Frays in the Weave

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White streaks lines the sky. The first in weeks. Maybe activities had returned to normal at the sky port.

Heinrich doubted it. He'd arrived here the previous night and it was only late afternoon now. More troops? No, that didn't make sense either.

He watched the shuttles bank as they descended.

Bank? They're less than fifty klicks from destination? What the...

All three shuttles lazily came to a full turn.

They're not headed for the port. Here! They're going to land just in front of the damn city!

He flicked on his sensors and turned magnification to max. His readings would be analysed and an answer given long before he could search his own memory for the origins of those shuttles, so he satisfied himself with giving his suit computer as much data as possible to use. It only took a few seconds, would have taken far less but for algorithms checking against possible countermeasures. When he got the requested information he drew in a long breath of air.

Red News. Wallman's Bloodhounds. They were infamous. Arthur may have been a genius in holo casting, but someone had to dig up whatever dirt the newscaster no longer believed should stay hidden. He was rumoured to have personally trained them in the digging part of the job. There were other exaggerated rumours surrounding the news team as well; like being able to land a shuttle on a mountaintop -- and still have the pilot on the ground with holo cams ready before the shuttle came to a full stop. That was ridiculous of course. Only TADAT did that. Then Heinrich remembered that a full third of the Bloodhounds were retired TADAT. Well, he thought, there's a reason we retire at fifty. Pilot's gotta stay in cockpit until the thing stops. He smiled and silently agreed that in most cases that overblown reputation had been hard won.

He called to Chang over the com. There hadn't been time to destroy the transmitters before they headed here. A violation of the law, but he believed Keen would find a way to overlook his transgression this time. With sixteen hundred trigger happy maniacs based at the launch port they really had little choice in the matter.

Above him a few birds veered away from the unexpected intruders and he hastened out into the training grounds to make sure the illegal landing at least didn't cause any casualties.

There was no need to. Whoever piloted those shuttles were experts and they came to ground with a minimum use of thrusters. To his disappointment the crews took their time to open and unload their cargo as slowly and securely as any civilian trader.

Three shuttles, a team of eighteen. Two shuttles for cargo only apart for their twin pilots. The crew transport unloaded and men and women went to work offloading cargo with an efficiency that told of long years of work together. The first to come out was a small hovercraft, and by the time Heinrich arrived ready to give them a verbal bashing they were already busy loading the tools of their trade onto it.

"You are violating just about every agreement with a foreign government," he started. He searched the faces as they turned. "Who's in charge here?"

"I am, Heinrich," a female voice came from inside one of the shuttles. "We're violating nothing. Red News is registered with the Republic of Mars."

That voice? Where have I heard it?

"We haven't signed anything for the simple reason you federation people kept us away from here and we, until now, accepted that one sided agreement."

But who the...

"And let go of the supremacy play. Only Erwin ever got away with it, and you know it!"

"Gran? Granita?"

"Old Juanita indeed. Wipe that snotty smile from your face and show some respect!"

"Yes, Ma'am," the answer came out as a reflex he couldn't stop. Granny Jita was one of the ugliest women he had ever had the honour to serve with and a full twenty years his senior.

"That's better! Now, will you give us a hand?"

He got his bearings back again. "Now what the hell! You're TADAT no longer, and if you were I'd pull rank to begin with."

She showed a toothy smile. "Had to try."

"What are you doing with them?" He pointed at the news team who were still loading the hovercraft. They barely looked back.

"Declined officer's training. Never wanted driving a desk, and when they allowed bat commands back in the field it was too late," she said as if it explained everything.

He stared at her. Still strong as an ox, and still looked like one. "I mean Mars."

"Made citizen. Feds had me stationed around that red ball of dust for so long I thought I might just as well make it home." She grinned at him. "Good to see you too."

