Trindai smiled when he read the message on the farwriter. The brigade apparently had no problems patrolling Verd.
He'd force marched two companies of infantry until they nearly dropped, but it had proven worth it. Now Krante was garrisoned, even if with soldiers tired beyond belief, and he had gutted her of all but a single platoon of cavalry. Together with the bulk of the Imperial Guard the council had ceded to his command he now had close to three full regiments of cavalry and dragoons.
It would be enough to handle any skirmishers they would encounter, but he was well aware he lacked the strength to both take the enemy's northernmost army and push south to join General de Markand. Wherever that elusive man had gone with his army, but that was another question and one Trindai had no way of answering before he had more information on what happened in the southern client states.
The young count of Mintosa was overly eager to take the fight to the enemy at all costs though. He never spared a moment to egg officers and soldiers on, and Trindai thought of restraining him forcefully more than once. In the end he didn't. Trindai remembered what it was to be young and angry. And besides they could use a client count to their benefit. Keen needed allies now.
Trindai didn't much care for that need. Client states never trained armies. They weren't allowed to. Keen made certain they adhered to that law, but client states sent most of the men wanting to join the Free Inquisition, and one result of the religious frenzy spreading like wildfire this spring was the inevitable counter reaction. Men eager to stand against evil sought entry into the yellow and green, much to Trindai's dismay, and, he suspected, in an equal degree to Minister de Levius' glee.
Hepaten was as much a fanatic as anyone he sent his goons to hunt down. Magehunting needed to be, and Trindai could see why. That didn't mean he had to like it. And he didn't. The Free Inquisition were a bunch of undisciplined thugs no matter how soldier like they looked in their official uniforms.
Even the Holy Inquisition scoffed at them, and they were the most fanatic of them all. Fathers, brothers and sons alike. Steady farmers or craftsmen who took the sabre and crossbow together with the wow to fight magic in any form it took. Never warlike until the moment they sniffed out their prey. Trindai feared that mild mannered fanaticism a lot more than the bullying attitude of those in the yellow and green.
Which made the vanguard his main concern. Olvar de Saiden had ordered him to take command of more than a hundred of Keen's finest, and the reason Minister de Levius had so readily agreed was something Trindai preferred not to linger on longer than absolutely necessary. That Count Mintosa never as much as blanched didn't make things any better.
Worries or not. The sunny day, almost but not really stifling hot saw them crossing the Avarin river in good order. Not that they needed, but Trindai had thought it would be good training voiding the use of the bridge. The latest arrivals in his army didn't. The outworlder wagons couldn't handle the steep river banks, and he didn't want to risk the precious medical equipment they carried.
To be truthful he was as happy as surprised that the sky kingdom had agreed to bolster his baggage train with ten doctors, as many nurses and four hovercraft with drivers attached.
He was even more surprised to learn that the Terran Federation had ceded all lands around and including the sky port to Keen. They still manned it, under the supervision of New Sweden and the Republic of Mars, even though the latter hardly had sufficient men here to do any real supervising.
That also brought back the most horrible of all news they had received. Of the refugees around the sky port only a handful were alive. First they though the mad general there was to blame, but he wasn't. Not directly anyway. Trindai didn't understand it fully, but somehow the outworlders had come up with a way to cure diseases before they could break out. The army landing had received no such cure, and by now doctors from New Sweden were driving frantically all around Keen in their hovercraft setting up small hospitals to prevent the plague from spreading.
A sudden sound brought him out of his thoughts. A wagon overturned in the river and men swore as they brought the horses under control while trying to save the contents of the wagon. They barely managed. Trindai swore some on his part as well. He didn't like the prospect of losing supplies, but he liked the possibility of them losing it all during a hasty retreat even less. So he let the crossing go on and tried to pretend he didn't hear the angry words shouted at the men he'd placed on the bridge to prevent anyone from taking the easy way across the river.
"And they haven't stopped it yet?"
"I'm afraid not, Minister."
That was bad news. They hardly had time to celebrate one obstacle overcome before the next disaster struck. Well, it would be Tenanrild's problem. She was responsible for transportation and that made her indirectly responsible for forcing the population to stay where they lived. Olvar helped out with armed muscle, as did Hepaten. Mairild wasn't too happy about the last, but they were spread thin and the latest recruits weren't trained enough to take up soldiers' duty yet.
"You may leave. Send messengers to Hasselden. They are to continue rebuilding the fleet, but if they run out of timber shipbuilding will have to stop until the plague is contained." Mairild waited for the courtier to nod understanding. "These are orders signed by Minister de Dagd." She handed the papers over and waited for the woman to leave.
