Frays in the Weave

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The blast threw him off balance, but at least Trindai had experienced something like it before. The explosives were far, far more powerful than what Ulfsdotir's thugs had used in Belgera though, and instead of blowing holes in walls entire buildings were gutted with each detonation.

Another explosion spread shrapnel all over Ming Hjil de Verd, but this time no one stood unprotected. As always any grenade falling directly on a street failed to do any damage other than to surrounding walls. Windows were another matter of course.

He ran along the battlements and made it to another watchtower just before the barrage started again. At least the magic of Verd prevented any damage to foundations and city walls. That went for the towers as well, and anyone inside one was safe.

Pushing himself further inside he climbed the stairs to the first missile platform. It was manned, not because there was anything within spear's range, but for the simple reason it was a vantage point and soldiers needed to do something to feel useful against an enemy they couldn't even see.

The men there looked scared but not panicked. Good, they had listened to his warnings as well as his comforting words. He climbed another set of stairs, and another.

Up here the explosions seemed more muted, but they were still loud enough to hurt his ears. Being caught inside the city would be awful now, and in difference from his soldiers the population had nowhere to flee. They could only stay indoors and pray that the next shell didn't turn their home into a tomb.

Trindai sighed and wiped dirt from his face. Unfair, but the boys in uniforms had become men only a little time earlier. He had managed to bring most of them home, but close to a thousand lay left behind like a string of corpses all the way from the sky port to Verd. Unsurprisingly his cavalry were the least hurt. Horses were a lot faster than running men. A phalanx had nothing to do in a battle against outworlder weapons, but he had known it was really only a pretend battle. They were a sacrifice. He had sacrificed unknowing boys because Keen needed the dead. There would be a reckoning later, but now he had to continue sacrificing soldiers until Verd herself woke and activated her defences

Exactly what was going to happen was a bit unclear, but old documents suggested it would more than even the odds. And it was all pure magic, which made him more than a little uneasy. Tolerant or not, he was still a citizen of Keen.

He stared out the slits. Waiting. Waiting and listening to how his city was shredded by the invisible enemy. They had to come here, within sight. The scholars had been adamant on that point. Magecrafters working on Verd's defences hadn't even begun to fathom an enemy who couldn't be seen. To this end he allowed the men who trusted him to die.

A long line of them were manning the walls now. To be seen and to lure the enemy closer, and to die.

Shells started their slow march from the centre of the city to the eastern walls. It had worked then. Someone was out there watching them, telling whoever worked the outworlder cannons that uniformed targets were on the walls.

Soon after sharp cracks announced direct fire from the smaller guns, and Trindai's men were cut down where they stood. Most were simply thrown backwards. Dead before they hit the streets, but a few managed a cry before they fell to their deaths.

He closed his fists in impotent rage. Yellow and black. Yellow and white. Yellow and brown. And now, yellow no longer. The soiled uniforms were red, and the men inside only broken bodies.

Then, finally, morale broke, and a few survivors fled the walls. His victims, his accusers. Each one a silent witness to the worst losses any commanding general in Keen had taken for hundreds of years.

After that the march came to a halt, and grenades ate even the few who had managed to reach the streets safely.

Satisfied that the shelling had done its work whoever directed the guns ordered them to return to their primary target. Again explosion after explosion tore at the imperial castle. Trindai hoped they would continue to do so for a long time. The castle was magecrafter built, and nothing the outworlders had could as much as scratch its surface. Shrapnel were still a danger, but even ordinary stone walls kept it at bay as long as it had to travel all across the square before slamming into a building.

Tears welled up in his eyes. He could stop them no longer. Another two hundred dead. Only the gods knew how many thousands more lay dead inside the ruins. That question forced him to stare south.

On the fields outworlder sky ships burned. How many dead there were inside them he could only guess. Another sacrifice, but not one of his doing. The council had declared war on the outworlder kingdom known as the Terran Federation as soon as the first sky ship blew up.

He turned his attention eastward again. At last. Outworlder floating wagons made their way here. The idiot commander was so confident he allowed them to come on a column following the Vimarin Highway. Trindai swore silently. That idiot commander had every right to be exactly that confident now. After the first disasters on the fields west of the sky port nothing in the world had even hinted at a functional defence

It was time to take cover again. A lucky shot would make it through the slits and he was no use dead. Olvar had explicitly forbidden him to die together with his men. When this was over, and it would be within the day, Trindai promised himself he would meet Olvar and punch him to the floor. Gross insubordination or not, it didn't matter. No one was supposed to stand and watch his men murdered. To order those murders.

