Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

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

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Twenty-Four

“The slattern is lying, of course,” Harbin said. “All she wants is a bastardy bond.”

I groaned. It had been an hour since the messenger had arrived with the bad news and it had only managed to get worse. And worse. The accused rapist was a cavalryman - that was bad enough - but he was a very junior aristocrat whose family had been Lord Galley’s clients for centuries. Harbin was obliged to defend him, even if he didn’t want to and I was pretty damn sure he did. He didn’t give a shit about the townspeople, or the war effort, or anything that threatened to get in the way of the aristocracy’s right to do whatever the hell they wanted and to hell with anyone who objected. I rubbed my forehead as Harbin went on and on, mustering arguments that would have been thrown out of court back home.

Rupert shifted uncomfortably beside me. He knew precisely what sort of person Harbin was, and he knew what Harbin had tried to do to his sister, but he was caught in the middle between the aristocracy and the imperatives of war. I’d done my level best to convince him that it was important we didn’t mistreat the local population - we didn’t need them rising in our rear or disrupting supply lines - yet if he came down on the accused rapist like a ton of bricks he’d be condemned by just about every aristocrat in the city. They were above the law. They couldn’t be held accountable by their inferiors or the entire system would collapse into a pile of rubble. I felt sick. The system deserved to collapse.

And far too many people will believe she wanted money from a noble family, I thought. Back home, people had talked about women getting pregnant to force the father to marry them. Here, they insisted the women wanted child support payments from the father of their child ... I shook my head. It was disgusting. They’ll believe she seduced him because they’ll want ti believe it because the alternative is too disturbing to contemplate.

“Perhaps we should get the facts,” I said, after Harbin claimed - for the third time - that the victim had seduced the attempted rapist and could therefore be reasonably be blamed for everything that had happened to her. “Fallon, what actually happened?”

Harbin tensed as the sorceress-journeywoman stepped forward, her hands clasped behind her back and her wand hanging from her belt. A magician was, at the very least, a social equal to a high-ranking noblewoman - and, thanks to magic, probably equal to a nobleman as well. It would be hard to discount Fallon’s testimony on the grounds she was - shock, horror - a commoner as well as a woman. And yet, if Harbin failed to defend his family’s client, he’d wind up in deep shit. I saw his eyes flickering back and forth as he thought desperately. It might be too late to give the victim a great deal of money in exchange for keeping her mouth firmly closed.

“We were making our way back to the town hall, when we heard a scream,” Fallon said, calmly. “We hurried to the source and saw a man pushing a young woman against a wall, her dress pulled down and his hand up her skirt. I reached for my wand, intending to stun him, but Allen and Gus got to him first and knocked him to the ground. At this point, it was discovered that he was a soldier and he was frog-marched to the command tent.”

Harbin glowered. “And who’s to say she didn’t seduce him?”

Fallon’s eyes flashed. “She screamed,” she said, flatly. “If she’d wanted it, why would she have tried to resist?”

Harbin snorted. “We all know woman make a show of resistance ...”

I cursed under my breath as I felt the tension in the room. The rapist might just have ruined everything. The townspeople would regard us as enemies if the bastard got away with it - and who could blame them? And yet, if the rapist was punished in any way, his family would demand satisfaction ... I wondered, suddenly, if I should go outside and simply kill him before the argument could get any worse. I could make it look like an accident if I did it with my bare hands. I hated rapists. The bastard deserved to be castrated, then hung.

Fallon’s hand dropped to her wand. “That was not a show,” she snapped. “She was trying to escape a man stronger and nastier than her!”

“We need to hear from the other witnesses,” I said. I didn’t want to interrogate the victim if it could be avoided. “And then we need to decide what to do.”

“Agreed.” Rupert’s voice was very quiet. “Bring in the other witnesses.”

I forced myself to listen as the story was told and retold. There were no obvious discrepancies, no suggesting the story might be nothing more than a put-up job. I’d seen terrorists and their supporters claiming our troops had carried out all sorts of atrocities, but the vast majority of their stories simply hadn’t held water. This one did. I could easily believe the cavalryman had decided he was going to have sex and to hell with what the girl wanted. I shuddered in disgust. Even a very junior nobleman, a step or two above the merchant classes, could have easily found a willing partner. Damn the man.

The man himself didn’t help his case, when he was brought before us. He veered back and forth between insisting she’d wanted him and acting as if he was the victim, simply by being forced to answer for his conduct. It might have been more effective if he’d stuck to one story, I reflected; his entitlement complex, fully a match for his superior’s, made it clear he hadn’t cared in the slightest about the poor girl’s feelings. I’d known too many men like him.

“He’s innocent,” Harbin said, when the witnesses were ordered to wait outside the tent. “Let him go.”

“He doesn’t sound innocent,” I pointed out. “And we need to bring him to book.”

Harbin shrugged, dismissively. “What is one slattern compared to the war effort?”

I had to keep myself from lunging at him. “My Lord,” I said with icy patience, “the war effort will be badly hampered if we are seen as ... predators. Here comes the new boss, they’ll say, just like the old boss. We need the support of the townspeople, and everyone who dwells within enemy territory, if we are to win the war. If they turn on us, we might lose. We need to make an example out of him.”

“And if we hang him for a little bit of fun,” Harbin pointed out smoothly, “the war effort will be damaged anyway.”

“I can see your reasoning,” I conceded. It was hard to hide my disgust. “But if we lose the war, his family - and yours - will be for the high jump anyway.”

“It was a little bit of fun,” Harbin said. “What does it matter?”

“It matters to her.” I felt my temper snap. “We came as liberators. We made it clear to the troops that atrocities will not be tolerated. That ... that bastard has ruined her life and left her damaged and ...”

“It isn’t as if he took her maidenhead,” Harbin said, dismissively. “It didn’t get that far ...”

Rupert straightened. “Hang him.”

Harbin coughed. “Rupert, are you quite out of your mind?”

“No.” Rupert looked at me. I saw grim resolve on his face. “Hang him. Now.”

I stood and bowed. “Yes, My Lord.”

Harbin coughed, again. The confusion on his face was clearly visible. He’d assumed Rupert would support him, conveniently forgetting that he had tried to rape Rupert’s sister. Perhaps, without that experience, Rupert wouldn’t have understood how bad things could have become ... I grimaced as I made my way through the door and onto the street. The poor girl might not have lost her maidenhead, and her chance of a good match, but the rumours would damage her anyway. And the war effort would be damaged too.

And if Rupert takes the blame for hanging the bastard, I thought, it will be harder for anyone to question it.

I winced, inwardly, as I started to bark orders. The rapist stared in disbelief as I took a rope, wove it into a noose and slung it over the nearest tree, then started to shout. I wrapped the noose around his neck, then pulled the rope until the noose strangled him. I felt sick. I’d killed men before, but this ... it had to be done, I told myself. It had to be done.

The body dangled in front of me. I tied the rope into place, then stepped back to allow the townspeople - and the soldiers - to stare. We hadn’t had a choice. The rapist bastard had been guilty, but if we hadn’t punished him we would have been guilty too. And ... I hoped my men would learn the lesson, before I had to hang another. It would have been a great deal harder to keep them disciplined if they’d watched an aristocratic rapist get away with it. I knew idiots who’d openly asked why they couldn’t do things they’d seen others do ...

Harbin stormed out of the tent, looked at the body and glared at me. “I’ll see you pay for this.”

“For obeying an aristocrat’s orders?” I cocked my eyebrows, wondering if he’d take a swing at me. I might have to grab a horse and run, if I punched his lights out, but it would be incredibly satisfying. “Or for doing what I had to do to make sure the war effort doesn’t falter?”

His glare grew worse, somehow. “After the war is over, I’ll make you pay.”

He stormed off. I resisted the urge to make a rude sign at his retreating back. There were just too many watching eyes. A smarter man might have tried to turn the whole affair to his advantage, sneakily blaming Rupert for overriding him after he’d done everything in his power to save the rapist’s life. He’d probably get his wrist slapped for failing, but ... it wasn’t as if there’d be real consequences. I sighed, inwardly, as I turned back to the command tent and stepped inside. Harbin was going to have to go. There were no other options.

Rupert looked up at me. “Did I do the right thing?”

“Yes.” I was sure of it, although I knew his family - and the other families - would disagree. “If the townspeople turned against us, it would have made it harder for us to win.”

Rupert shook his head. “I didn’t do it for them. I did it for Gayle.”

“It doesn’t matter why you did it,” I assured him. “All that matters is that you set a good example to the troops.”

“Hah.” Rupert stared at the map for a long cold moment. “We’d better win another victory quick before his father hears the news.”

“Yeah.” I considered, briefly, asking the magicians not to send any messages from Harbin, or simply lose them in transmission, then dismissed the thought before I could try to put it into action. They’d be in real trouble if Harbin realised what they’d done. Besides, Harbin was a horseman first and foremost. He’d send a letter with one of his men. “And we need to regroup and continue the offensive as soon as possible.”

I checked the map, then summoned messengers and started to issue orders. The cavalry could head north, deeper into enemy territory, while the infantry readied defence lines and prepared themselves to resume the offensive. I was fairly sure the warlord would have dispatched troops as soon as he heard we were on the march, perhaps before he’d realised just what we could do. I liked the idea of him impaling himself on my defences. I didn’t want to meet him in the field if it could be avoided. My men just weren’t experienced enough for a fluid battle.

Although they’re getting there, I told myself. We’ll have plenty of experienced troops soon enough.

We finished laying our plans, then emerged from the tent to walk the streets and speak to the junior officers and soldiers. The rapist was still hanging where I’d left him, his body a silent warning to anyone who ignored my orders; I was mildly surprised none of the cavalrymen had tried to cut him down and cart his body back to his family. Perhaps they hadn’t liked him or ... I frowned. I’d made sure to scatter the cavalry, sending them out to scout the landscape before Harbin had any bright ideas about launching a coup and seizing control of the army for himself, but they hadn’t all gone. Harbin himself was sulking in his tent, probably composing angry messages to his father. Or trying to convince Lord Winter to ally with him to remove Rupert from his position.

The town felt ... safer, I decided, than many of the places I’d seen in the Middle East, although there were still only a handful of women and children on the streets. I wasn’t too surprised. The locals carried swords and daggers openly, something that would have gotten them arrested and executed only a few short hours ago. They’d taken them from the dead bodies, I guessed. Only a handful carried muskets and pistols, almost all from us. My agents were, even now, preparing themselves to head further into enemy territory.

I left Rupert in the command tent, then crossed the boundary line and headed into the army camp. It was very makeshift - two-thirds of my men were going to be sleeping on the hard ground, rather than under canvas - but it would suffice. They’d made sure to dig latrines and enforce strict sanitation, rather than letting the men crap where they liked. Horst was barking orders at the newer recruits, directing them to dig more trenches along the edge of the town. I nodded in approval. It was always better to keep the troops busy. I knew from my own career that bored and aimless soldiers tended to go looking for trouble.

“Sergeant,” Horst greeted me. “The men were very impressed with how you handled the shithead.”

I nodded. That was good, at least. They’d seen me hang an aristo. If I was willing to do that, I would have no qualms about hanging a commoner too. “Did you make it clear they’d be hung too if they did the same thing?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Horst assured me. “I think they took it to heart.”

I hoped so. I very much hoped so. I didn’t want to have to hang any more of my men.

We toured the camp, then I headed back to the town as night started to fall. I’d ordered additional patrols, just to be sure the enemy didn’t have a chance to sneak people into the town or the army camp, but I was all too aware we didn’t know the land as well as I would have liked. The locals would make good scouts, given the chance, yet ... I wasn’t sure we’d have time to recruit them. They might be reluctant to commit themselves openly. If their former masters returned ...

