Chapter 5 of Spellcraft and Heavy Artillery. Go to the index.
Every once in a while the men were given leave. They got to go to a town and interact with people who weren’t part of the military or camp followers. For many soldiers that meant drinking and whores. Tom wasn’t that big on the whores, not that he never availed himself, but it wasn’t something he was fond of. Instead he tried to find willing women who didn’t charge – at least nothing beyond the cost of the drinks he bought them. The drinking on the other hand, he was all over that.
This leave brought him to Capistown, a medium sized city somewhat near the border, far enough from the war that it wasn’t in immediate danger, but close enough that the men could make it back and forth in a few days using modern conveyance. Capistown had started life as a mining town, and you could still see the roots of that trade in the place. It was high in the mountains, and the core of the town was built around a large river, old buildings that were made simply, rough materials, rustic. It had become a feature of the tourist trade, and was often visited by nobles who were looking for a more authentic feel. Near the outskirts things got rougher, a lot of the bars catered to soldiers. The bar Tom was visiting was called the Wenches Frock. It was rough. The windows were boarded up, there was no point in replacing the glass. It was always broken out within an hour of opening. Half the time the boards were destroyed, but they were cheaper than glass.
Inside it was dark, a Stygian gloom pierced by flickering lantern light. The lanterns weren’t real, bespelled objects that looked almost like the real thing, but if you watched for a few minutes it was clear that the flicker had a looping pattern. The lanterns were out of sink, making the fire appear more real.
The floor was covered in sawdust, it soaked up the blood pretty well, and there was a lot of blood on an average night. Tom reflected that it was insane, they bled every day, and then when they were away from combat they kept bleeding, kept fighting. Maybe none of them knew how to stop fighting.
Tom was on his fifth drink and he was feeling no pain. He was sitting at a stool at the bar, next to Charlie. They had another half dozen shots lined up in front of them, the plan was to drink until they didn’t have images of dead friends in their heads. So far it wasn’t working very well. Charlie said, “Drink up then old son. Drink up,” as he downed another shot, “This is the primo rotgut.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure I can keep up with you. How the hell do you do it? Skinny bastard like you should be unconscious by now.”
“Experience son, experience. When you’ve been drinking as long as I have you develop a tolerance. It’s in my blood, the ability to handle my alcohol.”
“Well, I’d rather be a cheap date myself, means I get to keep more of my pay.”
“Why do you care? Not like any of us are surviving long enough to retire. Might as well spend it now, at least that way you get to enjoy it.”
“Yeah, that’s… who the hell is that?”
There was a woman. There were in face a number of women in the bar, but this one stood out. For starters she was dressed better, a lot better. She was exotic, skin the colour of fresh fallen snow, hair a bright red, almost blonde. Even her eyelashes were light. Her cheeks were dusted with a light coat of freckles, small spots of brown that somehow made the pale almost pink of her cheeks stand out even more. Her eyes were a piercing green. He’d never seen a woman like her before. He was smitten instantly.
“Well son, I have no idea,” Charlie said, “but if you wanna find out you have to go up and say hello.”
“Yeah, that’s a good point. Watch my drink.”
Tom got off his stool, swayed a bit, then staggered over to the woman. “Hi, I’m Tom.”
“Congratulations,” she replied, her voice a heavily accented lilt, “I’m sure that’s a wonderful thing to be.”
“I mean my name is Tom.”
“Yes, I understood. Thank you.”
“Alright, sorry to bother you then mam. Have a good night.”
“I’m sure I will, as soon as I can get out of here.”
Tom swayed back to his stool. “Shot down. Guess she’s too good for the likes of me.”
‘”Well, that goes without saying. What woman isn’t, really?”
“Fair point, fair point. Well, maybe we’ll have better luck with whores then.”
“A soldiers lot. Woman like that, she’ll expect you to bathe and everything, we’re better off with women in our own class.”
They drank and drank, and eventually they staggered to their hotel. The pattern repeated for the next few days, and then they had to go back to camp. Shortly after they got back there was a note from Adrian, telling them he was going to summon them to his place that night, that there was some movement going on, that they had things to discuss.
The summons came minutes later. The two of them made the trek to the mage’s quarter again. The cut off was immediate. One moment it was late summer, the air so hot it hurt to breathe, the next moment it was a beautiful late spring day. The difference was a single stride.
Adrian ‘s maid was waiting for them, apparently the servants weren’t in fear for their life on that particular day. Adrian was waiting for them in his study, the weird room with no shadows. Standing with him was a woman, pale skin, red hair, brilliant green eyes. “You,” Tom said.
“Do I know you?”
“We met at The Wenches Frock a few days ago.”
“Oh, yes, Tim was it?”
“Apparently I didn’t make much of an impression. Tom.”
“I know, just messing with you. Try not to make it so easy. Patricia. Clean and sober you aren’t half bad. I probably would have said hi to you if you’d looked like this the other night.”
