Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Snippets of upcoming and in-progress works.
Posts: 40
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Eighteen

“I won’t waste your time with pretty speeches,” I said, once the soldiers had been roused from their beds and mustered onto the training ground. I could recite Henry V’s famous speech - or at least the one Shakespeare put in his mouth - from memory, but I doubted they were ready to appreciate it. “We are going to war.”

I pushed on before the muttering got too loud. “We have trained for this day. We know what we can do - and they don’t. They think they can just push us over. They are going to ride straight into a brick wall and get smashed.”

The troops looked slightly more confident. Only slightly. I grimaced inwardly. A few weeks of training had hammered some discipline into them, but they were hardly combat-ready by army standards. I’d cut so many corners that, if I’d done it back home, my court-martial would be the shortest formality on record. I wished, again, for more experienced soldiers or even mercenaries, men who could provide stiffening to newbies stepping onto the battlefield for the first time. The troops looked so ragged I was sure the warlords were laughing at them. I hoped so. It would keep the bastards overconfident long enough for me to give them a nasty surprise.

“Follow me,” I ordered. I’d considered finding a horse for myself, but it would send entirely the wrong message. If they thought I had a way out, they’d assume I was planning to desert them. I would stand and fall with my men. “Forward march!”

I turned and marched through the gates, onto the road. The soldiers followed me. I was sure some of them had their doubts, some of them wanted to turn and run, but their comrades would kill them. I’d done everything in my power to build a sense of camaraderie amongst the men, an awareness we were all in it together. I hoped it would last long enough for us to meet the enemy on even - or superior - terms. Nothing succeeded quite like success. I allowed the sergeants to take the lead as I walked up and down the line, checking the troops and offering words of encouragement when necessary. They were about to see the elephant for the very first time.

A thrill shot through me, despite the grim certainty I wouldn’t last the day if my men broke. I loved going to war. I loved the thrill of testing myself, and my men, against the best the enemy could offer. And I loved teaching bullies they weren’t the biggest baddest bastards on the planet. The warlords were no different to the terrorists and insurgents back home. They were tough and fearsome, as long as they didn’t run into someone tougher and more fearsome than themselves. I had no doubt that, if we managed to give the warlord’s troops a bloody nose, he’d fold faster than a poker player with a very poor hand.

The air tasted faintly of sand as we marched towards Pennell. It was smaller than I recalled, the kind of place that could easily be bypassed or smashed in a modern war. The townspeople were hastily evacuating, packing up their worldly goods - such as they were - and making their way towards the city. I couldn’t help noticing the girls and women were staying well clear of my men. I understood, better than I cared to admit. I’d told the troops there would be draconic penalties for rape, and I meant it, but it was unlikely the commoners believed me. What warlord would punish the men he depended upon to maintain his power?

I snapped out orders as we took possession of the town, detailing a handful of men to take up positions further down the road and setting the remainder to digging trenches and checking the houses for unpleasant surprises. There was no sign of Rupert, or Harbin and his men. It was almost a relief, although I knew I needed the cavalry to scout and bring warning of advancing trouble. The enemy might easily decide to approach the city from an entirely different direction.

You’re thinking like a practical military officer, I told myself. Try thinking like a bullying asshole instead.

I smirked at the thought, then resumed my walk through the town as the sun steadily rose overhead. The air grew warmer, my men muttering curses to themselves as they dug trenches right across the road - there were going to be complaints about that, I was sure - and checked and rechecked their weapons. I made mental notes of the way out of the town, allowing me to steer men back to safety if something really did go wrong. I wasn’t too proud to back off if it was clear I was losing. I was just all too aware that a retreat would rapidly become a rout.

Seles stood by the side of a slightly-bigger house and watched me. I kept a wary eye on him too. I knew better than to trust reporters, even reporters who couldn’t provide helpful real-time data to the bastards trying to kill me. He wanted a scoop ... I laid plans for the aftermath, then put them aside. I had to win the battle before I declared myself the winner. I’d known too many officers who forgot the importance of winning and wound up putting their men through hell, because the enemy didn’t think they’d been beaten.

The sound of hooves echoed through the air. I turned, just in time to see Rupert and Harbin galloping into Pennell. Rupert looked pale, Harbin looked unhelpfully confident. I could see a handful of his men, holding position between Pennell and Damansara. I gritted my teeth as I marched over to Rupert and saluted. The cavalry wouldn’t be much good on the wrong side of the town. I needed them scouting the approaches for incoming threats.

“You’ve dug up the road,” Harbin protested. I bit down the urge to make a snide remark about people who pointed out the obvious. “That’s ... fix it! Now!”

“We’ll fill in the holes after the battle,” I assured him. It wasn’t as if we’d dug up the interstate between New York and Washington. The road was nowhere near as good as a simple roman road, barely superior to the tracks I’d seen in Afghanistan. I had the feeling the locals didn’t care enough to keep it maintained, probably seeing it as a decidedly mixed blessing. It would bring them guests and trade, but it would also being taxmen and raiders. “Right now, we have more important concerns. Are your men watching the roads?”

Harbin puffed up with self-importance. “I have ten men on patrol, and I’m keeping the remaining fifty troopers in reserve. We’ll hit the enemy in the rear if they retreat.”

A smashing frontal attack on the enemy rear, I thought, sourly. Did you ever hear the joke about the deserter who ran the wrong way and got the Medal of Honour?

It was hard to keep my disdain off my face. Harbin and his men looked like ... peacocks, standing out a mile against the drab town and surrounding landscape. A pair of trained snipers would slaughter them. I hoped they’d have the sense to stay back until the enemy started to run, then refrain from chasing the retreating men too far. It was quite easy to turn a victory into a defeat by overplaying one’s hand.

But if Harbin himself gets killed in the process, I told myself, we might be worth it.

Rupert looked pale. “What should I do?”

I swallowed a suggestion he should take his horse back to the city and hide until the fighting was over. “Stay with me,” I said. “I’ll show you what we’re doing.”

Seles joined us as we walked around the town. I pointed out the defence lines - fragile by my standards, rock-solid by theirs - and how my men would conduct the fight. I explained my thinking, hoping Rupert was smart enough to understand or - at least - let me command the battle without interference. God alone knew what would happen, if he started issuing orders in the middle of a fight. It would certainly cause a great deal of confusion at the worst possible time.

“They’re coming,” someone shouted. “They’re coming!”

I led Rupert and Seles to the first trench, silently giving the reporter credit for not turning and running for his life. A man on horseback, wearing Harbin’s colours, was galloping towards us. I snapped orders, reminding the troops the newcomer was on our side. The antagonism between soldiers and marines, back home, was nothing compared to the naked hatred between the infantry and the cavalry here. I was glad my men hadn’t spent most of their lives in the military. Given time, I could convince them the horsemen weren’t bad guys. But given they were aristos …

The horseman nearly crashed into the trench, before pulling on the reins and practically skidding to a stop. I heard titters from within the lines. I glared them into silence, then clambered out of the trench as the rider dropped to the ground and saluted. Rupert stepped up beside me.

“Report,” he said.

“The enemy force is on the move,” the rider said. “They’ll be here within twenty minutes.”

“Details?” I leaned forward. “How many men?”

The rider looked blank. I gritted my teeth to keep from clobbering him - I needed details, damn it - and snapped out a handful of questions. Infantry? Cavalry? Was it just a raiding party or was it something bigger? The rider glowered at me, his hand twitching as if he intended to lift his riding crop and strike me, but Rupert’s presence forced him to try to answer. It wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped. An unknown number of horsemen, backed up by a unknown number of infantry, were closing on our position. I told myself, firmly, that the rider had managed to tell me one useful thing. The enemy were on their way.

“Take up position at the far edge of the town,” I ordered. “When I give the signal, alert the cavalry to go on the offensive.”

Rupert nodded, curtly. The rider remounted and galloped away, leaping over the trenches and cantering through the empty town. I made a mental note to look into caltrops. They would make life interesting, if not impossible, for mounted men. Rupert shuddered beside me, clearly scared and trying to hide it. I reminded myself that he was young and ignorant and lacked even a basic military education, before being tapped for command. A cadet who’d been booted out of West Point would be far better, at least on paper, to hold the post.

“We’ll be fine,” I promised, quietly. The air shifted again. “As long as we don’t panic, we’ll be fine.”

The seconds ticked away. I kept moving between trenches, speaking to my men. They were ready, as ready as they’d ever be. I found myself hoping the enemy would show up before my men started to lose their edge, before the waiting ground them down. Sweat prickled down my back as the sun rose higher - I glanced back to see the cavalry sitting on the ground, looking as though they were having a picnic. I ground my teeth in frustration. Harbin couldn’t have been more dismissive if he’d tried. I had no doubt he intended to take his men back to the city, if we lost the fight, and claim it was all Rupert’s fault. Bastard.

“Here they come,” someone shouted.

I breathed a sigh of relief as the enemy troops came into view, then put my telescope to my eye and studied them. They looked like something right out of the SCA, horses and men draped in truly absurd liveries, although there was something faded about them that added a degree of authenticity one rarely saw in re-enactment events. I counted around fifty men on horseback, backed up by thirty or so infantry. The latter carried bows slung over their shoulders - I guessed they were primarily archers, rather than groundpounders. Their coordination was rubbish. Despite the relatively small scale of the battlefield, the cavalry were dangerously ahead of the archers.

Rupert muttered an oath under his breath. I shot him a reassuring look, then returned my attention to the enemy. Their leader was mustering his men - the nasty part of my mind insisted he actually had a pretty good disguise, as his outfit wasn’t any more colourful or impractical as the rest of his men - and directing them towards us. I was fairly sure they’d known, right from the start, where we intended to make our stand. They wanted to give us a thrashing to teach the city a lesson, not actually fight and win a war. My lips twisted in grim amusement. It took one side to start a war, but two to end it.

“Squads One and Two, take aim,” I ordered. Accuracy would be shitty, but as long as a hail of musket balls were hurtling towards the enemy it probably didn’t matter. “Squads Three and Four, prepare yourselves. Squads Five and Six, take up reserve position.”

I braced myself as trumpets blared, the enemy starting to canter towards us. Timing was everything. We had to hit them, repeatedly, when they were trapped in the sweet spot between being able to retreat and being able to get to us before we blew them away. I wished, once again, for machine guns and mortars. I could have blasted them all from a safe distance with a handful of modern weapons. I could have ... I pushed the thought out of my head as I counted down the seconds. It was better to err on the side of caution. If they thought they couldn’t run, they might just continue the charge anyway.

