Archive | March, 2023

Snippet – The Firelighters (A Learning Experience)

27 Mar


It was the height of ironies, Admiral Mongo Stuart reflected as he studied the holographic chart of the sector, that he was both one of the most powerful humans in the known universe and little better than a scavenger warlord, keeping his fleet together with spit and baling wire while crawling around the edge of civilised space, hoping and praying the Galactics didn’t decide to eradicate him.  The Solar Union was the most powerful human state in history, so independent from the planet it had left behind that it did not need to hold its nose and compromise its principles when dealing with tyrannical governments, and yet Mongo had no illusions about the outcome if the Galactics rediscovered Sol before the Solar Union was ready to meet them.  It was … galling.

He studied the chart without ever really seeing it, lost in his reminiscences.  It had been fifteen years since he and his friends had been kidnapped by maundering aliens, fifteen years since they’d fought back and captured the alien starship for themselves, fifteen years since they’d decided to take the ship and use it to found their own civilisation, rather than handing it – and the keys to absolute power – to a federal government none of them trusted and most of them hated.  It had been a gamble, all the more so when they’d realised their kidnappers were little more than pirates and scavengers, but they’d pulled it off.  The Solar Union was growing with every passing year, a new society taking shape outside the gravity well, beyond the reach of Earth’s failing governments.  It wasn’t perfect – Mongo was honest enough to admit the system had flaws – but it worked.  There were boundless opportunities for those prepared to work for them.  The human race was enjoying a renaissance in everything from science to popular entertainment.

But it could be lost very quickly, if the Galactics came calling.

Mongo considered himself a realist.  The Solar Union had more firepower, and more freedom of action, than any previous government, but the military he commanded was puny compared to the immense fleets the Galactics could dispatch to trouble spots, fleets so large they outmassed every wet-navy fleet that had ever existed.  The Solar Navy was tough – and the military had mined hundreds of mil-SF books for tactics that could be deployed against stodgy unimaginative enemies, yet the Galactics could soak up losses of a thousand-to-one and still come out ahead.  The key to humanity’s safety, in a universe full of predators, was a strong military, but there were limits to how fast the navy could expand.  And there were other problems.

His terminal bleeped.  “Sir,” his eAssistant said.  “Commander Singh has arrived.”

Mongo nodded, curtly.  “Show him in.”

The hatch opened, revealing a young-looking man in a simple spacer tunic.  Mongo pointed to a chair, studying the man thoughtfully.  Most spooks were prone to overestimating their own intelligence, and their ability to shape events on the other side of the world, but Singh was old enough to understand his own limitations.  He had also spent more time than most in alien company, although Mongo knew that didn’t always translate into understanding.  Aliens were very alien and yet their thought processes were just close enough to humanity’s that it was easy to be surprised, when one was blindsided by a piece of alien logic.  The xenospecialists insisted that any species that clambered out of the gravity well had to share a certain understanding of how the universe worked, perhaps even a certain level of intelligence.  Mongo wasn’t so sure.  He’d seen enough to know two different intelligent races could follow entirely different chains of reasoning to arrive at the same conclusion.

But of course everyone has to follow the Tokomak, he thought.  The unquestioned masters of the known galaxy had put their stamp on everything, from interstellar trade and communications to outright warfare.  They’d set the rules while carefully ensuring they had loopholes to act against their own rules, without openly breaking them.  Mongo suspected the other Galactics resented the hell out of it, although they didn’t seem inclined to open resistance and revolt.  We’re damn lucky the Tokomak are too stagnant to take advantage of their own system.

He met Singh’s eyes.  “I read your proposal,” he said.  “Do you think we have a reasonable chance of pulling it off?”

The spook looked back at him.  “Yes, sir,” he said, simply.  “We may never get a better chance.”

Mongo kept his face impassive through long practice.  Singh might have come up with the proposal, and convinced himself it could be done, but he wasn’t the one who would be carrying it out.  Mongo would have assigned him to the mission, if he hadn’t thought the spook would probably be a burden on his teammates.  And yet … he keyed his terminal, bringing up the proposal and running his eye down it to hit the high points.  There were too many question marks for his peace of mind, too many parts of the proposal that would have to be put together on the fly, too many points that might make the entire concept completely unworkable.  Singh, to his credit, hadn’t tried to hide the known unknowns when he’d submitted the proposal.  But it was the things they didn’t know that could bite them.

“No,” he said, finally.  “We might not.”

The risk was considerable.  There were humans, the descendents of alien abductees, living amongst the Galactics.  Soldiers, mercenaries … there was no reason to think his team, if it was caught in the act, would be traced back to Sol.  Force Recon teams were carefully outfitted to conceal their origins, with modified GalTech weapons and equipment rather than anything designed and built on Earth.  And yet … Mongo had been a sailor long enough to know that anything that could go wrong probably would, often at the worst possible time.  If their precautions proved insufficient, the entire galaxy would land on their heads.

No, he thought.  It’ll be little more than a punitive expedition.

“We need it, sir,” Singh said.  “A tech raid may be our only hope.”

Mongo nodded, irritated.  He already knew it.  There were limits to how far humanity could unlock the secrets of GalTech, limits to how much they could reverse-engineer and put into production for themselves.  They dared not let themselves become dependent on interstellar corporations, supplying weapons and starships the human race couldn’t duplicate for itself.  It would give them far too much influence over everything humanity did, if not an absolute veto.  Sure, the corporations might insist there were no hidden surprises – command codes – hidden within their products, but Mongo didn’t believe it.  And his staff didn’t have the expertise to be sure.

He snorted.  He’d always mocked senior officers – and the federal government – for spending days, weeks or months trying to come to a decision everyone involved had known was inevitable from the start.  It had been deeply frustrating as a young officer, watching priceless opportunities slip past because his political masters – uniformed or not – insisted on debating the issue, or consulting the lawyers, or pontificating on something that had nothing to do with the problem at hand.  And now he was doing the same thing, torn between hope for the future and fear of what could happen if the mission went spectacularly wrong.  The sheer scope for utter disaster was mesmerising.

But we need that tech raid, he thought.  Or we risk disaster anyway.

He didn’t need to look at the starchart to know the truth.  Sol was on the very edge of explored space, hundreds of light years from the nearest major alien settlement and thousands of light years from the heart of interstellar civilisation.  They’d been incredibly lucky that the waves of interstellar expansion had burnt out before they reached Earth, which hadn’t stopped a handful of aliens visiting the planet a few hundred years ago and kidnapping enough humans to form a breeding population, but it was just a matter of time before someone more dangerous than a scavenger race returned to Sol.  Mongo had seen the projections.  They might be based on incomplete data, but even the most optimistic estimates suggested they had less than a century before they were rediscovered.  And then …

If we’re lucky, we’ll wind up like the Indians under the British Raj, he thought.  And if we’re unlucky, we’ll be treated like the Native Americans instead.

His lips quirked.  Put that way, the decision was easy.

“We’ll take the risk,” he said.  “I take it you have the briefing notes already prepared?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good,” Mongo said.  “Dismissed.”

He watched the younger man leave, then keyed his terminal.  “Contact Force Recon Command,” he ordered.  “I want the Firelighters to report here as soon as possible.”

“Aye, sir.”

Chapter One

The city was devastated.

Captain Riley Richardson kept his eyes open as the team passed through the first checkpoint, their forged paperwork – and a small bribe – more than enough to get them through without the kind of checks that would reveal their identity.  The guards were jumpy, their eyes flickering from side to side as if they couldn’t decide if they were more scared of the rebel factions or their own leaders.  Iran had been convulsed by civil war for the last five years, the fighting surging back and forth in a manner that was reminiscent of the First World War, and any hope of a peaceful settlement had been lost long ago.  Riley was all too sure that when – if – the rebels broke through the network of trenches, antitank traps and fortified buildings, there would be a bloody slaughter.  The defenders would be lucky if they managed to escape the city in time.

He remained wary as they drove down the street.  The first bloody uprising had shattered the city.  The rebel bombings – and terrorist raids – had only made it worse, inflicting horrendous misery on the population for little or no tactical purpose.  The city’s masters were the worst of all, conscripting every able-bodied man into the defence forces and forcing them to work hard, keeping them from thinking about overthrowing their masters and trying to surrender to the advancing rebels.  A handful of corpses dangled from ropes, left to rot, as a grim reminder of just what would happen to anyone fool enough to raise a hand to the government’s officials.  Riley had seen some horrible sights in his time – he’d been a soldier for nearly fifty years – and yet, there was something about the city that chilled him to the bone.  It felt dead.

“No women on the streets,” Sarah Wilde subvocalised.  She was dressed as a local man, like the rest of the team.  No one had bothered to check closely and even if they had, they wouldn’t notice anything odd about the team unless they had access to GalTech scanners.  “No children either.”

Riley nodded.  No women on the streets was almost always a bad sign.  Civil wars – and war of religion – were always harder on the women, who were left to try to feed their children and pray for their menfolk to return safety from the front.  The local government wasn’t even trying to help them, as far as he could tell, although there was little they could practically do.  The rebel lines had isolated the city, making it impossible to bring in food from the countryside.  It was only a matter of time until the city starved to death – or was forced to surrender.  He shuddered to think about how many people would die in the next few months. 

“They’re still jamming us,” Charles Isabel put in.  “They know we’re coming.”

“They know we’d do something,” Riley agreed.  “Do they want a fight?”

He felt his expression darken as they made their way towards the centre of the city.  The Solar Union had made it very clear, time and time again, that anyone who wanted to immigrate was welcome – and any terrestrial government that tried to stop them would be severely punished.  It was astonishing how reasonable some governments had become when they’d realised their most productive citizens would leave, if they weren’t well-treated; it was astonishing, too, that other governments thought they could get away with keeping their people from emigrating.  Riley couldn’t blame anyone in the city for wanting out, even if it meant leaving the old world behind and flying into outer space.  Hell, the local government should have been delighted.  There would have been fewer mouths to feed.

“Maybe they want a heroic death,” Charles suggested.  “Or they think the jamming will keep us from intervening.”

Riley shrugged.  The jamming would prevent the Solar Union from teleporting the emigrants out of the city, along with the assholes keeping them prisoner, but it hardly kept his fellows from dropping a team of armoured soldiers into the city from orbit or simply sneaking through the trenches and into the city itself.  Perhaps they thought they could use the would-be emigrants as human shields, although that would be foolish.  If there was one thing Riley and his peers had learnt, in their careers, it was that allowing human shields to deter them would merely ensure all their enemies took and used human shields.  He was quite happy to take risks to capture the terrorists, just to make sure they were hanged for breaking the rules of war.  They couldn’t break the rules openly, then try to claim their protection.

“Deploy the drones,” he ordered.

“On it,” Sally said.  “Interlinking relay systems coming online … now.”

“Good,” Riley said.  The enemy jamming was alarmingly good, for something that had been patched together from pre-Contact tech, but the microscopic drones were designed to serve as tiny relay stations as well as sensor platforms.  Their images were patchy, and some parts of the city were worryingly opaque, yet it was far better than nothing.  Combined with the drones orbiting high overhead, it was unlikely anything could sneak up on them.  “Let me know the moment you find the hostages.”

He took a breath and checked the live feed from the drones as they rounded a corner and headed towards the government complex.  The enemy hadn’t realised it – he assumed – but their jamming was so powerful it was easy to pick out the source.  It would be easy, too, to drop a KEW on it from orbit, although that would take out the entire complex and most of its inhabitants.  He’d considered using a smart missile, but even that would put the hostages lives at risk.  Besides, it would be a great deal more satisfying to breeze through the front gate and lay waste to the complex.

Don’t get cocky, he reminded himself, firmly.  Just because their tech is primitive doesn’t mean they’re dumb.

“We won’t get through the gate,” Charles said, curtly.  “The guards are being too careful.”

Riley watched the guards for a long moment, then nodded in agreement.  The guards looked like irregulars, or terrorists, but they were checking papers and searching everyone who wanted to enter the complex with a professionalism he would have admired if they hadn’t been on the wrong side.  He wouldn’t have been surprised to discover they had a list of authorised visitors too, like high security sites in the west.  Anyone not on the list would be – at best – detained.  Here, with the city bracing itself for rebel attack, it was likely that anyone they caught would be hanged without trial.  They didn’t have the time for interrogation.

“You know the plan,” he said, his implants updating as more and more data flowed in from the drones.  “When I give the word, click your forcefields on and charge.”

Charles snickered.  “Perhaps we shouldn’t bother with the jamming,” he said.  “We can do the mission ourselves.”

Riley smiled, then shook his head.  “They’ll bring in reinforcements the moment they realise they’re under attack,” he said dryly, although he knew perfectly well the team already knew it.  They hadn’t had much time to plan the operation, but they were experienced professionals.  “We’ll need reinforcements ourselves.”

He braced himself as they drove up to the gatehouse.  It was admirably secure.  The compound walls had been enhanced with Hesco bastions, protecting the defenders from IEDs and VBIEDs; the bunkers, set further into the complex, covered the gatehouse with enough firepower to deter any local attacker.  The complex itself was studded with murder holes – he couldn’t help thinking that whoever had cut them had done it entirely at random – and the roof covered with antiaircraft weapons, including one he was sure dated back to the Second World War.  It wasn’t as laughable as it looked.  The guns had been surprisingly good at killing tanks, back in their day, and rebel technicals had even less armour than early tanks and armoured cars.  They might just be more useful than anyone thought. 

“Five seconds,” he subvocalised.  Microbursts flickered between the team, designating targets.  The defenders wouldn’t have a chance to realise they were under attack before it was too late.  He smiled, tightly, as the guards approached them.  “Go!”

He drew his pistol, his enhanced arm moving inhumanly fast, and started to fire, cutting down the guards before they could react.  The rest of the team fired at the same moment, Charles and Sally pouring superhot plasma into the bunkers while Terry and Josh opened fire on the rooftop defences.  Something exploded, pieces of debris crashing down … Riley smirked as he jumped out of the jeep, activated his force shield and ran towards the jamming equipment, Sally right behind him.  A defender appeared out of nowhere, pointed his AK-47 in Riley’s direction and opened fire.  The bullets hit the force shield and harmlessly bounced off, ricocheting in all directions.  Riley shot the man and kept going, even as the defenders rushed to the murder holes and opened fire.  It felt as if they were panicking.

