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Magic and Destruction—On a World Scale
Imagine the drama and terror of the Second World War—only the bullets are beams of magical fire, the tanks are great lumbering beasts, and fighters and bombers are dragons raining fire upon their targets. Welcome to the world of the Derlavaian War, a world which is slowly but surely being conquered, mile by bloody mile, by the forces of the Algarvian empire...forces whose most terrible battle magics are powered by the slaughter of an ...
Magic and Destruction—On a World Scale
Imagine the drama and terror of the Second World War—only the bullets are beams of magical fire, the tanks are great lumbering beasts, and fighters and bombers are dragons raining fire upon their targets. Welcome to the world of the Derlavaian War, a world which is slowly but surely being conquered, mile by bloody mile, by the forces of the Algarvian empire...forces whose most terrible battle magics are powered by the slaughter of an innocent people. In this, the fourth volume of the series which began with Into the Darkness, the war for the continent of Derlavai builds toward its crescendo as the mages of Kuusamo, aided by their former rivals from Lagoas, work desperately to create a newer form of magic that will change the course of the war. But this is really a story of ordinary people—on all sides of the conflict—forced by fate to rise to their heroic limits...or sink to the level of their darker natures.
Leudast looked across the snow-covered ruins of Sulingen. The silence seemed unnatural. After two spells of fighting in the city, he associated it with the horrible din of battle: bursting eggs, the hiss of beams as they turned snow to sudden steam, fire crackling beyond hope of control, masonry falling in on itself, wounded behemoths bawling, wounded horses and unicorns screaming, wounded men shrieking.
None of that now. Everything was silent, eerily so. Young Lieutenant Recared nudged Leudast and pointed. "Look, Sergeant," Recared said, his unlined face glowing with excitement, almost with awe. "Here come the captives."
"Aye," Leudast said softly. He couldn't have been more than two or three years older than Recared himself. It only seemed like ten or twelve. Awe was in his voice, too, as he said it again: "Aye."
He hadn't known quite so many Algarvians were left alive in Sulingen when their army at last gave up its hopeless fight. Here came some of them now: a long column of misery. By Unkerlanter standards, their tall enemies from the east were slim even when well fed. Now, after so much desperate fighting cut off from any hope of resupply, most of them were redheaded skeletons, nothing more.
They were filthy, too, with scraggly red beards covering their hollow cheeks. They wore a fantastic mix of cloaks, Algarvian tunics and kilts, long Unkerlanter tunics, and any rags and scraps of cloth they could get their hands on. Some had stuffed crumpled news sheets and other papers under their tunics to try to fight the frigid winter here in the southwest of Unkerlant. Here and there, Leudast saw Algarvians in pathetic overshoes of woven straw. Snug in his own felt boots, he almost pitied the foe. Almost. King Mezentio's men had come too close to killing him too many times for him to find feeling sorry for them easy.
Lieutenant Recared drew himself up very straight. "Seeing them makes me proud I'm an Unkerlanter," he said.
Maybe the ability to say things like that was part of what separated officers from ordinary soldiers. All Leudast could do was mumble, "Seeing them makes me glad I'm alive." He didn't think Recared heard him, which might have been just as well.
Most of the Algarvians trudged along with their heads down: they were beaten, and they knew it. A few, though, still somehow kept the jauntiness that marked their kind. One of them caught Leudast's eye, grinned, and spoke in pretty fair Unkerlanter: "Hey, Bignose—our turn today, tomorrow yours."
Leudast's mittened hand flew up to the organ the redhead had impugned. It was of a good size and strongly curved, but so were most Unkerlanters' noses. He waved derisively at the Algarvian, waved and said, "Big up above, big down below."
"Aye, all you Unkerlanters are big pricks," the captive came back with a chuckle.
Some soldiers would have blazed a man who said something like that. Leudast contented himself with the last word: "You think it's funny now. You won't be laughing so hard when they set you to work in the mines." That struck home. The Algarvian's grin slipped. He tramped on and was lost among his fellows.
At last, the long tide of misery ended. Recared shook himself, as if waking from a dream. He turned back to Leudast and said, "Now we've got to get ready to whip the rest of King Mezentio's men out of our kingdom."
"Sure enough, sir," Leudast agreed. He hadn't thought about what came after beating the Algarvians in Sulingen. He supposed thinking about such things before you had to was another part of what separated officers from the men they led.
"What state is your company in, Lieutenant?" Recared asked.
"About what you'd expect, sir—I've got maybe a section's worth of men," Leudast answered. Plenty of companies had sergeants in charge of them these days, and plenty of regiments, like Recared's, were commanded by lieutenants.
With a nod, Recared said, "Have them ready to move out tomorrow morning. I don't know for a fact that we will move tomorrow, but that's what it looks like."
"Aye, sir." Leudast's sigh built a young fogbank of vapor in front of his face. He knew he shouldn't have expected anything different, but he would have liked a little longer to rest after one fight before plunging into the next.
They didn't go north the next morning. They did go north the next afternoon, tramping up roads made passable by behemoths wearing snow-shoes. Here and there, the snow lay too deep even for behemoths to trample out a usable path. Then the weary troopers had to shovel their way through the drifts. The duty was as physically wearing as combat, the only advantage being that the Algarvians weren't trying to blaze them or drop eggs on their heads.
One of Leudast's troopers said, "I wish we were riding a ley-line caravan up to the new front. Then we'd get there rested. The way things are, we're already halfway down the road to being dead." He flung a spadeful of snow over this shoulder, then stooped to get another one.
A few minutes later, the company emerged from the trench it had dug through a great drift. Leudast was awash in sweat, his lungs on fire, regardless of the frigid air he breathed. When he could see more than snow piled up in front of him, he started to laugh. There a few hundred yards to one side of the road lay a wrecked caravan, its lead car a burnt-out, blasted ruin—the Algarvians had planted an egg along the ley line, and its burst of sorcerous energy had done everything the redheads could have wanted. "Still want to go the easy way, Werbel?"
"No, thanks, Sergeant," the trooper answered at once. "Maybe this isn't so bad after all."
Leudast nodded. He wasn't laughing any more. The steersmen on that ley-line caravan were surely dead. So were dozens of Unkerlanter troopers: bodies lay stacked like cordwood by the ruined caravan. And more dozens, maybe hundreds, of men were hurt. The Algarvians had gained less by winning some skirmishes.
When the regiment encamped for the night in the ruins of an abandoned peasant village, Lieutenant Recared said, "There are some stretches of ley line that are safe. Our mages keep clearing more every day, too."
"I suppose they find out if the ley lines are clear by sending caravans on them," Leudast said sourly. "This one wasn't."
"No, but it will be now, after the mages cancel out the effect of the energy burst," Recared answered.
"And then they'll find another cursed egg a mile farther north," Leudast said. "Find it the hard way, odds are."
"You haven't got the right attitude, Sergeant," Recared said reprovingly.
Leudast thought he had just the right attitude. He was opposed to getting killed or maimed. He was especially opposed to getting killed or maimed because some mage hadn't done his job well enough. Having the enemy kill you was part of war; he understood that. Having your own side kill you…He'd come to understand that was part of war, too, however much he hated it.
In good weather, on good roads, they would have been about ten days' march from where the fighting was now. They took quite a bit longer than that to get there. The roads, even the best of them, were far from good. Though the winter solstice was well past, the days remained short and bleak and bitterly cold, with a new blizzard rolling in out of the west every other or every third day.