“On my command.” I raised my voice. “FIRE!”
Squads One and Two fired, the sound of muskets firing blurring together into a single terrifying note. I cursed under my breath as smoke started to shroud the trenches, then snapped orders to the next two squads. Squads One and Two knew what to do. They ducked into the trench, then hastily started to reload as Three and Four took up firing position and took aim. I didn’t hesitate.

“Squads Three and Four, FIRE!”

They fired, as one. I stared at the enemy force. It wavered, horses stumbling to a halt or crashing to the ground as musket balls slammed into them. I saw their riders falling over backwards or being thrown by their maddened steeds, the injured and dying men crashing into the survivors and sending them flying in all directions too. Their commander was trying to scream orders - or simply screaming, my thoughts whispered nastily - but it was too late. The orderly formation had devolved into a nightmarish mass of dying men and horses.

“Squads Five and Six,” I ordered. The smoke was getting worse. Visibility was dropping rapidly. “Fire!”

The enemy broke as a third wave of bullets slammed into them. Their commander tumbled to the ground. The survivors made no attempt to save him or any of the wounded. They just turned and ran. I saw one of my men shoot at a retreating horse, missing ... I made a mental note to tick him off later, then waved to the cavalry. I’d forgive Harbin a great deal if his men turned the retreat into a rout. They didn’t move, not at first. Harbin had ordered them to mount up, but nothing beyond. It wasn’t until Rupert started screaming at them to take the field that they finally started moving. They were damn lucky, I noted crossly, that the enemy archers were already running. If they’d taken up position and opened fire, they could have massacred Harbin and his men as easily as the English had slaughtered the French at Agincourt. I told myself, grimly, that the next time would be a great deal harder. The warlords wouldn’t come in fat and happy now they knew they had to take us seriously.

“Gods,” Rupert breathed. The battlefield seemed to fall silent. “Is that ... is that what it’s always like?”

“No,” I said. “Next time, it will be worse.”

My men started cheering, hooting and hollering and firing shots in the air. I didn’t try to stop them. Instead, I detailed three squads to search the remains of the enemy force and take anyone still alive to the chirurgeons. It might not do the poor bastards much good - the chirurgeons were butchers, even though I’d ... convinced them to up their game - but we had to try. I felt my stomach churn as we stepped out of the trenches and walked across the blood-soaked ground. I’d seen horrors in my long career, yet ... I shuddered at the carnage before me. My musket balls had shattered armour, driving fragments of metal deep into their chests. I hoped they’d died quickly. They’d been so badly injured that even modern medicine might not have been able to save them.

“We won.” Rupert sounded disbelieving. “We won.”

I clapped him on the shoulder. “This is your victory,” I said. “Enjoy it.”

The cavalry returned, looking surprisingly pleased with themselves for men who’d done nothing more than chase down retreating troops. Harbin cantered up to us and jumped to the ground, his eyes going wide as he took in the battleground for the first time. I wondered, sourly, if he was smart enough to understand what he was seeing. The cavalry and archers were no longer the undisputed kings of the battlefield. A handful of men with muskets could tear them to shreds. And as weapons technology advanced ...

Harbin stopped and stared. “That’s ... that’s Clarence Aldred!”

I followed his gaze. He was staring at the remains of the enemy commander, his body so badly battered that it was hard to be sure what had actually killed him. The armour was damaged, but the livery remained intact ...

“We killed the warlord’s son?” Rupert swallowed, audibly. “Now there will be no peace.”

“There will be,” I assured him. I cursed, mentally. I doubted anyone in the city - or in the warlord’s territories - would really mourn, but the political implications were worrying. I’d expected the warlord to keep pushing, just to make sure our victory wasn’t a fluke, yet ... if we’d killed his son, he’d have a cause. “We just have to win the war.”

I smiled, heading back to my men. We’d won. No one had expected us to win, not in the city behind us or the enemy territory in front, but we’d won. And now it was time to celebrate.
Posts: 40
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Nineteen

The city went wild.

No one had really expected us to win, no one except me. The aristos had anticipated having to grovel to the warlords - again - while the common folk had resigned themselves to another round of disgraceful bullying and supine surrender, to watching helplessly as food prices climbed into orbit and guardsmen searched the districts for runaway serfs to return to their former masters. The idea we might actually win, and win so decisively that the enemy force would be effectively destroyed beyond all hope of recovery, was ridiculous. And yet, as it dawned on them we actually had won, the city came out for us. They were literally dancing in the streets.

A day ago, my men were pariahs. They were soldiers, regarded as lower than garbagemen or sewer cleaners ... lower, because they weren’t seen as necessary. Now, all of a sudden, they were heroes. The law said they couldn’t return to the city without special dispensation, but the population no longer cared. My men were paraded through the streets by popular demand, then given a afternoon’s leave to enjoy themselves. I watched, amused, as they were feted like movie stars. The drinks were on the house and none of them, even the lowest, had any trouble finding female company for the night. I took advantage of the sudden interest in soldiering to convince Rupert to start recruiting more men, something that was technically within his authority. Harbin and his peers would have their doubts about the wisdom of placing muskets in commoner hands, but they couldn’t object until the popular excitement died down. I hoped I’d have enough time to make some permanent changes before Rupert - and I - ran out of political capital.

I worked hard. I convinced Seles - and a bunch of other reporters - to write stories extolling our victory and insisting the warlords were nothing more than a bunch of paper dragon. I composed - actually, rewrote - a bunch of songs, from Bonnie Dundee to the Battle Cry of Freedom and paid bards to sing them, along with a version of Jonnie Cope that practically accused Harbin of being a coward and a fool. The bards thought they’d got the better of me, when I practically gave away the songs, but I didn’t care. I wanted word to spread. I wanted the population to share in the joy of victory, to remain involved even as the excitement faded and reality reasserted itself. And by the time the aristos realised the city had come to life, it would be far too late for them to do anything about it. I hoped.

“They’re still unsure what to do about Clarence,” Rupert told me, as I returned to the city palace. Rupert, Harbin and a bunch of other city fathers - who’d joined up after our victory - had spent hours arguing over how to handle the dead brat. They spoke of him as a boy, even though I’d been younger when I’d first gone to war. “His father might not even know he’s dead yet.”

I nodded. I wouldn’t care to be the poor bugger who told a great warlord his son was dead. The young man had been a fool, and he’d walked straight into a trap, but at least he’d led his men in combat. I’d met too many other fools who’d been born with silver spoons in their mouths and found life so easy that, by the time they ran into actual adversity, were completely unprepared to handle it. I remembered some of the stories they told about Clarence and shook my head. They made him some like a particularly vile character from Game of Thrones.

“His father won’t let this pass easily,” I said, softly. “He’ll want to take another shot at us.”

I forced myself to think. We’d just given the warlord a bloody nose. He’d want to hit us back - and quickly, before he lost face - but it wouldn’t be easy. He’d need to raise and train more troops, then arm them with muskets of his own. I was tempted to suggest we went on the offensive, but we simply didn’t have enough trained men. The war would be decided by whoever raised and armed enough men first. Luckily, I had the feeling we had the edge.

Rupert led me into an office and motioned me to sit, then met my eyes. “Right now, they’re trying to decide how to proceed,” he said. “What do you advise?”

I felt an odd flicker of irritation, which I rapidly suppressed. The city fathers wouldn’t listen to anything I said. They wouldn’t even feel the urge to oppose it automatically. I was an immigrant and a mercenary and a soldier and Rupert’s liegeman. In private, he might listen to me. We might even be friends, of a sort. In public, disagreeing with him was a death sentence. Perhaps literally. Showing him up in front of his peers - and his superiors - wasn’t something he could let pass, not without looking weak. I rolled my eyes. It was a goddamned stupid way to run a railroad.

“First, we need to raise and train more troops,” I said. That was going to be a pain. I’d picked out a handful of men I thought had potential for advancement, but none of them had anything like enough seasoning yet. “Second, we need to start producing more and better weapons and getting them to the troops in the field. Third, we need to determine what we want from the war.”

“The bastards leaving us in peace,” Rupert said.

I grinned. “You’re thinking too small,” I said. “Why not go on the offensive and smash him flat?”

Rupert gaped at me, as if I’d suggested flying to the moon. “He’s a warlord!”

“So what?” I shrugged, dismissively. “Yeah, sure. When all that counted was being able to ride a horse and swing a mace, his men had the edge. Now, we have the edge. What’s to stop us from taking the offensive and teaching him a lesson?”

I allowed my smile to widen. “He’s been using his control over the roads and fields to keep us in line. Would it not be better if we took the fields for ourselves?”

“The other warlords would ally against us,” Rupert said, slowly. “And the king ...”

His voice trailed off as the vision sank into his head. The city was effectively impregnable - and would remain so, at least until the warlord produced a more modern army. The walls were strong, the citizens angry ... the warlord’s troops might have the edge in the field, at least until muskets entered the picture, but if they tried to storm the city they’d be chewed to ribbons. No one would surrender, not when they knew the result would be a storm of looting, raping and burning. Even if the warlord won, it would be a pyrrhic victory. He’d be so badly weakened his neighbours would invade and force him into exile, taking his lands and his human chattel for themselves.

And yet, what if we did go on the offensive?

I didn’t know what the warlord was thinking, or would start thinking when his servants nerved themselves to tell him about the defeat, but I could make a few guesses. The warlord would need to act - and act fast. He’d cut the roads, isolating the city, then probably send cavalry to burn our fields and generally keep us off-balance until he built up the force he needed to crush us. We might win the battle, but not the war. And yet, if we went on the offensive ... I smiled. Why should we leave him in a position to threaten us? We could storm his lands, convince his serfs to join us and eventually lay siege to his castles. Perhaps even take them quicker than he dreamed possible. Cannons were rare, this far from the more developed countries to the rest. It was quite likely the warlords had yet to realise their castles could easily become death traps.

Rupert listened as I pointed out all the advantages of actually controlling the surrounding countryside. Our own food and drink - fewer taxes, less risk of starvation forcing us into submission. No more demands we handed over productive citizens to warlords too stupid to realise the advantage of giving the disconnected a way to escape before their discontent turned into violence. More and better lands for the aristocracy ... and, perhaps most important of all, a display of power that would make the rest of the warlords think twice about taking us on. Rupert listened, his face shifting constantly between eagerness and fear. I understood. It was never easy to commit oneself when one had too much to lose.

