It had finally happened. A hundred years of war was over. The city of Tenagoro, capital of Gandia, was empty. It was worse than burned though. The first squad to enter the city lost almost all of their members walking down a broad avenue. Some of it was burned, but many of the buildings were intact, and beautiful buildings they were. Tenagoro was known for its architecture, older buildings, stately and elegant. As the squad walked down the alley they triggered a weave, stretched across the road. The air filled with fire, consuming all of the beautiful and stately homes, an instant conflagration. After that it quickly became clear that the city was full of traps, but there were no people. The main port was empty, not a single ship present, there or in the harbour. Lots of factories kitted out for ship building though.
Tom‘s squad managed to avoid all of the traps. One of the only squads to do so. Making their way into the empty city represented the single biggest day of fatalities for the Iskengarian army. Gilbert could see the traps, and told his squad where they were, what they did, how they would be triggered. The nobility traveling with the army had battle mages and other spellcasters to perform the same service, but most of the common grunts had nothing. Some of them noticed how Tom‘s squad was doing, and started following them.
The army started to set up in Tenagoro. The supply lines had been worked out, so food was flowing, for now at least. Tom‘s squad was assigned to an empty warehouse near the dock, which suited Gilbert perfectly. There was a catwalk around the warehouse, with a room off of it. That was where Gilbert set up, with much, much better privacy than he had had in the past. Things were in chaos, nobody seemed to know what was happening. Much of the city was flattened by the traps, although the area around the port and the docks was comparatively unscathed.
That first night, as they were getting set up, Tom, Charlie, and Gilbert resumed their usual drinking habits, staying up late in the night playing with compounds and talking. “So,” Charlie said, “do we still need to even do all this? The war’s over. Maybe life gets nice and peaceful now. I get to retire and make booze for a living.”
“Keep in mind, for more than a hundred years they have been controlling our minds, our emotions. Do you really see that kind of control slipping?” said Gilbert.
“Naw, was just wishful thinking old son. If I’m any guess things get worse for the average person starting now.”
Tom said, “We should talk to Adrian, see what his take is. It’s going to get weird. Hell, I don’t even know if we get to go home, or if this is home now. Typical army level of communication. We tell you what we decided you need to know.”
“Yeah, in the meantime we need to keep going, get ourselves in order. Gil old son, you game to up our weapons dev? I think we have this place for a bit.”
“Sure enough. Also, there is a great deal of equipment available. No food, nothing a civilized person could utilize. Luckily we’re not civilized people. Freaks and weirdos, all.”
“So, what’s the plan?”
“We grab as many possible compounds as we can, scour the docks. A lot of what we want is of no value to most people. I also want tubes, metal tubes of some sort. I have some ideas about those. Steel would work best. They need caps on one end. Also metal balls that fill the tubes.”
“What the fuck is that for?”
“They won’t work as well as wands, but they will propel the balls out the open end if we light the powder in the base. Lots of details to work out, and they will be a crap weapon, but they will be something we can make without magic.”
“That sounds like a good thing,” said Tom , “I figure we’re going to have to work without as much support for a while. Adrian keeps talking about his recruiting efforts, so I guess we won’t be completely without magic.”
“Look, I, how do I put this… part of why I’m doing this is in case things go awry with Adrian. Not saying they will, but I don’t like putting all my eggs in one emotionally crippled basket.”
The warehouse changed things, as did the ready access to wide assortments of materials. Adrian was in touch often, talking about how things were progressing in the capital. Once day the scroll would read, “lots and lots of talk going on here, but just talk.” The next is might be, “I’ve started seeing signs that the king is pushing for stricter controls on returning soldiers, you boys might be sitting around in Gandia for a hell of a long time.”
Finally, official word. Captain Pemberton pulled all the squads together for an announcement. He stood on a platform mad of old crates nailed between a pair of semi-intact buildings. Clearing his throat, looking down, he said, “So, orders finally came in. We are ordered to remain in the field, specifically in Tenagoro until such time as full resettlement of field forces can be arranged. According to the orders it could be several years. In the meantime crews will be arriving to help us turn this bloody place into something habitable. Sorry men, I know it’s shit. ‘You won the war for us, here’s your reward: you get to stay in a ruined city with inadequate food and shelter’. Just know that I’m on your side, that we are in this together. I won’t be leaving the city until the last of my men has the option to do so. Oh, we are going to need to put in a bunch of extra hours in the next few days getting Lord Conrose’s caravan ready to return to the capital. He leaves in four days. Your sergeants have your work details. That will be all.”
The sound the men made was a palpable wave. A groan of despair and disgust that filled the air. Cries of “Fuck that pansy bastard,” and “Conrose needs to be strung up” echoed off ruined warehouses.
Over the next few days the troops were put to work, creating a more permanent place to live. For Tom and his squad it was a matter of taking their warehouse and modifying it. First was interior spaces, creating separate area for sleeping, eating, cooking, exercise, all of that. Nobody touched Gilbert‘s area though. They slowly built the space into somewhere they could stay in for the long term.
Tom talked to Adrian every chance he got. Most of the time he found himself asking about Trish . For some reason the redhead was stuck in his mind. Not just her sharp wit, her exotic looks, it was something in her eyes, in the way she looked at him. There was nothing much new, and then there was. She was coming to Tenagoro for an inspection tour. Adrian wrote, “The king has decided to give other nations a view of what Gandia looks like now. We think the plan is to intimidate them, a show of strength. Trish is coming along with her father. It looks like an innocent thing, but as you know, she runs a spy network. She told me she’s looking forward to finally getting a drink with you. Be on your best behaviour.”
