Frays in the Weave

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They fled south. Madness, but madness with a rationale.

Ship buster missiles against cavalry. The outcome should have been obvious, but the singing horsemen just shrugged them off and continued charging.

Heinrich groaned. He still hurt where a lance had pierced his body walker. A full burst of needle grenades, enough to wipe an entire company of modern infantry from the ground, had taken down the horseman in the end. They managed to down less than a dozen more. Then several unarmed men suddenly appeared out of nothing with fire in their hands and slaughtered half of Granita's crew. At least one single burst killed all the arriving mages, but it was enough for the charge to break though.

He lost four there. Lances and swords cut through body walkers with little effort. An impossible nightmare, and one they couldn't survive.

Arthur Wallman saved the day by using his unnatural tricks in return, and Ken had been screaming at him time and time again for most of the three days and nights they fled south.

Heinrich didn't care. He had his orders, and even though Arthur seemed fully capable of protecting himself those orders still stood. How he should carry them out with less than half his command still alive was currently beyond him, but he had to try.

He compensated for a slight malfunction in the right leg motors and continued on. Nothing more he could do right now, and he had taken the rearguard. Chang was almost out of munitions and Panopilis was flat out. He served as point anyway. His sensors had taken the least damage, and they desperately needed to know what lay ahead of them.

They also needed to put as much distance between them and the riders to the north as possible. One more such encounter and they would all be dead, and that, he thought grimly, would prevent him from carrying out his orders.

Trindai de Laiden sent a few scouts ahead and waited for the phalanxes to get ready to march. He had lost several days and many, many more men. And yet duty called them all. By all rights he ought to be close to Krante with his troops on his way to join General de Markand's forces.

He pondered the reason he'd ordered scouts ahead. Farwriter down wasn't a message he'd expected from the south. Apparently the more militant of the religious sects didn't all rush ahead in suicide attacks. One, at least, must have gone underground while de Markand marched his regiments past their hideout.

And then they came back into the open and burned a farwriter to the ground. Trindai held no illusions about what had happened to the crew manning it. He would tread carefully so as not to lose men before they embarked on de Markand's barges and sailed to Chach. Well on the other side of the Narrow Sea losing troops would once again become unavoidable, more so now as they were already severely understrength courtesy of the outworlder invasion.

Well, they had sued for peace, or at least Admiral Radovic had on their behalf. Trindai doubted his superiors would be especially happy when they learned about that, if they didn't already know of course. Outworlder communications were a wonder to behold.

But, he thought, they had reason to accept the terms set by the council. Keen had crushed the invasion, and as far as Trindai was aware the outworlders had no way of knowing that the disgusting magic tied to Verd was one of a kind. They would have to consider the possibility of encountering defensive magic each and every time they closed on a city or town.

He mounted, rode along the city walls and tried, as much as possible, not to look at the outworlder wrecks littering what could no longer be used to train troops. A year, at least, before they had cleaned it up enough not to pose a danger to anyone entering it. Outworlder shrapnel or deliberately hidden caltrops made little difference to soft soled boots. A few men under the skilled care of Envoy Kirchenstein-Yui had already proved that.

That was possibly the single best piece of news they had received lately. The entire first landing a decoy and after the enemy was crushed several hundred outworlder doctors with vast amounts of supplies landed west of Verd. He grinned at the memory. That Anita had been sly one, more of a diplomat than the doctor she stubbornly said she was.

And something else made him grin even wider. The Krante Highway offered a lonely rider coming at good speed. A messenger of some kind, which meant the way south was far safer than he'd dared hope. He put a hand to his eyes to deflect some of the sun, but the glare was still bright enough he couldn't make out any details in the haze.

As the messenger came closer Trindai saw the brigade ready to march, and with a dull thud spreading dust into the early summer they took the first step to whatever destiny awaited them. With a bit of luck the rider would agree to share her information with him, unless it was for the council, but the only reason he could think of for a messenger coming from the south was General de Markand wondering what took the gherin spawned demons so long, and Trindai was that very demon in person.