Two days passed. Nothing happened, not even a rebuke from the city. I fretted about what they might be thinking, then relaxed - slightly - as our supplies arrived on schedule. The troops replenished their supplies, then continued to prepare for the next advance. I moved from unit to unit, speaking to the men as I kept a wary eye on Harbin. He’d been very quite since our last meeting. I was sure he was up to something.

Rupert greeted me when I returned to the command tent, after spending the morning inspecting the troops. “Harbin has asked if he can join us for lunch,” he said. “I said yes.”

I nodded, silently checking I was still carrying my pistol. Harbin might be doing something stupid, but ... there was no way I could say no. I’d scattered most of his men and I doubted my men would take orders from him, not without checking with me first. I didn’t think he’d had time to actually plan something, but ...

“The locals seem to think they’ll be in charge of these lands, after the war,” Harbin said, as he joined us. “They don’t understand we’re going to claim them for ourselves.”

“Best not to tell them,” I said, dryly. Harbin was going to die. I intended to make sure of it personally. As soon as I came up with a plan, he would be a dead man. “We need to keep them onside.”

Harbin gave me a look that suggested he’d seen more impressive people lying in the gutter outside a particularly vile - and cheap - pub. “Do you think you’ve won anything?”

“The war isn’t over until we make the warlord kiss our ass,” I said, keeping my voice under tight control. The aristocrats might speak of peace, once we’d convinced the warlord to take us seriously, but I knew better. We were locked into a fight to the death now. The warlord had to be crushed, to convince the others to leave us alone, or he’d crush us. I had no illusions about how long we could keep our advantages, such as they were. We had no monopoly on cannons or muskets or even anything else. “And that means we need all the help we can muster.”

I heard something rattle outside the tent. My hand dropped to my pistol as the flap opened, then relaxed - slightly - as Fallon stepped into the tent. Her eyes were grim.

“My Lord.” She looked unsure who she should be addressing, so she kept her eyes fixed on the table. “We just received a message from Barrow. The serfs are revolting and they want our help.”

I blinked. “Barrow is quite some distance away,” I said. “It’ll take us hours - days, perhaps - to march there.”

“Not on horseback,” Harbin said. “We could get there very quickly.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “And if we help the serfs to win, we might just shorten the war.”
chris
Posts: 40
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Twenty-Five

And why, I asked myself, do I feel as if I’m about to rerun the Battle of Little Bighorn?

I clung to the horse for dear life as we galloped down the road, heading north as fast as our beasts could carry us. Harbin’s cavalry took the lead, followed by my company of mounted skirmishers, men I’d trained to ride horses to the battlefield and then dismount when the fighting actually began. The concept had puzzled the locals, with Harbin and the other traditionalists sneering at it, although some of the younger aristocrats had started to see the value. Battles were often determined by who got there first, with the most, and horses were the quickest way to travel unless you were a powerful magician or had them on your payroll.

Fallon’s grip tightened as we picked up speed, dust billowing in the air. I tried to ignore the feel of her breasts, pressed against my back. Taking her was a risk, yet it had been one I’d been forced to accept. I needed a communicator and she was the only one with a chat parchment linked to the northern rebels. And there was no way we could put her in a carriage. The odds of a wheel breaking - or worse - as the horse-drawn carriage careened down the road were just too high. I wished I’d been able to pass her to someone else, but who could I trust?

I scowled as my eyes sought out Harbin’s back. He’d been very enthusiastic about the operation, helping me to throw it together with astonishing speed. Rupert seemed convinced Harbin was looking for a victory, a way to gain enough prestige to challenge Rupert for overall command, but I wasn’t so sure. The idea of letting Harbin take command of the operation didn’t sit well with me. If nothing else, he and his men would give the revolting serfs a poor impression of the army and then all hell would break loose. I’d heard enough jokes about the serfs being revolting, in all senses of the word, to fear what would happen if Harbin was left unsupervised.

The horse kept going, somewhat to my surprise. I was no horseman - my military service hadn't included anything on horseback, at least until I’d found myself in a whole new world - but I was sure the beasts should have been slowing by now. Harbin’s bragging had struck me as exaggerated, back when we’d been planning the operation, yet ... I was starting to think he might have been right. We were covering the distance at astonishing speeds. It was possible, I told myself, that the horses had been bred - or enhanced - for war. Magic could do a lot of things I hadn’t considered possible.

Fallon shivered against me. I hoped she wouldn’t lose her grip. Rupert had taught me how to ride - apparently, half of it lay in confidence - but I didn't even begin to have his experience. I almost wished I’d brought him with us, rather than leaving him to bring the rest of the army in our wake. He could have carried Fallon without any real problems, although ... I shook my head. There was no point in second-guessing myself. I’d made the right decisions, based on what I’d known at the time.

The landscape started to change, becoming greener. Barren and dying fields gave way to green croplands, planted with everything from wheat to fruit-bearing trees. Small channels carried water to the crops, carefully tended by the locals. We galloped through hamlets and tiny villages, the largest so small it would have vanished without trace in the city; I gritted my teeth as we rampaged through fields that, before we arrived, looked to be ready to be harvested. There was no point in trying to stop Harbin. We had to get there before it was too late.

And besides, I told myself, never give an order you know won’t be obeyed.

The landscape grew darker, I noted, as we kept going. Here and there, farmhouses were nothing more than burnt-out ruins. I spotted a handful of serf cottages and barracks that had been hastily abandoned. From what I’d been told, the serfs were nothing more than chattel, treated as little better than property. They had no rights; their marriages were little more than words, their children could be taken away at any moment, they were forbidden to own anything, even the clothes on their backs. I didn’t blame them in the slightest for rebelling against their lords and masters, their owners. My ancestors had done the same.

I shuddered as the battleground came into view. Bodies lay everywhere, scattered over ruined fields or destroyed shacks. The majority were clearly serfs - the men wore drab shirts and trousers, the women wore dresses that looked like shapeless sacks - but there and there a more aristocratic body lay on the ground. They’d been stripped of everything they’d carried, save for their clothes. I puzzled over that for a moment, then shrugged. The serfs might be able to make their way to another plantation and slip into the crowd, but if they were caught wearing fancy clothes they’d be broken on the wheel. Or simply shot out of hand.

Harbin called a halt as we reached the remains of a large farmhouse. I allowed myself a sigh of relief - my body was aching in places I hadn't known existed - and slipped to the ground, holding out a hand to help Fallon as she clambered down too. She had even less experience on horseback than me. I made a mental note to ensure that changed, then asked her to contact the rebels and ask for an update. If there was no answer, we might be too late. We’d have to retreat in a hurry if the rebels had already been defeated. I was all too aware we were out on a limb. Without the big guns, the warlord’s troops could overwhelm us with ease.

“Put out scouts,” I ordered, as I limped towards Harbin. I didn’t miss the look of scorn he shot me. He’d been in the saddle since birth. To him, the wild gallop had all been in a day’s work. “If the battle is still going on, we have to find them.”

“They’re still fighting,” Fallon said, looking up from her chat parchment. “But they’re pinned down in a small village.”

“Get details,” I said. The local mapmakers were idiots. Half the villages within the region were either unnamed or simply left off the maps. The locals didn’t always name their villages ... to them, their villages were simply the village. “Where are they?”

A scout cantered back, waving his arms. “Over there,” Harbin said. I heard the dark amusement in his tone and scowled. “Or at least something is going on in that direction.”

I raised my voice as I heard the sound of battle in the distance. “Mount up,” I snapped. I practically threw Fallon into the saddle, then climbed up in front of her. “And hurry!”

The sound grew louder as we started to move again. I forced myself to think. I’d given the rebels several crates of outdated muskets and gunpowder, as well as instructions on how to make more. I wasn’t sure they’d had the time to produce more gunpowder, but a local blacksmith should have been able to start churning out more muskets as well as bladed weapons and other surprises. As long as they were careful, they should have managed to evade detection ... clearly, something had gone wrong somewhere. I told myself it didn’t matter. We weren’t too late.

Smoke rose in the distance. I took the telescope from my belt and peered towards the battle. The rebels had made a deadly mistake, choosing to turn the town into a strongpoint rather than try to vanish into the countryside. I understood their thinking - the terrain wasn’t really suited for guerrilla warfare, particularly when the overlords started handing out heavy punishments to anyone who dared collaborate with the rebels - but they’d allowed themselves to be pinned down. The forces besieging them looked tiny, compared to the army we’d crushed only a few short days ago, yet its commander clearly knew what he was doing. He’d surrounded the town, dug a shitload of trenches and started to tighten the noose. And his archers were hurling flaming arrows into the town.

“Skirmishers, dismount,” I snapped, as the enemy army started to take notice of us. They hadn’t heard we were coming, judging by their positions, but they couldn’t possibly have missed us after we appeared near their lines. “Cavalry, stand at the ready.”

I forced myself to think. I didn’t have the forces to break the siege. My skirmishers could start digging their own trenches, rapidly expanding our lines under cover until we met their lines and tore into them, but ... my men weren’t trained in hand-to-hand combat. I hadn’t had time to train them as anything more than musketmen. I kicked myself mentally as I glanced at Harbin’s sword. I’d been so convinced the days of swordsmen and knights in amour were already over that I hadn’t thought to train my men how to handle a sword. And even if I had, I wouldn’t have had time to do a proper job of it ...

“Form skirmish lines,” I ordered. There were a handful of enemy soldiers within clear view, unaware they were in danger. “Prepare to fire.”

Harbin swore. I looked up, just in time to see a man stand up and start waving his hands towards us. A tongue of flame shot through the air, turning rapidly into a whip that scorched three horsemen and threatened many more. Fallon let out a gasp of horror. A magician, I realised dully. A living weapon of mass destruction. I heard panic starting to spread through the ranks. My skirmishers were tough, but they weren’t ready for magic. I didn’t know anyone who was, save for the magicians themselves.

“Muskets, target the magician,” I snapped. There’d be no such thing as accuracy, once again, but - at the very least - he’d be forced to duck. “Fire!”

The skirmishers fired a wild volley. I saw light flare around the magician, an instant before he stumbled and collapsed. His magic vanished at the same moment. My skirmishers continued to fire, sweeping bullets across the enemy lines. Harbin let out a yell, then led his men forward. I had to admire his nerve, although the risk wasn’t as great as it looked. The enemy had been shocked by their death of their magician, their morale breaking even before the cavalry galloped towards them. They were a terrifying sight if one didn’t have the weapons to stop them in their tracks. I knew, all too well, how the French must have felt when they’d faced the German Panzers for the first time.

“Cover them,” I bellowed, drawing my pistol. “Keep firing!”

The din was overwhelming. I was dimly aware of Fallon pressing her hands to her ears as she sunk to the ground, of gunshots barking ... the sound echoing through the air in a manner that made it hard to locate the shooters. I tracked Harbin as best as I could, taking careful aim at his head. My heart started to pound. I was a good shot, one of the best in my unit, and yet if I got it wrong ...

I pulled the trigger as Harbin crashed into and over the enemy trenches. The pistol jerked in my hand, the noise unnoticed in the racket. Harbin plunged forward, falling from the horse and striking the ground hard enough to destroy all evidence of the shot. A horse stamped on his corpse a second later, crushing his remains into the mud. It would look like an accident, I was sure. The locals didn’t have any experience with modern weapons. The bullet would have gone straight through his head and out the other side. Even if it was discovered later, it would be hard for anyone to work out what it actually was, let alone what it had done.

The battle grew louder. I lowered my hand, carefully making sure no one had seen what I’d done. The combination of smokeless powder and the sheer confusion on the battlefield should have made it impossible, but ... I allowed myself a sigh of relief. Harbin was dead and gone and no one could pin the blame on me. Probably. There’d certainly be no dispute that he’d led his troops into the fight and died bravely.

