city was a very difficult task. Fallujah had been an absolute nightmare and we’d had trained soldiers and technology Rupert and Warlord Aldred couldn’t even begin to imagine. The simple fact Warlord Aldred hadn’t brought the city under his direct control argued that he couldn’t. He had to fear the costs of trying to storm the walls. A warlord who lost most of his troops was no longer a warlord. I’d seen that play out in Afghanistan.

And they have muskets and other new firearms, I mused. I doubted the warlords had embraced the new weapons. God might have made men, as the saying went, but Sam Colt made them equal. A warlord wouldn’t want weapons that would make a serf the equal of a trained knight. I could put a gun in a child’s hand and he could blow away a soldier with years of training. The balance of power might not be as unfavourable as he thinks.

“If you give in to bullies, I said, you’ll just guarantee more bullying,” I said. Giving Hitler what he’d demanded had just led to more demands. “You need to prepare for a real fight.”

Rupert raised his eyebrows. “And when they starve the city? Or try to take the walls?”

“You can keep him back, if you have a proper army,” I said. I had several ideas along those lines, but they’d have to wait until I made a name for myself. “How many men do you have under your command?”

“The garrison is supposed to have six hundred,” Rupert said. “Two hundred are meant to be under my direct command, once I train them. I won’t assume command of the entire garrison until my processor reaches the end of his term.”

I blinked. The city had a population of at least four hundred thousand, probably more. Thousands - perhaps tens of thousands - of people lived off the books, hidden away in the grey and black economy that the city fathers pretended didn’t exist. The city should have been able to field a much larger army without too many problems. It wasn’t as if it didn’t have the supplies to equip them, the craftsmen to make weapons ... I gritted my teeth as I realised how difficult it was likely to be. The city fathers were unlikely to be able to put together a bigger army. The corruption that pervaded the city would make it impossible.

And they don’t want to encourage the commoners to think of themselves as powerful, I reflected, sourly. That would end with the commoners destroying the high families.

Rupert looked downcast. I didn’t blame him. He’d been sent out to die and there was nothing he could do about it. Whatever he did, he was fucked. Unless ...

“Two hundred men,” I mused. “We can do something with that, if you supply them and let me train them. How much money are you willing to spend?”

“I have an allowance,” Rupert said. His lips twisted. “I’ve been promised money from the city fathers, but ...”

He shrugged, expressively. I understood. The money would pass through so many hands - dwindling all the while - that, by the time it reached him, it would be much reduced. It wouldn’t be cheap to supply even a small army with everything from plate armour to spears, maces, flails and everything else it might need. Even if I concentrated on muskets and other primitive gunpowder weapons instead, it was going to be tricky. And yet, if I could get enough muskets - perhaps even cannons - I could make a real difference.

“I don’t know what to do,” Rupert said. “I’m going to die.”

“No, you’re not,” I said. “We are not going to give Lord Galley the satisfaction of sending you to your death. You’ve already hired someone who knows how to turn a handful of civilians into fighting men. Give me the supplies and let me do my job and I’ll produce something you can be proud of. Who knows? If we look tough, we might even deter the warlords from attacking.”

Rupert looked unconvinced. “Does that work?”

“Bullies never look for a fair fight,” I told him. “They might lose. No, they pick on people too weak to defend themselves. If that person looks tough, ready to fight, ready to hurt the bully even if they’ll go down themselves, the bully will look for other targets. Look tough and ready to fight and you won’t have to fight.”

It might not have been convincing, if Rupert hadn’t been desperate. His enemies had done their work well. He needed to win ... he needed to listen to me. I doubted there was anyone else who could help him ... who would. The city’s defenders couldn’t take care of themselves and the mercenaries simply couldn’t be trusted. I owed him. It wasn’t much, but it was all he had.

“Very well,” Rupert said. “What do you need?”

“For starters, some idea of what you’re prepared to spend, and what we can obtain on short notice,” I said. “And then I need a detailed breakdown of your order of battle and what weapons and supplies are available to the garrison.”

“You can work with my secretary,” Rupert said. He looked somewhat confused by my choice of words. “He’ll help you with whatever you need.”

At least he has the sense to get out the way, I thought. I’d have to educate him in war, but that could be done later. Once I proved I knew what I was talking about, he’d listen to my quiet lectures. That’s better than most green LTs manage.

Rupert stood. “There’s one other thing I have to tell you,” he said. “You know you had a protective charm?”

“Yeah,” I said, carefully. I hadn’t known, not until Thunder had tried to magic me. “What about it?”

“My family’s magician took a look while you were sleeping,” Rupert said. “She said it was a very strange charm, very powerful. But it was designed to only work once.”

He met my eyes. “The charm is gone. Don’t pick a fight with another sorcerer.”

I swallowed. “Yes, sir.”
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

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Chapter Fifteen

Two days later, we left the city and rode out to the garrison.

It was larger than I’d expected, after reading my way through countless military and procurement reports that had the stench of wishful thinking, if not corruption and outright lying. The city’s defenders seemed determined to lie to themselves, let alone everyone else, even as the warlords tightened the screws. They could have put up a much better fight, I thought, if they’d made use of the resources at their command. Instead, they’d fired a handful of arrows for the honour of the flag - metaphorically speaking - and then surrendered and bent the knee to the warlords. I couldn’t understand it. Their history of appeasement made Chamberlain look like Winston Churchill.

The air tasted faintly of sand, hopelessness and despair. I’d had my struggles during basic - we all had - but at least I’d volunteered. The men I had to train - the men I had to train Rupert to lead into battle - had been offered a flat choice between slavery or the army. I had the feeling, reading between the lines, that the soldiers wouldn’t see much of a difference. They were held in poor regard, banned from the city until they served their term ... unless their commander chose to employ them as cheap labour. And yet ... I told myself, firmly, that I could do it. I could turn them into soldiers.