Then the world turned itself inside out. He was no longer in Verd. He was nowhere. A landscape he'd only seen in his dreams stretched out before him. Fields moving like waves under green clouds, and the world wrenched again, and he was back.

Whatever had happened it wasn't anything he wanted to experience again. He'd felt the world move when Escha and Trai used their magic two seasons earlier. He knew both were horribly strong, but it was nothing compared to the sensation of the world chewing him up and spitting him out again.

Below him the floor trembled. Dust danced in the air and he lost his balance. Crawling to the wall he watched how the racks with spears suddenly emptied. One moment they were there, neatly locked in place, the next all racks were empty.

The shaking stopped, and he was able to rise again. He came to unsteady feet, driven by a longing to see with his own eyes what had just happened. His hands cramped over the closest slit and he stared out, and down.

The ground was alive with men in ancient armour Larger than life men, and they marched toward the enemy. Verd held no such regiment. Trindai doubted Keen had used the type of armour he saw since days of legends almost forgotten.

Hundreds of men, each the size of a khraga, walked to meet an enemy as outlandish as themselves. How they expected to survive was beyond him, but he stared in fascination as they continued their steady march.

Slowly he realized they weren't cut down they way they should. Nothing had a right to survive that hailstorm of outworlder missiles. Nothing but outworlder moving armour perhaps, and again realization struck him. This was moving armour. No human made them move. They were automations created to kill. Simple-minded and horrible.

Then one of them went down, and another. Whatever the magecrafters had done to them they were still not indestructible. He gritted his teeth. Had it all been for nothing? Unfair! Trindai yelled the childish thought over and over again, but the armoured monsters conjured from beneath the capital fell over one after another. Then they stopped. All of them, and Trindai cried out his denial.

A long line of armour just stood on the field, gaping holes in the formation showing the losses they had taken, and they did nothing to prevent more of them from crumbling under outworlder fire.

The next moment spears arrived in their hands. Trindai gagged down a laugh. Spears, the magic defences of Verd depended on spears. It was so laughable he could only shake his head.

And the spears flew. Nothing made in Keen could throw a spear like that, nothing at least that he could imagine. Hundreds of lamps away a deadly shower of spears rained down among the enemy, and by that time another volley was already in the air.

Again and again he felt the sensation of unreality as the towers magically emptied their racks. Beneath him he heard men yelling, and he knew they had just experienced the same impossibility. Soon those cries turned to jubilation as it became clear that the outworlders could die just the same as the defenders.

Trindai watched as the line of armour strode toward their targets never ceasing to release the deadly rain of spears. He wondered if the outworlders would break or not, if they could even start to comprehend what was happening or if they would just accept it as just another type of missiles.

The spears flew no more. Enemy guns once again started their hammering, but the monstrous soldiers shrugged it off and jumped into the air. And flew. They quickly caught speed, faster even than Goldberger's men had been able to run in their armour

A few fell from the air, broken shells of metal, but most made it all the way to the enemy lines.


Silence so profound he wondered if he had turned deaf. At first he didn't understand. Then he yelled with relief.

He saw the walls manned once again. With no outworlder missiles scything them clean any longer a grim curiosity took control of his men, and they climbed stairs and ladders to see what had happened.

Far away something went berserk. Hundreds of somethings. Trindai knew for an absolute certain that the killing machines had taken the battle to close quarters, a kind of combat he was sure outworlders were not properly trained to handle. They did their killing from a distance. Most, he guessed, hadn't even been trained for a battle where they had to actually see the results their weapons inflicted. They would break. Faced with swords wielded by soulless monsters they would break.

Another thought claimed him. A question. Would the automations cease? Did they care if an enemy yielded or did they just go on killing until nothing was left to kill? Would they even cease killing after that? That was an awful possibility he didn't want to linger on. Magecrafters weren't stupid. He hoped they hadn't been when they built the disgusting machines busy at bloody work.

It was silent no longer. Beneath him he heard the Vimarin Gates opening, and Colonel Berdaler rode out with his men. Ingeld must have come to the same conclusion, and now he was on his way to confirm that they had indeed won the day.

Trindai stared east. Still no sharp cracks, but the muted thunder of outworlder weapons told him they still lived and fought, and died. The dull booms came more seldom now, and Trindai doubted Ingeld would find any enemy soldiers alive when he finally reached their lines.

"They're dead! I don't believe it. They're all dead!"

Granita looked at him.

Heinrich shook his head. Otherworld had proven it wasn't toothless, not even against federation equipment. He wasn't even certain he could have stood up against those body walkers with his own unit. So many! And we never even knew they had them!

