Ken watched as General de Markand lined up his army before the battle. Arthur was right about one detail. The presence of men in modern battle armour held back the enemy charge until de Markand had his battle order in place.
This was the moment Ken feared, and the one he had come for. To watch and Weave. He found the killing distasteful, but to Weave he had to see.
De Markand placed most of his men on a low ridge. Ken had seen it all too many times before, and he had to admit the general knew what he was doing. A nights light rain left the field slippery, but the morning sun had already dried away most of the water from the ridge.
Further west skirmishers and what would form up as the left wing slipped and skidded in place. Made a show of slipping and skidding from what Ken could see.
Behind him, below the ridge and out of sight from the enemy what little infantry Keen had here were marching west to stand ready behind the wing. If the battle proceeded as Ken suspected the enemy would charge with their right wing, maybe even attempt an outflanking manoeuvre. Which was why the skirmishers were there to begin with. Their job was to funnel the enemy closer to the left wing.
He watched how the men lined up just north of the ridge. A poor position. One the enemy commander couldn’t possibly overlook. So, a charge from the enemy’s right, then the line would break into a rout with men scrambling up the slope in a futile attempt to reach safety, and on the other side three hundred men with crossbows and pikes ready.
That left de Markand’s right wing. Ken saw their formation, but for once his memories failed him. The way they lined up they would meet the enemy centre dead on, and that left the De Vhatic army horribly vulnerable to a flanking attack. The general either didn’t know what he was doing or he had already planned some trick. With incompetence out of the question Ken tried guessing, but again he failed.
North of them the enemy lined up as traditionally. Two wings and a centre They were already in disarray as their commander made last moment changes to take advantage of Keen’s weak left wing.
Ken looked west. A line of trees covered the entire left flank. With the skirmishers in place in the forest it shouldn’t be too difficult to dissuade the enemy from attempting a flanking manoeuvre He smirked. Forests. What they called forests in Keen was laughable. Erkateren and the wilderness north of Kordar, those were proper forests. The one shielding their left flank could be walked through in a short meal’s time.
He frowned. Where had Arthur gone? Then he saw the man riding in front of the men, facing them and obviously talking to them. Damn, he’s Weaving! Ken felt the strands of the Weave each time the wind carried Arthur’s voice to him, but at this distance it was weak. At least the few strands tickling him carried no impurities. Whatever Arthur Wove it had been watched.
Ken still didn’t like it. Arthur had picked a side in the conflict. He used Weaving as a weapon, and Ken had a sinking feeling of what he would do if the enemy came too close to breaking through the centre What he was doing now, though, wasn’t anything Ken had a right to stop. The soldiers faced a battle and a taleweaver gave them a moment of hope and pride. Ken had done it himself when he happened upon a battlefield. It was their gift. To watch and Weave. But for once he had himself interfered.
“Here they come!”
“Liz, take out their signalists!”
Chang whirled and glared back angrily through her open visor. “I’m trying dammit! Those unarmed guys are doing something and I don’t register a single hit.”
Heinrich ordered a recording displayed and turned it to maximum enhancement. Elisabeth was correct. Some kind of invisible barrier had been erected to protect the enemy staff, and it simply ate Elisabeth’s rounds on their way in. Needle grenades just vanished mid-air
“Cease fire!” he said when he accepted the futility. “I don’t know. Take pot-shots at their infantry?”
“Sure, I can do that. Just shift targets if those damn shields go up again?”
“Do so.” It didn’t matter much. A few soldiers torn to pieces by detonating needle grenades would lower enemy morale, but he also knew they were critically low on ammunition. Panopilis was flat out. Heinrich had a mission of his own. Ken Leiter had given him an idea, and absurd as it sounded he had become convinced in the end. For someone preaching strict neutrality at all costs this was manipulative to say the least.
Whatever the reason. He had seen this world for over seven hundred years. That kind of experience had to count for something.
A week had passed since the initial contact, and now it was time for his last casting.
Heinrich switched on the holo caster and sent his recorded message. Now all they had to do was to survive the next few hours, and that was General de Markand’s problem.