General Harris - the old commander - greeted us at the gates. Rupert spoke calmly to him, showing no trace of the fear and despair he’d shown me. I used the time to study General Harris and the honour guard thoughtfully. They were decked out in fancy uniforms that would have shamed a dictator, uniforms that would have made them easy targets in a real war. I could have wiped them out - and most of the garrison for good measure - if I’d had a sniper rifle and bad intentions. General Harris reminded me of General Winfield Scott - I’d seen photographs when I’d studied the War between the States - although it was hard to be sure. He looked good-natured, but indolent. His uniform was expertly tailored, but even his tailors couldn’t disguise his paunch. I hoped he’d have the sense to stay well out of the way.

I said nothing as we were shown into the garrison itself - the interior looked like a weird cross between a barracks and a prison - and directed into the training ground. The prospective soldiers were waiting for us. I hoped to God they hadn’t been ordered to stand in lines, because their lines were so ragged it was impossible to tell who was meant to be standing where. My eyes ranged up and down the rows. There were men who looked sullen, ready to cause trouble; there were men who looked hungover, as if they’d been drunk out of their minds when they signed the papers and became soldiers ... they wore so many mismatched clothes that I was silently glad I’d had the foresight to order better uniforms. They might not be BDUs, but they’d be better than nothing.

My eyes narrowed, suddenly, as I spotted Horst and Fallows in the front row. The two guardsmen - former guardsmen, I guessed - gave me hostile looks. I cursed under my breath as I realised Captain Alder, deprived of the chance to sell me into slavery, had punished Horst and Fallows instead. That was an unexpected complication. The two guards probably felt personally betrayed. They hadn’t been ordered to keep an eye on me, but ...

I met their eyes and sent a hand-signal, one they’d taught me. Wait.

Rupert shot me a pleading look. I sighed and stepped forward, raising my voice.

“I am Sergeant Elliot,” I said, in my best parade ground manner. I’d already given up trying to explain Richardson. Local naming conventions were just too different. “Some of you are here because you volunteered. Some of you are here because you weren’t given a choice. I don’t care why you joined, nor do I care who or what you were before. All that matters, to me, is that it is my job to prepare you for military service. You have my word, which you will come to trust, that I will treat you all the same.”

I was dimly aware of Rupert backing off as I leaned forward. “Are there any of you, right here, right now, who thinks he can take me in a fight? Now is your chance. Who’s first?”

My eyes swept the row of men. I didn’t have any real support structure, not here. I didn’t have senior officers who’d back me or MPs who’d enforce my orders ... I wanted, I needed to establish dominance as quickly as possible. They had to understand that I knew what I was talking about, that trying to fight or resist would just make matters worse. Some of them, I was grimly sure, would be irredeemable. And yet, I wasn’t allowed to kick them out.

A overbuilt man lumbered out of the crowd and came at me. His muscles were impressive, but he telegraphed his punch. I stepped to one side, then stuck out a foot. He tripped and hit the ground. The crowd snickered as he pushed himself to his feet, his face darkening with anger, and came at me again. I avoided his next three punches, then twisted, threw him to the ground and pressed my fingers into his throat. He struggled for a moment, then lay still.

“Good,” I said. I helped him to his feet, patted him on the back and sent him back to the crowd. “Anyone else?”

Two more men came at me. I handled them both, with slightly more trouble in the case of one who looked like a cutpurse. He’d clearly seen some action on the streets. I knocked him down, helped him up and sent him back to the line, then waited to see if anyone else would try. I wanted them to know they’d had their chance to take me in a straight fight. It was the only way to be sure they would listen to me.

“Good,” I said, when no one moved. “If you follow orders, I’ll make men out of you. If not ...”

I let the words hang in the air for a long moment, then led them on a run around the compound. It was curiously hard. I’d kept myself fit, over the last few weeks, but there was something about the garrison that trapped the heat. I made a mental note to ensure better facilities as we ran through the gates, around the walls and back inside again. The older soldiers stared at us in disbelief. None of them had gone through anything similar. I guessed the warlords trained their soldiers better. It was the only reason they could dominate the much larger city.

And weapons training can make the difference between freedom and slavery, I thought. They wouldn’t want just anyone to have military training.

I led them into the barracks and looked around. They were in better condition than I’d expected. Rupert had promised he’d have them cleaned and readied for the recruits and he’d kept his word. The showers looked rough and ready, but they’d do. I’d been posted to worse places in Iraq. A large pile of clothing - I’d had makeshift uniforms prepared by local seamstresses - waited for us. I motioned for the men to choose their uniforms, then get changed. It was astonishing no one had thought of tailoring uniforms to match the local environment. Their muskets and flintlocks might not be able to hit the broad side of a barn - they relied on massed fire, not accuracy - but their archers were pretty damn good. I’d cautioned Rupert to make sure he wore something that didn’t stand out on the battlefield.

“Choose a bunk, one each,” I ordered. “This will be your home for the next few weeks.”

I watched them change and inspect the facilities, all the while issuing orders and brief explanations. Hygiene came first. Each barrack would have a rota for cleaning the showers, washing out the makeshift toilets and sweeping the floors. The men themselves would be expected to shower at least once a day, keeping themselves as clean as possible. It wouldn’t be that clean - water was in short supply - but it would be a great deal better than anything they’d had before. I wasn’t an expert in so many things - I wished I’d spent time as a Drill Instructor, instead of just being a raw recruit - but I knew the basics. The remainder I’d rediscover along the way.

“Don’t dawdle,” I said, as we marched back onto the training ground. “Everything has to be done at a run.”