Heinrich blanched. "Sorry. Eh, welcome, or something. Still a damn stupid thing to do," he added and pointed at the shuttles. They'd have a few minutes before men from Keen's cavalry reached them. The shuttles had touched down at the southern end of the fields.

"We think not. By the way, say welcome to our official reason to come here. Mr William Anderson, meet," she eyed Heinrich's body walker, "Major Heinrich Goldberger. Heinrich, meet Chief of Finance Anderson."

A tall Martian jumped out of the shuttle as she spoke. It was, Heinrich thought, time to bring Erwin in on this. Red News made news. With a member of the Martian government on the passenger list it was going to be big news. Too big for a simple major.

He turned his caster on again. "Chang, belay that. Get Erwin. We've got a diplomatic envoy for dinner."

"Oh shit! I mean, yes Major"

"Oh shit is good enough for me. You can tell the admiral that from me. And tell him old Granita decided to pay us a visit as well. You may have heard of her."

He only received a long stream of curses in return. All of them made him smile. Chang didn't look anything like Juanita, but they definitely shared the same colourful language.

He sighed ruefully as the crew made the hovercraft ready and watched the arriving horsemen. Imperial Guard, Erwin had told him. Supposedly the best of the best in Keen. Heinrich didn't doubt it. He knew next to nothing about horses, but anyone handling several hundred kilos of biting and kicking flesh like a body walker had to have received a thorough training. For all their fancy uniforms the riders looked like they ate and slept in the saddle. From the looks on their faces they probably ate those saddles for breakfast, and now they had come out for lunch.

He settled back as comfortably in his straps as possible. He intended to enjoy the shouting about to start. Of course neither party knew the language of the other, but he suspected the choice of words would be rather limited, and that they really needed very little in the way of translation.

He was right. Juanita made no secrets about her opinion concerning the cavalry commander's probable heritage and Heinrich had heard the word gherin enough times to know that the replies were as flattering.

Guard commander and Juanita went through the fauna of Earth and Otherworld and made certain no bodily orifice was forgotten in the verbal exchange.

At his side the Martian minister grinned and laughed. Heinrich looked at him. In his pink, of course it had to be pink, jumpsuit he looked nothing like the powerful government official he was.

"A pity they don't understand each other," William said. "The conversation would have been so much more colourful if they had."

Colourful? They're armed and dangerous, and you think it's a joke. "I think they get the basic meaning," Heinrich said instead. He looked at the tall Martian. "You're the official contact then?"

William just nodded and continued laughing.

Heinrich grinned back. Not his problem. Erwin would have to handle this. As long as the exchange of insults didn't turn violent there was little reason to do anything but enjoy the show. Besides, Granita had been an insubordinate old bastard as long as he could remember. No point in telling her officers training would have been a bad idea anyway. Old harridans from the old school didn't have much of a future with the TADAT after they were reformed into an independent organization. The naval version hadn't turned out too successful, even though the disasters could hardly be blamed on the poor troopers in their shuttles.

He shrugged. Three out of the first eight back here. Almost cause for a celebration. They were legends and idolized. He knew that and had no problems with it. Being a hero sometimes made life easier, and in difference from Erwin his life wasn't visible enough to bring much of the disadvantages that came with fame.

No matter what. Until a few days ago he'd joined the choir screaming bloody murder at the thought of an entire news team landing here. Now, well, it would make his life safer if not easier. They had to get Arthur Wallman away from the city, and it would fall to him to make that escape come true. With Red News present he saw a possibility to change his plans. Why sneak away when they could leave to the sound of blaring trumpets?

Arthur took his reins and rode past Whore's Crotch where they had spent a day during harvest festival last year.

He looked back at the great, red walls of Verd. Men already manned the leftmost tower, or rather the telegraph mounted upon it. Frames cluttered with yellow and black squares went up and down, each frame shouting a message Arthur had never learned to decipher to someone he had never seen. Legend had it the tower had been a jump tower long, long years earlier, allowing mages with the gift to jump to arrive safely on the very walls of Verd. If so, no one remembered, or at least didn't care to do so in public. Mages were executed in Keen. Hunted down like vermin, more likely.