Arthur stared in horror at the results of the first charge. He stood together with the general, a fair distance away from the carnage, but not far away enough not to see how the singing horsemen cut through the left wing like they had never existed. Not a single man had been unhorsed by the volley of crossbow quarrels loosed at them. They just rode through the line of men opposing them, cutting down anyone unlucky to stand within reach and continued up the slope.
The men hidden on the other side fared little better. They managed to get off two volleys, equally ineffective, before the enemy was among them. What followed was best described as slaughter. A few survivors fled for the protection offered by the forest.
A low murmur from his right made him turn his head. De Markand had ordered his right wing to take the field, and now they advanced across it. This was a game Arthur accepted he knew little of, but even to him the line of horsemen advancing, not ahead but from right to left seemed strange.
They charged diagonally across the field, passing his view and offered battle to the enemy’s right wing, slamming into it less than a kilometre from where Arthur stood. Then the advance force of enemy cavalry returned back up the ridge, and seeing how their own got mauled charged back the way they had come.
Arthur exchanged a worried look with General de Markand. What had happened to their left wing could hardly have been part of his battle plans. Then he looked at the TADAT, Panopilis, and translated de Markand’s request. Panopilis cast the orders and Arthur saw the two remaining body walkers rumbling after the horsemen at full speed.
The sound of guns spewing out their deadly contents cut through the eerily silent battlefield. This was no gunpowder world, and the killing, for all the screaming, was not nearly as noisy as Arthur had anticipated.
“Have Hadarin sound the retreat,” de Markand ordered.
“They don’t stand a chance when those paladins return. It seems the taleweaver was accurate. I want the regiment into that forest now.”
Arthur didn’t wait for the formal request but translated de Markand’s orders immediately. After Panopilis cast the orders Arthur saw Heinrich’s body walker make its way to Colonel Hadarin.
A small rearguard died to a man while the bulk of the demoralized regiment fled the field.
To their left the shattered remains of Colonel Servinus de Lathan’s regiment gathered around their banner and took up position as left wing once again.
Arthur shook his head. Apart from a few casualties caused by Elisabeth Chang’s occasional sniping earlier the enemy centre and left wing remained intact. Now they slowly took to the field to rout the beaten army opposing them. Of the enemy’s right little remained. They had chased after the men fleeing for the trees, and now the forest hid friend and foe alike.
“And now?” Arthur asked the general.
“And now we wait.” He turned to a staff member. “Get Captain Warin. Time for them to do their holy duty.”
“Warin?” Arthur asked. “Isn’t that...”
“Yes,” de Markand cut him short. “I don’t want those bastard battlemages burning down my men. The inquisition will see to that it never happens.”
Arthur recalled his arrival here on Otherworld. A staff master who allegedly was able to prevent magic from working had rummaged though his luggage to make sure the gadgets he brought still worked in that magic dampening field.
“That’s a lot of men to cover,” Arthur said silently.
“It is, but those red and black uniforms are there for a reason. No practitioner of the forbidden arts wants to get close to the Holy Inquisition.”
Arthur could see why, but he kept that thought to himself. He didn’t agree with Keen’s official view on magic. After all magic had gifted him with their language and it had saved his life at least once. He threw a glance at the inquisition soldiers as they spread out in front of the line. Whatever they were, cowards was not part of it.
The enemy came more slowly this time. Without the invincible paladins pawing the grounds for them they wouldn’t go unscathed through the battle, but the odds were still two to one in favour of the papal forces.
Distant horns announced orders to the soldiers from the Midlands and around Arthur messengers left de Markand’s staff with orders and counter orders. They would return later, receive new orders and depart. At least until battle was joined. After that moment Arthur knew they’d rely on horns just like the enemy, and the visibility of the imperial banners. Those would become important rallying points later from what Arthur had understood of this kind of warfare.
He looked ahead. The enemy grew from a brown line of leather to soldiers clothed in leather and linen, and just as their faces displayed individual features the volley was ordered. This time there was no holy singing stopping the quarrels from penetrating their targets.
Arthur looked away from the scene. Then the world became a madhouse of horseflesh as Keen counter charged. There was nothing subtle about it. Seven hundred horsemen charged straight ahead, sabres drawn, and rode over those they didn’t cut down. Then they veered left and rode to support the left wing that had fared a lot worse.