It was stupid, he knew that. They were in the middle of trying to start a rebellion against an enemy that had them outnumbered by thousands, that had vast resources at their command. He was trying to build a place to live for the next go only knew how long. Didn’t matter. All of Tom‘s thoughts were of Trish. What would she think of this place? How would she look at him now that he was the great mage slayer? Would she spend the night with him? Would he get to kiss those full, red lips?
Stupid. So stupid. This should be the bottom thing on his priority list. It wasn’t though, no matter what he tried.
The warehouse was progressing well. They had managed to find some soil that wasn’t salted, and were spreading it on the roof, an attempt to create a garden. One morning they held a group meeting. “We need food. Looks like command is supplying limited amounts of it. Maybe enough we don’t starve to death,” said Sergeant Blake, “then again, maybe not. So, we need to provide for ourselves. We have to learn to grow things.”
Gilbert stood up. “I might be able to help. I can see the properties of the plants, see what they interact best with, how vital they are. Not sure how much help it’ll be, but better than none.”
The seeds were an issue. There weren’t any local sources. Everything had burned, been salted, been destroyed. Tom put out the word that they had a place to grow, and a decent chance to grow things. Word spread among the soldiers. It was the first time Tom realized how far and wide his conversations had gone. Within a few days seeds showed up, the soldiers and camp workers who brought them asking for a piece of the crop when it was ready. of course the group agreed, they had not choice. They did take a careful accounting. The idea was to give food to anyone who requested it, but to give priority to the people who contributed. A workers paradise.
The work continued, planting happened, sprouting happened. They knew that their garden was not sufficient for their needs, but maybe it was a start point.
One sunny morning Tom was pulling weeds; no seeds, barely able to get anything to grow, but the weeds showed up anyhow, when Trish showed up. Tom saw her as she came up the stair on the side of the warehouse, the only way up and down. He dropped his hoe and ran over to her, then stood, awkward, unsure if he should shake her hand, hug her, drop down on one knee and profess undying love to her. She grabbed him, giving him a big hug, letting him off the hook.
“Hey, good to see you soldier boy.”
“Hey yourself. What brings you to this part of the world, assuming you don’t have a strange misery fetish?”
“That’s actually it. I like seeing men suffer. You in particular. Please, get back to your weeds peasant boy.”
“Cruel, so cruel.”
The conversation continued, until Tom noticed that the sun was setting, he was starving, and both of them had sunburns. They had talked most of the day without noticing the passage of time.
“Where are you staying while you’re here?”
“Well, we have a site set up, but if you have the space here…”
“Of course, we have tons of room.”
“Do you have a room to yourself?” asked Trish, looking at Tom through lowered eyes, a slight catch in her voice.
“Yes,” said Tom, “of course you can share my room if you would like.”
The next morning the two of them got up together and shared breakfast. Trish had had one of her people drop off some extra supplies, mostly luxury goods that couldn’t be had anywhere in Tenagoro. They dined on fresh berries, preserved with magic, just like the cream that topped them, and pancakes – which were better than the usual fare due to much much better flour.
Trish stayed for a week. She pitched in in the garden every day, doing a fair share of the work. Finally, it was time for her to leave. “Sorry, wish I could stay. Believe it or not this has been a vacation for me. Adrian has me working all kinds of intrigue. Sometimes I wonder if I’m more his agent than Talishar‘s. Well, at least it lets me spend time with you.”
Tom was in wonder, this woman had picked him, somehow, against all odds, against all sense. He was nobody, a lowborn soldier, she was the daughter of one of the highest in the land, and a different land entirely at that.
With a last kiss she was off, to her father and then to the capital.
Two days later things changed for all of them. An announcement went out, everyone was to meet in the town square that night, no exceptions. The kind of message that brooked no refusal.
Tom arrived at the square just before sunset, to find it packed. He had to find a spot near the edge, technically it was past the edge, but the building that occupied that spaces was a charred mass, lying on the ground. Tom stepped into the outline of the structure and waited. There was a scaffold in the middle of the square, and on top of the scaffold were a dozen men, nooses around their neck. Tom recognized all of them. They were men he had recruited.
A man came up to the dais. Tom didn’t recognize him, but from the fine materials he wore, the powdered wig no his head, the bright colours, he was not one of the rank and file. The man said, “Lord Conrose has appointed me to oversee this city while he is busy in the capital. My name is Sir Jordan Gavenchy. We have an issue, a serious one. There are rats among us. Traitors to the crown. These men behind me were part of a plot, a treasonous plot to overthrow the rightful king and his appointed representatives. This is the worst kind of filth, traitors to the uniform they wore, the king they serve, the country that has succored them. They are to die today, and all of you will watch. We know for certain that there are other conspirators among you. We will find you, and you will get to share their fate. I promise this, as I have promised it to Lord Conrose. I will hunt down the filth, and I will execute them like the rabid dogs they are.”
He stepped back and pulled a lever. A door dropped out of the platform, but the ropes were short, the men fell less than an inch. Their necks didn’t break, the way they would in a humane execution. Instead they kicked and struggled, bowels and bladders letting go. Slowly, slowly, they stopped moving and hanged, dead.
“This is the fate that all traitors will face. They will be left here for the crows to feast on. Any who attempts to cut them down will share their fate.”