The day could have begun better. Now she had to send message to Roadbreak by farwriter. The plague couldn't be allowed to spread into Vimarin, but using the farwriter for her message spelled danger for her personally. Speed was more important than secrecy though, and she needed the magehealers in Ri Khi to know of the invisible killer that was headed their way.
The plague had started in Keen. It was their responsibility to warn others now. For once they had the luxury of doing so while treating a disease safely at home, or rather, the outworlder medics did the treating. Keen had no knowledge sufficient enough in those matters.
Mairild hurried to the wing set apart for New Sweden. They were the only sky kingdom here in force now, and they supplied help to Keen in a scale the federation had never done. That made them Keen's most important ally at the moment, and so the council had agreed to temporarily cede them two floors of the Imperial Castle's east wing.
Anita Kirchenstein-Yui was there for once. The last days she had occupied the rooms assigned for her and her staff more and more often. Maybe she had finally agreed that her primary task was that of an envoy, or maybe she'd been directly ordered to by her queen. No matter what, it made Mairild's work easier.
Mairild was on her way to beg. With Tenanrild halfway to Krante on a mission to sort things out after Trindai's forced acquisition of most anything on wheels. The grand caravan and the sudden need to feed Vimarin and Erkateren alike had drained Keen's resources of vehicles to almost nothing. She suspected the general would even have forced carts into his use hadn't speed been a priority of his.
Which was the reason she was taking the steps two at a time to meet with the outworlder envoy. The sky kingdom had a seemingly endless supply of those hover craft. Since they had started handling the daily operations of the sky port one or two of the incredibly fast vehicles had arrived in Verd each day. If Mairild could only lay her hands on three or four of them on Tenanrild's behalf.
They should able to exchange information with the client states on the Ming Peninsula, and more importantly, with the isolated villages in marshy Levs. If what Mairild had heard was true those hover crafts could run on water which would make those marshes open fields to traverse rather than a deadly maze.
She ran on, paused and straightened her clothes and strode into the New Sweden quarters as if she'd just happened to stroll in that direction. Time for begging. She'd grown skilled at that art the last eightdays.
Arthur cringed at the summary of their doings since leaving Verd. Another uniformed goon with far too much brains. One with a paranoid streak that first had Arthur believing that he was facing a mindwalker from Keen. He hadn't lived here long enough to appreciate fully how absurd that thought was, but as he had a suspicious mind of his own that just made it more likely that somewhere hidden away in Keen were small groups of practitioners of the forbidden arts. Magecrafters more likely than mindwalkers he guessed.
Still, General de Markand, or someone in his staff, had guessed just about everything that had befallen Arthur and his entourage of bodyguards and bloodhounds alike. That was uncanny, especially as it soon became clear that it had nothing to do with mindwalking. The young officer with his dry humour in his red linen and black leather represented a presence that all but guaranteed that no users of the gift were present. The Inquisition, those who called themselves holy and behaved like a well organized team rather than a gang of thugs. Which mean they'd verify that a person used magic before the execution. Dead would still be as dead in the end though.
Arthur was a bit unclear of his own status, but Ken had made it clear that Weaving had nothing to do with the use of the gift, at least not directly.
At the moment he sat in a foldable chair, a holo cam circling the tent, which had the inquisition officer fidgeting, facing one of Keen's most senior military men and Arthur felt very much like a child who had been dressed down in public. He would regain his confidence, he knew that, but for the time being he could only admire the person who had just delivered such a succinct, and more importantly, correct summary of his whereabouts.
"And now that we have arrived according to your plans?" Arthur asked. It was less of a provocation than it sounded.
"We return north west, I guess," a staff officer answered in de Markand's place. A middle aged woman. Most of them were. It had surprised Arthur at first, but he guessed it made sense to use women as brains and let the men handle the actual killing. There was only so much you could do about muscle mass.
"Haven't you listened at all? Those riders all but massacred soldiers in federation body walkers!" That part was one they hadn't guessed, which indicated that de Markand's staff weren't all knowing.
The general smiled. A tired smile, but one anyway. "Yes, we have heard what you say. That's the reason we have to face them. Those battlemages have to be killed one by one unless Chach manage to get enough of them together in one place to shift the odds too unfavourably"
Arthur turned and threw Ken a glance. "I don't think they are battlemages," Arthur started. Ken nodded, but unhappily. Watch and Weave. Arthur guessed he didn't even approve of helping one side with information about the other. This time Arthur had won him over though. Giving away information or Weaving, those had been the choices Arthur had given, and Ken had caved in. Apparently a taleweaver could chose when and why he Wove.