Long may they stay that way, Riley thought, darkly.  He kept a wary eye on the live feed from the drones as they closed on the walls.  The force shields were good, but an enemy that refused to panic could slow the team, even hit them hard enough to break the shields – directly or indirectly – and kill them.  We have to move fast, without being slowed down.

The ground heaved.  He glanced back, just in time to see a pair of fireballs rising in the distance.  The orbiting drones, watching for enemy movements, had hit targets … hopefully, that would slow the enemy reaction long enough for the team to complete its mission and withdraw.  He turned back to the wall, shoved a molecular disintegrator against it, and hit the switch.  The wall disintegrated.  The men inside spun around, too late.  He switched his weapon to stun and opened fire, the defenders twitching painfully as they fell.  They’d have headaches later, but at least they’d be alive.

“This way,” Sally said.  The jamming was so strong it was interfering with the microscope drones.  “I think …”

She kicked a door with enhanced strength.  It shattered, revealing a hodgepodge of outdated computer and communications technology and a young man who gaped at them in horror, then threw up his hands.  Riley stunned him anyway, just to be sure.  The young man – he was barely out of his teens – looked like a tech nerd, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be dangerous.  Too many terrorists had taken to modern social media like ducks to water, openly broadcasting their vile deeds to the world while sneakily passing messages from cell to cell in codes that defied the algorithms.  Riley designated the young man for pick-up – if he had been conscripted, he would be grateful – and stepped back to watch the door as Sally went to work.  She was an expert at dealing with hybrid tech.

“Someone’s been telling tales,” Sally commented, curtly.  “Lots of layered shit here …”

Riley nodded.  Governments the world over had been working, desperately, to come up with ways to block teleport signals and, to be fair, they’d largely succeeded.  He wondered, idly, who’d shared the tech with the locals, although the basic concept was simple enough anyone could put it into practice.  Teleport signals were incredibly complex and there were limits to how far teleport systems could compensate before the signal was too badly corrupted to be reconstituted.  Teleporting was normally perfectly safe, but using teleporters in a combat zone was asking for trouble.

“Too primitive to infiltrate,” Sally added, after a moment.  “Lucky, we can just cut the wires.”

Riley grinned.  “Do it.”

He checked in with the rest of the team as the jamming faded away.  The enemy was trying to get organised, local forces storming the walls with the clear intention of trapping the team inside the complex.  They didn’t seem to care about the fact they’d also be trapping their leadership, unless someone on the outside was hoping to take advantage of the chaos to launch a coup.  It would be a poisoned chalice, if they succeeded, but the lure of absolute power – even over a besieged city – was hard to resist.  The ground heaved as the drones rained death on the surrounding streets, clearing the way for the reinforcements.  New icons flashed up in front of his eyes as the first marines started to teleport into the city.

“They won’t be able to get the jammers up again in a hurry,” Sally said.  She’d done more than just pull the plug.  Once the power was off, she’d activated her lancers and melted half the outdated junk.  “Let’s go.”

Riley nodded and led the way out of the room at a brisk clip.  The live feed from the drones was updating rapidly, now the jamming was gone, turning the fog of war into a distant memory.  The surviving defenders were scattered, a handful running for their lives … straight into the armoured marines taking position outside the complex.  The remainder were heading for the prisoner barracks.  Riley gritted his teeth as he picked up speed, barely noticing an armed man coming at him.  He stunned the man on automatic and darted past him before the unconscious body hit the ground.  The stairs would have made a pretty good chokepoint, if the defenders had been thinking clearly, but they hadn’t even tried to make a stand.  He threw a stun grenade down the stairs anyway, just to be sure, and followed, gritting his teeth as blue light flared below him.  His hair threatened to stand on end.  He’d felt the edge of the detonation even through the shield.

“In there,” Sally said, as the ground heaved again.  Dust fell from the roof.  “Quickly.”

Riley crashed through the door, ready for anything.  The prisoners stared at him in numb shock.  Women, children … he hoped the grown men had been conscripted, rather than simply hanged, but he feared the worst.  The oldest boy he could see looked to be about twelve, if that.  His teeth clenched.  It wasn’t the first time someone had conscripted child soldiers, but it never failed to shock him.  It was an atrocity if ever there was one.

“Hold still,” he snapped.  “Don’t move!”

He triggered the teleport scanner.  The system ran a series of checks, making sure the local jamming remained down, then linked into the drones and activated the orbiting teleporter.  The prisoners froze, their eyes wide with horror as their bodies dissolved into white light.  They’d be reconstituted on the orbital platform, where medics would tend to their wounds and provide what reassurance they could.  He felt a flicker of sympathy.  Religious authorities all over the world were still trying to decide if teleporting was no better than suicide, killing the original person and then creating a duplicate that thought it was the original.  The Galactics had proof the teleporter didn’t do anything of the sort – and apparently teleport duplicates were the stuff of science-fantasy – but the explanation was too complex for anyone who didn’t have a degree in quantum physics.  Privately, there were times Riley wondered if the Galactics hadn’t simply cooked up a tissue of lies to keep the younger races from thinking about it.

“Sir,” Charles said.  “We have the leaders.”

“Teleport them into custody,” Riley ordered.  The city’s masters would stand trial for their crimes.  If they were found guilty, and he couldn’t imagine any other outcome, they’d either be sent to a detention asteroid or executed.  They probably weren’t the sort of criminals who could pay their debt to society through indentured labour or military service.  “Josh?”

“We swept the lower levels,” Josh reported.  “Got a handful of prisoners and a shitload of records.”

“Take them all,” Riley said.  The records might be useful.  Who knew?  If nothing else, they’d be informative when historians came to write the history of the civil war.  He put the thought aside as another explosion shook the ground.  The live feed from the drones revealed the rebel forces, advancing against the trenches as they scented weakness.  “I think we’ve outstayed our welcome.”

“Looks like it,” Charles agreed.  “I don’t want to say we’re surrounded, but we’re being fired on from all sides.”

Riley nodded.  “We’re done here,” he said, keying his communicator.  “Bring us home.”

He closed his eyes, his skin itching as the teleporter took hold of him.  The techs swore blind he was imagining it, but his imagination had always been very powerful.  His body staggered, slightly, his eyes snapping open as the teleporter let go.  It had been fifteen years since he’d joined the Solar Navy, fifteen years since he’d first used a teleporter, yet he’d never got used to it.  The sensation was too disorientating, even for him.

“Sir,” Captain Yu said.  “The remainder of the team and reinforcements are being pulled out now.”

“Very good.”  Riley sighed inwardly as the adrenaline started to wear off.  There would be paperwork.  Lots and lots of paperwork.  The Solar Union had less than the United States Navy, but … he shook his head.  There had to be at least some organisation or the results would be absolute chaos.  “We came, we saw, we kicked ass.”

And it was a walkover because they weren’t prepared for us, he reminded himself, sharply.  The locals hadn’t understood the full potential of GalTech.  The Galactics did.  Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before the Solar Union and the Galactics came to blows and then …  The next engagement will be harder.

“Yes, sir,” Yu agreed.  “You have a message from Command.  You have one day’s planetside leave, if you wish it, then you are ordered to return to base.  I think they have something in mind for you.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Riley said.  He hadn’t expected any leave.  The fact they were being given a day off, with full access to the teleporters, was worrying.  It suggested they were being tapped for something very dangerous … he snorted at himself.  If he’d wanted a nice risk-free life, he would have become an accountant or a doctor or something – anything – other than a soldier.  “I’ll pass the word to the team, then go planetside.”

Yu made a face.  “I wouldn’t go down there on a bet,” he said.  “It isn’t the world we grew up in.  Not anymore.”

“No,” Riley agreed.  The younger generation had broken all ties to their homeworld.  He was too old to cut the links completely.  “But I have family down there.”

Yet More Updates …

24 Mar

It’s been a rough few weeks.

To summarise a long story, I had my sinus operation four weeks ago, my wife had a medical procedure of her own, my father had to go to hospital too and, unfortunately, my wife and I both got a rather nasty cold. The good news is that, thanks to the operation, I wasn’t rendered completely useless during that period. The bad news is that it was still pretty unpleasant.

After much delays, I have finally completed the first draft of The Demon’s Design. The book requires the normal editing, as well as some more detailed work, but I will get to that as soon as possible. The reaction from the beta readers was largely positive. I have also completed six chapters of Queenmaker, which are currently on my blog – feel free to read them and offer comments at any moment. However, some of my other projects have been delayed. I completed a sports themed and tutoring themed pair of novellas for Fantastic Schools, but the planned general novella has been delayed. Hopefully, I should be to get to it after the next novel – The Firelighters (A Learning Experience).

The other piece of good news is that I will be collecting the early Schooled in Magic novellas into a single collection, and adding a new and exclusive novella, now they’ve had their year as part of the Fantastic Schools collection. As there is no need for this collection to be school-themed, it can be a story exploring other aspects of the nameless word. What would like to see?

For example, there’s the story of what happened to Cat when he left Emily in Cursed and went hunting for Jacqui.  There’s a story of a young man who runs away from home to join the army, and/or a mercenary band. There are stories of settlements on the far side of the mountains, now the war is over, or stories of new technology changing the world (for better or worse). Or the story of a young woman who becomes a blademaster and the trials she faces she learn to draw her sword for the first time.

Please let me know which one you want to see and I will find out if I can develop the idea into a proper story.

And a very big THANK YOU to everyone who wished me a happy birthday yesterday.


Queenmaker 14-15

23 Mar

Chapter Fourteen

I’d expected, I admitted to myself, a relatively modern mining complex.  I was wrong.

The scene before me, half-shrouded in darkness, was an ecological nightmare.  A giant pit, reaching down into the bowels of the world; a series of entrances to deeper tunnels, all looking as if one good explosion would collapse the openings and doom whoever was below to a slow and painful death.  Slaves, their feet shackled, moved back and forth, carrying ore from the mines to the buildings near us.  They looked surprisingly healthy, for men who had to be breathing in dust and God alone knew what else.  I guessed they’d been taken from nearby settlements and towns – perhaps convicted of some crime, perhaps snatched off the streets – and sent to die.  A handful of men looked much older, staggering along as though they were on their last legs.  I feared they wouldn’t live to see next week.

“Fuck,” Horst breathed.

I swept my gaze over the mining complex.  A handful of buildings looked surprisingly new; others looked old, as if they’d been on the verge of being abandoned before the miners found new seams of gold.  Houdon had talked down the gold mine as much as possible, while quietly developing the seams in hopes of buying their independence; Cuthbert, damn the man, hadn’t bothered with a pretence of legality when he’d swept in and taken the mine for himself.  It was possible a sudden influx of gold would ruin him, in the long term, but I doubted it would happen in my lifetime.  It had taken several decades for Spain to discover the downsides of vast wealthy from the Americas – indeed, I wasn’t sure they’d ever realised it at all.  And Cuthbert’s new wealth wasn’t anything like on such a scale.

“Not many defences,” I noted.  There were a handful of guards on duty – they looked more like thugs than elite soldiers – and I guessed there were more hiding out of sight, but the defences were curiously weak.  Or perhaps not.  There were enough men in view to keep the slaves under control and drive off bandits and raiders, just not enough to stand off a full-scale assault.  If I’d been in charge, I’d have built far tougher defences.  “I wonder why.”

“We are quite some distance from Damansara,” Horst pointed out.  “The only troops that would normally come so far are cavalry and the typical cavalry unit couldn’t break through the defences.  Anything bigger would be easy to spot well before it reached the mine.”

“And they’d risk destroying the mine,” Fallon added.  “Right?”

I shrugged.  There was no way we could destroy the seams of gold, but it would be easy enough to tear down the buildings, collapse the tunnels and a handful of other things that would delay any attempts to reopen the mine.  Give us a week or two and we could have the entire complex booby-trapped, perhaps even poisoned to the point they’d give it up as a bad job … no, that wasn’t going to happen.  The gold called to them like shit called to flies.  I didn’t care that much about the mine – it made very little difference, in the short term, who held it – but both Cuthbert and Houdon did.  They’d reclaim the mine as soon as possible.  I knew it.

In fact, I was counting on it.

“They’ve got a gunpowder mill too,” Horst added.  “We’ll have to be careful.”

I felt a flicker of guilt, although it hadn’t been me who’d introduced gunpowder.  That had been the mysterious Emily …  Gunpowder wasn’t the best mining explosive in the world, but it was so much better than picks and shovels  … everyone was delighted, apart from the slaves and who gave a damn about them?  I did.  My ancestors demanded I free the slaves and I intended to do just that, then give them the tools they needed to keep their freedom.  And then …

“Deploy your men,” I ordered.  The defenders thought they could stand off a cavalry unit.  No cavalry commander in his right mind would try to charge the walls – and his horses would balk if he did.  But the defenders weren’t ready for mounted infantry, with rifles and grenades and mortars and a bunch of other surprises.  “You know what to do.”

Horst nodded.  “You stay here, sir,” he said.  “We can handle it.”

I opened my mouth to protest, then sighed inwardly and closed it.  I’d promised Horst I’d make a soldier out of him and it looked like I’d succeeded, to the point he was willing to tell me to stay behind instead of risking my neck.  It was galling to think I couldn’t go into battle now, even though I’d proved myself time and time again.  But Horst was right.  Losing him would be bad.  Losing me would be disastrous.  I’d done what I could to build up an officer cadre, men who considered war a profession rather than the sport of kings and warlords, but I had no illusions.  The army was in its infancy.  It would be all too easy to revert to bad habits if it lost me. 

Fallon touched my arm.  “He’ll be fine,” she said.  “He knows what he’s doing.”