And, though no redheads opposed them on the ground, the Algarvians hadn't gone away and given up after losing Sulingen. They kept being difficult whenever and wherever they could. Unkerlant was vast, and dragons even thinner in the air than soldiers and behemoths were on the ground. That meant King Mezentio's dragonfliers could fare south to visit death and destruction on the Unkerlanters moving up to assail their countrymen.
When eggs fell, Leudast dived into the closest hole he could find. When Algarvian dragons swooped low to flame, he simply leaped into the snow on his belly and hoped his white smock would keep enemy dragonfliers from noticing him. It worked; after each attack ended, he got up and started slogging north again.
Not everyone was so lucky. He'd long since got used to seeing corpses, sometimes pieces of corpses, scattered in the snow and staining it red. But once the Algarvian dragons had been lucky enough to take out a column of more than a dozen Unkerlanter behemoths and the crews who served their egg-tossers and heavy sticks. The air that day was calm and still; the stench of burnt flesh still lingered as he tramped past. Dragonfire had roasted the behemoths inside the heavy chainmail they wore to protect them from weapons mere footsoldiers could carry. Even the beasts' snowshoe-encased hooves and the iron-shod, curving horns on their noses were covered with soot from the flames the dragons had loosed.
"Last winter, I hear, the Algarvians were eating the flesh of slain behemoths," Recared said.
He hadn't been in the fight the winter before. Leudast had. He nodded. "Aye, they did, sir." After a pause, he added, "So did we."
"Oh." Beneath his swarthy skin, beneath the dark whiskers he'd had scant chance to scrape, Recared looked a little green. "What…was it like?"
"Strong. Gamy," Leudast answered. Another pause. "A lot better than nothing."
"Ah. Aye." Recared nodded wisely. "Do you suppose we'll…?"
"Not these beasts," Leudast said. "Not unless you want to stop and do some butchering now. If we keep going, we'll be miles away before we stop for the night."
"That's true." Lieutenant Recared considered. In thoughtful tones, he remarked, "Field kitchens haven't been all they might be, have they?" Leudast started to erupt at that, then noticed the small smile on Recared's face. King Swemmel expected his soldiers to feed themselves whenever they could. Field kitchens were almost as rare as far western mountain apes roaming these plains.
The regiment ate behemoth that night, and for several days thereafter. It was as nasty as Leudast recalled. It was a lot better than the horrible stuff the Algarvians had been pouring down their throats in the last days at Sulingen, though. And, as he'd said, it was ever so much better than nothing.
A couple of nights later, thunder rumbled in the north as the Unkerlanter soldiers made camp. But it couldn't have been thunder; the sky, for once, was clear, with swarms of stars twinkling on jet black. When the weather was very cold, they seemed to twinkle more than on a mild summer night. Leudast noted that only in passing. He knew too well what that distant rumbling that went on and on meant. Scowling, he said, "We're close enough to the fun to hear eggs bursting again. I didn't miss 'em when we couldn't, believe you me I didn't."
"Fun?" Werbel hadn't been in the company long, but even he knew better than that. "More chances to get killed, is what it is."
"That's what they pay us for," Leudast answered. "When they bother to pay us, I mean." He'd lost track of how far in arrears his own pay was. Months—he was sure of that much. And he should have been owed a lieutenant's pay, or a captain's, not a sergeant's, considering the job he'd been doing for more than a year. Of course, Recared should have been paid like a colonel, too.
Werbel listened to the eggs in the distance. With a sigh, he said, "I wonder if they'll get caught up before the war ends."
Leudast's laugh was loud, raucous, and bitter. "Powers above, what makes you think it'll ever end?"
• • •
Sidroc was glad Forthwegians had the custom of wearing full beards. For one thing, the thick black hair on his chin and cheeks and upper lip went a little way toward keeping them warm in the savage cold of southern Unkerlant. Coming out of Gromheort in the sunny north, he'd never imagined weather like this. Had anybody told him even a quarter of the truth about it before he knew it for himself, he would have called that fellow a liar to his face. No more.
For another, the beards the men of Plegmund's Brigade—Forthwegians fighting in the service of their Algarvian occupiers—wore helped distinguish them from their Unkerlanter cousins. Unkerlanters and Forthwegians were both stocky, olive-skinned, hook-nosed, both given to wearing long tunics rather than kilts or trousers. But if Sidroc saw a clean-shaven face, he blazed at it without hesitation.
At the moment, he saw very little. His regiment—about a company's worth of men, after all the hard fighting they'd been through—was trying to hold the Unkerlanters out of a village called Hohenroda. It lay somewhere not far from the important town of Durrwangen, but whether north, south, east, or west Sidroc couldn't have said to save his life. He'd done too much marching and countermarching to have any exact notion of where he was.
Eggs crashed down on the village and in front of it. The log walls of the cabin where he was sheltering shook. He turned to Sergeant Werferth. "Those Unkerlanter buggers have every egg-tosser in the world lined up south of here, seems like."
"Wouldn't surprise me," Werferth answered. If anything ever did faze him, he didn't let on. He'd served in the Forthwegian army till the Algarvians destroyed it. Sidroc had been only fifteen when the Derlavaian War began three and a half years before. Werferth spat on the rammed-earth floor. "So what?"
That was too much calm for Sidroc to handle. "They're liable to kill us, that's what!" he burst out. Every once in a while, his voice still broke like a boy's. He hated that, but couldn't help it.
"They won't kill all of us, and the ones who're left'll make 'em pay a good price for this place," Werferth said. He'd signed up for Plegmund's Brigade as soon as the recruiting broadsheets started going up on walls and fences. As far as Sidroc could tell, Werferth didn't care for whom he fought. He might have served the Unkerlanters as readily as the Algarvians. He just liked to fight.
More eggs burst. A fragment of the metal casings that held their sorcerous energy in check till suddenly and violently released slammed into the wall. Timbers creaked. Straw from the thatched roof fell down into Sidroc's hair. He peered out through a tiny slit of a window. "I wish we could see better," he grumbled.
"They don't build houses with south-facing doors in these parts," Werferth said. "A lot of 'em haven't got any south-facing windows at all, not even these little pissy ones. They know where the bad weather comes from."
Sidroc had noticed there weren't any south-facing doors, but he hadn't thought about why. Questions like that didn't interest him. He wasn't stupid, but he didn't use his brains unless he had to. Hitting somebody or blazing somebody struck him as easier.
Werferth went to the other little window. He barked out several sharp curses. "Here they come," he said, and rested his stick on the window frame, the business end pointing out toward the Unkerlanters.
Mouth dry, Sidroc did the same. He'd seen Unkerlanter charges before—not too many, or he wouldn't have remained among those present. Now he had to try to fight off another one.
It was, he had to admit, an awe-inspiring sight. King Swemmel's soldiers formed up in the frozen fields south of Hohenroda, out beyond the range of the defenders' sticks: row on row of them, all in fur hats and white smocks. Sidroc could hear them howling like demons even though they were a long way off. "Do they really feed 'em spirits before they send 'em out to attack?" he asked Werferth.
"Oh, aye," the sergeant answered. "Makes 'em mean, I shouldn't wonder. Though I wouldn't mind a nip myself right now."
Then in the distance, whistles shrilled. The ice that ran up Sidroc's back had nothing to do with the ghastly weather. He knew what was coming next. And it came. The Unkerlanters linked arms, row on row of them. The officers' whistles squealed once more. The Unkerlanters charged.
"Urra!" they bellowed, a deep, rhythmic shout, as snow flew up from their felt boots. "Urra! Urra! Swemmel! Urra! Urra!" If they couldn't overrun Hohenroda—if they couldn't overrun the whole cursed world—they didn't know it.