But you’re going to lose everything soon enough, I thought, morbidly. You have to gamble.

“Stay here,” Rupert said. He waved a hand at the walls. “My office is yours. Draw up plans for the future, everything we might need. I’ll go talk to the council.”

“Try and convince them to give you more authority,” I advised. “It’ll make it easier to get everyone marching in the same direction.”

Rupert smiled wryly, then left the room. I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes, considering the future. The maps I’d seen had been so vague it was hard to be certain they were even remotely reliable. I’d have to round up some runaway serfs and pick their brains, trading citizenship - perhaps even military service - for detailed knowledge of the enemy lands. It would have other advantages too, I told myself. The serfs would fight hard for fear of falling back into enemy hands. If I’d been in their shoes, I would have done the same.

I took my notebook from my pocket and started to list everything I needed to do. Select a handful of sergeants. Make it very clear to them, by force if necessary, that abusing their charges would result in immediate execution. I dared not let corruption slither into the army. I’d seen that in Iraq and Afghanistan and the results had not been pretty. And ... I’d need to pick out a few prospective officers and manipulate Rupert into putting their names forward for promotion. I wouldn’t be allowed to promote from the ranks. That would be a step too far.

For now, I told myself. I could hear cheers in the distance. The commoners were still partying. I wonder if the city fathers will be smart enough to realise the commoners have just felt their power.

The door opened. I looked up, expecting to see Rupert. Instead, a veiled woman - dressed in white from head to toe - stepped into the chamber. I couldn’t help thinking she looked like a bride. Behind her, an older woman eyed me sternly as she entered and closed the door behind me, before crossing her arms over her breasts. My instincts twitched, recognising the threat. The old woman might be a servant - she dressed like a cleaner - but she was formidable.

I stood, unsure what to do. “My Lady?”

The veiled woman removed the face covering. Gayle - the girl I’d saved - looked back at me, her face a mask. I stared at her, even more unsure. It was rare - vanishingly rare - for a commoner to be alone with a aristocratic family’s young daughter. The old woman - I guessed she was the nanny, as strange as it was for a girl in her late teens or early twenties to have a nanny - was a chaperone and yet ... people would talk. I wondered, suddenly, how many people had talked about Gayle and Harbin. Rumours would have spread, no matter how much money had been splashed out to keep mouths firmly closed. It was too good a story not to spread.

“Sergeant,” Gayle said. Her voice was sweet, although it had the accent I’d come to associate with the upper classes. “Thank you for meeting me.”

“You’re welcome,” I said, as if we’d planned the meeting all along. My mind raced. There was no way in hell this meeting was a coincidence. Gayle was a teenage girl in a very patriarchal society. She had very little say in her own life, passing from her father’s authority to her husband’s with nary a break. Why was she even here? I didn’t know. “What can I do for you?”

“I wanted to thank you,” Gayle said. “And to ask what you plan to do next.”

I met her eyes ... and saw, just for a second, a hint she was far more than a pretty face. I kicked myself mentally Anyone who grew up female in such a society would have to be cunning, to understand what was going on ... to manipulate the men around them without ever seeming to be anything more than a young woman. I shook my head in annoyance. I’d met quite a few slippery customers who’d come across, at least at first, as complete idiots. I’d learnt the hard way to beware of anyone who wanted to play a game while insisting they didn’t have the slightest idea of the rules ...

Gayle looked back at me, her face hardening for a second. I knew. She knew I knew. I knew she knew I knew ... I shook my head, mentally. Rupert was young and ignorant and more than a little naive, but he wasn’t stupid. It stood to reason his sister would have the same basic level of intelligence. She might not have been given a formal education, but that didn’t make her stupid. And she would have very good reason to pretend she couldn’t count past ten without taking off her socks.

Which begs a question, I reflected. Does Rupert or her father know she’s here?

“You’re not from around here, are you?” Gayle was studying me thoughtfully. It was cold and hard. There was no hint she was attracted to me. She was more interested, I noted ruefully, in what I could do for her. “Where are you from?”

I glanced at the nanny. Gayle shrugged. “She won’t talk.”

“I come from a long way away,” I said. I didn’t trust her assurances. The nanny was probably loyal ... but to the person paying her wages, not her charge. “What tipped you off?”

Gayle made no pretence she didn’t understand the question. Indeed, I had the odd feeling she liked being recognised as my intellectual equal, if not superior. “You looked me in the eye,” she said, simply. “No one from here would have done that, not unless they wanted to get into trouble.”

I winced. The quickest way to get into trouble, if you found yourself in foreign parts, was to get involved with the local women. I’d known people who’d wound up in deep shit because they’d done something wrong ... not all of them men, I should add. And I’d done it without thinking. I looked down, trying to ignore her smile. As far as she was concerned, I was a commoner. I could no more look her in the eye than she could take power in her own right.

“Ouch,” I said, mildly. “What can I do for you?”

“I have a question,” Gayle said. “Where do your loyalties lie?”

I frowned. It would be easy to assure her that I was loyal to Rupert and would remain so until the day I died ... but I doubted she’d accept it. They thought I was a mercenary. They thought I’d desert them, the moment someone offered me more money. It was an insulting thought, but not one I could ignore. Mercenaries had a very bad reputation and there was nothing I could do about it.

“I am loyal to whoever hires me,” I said, finally. “And I will remain loyal as long as I am paid.”

Gayle smiled. “Good,” she said. I had a feeling she’d seen something in me she liked. Or considered useful. “My family will keep paying you, as long as you keep producing.”

She leaned forward. “You should know there’s been some talk about you,” she added. Her lips twisted. “Harbin has been urging we should evict all mercenaries from the city.”

Including me, I thought, curtly. I simply wasn’t used to thinking of myself as a mercenary, even after taking Rupert’s money. Is he taking aim at me or is he trying to establish himself as a major player?

“He’s also bragging that he and his men won the battle single-handedly,” Gayle said. “Is that true?”

“Hell, no.” I was surprised by the anger in my response. “He boldly led his men from the rear.”

Gayle’s smile seemed to grow sharper. “Why am I not surprised?”

She glanced upwards, then stepped back. “A pleasure meeting you,” she said. “We’ll talk later.”

I watched her go, then settled back into my chair. Gayle was far from stupid ... which begged the question of precisely why she’d let Harbin get so close to her. Drunkenness? Hormones? Or a simple reluctance to be openly rude to another aristocrat? I’d known people too polite to tell someone to fuck off, even when their innermost boundaries were being violated. The misunderstandings would have been funny if they hadn’t been so tragic.

And she talks to the other women, I thought. I’d once had a girlfriend who loved regency romances. She’d insisted the women kept tabs on the men. They probably keep each other updated on what their menfolk are doing, because the men pay as little attention to them as they do to the servants.

The door opened, again. This time, Rupert stepped into the room.

“Good news and bad,” he said. “Good news, we’re going to start preparing for war. Bad news, the city fathers have appointed a triumvirate to run the war. They don’t trust me with so much power alone.”

I frowned. That wasn’t a bad idea, on the face of it. Why ...?

“One of the members will be Lord Winter,” Rupert said. “But the other ...”

My heart sank. “Harbin.”

Rupert nodded. “I’m afraid so, yes.”

I groaned. Harbin was going to be real trouble.

I just knew it.
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Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by geowar »

In Chapter 1: "the car surging forward as if I could outrun my demons. I sure where I was going. I just…"
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Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by geowar »

Just finished chapter 17. Two notes: You've used "smelled of sand" and "uniform like a dictator" multiple times… it's getting redundant. The "training montage" mention is apt. I don't recall you ever using the words "bootcamp" or "Drill instructor" (or DI). That's how us yanks usually talk about these things. ;-) Other than these minor quibbles… so far so… GOOD! ;-)
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Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by geowar »

>> nothing more than a bunch of paper dragon
dragons (plural?)
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Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

geowar wrote: Wed May 12, 2021 7:54 pm Just finished chapter 17. Two notes: You've used "smelled of sand" and "uniform like a dictator" multiple times… it's getting redundant. The "training montage" mention is apt. I don't recall you ever using the words "bootcamp" or "Drill instructor" (or DI). That's how us yanks usually talk about these things. ;-) Other than these minor quibbles… so far so… GOOD! ;-)
The editor will fix that, when the serial is completed <grin>

Please keep pointing them out.

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Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Twenty

“The only easy day was yesterday,” I said, cheerfully. “Tomorrow will be a great deal harder.”

I hid my amusement with an effort as I stood in the training field, surveying a scene that would have made my old drill instructors faint in horror. The troops in front of me looked decidedly the worst for wear. It would have been easy to think we’d lost the battle, rather than smashed the enemy army and given the warlord a bloody nose. A couple of days of wine, women and song - I was amused to note that some of the songs I’d rewritten had already spread from one end of the city to the other - had clearly taken their toll. I just hoped the men understood we’d won the battle, rather than the war.

“We gave the bastards a damn good kicking,” I continued. “We blasted them to hell and back and send them running home, crying for their mamas. But next time, they’re not going to come in so fat and happy. They’re going to know what we can do and be a little more careful. We have to be ready for them.”

I allowed the words to hang in the air as my gaze moved over the troops, lingering briefly on the handful of prospective sergeants. I hoped - God, I hoped - that my judgement wasn’t flawed. There was no support structure, not here; there were no MPs to enforce my judgements nor senior officers who’d actually understand what I was doing. A single bad apple could and would poison the entire batch. I’d gained one hell of a lot of credit when I’d led the troops to victory, but ... victory had a habit of concealing all the problems that could have easily proven fatal, if the battle had gone the other way. It was easy to learn from defeat, harder to learn from victory.

“So ... we’re not going to take it easy.” I gave them a cold smile. “We’ll be working even harder to get back into shape, so we’ll be ready when the shit starts flying again.”

I kept an eye on them as I led them on a long march, alternating between running and walking to push them to the limit. There was surprisingly little grumbling, despite the hangovers from too much alcohol and dubious potions. It worried me a little. Grunts always grumbled, in my experience. When they didn’t, it suggested their CO was a dipshit or someone was planning something. But here ... I told myself, firmly, that everything I’d put them through had been soundly validated during the battle. They knew - now - I hadn’t been making them suffer because of sadism.

And having the entire city turn out for them can’t have hurt either, I thought. They have pride in themselves now.

