Stuck in Magic CH14

30 Mar

Also on my new forum here – https://authornuttall.com/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=8

Comments very welcome.

Chapter Fourteen

I felt as though I was in hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This way, please,” the woman said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bribed them to talk, I translated, silently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned.  “And that’s a bad thing?”

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked.  “How so?”

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rupert looked unconvinced.  “Does that work?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swallowed.  “Yes, sir.”

6 Responses to “Stuck in Magic CH14”

  1. PhilippeO March 30, 2021 at 4:35 pm #

    four hundred thousand !!! even with magic that number too large for that tech level.

  2. AC Young March 30, 2021 at 6:10 pm #

    Out of the frying pan and into the fire…

    On the other hand if he hadn’t been such a good man earlier in the tale he would be in a much worse situation now. And if he hadn’t had a conscience he wouldn’t have tried to rescue the slaves and so wouldn’t be in this mess at all – so no good deed going unpunished comes to mind as well.

    I wonder, would he be familiar with the principle of firing in ranks? (Historically early firearms had the same problem as crossbows, while they were powerful and it was easy to train users, it took a long time to reload. Some genius figured out that if you divided the infantry into ranks, each rank firing in sequence, you could reduce the delay between volleys significantly.)

    • Kristophr April 1, 2021 at 4:34 am #

      Add pikemen to offset training issues. once trained and equiped with bayonets, ditch the pikes.

    • George Phillies April 10, 2021 at 2:42 pm #

      The alternative to fire in ranks is fire by platoons. It allows the officers and NCOs to keep better control of their men. Yes it was apparently as good as fire by ranks.

  3. Kristophr April 1, 2021 at 4:30 am #

    Magic can keep the infection rate down. Add proper sanitation, and the city can support even more.

  4. Kristophr April 1, 2021 at 4:33 am #

    You can add pikemen to offset slow loading times. Once the troops are trained shoot in ranks, and have bayonets, you can ditch the pikes.

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