"Why not?" General de Markand looked at Ken directly. "You are known as Walking Talking, but you've been silent throughout this meeting."
Ken didn't answer, and Arthur hadn't expected him to. He wouldn't prevent Arthur from supplying Keen with the knowledge they needed, but he refused to take a direct part in what he felt was a breach of neutrality. Well, neutrality be damned. Keen was where Arthur felt at home. In a way they had gone to lengths to help him find a place to live, to the point of facing up to the federation military might. If they took his side he wasn't going to betray them.
"Ken doesn't approve of me openly siding with you," Arthur answered.
He wasn't naive enough to believe they did it out of kindness. By now he had grasped the political value of being associated with a taleweaver, but he wasn't asking for reasons.
The general offered him a questioning look. "And you have?"
"Yes," Arthur admitted. "I have. I've seen my share of this world. Some I like and some I don't. But for your fanatic attitude on magic," he met the inquisition officer's glare with one of his own, "you seem to be one of the most civilized nations here."
"How kind of you to approve of us," de Markand said with an ironic glint in his eyes.
"Considering how much further we have advanced you should be," Arthur bit back. Why Otherworld had lost over a thousand years of development was beyond him, but they had and he wasn't about to apologize for that lack of progress. "Look, the federation might not be the promised paradise, but part of what you've done to yourselves is outright appalling."
The general looked like he was going to respond in turn, but the he just seemed thoughtful and sank back in his own chair. "Maybe some of what you say is true." Then he leaned forward again. "But you didn't see total devastation. History tells me we lost hundreds and hundreds of years of civilization there."
There it was again. Another reference to World War. Arthur suspected Ken knew a lot about it, but he'd been strangely close mouthed whenever the topic came up.
"As a matter of fact we did," Arthur said. That got Ken's interest for certain. "Why did you think the federation surrendered so bloody quickly?" he spat at his fellow taleweaver. "You believe this is going to be cheap for the federation? Then you're more daft than I believe."
"You haven't said anything about a major war," Ken said.
"Oh we had one. Real big and real ugly. Half a billion dead and so many cases of radiation sickness it took over fifty years for global population to rise again."
"And that taught us the lesson we needed."
"No, I meant I thought it had been worse."
"Worse? How the hell can it get much worse?"
Ken just stared back unhappily.
Oh hell! It could, couldn't it? "Just how bad was this World War here?" Arthur forced himself to ask.
The silence in the tent was total. Even if it had to be a legend all had heard about few enough ever saw a taleweaver who had lived through it.
Arthur watched Ken meeting the eyes of each one present, one at a time. "This is our history, yours as well as mine," he began. "We watch and Weave, but we never interfere."
Arthur had heard that sentence enough times to make him sick of it, but the others present only nodded in response.
"They are also my memories. Seven hundred years I have carried them. Not a legend but something that stays with me when I awake and when I go to sleep."
Something resonated in his soul, there was no other way Arthur could explain it, and he saw that look of recognition in the eyes of de Markand, and then the very same look in each and every face he watched. Bloody hell, he's already Weaving! How does he do it?
Ken's voice meandered through his thoughts. The soothing voice of a father, a slight tinge of a warning in it but most of all love. "We made mistakes among acts of bravery and care. Heroes and villains, very few of whom took their roles knowingly."
Arthur sensed the thoughts of men and women in power, of those who had none. Fear, greed, love and the decisions they made. Rational decisions, emotional decisions and some made on a whim. A few, only a few, he recognized as evil, even if that term was one of his own choosing. He lived thousands of lives, hundreds of small wars, each one eating away a little on what he called home and he shared the resignation at the thought of forcing an end to the wars. Anything would be better than the endless line of atrocities, and nothing was.
The world bathed in flames. How they ever got access to thermonuclear weapons he didn't understand, but he knew that of those present he and Ken alone understood the flames for what they were.
The world lay in ashes. Empty shells of cities. Remnants of villages rotting as years became decades, and dragons. Impossibly huge dragons crawling the lands or flying over it. They killed, they ate, and they gave life. He never knew how or why, but he did know for a certain that they unleashed the gift in ways neither Escha nor Trai would ever have dreamed of, and they healed the very lands.