The grumbling didn’t get any worse as we sweated out the alcohol, then started the march back to the garrison. Rupert had arranged a rapid expansion, dispatching a small army of carpenters to build more barracks and training grounds for the growing army. I would have preferred to barrack the men inside the city itself, behind solid stone walls, but the city fathers had flatly refused any suggestion the men should be allowed to live freely inside the city. I supposed they had a point. It would be a great deal harder to desert if one had to cover a mile of flat ground, rather than just leave the garrison, turn the corner and vanish.

We stopped by the mess hall, the men looking tired but happy. The suspicious bastard in me wondered if they were up to something. The more optimistic part of me kept insisting we had won a battle and it would take a few more days for the post-victory thrill to wear off. I hoped I was right as I turned to face them. I didn’t need more trouble. I had Harbin lurking in the background, no doubt planning trouble himself. He’d been assigned to raise more cavalry regiments. Rupert had insisted it would keep him busy. I had my doubts about that too.

“Horst, Fallows” - I snapped out three more names - “remain behind. The rest of you, go stuff your faces.”

The men cheered and hurried into the mess hall. I made a mental note to work on discipline later, then turned to the five men I’d held back. They looked torn between eagerness and concern, if not fear. Being singled out by one’s commanding officer was rarely a good thing here, where commanding officers could use their men as slaves - or beat them to death - without consequences. That was going to change, I vowed as I led the prospective sergeants into the training hall and motioned for them to relax. The army was going to treat its recruits like family, not tools that happened to think.

“The first set of new recruits will be arriving this afternoon,” I said. I would have been happier if things hadn’t moved quite so fast, but we needed to get the process well underway before the city fathers started having second thoughts. Or the recruits themselves started thinking better of their sudden attack of patriotism. “You five have been tapped to serve as training officers. The good news is that there will be more pay. The bad news is that there will be more responsibility - and if you fuck up you will be in deep shit.”

I allowed my voice to harden. “You know how I trained you. You know - now - that the training served a useful purpose. I expect you, if you accept these positions, to do the same as I did. If you mistreat the recruits, if you bully them or steal from them or forget your duty to train them as I trained you, I will fucking take you behind the bike shed and break you. Is that clear?”

They nodded, hastily. They might not know what a bike shed was - I hadn’t seen anything resembling a bicycle on the streets - but they got the general idea. I took advantage of their silence to outline the training program, talking them though everything I’d done - to them, when they’d been raw recruits - and explaining the rationale behind it. They listened nervously, as if they were too worried to ask questions. I sighed, inwardly. I wouldn’t have complained if they’d asked questions. It was often the only way to learn.

“Some of you have done training duties before,” I finished. “This will be profoundly different. Do not, and I mean do not, fuck it up.”

I dismissed them to the mess hall, then followed, hiding my concerns behind a blank mask. It was hard to play the bully without actually being a bully, without going too far and crossing the line into outright sadism. I’d heard stories of troops who fought because they were more afraid of their commanding officers than the enemy, but they rarely ended well. The poor bastards who’d tried to stop us when we invaded Iraq had often surrendered, when their commanding officers were blown away. A number had even shot the regime’s mouthpieces in the back and simply gone home. I wanted them to be a solid cadre of training instructors, not bullies. I promised myself that, if any of them screwed up, I’d stamp on them so hard we could use them for paper.

“The section leaders will escort you to weapons practice,” I said, when the troops finished eating. “I’ll join you in an hour or so.”

I gathered the instructors and headed back to the training ground. There was a spell, I’d been told, that allowed someone to be in two places at once ... I wished I could do it, although I had no idea how it actually worked. It was hard enough to multitask in one body, let alone two. I shook my head, putting the thought aside as I strode into the training ground. The new recruits were waiting for us. They looked surprisingly eager. My eyes swept over them, feeling a twinge of amusement. This was no motley collection of drunkards, poor men and petty criminals given the choice between the army or mutilation. They’d actually volunteered to join. I spotted shopboys and the teenage children of prosperous merchants and a recruit who looked suspiciously like a woman in male clothing. I wondered, idly, how she intended to maintain her disguise in the barracks. There was no privacy, even in the privies ...

“Welcome,” I said. “I am Master Sergeant Elliot” - I’d effectively given myself a promotion, although the rank structure was so fluid I doubted anyone would notice until lifted myself up to General - “second-in-command of this garrison and chief instructor. With me are sergeants ...”

I ran through the same spiel I’d given the first time around, with a handful of tiny modifications. The recruits would know their rights, although if they wasted my time by complaining someone expected them to actually work they’d regret it. I had a feeling there would probably be some issues. Damansara wasn’t very democratic, as I understood the team, but citizens had certain rights. The shopboys considered themselves a step or two above the lowest of the low. They might try to protest if we pushed them around.

They can try, I told myself.

I answered a couple of questions, then directed the recruits on a march and hammered basic commands into their heads. They did better than I’d expected, although some grumbled more than others. I wondered, idly, if they’d expected a training montage they could just breeze through, making them trained men at the end of the day. It wasn’t that hard to train men to use muskets, and other basic firearms, but if they didn’t learn to work together they were going to be of very limited value. I kept a wary eye on the new sergeants as I let them take the lead, hoping and praying none of them screwed up. Thankfully, my warnings seemed to have sunk in. They behaved themselves.

A messenger arrived, just as the new recruits were being marched to the mess hall for their first taste of military food. “Sir, the special recruits are on their way.”

“When they arrive, have them shown into Bond Hall,” I ordered. It hadn’t been easy to locate enough special recruits. I’d had to promise Seles an exclusive interview in exchange for his help. “Have them served food” - a sign, by local custom, that one was welcome - “and then inform me.”

“Yes, sir.”

The messenger hurried off. I winced, inwardly. Rupert knew what I was doing - vaguely - but he hadn’t asked anything like enough questions. He wouldn’t be the first commanding officer I’d had who’d wanted to maintain a certain degree of plausible deniability, just in case he had to pretend he’d been ignorant of what I was doing, yet ... he faced worse than a court martial if my plans turned into a political hot potato. I cursed under my breath. The city fathers blew hot and cold all the goddamned time. It would be so much easier if they just left the triumvirate alone to get on with it.

Not that Harbin would let me do it, if he knew what I was doing, I thought. And Lord Winter is about as effective as a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.

I sighed inwardly as I spoke briefly to Fallows, leaving him in charge of the sergeants and the recruits, then headed to Bond Hall. It wasn’t much, just a framework building that could easily have passed for a gym ball. I stepped inside, taking a moment to inspect the special recruits before they noticed me. There were ten of them, in hard-worn clothes with hard-worn faces. A couple looked vaguely familiar. They might have been amongst the men I’d freed, back when I’d been a guardsmen. I hoped so. It would be helpful if some of them had reason to trust me.

They turned to face me, looking worried. I didn’t really blame them. Seles had promised safe conduct, if they came to meet me at the garrison, but they had no reason to trust his word. Or mine, come to think of it. The city spent half its time exploiting runaway serfs and the other half rounding them up and sending them back into slavery. That was going to change, I was sure. There’d be no need to send the serfs back after we’d thrashed their masters and given the poor bastards their freedom.

“Many weeks ago, I freed a bunch of you from captivity,” I said. They’d know what I’d done, I was sure, even if none of them had actually been there. “Do you remember?”

“Yes,” one of them said. His voice was thick with doubt. “Was that really you?”

I nodded. “I got caught in a sorcerer’s trap,” I reminded them. “And I ended up looking a complete fool.”

They eyed me thoughtfully. I hoped that meant they’d listen. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

“The war isn’t over,” I said. “Warlord Asshole” - I saw them smile - “is going to resume the offensive, the moment he thinks he can win. It won’t take him long to obtain muskets for his own men, train them in their use and point them at us. Even before then, he can keep the pressure up by harassing convoys heading towards the city or simply blocking his farmers from shipping food to us. A smart commander would realise that trying to starve us out - rather than meet us on the battlefield - is the better option. And if he does, he might just win.”

“How reassuring,” the spokesman said, dryly.

I smiled. “We are currently working on building up our forces to give him a bloody nose when he tries again, which he will, and take the offensive,” I told them. “I need two things from you, both of which will make it easier to plan a more ... final end to the war. If you assist us, you will be granted citizenship and a hefty financial reward.”

The spokesman met my eyes. “And if we refuse?”

“You can go back to the city and vanish into the population,” I told him. “The choice is yours.”

I waited, bracing myself. They had no love for their former masters. They wouldn’t have fled if they hadn’t been discontented. And yet, they had no reason to trust me - or my masters - either. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were already considering contingency plans, for when - if - I betrayed them. I’d had nothing to lose, as far as they were concerned, when I’d broken some of them out of captivity. Now ... I had altogether too much to lose.

And none of it is permanent, I reminded myself, as they exchanged speaking glances. It could be taken away at any moment.

“We’ll stay,” the spokesman said. “What do you want us to do?”

“Two things,” I said. “First, we know very little about lands beyond the city’s formal border. The maps show roads and suchlike, but little more. I need you to help fill in the blanks, to tell me where the farms and villages and strongpoints and castles are ... to tell me, if you know, how the warlord actually governs his lands. Everything, basically. Who did you report to, when you were there; who they report to ... and so on and so on, right up the chain. I have a lot of questions and more will develop, I’m sure, as you tell me more about the warlord’s lands.”

“We can try,” the spokesman said. “But many of us had very restricted lives.”

“Every little helps,” I assured him. I wasn’t expecting vast qualities of completely trustworthy intelligence. The serfs - even their masters - lived in very limited worlds. They knew very little about life fifty miles away, let alone the other side of the world. Places like Zangaria and Alluvia might as well be Narnia or Neverland, as far as they were concerned. “I just need an idea of how things work.”

The spokesman nodded. “And the second thing?”

I let out a breath. Rupert knew I intended to learn from the runaways. He didn’t know what else I intended to ask them to do.

“I want some of you to go back and prepare your people for liberation,” I said. Serf revolts were apparently common, even though they were brutally crushed very quickly. “I want you to tell them that we’ll be coming, to take weapons and supplies and whatever else you need to give your people a fighting chance. Tell anyone who wants their freedom to plan for an uprising, but to wait until our troops are in position to support them. It will happen sooner than you think.”

The spokesman scowled at me. “Really?”