No doubt because they were drunk, they started blazing long before they got close enough to be in any serious danger of hitting something. Puffs of steam in the snow in front of them showed that some of the men from Plegmund's Brigade had started blazing, too. "Fools!" Werferth growled. "Bloody stupid fornicating fools! We can't afford to waste charges like that. We haven't got any Kaunians around to kill to give us the sorcerous energy we need to get more."
They didn't even have any Unkerlanters to kill for the same purpose. The local peasants had long since fled Hohenroda. The men of Plegmund's Brigade were on their own here.
Or so Sidroc thought, till eggs started bursting among the onrushing Unkerlanters. He whooped with glee—and with surprise. Plegmund's Brigade was made up of footsoldiers; it had to rely on the Algarvians for support. "I didn't know there were egg-tossers back of town," Sidroc said to Werferth.
"Neither did I," Werferth said. "If you think our lords and masters tell us everything they're up to, you're daft. And if you think those eggs'll get rid of all those Unkerlanters, you're even dafter, by the powers above."
Sidroc knew that too well. As the eggs burst in their midst, some of Swemmel's men flew through the air, to lie broken and bleeding in the snow. Others, as far as he could tell, simply ceased to be. But the Unkerlanters who still lived, who could still move forward, came on. They kept shouting with no change in rhythm he could hear.
Then they were close enough to make targets even Werferth couldn't criticize. Sidroc thrust his right forefinger out through a hole in his mitten; his stick required the touch of real flesh to blaze. He stuck his finger into the opening at the rear of the stick and blazed at an Unkerlanter a few hundred yards away. The man went down, but Sidroc had no way to be sure his beam had hit him. He blazed again, and then cursed, for he must have missed his new target.
The Unkerlanters were blazing, too, as they had been for some little while. A beam smote the peasant hut only a foot or so above Sidroc's head. The sharp, tangy stink of charred pine made his nostrils twitch. In drier weather, a beam like that might have fired the hut. Not so much risk of that now, nor of the fire's spreading if it did take hold.
"Mow 'em down!" Werferth said cheerfully. Down the Unkerlanters went, too, in great swaths, almost as if they were being scythed at harvest time. Sidroc had long since seen Swemmel's soldiers cared little about losses. If they got a victory, they didn't count the cost.
"They're going to break in!" he said, an exclamation of dismay. They might pay a regiment's worth of men to shift the company's worth of Forth-wegians in Hohenroda, but that wouldn't make the detachment from Plegmund's Brigade any less wrecked. It wouldn't make Sidroc any less dead.
"We have three lines of retreat prepared," Werferth said. "We'll use all of them." He sounded calm, unconcerned, ready for anything that might happen, and ready to make the Unkerlanters pay the highest possible price for this miserable little place. In the abstract, Sidroc admired that. When fear rose up inside him like a black, choking cloud, he knew he couldn't hope to match it.
And then, instead of swarming in among the huts of Hohenroda and rooting out the defenders with beams and with knives and with sticks swung clubwise and with knees in the crotch and thumbs gouging out eyes, the Unkerlanters had to stop short of the village. More eggs fell among Swemmel's men, these from the northeast. Heavy sticks seared down half a dozen men at a time. Algarvian behemoths, fighting as they had in the old days before sticks and eggs were so much of a much, got in among the Unkerlanters and trampled them and gored them with iron-encased horns.
And the Unkerlanters broke. They hadn't expected to run into behemoths around Hohenroda. When they fought according to their plans, they were the stubbornest soldiers in the world. When taken by surprise, they sometimes panicked.
Sidroc was heartily glad this proved one of those times. "Run, you buggers, run!" he shouted, and blazed a fleeing Unkerlanter in the back. Relief made him sound giddy. He didn't care. He felt giddy.
"They've got snowshoes," Werferth said. "The Algarvian behemoths, I mean. They didn't last winter, you know. The Algarvians hadn't figured they'd have to fight in the snow. It cost 'em."
Werferth didn't just like fighting, he liked going into detail about fighting. Sidroc didn't think that way. He'd joined Plegmund's Brigade mostly because he hadn't been able to get along with anybody back in Gromheort. A lot of the men in the Brigade were similar misfits. Some of them were out-and-out robbers and bandits. He'd led a sheltered life till the war. Things were different now.
Some of the behemoth crews waved to the defenders of Hohenroda, urging them out in pursuit of King Swemmel's men. Sidroc had no intention of pursuing anybody unless his own officers gave the order. He muttered under his breath when shouts rang out from inside the village: "Forward! South!"
Those shouts were in Algarvian. Algarvian officers commanded Plegmund's Brigade, and all orders came in their tongue. In a way, that made sense: the Brigade had to fight alongside Algarvian units and work smoothly with them. In another way, though, it was a reminder of who were the puppets and who the puppeteers.
"Let's go," Werferth said. He would never be anything more than a sergeant. Of course, had Forthweg's independent army survived, he would never have been anything more than a sergeant, either, for he had not a drop of noble blood.
Sidroc winced and cursed as the icy wind tore at him when he left the shelter of the peasant's hut. But he and his comrades were grinning at one another as they formed up and advanced toward the behemoths and toward the tumbled Unkerlanter corpses in the snow.
The Algarvian behemoth crews weren't grinning. "Who are these whoresons?" one of them shouted to a recognizably Algarvian lieutenant among the Forthwegians. "They look like a pack of Unkerlanters."
"We're from Plegmund's Brigade," the lieutenant answered. Sidroc followed Algarvian fairly well. He'd learned some in school, mostly beaten in with a switch, and more since joining the Brigade, which had ways of training harsher yet.
"Plegmund's Brigade!" the redhead on the behemoth burst out. "Plegmund's bloody Brigade? Powers above, we thought we were rescuing real Algarvians."
"Love you too, prickface." That was a trooper named Ceorl, like Sidroc in the squad Werferth led. He always had been and always would be more a ruffian than a soldier. Here, though, Sidroc completely agreed with him.
• • •
Major Spinello eyed the approaching Algarvian physician with all the warmth of a crippled elk eyeing a wolf. The physician either didn't notice or was used to such glances from recuperating soldiers. "Good morning," he said cheerfully. "How are we today?"
"I haven't the faintest idea about you, good my sir," Spinello replied—like a lot of Algarvians, he was given to extravagant flights of verbiage. "As for myself, I've never been better in all my born days. When do you propose to turn me loose so I can get back into the fight against the cursed Unkerlanters?"
He'd been saying the same thing for weeks. At first, the healing mages had ignored him. Then he'd been turned over to mere physicians…who'd also ignored him. This one said, "Well, we shall see what we shall see." He pressed a hearing tube against the right side of Spinello's chest. "If you'd be so kind as to cough for me…?"
After taking a deep breath, Spinello coughed. He also had the Algarvian fondness for overacting; with the energy he put into his coughs, he might have been at death's door from consumption. "There, you quack," he said when he let the racking spasm end. "Does that satisfy you?"
Perhaps fortunately for him, the physician was harder to offend than most of his countrymen. Instead of getting angry—or instead of continuing the conversation through seconds, as some might have done—the fellow just asked, "Did that hurt?"
"No. Not a bit." Spinello lied without hesitation. He'd taken a sniper's beam in the chest—powers above, a sniper's beam right through the chest—down in Sulingen. He had the feeling he'd hurt for years to come, if not for the rest of his life. That being so, he could—he had to—deal with the pain.
"I was listening to you," the physician said. "So that you know, I don't believe you, not a word of it."