Something happened with the ocean west of Keen. It grew warmer and snow ceased falling during winters. There was a price to pay, and he saw how the forests that once spread endlessly withered, fled the cold and gave way to the Sea of Grass.
And more than anything else, he saw the world through the eyes of the surviving few. Thousands had become scattered hundreds. Ten dead to each living. One grave for ten survivors. Bones covered the places where people had once lived. Surviving a nightmare, living an impossible hope, and generations lived as little more than animals.
Dragons vanished and returned, and when they returned they brought back lost knowledge, and new rules. Somewhere, hidden among the multitude one shone: We watch and Weave, but we never interfere.
Arthur shook himself out of the waking dream. Whatever Ken was or who he believed himself to be, he mastered the Weave in a way that still lay far, far beyond Arthur's grasp. For once he felt envy, but that feeling soon gave way to one of resolution. He would learn the secrets of the Weave, and he would surpass Ken.
"I had heard it was bad, but I never imagined," the inquisition officer said. "I understand fully why we have the laws against magic now."
Arthur sighed inwardly, but not before he saw Ken gifting the young man with a look of disdain.
"It didn't start as laws against magic?" he asked Ken.
He looked back and shook his head. "No. Slaughter on this scale could not be the deed of humans. We couldn't be responsible for what we did to ourselves."
"And if it wasn't your fault then foreigners, and when those were too hard to find then the gods themselves were to blame?"
"But we can't punish gods," Ken said. "I see you understand what happened."
"I understand what, but not how?" Arthur said.
"Magecrafters from all around the world came to Verd. With most of them being foreigners they had to buy their welcome. When people started to search for someone to blame they were only too happy to provide the tools."
Arthur shuddered. "And anyone even remotely religious was hunted down and killed?"
Ken nodded. "Those who survived went into hiding, some even joined the inquisition. Then, of course, whenever a god is born it becomes impossible to keep the lid on. You've seen it first hand."
"I see. And that doesn't happen very often. So when they ran out of priests to kill they refused to disband."
"That is a lie!" It had taken him a little longer to see where the conversation was heading than Arthur first thought.
"I am Ken Leiter de Ghera, Protector of the Geralin Islands, taleweaver. I am Walking Talking. Do you wish to repeat that statement?" That was the first time Arthur had heard the blend of steel and ice in Ken's voice.
"I didn't mean to..."
"You did, and it was a lie. The inquisition, whatever form it takes is a leftover from times of revenge. When you ran out of holy men to kill you turned on the magecrafters who provided you with your staffs. The ban on magic is, what, three hundred years old? Idiot!"
"But Keen is a sanctuary."
Ken scowled. "At least you got that right. You weren't supposed to police it yourself though. Without the gift Verd would be a boiling cauldron of chaos. It used to be."
Arthur saw how the rest of General de Markand's staff looked among themselves. He assumed they hadn't heard this version before. Why should they. The inquisition was part of their daily reality. They had no reason questioning it, and recalling Trai Arthur suspected they did more good than bad. At least the disciplined men and women in red and black. The uniformed trash in yellow and green was just that—trash.
"That was an interesting lesson," Arthur said to defuse the tension.
"In more ways than one," de Markand agreed. "Now I know how to handle those riders. Battlemages or not."
"Excuse me?" Arthur said.
General de Markand grinned at the man in red and black. "Gather your men. From now on you have vanguard duty."
Mairild stared at Olvar de Saiden. "No wagons?"
"Correct. Over a company's worth of escort are back here, but the caravan was dissolved in Ri Khi."
Mairild slunk back into her chair. "That was bad," she said.
"I don't know. Major Terwin reported some severe losses of men but almost none of the merchants were lost."
"And that is good?" Sometimes she didn't understand the meandering paths Olvar's thoughts took. He'd just received word that a highly trained special unit had taken abysmal losses, and those were good news?
He smirked. "From your point of view, and from Glarien's. The caravan was a success. It actually paid for the escort we provided and a substantial amount of gold and silver arrived here with the escort."
Mairild tried to see it from that angle. It almost worked. "We needed the public display of returning wagons," she said.
"You got the public display of over a full company from the Vimarin Gate Regiment returning in parade formation escorting what was obviously an unholy amount of money." Olvar bent forward. "You got another of your precious heroes returning home. Make the most of it. I am. I have half a brigade of partially trained farmers to care for. That returning company was a gift from all unholy gods." He turned on his heels and left. Whenever he got agitated enough he started behaving like a man in uniform, which he had once been.