"Listen up everyone!" He let his gaze linger on each face turned to him. "We got whipped. Otherworld just won the day against Goodard's troops. As far as I know the launch port is undefended, and I don't think anyone remaining there is interested in trying to hold it against what I just saw."

He looked at the ashen expressions around him. Yes, we got whipped good. What the hell happens now? The thought was slightly disturbing, but it was in a way also exhilarating. He had expected a massacre, but never in his wildest nightmare had he expected it to take this turn. We're the Terran Federation. We just got slaughtered by a bunch of farmers!

"What happens now?"

Heinrich turned to Arthur. So there were more thinking the way he did then? "I don't know. We violated the Perth treaty. I hope Admiral Radovic signs our surrender as fast as possible."

"Surrender?" One of Granita's crew voiced the question.

"Yes, surrender dammit! Federation's supposed to be there to make damn sure everyone keeps that treaty. How do you think I feel knowing my own people broke it?"

"You're so holier than anyone else, and..."

"Shut it!" Granita ordered. "Heinrich's not part of this. Don't think anybody but that fucker is."

And his goons, Heinrich thought. How the hell did we end up here? Our own damn military let a bloody missionary through! Damn! Damn! Damn! "It's alright. I think I kind of deserve it on behalf of my idiot fellow soldiers." It was true, but the truth didn't make him any happier.

"So, we surrender, and what then?" Arthur asked.

"I don't know. Not my problem, or at least not my decision to make." And that was another truth, and this one did make him happier, or at least relieved.

"I apologize," Arthur surprisingly admitted. "You lost good men back there."

They hadn't really been his men, but Heinrich accepted Arthur's words. Six TADAT dead. He nodded some kind of thanks. "I guess we continue south anyway," he said. "Goodard probably isn't among the dead. I wouldn't be surprised if he just abandons the launch port and comes after us with whatever troops he has remaining."

Arthur's eyes showed he hadn't expected that. They were wide open, almost comical to watch, and Heinrich allowed himself to smile for the first time that day.

Slowly they went to gather their belongings, and he had Elisabeth oversee the packing of the portable alarms. They needed them now, maybe even more than before.

The news from Orbit One about Goodard was all but comforting. He wondered who would have to clean out that mess back home, but first they had to escape a madman. Once again he wondered how they had arrived here. What it was that made someone go insane with greed or fanatic belief. There were no easy answers to those questions.

Arthur and Ken mounted their horses, and they were on the way south again. There would be long days to come, days with a lot of mental looking over the shoulders. At least they had a good head start.

He climbed his body walker, strapped himself inside and turned on the engines. It made a small squeak, one that he had once wondered about, but now it only made him feel at home. A very mobile home.

It was even worse than she had feared. Thousands dead in the ruins of their homes and not one single survivor had emerged from the wrecked sky ships on the training grounds. Trindai had lost over a thousand of his men as well, and in the immediate aftermath farmers no longer dared the roads. Verd ate her stores, and within a few eightdays starvation would come to visit if they couldn't force the influx of food.

Mairild walked in a landscape of destruction. One of selection. Public buildings and palaces were all unblemished, but the poor quarters were a maze of rubble and gutted ruins. She had an escort to protect her from her own citizens. Where she put her steps today few could feel elation. Keen had claimed victory in her first major battle in a hundred years, but to the survivors here it mattered little. Their lives as well as their homes lay in ruins. Most had lost family.

She sighed. For her it had been a choice to enter a lonely home after a long day, but the thought of having that closeness stolen from her like this built a painful lump in her stomach.

Arriving here in spotless clothes, surrounded by imperial guards in equally faultless uniforms made her just another intruder. She didn't need the accusing looks from the sullen faces she passed to know she was gloating. A perverted fascination, a need to see the destruction with her own eyes was as much reason as her responsibilities for coming here. More, she regretfully admitted.

Makarin or Tenanrild, even Garkain had more reason to be here. She traded in information, and those she saw had little to give. They needed food, clothes and homes and she had nothing but words to give them. So why was she here? If not to gloat.

Around yet another ruined corner they walked into a group of outworlders surrounded by children and what Mairild hoped were parents. She stared into tired faces, tired but determined.

It took her a few moments to recognize the New Sweden envoy among them. The others were unknown, but their clothes told a story of different origins. A few from Anita's kingdom but most tourists who had been unable to return home after the enemy general landed with his soldiers.

A stretcher served as a table, and on it a boy, barely out of his first eightyear lay covered in blankets. Somehow Anita must have managed to organize an outdoors hospital of a kind. Machinery of a kind Mairild had never seen buzzed and hummed, and the boy's face visibly caught more colour as she watched.