Arthur sighed and tugged his coat closer to keep the rain out. He felt good to be on the road again, even if it meant getting wet. Even if it meant joining another caravan. Different from the one he remembered.

He glared at the hovercraft trailing them. Damn Bloodhounds had found him in the end. No, bloody good for nothing Rear Admiral Erwin Radovic had all but dragged him to his old news team.

He was escaping Verd for very much the same reason he'd escaped Belgera. Stationed around the launch port the Federation army had fulfilled almost every prejudice he had against the military and even threatened Keen with an armed extraction if they didn't comply and turn him over.

The council had refused. Brigadier Goodard made good of his threat and only the presence of body walkers on the city walls and the very visible launch of one of the famous walker flares had stopped the advancing soldiers. Anyone in the solar system knew what those flares meant. TADAT, hot landing, requesting immediate assistance.

He winced at the memory. The city population saw an impressive spectacle as the rocket went screeching into the sky. He guessed all visitors from home had at least thought of taking shelter. Only an idiot wanted to be in the target zone of a ship to ground bombardment, and the more selective assault drops weren't much better. Most of the Bloodhounds had come back puking after he blackmailed the police to allow them to join an assault on a pirate base he had located.

Juanita, who joined his crew less than half a year before that, fired all her missiles before landing inside a housing dome venting all its air into space. A third of the inhabitants died, either as a result of decompression or severe burns when Juanita turned the shuttle on its end and made a vertical landing with rear thrusters at full power.

He was certain that had been the result of her age, or lack of training, or both. The returning TADAT had spoken about her with a mix of awe and admiration though. The hundred million FEM shuttle was all but wrecked, and as far as he knew even the military tried to keep their vehicles so they could get back from whatever hell hole they were sent into.

He grinned as the memories came back to him. Old times, and a different Arthur Wallman. He turned that spectacular mishap into one of his golden shows. It had paid off twenty fold. As far as he knew Red News still made money from it.

He returned to more recent memories. No bombs and no shuttles ever came down from the sky, but Orbit One fired a railgun once. One tracked vehicle was replaced by a crater in the ground. The flare had done its job. Brigadier Goodard retreated back to the launch port and made no new attempts to negotiate at gunpoint. That didn't mean he'd given up, something Arthur had reluctantly accepted when Admiral Radovic explained.

Arthur didn't like to run, but he was a danger to the city now. Not even the news about Ulfsdotir being taken captive in Belgera and then released again made him change his mind, and so here he was, on horseback again.

They rode the southern highway. On their way to Krante, a town he had never visited, and one with a history of its own as he had learned in Belgera.

Passing the training fields took enough time for him to watch the soldiers marching up and down. Foot soldiers these. Not as well clad as those he'd grown used to inside the city walls, and a far cry from as well trained. He didn't need to be one himself to see that. Half a year with the caravan escort had told him more than he wanted to know about soldiers, and the young men he saw here would have had the escort captain, no, General Trindai de Laiden now, bellow with displeasure.

Arthur rode with Ken at his side. Ken had been adamant about joining them. To watch and Weave.

The highway was wide enough for a dozen men to ride abreast with room to spare. They watched the road, the fields they passed and waved greetings to people they met, trying very much not to pretend they even knew about the fantastic menagerie of outworlder machinery all around them. A few times they exchanged sentences about nothing but for most part each man kept his silence, which suited Arthur just fine.

It was not that Ken was impolite, but he did have an air of superiority around him, and Arthur couldn't for his life guess what made the stranger think so highly of his own importance.

When evening came the steady drizzle that had followed them throughout the day gave up on them as if it had known they were making for a roadhouse where it would be unable to reach them.

They mounted their horses early next morning and rode the next day in as eerily as silence as the one before. Arthur, like Ken, preferred riding to sitting idle inside the hovercraft.