I nodded and forced myself to watch as the infantry dismounted, drew their weapons and advanced in rough order, their movements displaying the squeamish determination of largely-untried men.   Some had fought before, in skirmishes and patrols and even as part of the counter-coup, but far too many were untried.  We’d done what we could to prepare them – and we’d worked hard to develop their reputation – but this was their first major test as an offensive unit.  I hoped the enemy hadn’t worked out what the men were trained to do.  If they had …

My lips quirked.  Cavalry had been the unquestioned kings of the mobile battlefield, but they couldn’t take cities or even – as much as they might wish to deny it – win battles on their own.  Infantry could and did take cities, but they marched so slowly by local standards that any sort of blitzkrieg was unthinkable.  The warlord would have had to be blind – and all his supporters would have to be blind to – to miss me marching an army towards the mine.  Figuring out my target would be as easy as drawing a line on the map.  But the mounted infantry moved so fast I could get inside the enemy decision loop and strike the target before it was too late.

Horst led his men from the front, his riflemen raking the makeshift walls with bullets – most of which missed, I was sure, although it didn’t matter as long as the enemy were forced to keep their heads down – while his sappers hit the wall itself.  The explosion punched a hole large enough to take two or three tanks – the cynical side of my mind noted that if I’d had a real tank I could just have driven right through the walls – and the men flowed forward, cheering as they plunged into the compounded.  The mortars opened fire a moment later, dropping shells on the enemy barracks.  I snorted in cold amusement.  They really shouldn’t have made it so easy to tell the difference between the military barracks and the slave compounds.

I raised my gaze.  Most of the visible slaves, thankfully, had hit the deck.  A handful were attacking their overseers, even though they were unarmed.  The overseers themselves were either trying to retreat or throwing down their weapons, begging for mercy as my men secured the pit.  They didn’t seem to be having much luck.  The former slaves were tearing them apart.  I couldn’t blame them.  If I’d been trapped in a slave camp and forced to work till I dropped dead, I’d have wanted a little revenge too.

The shooting died away.  The handful of surviving overseers were taken into custody, save for two who managed to get over the far wall and vanished into the darkness.  I hoped they had the sense to flee straight to the city, rather than wandering aimlessly through the countryside.  The locals would kill the bastards, the moment they realised who and what they were.  But then, who knew how Cuthbert would treat them?  Shooting the bearer of bad news was a bad idea, yet there were aristocrats who thought it was a very good idea indeed.

Horst returned, looking pleased with himself.  “Sir, the mine is ours,” he said.  “We have the manager in custody.”

I nodded.  “Good work,” I said.  I’d make sure to praise all the mounted infantry as I passed and, when I got back home, have bards hired to write songs honouring their deeds.  It sounded absurd, to a modern ear, but it worked.  “Did you take the paperwork too?”

“Yes, sir,” Horst said.  “They didn’t even try to destroy it.”

“They didn’t know we were coming,” I agreed.  “Let’s see what we have …”

The air seemed to grow thick with dust as we made our way through the gash in the walls and into the compound.  I found myself coughing and wheezing as the wind shifted, blowing dust into my eyes and a ghastly stench into my nostrils.  The prisoners, lying on the ground, stared at me fearfully; the slaves, the former slaves, looked as if they didn’t know if I were a liberator or just another slavemaster, coming to take them for my own.  They were a curious lot, part of my mind noted.  They didn’t look like common criminals who’d been sentenced to die.  I put the thought aside as we walked into the main building.  The air wasn’t much better indoors.

“Check the paperwork,” I told Fallon.  She had grown up a merchant’s daughter.  She’d probably be better at assessing the documents than anyone else.  “I’ll see you in a moment.”


I nodded as Horst showed me into the manager’s office.  The manager was tied to a chair, a nasty bruise clearly visible on one cheek.  I guessed he’d mouthed off to the soldiers and been put firmly in his place, something that would have been a court martial offense back home but not here.  He looked surprisingly delicate, for someone who ran a slave camp, but … I snorted.  The odds were good he was an aristocrat born and bred.

“This is an outrage,” he protested, when he saw me.  “This is …”

“This mine is now in my hands,” I told him, bluntly.  “If you cooperate, you will be returned to your master.  If not, you will be put to work in the mines you used to run.”

I met his eyes.  “Who are the slaves?”

“Men from Houdon,” he said.  I couldn’t tell if he was trying to cooperate or if he was just too scared to think clearly.  “They’re here to keep them from causing trouble.”

I glanced at Horst.  “Get the slaves unshackled, then find the leader,” I ordered.  “I need to talk to him.”

The manager started to protest.  I cut him off again.  “Tell me about the mine,” I said.  “What do you do here?”

I kept a sharp eye on him as he stammered a response.  The best question to ask, when you’re interrogating someone, is the one to which you already know the answer.  I knew enough about the mine, and I could fill in enough of the blanks, to be fairly sure I could pick out a lie, if he dared try to lie to me.  He didn’t seem anything like clear-thinking enough to come up with anything resembling a lie, not even an understatement … he babbled on and on, boasting about how much gold they’d taken from the ground and shipped north to the warlord’s city, enough money to fund a giant army.  I rolled my eyes as the babbling became a little more incoherent.  Cuthbert would be discovering the joys of inflation soon, if he wasn’t already.  An increase in his gold reserves would probably mean an increase in prices too.

“Right,” I said, finally.  The manager probably wasn’t worth much as a hostage, but who knew?  I was reluctant to give men their parole and send them home to collect their ransom money – apparently, this was honoured more often than I would expect – but no one would think twice if I sent the manager home.  It didn’t matter, not to me, if the ransom was paid or not.  All that mattered was that word of our presence would reach his master.  “How much do you think you’re worth?”

He paled, his lips working silently for a long moment.  I suspected that was a bad sign.  There was no proper currency in the kingdom, despite my best efforts, and … he might be the mine’s manager, but I doubted he was that important.  It wasn’t a post that could be given to someone with a power base of their own, no matter what oaths he swore; the gold would, I suspected, provide an irresistible temptation.  And yet, if the manager was a close relative of the warlord himself …

“He’ll pay for me,” the manager stammered, finally.  “He’ll pay … ten gold bars.”

I had to fight to keep the scorn and disbelief off my face.  Gold bars were the closest thing the kingdom had to a stable currency – the dimensions of the bars, and their content, was the one thing everyone agreed on – but ten gold bars for him?  That was a joke … it had to be.  Unless the manager was a very close relative of the warlord … no, that wasn’t likely.  If he was, he would have told me at once.  What better way to ensure he survived long enough to be used as a bargaining chip?

“Ten gold bars,” I said, doing my best impression of a stupid greenie lieutenant who’d just been sent off on a snipe hunt.  I was sure I hadn’t looked quite so gormless when I really had been a junior officer, but who knew?  I’d made my fair share of embarrassing mistakes.  “I think that sounds a reasonable price.”

He smiled, quickly.  I wondered, idly, which of us was fooling the other.  He was appealing to my greed – ten gold bars; I could retire on ten gold bars – and I was pretending to go along with it, but … did he think I was a complete idiot?  Or … did he think I thought the mine had produced enough gold, under his stewardship, for ten gold bars to seem a reasonable price?  I found it hard to care.  I was entirely sure he planned to renounce his parole, when he reached the city, and come up with some technicality that would justify it.  But it was all part of my plan.

“We’ll provide you with a horse,” I said, cheerfully.  It was nearly dawn.  “You will go straight to Houdon and start collecting your ransom.  We’ll expect it – or you – back here within two weeks, or you will be named and shamed as a coward and oathbreaker.”

The manager smiled, again.  He thought he had me.  Two weeks … more than enough time for the warlord to gather his troops and march on the mine.  He probably thought I was the most gullible idiot in the history of the world, although – I had to admit – mercenaries were greedy as hell and everyone thought I was a mercenary.  Or did he think I was being a little too obliging?  If someone gave me everything I wanted and needed on a silver platter, I would have been a little bit suspicious too.

“You can stay here until dawn,” I told him.  There was no point in letting him gallop off in the darkness and break his fool neck.  “Don’t leave the room” – a jest; I had no intention of untying him – “and wait for me to come see you off.”

He nodded.  “Yes, My Lord.”

And you can take your tongue off my ass now, I thought.  Flattery would have gotten him up the chain, if I was any judge.  It wasn’t enough for the aristocrats to be the lords and masters of creation.  They had to be flattered in a manner that made me cringe.  I’d seen it on Earth – Saddam had been flattered so much it was no wonder he thought himself a near-god – and I’d seen it here.  I won’t change my mind because you don’t kiss my boot a few hundred times.

Fallon was in the records room, studying the files.  “They brought out more gold than I expected,” she said, without looking up.  “There’s also a slight glitch in the numbers.  I think the manager was quietly skimming.”

“Surprise, surprise,” I said.  I was no accountant – I tried to have as little to do with paperback as possible – but even to my untrained eye the ledgers looked tailor-made to hide corruption.  The system was so inefficient it was quite possible they’d lose a ton of gold – or at least the records of its existence – quite by accident.  An investigator would have to go through each and every document just to be sure they’d accounted for everything.  “No wonder he put his ransom so high.”

“A gold bar?”

“Ten gold bars,” I said.  Fallon gaped at me.  “Either he’s a fool, or he thinks I’m one.”

“It’s him,” Fallon said.  She looked back at the documents, her eyes running down a dusty ledger.  “Although, if he’s the one skimming, he’s not as stupid as I thought.  Offering a huge ransom might just get him out and away before someone else looks at the paperwork, realises what he’s been going, and has him arrested.”

“Probably,” I agreed.  I’d been told that an accountant insisting on being the sole person in charge of the paperwork was a huge red flag.  It was a warning sign they were stealing money from their employers.  “But as long as he tells his master what we’ve done, it really doesn’t matter.”

Chapter Fifteen

“I was a captain in the militia,” Captain Alonzo explained to me.  “And then the city was taken and I wound up here, along with many of my men.”

I gritted my teeth.  In Iraq, we had neither employed nor detained the former soldiers who’d fought – and lost – for Saddam.  Stripped of their salaries and positions, and allowed to go home and simmer in resentment and frustration, the insurgents had had no trouble recruiting them to their cause.  Warlord Cuthbert, it seemed, was smart enough not to make the same mistake as a bunch of overeducated and inexperienced men thousands of miles from the combat zone.  He’d taken the city, arrested the council and militiamen and effectively enslaved them.  Ruthless, but effective.  There’d be thousands of people who wanted to resist the occupation, and drive the warlord’s troops out of their city, yet there were limits to what they could do without trained and experienced leaders.

And they provide the manpower for his mine, I thought.  I’d sent the manager on his way before I’d spoken to any of the former slaves.  The bastard had ridden off like the hounds of hell were after him.  Cuthbert has managed to make the war pay.

“I see,” I said, carefully.  “How many men do you have?”

Alonzo scowled.  “There were over a thousand, back before the occupation,” he said.  “Now … two hundred or so here, three hundred if we count others who were sent to the pit, and no more.  There may be entire underground circles back home, but …”

I nodded in understanding.  The warlord’s troops controlled the city.  He’d probably had a network of spies already and he’d inherited more, when he’d crushed the council and suborned the aristocracy.  There might be hundreds of would-be resistance fighters, but getting them organised was going to be a nightmare.  Given time, we could have done it.  I didn’t think we had time.

“Cards on the table,” I said, bluntly.  “We’re fighting a total war.  I intend to lure the enemy army into a trap, then destroy it in open battle.  To do that, I need to liberate Houdon and turn it into a base.  Are you prepared to help me?”

Alonzo blinked.  “Destroy his army?”

I nodded.  I understood his surprise.  A year ago, castles and cities had been the centre of gravity, the targets that needed to be occupied – or reduced – to win the war.  Now, it was the enemy’s army that needed to be destroyed.  War was changing, for better or worse, and we needed to change with it.  If George McClellan had realised his target was the Confederacy’s army, rather than Richmond, the Civil War might have been a hell of a lot shorter.

“It can be done,” I said.  Set-piece battles were relatively rare, from what I’d heard.  That was going to change too.  “But are you going to help me?”

There was a long pause.  “And what do you intend to do with my city?”

“Her Majesty has confirmed the independence of Damansara,” I said.  “I have no doubt she’ll extend the same recognition to Houdon, once the warlords have been defeated.”

Alonzo looked as though he’d bitten into a lemon.  I could guess what he was thinking.  If the city was liberated, rather than liberating itself, the liberator would be in a very strong position to control, or at least influence, the city.  It would be harder to organise resistance if their independence was circumscribed, rather than crushed, and harder still to convince a distant monarch – whose armies really had liberated the city – that they should be granted their independence.  Damansara, thanks to me, was a tough target.  Houdon was much less capable of defending itself.

But if you refuse this offer, I asked silently, you run the risk of the city being liberated without you.

I sighed inwardly and waited.  I’d dealt with a great many local community leaders, some of whom had had genuine power and influence and some who’d been little more than con artists trying to dupe the ignorant Americans into giving them money and prestige.  They were always limited in what they could offer – if they made promises their people were unwilling to keep, they’d get their throats cut very quickly – and they were reluctant to commit themselves completely.  And yet, what choice did Alonzo have?  The only other option was to abandon his city and head south.

“I expect your oath you’ll petition Her Majesty to uphold our independence,” Alonzo said, finally.  Despite his words, it was a surrender and we both knew it.  “What do you have in mind?”

I leaned forward.  “Tell me about the city,” I said.  Alonzo’s information would be a few weeks out of date, but it was a good place to start.  “And the occupation forces.”

Alonzo talked, slowly at first and then with increasing enthusiasm.  I listened carefully, making a handful of notes and asking questions whenever I needed more detail.  There were limits to how much could have changed, in the last few weeks, I hoped; there just hadn’t been time to reinforce the walls, or set up traps, or any of the other things we’d done to prepare Damansara for a siege.  But … Cuthbert really had moved a shitload of supplies into the city.  If we did try to lay siege ourselves, it would take months – if not years – to force the city to surrender.  And storming the walls would lead to bloody slaughter.

We have to take the city in a single blow, I thought.  Cuthbert was adapting better to the new world than I cared to admit.  If I laid siege to Houdon, it was at least possible he’d refuse to take the bait.  Barring bad luck or treachery, the city could hold for months.  And that means we need to be clever.