I felt sweat prickling my back as I put them through their paces. The whole concept of basic training was to make sure everyone picked up the basics and learned to speak a common language. It was both easier and harder here, easier because there was no universal training system and yet harder because I was making it up from my own experience. I’d never realised just how hard the instructors had worked, when I was in basic. They’d probably have called it karma. I didn’t have anyone ready or able to back me up either. Rupert had long since vanished.

Which isn’t a bad thing, I told myself. I’ll just have to build him up later.

The lunch bell rang. I marched the recruits across the field and into the makeshift chow hall. Rupert hadn’t let me down. The food was very basic - rice, meat, stringy vegetables - but there was a lot of it. The recruits had never eaten so well in their lives. I kept up the discipline, preventing a mad rush to the tables and instead making sure everyone had something to eat before allowing them to start. It was something I knew would breed resentment - it certainly had, back home - but it was also something they needed. I ate myself, silently drawing out more training programs. They were going to have to learn to work together - and to trust me - before I put muskets in their hands.

And we’re going to have to get them lined up first, I reminded myself. Rupert was purchasing a small arsenal, but it wasn’t going to be easy to streamline the design. We might have to pick one design and hire a bunch of craftsmen to churn out hundreds of duplicates. If we all use different weapons and ammunition, it will lead to one hell of a mess.

I whistled, twenty minutes later. “Back on the field,” I ordered, quietly ignoring the grumbling. “Give me another run around the walls.”

The day wore on. I showed them how to do press-ups, sit-ups and a dozen other simple exercises I’d been taught in basic. They seemed astonished I handed out press-ups and suchlike as punishments, rather than using my fists, but went with the flow. I smiled behind my hand. Hitting recruits was a serious offence back home ... and besides, making them do extra exercises instead helped prepare for war. We marched up and down, drilled with broom handles in place of pikes and muskets, then moved into the chow hall for dinner. They looked tired. I’d kept them very busy. They would go into the barracks, lie down and go straight to sleep.

And tomorrow we’ll do it all again, I thought.

“Back to the barracks,” I ordered, once they’d chewed their way through dinner. “Get a shower, get undressed, get into bed.”

I watched them run back into the barracks - they were too tired for anything more than bed - and then waved to Horst and Fallows. The two guardsmen scowled at me as I led them away from the barracks, into the room I’d designated my office. It wasn’t much - I’d have to bed down in the barracks myself, at least until I had a handful of trainees I could trust to stand night watch - but it would do.

Horst glared. “What were you thinking?”

“That isn’t your concern right now,” I snapped. I had no intention of getting into an argument. It would just waste time. “What happened to you two?”

“The captain told us we were being exiled to the garrison,” Fallows said, curtly. “For failing to train you, apparently.”

I felt a flicker of sympathy. Captain Alder had clearly taken his anger out on the two poor guardsmen. He might not have been able to sell them into slavery, but he’d certainly done the next best thing. Or so he thought. I knew them both. They had experience that could be helpful, if they were prepared to work with me. For me. They wouldn’t like it - they’d been my superiors, only a few short days ago - but it was the best offer they were going to get.

“You have two choices,” I said. “I’m starting something great here. You can join me, and work with me openly, or you can serve out your enlistment in the ranks and go back to the city when you’re done.”

The bitterness in Horst’s voice was almost palatable. “Go back to what?”

“Good question,” I agreed. Horst couldn’t go back to the City Guard. There wouldn’t be many other options either. His best bet might be joining a mercenary band, which would require him to do more than the bare minimum. “Like I said, I’m starting something great here. Do you want to get in on the ground floor? Or do you want to just stay in the ranks until your enlistment expires?”

“And do you think these ... these people can actually fight?” Horst snorted. “You knocked them down pretty easily.”

I swallowed the sharp retort that came to mind - I could knock him down pretty easily too - and leaned forward. “There are no bad men, merely bad leaders,” I said. I’d never been sure it was entirely true - I’d met a few enlisted men who really should have been discharged for cause - but it was close enough. “The raw material is there. I can train them to proper standards before we actually have to go to war.”

“You hope,” Fallows corrected.

“I hope,” I agreed. I shrugged. “Look, I owe you two. Here is your chance to be something better, to be something great. Do as I tell you - help me - and you’ll go far. Or, like I said, serve out your enlistment and vanish back into the city.”

“Fine.” Horst conceded with ill grace. “What do you want us to do?”

“Learn your lessons,” I said. “You taught me. Let me teach you. I’ll be watching for signs of leadership potential. If you do well, if you learn your lessons, I’ll let you teach the next set of recruits. And if you do well at that, you might even go further.”

Fallows frowned. “Do you think you’ll be allowed to promote us to officer rank?”

It was a good question, I conceded. I - or, more accurately, Rupert - had a great deal of authority, but there were limits. Officers were selected by the city, which meant they were either aristocrats like Rupert or merchant sons who bought commissions. I doubted either of us would be allowed to select our own officers, but it didn’t matter. The company - the army - was going to be run by its NCOs.

“No aristo is going to let us become officers,” Horst agreed. “They’ll look down at us and laugh.”

“You might be surprised,” I said, vaguely. I didn’t really had time to explain non-commissioned officers to them. It was going to be hard enough hammering proper skills into their heads without provoking resentment - or worse. They’d picked up too many bad habits in the City Guard. “Give me time.”

I led them back to the barracks and pointed them to their bunks, then headed for mine. It had been a tiring day, all the more so because I hadn’t realised how hard it was going to be until I’d started. There were just too many things that had to be done, all by me. I would have killed for a couple of friends with actual experience. I’d disliked my first set of instructors and yet ... I would have been glad to see them now. They would have been very helpful.

And while you’re wishing, I thought, why don’t you wish for the Lost Regiment?