And he’ll be hailed as a hero, I thought, as the fighting started to die down. His family would get more mileage out of his death than they’d ever gotten out of his life. It just isn’t fair.

I snorted at the thought - the world wasn’t fair - and watched as the enemy troops started to break and run. My skirmishers advanced, shooting at the enemy backs; a couple of men fell but the remainder kept running until we lost them completely. The last of the shooting died away as the cavalry took possession of the trenches, horsemen slashing their swords through the handful of surviving soldiers. I shuddered, even though it suited me to have them blamed for Harbin’s death. And I doubted they’d have been allowed to survive for long regardless.

“Sir.” Harbin’s deputy - I thought he was called Lucas, although I wasn’t sure - saluted me. “I beg leave to report that we have taken the trenches and scattered the enemy.”

“Well done,” I said. I meant it - and not just because the confusion had given me enough time to rid myself of a problem. “Put out a line of scouts, make sure the enemy doesn’t have another force within striking distance.”

“Aye, sir,” Lucas said. He sounded a lot more reasonable than Harbin. “I’ll see to it at once.”

I allowed Fallon to send a message to the communicator within the half-destroyed village, then walked across the remains of the battleground. Bodies lay everywhere, as always; a number had clearly been cut down when they’d been trying to surrender. I grimaced, making a mental note to address the issue later. The magician’s corpse lay on the ground, his body faintly odd to my eyes. It wasn’t something I could put into words. I counted the wounds - four hits, out of thirty shooters - and then walked on to Harbin’s body. His skull was a shattered mass, blood and brains leaking onto the ground. There was no trace of the bullet, no hint of what had happened to him. As far as I could tell, I’d gotten away with it.

Alas, poor Harbin, I thought. I knew him.

I put the thought firmly out of my mind as I started to issue orders. Harbin’s body - or what was left of it - would be put aside for his family, while the other bodies would be buried within the remains of the trenches; the former serfs, starting to emerge from their town, were left strictly alone. I spoke quickly to their leader, another of my agents, who explained there were a whole string of revolts either underway or about to break out. I hoped it shattered the warlord’s lands, although I feared the worst. The vast majority of the revolting serfs wouldn’t have the weapons they needed to take out the castles and fortified homes, not before it was too late. I’d have to do something about that, but I had no idea what.

“We’ll have to continue the offensive,” I said, finally. If we won quickly, we should have enough time to consolidate before the other warlords decided it was time to stop us and formed an alliance to do just that. “I need a list of every skilled man under your command.”

Fallon waved to me as the former serfs hurried away. “I just heard from Kyra,” she said. “They’re on the way, but they won’t be here for a few days.”

I nodded. I’d expected as much. The army would be a great deal slower than the mounted cavalry. And once they arrived ... I mentally reviewed the maps I’d seen. We weren’t that far from the warlord’s seat. His castle was meant to be huge, the largest in the country, but I wasn’t impressed. We should have enough gunpowder and cannons to take down his walls and smash his castle into rubble, if he didn’t surrender. I would have talked truce, if I’d been in his shoes. It would take longer than he had to put together an army that could do more than slow us down.

Particularly if serf revolts are breaking out all over, I told myself. That’ll make it harder for him to call on help from his clients.

“Tell them to hurry, but not to take risks,” I said. If the warlord was thinking, he’d hit our supply lines. We couldn’t afford to be thrown back on what little we could carry with us. “And send a message to the city. Tell them we need more supplies.”

Fallon nodded. “Yes, sir.”

I watched her go, then turned my attention to assisting the serfs. They’d done remarkably well, although they would have been screwed if we hadn’t come to their rescue. I watched grim-faced men carrying bodies to the graves, while the women prepared food and planned for a mass evacuation if things went badly wrong. I told myself they’d be fine. We’d carry on the offensive, straight into the heart of the warlord’s territory. And that would be the end.

And Harbin is gone, I thought. I took no pleasure in killing, particularly shooting someone in the back, but I wasn’t going to waste time mourning him either. Without him, things will be a great deal smoother.
chris
Posts: 40
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Twenty-Six

“Harbin is dead?” Rupert looked conflicted. “I ... what happened?”

“He died well,” I said. “He died in the midst of the fighting.”

It was true enough, I supposed. He had been leading a frontal attack into the enemy defences when I’d put a bullet through his skull. I’d written detailed reports of his death, trying to establish an unquestionable narrative as quickly as possible; I’d flattered the dead man in ways that would make Saddam Hussein blush. I had a feeling that, here, the reports would be regarded as nothing more than his due. Harbin’s family had been trying to paint him as the victor of the first engagement ever since they’d realised the battle had been a decisive victory.

Rupert frowned, unconvinced. I kept my thoughts to myself. Rupert knew - had known - Harbin. He knew Harbin had been a coward at heart. He knew ... I wondered, idly, if Rupert would guess the truth. A smart man might quietly keep it to himself, silently relieved Harbin had bit the dirt before he’d had a chance to really screw us; Rupert was smart, I knew, but his experienced was very limited. He might blow the whistle without realising it would do more damage to the war effort than anything Harbin could do.

I let him consider the matter as I watched the army marching into Barrow. Rupert had pushed the men hard, but it had still been several nervous days before the troops had hove into view. We’d liberated the town and the surrounding farms, but the rebellions further away had either stalemated or simply collapsed. The serfs didn’t have the firepower to win in a hurry, nor the supplies to keep their former masters penned up until they ran out of food and surrendered. I’d drawn up plans for systematically smashing the fortified manors and tiny castles, one by one, but I was all too aware that would be taking my eyes off the prize. The warlord had refused to surrender or even consider asking for terms.

“I suppose he died well,” Rupert said, reluctantly. “And his family will be pleased.”

“They’ll credit him with winning the battle,” I said. It might even be true. The charge had certainly broken whatever was left of the enemy morale. “We’ll name a castle or something after him.”

Rupert smiled, rather thinly. “Let’s not go that far.”

I grinned, then left him with his thoughts and headed over to assess the marching army and reorganise the struggle. The makeshift logistics system had held up better than I’d expected, although we were still on a shoestring. We simply couldn’t source most of what we needed from the liberated territories, not in a hurry. I had no doubt blacksmiths and craftsmen, free of the prying eyes of their former masters, would start churning out cannon and muskets and everything else, but that would take time. I’d done what I could to kick off assembly-line manufacturing, rather than tiny little cottage industries … I shook my head. It was going to take years for the idea to really catch on. The craftsmen had been strongly against it right from the start.

Fallon smiled at me as I passed her tent. “The city has promised reinforcements,” she said, holding out her chat parchment. “And they’ve declared a day of mourning in honour of Harbin’s death.”

I nodded. It stuck in my craw to honour a man I knew to have been a rapist, a rape-enabler, a tactical disaster and all around entitled piece of shit, but it was a small price to pay for keeping the truth buried. By the time it came out, if it ever did, there would be so many people invested in the lie that the truth would hopefully be lost without trace. I doubted anyone would even come close to guessing the truth. The muskets were so inaccurate that even if someone realised Harbin had been shot in the back, they’d assume it was a hideous accident rather than deliberate murder. The best shot in the musketeers, bar me, couldn’t have been sure of hitting the broad side of a barn ...

“We’ll hold a parade in his honour, when we get home,” I assured her. “Right now, we have to continue the war.”

Fallon bowed her head. It occurred to me, an instant too late, that she might have realised the truth. Women tended to be very perceptive, much more perceptive than men gave them credit for. Women’s intuition was nothing more than the subconscious mind putting together clues the conscious mind couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge. Fallon certainly knew what kind of person Harbin had been ... she certainly knew I’d had excellent reason to arrange a little accident for him. And ... she might have access to magic she could use to dig up the truth. The thought hadn’t occurred to me, when I’d shot the bastard. The only upside, as far as I could tell, was that the battlefield had been contaminated by the other magician. It might made any sort of forensic activities difficult.

They might not even figure out what actually happened, I told myself. There was no need to panic. Not yet. Even if they work out he was shot, they’d have problems understanding precisely how it happened.

I tasked Fallon with a handful of messages, then continued marching through the ever-growing camp. The cannoneers were emplacing their weapons, preparing the town to stand off an enemy counterattack; the infantry were digging trenches, in some cases churning up the enemy trenches we’d destroyed, and assisting the locals to rebuild their town. I was mildly surprised the former serfs were cutting down trees and fixing the damage, although I suppose it was a way of demonstrating their new ownership. I hoped it would last. We could, and we hopefully would, kill the former masters - or, at the very least, drive them into exile - but the city fathers were already arguing over the proper distribution of the spoils of war. I hoped that didn’t get out of hand. The serfs would be happy to work with us, I was sure, but not trade one set of masters for another.

And they have better weapons now, I reminded myself. Anyone who takes them for granted is going to regret it.

I kept myself busy as more and more reports came in. The revolts were spreading, some serfs taking up arms while others simply downed tools and walked away from the land. Hundreds came to join us in Barrow, while the remainder started to head back to the city. They’d probably find it a great deal easier, now we’d scattered the patrol and shattered the warlord’s grip on his southern lands. The city wouldn’t be sending any more serfs back to their former masters, not now. They’d voted to abolish the whole cursed practice shortly after our first victory.

Horst met me as I started to walk back to the command tent. “The men are ready to continue the offensive.”

I nodded, silently pleased that Horst and his peers had come along so well. I’d worked hard to keep them in line, rewarding the ones who did well and busting the failures - or bullies - back to the ranks, but I was still uneasily aware the system was very far from solid. I needed more experienced NCOs ... I didn’t have them. There was something so ramshackle about the arrangement that my old drill instructors would have been utterly horrified, then start screaming for me to be court-martialled and kicked out on my ass. And yet, I had to admit it was working better than I’d expected. Victory had a habit of encouraging people to paper over the cracks in the edifice.

“We’ll continue the march shortly,” I said. Warlord Aldred was based at Kuat, a castle that was supposed to be impregnable. If the reports were even halfway accurate, and hadn’t grown in the telling too much, I could see why the locals would see it that way. “Have there been any major issues?”

“Not matter,” Horst said. “There were a handful of men who ate unripe fruit and got sick; a couple more who harassed the locals and got forced to run the gauntlet, but nothing else worth mentioning.”

I had to smile. Horst wouldn’t have said anything, back when we’d been guardsmen, if his peers had stolen from the shops and stalls. It had been one of the perks of the job. I made a mental note to keep an eye on the situation, just in case he slipped back into old habits. Horst was no fool - and he was being paid very well to uphold the new standards - but he might start to slip. It wasn’t easy to get rid of bad habits, not when they’d been allowed to fester for years. I’d known a man who kept swearing mighty oaths to give up the booze, but rarely managed to keep himself from drinking longer than a week or so.

The thought nagged at me as I toured the lines, spoke briefly to a handful of men I remembered - Napoleon would have been proud of me - and inspected the guns. The army looked more like a mob than anything organised, although it was largely an illusion. Their uniforms were dirty, their faces unshaved ... I wasn’t too concerned. A unit could be good or it could look good, but rarely both. I’d sooner the former than the latter. My men would stand, unbeaten and unbowed, when a fancy unit would break and run. I glanced at a handful of flasks, gave their wearers a sharp look that told them to be careful, then turned away. As long as drinking didn’t get out of hand, I’d turn a blind eye. And if it did, the drinker and whoever had supplied the drink would wish they’d never been born.

It was growing darker when the messenger found me. “Sir, you’re wanted in the command tent!”

“I’m coming,” I said. Command conferences had been a great deal less acrimonious since Harbin had fallen. “I’ll be there in a moment.”