He was left standing alone, but it was as if his presence alone was enough to finish what had happened. The shaken remnants of the enemy line dissolved and he saw men throwing their weapons away and run back the way they had come. A few fled east, almost a coordinated retreat, and Arthur wondered what made them seek shelter further away from the security of their own.
The answer was appalling. De Markand’s use of the inquisition had worked, but the routed enemy had no staff masters among them. There might have been a rationale behind the decision of the enemy commander, but watching how battlemages tore into their own soldiers with fire, lightning and ice sickened Arthur nonetheless.
No matter how draconian it was it still seemed to work. Surviving men turned, some weapon less, lined up and became a military unit once again. Arthur watched and slowly realized how precarious his situation had become. He mounted and rode after General de Markand and his men.
Of the De Vhatic left wing little remained, and the flanking attack had come barely in time to give the soldier breathing space for a frantic retreat.
Arthur took his mount a bit closer to what had once been the enemy lines and made for the forest. There was nothing he could do on the battlefield.
Closer to the line of trees he saw a few dozen crossbowmen in yellow and red and joined them. This wasn’t the place to be alone in clothes screaming the preferences of the northern empire.
Soon enough Ken arrived with Panopilis in tow.
“Away from here!” the TADAT shouted. “Regroup at zero hundred!”
Arthur stared at him, as did the men around him. “Eh, the outworlder wants us to move,” he translated into the silence.
One of the men, a junior officer of some kind, followed Panopilis’ stare across the field instead of staring blankly at the metal apparition. “Move gherin spawn! To the eagle!”
That was enough to force the men out of their apathy and they started marching in the direction of the thick of combat. A few even threw thankful glances at the two in red and black, but then discipline took over and they became a unit, more parts of a mechanical device than humans.
Arthur followed them from a distance. He stared in fascination as they halted, raised their crossbows and fired a volley into the backs of what he sincerely hoped was enemy soldiers. They they drew their sabres and rushed the men they had ambushed.
“Why?” he asked.
“Shut up and listen!” Panopilis answered.
Arthur stared back. The rolling wave of screams and metal was had the same ring of death and pain as it had since battle was joined. Then something out of the ordinary. He offered Panopilis a questioning look.
“We’d better get out of the way now. Those are our mines.”
“Wait, wait, now! Eagles in the air! Regroup behind banners!”
Out of the forest came groups of soldiers, sometimes alone men.
That’s not possible! Where did they get enough battlemages to hurt us that bad? Trindai gasped at the condition the emerging soldiers were in. This wasn’t a staggered retreat. Those men had been soundly routed, and only the massed lines of a friendly army could hope to return a sense of safety to the broken men. That and the banners of the Imperial Guard raised in the air.
“Sound the horns. We take our chances,” he ordered.
The colonel next to him threw an unhappy glance but relayed the order anyway.
Trindai had to hope the enemy in pursuit would mistake the horns for a futile attempt by the routed enemy to rally on the other side of the forest. The way the fleeing men looked it could as well be one, he accepted darkly.
“This had better work,” he growled at the outworlder by his side.
“You just get the bastards this way and I’ll handle the killing,” was the chilling response.
Revenge, what a bad reason for going to war. We sold them the revenge, so we’re no better. Trindai didn’t respond. The outworlder was a civilian. Some kind of mining expert who had lost his family to the outworlder attack on Verd, and now he took out his frustration and hatred on an enemy he had never seen.
Finding not one but several men and women from the newly arrived sky kingdom had come as a surprise, but they were as mercantile as Keen herself. Knowledge was money, and so they had taught themselves De Vhatic in preparation for coming here. Not everyone, of course, but enough knew the language that it was impossible to herd them the way they had contained the outworlder traders the last ten years.
Sounds of horns brought Trindai out of his thoughts and he turned his attention to the forest. If the men came as scattered as they did he was likely to have to order the killing of their own. Well, he had done so at Verd, and he would do so again to finish the war here and now. They had waited here for the better part of a day, waited and prepared for a battle the enemy hadn’t known would take place.
Outworlder talk machines gave an advantage that was almost impossible to value. Farwriters didn’t even come close.