Ken wanted to reach Krante before beginning his lessons. Krante may have boasted a Taleweaver's Inn just like any other sizeable town, but Arthur suspected Ken just wanted to leave the one in Verd behind, as if Arthur had tainted it somehow.

Well, he had the time to spare. Each day got him further away from Verd and the train from the launch port. From, not to. There was no fear in going there any longer. It was what was bound to arrive from there that scared him now, and if Ken preferred his silence as they made their escape from what Arthur wanted to avoid he wasn't one to complain.

Three days later they passed the gates of Krante, paid for rooms at a run down hotel close to the Taleweaver's Inn. They each had a bath, and, by unspoken agreement headed directly for the inn. It was time to share both a meal and tidings alike.

There was little learning to be had. Not that Ken avoided it, but the madness that had erupted took new shapes, new methods in its insanity, and it grew. Arthur had expected the religious fervour to die away as days came and went, and for a while it looked as if he'd been correct. Then night fell again, the new star still the brightest in the sky. It didn't matter. Mothers and fathers brought their entire families into the streets and crowded the squares in silent prayer or singing.

Krante may not have seen riots, but what had obviously been an important but boring town was now a centre of dissent.

Old men with canes sat on stools brought out from inns telling tales of the last time a god had been born. Old, but not old enough to have seen it with their own eyes, Arthur guessed, and Ken confirmed his suspicion.

They had planned to exchange Weaves in the Inn, but for once no one was interested. Taleweaver's might be a once in a lifetime experience. Gods took to the stage more seldom than that.

Ken convinced Arthur to leave the next day. Krante was becoming dangerous he said, and even though Arthur wanted to watch the madness he accepted Ken's wisdom in this case. A few fights had broken out in the darkness, and the wall of silence that met questions of if anyone had been hurt made him uncomfortable. There was an ugly undertone to how neighbours chose factions after just two nights, and they were strangers, sacrosanct or not. The outworlder presence didn't help neither.

As they rode south on the highway Arthur thought he saw smoke behind him, but he accounted it to his imagination, or hope.

They met more people than he remembered seeing the last time he made use of the white highways of Keen. It was more of an unplanned migration than an exodus. There were as many heading south as they met, and he soon stopped making any attempts at guessing the reasons for each individual to take to the road. He'd expected his own shining caravan to create more of an uproar than it did, but mostly they just received sullen stares.

From time to time he saw soldiers in uniforms coloured to stand out from the rest of the population, or from enemy soldiers on a field of battle. From what he had learned they massed soldiers on as a flat piece of ground as possible and marched into each other. The art of staying hidden was still ahead of the killers of this world. A few, he noted, mixed with the people among them. Some had discarded all but their trousers, but others kept their uniforms on, acting like guards protecting their favoured assembly of believers.

Fields lay deserted on both sides of the road, not all of course. Most were worked by men and women who shook their heads or made angry gestures at the madness passing them by.

As the days passed the randomness turned into order, or rather several kinds of order. Each roadhouse they slept in, and they got rooms only because Arthur made the most of his being a taleweaver, had tales of people gathering at shrines and temples far from the road. For each new one they visited those tales had more elements of armed protection and a little less of friendly gatherings, and it only took a few eightdays before the first story about a pitched battle around a shrine reached them.

Ken stopped Weaving at that time. He had more need of learning than of retelling, he said, but as far as Arthur was concerned he only found a comfortable excuse to avoid the risks involved in stopping the violence. We don't take sides, we don't take part. We Weave, he had said.

That was cravenness taken to the extreme, and Arthur refused to abide by it. The very next night he entered the stage knowing well ahead what he was about to Weave. They needed to understand the dark road of religious fanaticism and where it would take them.