The thought made me smile, even though I knew the Lost Regiment would have looked suspiciously at me. They’d certainly have no idea what to make of Damansara. And yet, they’d probably do a far better job. A thousand men, with a far better understanding of how to produce their tech ... of course they could do better. The gap they had to close wasn’t so wide. They could have taken the city, hammered out a 1860s tech base and set off to conquer the world. And they could have done it too.

I smiled, then started to compose a list of things I needed to do tomorrow. More drills, more exercises, more practice ... I was going to need to train Horst and Fallows as quickly as possible, just to give me time to work with Rupert. He needed to learn how to handle his men before he tried to lead them into battle and got them all killed. It would take time, time I wasn’t sure I had, to prepare him for the role. Really, I’d be happy to let him take the credit as long as he stayed out of the way.

And as long as no one outside the army realises what he’s done, he’ll probably be quite happy too, I thought. That really won’t be a bad thing.

On that note, I fell asleep.
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Comments?

Chapter Sixteen

If you watch a movie about young men becoming soldiers, you will almost inevitably find yourself watching a training montage of clumsy oafs becoming skilled men. You’ll watch days and weeks compressed into a few minutes, with problems smoothed out almost before you notice they were there. I’d never liked such montages, because they are often dangerously deceptive. The real world is rarely so obliging.

And yet, three weeks slipped by almost without me noticing.

We fell into a routine, of sorts. I put the recruits through their paces, time and time again, and expanded the training routine as they learnt to obey orders. I divided them into groups and made them compete, or work together against other groups. They got better over time, as I had expected, although I wound up expelling two men to the guardhouse for gross incompetence and outright malice. A couple of others tried to challenge me, when they found the training a little too rough: I knocked them both down, then spoke encouragingly to them. They weren’t doing too badly, given that I’d put the entire program together from memory and improvised to cover the gaps. I’d known recruits who’d done a lot worse.

I smiled as I led them into the training hall. The muskets lining the walls were the latest in military technology, which wasn’t saying much by my standards. The pistol I wore at my belt - sooner or later, I’d have to show it to the gunsmiths - was a far more accurate weapon. They were crude, imprecise and - even after a few hours of practice - I hadn’t been able to load and fire the weapon more than twice a minute. We were going to be firing in rows, taking turns to fire, reload and fire again, just to maintain a steady rate of fire. And the smoke was going to be appalling.

As long as we put out enough musket balls, I thought, it shouldn’t matter.

I sighed, inwardly. I would have sold my soul for a dedicated gunsmith. I had a friend who’d spent his entire life quietly stockpiling the tools to make guns, so he could arm himself when - if - the government confiscated his giant arsenal of firearms. I wished he’d been with me. He would have been very helpful. I’d heard of terrorists in caves hammering out AK-47s. If I could have done that, we could have pumped out enough firepower to take the world.

“This is a musket,” I said. I doubted they’d seen firearms, let alone handled them. The weapons had yet to take off. “Your musket is your best friend on the battlefield. You are going to take very good care of your musket and, in exchange, it will take very good care of you. You will learn to fire it, to clean it, to have it ready at all times ... you will even take it to bed and sleep with it.”

I ignored the sniggers. “And when it breaks, you will fix it,” I added. “I’ll be teaching you how to do that too.”

The musket felt uncomfortably fragile as I held it up. I’d ordered bayonets for the men - they could become makeshift pikemen if the enemy got too close - but I’d left them off. They had to get used to carrying the muskets, before I let them march around with edged weapons. There would be just too many injuries. I’d tried to arrange a permanent healer, but it was simply too expensive. The chirurgeons - the closest thing the locals had to doctors - were little better than butchers. I knew more battlefield medicine than they - I’d nearly killed one for not observing proper sanitation - and I hadn’t done more than the basics. Calling myself a medic would be stolen valour, only worse.

“You will get used to firing the muskets as quickly as possible,” I said. “We won’t worry too much about accuracy, at the moment. The idea is to put out as many bullets as possible and let them impale themselves on our guns.”

There were more sniggers. I rolled my eyes, then talked them through loading, firing and cleaning the musket. They took the weapons as Horst and Fallows handed them out, then did their best to follow me. They were almost completely unfamiliar with even the concept of firearms. I had to rebuke one trooper for peering down the barrel and another for pointing his musket at one of his comrades. I drilled them mercilessly, hammering the laws of firearms safety into their heads and handing out punishment duties for those slow up on the uptake. I didn’t want to lose anyone to accidents, not when we might be going to war at any moment. Rupert had told me, in confidence, that the political situation was deteriorating. It added a certain urgency to our efforts.

“Your muskets will be inspected every day,” I informed them, once I thought they had the hang of it. They hadn’t fired a single shot, not yet. “Anyone with a dirty musket will be required to spend his free hour cleaning it. Anyone with a broken musket will be paying for a new one.”

I ignored the groans running through the room. I’d hired a proper accountant to collect the men’s wages, which I’d convinced Rupert to raise every time the men completed a training cycle, and keep the money safe under heavy guard. It was a more trustworthy system than the local banks - apparently, they did everything they could to convince people to put their money into the banks and then worked hard to convince their customers not to take the money out - although it was fraught with risks. I’d threatened the accountant with a slow and painful death if anything as so much as a single cent went missing. I silently blessed whoever had introduced numbers and double-entry bookkeeping to this world. It made keeping an eye on the accountant so much easier.

We might have to set up a more trustworthy bank, I thought. The wealthier citizens kept most of their money at home, making it harder to convince them to invest. But that’ll have to wait for a while.

I marched them out of the fort and onto the firing range. My old instructor would have been outraged if he’d seen it, but it would have to do. I’d stuck poorly-carved wooden shapes the far end of the range, intending to symbolise advancing infantry and charging horsemen. They weren’t that detailed, but they didn’t have to be. We were going to be blowing them to hell repeatedly. Besides, I didn’t want to remind anyone that we were training against cavalry. The warlords were probably watching us.