A large horse, wearing the most elaborate caparison I’d seen since we’d marched out of the city, stood outside the tent. I frowned as I studied the heraldry. I was no expect - the local aristocrats had a dizzying series of sigils and coats of arms - but the presence of drawn swords was clear proof the messenger represented a warlord. Warlord Aldred? I couldn’t imagine any of the others sending a message to the army, not when they’d find it easier to send the messenger directly to the city itself. If, of course, they knew what was happening. It was unlikely they realised how far and how fast we’d advanced, although it was impossible to be sure. They could be using chat parchments too.

I pushed the flap aside and stepped into the tent. Rupert sat in his chair, facing a young man - he was barely entering his teens - wearing a fancy outfit that had clearly been designed for a much older man. The unkind part of my mind whispered he looked like a purple and gold grape, before hinting the young man had been sent because his master feared he’d be executed the moment he rode into the camp. It was hard to believe the messenger was someone important. He wasn’t even old enough to shave!

Which might be meaningless here, I thought. He speaks with his master’s voice.

The messenger’s eyes flickered over me, then turned back to Rupert. “My Lord?”

Rupert kept his voice mild. “You have a message?”

“Yes, My Lord.” The messenger sounded as if his voice hadn’t broken yet. “My master wishes to inform you that His Majesty has commanded a formal truce, between the forces of Damansara and himself, and that his daughter has been dispatched to meditate a permanent treaty of peace. He proposes that your forces hold your positions until a settlement has been agreed.”

I snorted. “Oh. He does, does he?”

The messenger looked, just for a second, as if I’d committed some hideously indecent act in public. “Yes, My Lord.” He addressed his words to Rupert, not to me. “His Majesty commands it and we must obey.”

He held out a scroll. Rupert took it, then nodded. “The guard will escort you to somewhere you can wait,” he said, as he unfurled the scroll. It was written in Old Script, not a single English letter to be seen. “You’ll have our answer shortly.”

I waited until the messenger had left, then frowned. “What does the letter say?”

“The same thing, except more floridly,” Rupert said. “King Jacob of Johor has declared a formal truce, ordering both sides to hold their positions and wait for his daughter to arrive so she can handle the negotiations. And it would be treasonous for us to refuse.”

“Shit.” I forced myself to think. “Do we know the letter really came from the king?”

“It has the royal seal.” Rupert held it up for me to see. “The magic woven into the seal makes it impossible to duplicate, let alone forge.”

I wasn’t so sure, but there was no time to worry about it now. I’d wondered what the warlord would do, now we were deep within his lands. It shouldn’t have surprised me that he’d gone running to the king. Bullies always ran, if you hit them hard enough. I had to admit it was a neat solution. Twist the king’s arm to force him to order us to stop, then draw out the negotiations long enough to rebuild his army or simply cut our supply lines and starve us out. It would work too. The lands we held couldn’t feed the army, not for very long. We might lose the war without fighting another shot.

“They sent the message directly to you, not to Damansara,” I said. I was fairly sure that was true. If the city had gotten the message, they’d have relayed it to Fallon or one of her peers. “That’s ... interesting.”

Rupert studied the scroll. “They’ll have sent a copy to the city,” he said. “It’ll just take longer for their messenger to reach the walls.”

I nodded, slowly. Messengers were meant to be inviolate, but - right now - no one was doing more than making a pretence of following the rules. I could see a messenger, galloping down the road, being waylaid and killed by a gang of runaway serfs, or perhaps even one of my patrols if they mistook the messenger for a spy. And yet ... my thoughts churned. The warlord was clearly trying to buy time. It couldn’t be allowed.

“We have to press on,” I said. “There’s no choice.”

Rupert gaped at me. “Defy a direct order from the king?”

I snorted. “And how much power does the king actually have?”

He said nothing. I didn’t blame him. It was never easy to admit the emperor had no clothes, even when it was blindingly obvious. The king didn’t have the power to compel his nobles to do a damn thing, not when they didn’t want to do it. As long as the warlords remained united in their quest to keep the monarchy weak, that was never going to change. Damansara couldn’t rely on the king to do anything to help them, not when the warlords had the king under control. If we stayed where we were, or retreated back to safer territory, we were effectively conceding defeat.

“This is just a ruse to buy time,” I explained. “He’ll force us to expend our food, then retreat in a hurry or start taking food from the locals. Either way, he wins.”

Rupert met my eyes. “And when the city fathers order me to bend the knee to the king?”

I grinned. “The message can’t reach the city for at least another two days, right? They’ll need that long just to get the message, longer still to decide if they want to accept the king’s orders. We can use that time to press the offensive ourselves. We’ll arrive at his door before he has a chance to do anything, even if he realises we’re coming. And then we’ll crush his castle and win the war in one fell swoop.”

My smile widened. “And we can even send back a message offering to discuss terms,” I added. “It’ll keep him from realising we’re on the move ...”

Rupert shook his head. “We can’t afford to break the laws of war too openly.”

I sighed, inwardly. I understood the importance of keeping the laws of war. At the same time, I also understood the importance of making sure everyone else kept the laws too. I had no qualms about misleading someone who’d tried to mislead us ...

“Then tell him you’ll consult with your superiors,” I said. “They’re not expecting you to make policy for the entire city, are they?”

“You are.” Rupert smiled, but there was no humour in it. “If this goes wrong ...”

“Victory has a thousand fathers,” I told him. I understood his reluctance. Rupert and his family had a great deal to lose if everything came crashing down. And yet ... there was no middle ground, no space between victory or death. The warlords knew, now, how dangerous the cities could become. They’d be quick to garrison the others if they had a chance. “Defeat ... you can blame everything on me, if you like.”

“Believe me, I will.” Rupert shook his head. “And they won’t accept it for a second.”

He stood. “I’ll tell the messenger that we’ll discuss the terms, then send a messenger of our own back when we’re done,” he said. “And ... if you’re right, we’ll be on top of him before it’s too late.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. If we lost, we’d be declared rogue. “We’ll begin the march at dawn.”
chris
Posts: 40
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Twenty-Seven

I didn’t sleep much that night.

It was hard not to think, as darkness enveloped the camp, that Rupert and I were crossing the Rubicon. We weren’t precisely disobeying orders - it wasn’t as if the city fathers had ordered us to remain where we were, at least until the princess arrived - but I had a feeling they’d take a dim view of us carrying the offensive all the way to Kuat. They had to know the king was effectively powerless, that he’d been forced to issue orders for us to hold in place and wait, yet if they wanted to take a swing at our necks we’d given them all the excuse they could possibly want. I’d told Rupert to blame everything on me, if things went wrong, but the blunt truth was that there’d be more than enough blame to go around. I might have to flee the army when - if - the shit hit the fan.

I tossed and turned a lot, even though the bedding was surprisingly comfortable compared to some of the places I’d served as a younger man. Doubts assailed my mind. The army was tough, and we were steadily gathering more and more experience, but if we lost the coming battle it would be the end. I knew there were more recruits being trained, including a number of former serfs who wanted to fight for their freedom, yet ... losing the army would be bad even if it wasn’t a total disaster. We’d been committed the moment we’d given the warlord a bloody nose. We had to teach him, and his peers, that they could no longer push us around with ease. There would be no peace until they got the message. They had to feel their defeat. They had to know, deep inside, that they’d been smashed flat. If we’d hammered that lesson into Germany in 1918, we might not have gone to war with Germany again in 1941.

Dawn broke, like a thunderclap. I staggered to my feet, splashed water on my face - it was strange to realise a basin of water was pretty much the height of luxury - and gathered myself before stepping outside. Rupert didn’t look as if he’d slept any better, I noted; I envied the soldiers who were looking disgustingly, and disturbingly, cheerful as they readied themselves for the march. They knew where they were going, I was sure. There wasn’t a single one amongst them who didn’t want to kick the warlord where it hurt. And yet ... the lack of grumbling was almost unnatural. It worried me.

Fallon greeted me as I sent out scouts, her hair hidden behind a scarf. I had no idea who she thought she was fooling. She looked as if she’d dressed as a man without being quite sure how to do it. I guessed she was experimenting a little, now she was well away from her parents. Magical families were apparently more permissive than mundanes, from what I’d been told, but there were limits. I wasn’t remotely surprised.

“There’s been no message from the city, save for a routine update,” Fallon told me. I’d asked her to keep whatever she heard to herself, at least until Rupert and I got the news first. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”

I nodded. I’d seriously considered leaving Fallon and her peers behind. Barrow wouldn’t be particularly well defended, once the army marched out, but their magic would keep them safe ... or so they’d assured me. It was tempting to deliberately march out of communications range, giving us a degree of plausible deniability if the city ordered us to halt the offensive and hold in place. But it wouldn’t fool anyone. The city fathers had objected to us taking young magicians in the first place. They’d certainly wonder why we’d changed our tune on short notice.

“You’ll be riding behind me, again,” I said. I pretended not to see her grimace. It would be an uncomfortable ride, even with an experienced rider holding the reins. “I’ll need you to stay in touch with the rear area.”

Fallon nodded, curtly, as we joined Rupert in the officers mess. The food was very basic - Harbin had bitched up a storm, as if he’d expected us to provide him with roast venison or something else equally rare and expensive - and I didn’t feel like eating, but I forced myself to stuff food down my throat until I was full. Fallon and Rupert were more reluctant to eat, despite my prodding. They were going to regret it later, even if they were going to be carrying rations in their pouches. God alone knew when we’d have time to sit down and eat properly again.

Rupert met my eyes. “Are you sure this is going to work?”

“Yes,” I said, pretending a confidence I didn’t feel. The warlord’s castle was heavily defended. Under normal conditions, the defenders would have most of the advantages too. They could just batten down the hatches and wait for besiegers to give up and go away. “We can and we will take down the entire castle.”

I grinned at them, then led the way back outside. The scouts were already reporting back, bringing word of an open road between Barrow and Kuat. I nodded, pretending relief even though I’d hoped we’d encounter the warlord’s army in the field. It would have given us an excellent chance to crush the bastard, without ever having to tackle his walls. I’d read the reports from earlier wars, reports that had made it brutally clear why no winner had ever emerged. The castles were just too strong to take quickly, forcing the attacker to lay siege to them or bleed his army white trying to take them by force. Some castles had never been taken at all. Kuat was one of them.

The army started to march forward in ragged order, soldiers singing cheerfully as they advanced to the front. I was torn between amusement and horror as I helped Fallon onto the horse, then scrambled up in front of her. Some of the songs would have shocked the moral guardians back home ... I rolled my eyes as the horse started to canter forward. There was nothing to be gained by objecting, not now. It would undermine my authority. Besides, too many of the singers might be dead in a day or two.

I smiled as a handful of horse-drawn cannons rolled down the road, their crews riding carts loaded with gunpowder and shot. Others were pulled by volunteers, serfs who’d been liberated and then recruited to serve as porters. I wasn’t too keen on hiring anyone as human pack mules, but I didn’t really have a choice. We were running short of horses and oxen. Besides, it would let us slip more money into the local economy and let them think they were contributing to their own liberation. I’d known people who’d resented being liberated almost as much as they resented the people they’d been liberated from.

We’re going to have to teach them to think of themselves as individuals, I thought, as the army picked up speed. And to stop thinking of society as a divinely ordered hierarchy.

The thought festered at the back of my mind as we kept moving, passing through towns and villages that had either been abandoned or liberated by rebellious serfs. I saw hundreds of signs of places that had been hastily abandoned, refugees fleeing into the undergrowth as they saw us coming. I didn’t blame them for trying to hide. They had no reason to believe we were friendly, even if my agents had managed to get this far north. Hell, they might not even know who we were. It was unlikely their masters had been honest about their defeats.

Fallon pressed against me as we marched through a shattered village. “How can people live like this?”