"So that you know, sirrah, I don't care what you believe." Spinello hopped down from the infirmary bed on which he'd been sitting and glared at the physician. He had to look up his nose, not down it, for the doctor overtopped him by several inches: he was a bantam rooster of a man, but strong for his size and very quick. He also had a powerful will; under his gaze, the physician gave back a pace before checking himself. Voice soft and menacing, Spinello demanded, "Will you write me out the certificate that warrants me fit to return to duty?"
To his surprise, the physician said, "Aye." He reached into the folder he'd set on the bed and pulled out a printed form. "In fact, I have filled it out, all but the signature." He plucked a pen and a sealed bottle of ink from the breast pocket of his tunic, inked the pen, and scrawled something that might have been his name or might equally have been an obscenity in demotic Gyongyosian. Then he handed Spinello the completed form. "This will permit you to return to duty, Major. It doesn't warrant you as fit, because you aren't fit. But the kingdom needs you, and you're unlikely to fall over dead at the first harsh breeze. Powers above keep you safe." He bowed.
And Spinello bowed in return, more deeply than the physician had. That was an extraordinary courtesy; as a count, he surely outranked the other man, who was bound to be only a commoner. But the physician had given him what he wanted most in all the world. He bowed again. "I am in your debt, sir."
With a sigh, the physician said, "Why a man should be so eager to rush headlong into danger has always been beyond me."
"You said it yourself: Algarve needs me," Spinello replied. "Now tell me at once: is it true the last of our brave lads have had to yield themselves in Sulingen?"
"It's true," the physician said grimly. "The crystallomancers can't reach anyone there, and the Unkerlanters are shouting themselves hoarse at the victory. Not a word about the price we made them pay."
Spinello cursed. The Algarvians had fought their way into Sulingen the summer before—fought their way into it and never fought their way out again. South beyond the Wolter River lay the Mamming Hills, full of the cinnabar that made dragonfire burn so hot and fierce. Take Sulingen, storm over the Wolter, seize the mines in the hills—it had all seemed so straightforward.
It would have been,too, had the Unkerlanters not fought like demons for every street, for every manufactory, for every floor of every block of flats. And now, even though Swemmel's men had, as the physician said, surely paid a great price, an Algarvian army was gone, gone as if it had never been.
"I hope they send me west again in a tearing hurry," Spinello said, and the physician rolled his eyes. Spinello pointed to the closet at the far end of the room. "I'm sick of these cursed hospital whites. Is my uniform in there?"
"If you mean the one in which you came here, Major, no," the physician replied. "That one, as I hope you will understand, is somewhat the worse for wear. But a major's uniform does await you, aye. One moment." He went over to the closet, set a hand on the latch, and murmured softly. "There. Now it will open to your touch. We couldn't very well have had you escaping before you were even close to healed."
"I suppose not," Spinello admitted. They'd known him, all right. He walked over to the closet and tried the latch. It did open. It hadn't before; he'd tried a good many times. With a squeak of dry hinges, the door opened, too. There on hooks hung a tunic and kilt of severe military cut. The tunic, he saw to his pride, had on it a wound ribbon. He was entitled to that ribbon, and he would wear it. He got out of the baggy infirmary clothes and put on the uniform. It was baggy, too, baggy enough to make him angry. "Couldn't they have found a tailor who wasn't drunk?" he snapped.
"It is cut to your measure, Major," the physician answered. "Your former measure, I should say. You've lost a good deal of flesh since you were wounded."
"This much?" Spinello didn't want to believe it. But he couldn't very well call the physician a liar, either.
Also hanging in the closet was a broad-brimmed hat with a bright feather from some bird from tropical Siaulia sticking up from the leather hatband. Spinello clapped it on. His head hadn't shrunk, anyhow. That was a relief.
The physician said, "I have a mirror in my belt pouch, if you'd like to see yourself. We don't keep many in infirmaries. They might dismay patients like you, and they might do worse than dismay others, the ones unlucky enough to receive head wounds."
"Ah." Contemplating that was enough to make Spinello decide he hadn't come out so bad after all. In unwontedly quiet tones, he said, "Aye, sir, if you'd be so kind."
"Of course, Major." The physician took it out and held it up.
Spinello whistled softly. He had lost flesh; his cheekbones were promontories just under the skin, and the line of his jaw sharper than it had been since he left his teens—an era more than a dozen years behind him now. But his green eyes still gleamed, and the attendants who'd trimmed his coppery mustache and little chin beard and side whiskers had done a respectable job. He tilted the hat to a jauntier angle and said, "How ever will the girls keeptheir legs closed when they see me walking down the street?"
With a snort, the doctor put the mirror away. "You're well enough, all right," he said. "Go back to the west and terrorize the Unkerlanter women."
"Oh, my dear fellow!" Spinello rolled his eyes. "A homelier lot you'd never want to see. Built like bricks, almost all of them. I had better luck when I was on occupation duty in Forthweg. This little blond Kaunian, couldn't have been above seventeen"—his hands shaped an hourglass in the air—"and she'd do anything I wanted, and I do mean anything."
"How many times have you told me about her since you've been in my care?" the physician asked. "Her name was Vanai, and she lived in Oyngestun, and—"
"And every word of it true, too," Spinello said indignantly. He took a cloak from the closet and threw it on, then dealt with shoes and stockings. He was panting by the time he finished dressing; he'd spent too long flat on his back. But he refused to admit how worn he was, even to himself. "Now, then—what formalities must I go through to escape your lair here?"
He presented the certificate of discharge to the floor nurse. After she signed it, he presented it to the nursing station downstairs. After someone there signed it, Spinello presented it to the soldier at the doorway. The man had won the soft post with a right tunic sleeve pinned up short. He pointed along the street and said, "The reassignment depot is three blocks that way, sir. Can you walk it?"
"Why? Is this a test?" Spinello asked. Rather to his surprise, the one-armed soldier nodded. He realized it made a certain amount of sense: you might browbeat a doctor into giving youa certificate, but no one who couldn't walk three blocks had any business going off to the front. The soldier signed the certificate quite legibly. Spinello asked him, "Were you left-handed…before?"
"No, sir," the fellow answered. "I got this in Forthweg, early on. I've had two and a half years to learn how to do things over again."
With a nod, Spinello left the infirmary for the first time since being brought there and headed in the direction the disabled soldier had given him. Before the war, Trapani had been a gay, lively city, as befit the capital of a great kingdom. The gray gloom on the streets now had only a little to do with the overcast sky and the nasty, cold mist in the air: it was a thing of the spirit, not of the weather.
People hurried along about their business without the strut and swagger that were as much a part of Algarvian life as wine. Women mostly looked mousy, which wasn't easy for Spinello's redheaded compatriots. The only men in the streets who weren't in uniform were old enough to be veterans of the Six Years' War a generation before or else creaking ancients even older than that.
And everyone, men and women alike, looked grim. The news sheets the vendors sold were bordered in black. Sulingen had fallen, all right. It had been plain for a long time that the town would fall to the Unkerlanters, but no one here seemed to have wanted to believe it no matter how plain it was. That made the blow even harder now that it struck home.
Big signs outside the entrance named the reassignment depot. Spinello bounded up the marble steps, threw the doors wide, and shouted, "I'm fit for duty again! The war is won!"
Some of the soldiers in there laughed. Some of them snorted. Some just rolled rolled their eyes. "No matter who you are, sir, and no matter how great you are, you still have to queue up," a sergeant said. Spinello did, though he hated lines.