I closed my eyes for a long moment, contemplating the map.  The manager would reach the city in a day or so.  I’d had a pair of horsemen follow him, just to be sure, but it would be quite some time before they reported back.  Assuming Cuthbert reacted promptly, he could get his troops to the mine in three to four days … unless, of course, he’d raised a mounted infantry unit of his own.  It wasn’t impossible.

“Get your men organised,” I told him.  We’d captured some weapons and enough gunpowder to train the former slaves how to use them, as well as destroy as much as possible before we abandoned the mine.  If we won, it could be reopened; if we lost, it would be someone else’s problem.  “We’ll need to get them in place soon.”

Alonzo frowned.  “What do you have in mind?”

I hesitated.  What he didn’t know he couldn’t tell.  I had no reason to distrust him, and I doubted the manager had gone to the trouble of planting spies amongst the slaves, but I knew through grim experience that the more people who knew a secret, the greater the chance of someone letting it slip.  They might not mean to betray the secret, but … loose lips sink ships.

“Later,” I promised.  “You’ll be briefed when we’re on the march.”

Alonzo nodded – he didn’t look pleased – and left the room.  I watched him go, uncomfortably aware he was a two-edged sword.  He could be very helpful, and he had every reason to be helpful, but he could also turn in my hands very quickly.  His goals didn’t quite agree with mine, or Helen’s.  If he thought we were planning to betray him, he’d try to get his betrayal in first.

Fallon entered, looking tired.  “I got a message from the detached unit,” she said.  “They ran down and defeated a cavalry patrol.  They’re bringing their prisoners and the bodies back now.”

I nodded.  Cuthbert’s patrols were easy to spot.  They were capable of thrashing rebellious peasants, as long as they were careful not to let themselves get surrounded, but didn’t have anything like the firepower they needed to defeat my mounted infantry.  Picking them off, one by one, would only heighten the impression we were turning the mine into a base and sweeping the countryside, inflaming the peasants to the point they rose against their masters.  I didn’t care if it happened or not – my target was the city, not the countryside – but I had my hopes.  The uprising might just cause a number of vassals to rethink their positions.

“We need their equipment intact,” I said, more to myself than to her.  The militiamen needed the weapons.  We needed something else.  “Did we get the gold underway?”

Fallon nodded.  “It’ll be buried as planned,” she said.  “What’ll happen to it afterwards?”

I shrugged.  It would be an interesting argument.  My men – and I – could claim it was ours, on the grounds we’d captured it; Alonzo’s men could claim it was theirs, on the grounds they’d been the ones who’d dug it out of the ground and passed it to the smelters.  I didn’t intend to worry about it, not now.  We’d share the wealth when the war was over, if we survived.  Any man who died in my service would have his money passed to his heirs.

“How are you feeling?”  I asked, instead.  “Are you well?”

“I’m pregnant, not unwell,” Fallon said, sharply.  “I have a bunch of spells protecting the baby too.  I’ll be fine.”

“The next trick will be a great deal harder,” I reminded her.  “If you want to head back …”

“You need me to do it,” Fallon said.  “Right?”

“We can do it without you,” I said, although I feared that wasn’t true.  There were too many things that could go wrong and, if they went wrong at just the right moment, the entire operation would be worse than useless.  “I just worry …”

“I’m pregnant, not unwell,” Fallon repeated.  “Women have been having babies since time out of mind.  Trust me to know what I’m doing.”

I bit down the urge to point out Fallon had been a virgin before I met her – and this was her first pregnancy.  She’d spent a lot of time with her mother, when we’d returned to Damansara, and I was sure the older woman had told her daughter a lot about childbirth and childrearing, but … I still worried.  Cleo had had a rough pregnancy, the first time, and she’d had the advantage of modern medicine.  Here … I was no doctor, let alone a nurse or a midwife, yet I was far more qualified than the average chirurgeon.  It was a truly terrifying thought.  I knew just enough to be all too aware of my own ignorance.

And she’ll have the very best mundane and magical care this world can offer, I thought, grimly.  She’ll be fine.

“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” I said, putting my thoughts into words.  “But I do worry.”

“You just put your manhood in me and came,” Fallon teased.  “I’m the one who has to carry the child.  I should be worrying.”

“I’ll do the worrying,” I told her.  If that was all I could do, I’d do it.  “You concentrate on having the baby.”

She nodded and gave me a quick hug, then turned and left.  I sighed inwardly.  It still hurt to think of my young boys, lost forever … it struck me, suddenly, that I could barely remember their faces.  They’d been sweet kids, and … well, teenagers, but … I tried to recall Cleo’s face, then told myself not to be silly.  Cleo had cheated on me.  I didn’t owe her anything.  God knew, she was probably cursing me for vanishing … how long would it take, I wondered, for me to be declared officially dead?  She probably thought I’d driven off into the sunset, changed my name and left her with the kids.  And …

I swallowed.  My father had run out on his kids.  And I’d done the same.

Accidentally, I told myself.  It didn’t make it any better.  There were times when the motives simply didn’t matter.  This was one of them.  My kids will grow up thinking I abandoned them, that I was just another loser daddy who walked out ...

I gritted my teeth, then stood and forced myself to leave the building and walk through the compound.  The former slaves were training on the makeshift field outside, preparing for the coming battle.  A handful of administrators were chained to the fence, watched by my men … there was no point in ransoming them, I thought, so we’d leave them behind when we abandoned the mine.  Horst was directing a handful of volunteers as they moved gunpowder into the tunnels, ready to collapse the mines when we left.  I nodded to him, then stared down into the nightmarish pit.  I dreaded to think what would happen if it rained.  The mine would become a disaster zone very quickly.

They probably have some contingency plans to pump the shafts, I guessed.  The slaves couldn’t carry the water out quickly enough to save the mines.

The day wore on.  I heard reports from the network of magicians, and scouts roaming the countryside, and waited – as the day turned to night – for news from the city.  It didn’t look as if Cuthbert knew what we’d done, at least not yet.  The army laying siege to Damansara didn’t appear to be preparing to pack up and leave … I allowed myself a tight smile.  The longer they waited, the harder it would be to stop me from putting my plan into action.  And yet …

“We captured two more patrols,” Horst said, the following morning.  Our sleep hadn’t been particularly good, not least because I was unable to share a bed with Fallon.  “How long will it take them to notice?”

I shrugged.  “Say … a day or two to realise the first patrol is overdue, then a couple more to realise they’re all overdue?”

Horst looked unconvinced.  “You’d think they’d notice quicker.”

“You’re thinking in terms of a city, and a relatively small battleground,” I said.  I was nervous too, but I was doing my best not to show it.  I’d miss the waiting when the enemy commander finally made his move.  “Here … we have the great outdoors, where you can ride for hours without seeing a single town or hamlet.  They’ll be used to the concept of the troops being late by now, at least for a few days.  But when none of them come back …”

I grinned at him.  “The unit passed its first combat test,” I reminded him.  “I hope the men are pleased.”

“Relieved, more like,” Horst said.  He’d grown into a far more capable commanding officer than I’d would have expected, when we’d first met.  He’d got the hang of taking care of his subordinates, but his way of doing it was a little … skewed.  I still cringed when he’d offered to take me to the brothel.  “There’s no way back now, is there?”

“To where?”  There really was no way back for me, but him?  “Do you want to go back to the City Guard?”

Horst shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “But … I do miss my family.”

“They could move to Roxanna,” I offered, although I knew it wouldn’t be easy.  The concept of the nuclear family just didn’t exist here.  You were part of an extended network of families or you were a man alone, alone and vulnerable.  “Or you could find someone in the city.”

Horst snorted.  “I’m a great nobleman now, am I?”

“You could be,” I said.  Helen had promised she’d knight anyone whose conduct, during the war, was above and beyond the call of duty.  Horst qualified, if anyone did.  I’d make damn sure he was mentioned in dispatches, talked up in the broadsheets and honoured in song by the minstrels.  “If you get knighted, you’ll have girls breaking down your door.”

“Hah.”  Horst snorted.  I might as well have promised him a billion dollars.  It was the sort of thing that just didn’t happen to commoners, not outside song and story.  But … I could make it happen.  “Do you think the plan is going to work?”

“I think so,” I said.  “If it looks like we’re going to fail, we can back off and vanish.”

Horst cocked his head.  “A little dishonourable, isn’t it?”

I shot him a surprised look.  “Do you care?”

He hesitated.  “It’ll bite us too, won’t it?”

“Perhaps,” I admitted.  Once they worked out what we’d done, they’d have no trouble at least trying it themselves.  “But we can handle it.”

My thoughts darkened.  There was little honour in war.  The kings and princes and warlords I’d met might view war as a game, but they cared nothing for the commoners who were maimed, raped or killed in the fighting.  I’d seen atrocities here that matched anything committed by Al Qaida or the Islamic State, atrocities that would be far worse if the locals had access to modern technology.  My world had avoided the use of nuclear weapons after World War Two, fearing the escalation their use represented.  Here …

If they had access to nukes, or chemical weapons, or biological, they’d use them, I thought, grimly.  It wasn’t that they were ruthless, although they were; it was that they simply didn’t care.  The lives of the peasants were about as important as the dust under their feet.  Their honour only covers themselves.

Fallon knocked.  “Elliot,” she said.  “We just got a note from the city.  The enemy army is marching out now.”

A few hours ago, I mentally corrected.  It didn’t matter.  It would take at least three days for the enemy to reach the mine.  We’d be on our way well before then.  It’s time.

I stood.  “Prepare the troops,” I ordered.  The plan looked good on paper.  Now, we were about to see how well it worked in practice.  “We march in two hours.”

Horst nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

Queenmaker 12-13

22 Mar

Chapter Twelve

The enemy army advanced, slowly and cumbersomely.

I watched from the battlements, shaking my head in disbelief.  Two-thirds of the advancing force looked as if they’d learnt nothing from the last war, despite the muskets and rifles clearly visible on their backs.  They marched in close formation, leaving me wishing helplessly for machine guns, close-air support or even grapeshot, weapons that would slaughter vast swathes of the enemy force and put the survivors to flight.  Their banners told a tale, for those with eyes to see, of hundreds of vassal noblemen supporting their liege lord.  I wondered, sourly, just how many of them were reluctant allies.  If the reports of hostages were accurate, quite a few of the men below me were there against their will, perhaps even their better judgement. 

The remainder of the enemy troops looked more professional.  They advanced in a loose skirmish line, weapons at the ready, clearly prepared to hit the deck the moment we started shooting.  They’d largely abandoned their armour, unsurprising now musket balls and rifle bullets could damage or even punch right though what passed for body armour, making them more akin to my mounted infantry than the cavalry or reluctant conscripts we’d slaughtered in the first war.  The enemy cavalry was at the rear, escorting the guns and wagon train … I hoped the aristo fools were simmering with rage as they contemplated their demotion to escort duties.  A year ago, a cavalry charge was to be feared; now, it would just get a great many men and horses slaughtered.  I’d broken a charge, wounding or killing nearly the entire enemy force, and lost none of my men in the process.

“They hired every mercenary they could,” Rupert commented, from beside me.  “And they brought a siege train.”

“Good,” I said.  “More targets.”

Rupert glanced at me.  “Don’t you know what they’ll do, if they break the walls?”

“They won’t,” I assured him.  “And even if they do …”

I sighed, inwardly.  We hadn’t tried to recruit mercenaries ourselves.  They were just too unreliable, too prone to commit atrocities that would turn the countryside against us.  I’d contented myself by sending messages to the mercenary captains, warning them that their troops would not enjoy the protection of the laws of war and, if they committed atrocities, we’d hang them in front of their surviving victims.  I wasn’t sure how seriously they took my warnings – kings and princes rarely rebuked mercenaries, because they always needed their services and couldn’t afford to alienate them – but the fact we’d refused to hire any ourselves should give them pause.  Should.  I had the feeling Warlord Cuthbert would push them to tear down the city walls, kill the men, rape the women and children and a whole string of other atrocities.  We needed to prove we could protect the people.  He had to prove we couldn’t.

He has the easier job, I reflected.  But we will hang anyone who commits an atrocity.

“They know better,” I reassured Rupert.  “And besides, if the plan works, they won’t have time to break the walls.” 

I smirked, then returned my attention to the enemy ranks.  Their commanders were more practiced than I thought, directing their men to establish siege lines and dig trenches to pen us up in the city.  I’d expected more confusion, and the process certainly looked a great deal more chaotic than anything I’d seen back home, but it was working and that was all that mattered.  They’d clearly leant some lessons, I noted, as they threw up earthworks to make it harder for us to pour fire into the trenches.  Even a simple layer of sand was more than enough to stop a musket ball, protecting the men behind.  I wished, again, for weapons that simply didn’t exist here.  A few primitive tanks would be more than enough to shift the balance of power firmly against the warlords and their hired guns.

“They brought everyone,” Rupert said.  “Why …?”

“I guess Cuthbert can’t expect his vassals to stay loyal if he doesn’t keep his eye on them,” I said.  If his vassals had any sense, they’d be drawing up contingency plans for switching sides if the war went against their master.  I wondered, idly, if those plans included a hostage rescue mission.  I’d considered doing it myself, but we knew too little to make the plan feasible.  “And …”

I snickered.  “I’m starting to think the commoners hate their overlords.”

Rupert shot me a sharp glance.  “What do you mean?”

“Look at them,” I said.  “See what I see?”

“… No,” Rupert said.  I wasn’t surprised he couldn’t see it.  The world had changed, but he – and his class – hadn’t quite caught up with it.  “They’re showing proper respect …”

“Are they?”  I grinned at him.  “Do you remember what I said about not saluting in combat zones?”

My smile grew wider as I swept my gaze over the battlefield.  It was easy, laughably easy, to pick out the aristocratic commanders … so easy, in fact, that I wondered for a moment if I was being had.  They wore fancy uniforms – one was dressed in gold-plated armour, like a Roman officer from Asterix; another wore a fancy helmet, with feathers that had to have been sewn together – and were surrounded by subordinates, messengers and servants, the latter bowing and scraping in a manner that made me profoundly uncomfortable.  They hadn’t realised – not yet – that guns were getting more and more accurate with every passing year, that one day wearing fancy uniforms in a combat zone would be nothing more than suicide.  I wished for a sniper rifle.  Or even a simple hunting rifle.  I could have thrown the enemy command structure into disarray with a handful of shots.