I shrugged. “They don’t have a choice,” I told her. The village was practically drowning in mud and shit. I hoped the villagers had made it out before their village had been raided by a passing army. “Their masters don’t let them keep anything for themselves, so they do as little as possible.”

And dream of the day they’ll be free, my thoughts added silently, as we marched past a burnt-out manor. A pair of bodies hung from trees, twisting unpleasantly in the wind. They’ll have a lot of grudges to repay, now the day of liberation has finally come.

We reached a handful of abandoned fields, made camp for the night and continued the march the following day. Fallon reported no messages from the city, something that bothered me. I’d considered trying to waylay the messenger, but there’d been no way to do it - as far as I could tell - without making it obvious. Still ... I shook my head. There was no hard data, nothing I could use to make my estimates anything better than guesswork. We’d just have to keep going until we reached our target, then began the attack. I just hoped we’d get there in time.

The warlord made no attempt to do more than slow us down, even as we began the final march to his castle. I hoped that was a good sign, although I wasn’t sure. A smart commander would have had scouts along all the roads, perhaps even spying on our camp from a safe distance. My cavalry had done what they could to keep prying eyes away, but I doubted they’d succeeded completely. Besides, we’d been marching north for two days, disturbing everything in our path. They had to know we were coming.

“It’s impressive,” Fallon breathed, as the castle came into view. “Is it bigger than Whitehall?”

I shrugged and turned my attention to studying the defences as the army started to spread out and lay siege to the giant castle. It was huge - the stories hadn’t exaggerated as much as I’d thought - a cluster of stone buildings surrounded by a colossal wall that seemed to merge into the buildings from place to place. The town outside was smaller than I’d expected, placed neatly within the shadow of the castle. A handful of people were fleeing as the army spread out further - I sent orders to have them interrogated, to see what was actually happening before they were sent on their way. It was clear how the warlord had dominated the surrounding countryside for so long. As long as he could fall back on an impregnable castle, his control couldn’t be challenged.

“Set up the guns,” I ordered. The walls were perfect killing grounds, but ... I was lucky the warlord hadn’t built his castle on top of a hill. It would have made life a great deal harder. “Prepare to fire on my command.”

Rupert looked worried as we prepared for the assault. “Should we send a demand for surrender?”

I wasn’t so sure - killing the warlord and tearing his castle down would send an unmistakable message - but nodded anyway. Better to at least pretend we were doing things by the book. I summoned a messenger, told him to take a demand for unconditional surrender to the warlord, then sent him on his way. The cynical part of my mind insisted the warlord would tell us to go to hell, even if we had a sword at his throat. Even a truce that left us in control of the lands we’d taken would make him look weak, so weak one of his subordinate aristocrats might go for his throat. He might prefer to fight to the last, rather than come to terms.

We waited. I lifted a telescope and peered at the battlements. They were lined with men, most carrying swords and shields rather than muskets or crossbows. I guessed the murder holes, clearly visible along the lower walls, were already manned, archers standing at the ready to wreck havoc on our lines. The gatehouse was almost a small castle in its own right, looking tougher than the citadel we’d taken earlier. It would be a pain to take even with modern weapons, or what passed for modern weapons in this world. A single MOAB would level both the castle and a surprisingly-large chunk of the surrounding countryside.

Fallon caught my arm. “There’s a great deal of magic woven into the walls.”

I nodded, curtly. Magical defences, from what I’d been told, seemed designed to cope with magical threats. It was perfectly possible to punch out - or shoot - a magician who didn’t craft his wards specifically to handle a physical threat. I supposed it made a certain kind of sense - most people would hesitate to get into a fight with someone who could stop them with a snap of their fingers - but it was a curious blindspot. If what I’d been told was true, even hardened wards acted like deflector shields. Every time they were hit, they got weaker.

The messenger returned, looking grim. “My Lord,” he said, to Rupert. “They ... ah ... refused your kind offer.”

Rupert smiled, although I could tell he was nervous. “And what did they actually say?”

I ignored the messenger’s spluttering - the warlord had probably said something scatological or worse - and snapped orders. The cannons started to boom, hurling heavy shot towards the walls; the musketmen unleashed a furious volley, sweeping dozens of men off the battlements and causing the rest to hastily duck. I cursed under my breath as the cannonballs struck the walls and shattered, or bounced off, without doing any noticeable damage. The walls were either thick enough to take the blows without shattering, which seemed unlikely as I couldn’t see any cracks, or the magic reinforcing them was strong enough to keep them intact. I hoped the noise was doing at least some damage. I’d been in tanks that had been under heavy attack. Their armour had stood up to the hammering, but the noise had threatened to drive us all mad.

“The magic is holding,” Fallon told me. “You’re not hitting it hard enough to take it down.”

I nodded, watching grimly as the second volley was no more effective than the first. The only success was a cannonball that went over the walls, crashing down somewhere within the keep. I hoped it had done some real damage, although it was impossible to be sure. A handful of archers were trying to shoot at us, but finding it hard. My musketmen fired at them every time they showed their faces. I hoped they’d stay well back. I needed the cannoneers to keep firing into the castle.

“Aim the canister so it lands in the courtyards, then add some fire arrows,” I ordered. The flaming arrows were coated with something magic, something - I’d been assured - that was hard to put out. “And order the sappers to start their work.”

My lips twisted into a grim smile as the noise grew louder. I wasn’t expecting the canister shot to do much of anything, although it would be great if the flaming arrows ignited a barrel of gunpowder, but it would force them to keep their heads down. The defenders might even be assuming I was wasting my time, expending gunpowder and cannonballs in a fit of bad temper before I had to withdraw before I ran out of supplies. Reading between the lines, I had a theory that most of the warlords had done pretty much the same at one time or another.

Rupert stepped up to me. “How long can we keep this up?”

“Long enough, I hope,” I said. I’d drilled him in logistics. He wasn’t a bad organiser ... I wondered, idly, if he’d make a good Pompey the Great. Pompey had lacked the flair of his arch-enemy, and he’d been hammered when he’d fought someone who was his tactical superior, but his grasp of logistics had been magnificent. “We just need to keep them from realising what we’re really doing.”

I glanced at Fallon, then issued more orders. The skirmishers would have to take the lead, when we poured into the castle. I wished, not for the first time, that I’d spent more time on basic weapons training ... or that we had more than a handful of flintlocks. We were going to be fighting the bastards on nearly even terms, when we got into the castle. And yet ... I braced myself as the sappers returned, reporting success. The gunpowder was in position.

“Stay back,” I ordered Rupert. “You do not want to be caught in the fighting.”

Rupert looked mutinous. I understood. Harbin - damn the man - had at least managed to die bravely. Rupert’s reputation would be dented if he didn’t lead the offensive in person. But there was no choice. I needed Rupert to remain alive. And besides, if we won the battle, we could easily compose narratives that made Rupert the hero. Reality was more than a little flexible. The story would stick because we wanted it to stick.

“Their wards are still holding,” Fallon commented. She sounded oddly impressed. “Their walls are barely damaged.”

I nodded, pretending to be unconcerned. The magic might be beyond me, but it clearly had limits. I could easily imagine a shield that only blocked attacks from the outside, allowing their archers to stand up in the open air and shoot their bows in perfect safety. It didn’t seem to be possible. The locals might not understand modern technology, but they sure as hell grasped magic. It was such an obvious concept that I was sure that, it was possible, it would have been done.

“Send the signal,” I ordered. The enemy didn’t seem to have realised what we were doing, but that could easily change at any moment. For all I knew, time was about to run out. I wasn’t sure what they could do about it, but I didn’t want to find out the hard way. “Detonate the mine.”

A moment later, the world seemed to explode.
chris
Posts: 40
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Twenty-Eight

I covered my eyes, hastily, as the ground shook violently, great clouds of dust and smoke rising up from the walls. It was glorious! The magically-reinforced walls were warped and twisted, great chunks of stone crashing to the ground despite the spells woven into the building. The blast had clearly reached further into the castle than I’d expected ... I snickered as I realised the enemy wards had actually deflected the blast deeper into the castle, rather than redirect the force back at us. They really hadn’t expected such an attack, I decided. The idea of undermining a castle’s walls wasn’t new, but cramming gunpowder into the mine and detonating it under the walls was.

“Musketmen, sweep the walls,” I barked. The enemy soldiers were stunned. We had to take them at a run, before it was too late. “Cannoneers, target the inner keep!”

I nodded to Rupert as the cannons started firing again. A handful aimed canister shot into the shattered walls, hoping to kill anyone who’d survived the blast, while the remainder directed cannonballs into the inner building. I was unsure if they were as heavily warded as the outer wards, but it didn’t matter. We’d breached the walls. A smart enemy would be trying to surrender now, to get the white flag into the air before we plunged through the walls and into the keep. If they refused to surrender, we would be quite within our rights to kill everyone inside the building without even trying to take them prisoner.

They’ve nowhere to go, I thought, as I rallied my skirmishers. All they can do now is hurt us as much as possible before we kill them all.

I raised my hand, feeling the air shake as my troops braced themselves. They looked eager to get to grips with the enemy ... that wouldn’t last, I was sure. House-to-house combat was never fun, even if you had body armour and microscopic drones and all the other toys that had been tried and tested in the Middle East. Urban warfare cut the advantages of modern technology down to almost nothing ... I told myself not to be so pessimistic. The enemy didn’t have AK-47s or IEDs or anything along those lines either.

“Follow me,” I shouted. It was hardly professional, but I didn’t give a damn. “Charge!”

The men cheered as I led them towards the smoking remnants of the mine, musket balls cracking over our heads as the musketmen sought to cover us. My ears ached as I plunged through the crater, then scrambled up the far side and into the castle, eyes sweeping from side to side for potential threats. It looked like the building had been torn right open by the blast; walls scorched and battered, doors lying on the floor in ruins. I led my men onwards, directing half of them to seize the upper levels while the remainder held upon the breach to allow more and more invaders to enter the castle. If the defenders weren’t going to surrender, they’d have to muster a counterattack before we solidified our foothold and started to take the rest of the castle.

I led the way down the corridor and stepped into a mini-courtyard, looking as if someone had screwed up the plans when the castle had been put together. There was hardly any space for anything, as far as I could tell. I heard a shout a moment later and saw men boiling out of the far door, urged on by someone remaining safely at the rear. I raised my pistol and shot him, then barked orders to my men as the attackers started to slow in confusion. My men opened fire a second later, musket and flintlock balls tearing though the attackers and sending them crashing to the ground. Another man appeared, waving his hand to snatch a fireball out of nowhere and hurl it at me. I blinked at it, stunned, then ducked sharply as it shot over my head and crashed into a far wall. An instant later, another fireball burned his head to a crisp.

I looked back. Fallon was standing there, looking pleased with herself. My lips moved soundlessly. I hadn’t expected her to follow me. She really shouldn’t have followed me. And yet, she’d saved my life. If she could do that ... I nodded to her - this was neither the time nor the place for an argument - then started barking orders again as reinforcements kept flowing into the castle. We needed to push onwards before the defenders started to rally again.

“Surrender,” I bellowed. My parade ground voice was loud, but practically lost amidst the din of battle. “Surrender and your lives will be spared!”

I heard some angry muttering behind me. I ignored it. I didn’t particularly want to sack the castle. I certainly didn’t want my men to get into bad habits by raping and slaughtering what remained of the castle’s population. If they were prepared to surrender, I’d accept it instead of forcing them to fight to the last. The warlord himself shouldn’t live past the fighting - my ancestors had had no shortage of problems when the old ruling caste hadn’t been uprooted and destroyed - but there were innocents in his castle. Even his men were only following orders. Here, it excused everything.