When he presented the multiply signed certificate of discharge to another sergeant, that worthy shuffled through files. At last, he said, "I have a regiment for you, Major, if you care to take it."
That was a formality. Spinello drew himself up to stiff attention. "Aye!" he exclaimed. The catch in his breath was partly from his healing, partly excitement.
The sergeant handed him his orders, as well as a list of ley-line caravans that would take him to the men who held the line somewhere in northern Unkerlant. They were waiting for him with bated breath. They just didn't know it yet. "If you hurry, sir, there's a caravan leaving from the main depot for Eoforwic in half an hour," the sergeant said helpfully. "That'll get you halfway there."
Spinello dashed out of the reassignment depot and screamed for a cab. He made the ley-line caravan he needed. As he glided southwest out of Trapani, he wondered why he was in such a hurry to go off and perhaps get himself killed. He had no answer, any more than the physician had. But he was.
• • •
Marshal Rathar wished with all his heart that he could have stayed down in southern Unkerlant and finished smashing the Algarvian invaders there. They were like serpents—you could step on them three days after you thought they were dead, and they'd rear up and bite you in the leg. Rathar sighed. He supposed General Vatran could handle things till he got back. King Swemmel had ordered him to Cottbus, and when King Swemmel ordered, every Unkerlanter obeyed.
As it was, Rathar wouldn't reach Cottbus as fast as Swemmel hoped and expected. Now that the Algarvians had been crushed in Sulingen and driven back from it, more direct ley-line routes between the south and the capital were in Unkerlanter hands once more. The trouble was, too many of them weren't yet usable. Retreating Algarvian mages had done their best to sabotage them. Retreating Algarvian engineers, relentless pragmatists, had buried eggs along the ley lines that traveled them after the Algarvian mages' efforts were overcome.
And so, Rathar had to travel almost as far out of a straight line to get from the vicinity of Sulingen to Cottbus as he had when coming south from Cottbus to Sulingen when things looked blackest the summer before. The steersman for the caravan kept sending flunkies back to Rathar with apologies for every zigzag. The marshal's displeasure carried weight. After Swemmel—but a long, long way after Swemmel (Rathar was convinced only he knew how far)—he was the most powerful man in Unkerlant.
But the marshal wasn't particularly displeased, not when he didn't want to go to Cottbus in the first place. He said, "I do prefer not getting killed on the journey, you know." The steward who'd brought him news of the latest delay had been pale under his swarthy skin. Now he breathed easier.
When the steward left the caravan car, a breath of chill got in, reminding the marshal it was winter—and a savage Unkerlanter winter at that—outside. Inside, with all the windows sealed, with a red-hot coal stove at each end of the car, it might as well have been summer in desert Zuwayza, or possibly summer in a bake oven. Rathar sighed. Unkerlanter caravan cars were always like that in winter. He rubbed his eyes. The hot, stuffy air never failed to give him a headache.
He yawned, lowered the lamps, and went to sleep. He was still sleeping when the ley-line caravan silently glided into Cottbus. An apologetic steward shook him awake. Yawning again, the marshal pulled off the thin linen tunic he'd been wearing and put on the thick wool one he'd used in the caves and ruined houses that had been his headquarters buildings down in the south. For good measure, he added a heavy wool cloak and a fur cap with earflaps.
Sweat rivered off him. "Powers above, get me out of here before I cook in my own juices," he said hoarsely.
"Aye, lord Marshal," the steward said, and led him to the door at the end of the car. He had to go past a stove to get there, and did come perilously close to steaming. Then the steward opened the door, and the frigid air outside hit him like a blow in the face. Cottbus was well north of Sulingen, and so enjoyed a milder climate, but milder didn't mean mild.
Rathar sneezed three times in quick succession as he walked down the wooden steps from the ley-line car—which floated a yard off the ground—to the floor of the depot. He pulled a handkerchief from his belt pouch and blew his large, proudly curved nose.
"Your health, lord Marshal," his adjutant said, coming to attention and saluting as Rathar's feet hit the flagstones. "It's good to see you again."
"Thank you, Major Merovec," Rathar answered. "It's good to be back in the capital." What a liar, what a courtier, I'm getting to be, he thought.
Merovec gestured to the squad of soldiers behind him. "Your honor guard, sir, and your bodyguard, to make sure no Algarvian assassin or Grelzer turncoat does you harm on the way to the royal palace."
"How generous of his Majesty to provide them for me," Rathar said. The soldiers looked blank-faced and tough: typical Unkerlanter farm boys. They were, no doubt, equally typical in their willingness to follow orders no matter what those orders were. If Swemmel had ordered them to arrest him, for instance, they would do it, regardless of the big stars on the collar tabs of his tunic. Swemmel stayed strong not least by allowing himself no strong subjects, and Rathar knew he'd won a good deal of fame for his operations in and around Sulingen.
If Swemmel wanted to seize him, he could. Rathar knew that. And so he strode up to Merovec and the unsmiling soldiers behind him. "I have a carriage waiting for you, lord Marshal," his adjutant said, "and others for the guards here. If you will come with me…"
The carriage was only a carriage, not a prison wagon. The troopers got into four other carriages. They took station around the one that carried Rathar. No, an assassin wouldn't have an easy blaze at him. The marshal didn't particularly worry about assassins. King Swemmel, now, King Swemmel saw them behind every curtain and under every chair.
Cottbus by night was dark and gloomy. Algarvian dragons still flew over to drop eggs on the Unkerlanter capital. The darkness helped thwart them, even if they didn't come nearly so often or in such numbers as they had the winter before. Algarvian behemoths and footsoldiers had almost broken into Cottbus then. They'd been pushed back a good way since, which meant a longer, harder journey for King Mezentio's dragonfliers.
"Well, what sort of juicy court gossip have you got for me?" Rathar asked his adjutant.
Major Merovec stared; even in the darkness, his eyes glittered as they widened. "N-Not much, lord Marshal," he stammered; Rathar was normally indifferent to the petty—and sometimes not so petty—scandal that set tongues wagging at every court on the continent of Derlavai…and every court off it, too.
Horses' hoofbeats muffled by snow on stone, the carriages entered the great empty square around the royal palace. Surrounding the square were statues of the kings of Unkerlant. Swemmel's loomed, twice as tall as any of the others. Rathar wondered how long the outsized image would endure in the reign of Swemmel's successor. That was not a thought he could ever speak aloud.
Inside the palace, lamps seared eyes used to darkness. The king had trouble sleeping, which meant his servitors hardly slept at all. "His Majesty will see you in the audience chamber," a messenger told Rathar.
The marshal hung the ceremonial sword of his rank on brackets in an anteroom to that chamber. Unsmiling guards patted him with intimacy few women would have dared use. Only after enduring that could he go on. And then he had to prostrate himself before the king and, face against the carpet, recite his praises until given permission to rise.
At last, King Swemmel gave it. As Rathar climbed to his feet—a knee clicked; he wasn't so young as he had been—the king said, "We wish to continue the rout of the cursed Algarvians from our land. Punish them! We command you!" His dark eyes flashed in his long, pale face.
"Your Majesty, I aim to do just that," Rathar replied. "Now that their army in Sulingen is no more, I can shift soldiers to my columns farther north. With luck, we'll bag most of the redheads still in the southwestern part of the kingdom, trap 'em as neatly as we did the ones who'd reached the Wolter."
He knew he was exaggerating—or rather, that he would have to be very lucky indeed to bring off everything he had in mind. The Algarvians would have a lot to say about what he did and what he ended up unable to do. Getting his sovereign to understand that was one of the hardest jobs he had. So far, he'd managed. Had he failed, Unkerlant would have a new marshal these days. Rathar didn't particularly fear for himself. He did doubt the kingdom had a better officer to lead her armies.