He filled his mind with what he knew about Earth's old witch hunts. Not enough. The Spanish Inquisition would have been good enough, but Keen had one of its own. In the end he decided on the German madness that had put Earth to the torch eight hundred years earlier and gave it religious overtones that had nothing with history to do. He was there to teach them a lesson, not as an advocate of rigid adherence to facts. He imagined a modern inquisition, placed a theocracy in the place of the rulers of the time, recalled as much of the atrocities he could. He mixed it, coloured it and made himself believe it, as if he had experienced it himself. Then he carried that anguish and fury foremost to his mind, and he Wove.

Ken gasped in pain as he was kicked forward in the queue. Ahead him he saw the gates of Buchenwald Camp of Redemption. The gravel road was lined with guards from the Church of True Faith, the holy book of Ra in one hand and a neural whip in the other. A flaming swastika on their chests showed their devotion.

Passion by wrath, love in pain and freedom through obedience. He knew the mandates, but he had broken them, and now he was to be punished, redeemed.

He took another step and looked around. Behind him a freckled girl faltered. He heard the whining and the crack as a whip took her back. Then a shrill scream.

This has never happened. This is a lie.

The tip of the whip bounced and snapped at his legs. Fire! Flames ate him from below. He burned from the inside, and the pain was far, far more than he could bear. He screamed, and fell.

Behind him the girl who had take the full measure of the whip whimpered. Her life ran out of her mouth in red gushes of blood.

I'm not here. Not real. A Weave, a bastard Weave.

He crawled to his knees. He had to walk, had to earn his right to redemption. Pain was better than what awaited the unrepentant.

As he passed the gates towering chimneys towered above him. Those beyond forgiveness ended their evil days there, but he still had a pure core in his sole. He could still be saved.

Not real. I'll spike your bowels to the door! Damn you Arthur Asshole Arrogant Vain Worthless Wallman!

The last thought lingered between realities. He clung to it but lost his grip. Redemption, he walked the last road to redemption.

Heinrich and Juanita, the latter with the help of two men in her news team, tore Arthur and Ken apart. Arthur, or Ken, Heinrich wasn't sure who, had done something, and when he arrived to investigate the screams he found them rolling on the floor doing their best to strangle each other.

All around them in the tavern people where on their knees, screaming, moaning or crying. By the time he was sure he wouldn't have to report Arthur for murder or bring his corpse back to Verd most of the people had crawled away. A few still stayed though, and they were staring at Arthur with gratitude shining from their eyes. Then, slowly as if having made an important decision they departed.

Heinrich didn't care. He barely avoided dragging Arthur through a pool of vomit on the floor and dumped him into a chair.

"What the hell..."

"Idiot! You arrogant child! How dare you interfere? We Weave, yes, but we never interfere!"

Heinrich jumped at the tirade. So, Ken was angry about Arthur doing something. Probably Arthur's doing then. That didn't exactly surprise Heinrich.

"They had to know," Arthur responded.

The strangeness took a short while for Heinrich to register. When it did he shrugged it away. Warrior gorilla or golden eyed alien, or, apparently, some rooms voided the need for interpreters. He was getting used to a few of Otherworld's peculiarities.

"Fool! They know for certain. You changed the Weave!"

"What are you talking about?" Arthur made as if to rise.

He had calmed down, which was good, but Ken was still close to hysteria. Better let him get it out of his system. Heinrich pushed Arthur back into his seat.

"You are an ignorant cretin. Whenever we Weave we travel the threads of the Weave. You have no right to add threads or patterns to the Weave."

"Whatever. Watch and Weave, never interfere. Blah blah blah. People are dying here. We have a responsibility to make them..."

"You just changed history. You made your fantasy Nazi church part of our history. Listen, learn and shut the hell up before you tear this world even further apart!"

This time Arthur only opened his mouth.

Heinrich stared at Ken. He'd stopped believing things were impossible here. Stopped the moment a dragon appeared out of nowhere and made him and his entire command blink out of existence and reappear in the middle of combat a moment later. Juanita gaped as well. She was new here, new to the magic of Otherworld and probably still had problems coming to terms with her suddenly being able to understand the local language.