We charged across the courtyard and crashed into the next building. A man stepped out of the darkness and swung a blade at me. I darted back, wishing I’d spent more time on my swordsmanship, then shot him through the head. I should have brought an axe instead, something I could use without spending weeks in training ... I put the thought out of my head as more and more men blocked our way, forcing us to clear them out with musket balls, swords and makeshift grenades. It was damn lucky, I reflected as we pushed onwards, that the warlord had frittered away most of his time. The castle was hard enough to take, even though we’d broken the walls. If he’d taken the task seriously, we might have been in real trouble.

Darkness fell as we pushed our way further into the castle, crying out for them to see sense and surrender. I gritted my teeth, directing my men to light torches even though it posed a very real risk of giving away our positions. The fighting was growing increasingly chaotic, I knew; I was losing control, if I’d ever really had it. We crashed into a small hall and encountered a bunch of terrified servants, men and women who stared at us in fear. I detailed a handful of men to escort most of the servants out of the castle, back to our lines. The remaining two looked ... reasonable.

I met their eyes. “Where is Aldred?”

They stared at me, caught between fear of us - the invaders - and their masters. I reached into my pouch and produced a handful of gold coins, holding them out to them. Someone gasped behind me. It was more gold than they’d seen in their entire lives, I was sure. They had to be wondering if I’d take their answers and simply slit their throats, rather than actually keeping my side of the deal. And yet ... there was enough money, resting in my palm, to let them start a new life somewhere well away from their former master.

“He’s in the throne room,” one of the servants stammered. “I ... I can take you there.”

“Good.” I passed him the coins, ignoring the other servant’s sputtered protests. He’d had his chance. “Lead on. And no detours along the way.”

The servant nodded and led us down the corridor, then pushed a tapestry aside to reveal a hidden door. I clutched my sword tightly in one hand as we stepped into a darkened passageway, all too aware we could be walking straight into a trap. The servant passageway - I’d seen them in Rupert’s mansion - was just too narrow for us to walk in anything other than single file. I promised myself I’d bury my sword in the servant’s back, if it turned out he was trying to con us. He wouldn’t get away with it.

I felt the air shifting, slightly, as more cannonballs crashed into the keep. It was hard to believe, despite the noise, that we weren’t alone within the castle, that we weren’t trapped within a confined space. I’d never been claustrophobic, but it was still a relief when we reached the upper floor. The servant stopped beside a heavy wooden door and tried to open it. It didn’t budge. The bolts on the far side, I realised after a quick inspection, had been firmly shoved into place.

The servant started to stammer. “Sir, I ...”

“It’s quite all right,” I assured him. I would have been more concerned if the hidden door hadn’t been bolted. “What’s on the far side?”

“His lordship’s bedroom,” the servant said. “He ... ah ... uses the tunnels to see his mistresses.”

Mistresses, I thought. How many does he have?

“Tell me about the layout,” I said, keeping my voice hushed. The walls were thick, but there was no guarantee we couldn’t be overheard. “What’s on the far side.”

I listened, then nodded to Fallon. “Open this door.”

Fallon pointed a finger at the door. I felt my ears pop, an instant before an invisible force crashed into the wood and blasted it open. I would have preferred something a little more subtle - the noise had been loud enough to be heard for quite some distance - but beggars can’t be choosers. I jumped through the wrecked door, looking around for possible threats. The chamber was incredibly gaudy, gold and purple everywhere. Purple was the royal colour, if I recalled correctly. Having so much of it here was a clear sign the warlord had his eye on the throne, as well as absolutely no taste whatsoever. I’d have been embarrassed to rest my head on his bed. I was pretty sure he didn’t have anyone willing and able to tell him his room looked dreadful.

He’s a warlord with a habit of chopping off heads, I thought, as another round of cannonballs crashed into the walls. No one is going to say anything even mildly critical to him if they can help it.

I glanced at the men, then led them forward into the next room. A maid stared at us, her eyes uncomprehending, then dropped to the ground in a faint. I had the feeling she was faking it, but I didn’t have time to check. Instead, we hurried over her body and straight onto the next room. Warlord Aldred sat on a golden throne, every inch a pretender to the real throne; a handful of men in fancy uniforms were pressed against the far wall. The warlord’s presence pervaded the chamber. I was sure he would have made a bid for the kingship if he’d thought he’d get away with it.

He stood, drawing his sword. I studied him thoughtfully. His paintings weren’t particularly accurate, I noted; he was neither fashionably thin or so fat he might as well be a danger to shipping. His body was thick, but most of it looked to be muscle. He carried his sword as if he knew what to do with it. I was pretty sure he did. Rupert had been taught how to use a sword from birth and his birthplace was reasonably civilised. Aldred had grown up knowing that anyone, even his nearest and dearest, could become an enemy at the drop of a hat.

It isn’t an excuse, I told myself, firmly. I could understand why everyone from Hitler and Stalin to Saddam and Castro had done the horrible things they’d done, but understanding didn’t bring forgiveness. Quite the opposite. And even if was, there would still have to be a reckoning.

The castle shook again. The space between volleys was growing longer. I’d told the cannoneers not to shoot off all their powder and balls, just in case we needed to make a fighting retreat to Barrow or Furness. And yet ... I shook my head. The battle was over. It had been over from the moment we’d broken the walls. They should have surrendered. Right now, there weren’t many people left to surrender.

I met the warlord’s eyes, trying not to wince. This was not a man who accepted, even for a moment, the possibility of defeat. This was not a man who’d surrender, no matter how much he told himself it was just for tactical advantage. He wouldn’t so much as pretend to give up, although it would save hundreds of lives. He had a wife and a family and if the fighting continued, they’d be killed. Or worse.

“The battle is over,” I said. I doubted it would make any impact at all, but I owed it to myself to try. The warlord was doomed. The shattered castle was clear proof his power had been broken beyond repair. “If you surrender, you will be treated well.”

He snarled and raised his sword. I saw his point. No one was going to ransom him. His former subordinates would sell out for the best terms they could get, while the remainder of the warlords carved up his territory between them ... they’d wage war on us, I was sure, but it would be too late to save Aldred from defeat and destruction. The best he could hope for was his family being allowed to go into exile, but it wasn’t likely to happen. His former peers wouldn’t want his son to grow up into a future thorn in their side. They’d probably have the entire family quietly killed.

“I mean it,” I said. “You can take your money and go into exile and ...”

Aldred lunged at me. He really did know how to use his sword. I blocked his first swing, more by luck than judgement, but he just kept coming. I thought I was stronger, although it was hard to be sure. His blows kept hacking through my defences, my hands aching as he crashed his sword into mine time and time again. A man of honour, I reflected, would have kept fighting with an unsuitable weapon, even though it meant certain death. I wasn’t that much of a man of honour. I pointed the pistol at Aldred - his eyes went wide as he realised I was going to deny him a honourable death - and pulled the trigger. His body crashed to the floor and lay still.

“It’s done,” I said. I looked towards the other men. None of them had moved, perhaps fearing the wrath of the winner if they tried to intervene. “Surrender now and you get to live.”

They bowed their heads, then went to tell their men to surrender. I allowed myself a moment of relief, before issuing orders of my own as the fighting died away. The noble prisoners would be kept in the camp, under heavy guard, while we decided what to do with them; the soldiers and guardsmen would be invited to join our army, unless they were guilty of war crimes and atrocities. It was going to be a legal headache to sort out. Back home, there were no excuses for war crimes; here, merely following orders would be enough to get a free pass.

Besides, saying no to the mad dictator back home is a good way to commit suicide, I reflected. I’d met too many people who thought they could deter war crimes ... without realising it was pretty much impossible without a force both able and willing to come down on the perpetrators like a ton of bricks. And you’d get your family slaughtered as well.

I shrugged - maybe the worst of the worst would make a daring escape before we had to make some decisions about them - and then grinned as Rupert stepped into the room. He shot a sharp look at Fallon, who winked at him, then turned to me. I smiled at his expression. He looked like someone who’d been convinced he was about to lose a rigged game, only to come up trumps after all. I understood. If we’d lost the battle, it would have been wise for the pair of us to loot the war chest and start running. We certainly wouldn’t have been welcome back home.

The thought surprised me. When did Damansara become home?

“We won.” Rupert looked at the throne and the body, perhaps making sure it really was Aldred, then sat on the floor. “What now?”

I looked through the window. The castle was effectively ruined. It would take weeks, if not months, for it to be repaired. I figured we could turn it into a garrison, if we wanted to expend the time and effort, or simply tear down the remnants and leave it as nothing more than a pile of rubble. It wasn’t as if Kuat was still impregnable. We’d proven it wasn’t, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

“Now?” I shrugged. “We finish liberating the rest of the slaves, chase their former masters into exile if they don’t want to fight and be killed, then scatter garrisons throughout the lands as we raise troops for the next war. We won. It’s over.”

“And start arguing over who gets what,” Rupert predicted. “They’ll already be dividing the lands up, back home.”

“As long as they remember the serfs aren’t serfs any longer,” I said. I was pretty sure the serfs were arming themselves with everything within reach. They couldn’t expect mercy if they fell back into enemy hands. “They won’t agree to put down their guns and trade one set of masters for another.”

Fallon pulled her chat parchment from her pocket and frowned. “My Lord, we just got orders to remain in Barrow and wait for Princess Helen.”

Rupert and I looked at each other. A moment later, we started to laugh.
chris
Posts: 40
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Twenty-Nine

“Well, at least they’re not demanding we give back the castle to a dead man,” Rupert said, an hour later. We’d spent the time dictating messages to Fallon, then listening as she repeated their messages back to us. “That would have been awkward.”

I grinned. Fallon giggled. The city fathers had been shocked, according to her, when they heard what we’d done. They hadn’t even realised we’d continued the offensive, even though it had been part of the plan. Going on until we hit something so hard we had to stop made perfect sense, as far as I was concerned, and we’d kept going until we won the war. Warlord Aldred’s former subordinates might try to declare independence, or try to offer homage to another warlord, but it didn’t matter. Right now, they lacked the firepower to do more than irritate us. The rebel serfs would keep them penned up until we could smash their castles one by one. Kuat had fallen. I had no doubt the others would be even easier to destroy.

Rupert smiled, tiredly. “We still have orders to wait for the princess,” he said. “By then, hopefully, the council will have decided what they want us to say to her.”

“They do keep changing their minds,” Fallon agreed. She glanced at the parchment. “Right now, they’re asking about securing our new territories.”

I unfurled a map and studied it thoughtfully. “We’ll position scouts along the roads leading to the neighbouring warlord territories,” I said. The nightmare was a united advance on multiple fronts, perhaps three or four armies heading straight to the city, but I doubted the warlords would manage to coordinate such an offensive. They’d need to build a modern army first, giving us time to tighten our defences and send more agents into their lands. “If they start an attack, we’ll know about it.”

Fallon wrote a message on her parchment. I felt a shiver running down my spine as the words faded and vanished, as if they’d never been. I’d never had that reaction to radios or computers ... I frowned as Fallon read the reply out loud. To my eyes, the chat parchment was blank. It was hard not to feel we were being conned. We’d busted an insurgency cell, back in the Middle East, whose leader had faked messages from a multinational network to keep his subordinates in the fight. I knew Fallon wasn’t lying to us and yet it was hard to believe she could see something I couldn’t.

I turned my attention back to the map. “We’ll place a garrison here, just to make sure someone doesn’t try to take it from us, then split the army and deploy cannoneers to the rest of the castles. If they surrender, they can leave without a fight; if not, we can blow their walls down and they can die in the ruins. The quicker we eliminate them, the better.”

“The city fathers want you to detach half the army and send it back home,” Fallon said. “I think they’re getting worried.”

“We can do both,” I assured her. “And thank you.”