Swemmel said, "At last, we have them on the run. By the powers above, we shall punish them as they deserve. When King Mezentio is in our hands, we'll boil him alive, as we served Kyot." Kyot, his identical twin, had fought him for the throne and lost. Had he won, he would have boiled Swemmel—and, probably, Rathar with him, though he might have contented himself with taking the soldier's head.
As far as Rathar was concerned, his king was putting the unicorn's tail in front of its horn. The marshal said, "This war is still a long way from won, your Majesty."
But Swemmel had the bit between his teeth and trampled on: "And before we do, we'll give Mezentio's cousin Raniero, the misnamed King of Grelz, an end to make Mezentio glad he's just being boiled. Aye, we will." Gloating anticipation filled his voice.
Rathar did his best to draw the king back from dreams of revenge to what was real. "We have to beat the redheads first, you know. As I said, I want to keep biting chunks out of their forces in Unkerlant. We bit out a big chunk when we took Sulingen back, but they can still hurt us if we get careless. I aim to pin them against one river barrier after another, make them fight at a disadvantage or else have to make a whole series of difficult retreats.…"
Swemmel wasn't listening. "Aye, when Raniero falls into our hands, we'll flay him and draw him and unman him and—oh, whatever else strikes our fancy."
"We almost ought to thank Mezentio for him," Rathar said. "One of our own nobles on the Grelzer throne in Herborn would have brought more traitors to the Algarvian side than Raniero has a hope of luring."
"Traitors everywhere," Swemmel muttered. "Everywhere." His eyes darted this way and that. "We'll kill them all, see if we don't." During the Twinkings War and even after it, there had been a good many real plots against him. There had also been a good many that existed only in his fevered imagination. Real plotters and imagined ones were equally dead now, with no one to say who was which. "Traitors."
To Rathar's relief, Swemmel wasn't looking at him. Almost desperately, the marshal said, "As I was telling you, your Majesty, our plans—"
Swemmel spoke in peremptory tones: "Set all the columns moving now. The sooner we strike the Algarvians, the sooner they shall be driven from our soil." Did he mean the soil of Unkerlant or his own, personal soil? Rathar often had trouble telling.
"Do you not agree, your Majesty, that your armies have had more success when you waited till everything was ready before striking?" Rathar asked. He'd had trouble getting Swemmel to see that throughout the war. He didn't want more trouble now.
Swemmel, of course, cared nothing for what his marshal wanted. Swemmel cared only for what he wanted. And now, glaring down at Rathar from his high seat, he snapped, "We have given you an order. You may carry it out, or someone else may carry it out. We care nothing about that. We care only that we should be obeyed. Do you understand us?"
Sometimes, a threat to resign would bring Swemmel to his senses when he tried to order something uncommonly harebrained. Rathar didn't judge this would have been one of those times. The king wouldn't have summoned him from the south for anything but a show of unquestioned allegiance. And Swemmel would remove him and likely remove his head if he balked. Rathar looked down at the carpet and sighed. "Aye, your Majesty," he said, casting about in his mind for ways to say he obeyed while in fact doing what really needed doing.
"And think not to evade our will with plausible excuses," King Swemmel barked. He might not have been a very wise man, but no denying he was clever. Rathar sighed again.
• • •
Back before the Derlavaian War broke out, Skarnu had been a marquis. He still was a marquis, when you got down to it, but he hadn't lived like one for years. And, if the Algarvian occupiers of his native Valmiera ever got their hands on him, he wouldn't live anymore at all. This was what he got for carrying on the fight against the redheads after King Gainibu surrendered.
Had he made his peace with the conquerors, he could have been living soft in the familial mansion on the edge of Priekule, the capital. Instead, he found himself holed up in a dingy cold-water flat in Ventspils, an eastern provincial town of no great distinction—indeed, of no small distinction he could think of.
His sister still lived in that mansion. He growled, down deep in his throat. Krasta, curse her, had an Algarvian lover—Skarnu had seen them listed as a couple in a news sheet. Colonel Lurcanio and the Marchioness Krasta. Lurcanio, curse him, had come too close to catching Skarnu not long before. He'd had to flee the farm where he'd been living, the widow he'd come to love, and the child—his child—she was carrying. He hoped Lurcanio's men had only been after him, and that Merkela was safe.
Hope was all he could do. He didn't dare write to the farm outside the southern village of Pavilosta. If the Algarvians intercepted the letter, their mages might be able to use the law of contagion to trace it back to him. "Powers below eat them," he muttered. He wanted to pour out his soul to Merkela, but the enemy silenced him as effectively as if they'd clapped a gag over his mouth.
He went to the grimy window and looked down at the street three stories down. Wan winter sunshine filtered between the blocks of flats that sat almost side by side. Not even sunshine, though, could make the cobbles in the streets, the worn slates of the sidewalks, and the sooty, slushy snow in the gutters and in the corners by stairways anything but unlovely. The wind shook bare-branched trees; their shifting shadows put Skarnu in mind of groping, grabbing skeleton hands.
Blond Valmierans in tunics and trousers trudged this way and that. From what Skarnu had seen, nobody in Ventspils did much more than trudge. He wondered if he could blame that gloom on the Algarvian occupation, or if life in a provincial town would have been bloody dull even before the invaders came. Had he lived his whole life in Ventspils, he suspected he would have been gloomy most of the time himself.
Up the street came a couple of Algarvian soldiers or constables. He didn't recognize them by their red hair; like a lot of his countrymen, they wore hats to fight the cold. He didn't even recognize them by their pleated kilts, though he soon noticed those. No, what set them apart was the way they moved. They didn't trudge. They strutted, heads up, shoulders back, chests out. They moved as if they had vital business to take care of and wanted everybody around them to know it.
"Algarvians," Skarnu said with fine contempt. If they weren't the most self-important people on the face of the earth, he didn't know who was. He laughed, but not for long. Their pretensions would have been funnier if they hadn't dominated all the east of Derlavai.
And then they came up the stairs to his block of flats. When he saw that, he didn't hesitate for a moment. He grabbed a cloth cap, stuffed it down as low on his head as it would go, and left his flat, closing the door behind him as quietly as he could. His wool tunic would keep him warm for a while outside.
He hurried to the stairs and started down them. As he'd thought he would, he passed the Algarvians coming up. He didn't look at them; they didn't look at him. He'd gambled that they wouldn't. Their orders were probably something like, Arrest the man you find in flat 36. But there wouldn't be any man in flat 36 to arrest when they got there. If Skarnu hadn't seen them coming…
Vapor puffed from his mouth and nose as he opened the front door and went out onto the street. He was already hurrying up the sidewalk in the direction from which the redheads had come—a clever touch, he thought—when he realized he didn't know for a fact that they'd been after him. He laughed, though it wasn't funny. How likely that this block of flats held two men the Algarvians wanted badly enough to send their own after him instead of entrusting the job to Valmieran constables? Not very.
A youth waved a news sheet in his face. "Algarvians smash Unkerlanter drive south of Durrwangen!" he cried. The news sheets, of course, printed only what King Mezentio's ministers wanted Valmiera to hear. They'd stopped talking about Sulingen, for instance, as soon as the battle there was lost. They made the victories they reported these days sound like splendid triumphs instead of the desperate defensive struggles they had to be.