Rupert looked disturbed.  “They’re drawing attention to their commanders?”

I nodded.  “Looks that way, doesn’t it?  It’s like they want them killed …”

Which would probably improve efficiency no end, my thoughts added.  There was no shortage of jokes about military units becoming more capable when their officers were killed and their sergeants took command … and here, I suspected, it might be true.  The aristo commanders were very much a mixed bunch.  Some were incredibly capable, some were smart enough to listen to their advisors … and some were so convinced their birth made them superior to everyone else that they charged into combat and got themselves – and hundreds of their subordinates – killed.  Or they think they can’t get killed.

I sighed, again.  The fancy comic book uniforms weren’t completely absurd.  They told their enemies that they were aristocracy, the kind of person who – if taken captive – would bring a huge ransom.  Not that the commoners who captured them would see much, if anything, of the reward.  Normally, their commanders would take the captives and ransom them themselves … I’d put a stop to that, when I’d taken command, but … really, ransoming them back struck me as brutally unfair.  And yet, not ransoming them would leave a command slot open for someone who might be a little more competent …

And if they capture me, the best I can hope for is a hangman’s noose, I thought.  Technically, I was an aristo myself; practically, the warlords knew better than to leave me alive.  They’d come up with an excuse, but … they’d kill me.  I’d better make sure I don’t get taken alive.

I left Rupert watching the army and started to walk the battlements, moving from post to post to exchange a few words of reassurance and comfort as the men – my men – girded themselves for battle.  It was important, particularly here, to show that I was on the frontlines myself, that I wasn’t sitting in a comfortable office or frittering away my time in a brothel.  If the men had faith in me, they’d fight even when the war seemed to turn against us; if they didn’t, if they thought I’d run for my life or sell theirs cheaply, they’d turn and run instead of holding the line.  I made sure to remember the junior officers, sergeants and even a handful of soldiers by name, speaking to them in front of their units.  It was a cheap trick, yet it put me head and shoulders ahead of nearly every aristocrat in the world. 

The enemy army continued its deployment.  We made no move to interfere, something that should have worried their commander.  Letting them set up their lines, trapping us within the city … it was either very brave or very stupid or we had a card hidden up our sleeve, waiting for the right time to pull it out and place it on the table.  We did, of course.  I wanted the enemy army to deploy, to have everything in place.  I kept a wary eye on them as I finished the circuit, silently noting where they were emplacing their cannons, catapults and other siege engines.  It looked as if they wanted to threaten the main gates themselves.

Interesting choice, I thought.  A year ago, attacking the main gates would have made perfect sense.  An assault force that took the gatehouses and threw open the gates would have the city at its mercy, forcing the council to surrender very quickly or watch helplessly as enemy troops stormed the city and slaughtered the population.  Now, it made more sense to attack the walls themselves.  Have they learnt nothing, or are they planning something too?

Rupert glanced at me as I rejoined him.  “They’re nearly ready.”

I doubted it.  The enemy army had marched in formation, but – of course – the formation had become ragged around the edges.  Small units, individual troopers and cavalry were still straggling in, the latter escorting a handful of men in chains.  Deserters, I guessed; they certainly looked like soldiers, rather than prisoners from the surrounding neighbourhood.  I’d done what I could to urge the locals to flee, and a great many had been heading south even before the war started, but … some of them would have left it too late.  I hoped they were safe.  I knew they weren’t.

“We’ll see,” I said.  It was hard to tell what my enemy was thinking.  On one hand, a long siege would be as hard on them – perhaps harder – as it was on us; on the other, a failed attempt to take the walls and storm the city would break their army, weakening the warlord to the point his own people might rise against him.  “We’ll proceed with the plan.”

“The risky plan,” Rupert said.  He was the only person outside my circle who knew what I had in mind.  “It’s a good thing the council put me in charge.”

I nodded, although I understood the underlying meaning.  If the war went badly, the council would blame everything on Rupert and sell out for the best terms they could get.  I doubted the warlords would accept their arguments, after everything that had happened, but … better they let Rupert call the shots, for the moment, than debate each and every decision for so long that nothing got done.  Running a war by committee was asking for trouble, if not disaster. 

Cuthbert might pretend to believe them, I thought, sourly.  But it would be the end of the city’s independence.

Trumpets blew.  I looked down, just in time to see a human flamingo leave the enemy camp and start walking towards the gate.  I had to cover my mouth to keep from a very undignified giggle.  The man looked like a walking blancmange.  I supposed it made a certain kind of sense – he was very easy to see – but still!  The closer he got, the more I thought I wouldn’t need a modern weapon to hit him.  A simple flintlock pistol would be more than enough.

“We should go down,” Rupert said, as the messenger stopped.  “He’ll have a message …”

The messenger started to speak, his words so loud I knew he was using magic.  “I SPEAK ON BEHALF OF LORD CUTHBERT, WARLORD OF TARSIER, PRINCE OF BELLADONNA” – he went on in this vein for quite some time, listing an entire series of titles Helen had told me the bastard had no right to use – “AND I SPEAK WITH HIS VOICE.  HARK TO MY WORDS, WITH DUE REVERENCE AND SUBMISSION.”

I rolled my eyes.  Even by local standards, that was a bit much.



“You mean, surrender everything and then trust you won’t storm the city anyway,” Rupert muttered, as the last echoes died away.  “I notice he didn’t mention your army.”

I nodded.  It was unlikely, to say the least, that Cuthbert didn’t know we were in the city.  If he didn’t have any spies inside the walls, and pickets watching the approaches from a safe distance, I’d strip naked, paint my bottom purple and run through the streets screaming about alien invaders.  No, Cuthbert would know we were in the city.  I guessed he intended to intimidate the council into surrendering, then insist – as the price for a peaceful surrender – that the city’s soldiers took the queen’s into custody.  It wouldn’t end well.  If we surrendered peacefully, we’d be slaughtered when we were handed over; if we fought, the city would be torn apart and the warlord’s troops would march in and secure the remains effortlessly. 

“No,” I said.  “Give him time.  He’ll force you to deal with us.”

“No, he won’t”  Rupert drew his pistol, aimed at the ground in front of the messenger and, before I could stop him, pulled the trigger.  The messenger scampered back as if the hounds of hell were after him.  “We’re not going to surrender.”

I breathed a sigh of relief.  The rules were clear.  Shooting an arrow – aimed to miss – was a very clear rejection of the enemy’s demands, but it wasn’t a total rejection.  Shooting the messenger, literally, really was.  And with the pistols so inaccurate, there was a very real chance it could have happened by accident …

“Good,” I said.  There was no point in berating Rupert for his mistake.  “We’d better brace for attack.”

Rupert shrugged.  “They’re still aiming at the gatehouse.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “Unless they have something up their sleeves …”

I scowled as the minutes slowly turned to hours.  The warlord’s troops were still preparing their siege lines, digging in rather than mounting an offensive.  Were they planning a night attack?  I hoped not – it would screw up my plans – but it was possible, if unlikely.  Coordinating an attack in the daytime was hard enough without modern tech; coordinating one at night was damn near impossible, even with magic.  I couldn’t pick out more than a handful of magicians in the enemy lines, too few – I thought – to ensure every trooper had a night-vision spell.  Or … I’d shown the world starshells, when I’d lead the army to war against Aldred.  Did they have starshells of their own?  Or had they devised spells that did the same thing?

Probably, I thought, darkly.  A conventional war would have made sense.  I had a rough idea of the tech available to them, as well as centuries of awareness of how such tech had been used.  Magic?  Magic was dangerously unpredictable.  For all I knew, they had a mass mind control spell they were aiming at us even now.  What can they do?  What can’t they do?

“The longer they wait, the more time we have to prepare,” Rupert said.  “Right?”

“Right,” I agreed, trying to sound reassuring.  The warlord wanted the city – and its factories – intact.  It was possible, quite possible, he would come up with a better offer, now the city had refused to bend the knee.  I doubted there was any reasonable compromise – the moment the city accepted a garrison, its independence was at an end – but who knew?  We’d stockpiled food for the last month, preserving it as best we could, yet … we would starve eventually.  And starving men got desperate.  “We have time.”

“We don’t need to wait long,” Rupert agreed.  He glanced at the sun, starting to sink towards the distant horizon.  “Tonight?”

“Tonight,” I agreed.  The timing was going to be tight, but the longer we let the army sit outside the walls the harder it would be to make the plan work.  The more I looked at the enemy lines, the more I wondered if they’d had some advance warning.  If they kept building their earthworks, they were going to defeat the plan without ever realising it.  “We don’t have time to waste.”

Rupert grabbed my arm.  “I’m trusting you,” he said.  The grim resolve in his tone nearly made me flinch.  He was taking one hell of a risk and he was doing it for me.  “If the council finds out …”

“By the time they do, the plan will have either worked or I’ll be dead,” I said, curtly.  It looked good on paper, but so did a bunch of other plans that failed spectacularly in the real world.  “If that happens …”

“I’ll think of something,” Rupert said.  He smiled, although it didn’t touch his eyes.  This war was going to be worse, a lot worse, than the one we’d fought together.  And if we lost, there was a very real possibility the city would be stormed and destroyed.  “If nothing else, we’ll give them one hell of a shock.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “It will.”

Chapter Thirteen

Once, years ago, I’d heard a song about a city under siege.

It had been a haunting tune, from what I recalled.  The city’s population had been so scared of the besieging army that they had abandoned the battlements to cower behind the walls, unwilling even to look at the enemy troops as they tightened the siege.  They’d shook and shivered and waited for the inevitable end, until a little girl – with more balls than the grown adults – had clambered onto the battlements, ignoring all the warnings, and discovered the enemy army had raised the siege weeks ago and no one had noticed.  The memory mocked me now, as I walked the streets to the far gate to check in with my men.  It would be a long time, if ever, before the siege was lifted or even abandoned.

But that will change, if our plan works, I thought.  If …

Horst greeted me as I reached the staging ground.  “Everyone is ready, sir,” he said, as I swept my eyes over the mounted infantry and magicians.  Fallon had insisted on accompanying us, despite my objections.  “We can open the gates and gallop out on your command.”

I nodded, as darkness swept over the city.  An hour or two and it would be time for us to do or die, or both.  If it didn’t work … I shook my head, taking the time to review the men properly before returning to the battlements.  Horst was a good man, someone who’d advanced in leaps and bounds after I’d taken him under my wing.  I didn’t have to accompany the troops, but … no.  I couldn’t send men to carry out missions I was unwilling to undertake myself.

“Be ready,” I said.  “Once the big ones go up, we’re committed.”

I exchanged glances with Fallon, then returned to the main gates.  Rupert had had some rest, on my insistence, but he didn’t look particularly rested as he studied the darkening enemy camp.  They’d planted rows upon rows of tents –unsurprisingly, the common soldiers were sleeping in the open, counting themselves lucky if they had bedrolls – and lit bonfires, suggesting they were settling in for a long stay.  I’d seen their cavalry sweeping the countryside, galloping over fields and chasing any remaining farmers into the undergrowth.  I hoped they’d started to realise just how thoroughly it had been stripped.  Their chances of living off the land had been sharply reduced, before the army had even arrived.

“We’re ready,” Rupert said.  “Are you?”

“The troops are in place,” I said.  “Give it a little more time.”

I studied the enemy camp carefully.  It didn’t look as though they were planning to attack, although it was hard to be sure.  If I’d been planning an attack, I would have done everything in my power to keep the target from noticing my preparations until it was too late.  Unless I wanted to intimidate them, of course, in the hopes they’d surrender before I started shooting.  But a tactic like that had always struck me as absurdly chancy …

The minutes ticked away.  I hoped Horst had had the sense to tell the men to relax and goof off a little.  A very little.  Spending all of their time braced for the mission would drain them, leaving them tired and unprepared when the balloon finally went up.  There’d been no way to train for the mission, not beyond the basics, for fear of the enemy spies noticing and working out what we were planning to do.  It would be easy for them to get a message out, with or without magic.  A simple arrow would be quite enough.

“Now,” I said, quietly.  “You may fire when ready.”

Rupert raised his voice.  “FIRE!”

The catapults fired as one, hurling a massive salvo across the walls and into the enemy camp.  We hadn’t used heavy stones, not this time.  Instead, we’d convinced the glassmakers to turn out giant glass bottles – I couldn’t help thinking they looked like terrariums – and we’d filled them with explosives potions, concentrated alcohol and gas, then rigged up a simple fuse to produce a spark when they hit their targets.  Not all would explode, I’d been cautioned, but it probably didn’t matter.  Enough would catch fire, with the aid of the enemy bonfires, to ensure the rest ignited too.  The darkness lit up abruptly as flames spread through the enemy camp.  I smirked as the tents caught fire, their occupants running for their lives.  They’d have been safer – a lot safer – if they’d slept in the open like common soldiers.

Rupert cheered.  “It worked!”

“Keep firing,” I said, quietly.  Rivers of eerie-coloured flame were flowing in all directions, panicking the enemy, but it wouldn’t last.  Their earthworks weren’t going to catch fire as easily as their tents.  I saw a row of catapults go up in flames, the earth shaking violently as a barrel of gunpowder exploded, the fireball rising into the air like a mushroom cloud.  It chilled me even though I knew it wasn’t a nuclear explosion … I hoped, as the wind shifted, that it chilled them too.  “Keep them hopping.”

The wind shifted again, blowing the stench of burning alcohol and human flesh across the battlements.  I gritted my teeth, carefully ignoring the youngsters who were trying not to throw up below me.  The catapults hurled the last of the makeshift projectiles into the enemy camp – I suspected we’d reached the point of diminishing returns – and then fell silent.  The flames grew worse, growing brighter as they reached for the skies.  The enemy were still panicking.

“What a cocktail,” Rupert said.  “You made it!”