“I hope so,” I said. “I’ve already placed orders for thousands of muskets, flintlocks, cannons, barrels of gunpowder and everything else we’ll need to fight a war. It’ll be easy to skim a few of each off the top, for you to smuggle into the warlord’s lands. I don’t promise the uprising will be easy, but it might be better for you if you and your people play a major role in your own liberation, instead of waiting for someone else to free you. It can be done.”

“We need to discuss it,” the spokesman said.

“I’ll give you an hour,” I said. “Once I’m back, you can give me your answer.”

I left them alone and went to check on the recruits, then the more experienced soldiers. The section leaders were doing better than I’d expected - if that continued, I promised myself, they’d become sergeants or lieutenants in their own right. The troops, newly aware of just how formidable their muskets could be, were training hard. I calculated that they’d be shooting four balls a minute within the week.

As long as supplies hold out, I thought, we should be able to win.

The spokesman greeted me when I returned to the hall. “We’ve decided to accept your offer,” he said. “If you give us the supplies, we’ll take them home.”

“Good.” I allowed myself a moment of relief. The runaway serf community was fairly tight-knit. If they said no, the rest of the community would probably say the same. “Now, let us discuss the lay of the land.”
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Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Twenty-One

And so began the Phony War.

I could not, of course, allow myself to forget that it was just a matter of time before Warlord Aldred - Warlord Asshole, as everyone was calling him now - resumed the offensive. I had too much to do, from training troops to little projects that might - or might not - win Rupert’s approval if he ever found out them, but the city fathers weren’t keeping themselves so busy. They seemed torn between defiance and surrender, between an awareness the citizens would no longer tolerate appeasement and a fear that trying to fight would result in utter disaster. I feared there would come a day when they revoked the triumvirate’s authority, told Rupert and Harbin to go to their rooms and sent me into exile. Again. The only thing that kept them from doing just that, from what I’d heard through Gayle, was the fear the citizens would revolt and that no amount of grovelling would save them from the warlord’s anger. His son was dead. And he knew it.

Weeks passed, moving so quickly I could feel the warlord breathing down my neck. I moved from place to place, training troops, placing orders for newer and better weapons, discussing tactics with Rupert while arguing with Harbin, encouraging broadsheet writers - reporters - to write favourable stories, ‘composing’ songs for the barracks and taverns and recruiting runaway serfs for my long-term plans. The runaway spokesman - he finally told me his name was Boris, although I was fairly sure it was a nom de plume - worked hard to make sure I knew as much as possible about the surrounding countryside, as well as recruiting dozens of people who’d stayed behind when he’d made a break for freedom. I tried to warn him about cell structures and operational security, but the serfs already knew the concept even if they didn’t have a name for it. Anyone who talked to the local baron - even the village headman - was a dead man walking, the moment his peers found out. There would be no mercy.

I - somehow - found time to start other programs. Most of my early recruits couldn’t read, not even the phonic letters the first cross-dimensional traveller had introduced. I arranged for some of the newer recruits - the ones who did know - to give lessons to the older recruits, then for the newly-taught recruits to teach their peers. I had to smile when I realised I’d effectively reinvented the Vietcong’s method of teaching their recruits to read, although I had no qualms about stealing good ideas from wherever I found them. I’d have sold my soul for a few hundred AK-47s and a handful of T-34 tanks. They’d dominate the battlefield, as long as the ammunition held out.

Be careful what you wish for, I told myself, sharply. You might not like the people who brought them to you.

It was my relationship - if indeed relationship was the right word - with Gayle that gave me the most headaches, although Harbin was a very close contender. Gayle seemed to always find a few minutes to visit me whenever I was alone, in the city palace or her family’s mansion, offering me a few useful tips on politics and insights into what the city fathers were thinking before vanishing again to avoid her brother or more distant relatives. I didn’t know what she was doing, or how much her father and brother knew of what she was doing, or anything. It was strange. I had to keep reminding myself that she was from a very different society. She might have a completely different way of thinking about things than me.

Which is the problem with meeting people from different cultures, I reflected. It isn’t so easy to predict how they’ll react to well ...anything.

The other upside of my new status as a war hero, I discovered, was that it allowed me to talk to magicians as something close to an equal. Most magicians maintained a social barrier between themselves and non-magicians - they called them mundanes, which I supposed beat muggles - and rarely lowered themselves to talk to anyone, unless they were paying customers or extremely well-connected. It actually took some doing to convince an enchanter to talk to me, despite everything. I had the distant impression Carver and his ilk thought it didn’t matter, not to them, who won the war. They’d remain in their heaven and leave the rest of us to the seven hells.

“It’s not easy to send a message via magic,” Carver explained, patiently. He was young for an enchanter, I’d been told, although he was probably around the same age as me. It was hard to tell with magicians. “Crystal balls require considerable effort and resources to craft, let alone emplace in the twinned locations ...”

I frowned. I’d done my best to read a handful of magical textbooks, but they’d been completely incomprehensible. I had the feeling they were trying to explain colour to a man born blind. Vast swathes of technobabble were mingled with details that made very little sense to me. I told myself it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to know the how and why. All I needed to know was how it could be put to use in my service.

“I see, I think,” I lied. “I understand there are such things as chat parchments ...”

Carver looked irked. “You do understand how chat parchments work, don’t you?”

“No.” I saw no point in pretending otherwise. I was fairly sure the concept had come from my mysterious counterpart - the chat parchments reminded me of cell phones, rather than anything more mystical - but I didn’t understand how they actually worked. The textbooks hadn’t even mentioned them. “Why don’t you explain it to me.”

“It would be pointless,” Carver said. “You couldn’t even understand what I said.”

I resisted the urge to point out he’d assumed I did understand, only a few seconds ago. “Try me.”

Carver snorted and sat back in his chair, trying to come up with a simplistic explanation that would actually worked. I forced myself to wait, my eyes wandering around his shop. It looked like a weird cross between a standard carpenter’s workshop and something right out of Harry Potter, piles of wood, metal and mundane tools contrasting oddly with magic wands, potion jars and devices I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Rupert had warned me to be polite, when he’d arranged the meeting. A magician’s home was his castle. A man who entered without permission, or a visitor who acted as if he owned the place, would be lucky if he was simply kicked back onto the streets. I felt a twinge of envy, despite everything. Magic was the key to a better life, here. Even mundane-born students had a chance to make something of themselves.

“Magical artefacts are designed to either carry a magical charge, which severely limits their lifespan, or draw their power directly from their owner,” Carver said, finally. “It’s possible to design something that draws power from background magic, stockpiling the charge within the spellwork until it is finally used up, but there are very clear limits on how much you can actually do. A trunk might last for years, perhaps even decades; a wand designed to allow the wielder to cast a handful of basic spells, even without magic of their own, won’t last very long at all.”

He paused, considering his next words. “Magic runs through a person’s blood, which makes blood one of the most versatile and yet dangerous magical substances in the world. It is linked so closely to the donor that even non-magical blood has its uses, although most of them are linked closely to the dark arts. I could use a drop of your blood, for example, to locate you, or influence you, or simply kill you at a distance. It is different, but it can be done.”

I shuddered. I’d seen how the locals were careful with their blood, but I’d never heard the reasoning stated so bluntly. “Is there any way to block such spells?”

“Yes.” Carver smiled, suddenly. “I’ve crafted artefacts designed to protect mundanes against such attacks, although they have their limits. The blood link is hard to cut completely, particularly if the blood is stolen before the ritual is completed. It is relatively easy to stop something lethal, but a more subtle suggestion can get through even the toughest defences.”

“I might have to buy one of those,” I commented.

“I’ll be happy to sell you one,” Carver said. “If they don’t work, you’re welcome to come and complain to me.”

I snorted. If he was telling the truth, if someone could kill me from a distance, I wouldn’t be around to complain. “What does this have to do with chat parchments?”

Carver brightened. “Put simply, chat parchments are bonded to their users, who donated blood to the spell that linked the parchments into one. Once the first spell is in place, and the overall link is set up, the chat parchments draw their power from whichever user writes on them. That’s why the chat parchments are so difficult to hack, let alone block. The spells that power them are very advanced, but also very subtle. Even modified wards have trouble keeping them out. They are so closely linked to their users that they seem to be part of their users.”

“So the spell can’t tell the difference between a chat parchment and someone’s hand,” I mused. “Why can’t I use them?”

“Because the chat parchments draw their power from the user,” Carver said, bluntly. “And you have none.”

I cursed under my breath. “Is there no way to send messages through chat parchments without a magician?”

“Not easily,” Carver said. “The spellwork is very delicate. It isn’t easy to craft something that’ll carry a message, not without magicians at both ends of the link. Crystal balls are fantastically expensive because they’re so complex and even they have magicians to fine-tune the spellwork every so often.”

“I see.” I’d wondered why the Allied Lands had a Pony Express-style messenger service, when they had something akin to a magical internet, but I understood now. Their ‘internet’ wasn’t anything of the sort. “How powerful do the magicians need to be to power and operate a chat parchment?”

“Not that powerful,” Carver assured me. “A newborn magician could handle the task, if an older and more experienced magician did the hard work. You’d just need to ensure they could read and write.”

I nodded. “And if we were to recruit a handful of newborns, could you help them set up chat parchments?”

Carver grimaced. “You’d need to recruit the ones who didn’t get invited to a school,” he said. “And that could lead to all sorts of problems.”

“So could an enemy army ransacking the city,” I pointed out. “Could you be sure your shop would remain untouched?”

“My wards are strong,” Carver pointed out. “And the Compact remains in force.”

I heard a hint of doubt in his tone. I didn’t pretend to understand the Compact - reading between the lines, I had a feeling that both magicians and mundanes didn’t understand it either - but it was clear the barriers between magical and mundane society were weakening rapidly. Magic was just too common, and magicians too numerous, for any form of segregation to take hold. And if the city was attacked, the magicians would be caught in the fighting too. Their wards might not stand against cannonballs and catapulted rocks.

“I’m not asking for much,” I said. “I just need a way to coordinate my forces from a central location.”

Carver nodded, although I wasn’t sure he understood. It wasn’t easy to command a sizable army, one so large it had to be broken into several detachments. Battles tended to turn into melees because the commanding officers lost control of their troops. The set-piece battle I’d fought, earlier, had only worked because the enemy force hadn’t realised it was about to ride straight into a meatgrinder. The larger army I’d been putting together, over the last few weeks, was going to be cumbersome as hell. I didn’t know how Grant and Lee had managed during the War between the States. They’d clearly had one hell of a lot of trust in their subordinates.