Skarnu strode past the vendor without a word, without even shaking his head. He turned a corner and then another and another and another, picking right or left at random each time. If the Algarvians came bursting out of the block of flats hot on his trail, they wouldn't have an easy time following him. He chuckled. He didn't know himself where he was going, so why should the redheads?
That didn't stay funny long, though. He had to pause and get his bearings—not easy in Ventspils, since he didn't know the town well. In Priekule, he could have looked for the Kaunian Column of Victory. That would have told him where in the city he was…till the Algarvians knocked it down. The victory it celebrated was one the Kaunian Empire had won over the barbarous Algarvic tribes—a victory that still rankled the tribesmen's barbarous descendants more than a millennium and a half later.
Though he took longer than he should have, he finally did figure out where he was. Then he needed to figure out where to go. That had only one answer, really: the tavern called the Lion and the Mouse. But the answer wasn't so good, either. Were the Algarvians after him in particular, or were they trying to smash all the resistance in Ventspils? If the former, they might know nothing of the tavern. If the latter, they were liable to be waiting in force around or inside it.
He muttered under his breath. A woman passing by gave him a curious look. He stared back so stonily, she hurried on her way as if she'd never looked at him at all. Maybe she thought him a madman or a derelict. As long as she didn't think him one of the handful who kept the fight against Algarve alive, he cared nothing for her opinion.
I've got to go, he realized. The Lion and the Mouse was the only place where he could hope to meet other irregulars. They could find him somewhere else to stay or spirit him out of Ventspils altogether. Without them…Skarnu didn't want to think about that. One man alone was one man helpless.
He approached the tavern with all the caution he'd learned as a captain in the Valmieran army—before the Algarvians used dragons and behemoths to smash that army into isolated chunks and then beat it. He couldn't see anything that looked particularly dangerous around the place. He wished Raunu, his veteran sergeant, were still with him. Having been in the army as long as Skarnu was alive, Raunu knew far more about soldiering than Skarnu had learned in something under a year. But Skarnu was a marquis and Raunu the son of a sausage seller, so Skarnu had led the company of which they'd both been part.
After twice walking past the doorway to the Lion and the Mouse, Skarnu, the mouse, decided he had to put his head in the lion's mouth. Scowling, he walked into the tavern. The burly fellow behind the bar was a man he'd seen before—which meant nothing if the man was in bed with the Algarvians.
But there, at a table in the far corner of the room, Skarnu spied a painter who was one of the leaders of the underground in Ventspils. Unless he proved a traitor, too, the Algarvians didn't know about this place. Skarnu bought a mug of ale—nothing wrong with Ventspils' ale—and sat down across the table from him.
"Well, hello, Pavilosta," the painter said. "Didn't expect to see you here today." That sounded polite, but harsh suspicion lay under it.
Skarnu's answering grimace was harsh, too. He didn't care to have even the name of the village he'd come from mentioned out loud. After a pull at the ale, he said, "A couple of redheads came into my block of flats an hour ago. If I hadn't spied 'em outside, they would've nabbed me."
"Well, we can't expect the Algarvians to love us, not after we yanked those Sibian dragonfliers right out from under their noses," the local underground leader said. "They'd want to poke back if they saw the chance to do it."
"I understand that." Like the painter, Skarnu kept his voice low. "But are they after underground folk in Ventspils, or me in particular?"
"Why would they be after you in particular?" the other man asked. Then he paused and thumped his forehead with the heel of his hand. "I keep forgetting you're not just Pavilosta. You're the chap with a sister in the wrong bed."
"That's one way to put it, aye," Skarnu said. It was, in fact, a gentler way to put it than he would have used. It also avoided mentioning his noble blood-common women could and did sleep with the redheaded occupiers, too.
After a pull on his own mug of ale, the painter said, "She knew where you were down in Pavilosta—she did, or else the Algarvian she's laying did. But how would she know you've come to Ventspils? How would the redheads know, either?"
"Obvious answer is, they're squeezing somebody between Pavilosta and here," Skarnu said. "I had a narrow escape getting out of there; they might have stumbled onto somebody who helped me." He named no names. What the other fellow didn't know, King Mezentio's men and their Valmieran stooges couldn't squeeze out of him. Skarnu wouldn't have been so careful about security even during his duty in the regular Valmieran army.
"If they've got hold of a link in the chain between here and there, that could be…unpleasant," the painter said. "Every time we take in a new man, we have to wonder if he's the fellow who's going to sell the lot of us to the Algarvians—and one fine day, one of them will do it."
Someone Skarnu had seen once or twice before strolled into the Lion and the Mouse. Instead of ordering ale or spirits, he spoke in casual tones: "Redheads and their dogs are heading toward this place. Some people might not want to hang around and wait for them." He didn't even look toward the corner where Skarnu and the painter sat.
Skarnu's first impulse was to leap and run. Then he realized how stupid that was: it would make him stand out, which was the last thing he wanted. And even if it didn't, where would he go? Ventspils wasn't his town; aside from the men of the underground, he had no friends and hardly any acquaintances here.
After a last quick swig, the painter set down his empty mug. "Maybe we'd better not hang around and wait for them," he said, with which conclusion Skarnu could hardly disagree.
Skarnu didn't bother finishing his ale. He left the mug on the table and followed the other man out. "Where do we go now?" he asked.
"There are places," the painter said, an answer that wasn't an answer. After a moment, Skarnu realized the underground leader had security concerns of his own. Sure enough, the man went on, "I don't think we'll have to blindfold you."
"I'm so glad to hear it." Skarnu had intended the words to be sarcastic. They didn't come out that way. The Unkerlanters might have the Algarvians on the run in the distant west, but here in Valmiera the redheads could still make their handful of foes dance to their tune.
• • •
Fernao was studying his Kuusaman. That was, he understood, a curious thing for a Lagoan mage to do. Though Lagoas and Kuusamo shared the large island off the southeastern coast of Derlavai, his countrymen were in the habit of looking in the direction of the mainland and not toward their eastern neighbors, whom they usually regarded as little more than amusing rustics.
That was true even though a lot of Lagoans had some Kuusaman blood. Fernao's height and his red hair proved him of mainly Algarvic stock, but his narrow, slanted eyes showed it wasn't pure. Lagoans also did their best not to notice that Kuusamo outweighed their kingdom about three to one.
Outside, a storm that had blown up from the south did its best to turn this stretch of Kuusamo into the land of the Ice People. The wind howled. Snow drifted around the hostel the soldiers of the Seven Princes had run up here in the middle of nowhere. The district of Naantali lay so far south, the sun rose above the horizon for only a little while each day.
Down on the austral continent, of course, it wouldn't have risen at all for a while on either side of the winter solstice. Having seen the land of the Ice People in midwinter, Fernao knew that all too well. Here, he had a coal-burning stove, not the brazier he'd fed lumps of dried camel dung.
"I shall shovel snow," he murmured: a particularly apt paradigm. "You will shovel snow. He, she, it will shovel snow. We shall shovel snow. You-plural will shovel snow. They—"
Someone knocked on the door. "One moment!" Fernao called, not in Kuusaman but in classical Kaunian, the language he really did share with his Kuusaman colleagues. Just getting to the door took rather more than a moment. He had to lever himself up from his stool with the help of a cane, grab the crutch that leaned by the chair, and use both of them to cross the room and reach the doorway.
And all of that, he thought as he opened the door, was progress. He'd almost died when an Algarvian egg burst too close to him down in the land of the Ice People. His leg had been shattered. Only in the past few days had the Kuusaman healers released what was left of it from its immobilizing plaster prison.