If it was a woman, but most messengers were.

It took the better part of a dinner's meal to see the entire brigade on the highway. One cavalry regiment waited behind and would overtake them later. By that time Trindai saw that he'd been wrong. The messenger was a man, and he didn't carry de Markand's colours

Money letter then, or just a spy for the merchant houses? Minister de Verd hadn't shown any reluctance to turn death into money. It was clear that for him war was just a different way of making business.

Trindai hesitated a little but decided to force the rider to stop. Maybe he could be coerced into yielding whatever news he carried. Or threatened or bullied, he thought dully. His right hand still smarted from smashing a fist full in the face of Minister de Saiden. The giant killer hadn't as much as given a word in reply. Just like Olvar to be the one inflicting lasting pain even when struck. Trindai nursed his fist. It would pass. It always did, only a little slower for each passing year.

Then the messenger reached him, and halted.

"Thank gods you're ready! We have to hurry!"

That made no sense whatsoever. "Slow down man!" Those are client colours. Younger nobleman? "Start from the beginning!"

"They've taken Mintosa!"

Whoever he was he refused to listen to advice. "Attention!"

That worked. How he managed to stiffen in the saddle like that without falling off eluded Trindai, but at least he had the full attention of the lordling.

"Now, slowly." Trindai shifted a worst case scenario through his mind and probed. "Did General de Markand storm Mintosa?" That would set relations back more than thirty years.

The messenger exhaled, drew a deep breath and started over. "I am Count Mintosa. Chach invaded us earlier this spring, or rather the papacy did."

The world stopped. "Would you care to repeat that?"

"A fleet from Chach arrived at the harbour, but I saw that most of the ships really belonged to the papal fleet. When their cavalry charged we had to abandon the city."

Trindai blinked. "By all unholy gods, how did you manage to slip flanking cavalry behind you with the city gates open?"

He received a challenging stare in return. "I didn't say that. They came over the water. I don't know what magic they used, but they charged the entire waterfront from the sea. We never had a chance."

Trying to visualize what he had just heard Trindai barely managed to gag down a sharp reply of his own. Trebuchets against cavalry. He could see how futile that was, and ballistaes weren't much better. They would have been swarmed long before they really understood what awful fate had just befallen them. He had to live with everything turned upside down for a while.

"How many," he asked.

"I don't know for certain. At least five hundred horse, the water riding type. Another fifteen to twenty ships. I had to leave to tell someone what had happened."

Trindai's world spun once more. "But why here? Why didn't you tell de Markand, or did he send you?"

Count Mintosa stared back, eyes filled with incomprehension. "De Markand? What good would that do, and where should I have found him?"

"Where should..." Trindai gaped. "He marched for Mintosa almost half a season ago. He should be almost there by now, and he's in command of several regiments worth of cavalry. You couldn't possibly have passed him without noticing if you stuck to the main road from Mintosa."

Trindai received a negative wave in reply. Gods, if the lordling really had made it here without meeting de Markand, where was he, and his army for that matter? "Follow us!" he ordered the baffled lordling. I'm going to need someone who knows the lands from now on. They attacked us? Those sail barges. "Did they...?"

"Yes, we never had time to set fire to those ships of yours. They can transport just about as much as they can produce across the Narrow Sea until the weather takes a turn for the worse."

Trindai swore. No chance to take Mintosa back then. In the worst of worlds de Markand had already been defeated, but that was unlikely as the young count must have had at least a few days head start, and if he hadn't met the army then it was probably not headed for Mintosa at all.

And the day had begun so well. Now he tasted ashes again, but he could do nothing but head south. The question was what troops he should bring.

He decided to continue and sent a few messengers back to Verd. If they wanted to exchange troops all left in the capital were mounted and could catch up with him at will.