He heard yells of fear and a few of surprised joy. Some of the fleeing men must have noticed they had friends waiting for them on this side of the trees.
The disorganized horde of men quickly melded into units as they dashed for the promised safety, and after them cavalry arrived from among the trees.
One young officer came running straight at Trindai.
“Demons, they’re demons!” he screamed.
Trindai looked at the youth. Too young by several years. Money should never buy commissions. “At attention!”
“General!” came the reply, and with it a visible straightening of his back.
“Get your men here and stand!”
“But, but they’re demons. They used magic against our staff masters!”
Trindai gulped down his shock. He couldn’t afford to show his men his true feelings at this moment. “I don’t have staff masters.” A lie. “I have the Imperial Guard.” A truth. “We stand.”
And they did. It helped that the panicked flight turned into an organized retreat. It gave the Imperial Guard time for two full volleys, but the young officer had been right. The enemy horsemen glowed as they sang their way through combat. Inquisition squads throwing themselves into the thick of combat made no difference. They went down just like any other soldiers, and the staff masters failed to remove whatever magic shielded the enemy from quarrels and sabres alike.
Trindai understood why the planned retreat through the forest had become a rout. He turned. “Outworlder, use your devices now or the day is lost.” And turned back again so as not to have to meet the eyes of the man he had ordered to butcher soldiers indiscriminately.
“As you will.”
Nothing happened. “What are you waiting for?”
Trindai sighed and stared at the madness ahead of him. “All of them. All,” he whispered.
“All of them!”
The sound threw the horses into a panic. One moment the narrow field between Trindai’s reserves and the forest was a moving mass of fighting bodies. The next there was only dust and earth and a whiteness rolling over them like a hammer. Then silence, and from that silence the sound of moaning emerged.
The outworlder-made fog slowly dissipated and he saw shadows of men staggering around, most of them trying to come to their feet but far, far to many only shaking or rolling on the ground. Whatever had shielded the enemy didn’t protect their horses, and Trindai watched as a few of them fled the field. Several of the beasts rolled impotently on the field just like the fallen men they crushed as they flailed about.
“Dagd regiment. On foot, daggers and sabres. Finish this!” He turned away from the slaughter. Dagd fielded as professional a regiment as any from Verd. They would make certain the men they murdered were clad in leathers only. The De Vhatic soldiers would be carried to the waiting medics. More would survive than he deserved.
A few hovercraft carried outworlder medics with outworlder equipment, and he needed as many of the enemy dead as possible before he allowed their sky kingdom allies onto the field. They had been adamant on treating all wounded on equal terms, but there were simply not enough of the miracle doctors even for Keen’s wounded.
Trindai shook his head. This was why he commanded the army. He knew that, but it didn’t make him less disgusted.
“I want Roadbreak and Hasselden through that forest now! De Markand needs us.” He waved his staff to his side. “De Tenerius, you’re in command here. I’ll lead the reinforcements. Rephrase!”
“I handle the mopping up here. You can be found due east of the forest with Roadbreak and Hasselden regiments in case we need to get your sorry ass out of there.”
Trindai grinned. General de Tenerius sometimes took the rephrasing too far, but he never misjudged a command. If there were more of the shining cavalry on the other side the enemy could still win the day. At least their horses weren’t invincible, and if they stopped singing they went down like normal men.
They marched through the narrow forest. There was no reason riding trough it. Between the trees men and weapons lay littering the ground. Daggers, broken spears or dropped quarrels worked just as well as caltrops, and they had to tread carefully.
Trindai could see where the retreat had turned into a rout. Then they were through the trees and he ordered his men mounted again.
To his north he saw the enemy staff, and he ordered his few surviving staff masters to screen their approach. The high ranking enemy officers wasn’t his problem. Walking Talking had promised a last surprise. Trindai concentrated on his part of the dirty work.
“De Markand is still holding out. We bring the anvil to the hammer. Line up and report when you’re ready to charge!”
“I did,” Ken answered instead.
Arthur wheeled. “You?”
“Yes, but Panopilis knew about the military part. I believe it’s been orchestrated from Verd since we met de Markand and his men.”