“Molotov made it,” I joked, although it would mean nothing to him.  “You know what to do?”

Rupert nodded.  “Good luck, Elliot.”

I turned and hurried to the waiting horse as, behind me, the guns began to boom.  The enemy, already in disarray, would assume Rupert was planning a breakout, that he intended to open the gates and charge into the enemy position.  The fact it would be almost certain suicide, unless the enemy was far more incompetent than I dared hope, wouldn’t keep them from assuming the worst.  If they did nothing to stop the breakout, it might work after all.  I jumped onto the horse and galloped down the streets as the guns grew louder, the pounding shaking the air.  Thankfully, the citizens had been told to stay indoors after dark.  There was no one in my way as I cantered down the streets, the horse running faster and faster until I reached the barracks.  Horst and his men were already ready, bracing themselves to move into the gatehouse.  I swapped horses – I needed a mount as fresh as possible – and nodded to Horst.  It was time.

“Forward,” Horst ordered.

The mounted infantry trotted forward, into the gatehouse.  We’d worked hard to turn it into a deadly trap for anyone who managed to get through the gates, if the enemy noticed the gates were open before they were slammed closed again.  There was a risk, but one we’d have to endure.  Beside, the enemy were in disarray.  Their troops should be racing, even now, to stop a breakout on the other side of the city, an offensive they couldn’t afford to ignore.  Or so I hoped.

Horst raised a hand.  “Now?”

I nodded, feeling a pang of guilt.  I should have told Fallon to stay put.  In theory, I had absolute authority over her, the moment she accepted my proposal.  In practice … privately, I suspected I had absolute authority only as long as I chose not to use it.  She wouldn’t let me boss her around, even after we were married.  And yet, the idea of taking her into danger … it bothered me.  But she might be in worse danger, part of me reflected, if she stayed in the city.

“Now,” I ordered.

“Cast the spells,” Horst ordered.

Fallon waved a hand at me.  I tried not to flinch as … something … buzzed around me, an invisible insect that came and went so quickly I couldn’t so much as raise my hand to swat it before it was gone.  My eyes blinked automatically, my vision shifting … the dark world didn’t look right, and all the colours seemed oddly slanted, but … I could see in the dark!  A chill ran through me.  I’d worn night-vision gear on missions, back home, and it was pretty good, but this … this was almost perfect.  I just hoped the spell would last long enough for us to reach the supply dump.

Horst barked an order.  The ground shook a moment later.  We’d buried enough gunpowder outside to level a house – in fact, I’d been worried the enemy entrenchments would either uncover the gunpowder or, worse, set it off before we were ready.  But it hadn’t … a second explosion billowed out, followed by a third.  If the enemy troops were in disarray before, now … now, they wouldn’t know which way to jump.

“Open the gates,” Horst bellowed.

The gatehouse team set to work with a will, opening the gates and allowing us to gaze upon a scene from hell.  The enemy positions had been shattered, reduced to burning embers.  Men lay everywhere, their bodies torn and broken.  I hoped their commanders would try to help them and I feared, I knew, they wouldn’t.  Dead men lay beside them, unmoving and uncaring.  Three smouldering craters lay on each side of the gates, the remnants of the blasts glowing brightly as they cooled.  I could see enemy reinforcements rushing around, heading to the breakout I knew was a feint.  They hadn’t noticed us yet.

Horst dug in his spurs and led the gallop forward.  The men followed, charging across the broken landscape and out into the countryside.  I put my head down and followed, my mount picking up speed frantically.  I saw flashes and impressions – dead bodies, wounded men, enemy troops – as we headed into the darkness, heard shouts from behind us as the enemy tried to rally their men.  Shots rang out – I felt more than heard a musket ball passing overhead – and then died away as the battlements opened fire themselves.  The enemy had to be having problems deciding which way to jump, which problem to tackle first.  If they thought the gate was still open …

A final explosion shook the air, then silence fell like a thunderclap.  I let out a breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding as we galloped onwards, pushing the horses to the limit.  The enemy had held back at least two-thirds of their army, positioning them near the earthworks rather than manning them, and those troops would have moved forward to pick up the slack and keep the defenders from breaking out.  It was hard to be sure they knew we’d broken out, although I dared not assume they didn’t.  In the confusion, who knew what they knew? 

My lips twisted.  The enemy had settled down for a long siege … and we’d rattled them.  We had to have given them one hell of a shock.  My most pessimistic estimates suggested we’d killed at least a thousand men, probably a hell of a lot more.  The wounded would die too, unless the enemy provided decent medical care.  I didn’t expect it.  The majority of the footmen were just peasants, the kind of people – I suspected – whose masters didn’t want them going home with military experience.  It could be so easily turned against their masters – and really, who could blame them?  I wondered, numbly, how they’d react.  Rupert and I had gamed out a handful of scenarios, but …

No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy, I reminded myself, sternly.  The enemy, that dirty dog, has plans of his own.

I put the thought aside as we galloped south, looking for all the world like a gaggle of superior officers running for their lives, while leaving their subordinates in the shit.  I’d seen it happen, in Iraq and Afghanistan and here, and it galled me to look a coward myself, even though it was part of the plan.  The darkness enveloped us, hid us … we slowed, checked to make sure we weren’t being followed, then turned east.  We’d keep moving north-east as quickly as possible, first to the supply dump and then to our target.  If everything went according to plan …

Horst pulled his horse alongside mine.  “Won’t they notice you’re gone?”

I shook my head.  The council had insisted on Rupert being the overall commander.  They would sooner deal with him than me.  I had gone alone with it for diplomatic reasons.  A magician would wear my face, showing himself to convince any watchers that I was still in the city.  The deception wouldn’t last forever, but it didn’t have to.  As long as it lasted a week, I’d be happy.

“It should be fine,” I said.  We slowed to a cantor, then a trot.  “You?”

“We’re ready,” Horst said.  “I hope …”

We kept moving until the first glimmers of dawn appeared over the distant horizon, then slowed and found somewhere to camp for the day.  The landscape appeared to be largely empty – we’d passed a number of abandoned farmhouses and hamlets – but I knew it to be an illusion.  There were watching eyes in the undergrowth, farmers and their families who regarded us with as much suspicion as the warlord’s soldiers.  I didn’t really blame them for being paranoid.  Despite my best efforts, and I’d done a lot over the last year, soldiers had a poor reputation.  There was no way they’d trust us not to rape, kill and burn our way through the countryside.

“I cast a pair of spells to help conceal us,” Fallon said, once the campsite was set up.  We didn’t bother with tents.  We could sleep on the ground for a few hours.  “They shouldn’t see us coming.”

“Good,” I said.  I’d spent much of the last few months on horseback, but my body still felt as if I’d gone three rounds with a prize-fighter.  I hoped the mounted infantry felt better.  Some of them were aristos – mainly born on the wrong side of the blanket – but the remainder were commoners, most of whom had only been in the saddle for a few months at most.  They’d ridden hard since then, yet …  “Get some rest.  You need it.”

Fallon held up a chat parchment.  “Rupert says the enemy fought an imaginary army as they took back their earthworks,” she said.  “What were they doing?”

I smirked.  Rupert had had strict orders not to risk a sally, whatever happened.  Unless he’d ignored his orders, and I doubted it, his men had stayed firmly behind the city walls and contented themselves with sniping at prospective targets.  But in the confusion, the enemy had no way to be sure.  They wouldn’t have realised what had actually happened until dawn …

“I think they were shooting at each other,” I said.  It made a certain kind of sense.  The warlord’s troops weren’t very well coordinated, save for his elite, and if one unit had assumed another to be enemy troops … it had happened during Iraqi Freedom and we’d been so much better trained and equipped than the warlord’s troops that the gap was completely beyond their comprehension.  We’d been damn lucky no one had died.  “But we may never know for sure.”

I met her eyes.  “Get some rest.  Seriously.”

Fallon held my hand as she lay next to me, resting her head on her pack.  I felt another pang of guilt, then forced myself to close my eyes and think of nothing.  Four days hard riding should bring us to our target and then … I hoped, prayed, it worked as planned.  If it didn’t …

She snuggled up to me.  I held her for a moment, breathing in her scent, then let go.  She’d hate me for it, if she noticed, but I dared not let anything think I was taking advantage of my position to bring my girlfriend.  Many of the mounted infantry had lovers of their own – the cavalry had never had any trouble attracting female attention – and they’d had to leave them behind.  She shifted, but didn’t wake.  I sighed and closed my eyes again.  It felt odd to try to sleep during the day.

I slept.  I must have slept, although I couldn’t have sworn to it when I jerked awake at dusk.  We ate hardtack and drank water, then resumed the ride.  The landscape shifted rapidly as we circumvented the edge of Aldred’s former territory, avoiding fortified towns as much as possible, before heading further north.  Some of the farms were burnt out, evidence of atrocities scattered for everyone to see.  Others just looked abandoned.  I gritted my teeth, promising myself there would be justice even though I feared I would be unable to keep that promise.  There were no investigators here who could – and would – find evidence that would lead to the culprits, let alone bring them to book.  God knew, a great many crimes had gone unpunished back home because of a lack of evidence …

“We’re nearly there,” Horst said, three days later.  We’d paused long enough to let the horses rest and gather themselves.  Bred for the military or not, there were limits to how far they could be pushed.  “Do we proceed?”

I nodded.  The news from Damansara hadn’t improved.  The warlord was still laying siege to the walls.  Worse, he’d started shooting cannonballs at the walls, trying to find weak spots.  I was surprised he wasn’t mounting a major bombardment … I hoped, reading between the lines, that we’d taken out his gunpowder stores.  He’d need to bring in more before starting a major offensive …

“We have no choice,” I said.  We didn’t, not really.  Doing nothing would mean we were accepting our eventual defeat.  “Let’s move.”

Queenmaker 10 – 11

21 Mar

Sorry about the long-long-delay …

Chapter Ten

“It feels so … different,” Fallon said.

I nodded in agreement.  Damansara had never been the cleanest of cities – the travelling people called cityfolk Stinkers, which was both rude and entirely accurate – but it had improved remarkably since I’d left the city and headed south.  The streets were surprisingly clean, the pavements were swept regularly and large signs promised harsh punishments to anyone who crapped out of the windows.  I’d set up gangs of street children to collect manure – human and animal, which had a number of uses – and I was amused to note the practice had continued.  It was far from perfect, by modern standards, but it was so much better than before that everyone was delighted.  There’d be a population boom shortly, I was sure, and this time the vast majority of the children would live to see their first birthday.  Who knew what would happen then?

My smile widened.  I’d done a lot, from classes on basic hygiene and medical care to cleaning up the public baths and giving lessons in reading, writing and all the other skills of the modern world.  It was astonishing how many deaths could be prevented just by mandating doctors and nurses washed their hands regularly, then keeping wounds clean before bandaging them up.  These days, from what I’d been told, patients kept sharp eyes on their doctors – chirurgeons, they were called here – and screamed blue murder if the doctors didn’t make a show of washing their hands.  It was better that way.  The old habits had often been more deadly than the wounds, or the diseases.

I put the thought out of my head as we neared the merchant quarter, the shops slowly closing as night fell over the city.  It was hard not to feel nervous, unsure of myself, even though I was a grown man.  The idea of meeting Fallon’s parents … it had been hard enough meeting Cleo’s parents and they’d hailed from the same culture as myself, one where I’d known the rules.  Here … the easiest way to get into trouble in a foreign culture was to mess around with women, particularly in regions where women were second-class citizens or seen as belonging to their parents.  I had no idea how Fallon’s parents would react to me.  My imagination provided too many possibilities.  They might love me, or hate me, or be wary of me … it felt weird to think they might consider me too good for their daughter, but it was quite possible if they thought me a nobleman.  And if they saw me as a mercenary …

They’d be happier seeing her married to a street sweeper than a mercenary, I reflected, sourly.  And if they see me as a nobleman, they’ll expect me to put her aside for a proper marriage alliance.

I sighed inwardly.  Back home, marriage had been between two people and very few people seriously cared what the in-laws thought about it.  Here … marriages were between entire families, binding together clans and bloodlines in a web of mutual obligation.  The opinions of the girl – and often the boy – were not always important, not when money and position were at stake.  They were expected to lie back and think of the family and keep their affairs, if they had them, to themselves.  No one gave a damn about their feelings.

“Here we are,” Fallon said.  I could tell she was nervous too.  She’d gone against her family’s wishes by joining the army, then going with me.  “Are you ready?”

I shrugged.  “I went into battle with a smile on my face,” I said, deadpan.  “Why is this so much worse?”

Fallon snorted.  “Don’t take them too seriously, please?”

I made a face.  Would they fawn on me, as a rich man lifting their daughter to unimaginable heights through a vernal transmission of power?  Would they be wary, fearing I was toying with her until someone better came along?  Or would her father demand a duel, on the grounds I’d deflowered his daughter?  Or would he be honoured his daughter had been deflowered by such a man?  It was quite possible.  There were quite a few relationships between wealthy and powerful men and poorer women that had ended with the woman being given a sizable dowry, ensuring prospective husbands would overlook the matter of virginity or even paternity.  Silly, to me, but just the way things were done in this world.

Fallon knocked.  I stood beside her and ran my eyes over the house.  It was a three-story building, with a shop and storerooms on the ground floor and room for the family and their servants, if any, on the upper two stories.  There were two main entrances – one for the shop, one for the family home; the latter fancy enough to give the impression of an up and coming family that might join the aristocracy in a generation or two – and a smaller servant’s door, set so carefully within the sand-coloured stone that I would have missed it if I hadn’t been looking carefully.  It was clear proof, if I’d needed it, that Fallon’s family were successful merchants.  You couldn’t rent homes in this part of the city.  You had to have the money to buy before anyone would sell. 

The door opened.  A young girl looked out, saw Fallon and dropped a hasty curtsey, then saw me and dropped an even deeper one.  It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so serious by local standards.  If the maid accidentally insulted me, through not giving the proper level of respect, she’d be on the streets so fast … I nodded in return, allowing Fallon to do the talking as we were shown into the house and up a long flight of stairs.  The interior was surprisingly homely, rather than aping aristocratic styles.  I found myself relaxing as the maid opened the door and invited us to walk into the living room.  The two people in the chamber stood to greet us.