Anita looked up when she was finished working whatever miracle she had done.

"Left quarters. Give him water and a blanket," she said to a tall woman with an unnatural green haircut and more gold dangling around her wrists than Mairild thought safe to carry in these quarters even with an escort.

Rich or not, she obeyed without question and carried the child away with the help of another female, her daughter possibly, inside the ruins of what had once been a tavern.

"You here to stare or to help?" Anita asked.

"I didn't expect you here," Mairild answered.

Anita smiled. "It's my job."

Behind her a few guards made as if to force a protective circle, but Mairild waved them back before they started pushing people around. She didn't want to create more hostility than she had already earned just for being here.

"I'm safe. These are our own," she said more for the benefit of their audience than to explain anything to her guards. They were paid to obey her orders without her explaining anything. "Your job is to represent your kingdom," Mairild stated flatly. This was a conflict she had to take here and now. "Saving a few lives makes you a hero of the people, but not taking your real responsibility will kill hundreds more."

Anita's face reddened and for a moment Mairild feared the outworlder woman would flare out in rage. Then the anger sunk back and left only a hollow shell. "This is what I do best, but you're right."

That was the reason she had been chosen by her kingdom. Admitting a hard truth in the face of her accuser. That took a lot of strength, and Mairild wasn't sure that doctoring was indeed where Anita's true calling lay.

"First of all I have to give you my condolences," Mairild offered to break the sudden silence.

The words must have worked a spell, because around her muffled voices came alive, and it took her a while to understand that people were wondering about the conversation. They didn't understand English.

Maybe the foreign language seemed more natural when outworlder spoke with outworlder, but Mairild's was a known face, even among the poor. She knew the older recognized her from her days as a celebrated actress. Not all plays had been staged indoors.

Then the lack of an answer finally registered on her. "Won't you mourn your own?" she asked before her shock would show.

"Mourn? Of course, but we've already put our dead to rest."

Mairild stared at Anita. "You call leaving your dead in those metal wrecks putting them to rest?"

"I don't..."

"Why didn't anyone survive?" Mairild interrupted, suddenly suspicious. There was something shifty in Anita's expression she hadn't noticed until now.

"Enemy artillery hit all shuttles."

Now Mairild knew for certain that the other woman was withholding something. "Someone should have survived, and you should at least be busy extracting bodies by now. What have you done?" She voiced the question as a direct order.

"I haven't..."

"Hold them!" That was directed at her escort when the crowd grew restless and started pushing to see what the commotion was all about. The guards lined up and pushed back even before Mairild had given her command.

She turned to Anita again. Now was the time to add ice and steel to her voice. She needed the truth. "How many did you send down. People, not machines?"

Anita's resistance broke as Mairild knew it would unless she represented a direct threat to Keen. "None," she said. "We sent no one."

"You landed empty sky ships and started this war just to make a political statement?"

"No! My friends died the first day!"

That was also true. Mairild forced herself to admit that. Anita's kingdom had taken very real losses earlier. "But why this charade?"

The outworlder paled. "I don't really know," she said. "Counting missiles to know if we can land safely I was told."

Mairild brought the memories of the previous day to her mind. Then she compared them with those from when Anita had arrived. There was a difference. One apart from the destruction of a large part of Verd.

"I saw no ship killers. Your ships all landed before they were destroyed. Am I right?"

"I think so. We will drop a field hospital. Just not where we said. We needed to know it was safe."

"And to that end you had thousands upon thousands of my people killed?"

Anita paled again, but then colour immediately returned to her cheeks. "What difference would it have made if we sacrificed several hundred of our medical staff to show we can die as well?"

None. It would have made no difference, at least none for the good. Mairild bowed an apology. "When?" she asked. The answer to that question meant the world to her.

"You hammered the bastards to the ground. We saw that. Before noon."

"Before noon!" That was fantastic news. "At noon outworlder doctors will arrive here with help," she announced loudly in De Vhatic. Her part in the council was to trade information, and if she could gain a measure of gratitude for it in return it was only fair.

The crowd silenced, and then the cheering begun.

Ken turned and averted his eyes. It was not like he had never seen a deserted battlefield before, but the way the reporters from Red News descended on the broken bodies like scavengers was an experience he wished undone.

"I apologize," Arthur said shamefaced and averted his eyes as well. "I personally apologize. I trained them. Never thought it would come to this."

Ken stared at him. "Thinking first really never was one of your stronger points?" he finally asked.