Fallon nodded, dropped a curtsey and hurried out the room. The communicators had taken over a handful of chambers, although personally I’d have preferred to keep them in the camp outside the walls. We were still searching the castle with the aid of the former servants, liberating prisoners from the cells, capturing records and logging every last item of value within the walls. The latter would probably have to be sent to the city, although I was pretty sure a number of smaller items had already been pocketed by my men. I sighed, inwardly. I didn’t want to encourage looting and yet ... it wasn’t going to be easy to stop. Few, if any, people had qualms about stealing from a dead warlord. God knew he’d been stealing from everyone within his reach.

Rupert smiled at me, then winked. “She has a crush on you, you know.”

I scowled. It had been a long time since I’d lain with anyone and right now, in the flush of victory, my body was instant on reminding me just how long it had been. Fallon was young and pretty and ... I cut off that line of thought before it could go any further. She was young enough to be my daughter, more or less, and she’d grown up in a society I didn’t really understand. It would be safer to visit an upper-class brothel, when I returned to the city, although that carried risks of its own. The last thing I wanted was a fantastical STD.

“I’m sure she’ll get over it,” I growled. I cleared my throat as I studied the map. “What do you think the princess actually wants?”

“Aldred wanted her to tell us to go home, disband our army and let him kick our backsides a few times,” Rupert said. We’d found the warlord’s private letters, along with everything else, when we’d searched his quarters. It was strange to realise that a man who’d had no qualms about twisting the king’s arm - he hadn’t been even remotely subtle about it - had also been a patron of the arts and a moderately gifted poet himself. “What she wants? I don’t know.”

I nodded as I turned my attention to organising the aftermath of the war. I didn’t really want to send a sizable chunk of the army home, even if they took a route that just happened to take them past a number of castles that needed to be reduced if they refused to surrender, but I didn’t have a choice. The city fathers had to be thinking we were dangerously loose cannons, although we’d won the war. They might not be openly churlish about it, not when public opinion would be firmly on our side, but they’d certainly do something to clip our wings. It was just possible they’d order us to concentrate on raising and training new recruits while giving combat commands to more reliable officers.

The hours went quickly. I checked the pile of captured gold - it looked like a dragon’s hoard - then arranged for it to be returned to the city under heavy guard. I allowed a detachment of former serfs to raid the warlord’s armoury, taking a few hundred swords, spears, crossbows and suits of armour that looked hopelessly outdated, along with thousands of arrows. It amused me to discover that the warlord had actually had his very own cannon, although he’d made no attempt to put it into service. The design was badly outdated, but it could still have hurled a cannonball into the city’s walls. I was sure his neighbours would be building up their own forces as fast as they could.

Fallon caught me as I returned to the castle, after inspecting the troops. “We have orders to send the aristocratic prisoners back to the city,” she said. “They want them back immediately.”

“I’ll see to it,” I said. The warlord’s wife, mistresses and remaining children had been kept under guard too. I wasn’t sure what, if anything, we could do with them. I didn’t want to execute them in cold blood and yet, leaving them alive would cause all sorts of problems in the future. “And then ...”

She stopped as the chat parchment vibrated in her hand, more proof - if I’d needed it - that the original concept had come from my world. Or one very much like it. “Sir ... the princess has been kidnapped!”

I blinked. “What?”

“Her carriage was waylaid.” Fallon didn’t look up from her parchment. “They took her and rode off ...”

I led the way back to the throne room and ran to the map table as she gabbled out more details. The princess had been within the dead warlord’s lands when she’d been attacked and taken by a band of ... of who? I shuddered as the implications dawned on me. The warlords had refrained from insisting the princess marry one of them - willingly or not - because there’d been a near-perfect balance of power. Anyone who tried to take the princess, and thus the crown, would be promptly targeted by the others. But now, with Aldred dead, the northern warlords might just try to snatch the princess, force her to marry one of them and declare themselves the heir to the throne. I felt sick. If they took her, if they raped her, she’d have no choice but to marry the rapist. It would be the only way to preserve her reputation.

Bastards, I thought. What sort of fucked up society forces a woman to marry her rapist?

“If they take her ...” Rupert’s thoughts were clearly going in the same direction. “We have to save her.”

I ran my eye down the map, silently calculating the possibilities. The mystery kidnapper would have sent cavalry, perhaps even mercenaries, rather than coming in person. He would have wanted to maintain a degree of plausible deniability, even if everyone knew what had happened. I did my best to think like a total shithead intent on taking the princess - and her title - by force. If I’d been trying to do it, I would want to get the princess to my castle as quickly as possible. We’d heard a report that Warlord Cuthbert had moved to his castle on the border ... it wasn’t much to go on, but it was all we had.

“If she’s being taken to Cuthbert,” I said as my finger traced a road on the map, “they’ll have to gallop down here.”

It made sense, I decided. Cuthbert was the strongest warlord in the north, now we’d crushed Aldred. He might just think he could get away with kidnapping the princess and marrying her by force. Any of his peers who wanted to do something about it would have to fight their way through our territory first ... he might just get away with it, if we gave him the chance. I had no intention of letting him get away with anything. The city fathers might not give much of a shit about the princess, or the throne, but Cuthbert was already a threat. He’d be much more of a problem if he wound up with royal authority as well as his own considerable forces.

“We’ll stop him,” I said. The idea of saving a royal princess was appealing. “Rupert, you stay here and get the army ready to secure the border. Fallon, you’re with me.”

Fallon didn’t object as she followed me down the stairs and out to the campsite. My skirmishers were already to go, the cavalrymen leaping into their saddles as we hurried towards them. I noted with some amusement that the common-born skirmishers and the aristocratic cavalry were actually getting along, now they’d won a victory together. Harbin would be rolling in his grave. I smirked at the thought as I barked orders, then climbed onto the horse myself. Fallon sat behind me as we raced away from the castle, her arms wrapped around my chest. I did my best to ignore her.

My mind churned as I picked up speed. My logic made sense, yet ... what if I was wrong? It wasn’t as if the kidnappers had to go down the main road, even if it was the quickest route to the border. Hell, Cuthbert wasn’t the only suspect. I couldn’t see any of his subordinates kidnapping the princess without his approval, which wouldn’t come, but what about the southern warlords? They’d have to admit what they’d done eventually, once the marriage was duly solemnised, but by then it would be too late. The princess would be theirs and everyone would pretend there’d never been anything wrong with it.

Sweat prickled down my back as we galloped onwards. I’d studied the map carefully. If we picked the right crossroads, we should find ourselves ahead of the kidnappers ... I tried not to think about the dangers of someone else taking the princess. What if it had been a serf faction? They had motive to hate the royals too, without any compelling reason to keep the princess alive. I’d heard horrifying tales of what happened to aristocrats who fell into commoner hands. The viciousness was appalling. And who could really blame them, when the aristocrats were so relentlessly savage to their serfs? They didn’t even see the serfs as human.

We reached the crossroads and swung around, cantering south. My heart started to race as I mentally checked the timing, again and again. There was just no way to be sure ... we could have missed them, or gone the wrong way, or simply set off on a wild goose chase. What if ... I wondered, suddenly, if we were being lured into a trap. The princess’s life didn’t mean that much to the warlords. They might just feel it was time to partition the kingdom between them and to hell with the legitimate royal family. Alexander the Great’s successors had done pretty much the same thing.

I heard a shout ahead and raised my head. A handful of horsemen were galloping towards us. I snapped orders, sending the cavalry ahead while the skirmishers hastily dismounted and formed a line. The enemy troops - they had to be hostile, now the remainder of the aristocracy were cowering inside their castles - didn’t slow down. I gritted my teeth as they crashed through the cavalry, punching through the gaps in their formation rather than trying to stand and fight. They didn’t have much of a choice - the terrain on each side of the road wasn’t good for horses - but it was still alarming. There was a very real chance we’d kill the princess, completely by accident. I was entirely sure everyone would assume it had been deliberate.

“Target the horses,” I ordered. I’d already told the skirmishers what to do, but I wanted to be sure they understood. “Fire!”

The muskets barked as one. The enemy line shivered and came apart, turning into a ragged mass as a number of horses hit the ground hard. The remainder kept coming. I reached for my pistol, all too aware I was running out of bullets, as the muskets fired a second volley. The enemy broke, trying to scatter in all directions. I saw a figure slung over a horse, hands tied behind her back. I swore under my breath. The chief kidnapper was going to get away. I was a good shot, with the best weapon in the world, and yet I was unsure I could shoot out the horse’s legs or put a bullet through the beast’s head. That only worked in bad movies and worse TV shows.

Fallon waved her hand. I saw light splash around the horse’s feet, an instant before it shuddered to a halt. The rider flew out of the saddle and crashed into the ground. I didn’t need to check to know he was dead. His neck had clearly been snapped by the impact.

I dismounted and hurried over to the horse. The beast was quivering, struggling against an invisible force. I felt another shiver of disquiet as I pulled at the ropes, undoing the bonds tying the princess to the saddle. They hadn’t cared about her comfort - she would have cramps soon, if she didn’t already - but they might have saved her life. The ropes had kept her from being thrown off the horse too.

The princess stared at us. Someone had stuffed a gag in her mouth, as well as everything else. I did my best to look reassuring as I cut her hands free, the best sign we could give that we were friendly, then helped her remove the gag. The bastards had nearly choked her. I looked at the dead men, wishing I could kill them again. They hadn’t had to treat her so roughly.

She coughed. Fallon offered her a canteen of water. I studied the princess with interest as she sipped the water, then started to massage her limbs. I’d expected, I was discomforted to realise, something akin to a Disney Princess, but Princess Helen was clearly out of her teenage years. I mentally tagged her as being in her late twenties or early thirties, with light chocolate brown skin, dark hair and a figure that was more solid than willowy. She looked tough, I thought. Her arms were strikingly muscular. I had the feeling she would have made a good soldier, if she’d been born in a better society. Warlord Cuthbert - or whoever had ordered the kidnapping - might have made a dreadful mistake.

“My thanks,” she said, finally. Her voice was stronger than I’d expected. “And who are you?”

I hesitated, unsure how to answer. “We’re from Damansara,” I said. It wasn’t as if she’d recognise any of us. The monarchy seemed to prefer to pretend the cities didn’t exist. “We heard you’d been kidnapped and came to rescue you.”

The princess looked surprised, although she hid it well. I guessed she’d been caught by surprise by the sheer speed of our advance too. Her kidnapper had probably assumed we’d be too busy fighting Warlord Aldred to do anything about him. And that Aldred would be in no state to protest either.

“You won the war?” Princess Helen sounded unconcerned, as if the matter was of no import to her, but I could tell it was an act. She was clearly far more intelligent than she wanted to let on. Being her father’s only child meant she couldn’t afford to pretend politic s were something that happened to other people. “What happened?”

I grinned as I motioned for one of the cavalry to loan the princess his horse. “It was very simple,” I said. We’d tell her the full story later, once we returned to the castle. “We came, we saw, we conquered.”

Chapter Thirty

Five days after the battle, we returned to Damansara.

The city greeted us with a massive party. They’d known we’d beaten the warlord before, in a handful of skirmishes, but now the threat from one warlord, at least, was gone for good. The warlord was dead, the remainder of his family put into permanent protective custody; there were other warlords, of course, but they were no longer feared. My men were the heroes of the hour, telling tall tales about how they’d single-handedly won the war when they weren’t dancing in the streets. The old stigma of being a soldier was gone. It was suddenly fashionable to be in the army, or to date a military man; my troops had no trouble, no trouble at all, finding willing partners. I had the feeling things were definitely going to change for the better.