“Watch carefully,” I said, after outlining the rules of range safety. I hefted my musket, demonstrated how to load the weapon, took aim and pulled the trigger. There was a loud BANG, followed by a cloud of smoke. I gritted my teeth. The musketmen were likely to be blinded by their own firing, at least as long as the smoke lasted. I wasn’t sure what could be done about that. “Now, in pairs, try it yourselves.”

I forced myself to remain calm, wishing - not for the first time - for modern weapons and trained instructors. The recruits were eager, particularly after what I’d shown them, but the muskets were completely new. I watched as they tried to fire, then scrambled to reload. It was painfully slow. A troop of cavalry charging towards them might overwhelm their position before they managed to fire a second round ... I told myself, firmly, that sheer volume of fire would be enough to stop the horses in their tracks. It would, too.

The men were disappointed when I called a halt to the shooting and formed them into lines for battlefield drill. The concept was simple enough, although - like so many brilliant ideas - harder to execute than it looked on paper. One row would fire, then kneel to reload while the second row fired; the second row would then kneel too while the third row fired ... I hoped, given time, that we’d be able to pump out six volleys within a minute. And yet, the smoke was going to be a real problem. I reminded myself this universe had magic. Perhaps there were spells to generate wind, to blow the smoke away from our eyes.

“Good work,” I said, finally. They’d picked up the idea very quickly. It would take days - perhaps weeks - of practice before they did it instinctively, but I was fairly sure it would come in time. I’d spent the last three weeks drilling them to take orders. “Now, back to the barracks for our pre-dinner run.”

I allowed Horst and Fallows to take command - they were coming along well, although I was afraid to leave them unsupervised for too long - and headed towards the officers’ quarters. Rupert was living there permanently, learning his trade - in theory - from Harris. I pitied him. Harris wasn’t my idea of a good commanding officer, or anything really. He certainly hadn’t shown anything like as much care for his men as Rupert, let alone the average West Pointer. I’d met conceited newly-minted officers who thought they knew everything who’d been more thoughtful than our general. I couldn’t wait for Rupert to take his place.

Rupert was waiting for me in the stables. “Sergeant.”

“Sir,” I said. Our working relationship was a little odd. I could give him advice, but only in private. Thankfully, he wasn’t trying to exercise direct command over the training units or it would have gotten a little sticky. The recruits weren’t stupid. If they saw an officer who didn’t know what he was doing, they’d hold him in contempt. “Did you have a good day?”

“It was interesting,” Rupert said. I was fairly sure that was a lie. I’d advised him to study logistics, on the grounds he was a better organiser than a tactician, but logistics were boring right up until you realised your war effort depended on them. “And I’m looking forward to our ride.”

I followed him to the horses and mounted up. I’d let him teach me how to ride, local style - it wasn’t something I’d mastered back home - in the hopes it would let him keep some of his pride. The aristocracy were all expected to be master horsemen, including the younger women. Rupert was pretty good at riding, even though he’d never considered joining the cavalry. And he wasn’t a bad teacher either.

The air smelt cleaner as we cantered away from the garrison and the city beyond. We weren’t allowed to re-enter the city, not without special permission. I was fairly sure Rupert was bored. Normally, the aristocracy could come and go as they pleased, but Rupert’s enemies would make sure he kept his distance. I’d done what I could to offer friendship to him, at least in private, although it wasn’t easy. We had grown up in very different societies. It was easy to forget, until it suddenly wasn’t.

I shook my head as I kept riding, allowing him to correct me from time to time as I surveyed the lands around the city. Damansara’s precise borders beyond the walls were a little vague, something that made no sense to me until I realised it gave the warlords a considerable amount of influence over the city without having to make their hostility so overt no one could avoid taking notice of it. Personally, I thought it was silly. Someone sidling into attack range might not have hostile intentions, but it was still dumb to let them get so close without making sure of them. I ground my teeth in bitter memory. There’d been too many times in Iraq we’d had to wait to be hit, even though we could have killed the attackers before they got close enough to hurt us. Here, at least, the rules of engagement were a little more sensible.

The thought cheered me as we galloped through villages and hamlets, cantering past fields - some showing signs of dehydration - and over bridges that struck me as a little pointless. I could have waded though the rivers below with ease. The city needed to sink some boreholes quickly, to search for underground reservoirs, or start and irrigation program. I’d tried to suggest it to Rupert, as well as a dozen other ideas, but they’d gotten nowhere. Rupert was a wealthy young man, with extensive connections, yet ... he didn’t have anything like enough power and influence to get things done. I wondered, idly, if what the city needed was a dictator, someone with the authority to get things moving. It would have been so much easier, during the war, if we hadn’t had to get authorisation from Washington before doing pretty much anything.

I dismissed the old bitterness - it was unlikely I’d ever see home again - and concentrated on assessing the landscape from a military point of view. The soil was hard, barren in a number of places; I doubted we could force an advancing army to pass through a bottleneck. Hell, there was nothing stopping the warlords from sending their cavalry on a slash-and-burn mission through the fields. Normally, they wouldn’t be able to destroy the fields beyond repair - that was far harder than most people thought - but here ... I wasn’t so sure. The farmers were permanently on the edge. If they were killed, or driven away from their fields, it might be enough to prevent the farm from being saved. I cursed under my breath. The city was in a deadly trap. We’d have to break out before it was too late.

We, I thought, with a flicker of amusement. When did it become ‘we’?

Rupert slowed his horse. “You’re being very quiet.”