Arthur didn't answer. Ken saw him staring in the direction where Heinrich had his unit setting up some kind of surveillance post. They were military men, and with so many bodies killed with weapons this close they were probably more than a little nervous. Nervous in their own, detached and professional way.

Ken suddenly wished Arthur could have had some of that in him. So many dangers could have been averted then. But that wasn't really fair. The outworlder, and Ken could think of them as nothing but outworlders, earth born as he was himself, hadn't become with any tutor close by.

What was worse by far was that Arthur saw himself as all knowing when it came to tale telling of any kind. He had made a living of it, and from what Ken knew he really was seen as a godsend by his own. That made him dangerous. Twenty years was a long time for a human, even for one who could expect to live to a hundred and fifty. It was far more than enough to cement the idea of expertise, and Arthur had mastered that specific flaw to a fault.

Ken, he could hardly recall the days when he hadn't lived without the Weave. Whatever Arthur thought twenty years was nothing compared to seven hundred, and those seven hundred was barely enough to understand just how much more there was to learn. Ken accepted that. He enjoyed learning. It made life exciting.

A few steps brought him back to where he could see for himself what the news team recorded. It was disgusting, but in a way they were only doing their own version of what he had done for so long.

"They're not ours," he heard Arthur's voice from behind.

"We watch and Weave," Ken said. How hard could that be to understand? "There is no ours or theirs in what we do."

"And when did you die and grow mold in your heart?" There was equal amounts of anger and resentment in that voice.

"Dammit man. Look at them! Your own crew. They don't care about what side the dead belong to. They report. You should learn from your students."

"They care," Arthur answered. "We don't have sides the way you took for granted before you came here. Of course we have our own fair share of barbarians who just can't give up wars, but most of us only have to worry about piracy."

Ken turned and laughed. "You are too much! Last news was most every damn nation declared war on you because you started slaughtering a rescue mission."

Arthur mumbled something. Then he came up to Ken's side. "What I was trying to say is that I don't think they're from Keen," he said and pointed over the field where the dead lay scattered.

Ken watched where Arthur pointed. A few were. Dot's of coloured linen showed where a De Vhatic soldier had fallen, but Arthur was mostly correct. The vast majority of the dead wore leathers from what could only be the midlands. One banner especially caught his interest.

"No. Wherdin, Hirgh and mostly Chach I'd guess."

"Never heard of them."

Ken wasn't surprised. "Kingdoms in the midlands. None strong enough to be called a nation by your definition."

"How can you have a kingdom that is not a nation?"

That lack of understanding did surprise him. "People live there, but they don't think of themselves as part of a greater unit like you do. Just over a thousand years ago it was much the same back on Earth," he explained. From Arthur's blank face he guessed he'd have to turn that explanation into a lecture if he really wanted the message to get through. If Arthur's reality lacked the ever present daily reports of wars and contested borders it would take too much teaching, and he might never understand fully anyway.

Ken shrugged and went ahead. There was watching to do for future Weaving.

"As far as I understood things Keen planned an attack over an inland sea south of here," Arthur called after him. "A lot of dead bodies here means someone on the other side made the same plans, and they set them in motion first."

Arthur was obnoxious, but he wasn't stupid. "Yes, you're right. There's more to it I'm afraid," Ken said after a moments consideration.

"You mean with new gods and superstitious frenzy?"

Sometimes he was just a little too observant as well.

"And if that isn't a cross I never read my history," Arthur continued undaunted.

Ken gave the banner a long glare. What was the papacy doing here? They knew the northern empire was a sanctuary. And since when had they started to employ battlemages? Users of magic were as anathema to them as to Keen, even though for a very different reason. The papacy licensed users of the gift, to work God's miracles they said. To even the balance Ken knew. Battlemages, however, were not among those given a papal license.

Walking further out in the fields he saw the unmistakable burn marks scarring Keen's dead. Fire mages then. Primitive but dangerous. That meant Khanati, or Rhuin.

Another dead caught his interest. He had taken a lance through his chest, but the hoof prints were impossibly far apart. That took a kind of magic he hadn't seen before, and he had seen a lot.

"I think we have a problem here," he announced.

Arthur walked to his side and looked at the corpse. "Spear? Why is that a problem?"

Did it take so short for an overprotected civilian to become so callous? Then Ken recalled that Arthur had spent the better part of a year on the road. He had probably seen his fair share of death and mutilations by now. "Lance, and that's not the problem. Someone is working magic on the horses, or at least one horse."


"And I haven't seen or heard of it before," Ken replied. Arthur's last comment made him irritated.

"And just because you haven't... oh, bloody hell!"

At least an admission that had Ken grinning. "Bloody hell sums it up quite adequately," he said.

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