The last part she did understand. Olvar never ceased to complain about the lack of seasoned soldiers to help out with the training. As for the former. Yes, she could make use of it, and dealings in information was her responsibility. She made a mental note to have the news relayed to Trindai. He wouldn't be happy to learn about the losses his men had taken on the last leg home.
De Markand should learn about it as well. She almost forgot the lucky events placing Arthur Wallman and his bodyguards together with the southern army. Now Olvar could coordinate the movements of both armies thanks to outworlder equipment.
Which freed up the farwriters for other needs, like finding out what in the bastard spawned gherin was going on in Ri Khi. Someone had released a vengeance demon, or at least that was how rumours went. Her informers, those who still lived, told tales of monsters killing in the night. If what she heard was true khragans were involved somehow, but that made no sense at all. There hadn't been a khragan problem this side of the mountains for hundreds of years.
Mairild smiled. The hover craft stationed at Roadbreak would carry her missives to Ri Khi almost as fast as she could order it by farwriter. Three days, four at most. Outworlder vehicles were a wonder. She sent silent thanks to Anita for her willingness to rent the flying wagons to Keen. Rent, not lend, but Keen would pay in due time. Some services were well worth paying.
There was another thing she had the newcomers to thank for. The sky port was operational again, much to Tenanrild's joy. Outworlders arrived in ever increasing numbers, and they brought raw materials and outworlder gadgets with them. In return they mostly demanded works of art, and clothes of all things. Khanati silk and Erkateren furniture were in steady demand. Now, if they could only have more merchantmen built trade with the Sea of the Mother could resume, and Glarien could supply the outworlders with what they wanted.
With that thought lingering in her mind she went to meet with the Minister of Commerce. A distasteful duty if any, but there was an item she couldn't afford to dodge any longer. The business with burial rights were a great success. Maybe too much of a success. Rumours about people disappearing had grown more frequent, and she needed to know who supplied the bodies the religious sects bought.
If Glarien knew anything, if he was somehow involved in something more than he said she would personally see him executed. To that end she made a detour to fetch two of her interrogators, and a full squad of the Imperial Guard. There was no way he could mistake the reason for imperial questioners being present at a meeting.
It took a single volley to cut down the men once they ventured out in the open. Did they think he was an idiot?
The bulk of the regiments continued on column on the road, following the vanguard into the forest, but Trindai hardly gave them a thought as he joined the outriders to inspect the bodies.
They emerged from the village where they had hidden in wait for the skirmishers his scouts had reported the previous evening.
Stupid. You had no business among skirmishers and scouts if you believed an advancing army didn't use a screen. Well, he wasn't about to complain. The enemy had taken his bait, and he wouldn't even pretend that the ambush had been a battle.
As they came upon the dead men he saw that they wore leathers from the Midlands. No uniforms as he would have defined them, but there were enough details for him to recognize the different kingdoms they came from. That confirmed the council's suspicions about something more than just Chach trying Keen's patience.
He hadn't believed that anyway. Chach wasn't the centre of anything but civil war. There simply was no way anyone there would have taken the risk to move troops across the Narrow Sea to attack Keen or her client states. That was a certain way to lose whatever holdings you had in Chach.
So, who? Reports from de Markand indicated the papacy, and they certainly had the naval force to ship the soldiers. Church infantry were decently trained, and their holy warriors made good cavalry, but there were simply not enough of them. Six, maybe seven thousand men in total. Not nearly enough to take on the full might of the northern empire.
He stared down at the bodies from his horse. Bolstering that force with men from all the kingdoms pledging allegiance in equal terms to their kings and the papacy? That could work.
"We're done here. Pay the villagers to bury these. South! I don't want to see any of you closer than fifty lamps from the main column."
Trindai left the men and started back toward the road. If de Markand was correct they would catch the enemy army between them within an eightday.
That army had to be starving by now. He had caught up with his own supply trains, or de Markand's really. The enemy would get nothing from that source any longer. The southern army lived from the lands, but at least those lands were client states. And they controlled the enemy supply lines by now. As long as anyone sent food north from Mintosa they would only feed their enemy.
The thought made Trindai grin. For once he was in no hurry. Every day spent leisurely marching south was a day the enemy got less to eat than they needed. Hard on the people living here, Trindai accepted that, but war was hard. Rushing into battle just to lose would be harder. Everyone knew how people lived in appalling poverty in the Midlands. Life south of the Narrow Sea was a nightmare. Nothing Mairild could cook up would be half as effective as the frequent stories about horrors travelling north from Mintosa.