They didn’t have much choice, I reminded myself. They had to trust that their juniors knew what to do.

It took a little more arguing, and the promise of a hefty bribe, but Carver agreed to start recruiting young magicians and teaching them how to create and operate chat parchments. I made a mental note to keep an eye on them, watching for newborns who could pretend to be serfs long enough to get into the villages and send information back to us. I just hoped they’d be ready in time. Carver had made it clear the vast majority of trained magicians wouldn’t take part in the war. I found it incomprehensible, although I suspected the city fathers would be relieved. The stories of sorcerous warfare were terrifying.

I kept working, training the raw recruits, supervising the new sergeants, silently noting who might have officer potential ... and studying maps, considering the possibilities. The warlords didn’t seem to have banded together against us, although combining their forces offered them the best chance of outright victory. They hated and feared each other more than they disliked us. I guessed the other warlords, the ones further away, suspected the stories of our victory were grossly exaggerated. They had a point. I’d heard tales of the engagement that claimed we’d slaughtered millions. The warlords knew perfectly well those stories couldn’t possibly be true.

And then, all of a sudden, the Phony War came to an end.

I was asleep - of course - when the messenger arrived, summoning me to an urgent meeting with the military council. I jumped out of bed, dressed hastily and mounted my horse for the ride back to the city. The gatehouses were heavily defended - I’d urged the triumvirate to make sure the warlords didn’t have a chance to slip a small army through the gates, taking the gatehouses and bypassing the walls - but the streets beyond were quiet. The parties were over now. I wondered, as I cantered towards City Hall, if the locals were starting to think the war was over too. It wasn’t as if any of the warlords had done anything more than shake their fists and promise bloody revenge.

“We’ve just had a message from Warlord Aldred,” Rupert said, when I joined the military triumvirate. He held out a scroll. “The message is long and flowery, but” - his lips quirked - “it basically says give me what I want or else.”

“Bend over and take it, more like,” Harbin growled. He looked to have been roused from his beauty sleep too. I rather wished he’d been allowed to stay in his bed. Lord Winter was an amiable buffoon; Harbin was actively poisonous to everyone unlucky enough to encounter him. “His troops are finally mobilising.”

I rolled my eyes. Warlord Aldred had - had had - a small body of trained and experienced troops, a cadre he could use to lead raw recruits drafted from the farms and villages. The battle had shattered them, killing dozens and leaving the remainder deeply pessimistic about their future. I’d heard from my spies that the warlord was having problems recruiting mercenaries to fill the gaps in his forces, let alone take the lead as he advanced towards the city. They wouldn’t be able to spend whatever he was paying them unless they survived and ... I smiled. Mercenaries were generally realists. They knew a lost cause when they saw one.

“Took him long enough,” I commented, lightly. “He should have been moving a great deal quicker.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Harbin said. “He doesn’t have to take the walls to beat us. If he cuts us off from the farms, we’re going to starve.”

“Yes,” I said. It was hard to keep the surprise off my face. Harbin had veered between insane optimism and complete depression, coming up with wild schemes that would get us all killed and then deciding we were going to be killed anyway. It was the first piece of awareness he’d shown that military realities were actually a thing. “So we have to get there first.”

I traced a line on the map. “He’ll be bringing a large body of troops towards us,” I mused, “which means he’ll have to mass them here, at Furness. The town is close enough to the border to serve as a base and yet far away enough to give him some plausible deniability, if things go badly wrong.”

“Or let him get his troops back to his heartlands if one of his rivals puts a knife in his back,” Rupert said, thoughtfully. The lessons I’d been giving him on long-term thinking were starting to pay off. “We’re not his only enemy.”

Harbin looked unconvinced. “And what do you suggest we do?”

I smiled. “We take the offensive,” I said. “He expects us to just sit still and wait to be hit. Again. It’s time we hit him first.”

“But ...” Harbin swallowed, hard. “If we lose, we lose everything.”

“You said it yourself,” I reminded him. “If we let the bastard lay siege to us, we lose. We have to take the offensive. We punch our way into Furness, we beat his army in the field, we take the war as far as we can, right into the core of his heartland. We take his lands, tear down his castles, free his serfs and make it impossible for him to wage war on us - on anyone - ever again.”

“The king will not be happy,” Lord Winter said. “If we strike outside our borders ...”

“And what,” Rupert demanded, “has the king ever done for us?”

And, on that note, the decision was made.
Posts: 40
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Twenty-Two

Two days later, the army - two-thirds of the force I’d built up over the past few months - marched out of the city and headed into enemy territory.

I sat on my horse, riding up and down as the men tramped down the road, pretending not to hear the grumblings from the more experienced soldiers. The last two days had been a nightmare as we’d rushed to get everything we needed, from dried meat and purified water for the troops to entire cartloads of gunpowder, ammunition and medical supplies. The local chirurgeons might be butchers, or at least staggeringly ignorant of even the basics I’d been taught in boot camp, but at least they were better than nothing. I’d spent a few days, during the Phony War, writing down everything I could remember about basic medical care. The wounded might survive and recover, if the chirurgeons actually took care of them.

The wind shifted, blowing a sandy scent towards me. My private spies had reported that the first bodies of enemy troops had already reached Furness, suggesting that the city’s official intelligence agents were - at best - wildly behind the times. It was a common problem in my experience - spooks liked to pretend they knew more than they did, often at the expense of the troops - made worse by the information blackout. The warlord had made it clear that anyone who entered his territory would be searched and harassed, if not told to take their unwelcome presence somewhere else. The fog of war had truly descended across the land. It was hard to be sure what might be waiting for us, on the far side of the horizon.

I did my best to look confident as I rode past the cannoneers, even though I feared the worst. The cannons were new technology, as far as the locals were concerned, and they hadn’t worked all the bugs out yet. A handful had exploded during trials, injuring or killing their crews; others hadn’t been cleaned properly by the cannoneers during test shots and wound up rendering themselves useless. I’d shown the new recruits precisely what happened to careless gunners - I’d made them look at the injured men - but I was all too aware the poor bastards could do everything right and still wind up badly injured or dead. The musketmen had an easier time of it. I’d drilled the first musketmen in cleaning their weapons and now it was rare to see a dirty weapon. Anyone who slacked would be put straight by their comrades a long time before the sergeant laid eyes on the dirty gun. I was confident ...

... and yet, I was all too aware of my weaknesses. Harbin had done a good job in raising more cavalry - I silently commended him for something, even though he’d been a colossal pain in the ass while we’d been drawing up the battle plans - but we didn't have anything like enough horsemen covering our flanks. We’d practiced drawing up in battle formation, if the enemy cavalry located us and decided to charge, yet I had few illusions about what would happen if we were challenged in the field. The army had expanded too rapidly for my peace of mind. I’d scattered my experienced men amongst the great mass of raw recruits, giving them additional rank and pay to encourage them to set a good example and stiffen their nerve when they came face to face with the elephant, but I was uneasily aware I just didn’t have enough of them. Morale was a slippery thing and there was no way, with the resources I had on hand, that I could really show them what they’d be facing. If panic took root in the ranks, the entire army would waver. It might even break.

I pushed the thought out of my head as the army marched onwards. It was crude and rough and short of almost everything it needed, but I knew we’d done a good job. I certainly had more faith in Rupert, and Harbin, than I’d ever had in the local troops and militias we’d raised and backed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. They had always been unwilling to commit themselves - they’d feared, not unreasonably, that one day we’d simply abandon them to their fate - while the cityfolk knew they’d be for the high jump if they lost the war. It helped, I supposed, that I couldn’t run too. It would mean abandoning everything I’d done and starting afresh somewhere else, if it was even possible. I’d learnt a great deal more about how the world worked, by talking to magicians as well as merchants, but I was still very aware of my own ignorance. The stories from the west, where I guessed my predecessor had arrived, were so wild it was hard to take them seriously. I simply didn’t know what was really happening beyond the kingdom’s borders.

And the more songs I introduce, the greater the chance I’ll draw attention, I thought. The tunes I’d taught the bards were catchy - and, to a cross-dimensional traveller, they’d be familiar. There was no United States in this world. What were the odds of someone writing their own version of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, with nearly every word precisely the same? If my counterpart hears the song, they’ll know what I really am.

The thought mocked me as I rode beside the army. There was no guarantee the other cross-dimensional traveller was from my world. The world around me was living proof there were other worlds, other timelines. The other traveller could have come from a world where Hitler won the Second World War, or the South won its independence during the War Between the States, or the American Revolution was squashed by Britain, or ... if the timelines had diverged even further back, perhaps when the Spanish had tried to invade Britain or Julius Caesar had led his troops on Rome or Alexander the Great had invaded Persia, it was hard to believe we’d have anything in common. My counterpart might think the songs I’d plagiarised, with only minimal edits, were all mine. We might not even speak the same language.

Rupert looked tired as he brought his horse alongside mine. “What happens if they bypass us and attack the city?”

I shrugged, wondering who’d put that thought into his head. Harbin? It struck me as unlikely, but ... if Rupert had a military advisor, why not Harbin? He could easily have hired a mercenary to give him advice, with strict orders to keep his head down and claim absolutely no credit for himself. Harbin had insisted on bringing several cartloads of supplies and a number of servants with him, I recalled with a scowl. I’d thought he was being silly - the supply carts would have to be abandoned in a hurry if things went badly wrong - but there might have been a deeper purpose to his demands. Or perhaps I was just giving him too much credit.

“The walls are heavily defended and the gatehouses are secure,” I reminded him. I’d made sure of it, once we had enough muskets and cannon to outfit the army. “If he chooses to hurl his army against the stone walls, they’ll be chewed to ribbons. It’ll shorten the war in our favour.”

I allowed myself a cold smile. The warlords might not have realised it, not yet, but their castles weren’t the priority target, not any longer. It was their armies that were going to be targeted. If the asshole wanted to bleed his troops white by hurling them against the walls, giving my army a free hand to tear though his lands, liberate his serfs and destroy his power base once and for all, it was fine by me. Napoleon once said, never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake. It was advice I intended to take.

The marchers kept inching forward. It was hard not to feel as though we were dawdling, even though I knew there was no point in trying to run. The men were carrying heavy packs, as well as their muskets, powder horns and ammunition. There was nothing to be gained from forcing them to move faster and a great deal to lose. And yet, I was sure the warlord already knew we were coming. Carver and his peers had taught me a great deal about what magic could do. A lone magician in the warlord’s service could spy on us from a distance and there was nothing we could do about it. The magicians had suggested using magic to block their vision, but a blank spot would be just as revealing - I figured - as an army advancing straight towards Furness.