“I’m just considering how and where the war is going to be fought,” I said. There was no point in pretending there wasn’t going to be war. The warlord was just piling on the pressure, trying to find something the city couldn’t give him. Frankly, I wasn’t sure why he was bothering to come up with an excuse. It wasn’t as if any of the other warlords - or the king - was willing or able to stop him. “How much longer do we have?”

“I wish I knew,” Rupert said. He glanced north, towards the warlord’s lands. “He has a small army under his permanent control. He could be advancing towards us tomorrow.”

I doubted it. The warlord’s power rested on his ability to raise and deploy troops. If those troops were lost, the warlord’s power would be lost too. I’d never met any of the local warlords, but I’d met their counterparts in Afghanistan. They’d been reluctant to fight to the finish, even when the enemy was on the ropes, for fear they would be finished too. And the hell of it was that they had a point.

“They’re demanding that we hand over more serfs,” Rupert added. “And we can’t.”

“No,” I agreed. The warlord might be smarter if he turned a blind eye to the runaways, but ... I shook my head. It wasn’t going to happen. There were just too many messages going back and forth. A successful runaway would tell his friends and family that he’d found a home and work in the city, encouraging them to flee too. “We just can’t find them.”

“They’re getting better organised,” Rupert agreed. “They don’t want to be sent back and who can blame them?”

I nodded. It wasn’t uncommon for immigrants and expats to put together private self-help networks, particularly those who knew the local government and population were either hostile or likely to become so, and once those networks got established they were extremely difficult to take down. The immigrants were often unwilling to cooperate, while excluding anyone who wasn’t an immigrant themselves. The former serfs could hide themselves in the big city, burrowing deep into the slums. The City Guard didn’t have the manpower to root them out.

Not unless they show themselves too obviously, I thought. And even then, it’s just a drop in the bucket.

I allowed myself to consider, briefly, recruiting some of the former serfs. They’d make good soldiers. They were already used to hard physical labour - they’d grown up on farms - and they didn’t dare let themselves be captured. Recaptured. And yet ... I shook my head. It would be considered a provocation. The idea would have to wait until the local government conceded it was in a fight to the death.

Provoking the war to happen at a time and place of our choosing might work, I considered, but the longer we can put it off the better.

We chatted happily as we wheeled about and started to ride back to the fort. Rupert talked about tactics - he’d been studying the old books - and I was happy to discuss them with him. Some lessons were timeless - I intended to write down all I remembered from Sun Tzu and his fellows - while others were pointless. The cavalry, king of the battlefield, was going to be dethroned soon. Once machine guns were developed, they’d be slaughtered as easily as the French at Agincourt.

“Harris is planning to retire soon,” Rupert said. “And then I’ll be the general.”

“You need to keep studying,” I said. Sir Joseph Porter had been better qualified, although not by much. His position had been purely administrative and everyone knew it. “And we need to build up a staff.”

I smiled as Damansara came into view, twinkling lights shining on the walls as the sun slipped below the horizon. It was easy to believe, from a distance, that the city was a wonderland of peace and prosperity, a civilised oasis in a world of violence and brutality. It looked safe and tranquil and utterly timeless ...

The war started two weeks later.
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Seventeen

The summons arrived at nightfall, the messenger barely giving Rupert a chance to wake me - and for me to pass command to Horst and Fallows - before hurrying us back to the city. We had special permission to return, something that underlined just how serious matters were as we dressed in our finest uniforms - Rupert’s would have outshone even a dictator’s personal outfit - and joined the council of war in the city palace. It was neutral ground, apparently, which didn’t keep it from being surrounded by legions of private guards. I wondered, idly, just what could be done to defend the city if those men were under my command.

I hadn’t had any real hopes for the council of war - the city government was such a mess that it was hard to say who was responsible for what - but it managed to be worse than I’d feared. Men were shouting at each other, trying to sort out a pecking order before they decided on a response to the crisis; servants were making their way from table to table, handing out drinks that stank of alcohol. I declined, and signalled to Rupert that he should decline too. We needed clear heads. I watched, feeling my heart sink as senior aristocrats finally managed to impose some semblance of order on the crowd. If a relatively small council was like this, it was a wonder anything got done. I supposed I should be grateful. A more efficient city government would probably have been better at hunting down the runaways and staving off the war.

You have a chance to prove yourself, I thought. Don’t fuck it up.

My eyes glided around the room. I recognised Lord Drache - Rupert’s father - sitting next to an older man who reminded me of Harbin Galley. His father? Harbin himself was standing on the other side of the map table, wearing a blood-red tunic covered in gold braid and medals. Stolen valour, or I was a fool. The British officers of old had worn red so the blood wouldn’t show and demoralise the troops, something I’d always thought was a little silly. It was unlikely Harbin had even considered showing so much consideration in his life. He probably thought it made him look good. Me? I thought it made him look like a target.

He looked at me, just for a second. His eyes glinted. I couldn’t tell if he remembered me or not. He probably thought all guardsmen looked the same. And yet, standing next to Rupert ... it was hard to tell. The look he directed at Rupert was anything, but friendly.

“The warlord intends to send a troop of cavalry down the road to the outskirts,” a young man I didn’t know said. His fingers traced a line on the map. “They’ll occupy Pennell” - a small town on the edge of the city’s formal jurisdiction - “and then devastate the farms before retreating, having given us a bloody nose.”

I frowned. “How can you be sure?”

The room rustled. I realised I’d made a mistake, talking out of turn. Harbin sneered. His father frowned, disapprovingly. The remainder of the room seemed unsure what to say or do. I might be a commoner, but I was also one of Rupert’s liegemen ... I disliked the thought of people considering me property, yet it had its advantages. Rupert and his family might have to back me up just to save face.

“That’s what they’ve always done,” the young man said. “The warlords don’t want to lay siege to the city. They just want to remind us of our place.”

“And they haven’t made any preparations for a long war, Tobias,” Lord Drache said. “They just want to give us a bloody nose.”