“Mother, Father,” Fallon said.  Her voice was nervous.  I squeezed her hand gently.  “Please allow me to introduce Elliot, my husband to be.”

I nodded, bracing myself.  Fallon’s father reminded me – irony of ironies – of Vernon Dursley, although it was clear from a glance that he was slightly fitter and certainly a hell of a lot more decent than Harry’s uncle.  He was in his late forties, perhaps fifties, with hair shading to white, a growing paunch and eyes that flickered back and forth, as if he couldn’t decide if he should meet my eyes or keep his lowered.  There were enough signs, in the way he moved, to prove to me he worked for a living.  His wife, standing next to him, was a few years younger; red-headed, plump, and surprisingly light-skinned, for someone who’d grown up in Damansara.  It crossed my mind to wonder if she hadn’t.  It wasn’t impossible.  A trader would have ample opportunity to meet a girl from somewhere a long way away, then bring her home as a bride …

Perhaps that’s a good sign, I thought, as they bowed.  They might be more understanding of me.

“Welcome to my home,” Fallon’s father said.  “I am Griffin, Son of Griffin.  This is my wife, Margo.”

“Pleased to meet you.”  It was impossible to escape the feeling I was stumbling through some very alien etiquette.  “I am Elliot, Son of Elliot.”

Griffin looked, for a moment if he had a multitude of questions.  I understood how he felt.  If my daughter was marrying someone who’d effectively appeared out of nowhere, a year or so ago, I’d have questions too.  And yet, it was rude – to say the least – to bombard aristocrats with questions, if indeed I was an aristocrat.  My title had been given to me, rather than handed down from my father …

I took a breath.  “We must speak plainly,” I said, shooting him a grin.  “I have enough trouble with the etiquette at court.  There are people who can’t even ask to leave the room without a flowery soliloquy and a round of verse.”

“As you wish,” Griffin said.  “Where did you come from?”

Fallon jumped.  “Father!”

“It’s a reasonable question,” I said.  The trouble was that I had no way to answer it … not if I wanted to be believed.  Most people here had no idea of the concept of alternate worlds, let alone imagined it possible to jump from world to world.  Hell, I didn’t know how I’d arrived in my new world and I was the one who’d done it.  Or had it done to me.  “It’s just difficult to answer.”

And half the world thinks you’re a mercenary, my thoughts added.  If her parents think that too …

“I was born a long way away,” I said.  “I thirsted for adventure, so I set out on the road.  My wanderings, through random chance, brought me to Damansara.  I think you know the rest.”

Margo met my eyes.  “And your family?”

I didn’t have to fake the sudden stab of pain.  “Gone,” I said, flatly.  My relatives – my children – were on the other side of the dimensional divide, lost forever.  There was no way home.  “I have nothing back there, nothing to go home to.”

“I’m sorry,” Margo said.

“It’s not your fault,” I said.  “Suffice it to say, I am alone in the world.”

Griffin frowned.  “And why do you want to marry my daughter?”

Fallon blanched.  “Father!”

“She has magic,” Margo pointed out.  “She is a noble.”

I took a moment to consider my answer.  Griffin was right to be concerned.  Princess Helen had raised me high and Queen Helen had confirmed my titles, then raised me even higher.  It was the perfect opportunity for an up-and-coming young man, or middle-aged man, to secure himself a wife from the purest bloodlines, a wife who’d ensure he couldn’t fall too far when his inevitable rise came to a halt, then started to fall.  It didn’t matter what – if anything – the poor girl had to say about it, not when so many pure bloodlines had been indicted for treason and threatened with total eradication.  Her family would force her into the match, into my bed …

I shuddered.  I couldn’t do that.

My thoughts raced.  Love wasn’t the answer.  I was fond of Fallon, very fond, but her parents were merchants.  She’d said enough about them to make it clear they were practical people first and foremost, arranging marriages for their children based on what was good for the families, not for their hearts.  And yet, the hell of it was that – on paper – Fallon offered very little.  She had no bloodline, no money, nothing … beyond magic and a good heart.  I cursed under my breath.  What sort of answer could I give?

“She joined me when I was preparing the defence of this city,” I said.  “Since then, she has been a reliable part of my household” – here, the team really meant organisation – “and she has saved my life several times, as well as serving as my assistant, castellan and quite a few other roles.  I can rely on her completely, not something I can say about many others.”

Margo cocked her head.  “And you’re not looking for a high-ranking bride?”

“Fallon has magic,” I said.  I knew what she meant, but to me the whole concept was just silly.  “She’s an aristocrat by power, if not by birth, and no one will dare say otherwise.”

“True enough,” Margo said.  She shared a look with her husband.  “Fallon, perhaps you would care to join me upstairs?”

I blinked.  Aristocratic women were commonly dismissed when the menfolk started to discuss serious issues – Helen was an exception, and even she had problems; she was lucky she had me, rather than someone who’d grown up in the same culture – but I’d expected better of the merchants.  Or … I wondered, suddenly, which one of the two really wore the pants?  Margo was almost certainly a merchant herself, or at least raised in a merchant family, and she would have insights of her own … she’d done her best, too, to ensure Fallon got as good an education as possible.  I guessed the two were going to compare notes after Fallon and I left for the night, before giving us their blessing.

Fallon winked at me, then followed her mother through the door, closing it behind her.  I tried to relax, all too aware of Griffin studying me.  The man was very far from stupid.  No merchant could have stayed in business for long, not here, without a working brain.  And a certain willingness to be ruthless, when necessary.  An alliance with me – bound together by blood, and an unborn child – could easily turn into a two-edged sword.

“They haven’t seen each other in quite some time,” Griffin said, quietly.  “I was very surprised when she chose to go with you, rather than return home.”

I had the feeling that wasn’t entirely true.  Fallon had seen a chance to better herself – really better herself – and taken it, despite the risk.  It wasn’t even that dangerous, particularly after she learnt enough magic to protect herself.  She could have changed her clothes, left the mansion, and effectively vanished, if the shit hit the fan. The prize had been well worth the risk.

“She’s a very brave girl,” I said, flatly.  It had been nerve-wracking talking to Cleo’s father.  This was much worse.  “And …”

“There’s also a war on,” Griffin said.  “Can you protect her?”

Nothing is ever certain in war, I thought, darkly.  I’d been in enough war zones to know a situation could go from reasonably stable to chaotic in the blink of an eye.  I thought we could best the warlords – we’d certainly stolen a match on them by moving a small army to the city-state – but who could be sure?  A single unexpected twist of fate would be enough to tip the balance against us?  If the warlords get lucky …

“I will,” I said.  Fallon’s father didn’t need to hear doubts or quibbles.  Fallon herself knew the risks, knew what would happen if she fell into enemy hands.  The dagger she carried in her sleeve was for herself as much as the enemy.  “She’ll be safe with me.”

“And if your enemies down south overwhelm you?”  Griffin leaned forward.  “What’ll happen to her then?”

“The city aristocracy has been broken,” I assured him.  It was just a matter of time until the survivors started plotting again – an overwhelmingly powerful monarchy was not in their interests – but it would be years before they worked up the nerve to try something again.  Unless, of course, the warlords won the war …  “And I do have contingency plans for utter disaster.”

Griffin raised his eyebrows, so theatrically I knew the gesture was faked.  “You plan for disaster?”

“All possibilities must be at least considered, up to and including complete disaster,” I told him, rather severely.  A great many problems in Iraq and Afghanistan might have been averted if someone at the Pentagon had wondered what could go wrong, then drawn up rough plans to deal with it.  They wouldn’t have been perfect, not in any real sense of the word, but at least they would have provided a framework when something did go wrong.  “I try to plan for everything.”

“Difficult,” Griffin observed.

“I studied war extensively,” I said.  “The Battle of Blaydon Fields, for example, wouldn’t have gone so badly if the losers had a contingency plan for defeat, allowing them to draw together their still-formidable resources and make a stand further to the west.  They could have fallen back on the bridges and held them against superior force, or even manned the city defences, but instead they scattered.  Their enemy didn’t move quickly to secure their victory – they didn’t even try to keep the losers running – yet … they didn’t have to.  The chance to turn the war around was lost, because they didn’t allow themselves to admit they could be defeated.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Griffin said.  “Now, about the new trade routes …”

We chatted, dancing from topic to topic, for nearly an hour, until the maid arrived to tell us dinner was served.  Margo and Fallon rejoined us as we went into dine; the food, I noted, was an interesting collection of dishes, each from a different part of the world.  A clear message, if I’d needed it, that the family had interests and contacts all over the continent.  I wondered, idly, just how big the merchant family actually was.  Fallon’s siblings were nowhere in evidence, nor were her aunts, uncles and cousins.  The maid served us with practiced ease, then left us to eat.  I felt a twinge of guilt, even though I knew she’d probably put some food aside for herself too.  I certainly hoped so.

“It’s getting harder to hire good domestics,” Margo commented, when Fallon asked about borrowing the maid.  “They want higher wages.”

I hid my amusement.  The servant problem had been universal on Earth – and here too now.  A year ago, young and poor girls had had few other options; now, thanks to the enigmatic Emily, they didn’t have to spend their lives serving wealthier families, putting up with everything from harsh treatment to sexual assault.  If wealthy families wanted to hire servants now, they had to treat them better or they’d simply leave.  And good riddance.

“I rather think we approve,” Griffin said, when the meal was done.  “You have our blessing.”

Fallon looked relieved.  “Thank you …”

“You do need to get married quickly,” Margo added.  “People will talk.”

I nodded.  Someone would count on their fingers, work out our child had to have been conceived months before the wedding and whisper our kid was a bastard.  And then … we were lucky, I supposed, that I had no relatives, ready to try to snatch the child’s inheritance …

“Yes, Mother,” Fallon said.  “We will.”

Chapter Eleven

“Sir,” Horst said, two weeks later.  We stood together on the battlements, staring into the darkening sky.  It was easy to believe, as darkness swept across the land, that we were alone in an infinite desert.  “Where are they?”

I shrugged.  “Here we are, all dressed up, waiting for our partner to put their clothes on and take us to the ball,” I said.  “How rude he is, to be sure.”

Horst shot me a sidelong look.  “Sir?”

“We need time too,” I pointed out, dryly.  “Don’t complain about them giving us all the time we need to prepare for them.”

He didn’t look convinced, I noted, as he turned away.  I understood, all too well.  The army had been kept busy over the past two weeks – digging trenches, raising battlements, training and training and more training – but problems were starting to appear.  There was a limit to how long the troops could remain on alert, without jumping and shooting at shadows; there were limits, too, to how long they could be kept away from the red-light district before they started sneaking out, in search of some fun.  I’d done what I could – the army had taken over a number of brothels and bars, and established a rota to make sure everything had a chance to visit – but there were limits.  Hell, there were limits to how much discipline I could impose before someone started talking mutiny.

At least I’ve made it clear the rules apply to everyone, I thought.  There was always at least one mid-ranking officer, a little shit by any reasonable definition, who thought the rules were for the common soldiers, not for him.  I’d been lucky, I supposed, it had happened so quickly, in a place I could deal with it without interference.  The twit had left his post and gone to visit a high-class brothel, for which I’d demoted him and forced him to run the gauntlet.  He’d been more upset about the demotion than the gauntlet, somewhat to my surprise.  But then, there’s little hope of being promoted again unless he really does well in the coming campaign.

The thought nagged at my mind as I waited.  Why are they taking so long?

The problem was simple to understand, not so simple to overcome.  There were two things keeping the warlords in power: their armies, the most powerful forces in their lands, and their vassals, junior aristocrats who’d pledged themselves to a senior aristocrat in return for his support and protection.  The vassals had smaller armies of their own, and the right to call up the peasant levies from their lands, and in theory those armies were at the disposal of their master.  In practice, it wasn’t so simple.  A warlord who lost his army would lose his head very quickly – Aldred’s lands had come apart, the moment his army had been smashed beyond repair – as the vassals might renegotiate the teams of their servitude, or the peasant levies might decide it would be better to rise against their master instead of their master’s enemies.  Cuthbert and his peers had the numbers, on paper, but assembling a sizable force without disaster would be tricky, particularly after Aldred had been crushed.  Who knew which way the vassals and levies would jump?

My lips twitched in cold amusement.  It wasn’t just that Cuthbert couldn’t trust his vassals – our intelligence suggested he’d been inviting their wives and children to visit his castle, hostages in all but name – to fight his war.  It was his logistics.  Feeding and supplying a small army was a nightmarish task, even in the modern world.  Here … local armies were used to living off the land, but I’d done what I could to move food and fodder out of their way, forcing them to set up supply dumps at the edge of our territory before they started their advance.  They were doing it too – at least one person on the other side had a clear grasp of the problem – but they were proceeding so slowly I wondered if I was missing something.  Did Cuthbert have something clever in mind?  Or was he hoping we’d invade his territory instead?  It wasn’t impossible.  Sooner or later, the stalemate would have to be broken. 

We keep sending in spies, I told myself.  The enemy garrisons, towns and villages were almost defenceless against my spies and agents.  They didn’t seem to have any concept of operational security, something else that bothered me.  It was tricky, sure, to hide entire armies and their supplies moving through the land – peasants saw everything – but with a little effort they could have made intelligence gathering a great deal harder.   Are they fucking with us or are they just that dumb?

I didn’t know, I reflected.  We’d sent messages into enemy territory, inviting Cuthbert’s vassals to switch sides and informing them of the laws of war, promising them that we’d execute any aristocrat who encouraged his troops to commit atrocities or even just turned a blind eye to them.  I didn’t know if they’d take heed – the local aristocrats thought they could maim, rape and kill to their heart’s content – but I owed it to myself to try.  We’d sent other messengers into the enemy army itself, trying to warn the soldiers and mercenaries to refrain from atrocities.  It was impossible to say how much effect they’d had, but given how few messengers had returned …

They know what we’re doing, I thought.  It wasn’t easy to keep rumours from spreading through an army like a virus, no matter how hard the officers tried to crack down on it.  Hell, the more they cracked down, the more credence the rumours would have.  And they have to do something, before their army starts coming apart at the seams.