Ken rose and shrugged away the hands that tried to force him back onto the floor. "Not going to hurt him. He's trying to get himself killed without my help." He turned to Arthur again. "Now I just have to convince you not to kill the rest of us on the way."

"I don't think..."

"Shut up! I don't know how things work in your damn brave new world, but it doesn't seem to have improved much since I left it, so just shut up and listen!"

Hairs rose on Heinrich's back. Ken hadn't spoken the local language at all. It was English, but English of a kind Heinrich had never heard from any holo casting.

Ken coughed. "He forgot to tell you? Yes, I'm from Earth and I'm a fucking seven hundred years older than that misfit of yours, so if he obstructs my lesson again would you be so kind and knock his teeth out?"

"That's, that's impossible..." Heinrich tried to swallow the words back, but it was too late. At Ken's side Juanita gasped.

"No, only unlikely," Ken said and smiled. Then he became all serious again. "That makes me senior to anyone else here. Now," he glared at Arthur, "there are a few details you should consider very, very carefully. When you Weave you Weave. You can change the Weave, add to it, and that Weave is the foundation of this world. Gods do the changing, taleweavers only mend frayed threads or patch together lost patterns. Sometimes we make mistakes, and there's a price to pay. Understand?"

Arthur nodded sullenly but stayed silent.

"Good! We never, ever, deliberately change the Weave, because we can't understand what changing this world will do to it. You just changed the history of this world. People won't become unborn or anything like that, but from now on your disgusting fairytale is part of what happened here. Maybe in someone's true dreams, or somewhere there's a patch of land where a ghost talker can feel the remnants of a short lived nation that almost was."

Heinrich couldn't tell if the words or Arthur's silence was the worst. True or not, Ken honestly believed what he told Arthur, or he had to be one hell of a liar That also made Arthur a criminal of a kind. Criminally stupid? Heinrich would like to think so. The newscaster had dug up dirt everywhere the last twenty years or so, and even though Heinrich had admired the charming hero as a child he'd grown more and more disenchanted with the royal pain in the butt as he grew older. The Wallman empire never ceased to grow. No truth was unimportant -- as long as there was a FEM to be made from it.

He remembered how angry he'd been when he found out that Wallman had charged, and charged well, for the holo casts they'd received during those lonely years he spent grounded here after the failed invasion. The navy paid, as Wallman must have known they would. Even a rumour about failing to make life easier for the eight survivors would have been fatal for the navy's reputation.

" Kordar probably have new legends they don't know where they came from as well?"

Heinrich abandoned his line of thought as Ken's words brought him back to the here and now.

"What is Kordar?"

Ken stared at him. "Sorry, you wouldn't know. It's a kingdom north of Keen. Used to be warlike with ideals similar to medieval Europe. Knightly virtues and all that."

"I don't understand," Heinrich said. He didn't.

"It's not important. What is important is that I travelled here because I heard a retelling of the King Arthur legend."

Heinrich realized he looked like a fool, but he shook his head anyway.

"You are familiar with that one?"

"I've heard about a king with that name, but ancient history, well..."

"Oh dear," Ken said. "Really! Maybe historical, maybe not, but the legends most definitely have very little with history to do. Now, our bright little arrogant idiot didn't just tell that legend. He had to Weave it I guess."

Arthur nodded again.

"So, somewhere, somehow, all those legends are indeed a historical fact." Ken sighed. "You idiot! They're as little part of this world as your last display. You had no right to interfere with reality here."

"Oh shut up," Arthur said. "You weren't here to tell me at the time. I'll stick to the facts in the future. Happy now?"

Heinrich saw Ken redden, but he didn't go into a fury again.

"I'm not happy, but what's done can't be undone. We can only hope the damage isn't too bad."