I swallowed the urge to point out that was exactly what Tobias had said as the aristocrats started arguing again. They didn’t seem to want to fight, or do anything - really - beyond bending over and taking it. I shuddered. A long drawn-out war would be very bad for the city, but constantly surrendering would be bad too. And yet ...

“You’ll make your stand at Pennell,” Lord Galley said. He gave Rupert a cold smile. “Make the city proud, before you run.”

Rupert stiffened. I didn’t have to look at him to know what he was thinking. If he ran, he’d be branded a coward and blamed for the disaster. His enemies would have all the excuse they needed to strike at him - and, through him, his father. If he stood and fought, he’d be killed along with his men, giving the warlord a cheap victory to soothe his injured feelings. I felt a flash of naked hatred for Lord Galley and his rapist son. I’d loathed some officers back home - and what I thought of our political masters was unprintable - but none of them had ever sent me into a fight they expected me to lose.

Well, I thought. We’ll just have to see what we can do about it.

I listened, matching names to faces as the chatter ran around the room. The city fathers were acting like a bunch of headless chickens, already bending over and bracing themselves for the kick up the backside they knew they were going to receive. They were already beaten, I noted sourly. I’d seen it before - bullied kids and communities who didn’t dare raise a hand to their tormentors in the certain knowledge that resistance would only prolong the agony - but this was worse. They expected Rupert and his men, the men I’d trained, to die. They didn’t think we could make a stand.

It felt like hours before the room came to a decision everyone knew was inevitable - that had already been made - right from the start. Rupert’s father spoke briefly to him, then departed with the rest of the city fathers. I hoped he’d said something encouraging. Harbin paced around the map table, swinging his arm as if he were pushing his way through an admiring crowd. I rolled my eyes. I understood the value of making a show, but not when there were so few witnesses. There was nothing he could do that could change our opinion of him.

“Well,” Harbin said. He sneered, openly. “I trust you have a plan?”

“We have our orders to make our stand at Pennell.” Rupert sounded stunned, as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened. “We have to meet them there.”

I frowned as I studied the map. It wasn’t a very good map, but - thankfully - I’d ridden around the city and the surrounding regions. I silently corrected the details in my head as I assessed the situation. Tobias had a point. The warlord didn’t have to come down the road - he could send his troopers cross-country, if he wished - but it was a good way to show his power. Any invading force wanted to prove it had complete freedom of movement, if only to convince the locals that resistance was futile. Besides, it would also allow him to look threatening without actually trying to break the walls. His troops could break off and run if they ran into something they can’t handle.

“They’ll scatter you, the moment you form a line,” Harbin said. He struck a ridiculous pose. “My cavalry are under your command. Where would you like us to be?”

I looked at him. “How quickly can you get a message from an observation post to the army?”

Harbin blinked. “What?”

“You may have to use short words,” Rupert said, wryly. “Harbin doesn’t understand long ones.”

“You ...” Harbin clenched his fists, then carefully unclenched them. “What do you mean?”

I sighed, inwardly. I disliked Harbin. I had the feeling he’d been behind the plan to put us out on a limb and then saw it off behind us. But, as nice as it was to hear Rupert coming back to life, it wasn’t helping. I needed Harbin to actually think about what he was doing.

“We need a handful of cavalry troopers to monitor the approaches and bring warning of the enemy advance,” I said. I drew out lines on the map. “How quickly could you get the message to us?”

Harbin frowned. “My men are not glorified messenger boys.”

“They need to be, for this,” I said. I patiently repeated the question. “How quickly could you get the message to us?”

“Quickly,” Harbin said, vaguely. He poked the map, indicating a position between Pennell and Damansara. “We will take up station here, in position to react to the engagement.”

You mean, you want to be in position to run if things go badly, I thought. I could see the logic, as cowardly as it was. You don’t think we can win the coming engagement, do you?

“Keep most of your troopers here,” I said. “Station four along the approaches. I want them to alert us when the enemy comes into view.”

Harbin scowled. “As you wish,” he said. “We’ll be ready.”

I eyed his back, silently measuring it for the blade as he stomped off. It looked as if he was going to be trouble. The city’s cavalry was drawn from the aristocracy, who lavished care and attention on their horses and uniforms ... I made a face. A well-run cavalry unit would be very useful, but I had a feeling Harbin’s men were going to be worse than useless. They wouldn’t want to charge into danger for fear of getting their uniforms smudged. Harbin’s plan was simple enough. He’d watch the engagement from a safe distance and then, after we were scattered, gallop back to the city to report our defeat. Sir John Cope would be proud of him.

My lips quirked. I could rewrite the song, afterwards, to make fun of Harbin.

Rupert sagged. “I’m sorry I got you into this,” he said. “You can leave, if you want.”

“And then what?” I supposed it spoke well of him, that he was at least offering me the chance to leave. “What will you do without me?”

Rupert made a face. “What can I do?”

I could think of several answers, but they weren’t particularly helpful. Rupert thought he was going to his death, that all he could do was die bravely ... and even if he managed that, his death was going to be reported - by Harbin - as cowardly and shameful. The temptation to just pack his saddlebags with as much as he could carry and then run had to be overwhelming, but he was standing his ground. I felt a sudden rush of affection. Rupert and I weren’t friends - the difference between us was just too great - but I didn’t want to see him die. He was trying, at least. I’d known greenie offices who’d done worse.

“This is the map,” I said, forcing him to focus on me. “Do they always come down the road?”

“Yes.” Rupert shook his head. “Those towns and villages are always the first to be attacked.”