It was strange, a day after we returned, to attend Harbin’s funeral. I stood in the crowd and watched as aristocrat after aristocrat paid tribute to Harbin as a great war leader and the hero who practically won the war on his own. It was hard to resist the temptation to stand up and point out that Harbin had been a coward and a rapist who’d only led a charge because his own people would have turned on him if he hadn’t, but I forced myself to keep my mouth shut. Harbin was dead. I’d shot him in the back of the head myself. And I’d gotten away with it. There didn’t even seem to be a hint of suspicion there was anything even slightly untoward about his death.

My eyes sought out Gayle, on the far side of the ceremony. Her face was a blank mask. Harbin had tried to rape her, only to have the whole affair swept under the carpet by heavy bribes and heavier political pressure. I wondered what she was thinking. Did she think Harbin had died well? Or did she think he hadn’t died soon enough? He would have cost her everything, from her reputation to her chance of making a good match, if he’d managed to actually go all the way. If I’d been in her shoes, I would have been plotting Harbin’s death well before some kindly soul put a bullet in him.

I frowned inwardly as I noticed Princess Helen standing next to Fallon, who’d been appointed as her semi-official guide and bodyguard. The princess had spent the last few days asking hundreds of questions, listening to the answers and then asking more questions. I’d met police and military interrogators who were less capable of spotting evasions and half-truths and pushing through them to get to the truth. Rupert had admitted, privately, that he found the princess rather intimidating. It didn’t really help that she occupied a vague spot between being a women, and thus socially inferior, and being a royal princess who was the only realistic heir to the throne. I’d looked up the genealogy. It made very little sense to me, but - as far as I could tell - Helen was the only clear heir. Everyone else ... if she died, or was put aside, there was going to be a major struggle for power. The warlords would take sides and the uneasy truce would be shattered beyond repair.

Right now, too many warlords are stunned by what we’ve done, I thought. But that will change soon enough.

The funeral continued, until it ended with a parade through the streets. I kept my face under tight control as I mentally listed all the things I needed to do, now Rupert and I had enough power and clout to get things done. Better sanitation, better water supplies ... I hoped I could raise newer regiments, armed with better weapons in a bid to stay ahead of the warlords. We didn’t have any hope of keeping them from using gunpowder weapons themselves, let alone magic. The secret had gotten loose well before my arrival. I’d just made it worse by proving gunpowder weapons weren’t just a fad. The genie could no longer be put back in the bottle.

I breathed a sigh of relief as Harbin’s corpse was cremated, then turned to walk back through the streets. The party would go on and on, as if the war was the end of war itself, but I couldn’t afford to believe that it really was the end. We’d beaten one warlord; the others would unite against us soon enough, once they had newer weapons of their own. Boris and his peers would have to help me send agents into their lands, armed with the secret of gunpowder and the simple truth the warlords could be beaten. We’d already started to recruit new soldiers from the liberated serfs. Some of them, I was sure, could be sent into enemy lands to undermine their rulers before they started to pose a threat to us.

A servant met me as I returned to city hall. “My Lord, your presence is requested in the meeting room.”

I nodded - I’d been forced to endure a number of meetings with the city fathers over the last two days, all of which had veered between insane optimism and deep despondency. They seemed unsure if they wanted to keep the captured lands, some seeing it as a chance to expand their own holdings at the warlord’s expense and others seeming convinced it would be needlessly provocative. I wasn’t surprised to note that none of them gave a damn about the serfs who worked the land. Given time, that would change. They’d have to realise the serfs were armed now, armed and dangerous. Trying to put them back into chains would merely plunge the city’s military into a nightmarish quagmire.

My heart twisted as I followed the servant up the stairs and into the meeting room. It was heavily warded, as secure as magic could make it. I wasn’t sure if the wards would keep out something as mundane as a tape recorder, let alone a smartphone, but it would be a long time before the locals had to worry about anything along those lines. I blinked in surprise as I saw Fallon, standing guard outside the door. She wouldn’t have done that for just anyone.

She smiled at me, charmingly. “Her Highness is waiting for you.”

I nodded. “Thank you.”

Princess Helen was seated in a chair, I noted as I entered the room. She stood and looked me up and down, then nodded to a slightly smaller chair. I sat, resting my hands on my lap as I studied her thoughtfully. The princess would never be taken for pretty, but she had a very definite presence. Her eyes flickered towards the far corner. Gayle sat there, her back to us. I guessed she was a chaperone. The princess’s reputation would suffer if she was alone with a man.

Which makes it harder for her to have any private discussions with anyone, I thought, sourly. They’re deliberately trying to hamper their future queen.

The princess looked me in the eye. “Where do you come from?”

I blinked at the question, then shrugged and trotted out the story I’d given Rupert only a few short months ago. A traveller from a far-distant land who’d become a mercenary, then a guardsmen, then finally entered Rupert’s service ... it wasn’t entirely untruthful, although I’d made sure to leave out all the interesting details. The princess didn’t seem impressed. She probably heard so much bullshit in her life that she was pretty good at detecting when someone was trying to mislead her. I wasn’t lying that badly, but I was fairly sure she wouldn’t see it that way.

She smiled, humourlessly. “And the truth?”

I found myself answering the question before my mind quite realised what I was doing. I told her about Earth, I told her about how I’d arrived in Johor, I told her about Jasmine and the Diddakoi and how I’d eventually found myself working as a guardsman before entering Rupert’s service. The words just spilled from my mouth ... I realised, too late, she’d used magic. A wave of anger shot through me, followed by fear. The protections I’d purchased from Carver and his ilk hadn’t kept her from enchanting me. If I got out of the meeting alive, I resolved, they were going to regret it.

It was hard to focus enough to pick my words properly. “You put a spell on me!”

The princess held up her hands. “Technically, I wove the spell into my words, but the effect is much the same,” she said. She sounded oddly relieved. “Gayle and I had a long chat about you.”

Her voice hardened suddenly. “They’re going to kill you.”

I blinked, one hand dropping to my pistol. “Who?”

“Lord Galley is leading the charge, but there’s a bunch of others.” Gayle turned to face us, her voice grim. “Some of them think you’re a rogue element, a mercenary who cannot be wholly trusted. Others think they don’t need you anymore. And others ... they think you have an unhealthy influence over Rupert. Father is particularly concerned about your relationship with him.”

Her lips twisted in distaste. “The rumours have been spreading for weeks,” she added, after a moment. “You don’t so much have his ear as you have your hand on another part of his anatomy.”

I shook my head in disbelief. They thought Rupert and I were lovers? The local attitude to homosexuality had always struck me as odd - being a top was fine, being a bottom was not - but I didn’t swing that way and, as far as I knew, nor did Rupert. There was no way to be entirely sure, of course. I hadn’t seen him spend much time in the brothels, but that proved nothing. He was rich and well-connected enough that he could probably get anything he wanted, just for the asking. He wouldn’t have any trouble finding someone who was discreet ...

“It doesn’t matter what they believe,” Princess Helen said, briskly. “All that matters is that they intend to get rid of you.”

“Ungrateful bastards,” I muttered, heedless of who might be listening. My mind started to race as I considered what to do. Could I round up my troops and launch a coup? I doubted it. The units that might be loyal to me personally were garrisoning the occupied lands ... there was no way I could get them back in time before the hammer fell. “What do they think I want to do?”

I shoved the question aside as I forced myself to think. I’d kept my salary in my office ... I could go back, get my hands on it, then grab a horse and run. I knew a lot more about the lay of the land now. I could try to head west, to see if I could find the other cross-dimensional traveller, or simply see if I could make a name for myself in another city. They’d know what I’d done for this city. They might take me on, now I’d proven myself. It would be a great deal easier if I didn’t have to explain every little detail to minds that had been ossified by disuse.

A thought struck me. “Does Rupert know?”

“As far as I know, no,” Gayle said. “There aren’t many people who know.”

I looked at her, sharply. “How do you know?”

Gayle met my eyes, an unusually forward gesture for a young aristocratic woman. “I have ears,” she said. “And so do some of my friends.”

“It’s astonishing what people will say in front of you, if they think you’re just a young woman with nothing between her ears,” Princess Helen said. Her voice was cold, but there was a hint of anger that shook me. The princess was hardly a teenager, yet there were still people who treated her as a child? “It is sometimes useful not to be taken seriously.”

I nodded, slowly. Gayle and her friends might come from rival houses, but ... it struck me, suddenly, that young women would have every interest in pooling information. They had so little power of their own that they needed information to make the best use of what they had, to gain some influence before it was too late. Their families might be rivals - Rupert and Harbin really had been rivals - but they still needed to work together. I felt a pang of pity. It wasn’t fair. Gayle and her peers could have been so much more.

“Thank you for the warning,” I said, finally. I briefly considered going straight to Rupert, but ... it would be pointless. It wouldn’t be fair to ask him to choose between his family and me. I thought he liked me - and I’d done my best to become a father or older brother figure to him - but he wouldn’t put his family ahead of me. “I ...”

“Come with me,” the princess said. “Let me hire you.”

I stared. “You want me to come with you?”

Princess Helen let out a sigh. “My father is a good man, but he is weak. He doesn’t have the military force to bring the warlords to heel. His forces simply cannot stand up to them in open combat, which means that - as long as the warlords work together - they can humiliate him any time they like. When I take the throne, it won’t get any better. They’ll keep blocking prospective husbands, which means I won’t have a heir of my own. That needs to change and, thanks to your victory here, I might have time to actually make things change.”

“And you think I can do that for you,” I said. I wasn’t blind to the simple fact she had interests of her own, but ... they meshed with mine. For the moment. It was difficult not to believe her warning about the city fathers, not when Gayle backed her up. I knew them well enough to believe they’d try to put a knife in me, as soon as I outlived my usefulness. “Do you think they’ll let me go?”

“I’m planning to depart tomorrow, before they start pushing for me to leave,” Princess Helen said. “You’ll join me in my carriage. I’ll tell them, once we’re on the way, that you have agreed to enter my service. Your former master will be compensated and the remainder of the city will breathe a sigh of relief. As far as they’ll know, you don’t have the slightest suspicion they’re going to kill you. They won’t think of you returning to extract revenge at some later date.”

“And if you want to,” Gayle added, “please remember that I helped you escape before it was too late.”

I looked at her, thoughtfully. “If you don’t mind me asking, how do you two know each other?”

“We exchange letters regularly,” Princess Helen said. She winked at me. “We don’t talk about anything secret or sensitive, not as far as any of the menfolk can tell. But we can develop relationships that come in handy from time to time.”

I frowned. I had a feeling that wasn’t the whole story. I also thought I wouldn’t never know the rest of it. But it didn’t matter.

“I want to invite a few people along, later,” I said. “Is that possible?”

“Fallon has already agreed to join my service,” Princess Helen said. “The others ... you might have to recruit them later, once you’re safely away from the city.”

I nodded, thinking hard. The princess was telling the truth. Probably. I knew Gayle well enough to understand she’d have some interest in repaying the debt she owed me, even if it meant risking a clash with her father or brother. And ... the city fathers really were a bunch of ungrateful bastards. I had no trouble at all believing they’d turn on me the moment they thought they didn’t need me any longer. Telling lies about my relationship with Rupert would probably make it harder for him to object, later. Bastards.

My mind churned. I didn’t have to go with her. There were other options. I had enough money to go almost anywhere I wanted, from Zangaria to Heart’s Eye. I could make a new life for myself there. And yet ... she wasn’t fool enough to use me, praise me and discard me. Probably. She’d need me - or someone like me - for the rest of her life. It wouldn’t be easy to take the throne, let alone rule effectively. She was right. She did need an army of her own.

“Very well.” I stood and bowed. “It will be my honour to enter your service.”

“And it will be mine to accept you,” Princess Helen said. “Together, we will change the world.”

End of Book One
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