Still a lousy way to start his campaign, but then he hadn't experienced much anything but lousy events since the day he received his new orders. He should have stayed the colonel. Life had played its ugly jokes on him last time he held general's rank as well.

They rode side by side, but none spoke much. Young Count Mintosa had reported most of the useful information anyway, and Trindai needed the silence to revise his own plans. A campaign to retake what they had lost rather than a pre-emptive strike to prevent Chach from training battlemages. They should have guessed some were already fully trained.

He shook his head. There was a lot of things they should have known. Not sending two full regiments east would have been a good beginning. Not cleaning out Vimarin and Erkateren of food so the population starved would have been a good way to continue, but they had failed there as well. Now, what they didn't have to guess was that the papacy would get directly involved and lead an assault on the northern shores of the Narrow Sea, because that was unheard of.

With holy warriors suddenly able to ride on water and the unholy gods knew what more demon spawned surprises they had waiting he was at a loss how to proceed, but proceed he must. It was all beginning to resemble the awful running tax collection mission Mairild had set him on a few years earlier, and what a nightmare that had been. The difference was of course that he knew and trusted each and every of the thirty odd men he'd led that time. Now he was responsible for five thousand trained and half trained men.

When the daylight finally gave way to dusk he still hadn't decided on a plan, but he knew he'd have eightdays of worry ahead of him during which he could imagine one disaster after another and plan for it.

"He struck you?"

"He did," Olvar grinned back. "I won't hold it against him. We put him through an indecent amount of pressure, no, I did, not we."

Mairild nodded. Whatever Olvar was, craven was not one of those things. He was so honest she sometimes mistook it for stupidity. She didn't repeat that mistake often though. A great brain on a huge body. The brain of a brilliant killer.

She watched him from the corner of her eyes. A brilliant, deadly child was probably closest to the truth, but that thought scared her more than she wanted to admit. They couldn't afford a child in the council, at least not a vengeful one.

They walked down a flight of stairs and emerged just outside the tavern where the outworlder taleweaver had allegedly taken refuge during the riots. At least a hastily written sign said so, the part of it that wasn't riddled by cuts and holes from the shelling less than an eightday earlier.

"Is there a reason you didn't tell General de Laiden we've known of the attack?"

"Yes," Olvar agreed, "a good one. We didn't."

"We didn't?"

"No. I believed there were irregulars terrorizing the countryside south of the highways, maybe even a baron or count who had grown megalomania, but a full scale attack by Chach? No I didn't know that."

"Neither did I," Mairild admitted. She hated doing it. She was supposed to know. It was her job to know, even when it was obviously impossible for her to do so. The council took for granted that she should deliver the impossible on schedule. She gave Olvar a long stare before she voiced her opinion. "Someone paid good money, very good money for silence. I've never been overpaid before." That was as close to admitting she used forbidden sources she dared go.

He just shook his head. He probably didn't care the least. He wanted her information so he could send his soldiers to do the killing. In that way he was refreshingly simple-minded, and dangerous.

"I think Lady Kirchenstein-Yui will agree to lend us a few of their self moving wagons with the crew to man them."

"You think or you know?"

"I know I'll be able to convince her in the end," Mairild answered.

"I don't know how you do it, but go on. Play your magic with your words and I'll put the vehicles to good use."

Mairild shivered at Olvar's choice of words. Magic was the last she could afford to use now. Too may eyes were directed at her now. Magehunting's not the least worrisome of those. That minister was about as much of a fanatic as any of the sect leaders she'd encountered since the last deity showed it's ugly, shining face in the night sky.

How many enemies had she made since then? Or even before? She shook the emerging suspicions away. Always keeping an eye over her shoulder was no way to gather information. Paranoids made bad spies.

They made their way down a few streets -- the boulevards were busy with carts and wagons emptying Verd of rubble. For once manual labour had to be used to move debris out of the capital.

Just on the west side of what had once been the crossing between Artists Street and Runaway Alley she found Anita. Even though the outworlder still had her duties as official envoy she were most often found among her own giving a hand wherever one was wanted.