Adrian said, “Patricia is the daughter of the Talish ambassador. They want to back us. My personal wealth if unfortunately insufficient to finance our little venture. I have some ideas for fundraising, but backing by a foreign government would be extremely advantageous for us. It could accelerate our timeline by several years.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I signed up to stop our government from killing us all with a stupid war, not to give our country away to those redheaded bastards from up north, no offence.”
“None taken, of course. I should point out that most of us aren’t technically bastards. I myself am the product of a happy marriage.”
“I didn’t… why do you types always make a man feel like he shouldn’t open his mouth?”
“Because we insist on thinking before we speak,” Adrian said, “something you would be wise to try emulating. Anyway, I do appreciate your concern, and I will ensure that the Talish are not in a position to take over.”
“Why in the seven hells would they agree to help us if they didn’t get something?”
“Because we would get an Iskengar not devoted to conquest. You think it doesn’t occur to other countries that once you lot destroy Gandia you are going to turn your gaze elsewhere?”
“Okay, that’s a decent point. I would rather not see that happen, quite done with this trying to take over the world business, and I don’t know that we have the population to try anywhere else.”
“Trust me, you do. Nobody else has battle magic like you and Gandia. Your schools set the standards, you are in a position to at least damage the hell out of everyone else. We wouldn’t be able to stop you, not effectively. We might survive the as a nation, but we would lose most of our people in the effort. We want an Iskengar that is willing to work with other nations, that’s all.”
“So, you believe that do you Adrian?”
“A little more than believe it, I have guarantees. Treaties signed in blood, all that crap. More to the point, have you seen the state of their magic capability? They have almost no people with the gift. We could level their country in a month if we wanted to, I could level it in six personally. We don’t need to worry about them. Trust me.”
“Okay, I do. Gods know why, but I do.”
“Excellent. So, here’s the thing. We need more than just people We need weapons. It’s not enough that you have soldiers willing to fight with us. Those soldiers have to be better equipped to fight. I have been working on weapon designs for a while now, and I have a hundred different wand concepts that go far, far beyond what you are working with at the moment. The problem is that the materials to build them en mass will be expensive. That’s why we have Trish here. Her people can help us to acquire the necessary materials, even do some of the construction – they can’t enchant the weapons, but that’s fine. The physical construction has to be completed before I can lay enchantments down anyway, or at least it makes it a hell of a lot easier.”
“Great, why am I meeting you then, oh, and why was she in the Wench’s Frock anyway?”
“You can just ask me you know.”
“Okay, why were you in the Wench’s Frock?”
“We have people in your country. Every nation has spies. I was meeting one. I don’t mind telling you, since if you told anyone you would end up executed as well… you are aware you have already committed treason aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am. Still not sure why Charlie and I are meeting you.”
“Oh, yes,” Adrian said, “That’s because I was telling Trish about how I had men recruiting in the military. She insisted on meeting you if her country was going to back this endeavour. Believe it or not she actually wields more power than her father, she’s a sort of unofficial spymaster. Anyway, we need her money, and she needs to believe it’s a wise investment.”
“So, Trish, can I call you that? Trish, now that you’vOe met us, do you think it’s a wise investment?”
“You may, and the verdict is still out, but Charlie seems competent.”
Charlie laughed, spitting out his drink. “Well old son, guess the lady knows how to call it. Too bad, I was hoping you two crazy kids would make beautiful babies together.”
Trish glared daggers at Charlie. “Oops, now I’ve gone and spoiled your good impression of me. Sorry.”
“Here I thought you were the clever one. Maybe I was too hasty in my judgment of you Tom, perhaps you aren’t the stupid one.”
After a little more conversation it was time for Tom and Charlie to leave, the plumbing excuse would only work for so long. Eventually they would need to figure out another reason to meet.
The two soldiers walked back to their camp, through the gentle climate of the mages quarter and the overwhelming heat of the main camp. As they walked they talked about tactics. How could they get their men to change they way they fought without getting noticed. The heat of battle was one thing, but they would need to drill together, figure out how to move correctly, efficiently. The main tactic traditionally was to wait for fire and hell to rain down and then charge, a giant mass of soldiers ramming into each other.
Tom said, “It wasn’t always like that you know? Before mages became common in battle it used to be formations, men would form ranks, shields surrounding them, the army who held the best formations would usually win.”
“Yes, son. I may have failed military history, but it don’t mean I wasn’t paying attention. Figured that stuff could save my life someday. Thing is, that was before fire rods, force rods, all the other kind of distance weapons the mages give us. Formations don’t work with these kinds of weapons. They kept trying in the early days of the war.”
“What if it’s the way things are now, the fear of trying new things? We haven’t tried new formations, new ways of moving forward. What if instead of mass formations we could do things with small numbers of us? There have to be ways to make use of each other, of teamwork, that can reduce our risk, increase our odds of survival. I know Adrian gave us those large unit ones, and they should work, but we need to be able to work with smaller groups, single squads. If we can make something work with just the nine of us, we can spread that. I don’t know how to drill it though. We get caught drilling something like that, it will arouse suspicion.”
“Shit son, I’m willing to try and figure some stuff out, but we want that to work we need Ernest on board. We get him working with us, we can probably pull something off.”
“Okay, next order of business… we get our dear commandant on side.”