Stuck in Magic 17

13 Apr

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Chapter Seventeen

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned.  “How can you be sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harbin blinked.  “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rupert made a face.  “What can I do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think we can help each other,” I told him, as I started to walk.  He fell into step beside me, a sign he considered me an equal.  I decided to roll with it.  “Here is what I want you to do …”

3 Responses to “Stuck in Magic 17”

  1. Jared April 13, 2021 at 11:13 am #

    So exciting!!! I’m really looking forward to the next installment!

  2. DJ April 15, 2021 at 12:11 am #

    I’m looking forward to buying the book.

  3. Tom Robertson May 1, 2021 at 12:14 am #

    Eliot would probably know about the American civil War Springfield rifle that used the minie ball. An accurate rifle still muzzle loader. Just a thought.

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