But we don’t want the warlord to get cold feet and sue for peace, I reminded myself. Not immediately, at least.

I sighed, inwardly. The warlords rested their power on military skill and brute force. It would be hard for them to make any concessions, not least because it would weaken their position beyond repair. And yet, what if they did? There were plenty of old ladies of both genders, back in the city, who’d sooner make peace with the warlord rather than risk fighting it out to the finish. I didn’t want to give them the chance. The warlord would say whatever he had to say to buy time, while gathering the forces and supplies he needed to crush us when the next war began. There was no point in trying to appease someone who could never be appeased. They just saw it as a sign of weakness and demanded more. We should have learnt that lesson with Adolf Hitler.

A horse galloped up beside me, the rider looking oddly uncomfortable. “Sir, the chatterers are requesting your presence.”

“Good,” I said. I’d termed the magicians accompanying the army the chatterers, if only to confuse any spies in the ranks. And, perhaps, to keep the troops from wondering why the magicians didn’t win the coming battle with a wave of their hands. “I’m on my way.”

I winced, inwardly, as I spurred my horse towards the carriage. There hadn’t been that many magicians who’d been willing and able to accompany the army. Carver hadn’t lied, I’d discovered, when he’d told me most of the promising magicians had been scooped up by the distant magic schools or taken as apprentice magical craftsmen. The remainder had been willing to help, in exchange for extremely high pay and a certain degree of independence. I hoped that wasn’t going to cause problems, but I feared it might. And that was only the start of it.

The magician pushed a head - her head - out of the carriage. I’d been reluctant to recruit women in any role, certainly on the front lines, and I would have avoided it altogether if there’d been enough male magicians willing and able to serve. There would be trouble, when the troops realised there were women amongst them. I’d done my best to encourage the girls to dress as men, insisting it was part of their uniform, but I doubted they’d fool anyone willing to look past surface appearances. It was just a matter of time until something went really wrong.

“I got a reply from Fallon,” Kyra said. She’d been destined for magic school, from what Carver had told me, before her parents had put their foot down and told her they couldn’t afford it. She was clever, I’d been told, but it was useless without proper education and there was no way she was going to get it. Her parents had also vetoed her applying for a scholarship or simply promising future services to someone wealthy enough to put her through school. “She says the army has already arrived in Furness.”

I nodded, curtly. I’d be surprised if it really was the army. The locals knew how to count, naturally, but anything above two figures was often simply rendered as lots. It was incredibly frustrating. Fallon was as smart as a whip - apparently, she’d been a child when her parents had fled the serf plantation - yet there were limits. She had to stay out of sight, pretending to be a serf woman rather than a city girl or a magician. I doubted she and her comrades had seen more than a small fraction of the enemy force.

“I expected as much,” I said. I’d done my best to calculate how much time we had, before the warlord mustered his forces and launched the offensive, but there were no truly reliable answers. My most optimistic calculations suggested that he’d already mustered several hundred soldiers and marched them to Furness, not enough to lay siege to Damansara but enough to cause real trouble if he used them aggressively. “Tell her to try and get an accurate count if possible.”

Kyra smiled, then winked. I sighed inwardly. Kyra seemed determined to regard the march, and the war, as nothing more than an adventure holiday, rather than something that could end with her dead - or worse. She really needed more seasoning and we didn’t have time for that either. I put the thought aside, telling myself she’d learn soon enough as she scribbled words on a chat parchment. It was strange, watching the ink fade right in front of my eyes. Even now, months after seeing my first spell, it still felt eerie.

I heard galloping and glanced back, just in time to see Harbin heading towards me. I pasted a calm expression on my face as he leered at Kyra, who giggled and blushed, then looked back at me. I’d suggested he stay with the rest of his men, sweeping the lands in front of us in search of possible threats. It let him feel useful and kept him out of my hair and, besides, there was a possibility the warlord had started to set up an ambush. I’d hoped to keep our destination a secret, to the point I’d promised dire retribution to anyone who so much as breathed a hint of it to anyone, but word had spread through the city anyway. Not that it mattered, I supposed. The warlord would have to be stupid not to guess at our first target. Furness sat on a crossroads, strategically important even if it wasn’t being used as a military base. Once he got over his shock at being attacked, he’d work out what we were doing and react.

“I just heard from the scouts,” Harbin said, as Kyra pulled her head back into the carriage and closed the curtain. “There are hundreds of troops in Furness.”

“We have thousands of troops,” I reminded him. “What are the enemy troops actually doing?”

“Digging ditches and preparing tents, if the reports are accurate,” Harbin said. I was surprised he hadn’t taken the reports at face value. “The archers drove my men off before they could get a good look.”

“Digging ditches or trenches?” I doubted he could answer. To a layman, a ditch and a trench would look almost alike. “Did they spot any sign of cannons or muskets?”

Harbin shook his head. “No,” he said, with a sneer. “There were no modern weapons.”

I kept my thoughts to myself. Archers weren’t quite as effective as modern snipers, but they were pretty damn good. I’d seen a trained archer hit a target that would have daunted William Tell. If the archer had wanted to hit the horseman, there was a very good chance he’d succeeded. But then, we’d killed a number of trained archers during the last engagement. It was possible the replacement simply weren’t up to the task.

“Then we continue as planned,” I said. “We have to take the town as soon as possible.”

Harbin shot me a sharp look, full of displeasure. Rupert and Lord Winter had given me tactical command, overriding Harbin’s objections, but I had no doubt he’d cause trouble if I gave him a chance. My fingers itched. I was seriously tempted to just draw my pistol and shoot him. It would be disastrous and yet ... Harbin was an attempted rapist, a prideful ass and all-around danger to the war effort. The sooner he was gone, the better.

“Of course, Your Majesty,” he said. His voice dripped honey and acid. “Whatever you say, Your Majesty.”

I swallowed a number of extremely sarcastic responses that came to mind. Harbin glanced at the carriage, his eyes speculative. I gritted my teeth, hoping he was doing it to annoy me rather than seriously thinking I’d brought the young women - girls, really - along as something other than communications officers. Kyra and her peers had magic, I reminded myself. They could take care of themselves, if they didn’t care for his advances. Even Harbin had enough sense to leave them alone ... right?

His family can’t complain if he gets himself turned into a frog, I told myself. And it would solve an awful lot of our problems if he did.

I inched the horse forward, mentally recalling the maps I’d studied over the last few days. Furness wasn’t heavily defended, somewhat to my surprise, but the citadel would have been a major headache to any conventional attacker. To us ... it was just a target. I silently drew up my plans, considering them as best as I could. I’d have to take a closer look at the defences, when we reached the town, but ...

If he’s only sent an advance force to the town, we can take it and prepare the town to stand off the main force, I told myself. I had no doubt we could take the town. The defenders simply hadn’t had the time or the resources - or the will - to make it impregnable. And if he’s sent his full army already, we can win the war in a single day.
Posts: 40
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Twenty-Three

Unfortunately for us, if not for him, Harbin didn’t get himself turned into something small and slimy - which would have been a little redundant - by the time Furness hove into view. My advance scouts had already cantered around the town, making sure there wasn’t a relief force within marching range, but I took the time to stop and survey the defences for myself before committing my troops to the attack. Furness was, according to the maps, a teardrop-shaped town, with a small castle - a citadel - resting at the pointy end. The ever-growing shantytown surrounding the walls - too low to make an effective defence, even if the hovels and shacks weren’t pressing against the stone - made it look more of a smudge. I shuddered in disgust as the wind shifted, blowing the stench of piss and shit and I didn’t want to think what else towards me. The town was asking for a disease outbreak, if one wasn’t already raging within the walls. I was surprised the townspeople hadn’t demanded their overlord remove the refugees from their lands.

He probably doesn’t give a damn what they have to say, I mused. He has the entire town in a stranglehold.

My eyes lingered on the citadel for a long cold moment. It was small, certainly when compared to the mansions of Damansara or military bases back home, but I had to admit it was effective. The walls were invulnerable, if one didn’t have magic or gunpowder. The warlord’s troops could simply retreat behind their defences, if there was a serf revolt, and let the rebels batter their heads against the walls until relief troops arrived or they simply gave up in despair. My spies had told me there was a small middle-class community within the town, big fish in a small pond, who would happily support a revolt if there was a real chance of actual success. Right now, their chances of victory were pretty damned low. They simply couldn’t get rid of the citadel.

I smiled, coldly, as I shifted my gaze to the rest of the defences. The town hadn’t been designed for defence, not when their overlord knew the townspeople would turn against him if they thought they could actually win. His troops were frantically digging trenches in front of the walls, pushing refugees into the town or forcing them to flee into the barren countryside. I guessed they’d been too afraid to try to make their way to town. The warlord’s heralds had been telling everyone that the cityfolk were going to kill, rape and burn their way through the countryside. I was fairly sure the vast majority didn’t believe the lies, but ... I shrugged. Right now, it didn’t matter.

A cannoneers rushed up to me. “Sir, the cannons are in position, ready to bombard the citadel.”

I nodded. The citadel was the final defence line, as far as the defenders were concerned. They hadn’t realised how vulnerable it was ... hell, they’d cleared most of the refugees away from the citadel, unaware I’d hesitate to fire at human shields. Harbin wouldn’t have any qualms about slaughtering innocents, I knew, but me ... I liked to think there was some honour in way. My lips twisted in disgust. Cold logic told me that wasn’t true. And besides, if we let the bad guys think human shields would deter us, they’d all start rounding up serfs and turning them into shields.

“Good.” I looked at Harbin, who was studying the defences with a disdainful eye. “Have one of your men take a demand for surrender.”

Harbin turned to his juniors and barked orders. I listened, even as I turned my eyes back to the defences too. The local rules of war, such as they were, called for the attackers to offer the defenders a chance to surrender and march out with full honours, perhaps even give their parole before they were allowed to go home. Apparently, aristocrats could even be released after they promised to pay a giant ransom when they got back to their own lines. I’d assumed they always broke the agreement, once they were safe, but the history texts insisted the ransoms were generally paid. I supposed it made a certain kind of sense. If you broke the rules too openly, no one would accept surrenders and promised ransoms in the future.