That part Arthur understood, had in fact suspected, but for some reason he’d assumed Ken didn’t know. Something nagged at his mind. “The military part?”
“Yes. There was one thing I had to take care of. They really don’t belong here.”
Arthur glared back. “That stinks of involvement,” he said. He stared at the newly arrived forces slamming into the broken enemy. He wasn’t an expert, but even he could see that this battle was over. Still, the enemy command was intact, and almost all of their battlemages still stood in orderly groups.
“Soon,” Ken said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Soon. I think, yes here they come. I thought the detonations would show them the way.”
Now Arthur could hear it as well. The wailing of hovercraft arriving from the east. A few moments later they arrived and he recognized them.
“Are you insane?” He fumbled for his handgun. “I’ll kill you myself! You led the bastards here?”
“Shut up and learn!”
Arthur watched the Federation flag growing larger and larger as it carried his death closer. Even from a distance he recognized Brigadier Goodard’s banners. There was something strange. He ripped the field glasses from Ken’s hands and put them to his eyes.
“Bloody hell! Ulfsdotir!”
“She had my family killed.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
Death came closer, and Arthur laughed. He had wanted revenge, but now he knew he no longer cared.
Then the hovercraft veered north, and Arthur swore he could hear a woman’s wailing. “No! Wallman. I want Wallman!”
The Federation vehicles passed so close he could see the hatred in her eyes, but the soldiers were blind to him. He could as well never have existed at all. They stared north, and they sang hymns.
“What have you done?” he gasped at Ken.
“Nothing. They are of one kind. It had to happen.”
Arthur stared at the hovercraft manned by Federation soldiers surrounded by an inhuman halo, and far to the north he saw the same whiteness surrounding the enemy commanders. Alone Christina Ulfsdotir stared back as she frantically tried to get the attention of the soldiers on her hovercraft.
Arthur looked at her. She had personified fear for him, and he had hated her for so long he almost forgot what it had been not to hate, but now he could only feel sadness. He had, he admitted, taken from her first. One year here had taught him about honour, and now he finally understood how stolen honour could result in a deadly reply. He would never agree, but at least he understood, and as the hovercraft headed for battle he realized he’d once again stolen something from her.
Around them silence fell over the battlefield. Moans and screams of pain cut through it, but the sound of war was gone. Those unharmed, or at least only lightly wounded, were too fatigued to be enemies any longer. The Midlands’ soldiers still on the field just stood, a few still holding their weapons as support to lean on. The De Vhatic troops didn’t care. They were soldiers no longer, only spectators.
Arthur gasped when long strands of fiery death flew from the battlemages, coiled around the charging hovercraft and dissipated without inflicting any harm.
Federation guns hammered in the other direction with little more success. Whatever that glaring light surrounding the combatants was it protected those covered from magic as well as modern weaponry.
Then, as the opposing sides closed, the battle split into personal duels, and Arthur stared aghast at the swirling lights of madness. What he saw was less a battle than mutual destruction. No quarter was given, none asked for, and slowly the frenzied attacks wore down the shining protections of both sides.
When the death toll rose most of the battlemages decided they had had enough, and they deserted their commanders in the middle of battle. One by one, or in small groups, they either ran for the forest or just vanished. Arthur thought those around jump mages to be the luckier ones, because squadrons of the surviving inquisition soldiers were already galloping for the trees in pursuit of the fleeing mages.
There would be another fight to the end, but that one, Arthur guessed, would be a lot more one sided. Mages feared the inquisition as much as they hated them, and for good reason. A handful of staff masters had successfully shielded the De Vhatic soldiers from most of the war magic thrown at them.
His attention was abruptly caught. Several loud detonations rolled over the field. From the northern end a huge ball of flames grew into the air, and then another one, and another.
How anyone had been able to survive that was beyond him, but when the smoke cleared he could see a few figures still standing. To his astonishment they didn’t seem to notice the destruction but fell at each others throats with a ferocity that spoke of pure rage and fanaticism.
“I think we can leave now,” Ken suddenly said. “It’s over and I don’t want to be part of the mopping up.”
Arthur glared back. “You have a lot to explain,” he said.
He received a nod.
“But not now, I guess?”