Pekka stood in the hall outside. "Hello," she said, also in classical Kaunian, the widespread language of scholarship. "I hope I did not interrupt any important calculations. I hate it when people do that to me."
"No." Fernao smiled down at her. Like most of her countrymen—the exceptions being those who had some Lagoan blood—she was short and slim and dark, with a wide face, high cheekbones, and eyes slanted like his own. He switched to her language to show what he had been doing: "We shall shovel snow. You-plural will shovel snow. They will shovel snow."
She laughed. Against her golden skin, her teeth seemed even whiter than they were. A moment later, she sobered and nodded. "Your accent is quite good," she said, first in Kaunian, then in her own tongue.
"Thanks," Fernao said in Kuusaman. Then he returned to the classical tongue: "I have always had a knack for learning languages, but yours is different from any other I have tried to pick up." Awkwardly, he stepped aside. "Please come in. Sit down. Make yourself at home."
"I wish I were at home," Pekka said. "I wish my husband were at home, too. I miss my family." Her husband, Fernao knew, was no less a sorcerer than she, but one of a more practical bent. As Pekka walked past, she asked, "Were you using the stool or the bed? I do not want to disturb you."
"The stool," Fernao answered. Pekka had already sat down on the bed by the time he closed the door, hobbled back across the chamber, and carefully lowered himself onto the stool. He propped the crutch where he could easily reach it before saying, "And what can I do for you this morning?"
He knew what he wouldn't have minded doing, not for her but with her. He'd always reckoned Kuusaman women too small and skinny to be very interesting, but was changing his mind about Pekka. That was probably because, working alongside her, he'd come to think of her as colleague and friend, to admire her wits as well as her body. Whatever the reason, his interest was real.
He kept quiet about it. By the way she spoke about Leino, her husband, and Uto, her son, she wasn't interested in him or in anyone but them. Making advances would have been worse than rude—it would have been futile. Though a good theoretical sorcerer, Fernao was a practical man in other ways. Stretching out his legs in front of him, he waited to hear what Pekka had to say.
She hesitated, something she seldom did. At last, she answered, "Have you done any more work on Ilmarinen's contention?"
"Which contention do you mean?" he said, as innocently as he could. "He has so many of them."
That got him another smile from Pekka. Like the first, it didn't last long. "You know which one," she said. "No matter how many strange ideas Ilmarinen comes up with, only one really matters to us now."
And that was also true. Fernao sighed. He didn't like admitting, even to himself, how true it was. Here, though, he had no choice. Pointing out the window—the double-glazed window that helped hold winter at bay—in the direction of the latest release of sorcerous energy the Kuusaman experimental team had touched off, he said, "That was fresh grass, summer grass, he pulled up from the middle of the crater."
"I know," Pekka said softly. "Fresh grass in the middle of—this." She pointed out the window, too, at the snow swirling past in the grip of the whistling wind. More softly still, she added, "It can mean just one thing."
Fernao sighed again. "The calculations suggested it all along. So did the other experimental results. No wonder Ilmarinen got angry at us when we didn't want to face what that meant."
Pekka's laugh was more rueful than anything else. "If Ilmarinen had not got angry over that, he would have got angry over something else," she said. "Getting angry, and getting other people angry, is what he enjoys more than anything else these days. But…" She stopped; she didn't want to say what followed logically from Ilmarinen's grass, either. In the end, she did: "We really do seem to be drawing our energy in these experiments by twisting time itself."
There. It was out. Fernao didn't want to hear it, any more than he'd wanted to say it. But now that Pekka had said it, he could only nod. "Aye. That is what the numbers say, sure enough." For once, he was glad to be speaking classical Kaunian. It let him sound more detached, more objective—and a lot less frightened—than he really was.
"I think the numbers also say we can only draw energy from it when we send one set of animals racing forward and the other racing back," Pekka said. "We cannot do any more meddling than that…can we?" She sounded frightened, too, as if she were pleading for reassurance.
Fernao gave her what reassurance he could: "I read the calculations the same way. So does Siuntio. And so does Ilmarinen, for all his bluff and bluster."
"I know," Pekka said. "I have had long talks with both of them—talks much more worried than this one." Maybe she found Kaunian distancing, too. But she added, "What if the Algarvians are also calculating—calculating and coming up with different answers?"
For effect, Fernao tried a few words of Kuusaman: "Then we're all in trouble." Pekka let out a startled laugh, then nodded. Fernao wished he could have gone on in her language, but had to drop back into classical Kaunian: "But most of their mages are busy with their murderous magic, and the rest really should get the same results we have."
"Powers above, I hope so!" Pekka exclaimed. "The energy release is dreadful enough as is, but the world could not stand having its past revised and edited."
Before Fernao could answer, someone else knocked on the door. Pekka sprang up and opened it before Fernao could start what was for him the long, slow, involved process of rising. "Oh, hello, my dear," Master Siuntio said in Kuusaman before courteously switching to classical Kaunian so Fernao could follow: "I came to ask if our distinguished Lagoan colleague would care to join me for dinner. Now I ask you the same question as well."
"I would be delighted, sir," Fernao said, and did struggle to his feet.
"And I," Pekka agreed. "Things may look brighter once we have some food and drink inside us."
A buffet waited in the dining room. Fernao piled Kuusaman smoked salmon—as good as any in the world—on a chewy roll, and added slices of onion and of hard-cooked egg and pickled cucumber. Along with a mug of ale, that made a dinner to keep him going till suppertime. "Would you like me to carry those for you?" Pekka asked.
"If you would be so kind—the plate, anyhow," Fernao answered. "I can manage the mug. Now I have two hands, but I would need three." Till not too long before, he'd had an arm in a cast as well as a leg. Then he'd needed four hands and possessed only one.
Pekka had built a sandwich almost as formidable as his own. She did some substantial damage to it before asking Siuntio, "Master, do you think you will find any loopholes in the spells we are crafting?"
Siuntio gently shook his head. He looked more like a kindly grandfather than the leading theoretical sorcerer of his generation. "No," he said. "We have been over this ground before, you know. I see extravagant energy releases, aye, far more extravagant than we could get from any other source. But I see no way to achieve anything but that. We cannot sneak back through the holes we tear in time—and a good thing we can't, too."
"I agree," Fernao said, gulping down a large mouthful of salmon to make sure his words came clear. "On both counts, I agree."
"I don't believe even Ilmarinen will disagree on this," Siuntio said.
"Disagree on what?" Ilmarinen asked, striding into the dining hall as if naming him could conjure him up. With a wispy white chin beard, wild hair, and gleaming eyes, he might have been Siuntio's raffish brother. But he, too, was a formidable mage. "Disagree on what?" he repeated.
"On the possibility of manipulating time along with extracting energy from it," Siuntio told him.
"Well, that doesn't look like it's in the math," Ilmarinen said. "On the other hand, you never can tell." He poured himself a mug of ale and then, for good measure, another. "Now this is a proper dinner," he declared as he sat down by Fernao.
"Do you truly think the question remains unanswered?" Fernao asked him.
"You never can tell," Ilmarinen said again, probably as much to annoy Fernao as because he really believed it. "We haven't been looking all that long, and neither have the redheads—excuse me, the Algarvians." Fernao had red hair, too. Ilmarinen went on: "A good thing the Algarvians are too taken up with killing people to power their magic to look anywhere else. Aye, a very good thing." He emptied the mugs in quick succession, then went back and filled them again.
Copyright © 2002 by Harry Turtledove
Posted November 3, 2010
I absolutely love this series, it is the most interesting one I have read. He is amazing at writing alternate history, and I will probably read all of his books.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 17, 2009
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