My eyes narrowed as I studied the defence lines, while a horse and rider galloped towards the citadel, lance raised in a parley pose. They seemed designed to soak up bullets, although it was clear they hadn’t seen just what massed cannons could do. I’d made sure my people knew how to fire canister shots and grapeshot, even scattershot ... although that was very much a last resort. It was unfortunate, for them, they hadn’t started taking their defences seriously until very recently. I rolled my eyes. Damansara hadn’t needed me to point out the advantages of taking the offensive.

The rider tumbled backwards, an arrow protruding from his chest. Harbin let out a cry of shock. For once, I agreed with him. Shooting a man on parley was a declaration of unrestricted war, all the more so as the cavalryman wasn’t a commoner but a born aristocrat. They’d just told us the battle was going to be fought to the bitter end.

Unless the townsfolk rise up behind the lines, I thought. We’d tried to slip some weapons into the town, but it was difficult to say what would happen. The locals might sit on their hands until it was clear we were the winners, just to make sure their former masters were in no position to take revenge. We have to send them a very clear message.

I glanced at the messengers. “Cannonballs to the citadel, canister to the trenches. Fire!”

The air seemed to boom as the cannons fired a ragged volley. I heard screams in the distance as the first cannonballs slammed into their target, severely damaging the citadel. The trenches, oddly enough, were tougher - the soil absorbing much of the canister shot - but started to weaken rapidly. I snapped more orders, watching coolly as more and more cannonballs found their target. The citadel’s walls started to collapse, cannonballs punching deeper and deeper into the interior. Archers appeared on the battlements, trying to get into position to shoot the cannoneers. My musketmen greeted them with a barrage of musket balls. Their accuracy was shitty, but they were firing so many balls that it hardly mattered. I felt Harbin’s discomfort as a handful of archers fell from the walls, dead before they’d even had a chance to return fire. Cannonballs could take down the walls of Damansara as easily as they were breaking through the citadel.

A low rumble split the air as the citadel started to collapse, chunks of heavy stone slipping from the walls and crashing to the ground. I had a glimpse of halls and barracks within the building, before they were obscured by smoke and dust. A man ran through the open, waving his hands frantically; a cannonball passed right through him, practically vaporising his body before slamming into the far wall. The poor bastard hadn’t had the slightest idea what had hit him, I reflected, as I turned my attention to the defences. He’d been grossly unlucky and paid the price.

The trenches were wavering, men either massing behind rapidly-weakening defences or running for the inner walls. I didn’t blame them for breaking. Their leaders were bully-boys too used to doing what they pleased to realise they’d run into someone who could fight back, while the majority of the troops were either raw recruits or mercenaries. The latter would be thoroughly pissed at their nominal commanders. By shooting down all hope of a parley, they’d ensured their troops wouldn’t be offered any terms. The best they could hope for was unconditional surrender.

“Order the advance,” Harbin said. He turned to a messenger. “The heavy cavalry are to advance and break their lines.”

“Belay that order,” I said, without looking at him. “The cavalry are to stay where they are!”

Harbin snorted. “You don’t want to break their lines?”

“There’s nothing to be gained by throwing the cavalry into a meatgrinder,” I said. I might have thought better of it if Harbin himself had been leading the charge. He was something of a coward, true, but if the order came to advance and he didn’t ... he’d be finished. His own men would disown him. “Let the cannons wear them down a little more.”

My eyes drifted over the gathering troops as I beckoned to the messenger. “Order the 3rd Cannons to load canister, then wait for the enemy charge,” I said. “They are to fire when the enemy troops reach the halfway point.”

“Yes, sir.”

I smiled grimly, although I knew the carnage was about to get worse. The enemy didn’t have many options left. I’d surrounded the town. They could fall back and force me to assault the town directly, which would probably lead to the townspeople putting a knife in their backs, or charge my lines. They’d made damn sure surrender wasn’t an option. We’d be quite within our legal rights to mutilate, enslave or simply execute anyone unlucky enough to be taken prisoner. I sighed under my breath. It would have been so much easier if they’d let the messenger deliver his message, then send him back with a rejection. Harbin would probably make a terrible fuss if we accepted their surrender ...

The enemy troops charged. I sucked in my breath as they advanced in a ragged line, screaming and chanting as they came. A handful of shots rang out as the musketmen, their positions now half-shrouded in smoke, opened fire, but the enemy troops kept coming. They didn’t really have a choice, I reflected as I counted down the seconds. Their own commanders had seen to it. I hoped the bastards were leading the charge in person. They deserved everything that was about to happen to them.

I winced as the cannons boomed, unleashing a hail of canister right into their lines. It disintegrated, men dissolving into bloody mist as the cannons tore right through them. The attack stopped dead, the muskets petering out as it became clear the attack had been completely shattered. I’d hoped to see at least one or two wounded men trying to crawl back to their lines, or raise their hands in surrender, but it looked as if the entire force had been slaughtered. I felt a surge of hatred for their commanders, to the point I hoped they’d stayed behind just so I could hang them personally. I’d met a few officers who’d made me want to roll a grenade into their bunks, but none of them - not even the one who intended to be the youngest general in the army - had sent their men to their deaths so blatantly. I wanted to wrap my hands around their necks and squeeze.

Instead, I looked at Harbin. “You can send the cavalry in now.”

Harbin turned and barked orders, summoning his horse as his subordinates charged forward. There was no resistance as they crashed across the former lines, scattering what remained of the defenders. I only saw a handful of men as the cavalry maintained their advance, pushing all the way right to the walls. They seemed to be consumed with fighting ... I hoped that meant the townspeople had risen, determined to free themselves before we did it for them. I told myself that was a good thing. They’d find it easier to press their claim to their own town if they liberated it themselves.

I sighed, inwardly. There were factions in the city who thought taking over the warlord’s lands was an absolutely brilliant idea, parcelling the farms and plantations out amongst the noble families and landowners. It wasn’t going to be easy to dissuade them, not after the warlords had repeatedly cut supply lines to ensure the city remained under their thumb. And yet, they’d be storing up trouble for the future. I made a mental note to see what I could do about it, then summoned my bodyguard as the rest of the fighting died away. It was time to advance into the town and take possession of the citadel. The former citadel. Right now, it was barely anything more than a pile of rubble.

“Impressive.” Rupert sounded disturbed as he surveyed the ruins. “That could happen to our walls, couldn’t it?”

I nodded. I’d told him as much, time and time again, but he hadn’t really believed me. The sheer destructive power of modern weapons was hard to grasp emotionally, even if one understood - intellectually - what they could do. Rupert would have to tell his family, and the rest of the aristocracy, that times were changing. They’d have to come to terms with the lower classes, and make room for them, or be swept away as the new world took shape and form.

Horst came up to me. “Your orders, sir?”

“Detach a company to take possession of the citadel, but keep the main body of the troops outside the town,” I said. I didn’t want any incidents. “If anyone survived the bombardment, they are to be taken prisoner - if possible - and held until I can take a look at them. If not ...”

I smiled, grimly, as I summoned our bodyguards and led the way down to the town. The trenches had been utterly shattered, torn and broken bodies littering the ground ... it was hard not to feel sick as I realised the bodies had been so badly damaged I couldn’t tell how many men had been killed. Young and old, aristocratic and commoner ... they were equal in death. I snapped orders to a messenger, commanding him to organise work parties to bury the bodies before they had a chance to decompose. The last thing I wanted was a disease outbreak in my rear. It would be an utter disaster.

Rupert looked sick as we made our way to the walls. The shantytown had been devastated, dozens of makeshift hovels torn to shreds by the cannons and the retreating soldiers. The walls were damaged too, great chunks of stone lying everywhere in mute testament to the sheer force of the offensive. The streets beyond were occupied by Harbin’s troops, a handful of men in commoner clothes and a single woman. Fallon, I guessed. The junior sorceress - I’d been told she was barely a journeywoman, if that - was wearing a commoner dress and carrying a wand in one hand. There were no other women within view. I feared that wasn’t a good sign. The townspeople feared us as much as their former masters.

Fallon stepped forward. “My Lord,” she said, curtseying to Rupert. “This is Allen, leader of the rebels.”

I saw Harbin’s lips twist in distaste as Rupert nodded to Allen. He was a stranger - I guessed he was a merchant, someone who’d made a fairly good living - but the man beside him was one of my agents. I hadn’t really expected that much from them, beyond intelligence reports, yet ... I smiled to myself as Rupert and Allen spoke briefly, sorting out how the town would be occupied for the next few weeks. The army would have to move on as quickly as possible, I told myself. The longer we stayed in one place, the easier it would be for the warlord to cut our supply lines and starve us. It was a cowardly tactic, but pragmatic. The warlord had to know - now - his troops couldn’t meet ours in open battle.

It didn’t take long to come to an agreement. We’d already sorted out what we wanted from the townspeople and none of our demands were particularly unreasonable. Allen hurried away to take the good news to his fellows, who would be relieved we didn’t intend to conquer the town or simply burn it to the ground, while Rupert and I headed towards the citadel. A handful of prisoners, all wounded, sat on the ground in shackles; the remainder of the garrison, I was sure, was either dead or running for their life. They wouldn’t get far.

“There’s no one I recognise amongst the prisoners.” Rupert sounded disturbed. “Did the commanders all die?”

“Probably,” I said. They might have holed up in the citadel, unaware that it had become a death trap. “Or they might have led the charge in person.”

I occupied myself surveying the damage, occasionally giving orders to messengers as they found me and made their reports. We’d smashed the fortress to rubble, but at a very high cost in cannonballs and gunpowder. We might be able to recover some of the cannonballs ... not all of them. Some would have shattered or been warped out of shape on impact ... it would be easier, at least in the short term, to have more brought from the city. I sent orders to have the logistics expedited as fast as possible. Once the warlord realised our greater weakness, he’d move to take advantage of it.

“We’ll continue the offensive as quickly as possible,” I said. It would take several days to march to the warlord’s core castle, his seat of power, but it could be done. The real trick would be smashing the castle into rubble before the warlord’s subordinates came to their master’s rescue. “We have to keep him off balance and ...”

A messenger ran up to us. “My Lords!”

I felt my heart sink as the messenger started to genuflect wildly. This wasn’t going to be good. The poor bastard clearly thought he was going to take the blame. I didn’t really blame him. Shooting the messenger was a fun pastime around here, as petty and short-sighted as it was.

Rupert, bless him, reacted calmly. “What’s happened?”

“A soldier tried to rape a girl,” the messenger said. “And all is chaos!”

I swore. It really was going to be bad.
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