Heinrich relaxed a bit. The tension had gone and even though neither Arthur nor Ken looked satisfied an outright brawl seemed unlikely now. Maybe it would be just another calm day on the road after all.

Trindai rode through the gates barely throwing a glance at the farwriter. Less than a season earlier he'd been worried about the frantic activity on the tower, but emergencies were just a part of daily life now.

Keen was mobilizing for war, and he was part of that now. Strange. A life in the uniform, and yet he'd never really believed he would ever live to see a war. They trained the best to enforce peace, and maybe that was the reason. The best. He wasn't so sure about that any longer.

Even though the exercises were no longer a disaster the new brigade was still a far cry from the professional soldiers he took for granted. He had his core, the men he'd led murdering their own citizens. A few hundred determined men and as professional as anyone else. Maybe not as well trained, but they absorbed all he could throw at them with a vigour that almost scared him.

What a disgusting way of growing up. Boys, they had still been boys and now they were men bent on vengeance. Some, he suspected, on revenge. He drew a deep breath and let out the air again. Time to abuse his men again. He would make soldiers of them. Too many had the looks of warriors and large units of infantry could not afford that kind of individualism.

Taking his reins in one hand he rode out into the training grounds. Green officers led green soldiers in formation across the dirt and gravel. Soon enough he'd trust them to move together in field manoeuvres That, he knew, would be something different. Uneven ground, small hills and crops of trees to break up whatever experience they'd gained here.

He smiled. At least the rains had forced them to learn how to handle pools of water. They may not look much like an obstacle, but a line of pike men soon became a disarrayed horde as those walking through water slowed down. Now they kept the formation intact. Bruises and a few cuts had taught them that.

At the far end of the training grounds he saw a small group of soldiers involved in exercises of a very different kind. Outworlders, the eight men left behind to make certain those at the sky port didn't come back in arms.

Trindai stared at the men and women in that unit in their outlandish armour They were running and jumping around the three outworlder flying vessels left on the field. He didn't really understand exactly why they trained their movements, but he had a feeling it was supposed to be combat among buildings. Certain enough that he had ordered a mock town built some distance away. It was a new way of training, and he intended to use every scrap of advantage he could steal.

Soon he oversaw rank after rank of men trying to grasp how to change formation. They were getting better, much better. Tomorrow, or maybe the day after that he would march them into the fields further west. Then they would certainly look like idiots again, but that was only part of their education. Before he marched south they'd be able to keep ranks unless they were climbing mountains.

"How are we proceeding?"

Olvar de Saiden looked up from his desk.

Mairild returned his glare. Olvar behind a desk was a comical sight. His body simply didn't look like it was used to sitting in the first place, and as he never bothered with ordering furniture large enough for him he always gave the impression of a giant playing with toys.

He wasn't, of course. Some work required paper and solitude, and she had intruded on his. Still, information, she needed as much of it as possible to do her own part in the coming war.

"Markand's south of Krante now. We'll be able to communicate with him for another two eightdays or so," Olvar said.

"And Tenanrild?"

"She says wagon loads are already on their way. Good thing you came up with that idea."

"Thank you," Mairild said. "Any idea how long it will take to set up the new farwriters?"

Olvar rose and walked to a large map behind his desk. "Crews, mostly, will be the problem. I think we can have the towers built in less than an eightday after the carpenters get in place. We don't have that many crews though." He stabbed at a point south of highway's end. "Three within an eightday. Another five shortly after. After that I can't promise anything."

Mairild looked at where he pointed. Eight towers. It would do wonders to their line of communications. Not enough though. They would need more, a lot more.

"I know," Olvar said as if he had read her thoughts. "I'll get the guards trained at least. Garkain has promised more carpenters at least. Women mostly, and they're really not up for the heavy work. Well, at least the towers will be better built when they get them raised."