I frowned, never lifting my eyes from the map. The enemy tactic made sense. They could march through the cropland, burning and destroying, without ever being trapped and forced to fight. I hoped the townspeople were already on their way to the city. Local armies didn’t seem bound by any laws of war, as far as I could tell. They’d loot, rape and burn their way through the towns unless they were stopped. I grimaced. I’d done my best to drill proper standards into the soldiers I’d trained, but I knew they probably hadn’t taken them to heart. I was dreading the day I’d have to make an example of one of them ...

“We need to put out pickets ourselves,” I said. I didn’t trust Harbin to do it properly. His men might make a terrible fuss if they got scratched by a bush. Or something. Decorative units were rarely worth what they were paid, in my experience. “I wish ...”

I glanced at him. “Can you send messages through magic?”

“Yeah ...” Rupert looked at the map. “What do you have in mind?”

“We need warning of their approach,” I said, patiently. I would have killed for a set of radios. Or recon drones. Or orbiting satellites. Hell, I would have killed for a tank or two. I’d have settled for one of the tanks that crackled the Hindenburg Line in 1918. It might have been a great deal more useful to me than a modern Abrams. “Once we have it, we can form a line to block them.”

“And then what?” Rupert sighed. “We fire a shot and run?”

“No.” I clapped his shoulder, trying to project as much confidence as possible. “We kick their ass.”

I grinned. “They won’t expect us to stand and fight. They’ll come in fat and happy and impale themselves on us. We’ll smash them and then Harbin can chase the survivors all the way back home.”

Rupert gave me a doubtful look. “What if you’re wrong?”

“We’ve been training for this,” I countered. “And they don’t expect a real fight or they would have made a few more preparations. We can give them a nasty fright, at the very least.”

I kept my face under tight control as I talked him through the plan. I didn’t mean to slap the invaders and send them running back home with a bloody nose. I meant to smash them utterly. It was the only way to convince the warlords to back off before they managed to blockade or starve the city - or worse. As long as they controlled the countryside, they could harry us relentlessly until we ran out of food. Damansara’s population was just too large to be kept fed for long. It was just a matter of time before a siege started to bite. We had to make sure they never had the chance to envelop and starve us.

“I hope you’re right,” Rupert said, when I’d finished. “We’ll certainly give them a fright.”

I grinned. Rupert’s best hope - his only hope - was winning a battle everyone expected him to lose. If he did ... his prestige would soar. He’d be able to recruit and train more men, then take them into battle for his city. And I would have a great deal of power too. I could finally start getting things done.

Don’t put the cart before the horse, I reminded myself. There was no point in dreaming about the future, not when I had too many other things to do. You have to win the battle first.

“I have to speak to my father,” Rupert said. “You go back to the camp and get ready for departure.”

“Let them sleep,” I said. It was only one in the morning. “The battle won’t be fought until the afternoon, at the very earliest. They’ll need their beauty sleep. I’ll have them woken at the usual time and prepared for combat.”

Rupert nodded to the door. I took the hint and headed outside, passing several uniformed guards as I made my way outside. It wasn’t a long walk back to the Garrison and I needed time to think. Rupert could take the coach, when he’d finished with his father. It struck me - too late - that I should have warned him not to tell his father about our plans. The aristocracy was given to boasting and, if I were in command of the enemy force, I would have inserted spies into the city. A single moment of bragging might ruin everything, for everyone.

A man blocked my way as I left the palace. “Sergeant Eliot?”

I tensed, one hand dropping to the dagger on my belt. It wasn’t my preferred weapon, but it had its uses. For one thing, the locals would recognise it as a weapon. They still didn’t quite comprehend guns. “Yes?”

“I’m Seles,” the man said. He stood in the light, something I found oddly reassuring. A footpad would have clung to the shadows. “I’m a broadsheet writer. I was wondering if I could ask you a favour.”

“You can ask,” I said, warily. The local broadsheets - newspapers - were no better than the rags back home. They didn’t even have the decency to print their lies on toilet paper. Half of them were controlled by the aristocracy and their stories covered little else, the remainder were regularly shut down or harassed by private armies or street thugs. Telling the truth was a crime, if someone powerful objected. “What do you want?”

“I want to accompany the army,” Seles said. “It would be my big break.”

“It would?” I wasn’t so sure. The local rags might not have anything to say about the battle, win or lose. “Why do you think it would help?”

“The broadsheet writers who went into the Blighted Lands became famous,” Seles said. “This is my chance to do the same.”

I said nothing for a long moment. I’d heard the stories, but they’d grown and grown in the telling until it was impossible, at least for me, to draw truth from the bodyguard of wild exaggerations and outright lies. They couldn’t all be true, could they? And yet, I could see his point. A chance to become the local counterpart of Woodward and Bernstein was hardly to be sniffed at, despite the danger. I didn’t know if he thought he’d be reporting on a victory or a defeat, or if he’d realised he might wind up dead with the rest of us, but ... I shrugged. I’d just had an idea.

“I think we can help each other,” I told him, as I started to walk. He fell into step beside me, a sign he considered me an equal. I decided to roll with it. “Here is what I want you to do ...”
Frank_m
Posts: 1
Joined: Wed Apr 14, 2021 7:18 pm

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by Frank_m »

The concept of a non magical but modern day earthling in the nameless world is interesting. A variation on a modern person pulled into the past but the past has magic.
Maybe I’m confused but Elliot is American? (References to interstate highway and Texas heat.)
The story is gaining momentum. I could see Elliot becoming famous and eventually meeting Emily. Introducing the writer/reporter adds a vehicle to spread the news. It was unclear if Rupert agreed to facilitate using magic to warn of the approaching army?
I had to look up Sir John Cope and the reference to the song. Kind of a disconnect if Elliot is American?
The geographical relationship of Damansara, the garrison and Pennel is unclear? They rode out the garrison but after the council of war meeting Elliot is going to walk back?

Looking forward to more!
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