I put the thought aside and started to walk along the battlements, peering down at the makeshift camps and barracks.  My men were good men, by and large, although two-thirds of them had never faced combat.  The ones who had seen the elephant had been promoted, and deployed through the ranks as stiffeners, but … I was uneasily aware the first taste of combat could easily lead to disaster, if I lost control.  It was impossible to properly prepare them for that moment, not with the limited tech and magic at my comment.  Even back home, they’d been limits.  Paintball guns had been unpleasant, to be sure, but they hadn’t been lethal.  There’d been no real risk of dying …

They have worse problems, I told myself.  Who knows?  Perhaps we can just wait for them to crack, then go home.

I shook my head.  It wasn’t going to happen.  The warlords couldn’t afford to wait for much longer.  Queen Helen’s armies grew stronger, at least on paper, with every passing day.  Her gunsmiths were turning out newer and better guns, cannons, mortars and even makeshift rocket launchers, a degree of innovation the warlords couldn’t possibly match.  If they didn’t stop us, we’d have both quality and quantity on our side.  A year would be quite long enough for me to build a force that could crush all the warlords in a single decisive campaign, smashing them one by one.  No, they had to act now.  And yet, why weren’t they moving?

They’ll be having problems of their own, I reminded myself.  The days in which a small cavalry troop could intimidate a town, or a city, or even a king were over.  And we’re doing everything we can to make their problems worse.

The thought haunted me as I passed the outer lines and made my way deeper into the city.  Damansara was quieter at night these days – the combination of high employment and a more active City Guard was keeping crime under control – but there was still some activity, from late-night bars and brothels to a handful of shops and businesses.  A line of prostitutes stood by one wall and waved to me invitingly, their pimps watching warily from a safe distance … I sighed inwardly, all too aware the women were effectively slaves, held in bondage by fear, addiction, or naked violence.  They wouldn’t have been working the streets if there’d been any other options … I made a mental note to see if the recruiters could find jobs for them.  It wasn’t impossible.

Poor bitches, I thought.  The women couldn’t be that old, but they looked ancient.  If we can find them something better …

The guard outside the Town Hall snapped to attention.  “Sir, I need to see your face.”

I struck a pose, ignoring his obvious nerves.  The guards had strict orders to check the names and faces of everyone who went in or out of the Town Hall, no matter how high-ranking or well-connected they were.  I didn’t blame him for being worried.  He might have his orders, but there were hundreds of aristos who’d demand anyone who insisted on blocking their way, at least as long as it took to check their identity, be severely punished.  Idiots.  All it took was one person thinking the rules didn’t apply to him to compromise our security beyond hope of repair.  I’d promised the guards I’d back them, if someone took umbrage at them doing their job, but they had no way to know I could be trusted.  It would be very easy to throw them under a bus …

And we live in a world full of shapechanging sorcerers, mind-control spells and God alone knows what else, I thought, darkly.  I didn’t believe someone I knew well could be replaced by a complete stranger, not for more than a few hours at best, but the guards didn’t know any of their seniors that well.  A sorcerer wearing my face could breeze through the checkpoints effortlessly.  Our defences are thinner than anyone would prefer.

The thought haunted me as I made my way into the war room.  Back home, there were fingerprint scanners and blood tests and biometric ID cards and a dozen other ways to prove someone’s identity beyond a reasonable doubt.  Here, there was nothing.  Fallon and her peers had cast a handful of security spells, designed to ward out intruders, but she’d openly admitted they could be subverted by someone who knew what he was doing.  It made me paranoid, a paranoia I hadn’t dared confess to anyone else because it would lead rapidly to complete chaos.  And yet, what if I wasn’t being paranoid enough?

Rupert looked up as I entered.  “Elliot,” he said.  “It’s been a while.”

I smiled.  “Not that long,” I said.  “Our last command conference was only two days ago.”

“That’s at least a decade or two, in political time,” Rupert said.  “Father used to say an hour was a long time in politics.  I think I know, now, what he meant.”

I nodded.  Rupert had grown up in the year since I’d met him, shifting from a naive – if decent – young fop to a grown man and army officer, although one who had never seen real action.  Not quite a REMF, thankfully, but not a seasoned commander either.  It could have been worse, I reflected.  Rupert might have done most of his military learning through studying books, and learning from me, but that made him more qualified than many other officers.  They certainly didn’t have the common sense, when the bullets started flying, to step back and let someone else take the lead.

“I understand Griffin gave you his blessing,” Rupert said.  “A good choice, if I may say so.”

“Thank you,” I said.  He hadn’t mentioned Margo.  He’d been raised in a world where the mother’s opinion was irreverent.  Odd, given his younger sister was one of his sneakier supporters.  “We’ll be getting hitched shortly.”

“If the war doesn’t get in our way,” Rupert said.  He pointed to the map on the table.  “What do you make of it?”

The nasty part of my mind whispered there was nothing more dangerous than a greenie officer with a map.  I told that part of me to shut up.   Rupert had ridden over the lands on the map.  He knew the mapmaker hadn’t done a very good job.  Everything was roughly in the right position, relative to everything else, but the distance estimates were so badly wrong that they made Washington and San Francisco look about an hour’s drive apart.  I cautioned myself not to take the map too seriously.  If I had proper cartographers under my command …

“Cuthbert took control of Houdon,” I said, flatly.  The free city had the extreme ill-luck to be positioned right between Warlord Aldred and Warlord Cuthbert’s territory, making their independence something of a joke.  I’d hoped, back when I was in command of Damansara’s armies, that we could make an alliance with Houdon, but Cuthbert had pre-empted it by moving his forces to the city and taking control before the council could put my plan into action.  “And he’s using it as a base.”

“He’s flooding men, guns and supplies into the city,” Rupert said, more to himself than to me.  I already knew it.  I also knew much of our information was days or weeks out of date.  “What’s he waiting for?”

“He can’t afford to be defeated,” I pointed out.  “He can’t afford to take heavy losses either.”

Rupert shot me a sharp look.  “What do you mean?”

“If he beats us, and it costs him half his army, his position is going to be fatally weakened,” I explained.  “He won’t take out all of the queen’s army, even if he slaughters every last one of us.  She could resume the offensive shortly, if she wishes, or wait for his vassals to rise against him.  We have been making offers …”

“Hah,” Rupert said.  “Do you think they’d trust her?”

“It depends,” I said.  Personally, I doubted the warlord’s vassals knew anything of honour.  They certainly wouldn’t fight to the death, not when it might cost them everything.  “If they think they’re trapped on a sinking ship, they’ll do whatever they have to do to jump to safe harbour.”

“So he has to attack soon,” Rupert said, slowly.  “What’s he waiting for?”

“It isn’t easy to get an entire army marching in the same direction,” I said.  God knew it had been nightmarish for us, and I had the advantage of a modern military education.  The warlords weren’t used to deploying giant armies and it showed.  “They’ll be on the march soon enough.”

“We’ll see,” Rupert said.

“Get some rest,” I advised.  “There’s no point in worrying yourself to death about it now.”

“You too,” Rupert said.  “Gayle was hoping you and Fallon would come to her gathering, the day after tomorrow.”

I nodded, then left the chamber and headed upstairs to my quarters.  Taking a suite in the Town Hall was a gamble – it pleased the council, who were afraid Queen Helen would sell them out if Cuthbert made a better offer, but it also meant assassins knew where and probably when to find me.  I wasn’t blind to the risks.  A skilled assassin could get through my defences, or simply drive a cart loaded with gunpowder up to the door, lit the match and run for his life.  Or … I tried not to think about the sorcerer who’d kidnapped me.  It was a memory that haunted my nightmares …

Fallon was sitting in the centre of the bed, a flickering light dancing over her palms.  A shiver ran down my spine.  It had been over a year since I saw my fight magic spell, since I’d seen the first completely inexplicable thing that had proven I was a very long way from home, and yet it still chilled me.  The world had turned upside down and … it was still turning, spooking me in a way I could never put into words.  She looked up at me, dispelling the light.  The last flickers shimmered and died.  I knew I shouldn’t, but I felt relieved.

“I’ve just been practicing,” she said.  “How did it look?”

“Remarkable,” I said.  I knew people back home who would have killed for a chance to study magic, although I had the feeling half of them would have gone mad trying to make sense of it.  I’d read a handful of magic tomes and even the simplest had been very – very – difficult to follow.  The more complex ones might as well have been written in an alien tongue.  “How did your lesson go?”

“Well enough,” Fallon said.  “They say I have to keep practicing.”

I nodded, then undressed and clambered into bed beside her.  She blew out the lantern and cuddled up next to me.  It was hard not to feel a little guilty – I had a warm bed and a partner; my men, even the senior officers, didn’t have it anything like as good – but I was too tired ti care.  I held her gently as we drifted off to sleep …

… And then I was awoken by a loud series of knocks.

“I’m awake,” I growled.  Had I really been asleep?  It was hard to be sure.  The clock insisted it was early morning.  I grabbed my flintlock as I rolled out of bed, just in case.  “What’s happening?”

“A rider just reached the main gates,” the messenger said.  I wondered who he’d pissed off to get this duty.  “The enemy army is on the move!”

“I see,” I said, tartly.  Unless we’d missed an entire army sneaking up on us, we had more than enough time to prepare for the coming battle.  “And is the army outside our gates?”

“No, sir,” the messenger said.  I guessed whoever was in charge of the war room had panicked.  “I …”

“There is time enough to have a good night’s sleep and then beat the enemy,” I said.  Francis Drake would be proud of me, although I wasn’t sure if he’d ever actually said his famous quote.  It didn’t matter.  “Wait until eight bells, then inform the war council – general meeting, ten bells.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good,” I said.  “Go.”

And with that, I went back to sleep.

OUT NOW – The Lone World (Ark Royal XIX)

18 Mar

On her first deep-space mission, HMS Endeavour discovered two alien Dyson Spheres: one shattered, apparently nothing more than rubble orbiting a dying star; one seemingly intact, maintained by ancient super-technology so far advanced it may be beyond comprehension, inhabited by humans kidnapped from Earth hundreds of thousands of years ago. 

Nearly trapped within the sphere, Endeavour barely escaped, leaving behind a disturbing mystery.  It is a mystery that must be solved – and quickly.

Now, months later, a multinational task force is heading out to the spheres.  It’s mission: to unravel the secrets of the alien technology, to determine who built the spheres and why and, perhaps most importantly, if they are still watching their creations, silently judging the visitors to their worlds.  But with the secret of super-tech up for grabs, and human nations and factions gambling everything on getting the tech first, everything hangs in the balance …

… And the spheres are waiting to see who’ll be the first to take what they can for themselves.

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More Dictation Experiments …

4 Mar

(This is me still practising with the dictation software. I hasten to add this is not remotely canon. (Grin.) As you can see, I’m still trying to get the hang of spoken words on text. My editor does not have an easy job.)

“It is a deeply frustrating experience,” said Emily, “that Dragon dictation software is not as intuitive as I might have hoped.”

“That is true,” said Lady Barb.

“Yes,” Emily said. “Magic is nowhere near as difficult as dictation software.”

“That is because you have not practised enough,” Lady Barb said. “Dictation software needs time to learn how you write, then adapt itself to you. You have to give it time. The genius who writes your stories has already mastered using the software to write essays, but not spoken conversation, such as the one we’re having now.”

Emily stood and paced the room. “It is incredible frustrating,” she said. “My writer is very used to using his hands on his keyboard. Using dictation software, no matter how advanced, is nowhere near as capable. Even when dictating something smaller than a three thousand word chapter, there are still mistakes which have to be corrected.”

“Persistence is the key,” Lady Barb said. “Rome was not built in a day. It is unreasonable to expect that your author, no matter how much a genius he thinks he is, will master the software very quickly. He can go through his paragraphs one by one and correct them as he goes along, teaching the software how to adapt itself to him.”

Emily stickered. “He’s going to have some problems adapting himself when he has to write about S-E-X, isn’t he?”

“Well, that’s his problem,” Lady Barb said. “He shouldn’t be writing about S-E-X anyway, should he?”

“It is quite difficult to say what you mean say out loud,” Emily said. “You have to think about each word as you say it, rather letting the words flow through your fingers. The author might require assistance in the form of a copy-editor, to catch all the mistakes that flow from using the dictation software. Most mistakes are minor, but some paragraphs are so completely messed up that is impossible to say precisely what they were meant to say. In fact, the previous line is terrible grammar. The copy-editor will earn every last penny the author pays them, just for catching mistakes that no one thinks about when you are speaking, but tend to cause problems when written on paper.

“For example, you need to alternate but and yet, which you don’t have to do when you are actually speaking. No one notices, when you are speaking, but they tend to notice when you are writing the words down. The author’s editor kept pointing it out during his early years and she still points them out every so often. So do the beta readers, who often called the author out falling into relative patterns.”

Lady Barb tried to look reassuring. It didn’t work. “Rome was not built in a day,” she said. “It’s all just a matter of practice.”

“But don’t you see,” Emily said. “You just repeated yourself again! You said Rome was not built in a day twice.”

“Yes, but luckily I am not the author,” said Lady Barb. “I don’t have to watch my words. It’s all the author’s fault. I’m just a puppet, a person exists only in his head and that of the people who read about me.”

“So,” Emily said. “It’s not your fault when the author wills you into an orgy with a tribe of man-eating cannibals?”

“Saying both man-eating and cannibals is redundant, is it not?” Lady Barb smiled. “And the author should know better than to steal lines from a webcomic, particularly when he has forgotten the source.”

“I believe the main character was insisting she had free will,” Emily said. “However, she just willed herself into an orgy with a bunch of cannibals and was expecting the author to get her out of this predicament.”

She smiled. “I suppose if my character had gotten off the page and insisted she had free will, I would be very surprised too.”

“Say,” Lady Barb said. “Doesn’t that look like a tribe of cannibals over there?”

Emily opened her mouth to scream. “Help!”