Mairild nodded. The Minister of Crafts had delivered miracles, and now he apparently tried to outdo himself once more. "I'll have the new crews trained in time then," she said. "If the constructions are going to be a bit late we could as well use that extra time to make certain the operators know the codes."

Olvar smiled back. A huge smile. "Don't want to get our messages wrong, do we?"

Mairild shivered. "They're told rather to request a resend than to make a guess. No, we don't want those messages wrong. Besides, there's little else we're going to send that far south. They won't be as busy as the rest. I hope," she added.

Olvar grinned. It was a grin you could use to scare children, or merchants. "I have convinced Glarien to abstain from the new opportunities created until after we get this war over with."

"He wasn't too happy, I guess."

"He was too interested in his continued good health so he forgot to be unhappy," Olvar responded. "And I made it perfectly clear it would deteriorate with astonishing speed if he tried anything."

That was a threat from anyone. From Olvar it was the next thing to brandishing a weapon. Yes, he certainly was the perfect Minister of War now. Horrifying. Hopefully the papacy would find out just how horrifying. She did have second thoughts. What about after the war? Would Olvar become too enchanted with his new powers? He was a warmonger by instinct and a very dangerous man.

Mairild stepped closer to the map. South. All the way to Mintosa. If they hugged the coast and sailed east before crossing the Narrow Sea they had a chance to fall upon Chach undetected. A chance. And after they made landfall?

"Cavalry is a problem, but then it always was. We won't have enough trained for anything better than a light screen," Olvar said. "That is the good news I'm afraid."

"How so?"

"With trade in decline for several years Garkain really had to scrape his resources dry. Production of crossbows has been abysmal. A hundred, at most."

Mairild wasn't an expert on weapons and their use in massed numbers. Still it sounded rather on the low side even to her. "How many do we need?"

"Six or seven hundred to begin with. I would prefer a thousand. Anyway, we have an even worse problem. There simply isn't any way to make enough quarrels."

He was lying. She could see it in his eyes. "Tell me what you're thinking!"


One word. One single word and a nightmare for them both. "After what we did to them I don't think they'd agree to make weapons for us," she said avoiding the real reason for her fear.

Olvar was never one to shy away from his fears though. "They would, if we paid them enough. What happens when someone finds out we go to war with magecrafted weapons?"

She tried to shy away from the forbidden. Too close now. Olvar didn't know just how long she had treaded that dance. "I guess we couldn't afford their price. Besides, why pour our coins into artistically crafted ammunition?"

"They can harden the wood with the arts. If we win the field the soldiers could go out and collect the quarrels."

"You would have our men looting the dead?"

"I'll have our men eating the dead if it wins us this war!" he barked in reply. "We either remove the threats of battlemages permanently or we'll end up with them outside the very walls here. If I don't have enough crossbowmen their archers will slaughter our phalanxes."

Mairild had heard the theories. "I'll see what I can do," she said.

"Thank you. I'll assign some miracle worker to start train the number of crossbowmen we need even if we don't have the weapons."

Mairild knew he would find someone he could scare into doing the impossible, and then he'd scare that person into doing it well.

The meeting was at an end and she had work to do, some laws to break, and after that she would violate one of the few tenets held sacred. She had done that a few times before but never as blatantly. Mairild nodded, turned on her heels and left the study.

She sighed. This one was certain to become known. With luck she'd survive the war, but after that her life was forfeit. It seemed she had run out of ways to cheat death. Well, it was for the best of Keen. She would face the Holy Inquisition when the day came.

And that left thinking of things to do and things to plan. A lot of the latter of a private nature. Her children, all of them grown and with children of their own, needed warning. The fathers, at least two of them she would give time to escape as well. The third could die for all she cared.

One husband buried. She never remarried -- for good reasons. The spy master was best off without that kind of possible hostages. At least that was how she had reasoned and yet her body bore her two daughters and three sons during the long years she had served with the council. It was strange how life played out its threads in the end.

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