The problem, as Mairild saw it, was that too often it was. Not that she was about to say so, not when she was going to ask a favour or in worst case demand restitution from the very people who had saved them.

She bowed when their eyes met, and from then on the haggling started, and to Mairild's enormous surprise she found herself enjoying the entire episode almost as much as she'd loved taking the stage over thirty years earlier.

Arthur was in an ugly mood. Ken never ceased his shouting fits, and Arthur, honestly didn't understand what it was all about. He'd not lied, not even made better the absolute truth as he'd seen it, and only his Weave had got them out alive.

We don't take sides. He'd be damned if he didn't take the side of his own life. Besides all taleweavers were supposed to be sacrosanct here, and the charging horsemen had made their very best to trample two of them at once. Didn't that make them doubly damned?

Now he was on his way to force this last piece of information down Ken's soar throat. We are sacrosanct. I just saved an entire kingdom from eradication by Weaving. I took the side of as many survivors as possible. I didn't kill anyone, so get the bloody hell off my back and find someone else to pick on! That kind of conversation was what he had in mind.

Of course Ken would have none of it, or almost none. The part of sacrosanct and wiping out kingdoms from the face of the earth worked surprisingly well. So well, in fact, that it had Arthur scared for several hours. Ken must have some rather awful memories of his own from if his reaction was anything to go by.

Arthur wondered about it. If he'd got his calculations right Ken should have been here during what they called World War. Had he played some part in it? Was that the reason for his unwillingness to do right rather than some holy rules applying to all taleweavers?

Too many questions and far too few answers. Always a situation that grated on the newscaster in him, and that created personae carried over to the taleweaver as well. Arthur was aware of that, Ken's words to the opposite effect aside.

Nothing he could do about it, nothing he really wanted to do about it for that matter. He'd cleared the air, or at least emptied his lungs in Ken's face, and that would simply have to do.

Just as he'd done on the way to Braka, almost a year ago, he joined point and scouted ahead as much as he was able to to without the sensors all body walkers had feeding the TADAT. He still beat them here. This was forest landscape, and none of the three survivors seemed used to it.

Point, he had to remember that. He was alone. This was no armed vanguard. They were pitiful refugees on the run. So, they were heavily armed refugees on the run, but he suspected the three had far less ammunition than they admitted. The walkers didn't look too healthy neither. That scraping sound hadn't been part of the background noise when they left Verd.

He clung to the trees, quickly dashing from one to another after he'd made certain none had seen him. Some equipment he'd coerced Granita into giving him helped of course, and this was as close to the stalk outs during the perpetual Chinese civil wars he'd covered in his youth as he was ever going to come. At least so he hoped.

Fifty meters, fifteen seconds scanning, clear, another fifty meters and repeat. This was the deadening repetition needed for anyone who skulked among the trees. On Earth, without the scanners, it would have taken him longer, much, much longer. The human senses were only so good.

This way he was almost certain he outclassed anyone in a deadly game of hide and seek, but he couldn't be sure. Gring would have made short work of his attempts, as would Neritan. Did the unseen enemy use mindwalkers as scouts? Did that enemy even exist?

He stalked through the forest for the remainder of the night and relayed his all clear messages over the silent link he'd appropriated together with the scanner. Panopilis could probably have done it almost as well, without tiring, but Arthur had a need to be alone. The daily quarrels with Ken had taken their toll, as had the deaths, and the fear, and the not knowing what the hell was really going on. It all ate on them.

So it was that morning found him hidden in that thin border between forest and fields, uncertain about what to do. He stared into a foggy nothingness even his portable scanner refused to see through, and with little else to do than to wait for Panopilis and the military grade equipment he had Arthur did the second best. He fell asleep.

Damn! Damn, damn, damn, damn! Now what?

Heinrich stared into the holo. It didn't lie. No, that wasn't entirely true. Unless someone waited on them, someone with those brain twisting powers he'd been forced to accept as true, his readings told the truth. He didn't care for those readings. More cavalry and therefore more problems.

The strange thing was that they seemed to be heading in a south westerly direction. That didn't make much sense. A patrol, yes, but a patrol with hundreds of riders?

He turned to Arthur. "What do you think?"

Arthur relayed the question to Ken who stared into Heinrich's helmet for a few moments. A long tirade of words later and Arthur translated back.

"Possibly De Vhatic. That means ours. He doesn't know why though." Arthur smirked. "I'm just the tourist here. You decide," he added for his own benefit.

There it was. From creepy and barely something to believe he had to upgrade magic to a measurable military threat. The problem was that he had to make all the estimates himself. The link back to Verd provided some help, but by now he accepted that Verd was hardly the centre of expertise on the subject. Well, apart from killing any practitioner they could lay their hands on.

He juggled the possibilities. Effectively out of ammo, body walkers in immediate need of repair and only three survivors out of what had been one of the best trained TADAT units in the entire solar system. He couldn't go on alone any longer. Just getting food each day proved an unacceptable risk.

If he chose wrong they'd be dead in less than half an hour.

He exchanged looks with Arthur who nodded in response. It was decided then.

"We go out in the open. Make sure they see us!"

Hesitantly, more like a scared flock of birds than members of the Federation Finest three body walkers buzzed into motion and entered the fields.

Heinrich took point with Panopilis guarding their left flank. Chang held the right, where they knew soldiers to be. If he could trust the information Ken had given, and Arthur had confirmed, the fog should be gone like magic in minutes.

As it was he could.

They had covered less than a third of a field in what looked like a pastoral idyll when they were apprehended by several riders. Ken was right again. Yellow and brown. Cloth rather than leather. And most important of all, they all carried the crossbow he'd grown to expect was part of every rider's armament on Otherworld. He'd been wrong, but that hardly mattered now.

He met the commander's gaze with what he hoped was a level look. Then he remembered he was still visored. Heinrich grinned at himself and mentally wiped the expression of consternation from his face before sliding the visor back into his helmet.

They stared at each other. For once Heinrich only felt gratitude at meeting the eyes of a fellow professional. The officer represented what the federation army ought to have been.

He received a question in the language he started to regret he had never learned well enough to use. Answering was out of the question so he waved to the other to wait until Arthur could catch up with them.

The surprised and angry shout caught him off guard and he had his weapons ready to fire just as Arthur roared at him to hold his fire. That didn't prevent the soldiers he faced to lose three quarrels squarely in his face. The only thing that saved his life was his body walker automatically shutting his visor when he went into full combat stance.

Arthur shouted something in the Otherworld language and all riders immediately relaxed. Heinrich dared opening his visor once again.

"What the hell was that all about?"

"Idiot!" Arthur barked. "Think first! Everyone tells me to think before I act."

Heinrich understood nothing, and it must have shown in his face.

"Bloody hell, I wasn't close enough to hear what he said, but that wave of yours was a flat denial from your side. Damn, you must have seen the people here wave their hands the way we shake our heads."

What? Oh shit, how incredibly stupid! "Yes, yes I have. Never gave it much thought."

"If you're going to tell armed people no in their faces with no way to explain yourself you'd better stay in that moving cage of yours," Arthur grumbled and turned to the officer who'd started to make impatient sounds.

Heinrich waited for the two men to finish their conversation, and when they were finally done Arthur was laughing loud with a mixture of relief and mirth. He sat down and clearly waited for the others to gather before he told them what he'd learned. One by one they arrived. Panopilis and Chang first, and then Granita with her surviving crew members on their dirty and buckled hover. Last Ken arrived on horseback.

"We're welcome to join them," Arthur began. "In fact we have an invitation to dine with a General de Markand," he pointed due west to show them where the dinner was supposed to take place, "and lastly the gentleman here wondered what the bleeding hell took us so damn long," he said and laughed again.

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